An Interview With Wolfgang Carstens

Wolfgang CarstensM. J. H. Congratulations on the publication of HELL AND HIGH WATER. You have worked with a number of publishers and I’m sure they all have their own approach. What was it like working with Six Ft Swells Press, from manuscript to book release?

W.C. Working with Six Ft. Swells Press has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. It is no joke to say that HELL AND HIGH WATER would not exist without Six Ft. Swells Press. I have imagined a book like this for decades, yet could never wrap my brain around it. It required Todd Cirillo to make it happen. Cirillo sifted through my raw material, chose the poems for the book, and then organized the material into a perfect timeline. For any book of poetry to work, both the material and the timeline are critical to creating a cohesive whole, where every poem builds upon the one previous and flows into the next. Cirillo worked magic with HELL AND HIGH WATER. Additionally, Cirillo gave me the best editorial advice I’ve ever received. Certain poems in the book were distinctly personal. Cirillo’s advice and editorial suggestions helped me universalize these poems. Some poems were written from a male perspective. Cirillo suggested rewriting them from a female perspective—which I did—and they became so much more powerful. Even my original title for the collection, “Killdren,” was nixed by Cirillo. He suggested it didn’t capture the energy of the collection—and his advice was spot on. I settled on HELL AND HIGH WATER—from the poem “Slave Lake, 2014”—and it’s a perfect title for the book. It was truly an amazing and enlightening experience for me. The following poem is a stellar example of Cirillo’s guidance. It was originally written with the man getting the tattoo. By switching it around, it opened the door for a much more powerful ending.


it was

a nice gesture,
of course,

the heart tattoo

with his name
inked across it,

in his heart
of hearts,

he knew
she had it

it was he
that would always


Matt Amott, in turn, struck gold with the exterior photographs. I had a completely different vision for the exterior. Amott gently killed my idea—and I am so glad he did. What he came up with was so much better than my idea. Julie Valin created the gorgeous interior layout, as well as the exterior layout for the book. Valin is a rock star. She worked tirelessly on the exterior to create the perfect vehicle to deliver the HELL AND HIGH WATER material.

It was marvelous working with the Six Ft. Swells Press crew. Cirillo, Amott and Valin are consummate professionals who work seamlessly together. Each has a particular skill set they bring to each and every project, and when they’re firing on all cylinders, they’re an unstoppable creative machine.

M.J.H. You and Todd Cirillo were recent guests on what has become my favourite podcast, Marcia Epstein’s Talk With Me. You both spoke about how this collection is different from your previous books; how so?

W.C. First, let me join you in your praise for Marcia’s podcast. It’s truly a revolutionary show that I have been fortunate to have been a guest three times. Marcia is an absolute delight. Addressing your question, in addition to what I’ve mentioned above, the material in HELL AND HIGH WATER is different from my previous books. Previous books have dealt primarily with Death and living each day to the fullest. They are, for all intents and purposes, wake up calls. I don’t want people to wait until they’re sick, feeble and dying before they start crossing things off their bucket list, I want them to live each day like they are dying. Rather than put new entries on their bucket lists to be addressed tomorrow, I want my readers to make plans to do them today. As I’ve said “Live today. Tomorrow never comes.” Here, two poems, “Sarah,”from my book ENJOY OBLIVION, and “it’s not rocket science,” from my book BULLETPROOF, drive this point home:


is dying.

a bucket

after weeks
of contemplation
she couldn’t think
of one
single thing
to add.

good girl.


it’s not rocket science.

all you have to do
is make every day

so when death comes
to take you,

you have no unfinished business,
your loved ones know exactly
how you feel,
and your bucket list
is empty.

no regrets.

the end will arrive
soon enough.

HELL AND HIGH WATER, however, is a book that strips me bare—both emotionally and philosophically. It presents me at my best and at my worst. As my editor Todd Cirillo put it, there is an underlying tenderness and vulnerability that runs through this collection. It’s a book that connects with readers on a very human, personal level. As the poem printed on the back cover suggests:

the human animal

an uncanny ability
to justify any action
after the fact:

if the devil
didn’t make us do it,
we were drunk,
or temporarily

when all else fails,
we blame it
on love.

M.J.H. In your book, BULLETPROOF, you open with a tribute to Lemmy. Even in death, Lemmy is a hero of mine, not because of his excessive lifestyle, although that is intriguing, but because he was such a unique creative force whose art was an extension of himself. Who are your non-literary heroes or figures of influence?

W.C. My heroes have always been ordinary men, women, and children who do extraordinary things. When I see a child get up on stage and play a lead part in a musical theatre production, or hear about a mountain climber who cut off his own arm with a pocketknife to survive, or about a housewife who stood toe to toe with a grizzly bear to protect her child, those are heroes in my eyes. Those are the people that inspire me to live to my highest potential. They make me question my own capabilities and contemplate whether or not I am strong enough to duplicate their feats. The only hero of mine who attained any kind of real popularity is Terry Fox. Fox was diagnosed with Cancer at age 19 and his right leg was amputated. Frustrated by the lack of attention and money being donated to cancer research and treatment, Fox devised a plan to run across Canada in his infamous “Marathon of Hope.” He started training in 1977, and on April 12th, 1980, Fox dipped his artificial right leg in the Atlantic Ocean and filled two containers with ocean water. He planned on keeping one container as a souvenir and pouring the other into the Pacific Ocean when he completed his ocean to ocean marathon. Less than five months later, after having completed 3, 339 miles of his journey, the cancer had spread to his lungs and Fox was forced to quit. He died shortly after. Fox managed to raise 1.7 million dollars towards cancer research. What inspires me about Fox is that, even at that young age, he wagered everything to advance cancer research. He must’ve had a bucket list—we all do—but Fox didn’t just cross items from the list, he crumpled up the paper completely—and like the mother who wrestled the grizzly, wagered everything in an all or nothing gamble. I pay homage to Fox in the poem from FACTORY REJECT reprinted below:

