Eddie Woods interview

Eddie Woods
Interviewed by Sacha de Boer (March 2009)

Poet, writer, editor, former journalist, and seasoned traveler. He was born 1940 in Manhattan to Italian-American parents. Was variously a short-order cook, computer programmer (1950s!), four years in the US Air Force, encyclopedia salesman, Buddhist hermit. And so much else. Two German wives, two daughters, four granddaughters. Yet another marriage. Countless affairs, relationships. In 1978 he came to Amsterdam from London with his then-wife (and still closest friend) Jane Harvey, where shortly thereafter they started Ins & Outs magazine, followed by Ins & Outs Press. Lived in Devon, England for six years from mid-1998 before returning to Holland. In 2003 Stanford University acquired his extensive literary archive. Although not exactly a pessimist, Eddie is a firm believer in Murphy’s Law.

‘Most of my traveling was before I arrived in Amsterdam. I used to knock about a lot as a kid. Busses, trains, hitchhiking. The subway! So a feel for travel sort of seeped into my veins early. And already in my teens I wanted out of America. Especially to see Europe, live there. America was far too repressive in the Fifties. Sexually (very important to me), socially in general. And of course politically. Actually it still is. Or is again. I only read and hear about it, hardly ever go there. The Air Force was the easiest way out. What with conscription, needing permission from your draft board to leave the country. Plus I had no taste for the Army, the infantry, slogging about in mud, getting your fingernails dirty. Ugh.

I spent the Sixties in Germany, more than half that time as a civilian. Drove all over the place. Including around France. And then, towards the end of the decade, made the first of my two extended journeys to the East. I went to Hong Kong to get rich, ended up going flat broke (frequent occurrence with me, despite the oodles of money I’ve occasionally made in between). Which is when the real traveling began. There’s no space here for all the stories. Running a whorehouse, opening a gay bar, being kept by a drag-queen prostitute lover in Singapore, burning all my manuscripts in Bali (an act of ‘spiritual renunciation’)… Then back in Europe, wrestling bulls in a German carnival, ripping jeans for patchwork denims in the Portobello Road. Tip of the iceberg. I’ve written about some of it. The rest will have to wait, for either someone’s biography of me (hah!) or the autobiography I’m so often being urged to pen. Or, when/if I finally get sufficiently motivated to put all my diaries, travel journals, letters in order. ‘The journey itself is home.’ Yeah.

One episode is specially noteworthy. How working as a radio correspondent had a positive effect on my poetry (which I began writing when I was 15). All the reports (other than when they let you go for it, no time-limit, like with the public execution I covered in the south of Thailand) had to be in 35-second spots. That’s not many words. For a complete news story. But it can be done. From that I learned the value of employing modifiers (adjectives in particular) carefully, very selectively. And as far as possible creating images by letting verbs move nouns. Powerful poetic tool.

Cycling across India with Jane, on simple made-in-Benares pedal bikes. Bicycle babas. Walking alone through the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, everyone taking me for a sadhu. Not sure how any of that may have affected my writing, but it certainly played a major role in my life, my ongoing development. As a human being. As much or more as LSD did, magic mushrooms, mescaline, any of the drugs I’ve taken. Cocaine. All past tense, by the way. Cigarettes and vino are tonic enough nowadays!

Then again, if you’re a writer (or any kind of artist), everything you do, all that you experience, has a bearing on your art. Same as anywhere you spend time is bound to inspire. Amsterdam has inspired me both on a conscious level (the red-light district, an area I lived in for such a long time; the Jordaan, where for three years I staged monthly poetry readings to packed houses in a once-famous workingman’s pub, Café Co Meijer; the whole toy-town atmosphere of canals, bridges, cobblestones…); and in ways that I’m not always aware of, if at all. Call it osmosis, if you will. It just happens.

I never intended to make Amsterdam my home, to reside here. Neither the first time, when Jane and I reckoned we were simply passing through. En route to wherever. But instead ran out of money (yeah, yeah) and decided to stay a while and start a magazine. Nor when we came back up from Barcelona (after having assumed we were leaving the Lowlands for good!) and then, you know, bloody well found ourselves staying! This city is like that. It grabs you, gets under your skin. It chooses you, not the other way round. Ask anybody. It also bears certain similarities to New York. Kind of laid back but with an adrenaline edge. It’s Mokum, makom, a good place.

I’ve referred to myself as a ‘native alien.’ (I even have a book, still in manuscript form, with that in the title, waiting to get published; which is to say, collecting dust somewhere in Brooklyn: Notes of a Native Alien.) It’s my way of saying that I am, in so many respects, a true Amsterdammer; and yet simultaneously recognizing that in Dutch eyes (as well as my own, I suppose) I remain an outsider. And always will. Notwithstanding that some of my work has been translated into Dutch. Mainly by the poet & prose writer Hans Plomp.

