by: Gabriel Ricard
When reality encounters the creativity and insight of someone like Karl Koweski, it’s safe to assume that reality doesn’t stand a chance. Koweski’s poems and short stories have been a fixture on the literary scene for over a decade. In that amount of time, Koweski has worked as a short story writer, a poet, a musician, an editor, and a performer. The diversity of these works is astonishing and far-reaching, and you’re in for a high time in the madhouse with anything you come across. Nonetheless, a recurring theme that comes through in Koweski’s work becomes apparent after a while. It certainly comes through in his upcoming short story collection KocKBlockers or in the grim, darkly humorous poetry collection: Diminishing Returns.
It’s the idea that absolute insanity runs the world on every possible level. The world at large is seen through the perspective revealed in a lot of Koweski’s work as being fundamentally fucking nuts on a very basic, very profound, and occasionally frightening level. With that thought in mind, it seems improbable that anyone can get through their smaller, more specific surroundings.
But they can, maybe. The hope in the poems and short stories of Karl Koweski imply that it’s possible, though unlikely, to shake away the kind of personalized Armageddon that’s shaped by personal choices and comically horrific luck. It takes a very singular type of writing talent to realize this kind of philosophy in the form of the works Koweski has written and released thus far. Karl Koweski showcases that talent as easily as someone would breathe, if only the lungs were a little healthier and the air was just a little cleaner. Thank god he also has a ferocious, engaging sense of humor.
Kleft Jaw: I read something about you the other day that caught my interest, I think because I always wanted to do this myself. Have you really written articles for porno mags? What were they?
Karl Koweski: Oh yeah, I use to write a lot for porno mags. I had several stories and articles in Swank from 2001 to 2005. I had a nice spread for an article I wrote titled “How To Score A Stripper Without Benefit of Good Looks, Gainful Employment or a Head Full of Hair”. The porn mags always paid well. For a couple years, I wrote a quarterly column for Hustler Fantasies called “Fucking Funny”. I even got Larry Flynt stamped Christmas cards for the time I spent writing for them. I still get royalty checks for stories I sold to Barbara Cardy for her Mammoth Book of Confessions. Zygote in my Coffee published a collection of my porn stories, Low Life, which was part of a flipbook of porn. The market for porn stories is all but dried up now. Thirty or forty years ago I probably could have done all right dashing off jerk-off stories. I’ll still write a sex story from time to time. They’re a great cure for writer’s block.
KJ: Diminishing Returns is perhaps the book you’re best known for. How does the title relate to the poems collected inside?
KK: David McNamara is the very definition of class and intelligence in an editor. I think I enjoyed working with him more than any other publisher. We found the theme early on which isn’t easy for me cause my work tends to be all over the place. I suppose if there is one unifying theme in everything I have written it’s that the best times are behind us. Even the illusion of a satisfying life has been dispelled and all we’re left with is an existence that’s becoming more and more precarious. We’re being hedged in by poor decisions made by people who are supposedly acting in our best interests. The best metaphor I’ve found to explain this is buying a bag of chips from the store, you spend a dollar, open the bag and find nine stale chips.
KJ: One of the great things about a good deal of your work, particularly your poetry, is the fact that you are so often able to find humor in some of the bleakest circumstances, images, and stories. Is that something that comes naturally to you, or is it a question of looking for the humor in something sorrowful or horrifying in order to be able to process it properly?
KK: t’s a coping mechanism when dealing with little, personal horrors. My life hasn’t been particularly rough. I’ve had setbacks and life hasn’t always gone the way I’ve always wished it to go, so I suppose I have the luxury to laugh at misfortunes and fleeting miseries. There are events, situations you can apply this to. Seeing a drunk guy attempting to cross the street and falling on his face. That’s funny. There’s tragedy there as well, but it’s easy to laugh at. A child getting beat to death by an abusive parent, there’s not a lot of chuckles to be had there. So there’s definitely a fine line. I can’t say I’ve ever found that line cause just yesterday I wrote a humorous poem about a five year old getting stabbed to death with a pair of scissors by his beautician mother. It’s called “bird bath”.
KJ: If you ever get into the world of professional wrestling, can we count on you to use your Polish Hammer nickname? Where did that come from exactly? There has to be a story there, although I’m a little apprehensive about asking you to tell it.
KK: I think there are already several Polacks wrestling under that moniker. Actually, I think anywhere you have a gathering of two or more Polacks, you’ll have at least one fella demanding to be called the Polish Hammer. The name originates with a Casimir Pulaski, the patron saint of Poland. A carpenter by trade, he would often forget to bring along his hammer and would have to spend the day driving in nails with his fists. Rather than a lack of intelligence, his ability to punch nails into wood planks was seen as a feat of strength. He’s become something of a mythological figure over time. Streets in Polish neighborhoods are named after him. Churches, parks, labrador retrievers… I call myself Polish Hammer because I have a big dick.
KJ: If there was one particular, unshakable aspect to growing up in places like Hammond, Indiana and Chicago that shaped your writing and how your view of the world comes across in your writing, what would that one aspect be?
KK: Don’t trust anybody. Everyone is out to get you. Whatever you value today will be a memory tomorrow. Never eat anything bigger than your head.
KJ: You’ve been getting books published for over a decade now. Do you still love the process of working with editors and other people to get a manuscript ready for release?
KK: I do love the process. I think I love the process. I don’t know… I never published more than one book with any given press, so maybe I like the process more than the editors working with me? I think I’ve always been easy to work with, I’m always interested in hearing other people’s opinions and input and I’m not afraid to incorporate constructive criticism into my work. I have a story to tell and I want to do that in the best and most articulate way available to me. I just hope that there’s an audience for this book. The fear I always have is that, the book will come out and just stagnate.
