MASS TEXT: An Interview with Erik Adrian Santiago

Erik Adrian Santiago’s poetry book Please Stop the Rain, out via Toronto-based PERMANENT SLEEP PRESS, is a touching (and gripping) look at life through the lens of an artist who’s been through various highs and lows, an artist who’s truly indulged in (and been tremendously affected by) the human experience. Through his writing, Santiago shows both the tenderness of love and the harsh reality of sheer existence, the warmth of memory and the pain of remembrance. After reading his work, I was motivated to contact him for an interview, in order to learn more about the writer and artist who crafted such a compelling work.

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA. JEAN SEABERG’S CHILDHOOD HOME 2014

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA. JEAN SEABERG’S CHILDHOOD HOME 2014

How did you get into writing poetry?

Writing is something I have always tinkered with in some framework, but never took seriously or committed to, which is a through line of my life, like many, never thinking I had anything to say worth documenting. Discovering Raymond Carver was a major shift in thinking for me: realizing that my interests were in what wasn’t said. Poetry was made relatable and attainable for the first time in high school when I got the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.

Where are you from? You mention Massachusetts (Plymouth/Cape Cod/Boston) in your work. What memories or significance do those areas have for you? Do you ever miss New England? Why?

I grew up in Kingston and Plymouth, MA, and then moved to Boston at 18. I consider myself a New Englander in some sense of cultural identity. I think being from Mass. is very specific. To me, MA/New England represents many aspects of Nostalgic America, that thing that Norman Rockwell captured perfectly. But what has always pulled me into his paintings is that he captured the happy moments of something broken. There is a reason many notable comedians are all from MA/New England and it’s not the comedy scene. Someone has to try and make light of all the grey. Growing up there couldn’t be matched.

Who/what are your major influences, both literary and non-literary?

I find myself constantly taking in media and information. And sometimes (to a fault) I find it hard to recognize the things I like vs. the things I really loved. I find that there have been many moments in my life where a film or book has made a shift, and at times those pieces are of great substance, and other times, it was really just the right place and the right time. For instance, reading Iron John by Robert Bly in my mid-late 20’s was a game changer which sent me into a spiral of re-reading a lot of classic stories we have all grown up on. Furthermore, a deep spiral into a lot of KABIR and other poets that really have nothing to do with one another (other than my discovery of many of them in a particular time frame), which was the first year I moved to Los Angeles, and my life had very little direction. Focusing that chaotic energy became a crutch. I also spend a great deal of my time listening to debates and other confrontational entertainment by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, both of whom I find to be just wonderful and influential on my person in a lot of ways that are immeasurable.

Theatre: read plays, read the classics and the contemporary classics. I love Stephen Adly Guirgis; Jesus Hopped the A Train blew me away. His way of showing the fall of a person’s life in slow motion; I love that. Edmund’s monologue in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read that. That inspires me to get away more.

Really all of these things are what get my mind running, and once running, that is when ideas or poems or the like strike me. This is also how I spend a considerable amount of my time in my studio making leather goods: listening to people debate the fun stuff like religion and politics.

The simpler answer is: “I am obsessed with everything that is Coming of Age.”

You mention family (parents and children, specifically) relationships in Please Stop the Rain quite frequently. Why choose to include such examples of human connections? In what ways does this choice reflect your own life and experiences?

How can one make anything without commenting or reflecting on human connections? Most of our time in life is spent on making, maintaining, manipulating, destroying, reflecting and lamenting the human connections we experience in this fantastic time we trudge through.

I see “Selected Works” in the first few pages of Please Stop the Rain. Were these works included in any other literary publications beforehand (zines, journals, other collections, etc.)?