with muscle

and blood
and bone
and two
healthy legs,

yet neither of us
with enough heart
or soul
or guts

to begin
at the spot
where Terry Fox

M.J.H. Other than an article you wrote called, Who The Fuck is Charles Bukowski, all of your writing I’ve read to date has been poetry. I know you have a couple of short stories in Brenton Booth’s forthcoming lit mag; any more prose on the horizon?

W.C. Prose isn’t really a genre that interests me. I don’t feel productive when I’m creating characters, plot twists, thinking up dialogue, etc. I can’t justify writing for the express purpose of entertaining readers. I write poetry, of course, but I have to do that. It’s in my blood. I don’t know how else to explain it. The three stories that will appear in Booth’s magazine THE ASYLUM FLOOR aren’t really prose—in the respect they aren’t stories created out of nothing. One is a story loosely based on the misdeeds of notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. It chronicles the story of fourteen year old Konerak Sinthasomphone who managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment, only to be delivered back into Dahmer’s hands by Milwaukee police officers. Sinthasomphone was sexually abused, murdered and dismembered by Dahmer later that very night. The second story is about my grandfather’s Death. The third is based on a dream I had in which I was given the opportunity to experience the fountain of youth. So, while all three stories are works of fiction, they are all firmly grounded in reality. I really have no desire to write stories. Ideas that are worthwhile to me, like the three stories in THE ASYLUM FLOOR, will be written. Otherwise, I have no desire to sit down and write stories.

M.J.H. A consistent theme in my correspondence with writers and publishers is a growing frustration with how hard it has become to find solid, small-press book reviewers. I keep asking people why they think that is, and nobody seems to have an answer. Care to throw your two pennies in?

W.C. One of my favourite small press reviewers was the late Todd Moore. He put so much of himself into each review that by the time you were through reading, you found yourself saying “Who is this Todd Moore character?” Moore believed that the review, in and of itself, needed to be a work of art. Moore took ownership of the review and made the best with what he had to work with. If the book was good, he told you; if it was bad, he let you know. He pulled no punches. Whether the book was good or bad, one thing was certain—the review needed to be a work of art. Moore would find any nook, cranny, or open space to invade and squeeze pieces of himself into the review. He owned it. Now, compare what Moore did with the “book review as art form” to 99% of small press book reviewers and you quickly see how wide the chasm is between Moore and the others. Most small press book reviews are short, superficial, almost perfunctory pieces of fluff. They have no personality, no character, and offer very little insight about either the book in question, the author who wrote it, or the reviewer who should’ve left well enough alone and never wrote a damn thing about it.

M.J.H. The purpose of Screaming with Brevity, is to highlight small-press publishers and writers of note; any recommendations for the folks at home?

W.C. Well, I strongly encourage readers to pick up copies of every Epic Rites Press title. As the publisher of these books, I believe in each and every one of them. I would not have published them otherwise. I could literally write a paragraph about each book and detail why you need to own a copy. I need to tip my hat to Six Ft. Swells Press. Six Ft. Swells Press is a press that I deeply respect and admire and I recommend every title they’ve published. These are books everyone will relate to and enjoy. So, when you head down to to grab a copy of HELL AND HIGH WATER, add a book by Todd Cirillo, Matt Amott, Julie Valin, or any of the other Six Ft. Swells Press titles to your order. You won’t be disappointed. Further, I recommend readers to pick up a copy of Matthew Borczon’s A CLOCK OF HUMAN BONES, released through Yellow Chair Review—a book that had a profound impact on me. I also recommend THE MOTHER GOOSE MARKET by Ron Lucas, released through Lummox Press—another absolute ball-buster of a book. Further, you can’t go wrong with any book by William Taylor Jr., Bill Gainer, or Wayne F. Burke. These are three of my favourite writers and each are at the top of their game. William Taylor Jr.’s newest is TO BREAK THE HEART OF THE SUN, released through Words Dance Publishing. Bill Gainer’s newest is THE MYSTERIOUS BOOK OF OLD MAN POEMS, released through Lummox Press. Wayne F. Burke’s newest is A LARK UP THE NOSE OF TIME, released through Bareback Press. I single these three authors out because their books never disappoint.

M.J.H. Thank you for your candour, and again, congratulations on HELL AND HIGH WATER; it’s a hell of a book.

W.C. Thank you Sir. It has been an honour and a pleasure.

Read my review of Hell and High Water here. Buy your copy here.

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall

An avid reader, writer and reviewer of poetry and short fiction. Author of Blood Pudding Press 2015 chapbook contest winner, Pigeons and Peace Doves and The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness will soon be available through Bareback Press (2017).
Matthew J. Hall
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