KJ: Any horror stories from public readings? Is that something you enjoy doing?
KK: I’ve never had a bad experience reading in public, not that I’ve done it a whole lot. It’s such a specific thing, though, the readings I’ve done, the people present didn’t arrive by accident. If they’re there, they know what they’re getting into and they’re totally onboard, so it’s never been anything but fun for me. I do enjoy it and I think I’m good at it. I stay nervous a good two days before I have to perform in public, but once I get on stage, I feel totally in my element, cause I’m a closet attention whore. Which may come as a surprise because I do such a good job keeping my rampaging ego in check.
KJ: Has anything about small press publishing changed to a substantial degree over the course of your publishing career?
KK: So much has changed. I’ve been doing this shit twenty years now, since 1994, back before the prevalence of internet. I still remember poets sending these mix tapes around, where you get the tape, record yourself reading a poem and then mail the tape on to the next poet on the list. I miss those times, hoping to find the latest issue of Joey and the Black Boots in the mailbox. If you wanted to see a female poet naked, you had to ask her for a Polaroid and hope it didn’t get lost in the mail. If you wanted to find new places to submit, you’d have to drop thirty bucks for a writer’s market book. Everything seemed more insular back then. Now, there’s just a proliferation of poets and poetry And that can be a good thing. The unfortunate side effect of the new technology is that, now everyone is a published writer, everyone has a book for sale. Introducing social media into the mix, the very act of attempting to launch one’s artistic endeavors feels more like a vanity project.
KJ: Tell me a bit about The Screaming Shits. We can certainly talk about that as a general concept, but I’m admittedly a little more curious about the band.
KK: The Screaming Shits was an incredible failure. You would think there would be a larger audience for country/disco/punk fusion. The jugband rendition of Anarchy in the UK would probably do a lot better nowadays. If we had Youtube back then my life might have turned out completely different. As it is now, I’ve sworn off music completely.
KJ: So there’s nothing going on with you and music these days that might be released in the future?
KK: Nope. My daughter is the musician in the family, now. I always scoffed at the notion of pitch and tone holding any sort of importance in music. Apparently I was wrong.
KJ: You’ve written columns, fiction, poetry, and god knows what else. Do you have a preference? Is one mode of creative expression more difficult for you than the other?
KK: Recently, it seems like every creative expression is difficult. Fiction is my first love. I grew up reading novels, writing stories. I never considered poetry a viable form of self-expression until my early twenties which is about the time I discovered the poetry of Bukowski, Carver, Denis Johnson. Poetry for me is still something of a lark, I enjoy reading it more than writing it. I rarely sit down to write a poem. For me poetry is more inspirational driven while prose is more of a discipline which fits me better. I’m at my best when I can sit down at the computer a couple hours a day and work on the latest short story and novel.
KJ: I’ve had the pleasure of looking over the manuscript for the KocKBlockers short story collection that Kleft Jaw Press will be releasing in the near future. Have you enjoyed putting the collection together? Is there a particular favorite of yours from the manuscript that you’re curious to see the reception to?
KK: Leading up to Kleft Jaw Press offering to read a manuscript of my collected stories, I hadn’t submitted anything in months. I was writing in fits and trickles without a lot to show for it. Collecting and rewriting the stories included in the KocKblockers manuscript re-energized me. These stories are the best I’ve written, the stories in which I’ve challenged myself the most and the most fun I’ve had writing. I suppose the title story Cockblockers is my favorite followed closely by The Sunnybrook Retreat. Another year or two I’ll probably turn on the stories and wish I’d never written them.
KJ: KocKBlockers has one of the best titles for a story that I think I’ve ever seen in my life, “The Polish Transvestite Karaoke Massacre.” How on earth did you come up with a title like that? Can you tell us a little bit about that piece in particular?
KK: There is just so much out there on the internet vying for a reader’s attention that I’ve come to see titling a short story much like writing headlines for a newspaper article. The title has to grab the reader’s imagination, stoke the reader’s curiosity and offer the reader a better option than downloading porn for the next twenty minutes. “The Polish Transvestite Karaoke Massacre” is exactly what the title promises. I’m not usually one to delve too deeply into my own personal experiences when writing fiction, however, in this case, there is a Polish corner tavern back home where many of the locals from within a three block radius drink. In an effort to liven business, especially on the weekends, the owner hired a karaoke dj for every second and fourth Friday night. The dj has a bit of a following especially among the transvestite community who aren’t afraid to load up their bras and mascara, and follow DJ Glen to whatever bar he’s working. I don’t think I have to tell you that Polacks and transvestites don’t mix (in crowds).
KJ: A lot of the stories and poems of yours that I’ve read seem to suggest circumstances and perspectives that imply that things in life generally don’t get better. Do you think that people and perhaps even humanity as a whole is doomed? Are people capable of enduring or even changing shitty circumstances over the long haul?
KK: There is a large part of me that believes this, that the scales have not only tipped in the favor of apocalypse, but are broken and can never be put right again. Life doesn’t get better. It worsens and then we acclimate to the current wretchedness until it almost feels tolerable and then another setback occurs until finally we die and everything we’ve ever been and have ever done fades into nothingness. Of course, there’s a smaller part of me that looks around myself, sitting here on the back deck, basking in the summer sun. My children are happy and seemingly well-adjusted. I’m living with the woman I love and who loves me in return. I’m healthy, I have no addictions, I’m doing what I love to do. Life is good by most any standard. I just enjoy writing about the former, rather than the latter.
KJ: Beyond KocKBlockers, what else are you working on?
KK: There’s a couple novels I’m working on, have been working on for a while now. One is finished and I’m doing the rewrite, the other I’m halfway through the first draft. I’ve been writing consistently for the last ten months now. Momentum is everything.