No, this is my first publication. I started really writing things down in the mid 2000’s (2005/2006) after a lot of prodding from a handful of friends that I should write a book. I was originally going to write a self help book called Life Advice From a High-School Dropout, whichI thought was really funny and never came to be (as one would expect from a dropout). I then just started writing things down and keeping all kinds of scraps of paper, notes on my phone or computer. When I finally decided I should actually put out a book, I had so much stuff that had to be weeded through. A lot of it was shit. From that point to the release of PSTR was a few years and a fair amount of speed bumps. So we will see what is coming as things start to really unfold. I am working on a second book currently and have a few other writing projects I am procrastinating on. But I would like to maintain some kind of steady movement forward.

Why do you write? Why choose poetry/writing as a form of expression?

I don’t feel like I am a poet in the traditional sense/fit the archetype, per se. I do feel that this is how my brain works. It’s how I have grown to deal with living life, and this allows me to share that. I am a sensitive person that takes most of the happenings in my sphere personally, so having an outlet is really important to me; I am lucky enough to have a few outlets. I am an actor and a maker. Each of these acts really allows me to get the noise out of my head in different ways. I don’t see them as separate, but different aspects of the same machine. I need all of them in different ways. The poetry and writing is just the mouthpiece of all my work.

How did you first get involved with Permanent Sleep Press?

On the long road to getting this book published, friend and editor Max G Morton and I spoke with Matt Finner (Owner of PSP) about getting help with the design and who could help with pressing the book. This eventually led to PSP being the home for PSTR, which I am beyond happy with. Matt teamed up with DEATHWISH INC. for distribution, which is owned by some old friends from Boston. This was just the icing on the cake for me; to have my book associated with both PSP & DW was and is an honor. All of this came from Max’s recommendation to go with PSP.

Do you consider yourself an artist? Why or why not?

Yes, because my pursuit in life is to make art. Really the question is: “Is the pursuit of making art enough to make you an artist?” I don’t know, yet.

What do you see as the purpose of art (literary or otherwise)?

To induce a response in the viewer that is an inexplicable feeling of universality. For me, art above all makes me feel like I am not alone.

What does the word “art” mean to you?

Admission of something I understand or am trying to understand.

How has the city of L.A. influenced you in comparison with Boston? How would you compare life/lifestyles in both cities?

LA has allowed me to become focused on what it is I want to be pursuing in my life. LA in my perception is a very misanthropic city. I do not have to interact with anyone I don’t choose to interact with. You can easily trim the fat, buckle down and focus on work. Boston/New England is where I learned what hard work is and how to do it. The person I was when I moved from Plymouth to Boston in 2000 is not the same person I am 17 years later in LA, thankfully. I have grown and discovered a lot in my travels and life experience. I don’t think that person could live in LA and I don’t think the person I am today could go back to Boston right now. That does not mean in any way that I do not deeply love and appreciate Boston and will always hold it in a higher regard than almost anywhere.

What do you see as the pros/cons of having lived in/spent time in so many different places?

I only see pros. I don’t see any benefit in never leaving where you are from. For me, the purpose is to leave. You can always go back, but leave, please leave. Go meet someone else, see stuff. The universal lottery of where you were born no longer has to rule your life. The people you know and love are not bound by the chance of proximity. I think leaving and travel is key. It will only enhance your life. Even in the moments when everything has gone pear shaped. In hindsight, I am enriched as a person for having those times.

The friendships I have made in my travels and the experiences I have had would not have been possible without leaving. The time I have spent in places like Florida and Atlanta have bound me to people and experiences, which I would not be who I am without. Coming home from travel is always a learning experience in itself; you will learn so much from what has and has not happened since you left.

How would you describe your involvement in the music scene?

I have just been going to shows in New England and the tri-state area since the mid 90’s. That progressed to going on tour with my friends’ bands and traveling around the country and world with my best pals. Years later, turned out I learned some stuff along the way. Now I work as a stage manager, production manager and occasionally tour manager. I don’t think I need to give you a résumé, but some of my best times were touring with Righteous Jams and Black My Heart.

As for the second book you’re working on, what can we expect from it?

