Interview with Curtis Tompkins

1/Many of your poems involve purging of some refuse: inadvertent littering, sifting “through garbage,” “small pellets / thrown into the bay.” Do you choose this theme because of society’s leaning toward material excess?

I think that’s very close to the mark. It’s something I’ve always been hyper-aware of in myself and society, although I didn’t really notice it as a preoccupation until more recently, especially in my photography, in which I seem to focus heavily not just on industrialization but garbage. I love it on film and the page, and I’m still not certain why. Pressed to articulate this, there’s definitely a deep concern about pollution and excess of material but also how that plays into habitual excess and purging of mental and emotional refuse, those things in us we’re sometimes so desperate to expel, perhaps feeling that others can even smell it on us, our baggage or, better yet, garbage-baggage. Many of us seem bent on gathering in material things, status, and comfort to combat and dispel whatever abstract feelings of poverty, self-loathing and discomfort plague us, only to find that no amount of gain ever accomplishes this. It only adds to the pile. And ultimately we find that those ‘undesirable’ parts of ourselves can neither be rejected nor annihilated, and in fact, they are the very substance of our whole self. What we wish to throw in the garbage in exchange for shiny, new lives is the only thing that could serve as compost for our growth. Clinging to or obsessing over such imperfections and emotions is a dangerous business, but release or relinquishing control of them can be a powerful thing. It seems to be the same for material possessions and a personal status quo. However, I find myself and others more often caught up in the business of rejection and clinging.

2/Your characters’ actions revolve around the duality of experience–something they assumed would be different, or a shared activity that yields different respective outcomes. Are you suggesting that a universality exists for some people and not for others or that we each occupy different spheres due to our perception?

It’s all about perception. We physically and mentally occupy the same absolute reality, but our perceptions make up our own relative reality. I won’t even bother citing specific examples of how two people’s sense perceptions of the same event or place can differ. We’ve heard it a million times. Yet we still find it a little strange or fascinating when we encounter this personally. How much more engrossing it is then to explore the difference between our inner-most experience and that of another’s?

Your experience is just that–yours, and yours alone. As is mine. How can we reconcile the two? They cannot be adequately expressed or compared. How can we come to know intimately, through words, another’s experience? How about the difference between a perceived experience in the past and our current understanding of it? We often discover our perceptions–ones that caused us either pleasure or pain–were in some fundamental way erroneous. Looking back on some person or situation in the light of new information or wisdom reveals our perception at the time to be so flawed that we can scarcely believe what we once held true. It no longer seems real in any way. I think that’s when we begin to question our entire reality, as well the reality of others–for better or worse. Investigating another person’s perception in the present may play a large part in releasing false views or misconceptions of our own.

3/Return opens with the words, “there was a place we stopped going / after a while,” and your use negative space in placement of the text draws the reader’s attention to those parts of the page where the words stop going. Is that a purposeful parallel between form and content or are they mental blocks where the narrator and reader collectively take breath?

It’s rare that I use so much negative space in a poem, but that one just seemed to breath it out that way. I think there’s a link to content there too, so I’m taking the middle-of-the-road answer. It wasn’t intentional, from what I remember. The narrator’s breath organically worked with paralleling form and content. I was breathless writing it, I do remember, feeling each thought come out in a quick exhalation, leaving another brief void. That what seems to be speaking out in that poem, the brief voids we face in our lives. There’s a lot of blackness and emptiness and waiting going on in there.

4/Sum up your work in apt in five words: go!

Speaks to me, not through.

Curtis Tompkins’s poems, Politics, Modest Thieves, and Return appeared in the first print issue of apt, which can be purchased here.

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