Dustin Pickering and I are, primarily, friends on Facebook. We are aware of our work for more than two years now. However, we have our share of differences: Pickering is a voracious reader while I’m extremely slow and laid-back. Pickering is a prolific writer while I fail to write more than five-hundred words a day. He takes keen interest in world politics while I’ll fail to remember the date when I last read a national newspaper or watched television for that matter. Despite these differences we share a common interest: Poetry!
Kiriti Sengupta: In today's world of self-promotion, especially on social media, I’ll like to ask you if you did not pay attention to the collection you authored, under the title A Matter of Degrees. What went wrong with the book? I personally believe it is an outstanding work of literature.
Dustin Pickering: I actually did promote that book — more than the first one! A Matter of Degrees was released shortly after Salt and Sorrow. I know many people who bought the first one also bought the second. I feel that I promoted the book heavily, more than the previous one. Perhaps I approached promotion with more care for Salt and Sorrow. Presented it as something more people would enjoy, spoke more about it than A Matter of Degrees. Also, MoD is not a poetry collection. Most of the audience I have gathered is in love with poetry. I tried to appeal to the science minded, the math minded, and the philosophical minds. Not many expressed interest. I personally emailed and messaged people I thought would take interest in the subject. I did not get responses. I don't know overall, other than generally the best books last but often don't sell well as the poet Shelley wrote when he was laughed at by another poet whose books sold more than his. I think the book is intensely speculative. I can't even find scholars who are interested in this genre. Many emails out, no responses! I don't think they take the idea of a new literary genre seriously. It seems out of place. But I wanted to be somewhere where invention happens. It isn't in music anymore. It's a serious challenge to all authors. I know poets who are highly educated and haven't sold as many books as Salt and Sorrow did. Honestly, poetry is a nil seller.
Kiriti: So, do you think most of the readers hardly like to try out new genres of writing? But then, poetry has limited market as well.
Dustin: Not the readers as much as the scholars who are probably overburdened with dry hash. They probably get queries a lot. A lot of classics fail on the marketplace. Think Poe, for instance. It was French decadent poets who pulled him from the slime. People hated Tolstoy too. The authorities hated him. However, the Romantics were to a degree popular. Byron's books sold well until he was chased from England. It’s economics, many times! People need leisure, money, and education to love poetry.
Kiriti: Do Americans read and appreciate Neruda anymore?
Dustin: I still see Neruda on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. I see his books at times at poetry gatherings. Would you believe me though that many of the poets who come to read for us know nothing about poetry? I mean, about poets like Neruda or even Whitman? The open mic performers — I adore them — but it's a lot of confessional mish-mash. I don't condemn it but I want more diversity. We have young poets — usually teens — come read writing about their breakups, and their pitfalls. I feel bad for wishing they would go somewhere else but I am highly supportive of their free speech rights even as bad poetry. I don't fault them and welcome them. I used to write crummy stuff, sappy love shit.
Kiriti: What did you mean by “confessional mishmash?”
Dustin: Relationship problems. Family issues. Someone died. It isn't written like literature. It’s written like a news-article. Detail of facts and feelings. How many people think feelings are all there is to poetry? It's a terrible misconception. As poet Robin Wyatt Dunn said to me recently, “Poets are unpaid politicians.” We are the legislatures of the world, didn't Shelley say? He didn't say we wouldn't get anything for it.
Kiriti: Poets and Politicians! Do the souls gel well?
Dustin: No, because poets speak truth. That's why we don't get paid. We are more like honest priests. Ever notice how many artists are at war with clergy? I think it’s a rivalry of brotherhood.
Kiriti: Priests! You are again inclining toward religion. Aren't you?
Dustin: I think of myself as a Christian humanist. I feel that the ethics of Christ are the soundest, as did Jefferson. I think the Bible says a lot on human nature. I'm not religious. I'm a seeker of knowledge. Jesus' key teaching was that there will also be unfortunate people; see the grace of God within them. Ignore false teachers who divide you. Practice universal kindness. One of the most sophisticated exemplars of passive resistance: Christ healing a man's ear when his disciple cut it off to protect him. Preached that in argument, agree with your opponent. This speaks a lot of how to deal assertively and positively with the world. There is so much in-fighting, backstabbing, general aggressiveness between people, even between best friends. Not much you can do but look to yourself and control. Da, as the Buddhists say.
Kiriti: Why do you call yourself a Christian humanist? Aren't you a humanist in the first place? Do you value formal baptism or family lineage more than being born as a human?
Dustin: No. I see those things as confirming people's own resolutions. I think the introduction of Christianity has served the world well and helped shape us as people. To me, Christian humanism is about the philosophy of Christianity rather than the hero worship and evangelism. I honestly have serious doubts about whether or not Jesus existed. I don't think he did, but the message and impact is so great — I sometimes reflect on those doubts.
Kiriti: You have a questioning mind, I'm sure. And now I must ask you, what was the key to the success of Salt and Sorrow? I am sure you are aware that the book sold in good number in Calcutta Book Fair (2017).
Dustin: It was a challenge, without me specifying it, to a cultural hedonism and distrust of universal truth. The two books complement one another, to a degree. But Salt and Sorrow had a strong pitch; we used banners, and struck a chord in people's hearts. The goal of the book was to behave as a postmodernist against postmodernism itself — to turn back on the contemporary philosophy using its own method of subversion. I questioned Christian history — its sexism and absolutism — and used actual Christian tales. Adam speaking about Eve's beauty and how can it be sin. This sort of thing is often done. Poets are in the modern world now; we can talk bad about the churches. But the book is a challenge to the idea that there is nothing absolute, and there is nothing outside to judge by. So I posit a God who is Absolute, but a world that is in relation to him. We don't know God — we can't — and that's the beauty of it. The dark is the light. We live in dualisms. The book sold because it had a ticking thought to it. I actually had a potential reviewer ask to review it, then when I sent a PDF copy he said he couldn't do it because he wasn't in a spiritual and political place to do it. I didn't intentionally create a gimmick. You did that when you asked me to write the collection: “Make the God of The Bible come into the world." I cast my bets ... the game is over.
Kiriti: Great! After A Matter of Degrees you leaned toward ekphrastic poetry. Why?
Dustin: To challenge my abilities. I have never written ekphrastic poetry. And I wrote in several forms, one of which is especially challenging.
Kiriti: Thank you so much for your time, Dustin.
Dustin: Pleasure’s mine.