I don’t know if you can expect anything yet, haha. I write a lot and don’t read it ‘til much later.

A lot of it won’t make it and I don’t even know what I have until I am ready to sit down with my editor, Max G Morton, and he travels quite a bit, and I work and travel quite a bit too.  But, that being said, it’ll probably be about relationships and the mother fucker-y of life.

How has punk/hardcore influenced your work (writing and otherwise)?

Punk and hardcore are my culture, or the culture I chose, opposed to the culture that I was randomly born into, so how that has influenced my life and work is immeasurable in many ways. I can’t imagine my life without subculture at this point. That introduction and choice was made at a very young age in my case. I grew up in the Boston Hardcore scene in its second coming. Going to shows was literally all I did other than sports (skateboarding/wrestling). I traveled to do all three of these things. Driving to Upstate NY, NYC, New Jersey, CT… really the entire region just to skate and go to shows. I think that knowing there is more out there in the world than the malarkey you are getting bombarded by in school and at home is incredible. Sitting in class on a Monday morning sore and exhausted, daydreaming about the weekend you had in some other town in some other state, stage diving, fist fighting, and screaming down the Mass Pike while everyone else is just hungover from getting drunk in the woods: that is everything. Knowing you left and had an adventure. Knowing that you can leave and nothing changes.

I don’t know… Question, analyze everything you are given in life, throw away all the parts that don’t hold up to scrutiny. I think that is what I learned from the culture of punk and hardcore, and that influences almost everything I do. That is probably the only other advice I would give other than leave where you are from, which, a few paragraphs later, I still stand by whole-heartedly.

‘The Ashes of Howard Beach’… An Interview with Spoiler + J.S. Aurelius Track Premier via CVLT Nation

Permanent Sleep is a very interesting small publishing press based out of Toronto, Ontario that focuses on releasing radical shit in many different forms! They have just released the second pressing of Spoilers book ‘The Ashes of Howard Beach’. To celebrate the second edition, they have also released a cassette tape featuring ten collaborations with Spoiler preforming readings from the book alongside performances by Ligature, Maniac Cop (Ascetic House), Jesse Sanes, Paul Gordon Phillips, Marshal, T.H.S., J.S. Aurelius (Ascetic House), Harmaline, and Anthony Pasquarosa.  Today CVLT Nation is stoked to be sharing the track from our comrade J.S. Aurelius (Ascetic House) entitled “URN.” When I see projects like this one, it makes me feel like Punk will never die, it just takes different forms! Check out this killer Interview with Spoiler by Dan Darrah:

Before getting into the guts of The Ashes of Howard Beach, I was hoping we could talk about the background of your writing career. Your visual art is well-known in hardcore and punk music spheres, almost to the point of cult status, displayed on records and merchandise from bands like Iron Boots, Loud and Clear, Cro-Mags, Backtrack, and a band you were a former member of, Justice. Where does your art come into play with your writing? Are there similarities, overlaps, relationships between those two mediums? 

On the surface, my illustrations and my writing don’t have much to do with each other. They stem from different parts of the brain, and appeal to different sensibilities. Underneath the surface, I’d say my work portrays a sense of controlled chaos, regardless of medium. It’s often grotesque, bordering on the absurd, but always with an underlying sense of structure.

Can you illustrate some of your writing habits?

If I’m writing poetry or poetic prose, I rarely have a preset notion of what I want to end up with. I start forming the first sentences in my head, and if I like them enough, I’ll start typing to see how far the idea could go. Sometimes it’s a moment of inspiration, other times it feels more like vomiting. Something uncomfortable comes up in me and needs to get out.

What initially drove you to write? 

