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[Brief Words] Interview of Oliver Sheppard

Searching for poetry of of a newer generation of gothic literature led me to the man I got to interview today. Upon reviewing his work I instantly fell in love with his style. Reminiscent of the great Edgar Allan Poe I was impressed and reached out. Connecting with Mr. Sheppard has been a very interesting and enlightening delight. We connected over music and over poetic style. I have learned recently he is a fan of my bold and raw emotional poetry, which thrilled me to know that someone has connected with my poetic work.

All that led to the recent reaching out to learn more about his work, his life, and his projects.


Let me start off with a quote from John Foster from your book Thirteen Nocturnes, in which the foreword begins with:  “It takes guts to write and publish a book of poetry at this point in the history of the world.” I wholeheartedly agreed when I read this portion and it left me with one question. At what point did you want to begin a poetry book?

William Blake and certain other experiences — not poetry, but experiences — have been a guide for me. Recent trauma started me out on this path. My poems sketch out a full cosmogony of pain.

Was the process difficult for you when it began?

It was difficult for me when it began. It’s still difficult for me. It feels like it will probably always be difficult, but there’s no other way I can imagine it would be. Life’s difficult, and it ends in death. In the meantime, we experience wonderful things, but they do all end in the grave. I think my writing reflects this inherent problem of our existence.

Your work is exquisite and reminiscent of Gothic literature; was that by design or the natural way it flows from you?

Thank you for those kind words. It’s both.

My favorite literary works tend to fall under a broadly gothic umbrella, and I suppose that style of writing flows from me naturally. But, as a caveat, I wouldn’t say every poem I’ve written is gothic. I try to choose a tone appropriate for what I want an individual poem to achieve.

Also, I’d consider myself to fall broadly within the domain of Southern Gothic literature. Readers and critics can ultimately decide for themselves. I love cosmic horror, and I love many contemporary “weird poets” (a term proudly brandished by folks wishing to imitate and perhaps build upon the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, and the poets championed by Weird Tales authors about a century ago),  but I’m probably only a fellow traveler, and a fan (but very much a fan), of weird poetry more than I am any sort of evangelist of that particular school of writing. There are many good poets writing in the weird poetry tradition nowadays, and some of them are the best living dark poets I know of. But my own upbringing has been ensconced in the Deep American South and its own literary traditions, and I would cite Flannery O’Connor, or Robert Penn Warren, or Cormac McCarthy, and then William Blake, as well as many French Symbolist and German Expressionist poets, as my antecedents, almost more than anyone from US pulp magazines from ca. 1870-1935. I’m doing my own thing, and have my own designs.

As an example, and as far as the Southern Gothic angle goes, my first, out of print, collection of poetry, DESTRUCTION: TEXT I, was spurred on by my grandmother’s death in Clarksville, Tennessee. She died from emphysema and end-stage COPD. She had run marathons, but she also refused to give up smoking to her last days in her 70s and early 80s. I’m bringing this up with reference to your question about whether the writing process has been difficult for me. In fact, it has been difficult, very difficult. My grandmother’s vices did her in. Marlboro Lite 100s, cartons of them, gold metallic and white cartons of them everywhere. She died painfully. David Letterman had an old joke that the best Christmas gift you could give someone in the Midwest was a carton of cigarettes and a set of tires. That’s my family in a nutshell, but way more Southern; just throw in a pecan pie, and you’d be their hero. Ventilators couldn’t keep my grandmother alive after decades of smoking. She suffocated to death. Her death upset me greatly.

That she was an enthusiastic supporter of my early writing made me realize I had to get to work on writing before I died, too. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have tried to compile any of my own poems, ever. My grandmother’s longstanding belief in my own literary worthiness impacted me greatly, and she was a catalyst. She was a great woman. She helped raise me when my dad abandoned my mom and I. She pushed me to write, and I still miss her.

What or where do you find inspiration for your poetry?

My inclinations, as a reader, have tended toward fellow Southern Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, and New Englander HP Lovecraft, and European Dark Romanticist poetry, and the greatest living prose writer of the Gothic tradition, Thomas Ligotti. Gottfried Benn. This is all no secret. These things can’t help but influence you as a writer, if this is the sort of stuff you like to read. My book THIRTEEN NOCTURNES, which I recently learned was nominated for an Elgin Award, has some similar “Southern Gothic” roots. I wrote the lion’s share of Thirteen Nocturnes in a hotel room in Texas that I shared with my partner under terrible circumstances.
To elaborate, in our hotel room, my partner had a black cat named Demon; and I consider Demon to be the co-author of Thirteen Nocturnes, by the way. Demon was a gorgeously sleek black cat who stayed up with me all night, next to me, while I tapped away on the keyboard to make Thirteen Nocturnes happen. I have photos of him standing on my keyboard, even, interrupting my writing to be petted. Demon recently passed away (March, 2020), and his death has profoundly affected me. Folks that are not ailurophiles might find this to be corny — but Demon’s recent death sent me into an incredibly pronounced state of depression. In fact, Demon’s death still upsets me. Demon deserves a whole book to himself. Demon was never “just a cat.”