I’ve never cared for the term ‘expatriate.’ To me that implies that one day you’ll likely be going back. To where you originally came from. Or I could opt for ‘exile.’ In which case I’d need to make it ‘self-exile.’ America didn’t throw me out or anything. I got rid of it! Or did I? Hey, I’m a New Yorker through and through. You can hear that the moment I open my mouth. You never stop being a New Yorker, no matter where else you are or how many other speech patterns you may have absorbed, taken on board. Not to mention the neuroses! While when it comes to my writing, there’s no doubting that I’m American. I dig the American language. The words, the idioms, the subtle nuances. It’s so terribly rich. No point in discarding any of that. It’s merely living in the States, breathing American air, that I can no longer imagine. Or have the slightest desire for. Never mind all the redeeming features. The mountains, the plains, the charming pockets of urban decadence. I know them, I’ve seen them. I’ve crossed America’s magnificent expanses three times, twice by roadside thumb. Basta, finito! Yet if I had to…? Live there again? I guess I’d survive all right. It’s what goes with the territory, of being at once a ‘nowhere man’ and a squatter on the face of the earth.

So many poets have influenced me. Along the road of continually finding, constantly perfecting, my own unique voice. American, British, to some small extent German (Rilke, for instance, and his “lange Briefe schreiben”). Dylan Thomas, Robert W. Service, e. e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Auden, etc. Not so much the Beats, even though I have known (and admired, respected) a number of them personally. Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs (more of a mentor to many Beats than one himself), others associated with the genre, that period. Catullus probably made more of an impact, or John Donne. Than any of the Beats, that is. Ah, but as the New York bard Ira Cohen puts it: “We are all one poet, writing a single and never ending poem.” Necessarily flawed poem, I hasten to add.

My themes are diverse. Sex, love, politics, travel; this and that. And my styles. But it’s been a while since I’ve written at all. Apart from a brief flurry of stories and poems in 2007, I’ve been what? Barren…ever since the publication of Tsunami of Love: A Poems Cycle, in 2005. (Two years later the CD appeared, me reciting the entire collection.) Am I burnt out? Only time will tell. The events that led me to compose the Tsunami poems left their scars. The bitter aftermath of a fairy-tale love affair that was meant to be…forever. Except that it wasn’t. And when it wound down, had run its course, seemed to be ending on amicable terms. Only it didn’t. I wrote myself out of the ensuing depression with the title poem. A long narrative love lyric addressed to the lady in question. And then celebrated my release, from heartbreak and despair, with an equally long sequel poem. I consider them to be among my best work. For the book I added four earlier poems, reasonably short, and photographs. I haven’t a clue if she read any of it. She’s not talking, you see. Not to me. I am, or was, the man of many words. She, on the other hand, has had the final word, the perfect word. Silence. And this is someone I will have now known for…34 years! And hadn’t seen in 18 years. Before we again met up. And at last became lovers. For six years and a bit. Tja.

The next depression was longer, deeper. And a subsequent one, after a respite of several months, longer still. Also to do with her, with the ‘rise and fall’ of that incredible love affair? (An affair quite different, speaking of fairy tales, than when a teenage sweetheart suddenly showed up at my doorstep after 25 years of no contact whatever. Torrid, friendly, tons of fun; and thankfully short-lived.) Unlikely. Or at least not entirely. Other factors must be at work. Take anti-depressants? No thank you. I’m not interested in undergoing a chemical lobotomy. Nature will deal with it. And faith…in the healing power of life. Ultimately everything is in God’s hands. Whatever you may conceive of as God. There are no atheists in foxholes. And I just came out of my own private foxhole for this interview. Beginning of a new chapter? Stay tuned!’

Eddie had emerged from that last depression only a week or so before this interview was conducted. Hence the references to being ‘barren’ and possibly ‘burnt out.’ Since then he has again been writing, publishing, and performing. The interview itself, together with the below poem, appeared in Sacha de Boer’s Retour New York-Amsterdam. Interviews with and photographs of 16 artists, half of whom are Dutch artists living in New York and the other half Americans residing in Amsterdam. The book is bilingual (English/Dutch) and was published in June 2009 by Uitgeverij Atlas (Amsterdam and Antwerp). Sacha de Boer is an accomplished photographer with several books to her credit and one of the Netherlands’ best-known television news presenters.

for Sacha de Boer

I made a point of drafting this in pencil.
Something I almost never do.
And only occasionally with a pen
(ballpoint; fountain pens are beyond me).
I’m a child of the typewriter,
these days metamorphosed
into a computer keyboard.
For me no poem is truly finished
until I see it gazing back at me
as though on a printed page.
Its physical appearance,
while not as important
as the words
the meaning
the substance
the spirit,
comes preciously close,
is indeed a part of the whole.
And handwriting, my handwriting,
falls short of achieving the same effect.
Pencils. The lady mentioned pencils.
That and the rest of her penetrating riff
(“see the process, even if there is no process;
filled ashtrays, lots of smoke, books all over the place,
wads of crumpled paper, a note with a beautiful thought”)
moved me to grab a pencil and start scribbling, composing.
Over the waves of an electronic mail, a delightful hint of
lunacy reached well past the depths of my depression
and magically touched the very core of my soul.
Bingo. Light another cigarette.
Rise above yourself, if only momentarily.
Reconnect with the breath of creative chaos,
those wild sparks of divinity waiting to be ignited,
but have too long lain shrouded in a cloak of darkness.
The beauties of smoke and madness triumph for an afternoon.