At around twelve years old, I started writing long letters. That summer, my best friend and I had gotten in some trouble with the police, and his parents wouldn’t let me see him. I was a metalhead from the low income part of town, so I wasn’t exactly popular with parents. I was confined to my room with my older brothers records and metal mags, reading every word down to the personal ads in the back, which was still a thing at the time. I’d been so bored and lonely I placed a free ad and started getting mail. It got me through, and I kept in touch with a few people after school started up. One girl in particular had an ongoing competition with me to see who could write the longest letter. I made it to fifty pages. I was entering puberty, experiencing all these new, weird, horrible feelings, and I learned to express them through the written word. 

How have these habits changed since the beginning of your writing career? Similarly, can you chart the ways in which your content has changed or “matured,” so to speak, over time? 

I soon got into Punk and Hardcore, immediately started writing and reading zines, and when I graduated to reading novels, I was embarrassed to realize I read much slower than my friends. I avoided the topic of literature because of it, but eventually realized that my slow reading had its benefits. It allowed me to fully absorb and appreciate the details of the writing, it gave me time to appreciate the subtleness of the phrasing, the rhythms and layers of meaning in texts. I began to integrate that mindset into my own writing, paying attention to my own natural rhythms and phrasing. Coming from a background of writing punk zines, it took me years to stop overusing sarcasm as a protective layer. I was always very sardonic in my writing, but over time I’ve tried to combine that with a kind of brutal honesty.

Can you outline some of the origins of Howard Beach – in its gritty honesty – over the 5-year period of 2010-2015? Where did you derive inspiration from (whether it be personal events, others writers)? 

Inspiration came in equal parts from the authors I was reading at the time, and the aftermath of personal events I had stewing in the back of my mind. I divorced the only person I’d ever dated, and broke a thirteen year streak of sobriety. Then came the ten year anniversary of leaving behind my homeland, and the fifteen year anniversary of last speaking to my father. All of this forced a great deal of reflection on my upbringing and relationships, all while entering a completely new post-divorce life. These processes brought up ugly parts of myself that I never knew were there, and I wanted to get them out into writing rather than into my actions. I was writing song lyrics at the time, and this all pushed me towards poetry, with a much more honest and raw approach. I never thought I would publish any of it, but I needed to write it. 

Instead of attempting to downplay the raw feelings that came out in my writing, I began to exaggerate them through loose ideas for characters, allowing an open-ended and free exploration of the ugliest parts of myself and how they related to the truly vile characters that existed in real life. I started to explore ugliness as a concept, not just my own, but looking at the things that cause people to be ugly to each other. 

As for literary influence, I was getting very deeply into Burroughs, particularly Naked Lunch, in the first few years of writing Howard Beach. I think some of that deranged, poetic Beat prose shines through in my earlier pieces, blended with the influence ofFlemish authors I grew up with, like the death-themed poetry of Jotie T’Hooft and the dry, cynical or absurdist humour of Willem Elsschot or Herman Brusselmans. When the book was nearly completed, a friend read the transcript and pointed out similarities to Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment, which I found striking. Most of these authors are deeply funny to me, despite their very serious content, and I think that encouraged me to keep writing the way I do. I think there’s a lot of humour in my book, which seems to go unnoticed, and I find that even funnier ― telling a joke that no one gets.

Who is Howard Beach, and in what ways does he manifest throughout the book?

The Howard Beach persona is based on song lyrics that I misinterpreted in my youth. The Krakdown song “Ignorance” on the NYC Hardcore: The Way It Is compilation from 1988 speaks out against racism and mentions Howard Beach in the lyrics. Upon first hearing this as a fifteen year-old in Belgium with no frame of reference, I thought Howard Beach was a person being directly called a racist. I soon started noticing more references to Howard Beach in NYHC music, and found out it was a place, which mystified me even more. What happened in Howard Beach?

The influence of that album was fundamental in shaping my young life. The Krakdown song and many others like it allowed me to think outside of my surroundings and upbringing. My father was a blatant racist, and I resented him for it. We were a family of white trash long hairs, and at fifteen I cut all my hair off, marking myself as separate from them. Getting into Punk and Hardcore allowed me to see a world outside of the narrow, small-minded trappings of my family life. Within a few years I’d leave for good. 