In fact, the back story of Thirteen Nocturnes and its composition in that Texas hotel room gets even worse. The whole reason me and my partner were in the hotel room was because our house had flooded due to some busted plumbing. Tree roots had grown into the house’s pipes, it turns out. My partner’s elderly mother had been living with us; my partner’s mother was in her 70s and was seriously handicapped. She was not mobile. When the plumbing busted it resulting in the house flooding, and we all had to move out — humans, cats, and dogs. My partner’s mom went to Shreveport, Louisiana, where she had relatives. (Medcaid in Louisiana ended up being far more generous for her care than Medicaid in Texas — no surprise to me). My partner and I had to move  into a hotel room in North Texas for two and half months. That’s when and where I wrote most of Thirteen Nocturnes, in that Texas hotel room with Demon, the cat.

My partner’s mother died shortly thereafter. She passed away in the nursing home in Shreveport, Louisiana while we were still living in the hotel, also from pulmonary problems. This is why Thirteen Nocturnes is dedicated, in part, to my partner’s mom. Demon, the black cat, also passed away, 18 months later. I thanked Demon for letting me be a part of his life as he passed away on a veterinary table in Dallas, Texas in March, 2020. My partner’s mother’s passing was a great influence on my writing then, and it still weighs heavy on my mind. Thirteen Nocturnes was born amid a backdrop of family cataclysm, displacement, instability, death. But that’s been most of my life.

As well, my daily struggles with “Chronic Depression – Severe – Recurrent,” to quote my own medical charts — that’s no doubt some sort of impetus or inspiration. Recently, I’ve grappled with seizures and convulsions and I had an MRI to see what’s going on in my brain. I’ve had visions and hallucinations. In the past I think poets called these kinds of things “reveries.”
Otherwise, I wish I knew a clear answer to what definitely provides “eureka!” moments of inspiration. If I did know, I’d focus on it and I’d always go there to write endless poetry.
I do remember driving in my old car under the Texas sun thinking to myself that I couldn’t wait for Summer to be over. “Summer is something to suffer through…” I thought. And I liked the consonance of that line that had just strangely popped up in my head. It just stuck with me. That became the origin of Nocturne No. 9: “Summer is something to suffer through / From May until September / Suffering Summer is what you do / Until comes grey November.” And it’s true in Texas — thanks to global warming, until November you can have temperatures in the 90s. But the rest of that poem takes a darker turn. Another poem might have been inspired by a dream, or a nightmare. And some of my poems have been inspired by surreal snatches of conversations I’ve overheard.
“Nocturne No. 4” is another — it’s a very simple, short and sweet, rhyming, Gothic poem. I came up with that one after I discovered the world of Instagram poets and wanted to make a short and sweet dark poem to participate in that world. I wrote that poem in 2 minutes. And that poem is many folks’ favorite poem of mine!

So, I wish there was one answer. We’d all be successful poets if we knew what always inspired us to make something worthwhile. It’s not easy. It’s mysterious. You’re a poet, and I’d love to dialogue with you about your inspiration for poetry. My guess is each poem has a different backstory.  For me it’s always elusive.

The literary world often feels, for readers, overly saturated, with the modern accessibility to so much and so many publishing now; what do you believe sets you apart from the rest?

That’s for readers to decide.

I know what I am trying to achieve as a writer. If there’s anything that sets me apart, it’s my intent, and I’m still trying to make my intent evident. I have a very specific goal and worldview; and within that all my poems fall. William Blake and certain other experiences — not poetry, but experiences — have been a guide for me. My poems sketch out a full cosmogony of pain. My next book, NINE BURNING VISIONS, will make this all more plainly evident.

The Bronte Sisters composed all their early poems so that they were situated in a certain parallel world, a “paracosm,” that they called Gondal. Likewise, my poems take place in a paracosm that maps onto our own existing universe, and which explains it; and I think my poems reveal a terrible under-dimension that exists and undergirds our own world. I’m taking poetic license to expand the definition of “paracosm,” in the sense the Bronte Sisters might have meant it, to call my world The Paracosm (capitalized), or The Grand Catallaxy, another term I’ll explain later. The extreme experiences of pain and trauma I’ve had — what Georges Bataille or Michel Foucualt might have called limit-experiences — this is the Universe (or, more specifically, The Bulk, within which string theory operates) within which all my poems exist. The Paracosm / The Grand Catallaxy maps onto our own world and crosses over or onto our own world, and helps explain it, especially the sheer trauma of existence and the misery that seems so prevalent. William Blake has been a guide for me. This may be my unique contribution to Western literature. I do feel I have something unique to contribute.

But this will all come out in the wash, in a few years to come. It’s for readers and critics to decide this.

You’ve written about music, art, and culture for companies like Post-Punk magazine and CVLT Nation; how has the experience been for you? Do you enjoy it?

I’ve always enjoyed music. Poetry and music are primal blood-relatives. Prosody borrows so many terms from the world of music theory, and the primal roots of Western poetry and the meter/metrics of poetry have to do with Greek dance and music. It’s not even a matter of “borrowing”; music and poetry are the same in their origins. Poetic forms like odes, sonnets, and ballads all borrow from music.

In fact, the stresses of words in Western prosody were supposed to coincide with footfalls of Greek dance; hence the poetic term “a metrical foot.” That is, when the foot was to rise in a primordial Greek dance, it is unstressed in the corresponding syllable; the foot falling down is where the heavy stress lay in the syllable. This barely matters any more, except maybe intuitively, to English speakers in 2020. Regional diction, slang, the normal development of the language over centuries, etc etc changes it all.  I love music and always will, as most poets have. But the primal connection of music and poetry is still there. Schopenhauer and others said the only escape from worldly pain is the aesthetic contemplation of the sublime, such as what music offers, when one is thrown into a reverie because of the beauty on display. I largely agree with that, except I think limit-experiences also play a role: extremities of physical sensation (sex, pain) or intellectual experiences (contemplation of nature, space, theoretical physics).  Poetry has the same effect on me as music. It’s a rare type of bliss.

Having said all this, I do still sometimes write about postpunk and punk and goth. I enjoy Killing Joke’s “Love Like Blood” like I enjoy Berlioz’ “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” or Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60” — “The Siege of Leningrad.” I think since the advent of Western pop music in the late 1940s or the 1950s, Killing Joke have done everything. They’re the first and last pop band since the 1970s, until now, as far as I am concerned! They’re all you need to know. They’ve mastered every style of post-1973 music. It doesn’t hurt that their singer, Jaz Coleman, is a genius.

Besides the writing part of your life, you’re the founder of two events in Texas, Wardance and Funeral Parade. What motivated you to start them? What can someone wanting to attend expect?

Wardance in Dallas was obviously named after the Killing Joke song of the same name. Funeral Parade, in Austin, Texas, I named after my love of that release (the “Funeral Parade” EP) by the old 80s cult UK deathrock band Part 1. Funeral Parade, as an event, is now on indefinite hiatus. Wardance is now a “Wardance presents” thing. My focus now is the monthly Ceremony club night at The Nines in Deep Ellum in Dallas. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, this has all been thrown awry. I still write for Post-punk.com. My focus is now mostly on poetry and writing.

With all that you have going on and all that you’re doing, what does a typical day look like for you? How do you keep motivated?

There’s no typical day for me. Most of my days are spent dealing with therapists, psychiatrists, or trying to read and write. Recently I’ve been treated for seizures, so my typical day has changed. I’ve been undergoing Electro-Convulsive Therapy at UT Southwestern, so that has changed my routine. Ask me this question 3 months from now, and things will have changed again. I’m hoping the ECT therapy will make me more functional.

Is there anything you’d like to say? Anything you’d want to promote?

Be on the lookout for Nine Burning Visions, my follow up to Thirteen Nocturnes, soon. I have created a cosmogony  — The Paracosm/The Grand Catallaxy  —  within which everything falls, and which maps onto our own world, although it is in many ways separate. My poems sketch out a full cosmogony of pain. In Nine Burning Visions it’ll be fleshed out in the context of a suite of interconnected poems. Go to http://oliversheppard.net to keep up to date.

Musically, check out http://ceremonydallas.com to see what I’m up to with musical events. I’m doing some things with my friends in the band Rosegarden Funeral Party and a few DJ friends (Per Nilsson of Awen, Puncture, and a dj at Dallas’s The Church) there. We may be doing some livestreaming stuff soon.

Check him out more here:

Website: http://oliversheppard.net
Ceremony Dallas: http://ceremonydallas.com


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