In 2013, I ended up sitting at the Howard Beach subway station. The Krakdown song started to play in my head, and I reflected on my youth, thinking how far removed I was from that life. I tried to picture what I would have been like if I never left. Looking out at Howard Beach, I thought about the similarities – I’d long known that this place was referenced in so many anti-racism songs of eighties New York because of the fatal hate crime committed there in 1986, which heightened racial tension in NYC. I also knew not much had changed in Howard Beach: similar crimes were committed there as recent as 2005. 

I remembered how I’d once thought of Howard Beach as a person, and the idea stuck. I had already begun writing parts of the book, and I used the Howard Beach character to tie all of these ugly pieces together, with Howard acting as an alter ego for the person I could have become, had I not broken out of my surroundings as a teenager. I understood the difficult history of Howard Beach as a place of internal conflict, of ignorance passed down through generations, and I attributed these characteristics to Howard, the person. 

I channeled the complexities of my own negative personality traits into Howard so that I could approach a despicable character with a sense of understanding. I wanted to take an honest look at Howard, without making him a simplistic villain. I tried to erase the lines between the traditional sense of good and evil by creating a well-intentioned, but ignorant human character that one could relate to, despite all of his ugliness.

Having read the book twice now, it seems clear to me that it’s no simple conglomeration of your work thrown together messily. It is unified; it presents a sense of togetherness. Can you explain what exactly unites this collection – thematically or otherwise – and how? 

The binding theme of the book is an examination of ugliness, in the mental and spiritual sense, explored through the Beach family with Howard as the main character. The book is set up so that all individual pieces can stand on their own, but work together to create a larger whole. Some of the pieces have only a loose connection to others, much like the family members themselves. As you read more pieces, more meaning can be found in each piece, adding to the larger story. 

The varying styles of writing are attributed to the members of the family, each with their own characteristics and inner monologues. Each character has their own view of life, which often conflicts with those of their relatives. Some of them openly despise one another, but they are bonded by their shared trauma. The Beaches have lived through generations of unusually violent deaths in the family, which most members were not able to process or move past. Their search for relief from pain has brought many of them to ugly places and made them into ugly characters, and even the few that managed to heal from the trauma often seek beauty in misguided ways. 

The book’s thematic and symbolic strength, in my eyes, begs some exploration, if you don’t mind. For example, Back Road and Apple Tree appear to illustrate a sort of rudderless, starry-eyed youthfulness. There is a sense of urgency, a feeling of it soon being lost: “Be dumb,” you write, “Be young, and die before anyone can ever make you feel like what you did was wrong.” If this is a correct characterization, can you talk about that feeling? Is this kind of joy transitory, temporary? 

In a sense, I think I was reflecting on my own age in both of those pieces, as I was entering my thirties and didn’t feel ready for it at all. I had cut short my youth by marrying young. After my divorce I was both celebrating my newfound freedom and fearing that it was already too late for me. The expressed idea, of living carelessly and dying before you can reflect on your life choices or be held accountable for them, is of course very irresponsible and perhaps immature, though tempting and liberating in times of distress. The sense of joy you receive from this lifestyle only lasts until you need meaning and purpose again, but everyone experiences phases in life where loosening your grip and allowing yourself to feel rudderless is as important as knowing where to go, and therefor even a transitory joy can be important in navigating life.

“I don’t care if my work projects don’t make their deadline. They’re not mine and I don’t care about them,” the narrator says to himself in Riding in a Car with Hitler. He’s jealous of Hitler’s impetus; his “projects” and his obsessive compulsion to complete them – why is that? 

I wanted to have a character showing the earliest signs of being interested in Nazism. I used an absurdly light-hearted tone for the piece because I didn’t want to approach the topic from the perspective of a hardened Nazi. I wanted to show that most people are not born Nazis. I wanted to look at a common worker, maybe one of the Beach brothers, who’s thinking about Hitler in his most private headspace, simply viewing him as a powerful, hardworking man. I made it purposely unclear wether the narrator is genuinely flirting with modern day Nazism, whether he is merely a disgruntled worker experiencing a rather strange day dream, or if he is actually mocking Hitler and calling himself too lazy to be a Nazi. That type of open-ended ambiguity is used throughout the book.

I wrote this piece in 2010. Publishing the book in August of 2016, I had no idea how topical this discussion would soon become. I knew that fascist and white supremacist groups were on the rise, but still thought they were mostly confined to the underground. One year later, my writing seems almost intentionally geared towards the political climate of 2017.

Explain why you reduced motivations, relationships, and life itself to shapes, limbs – raw, impersonal objects – in Holes and All Fours.

These pieces reflect inner monologues from characters overwhelmed by pain, seeking to reduce the complexities of life to basic form, to a simple formula, which makes life more manageable but essentially meaningless. I wrote the pieces through a depression. I was personally overwhelmed with life, and it seemed to help reducing everything happening to me into something I could figure out. Of course, this only caused more hardship, because life is complex whether you like it or not. In a way, these pieces were exercises in attempting to understand people who adopt strict, boxed-in ideologies in order to mask or subvert their pain, and get sucked into a narrowing cycle. 

In what ways have your stories examined coping – or, perhaps just life post-death? I am thinking to Urn, The New Age, and The Fastest Worm. How is it characterized? How do you personally view it?

There is an arc in the loose narrative of the book, showing the different phases of dealing with death. The first piece “Back Road” serves as a kind of invitation to living dangerously, and presents death as a positive outcome. In the second piece, “The New Age”, we learn how deeply impacted the Beach family was by the death of Howard’s mother. There is an almost cartoonish absurdity to her death (eaten alive by a bear at the zoo), so at this point in the arc, death is still treated as a mere fact, a story ― this death has not been processed. We see that this ignored death clearly affects the choices Howard and his family make in life, and these choices are often just as darkly humorous as the death itself (Howard becomes a taxidermist, his father a zoo keeper). 

The following piece “Urn” refers to the ashes of sublimation, ie. the act of diverting an ugly impulse into a more acceptable activity. This shows that the character of Howard Beach is also a sort of metaphor for the concept of sublimation, and the arrival of his ashes mean that sublimation is now dead: all further writing will not employ sublimation, but will show the raw impulses of each character struggling to process death. The arc continues throughout the book, showing various ways of interpreting and dealing with the meaningless deaths of soldiers, the mourning of family members, etc. The only death that goes unexamined is that of Howard Beach himself, which despite the title of the book, is mentioned only in passing. These pieces are, to an extent, all acts of sublimation by myself as the author, and in many ways the book is a complex ritualistic celebration of the death of the ugliest parts of myself via sublimation.

Spoiler's Cassette of Spoken Word and Experimental Sound is Perturbing

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Stare into this gentleman's eyes and be reminded of your mortality. His name is Spoiler and he has some darkness to share on a new tape compilation that features readings from his book The Ashes of Howard Beach, accompanied by exclusive experimental sounds by members of punk and noise acts such as Destruction Unit, Hoax and Warthog.

A Belgian-born author currently living and writing in Montreal, Spoiler has played in various punk bands including 1-900s and Playboy, and the tape includes many of his friends from the punk and noise scenes including Js Aurelius (Destruction Unit), Jesse Sanes (Hoax) and Anthony Pasquarosa (SQRM, Gluebag).

Spoiler's prose, like his music, veers towards the dark and dysfunctional, and the eerie noise, sound collages, folk guitar, and avant-garde clarinet adds to a sense of foreboding. Just listening to Spoiler say "omnipotent bastard" has us peeping through blinds and locking doors. 

Listen to "Normandie" a track that features Ligature, a project from Christopher Hansell from punk bands Warthog,1-900s, and get ready to be unsettled.