INTERVIEW WITH DAVID VAN DEN BERG
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The images around God in “i dreamed god was an astronaut” are so intriguing—having “his feet up on a red dwarf” and being “pissed […] if the transmissions block his hbo.” Can you discuss how you approached the characterization of God in this poem?
David van den Berg: I strongly identify with the Southern Gothic tradition. My work features madness, decay, the weight and violence of history, and a profound sense of alienation and loneliness. The characters who populate my poems are deeply troubled or flawed, living between a mix of the natural and supernatural worlds and left to figure out the meaning of it all.
god appears in a number of my poems, initially as an attempt for me to understand or explain my own overwhelming sense of loneliness:
saw the future in the blaze / ash footprints walk backwards in half ghost step / white corn liquor sings / an’ all i ever was or am is nothin’ like i hoped to be / found god out back makin’ mash ask / why you make me like this / he say there a hole deep down at the bottom of you i ask why / he say / ‘cause you’re like me, my son.
–Love Letters from an Arsonist
Since then, god has become a sort of ‘just-so’ character and occasional foil for my own persona (or maybe the other way around). He (I use a masculine pronoun not out of tradition or habit but as a conscious character choice) is a creative, disillusioned with his own creation and tired of being asked to account for the problems in his work:
i press ‘em on heaven / where the gates is shut and angels tattoo prayers ‘cross throats / and graffiti reads like lightning / cracklin’ sharp and cold since / god turned off the heat and locked hisself away ‘cause the critics wrote / the universe is not your best work
-now am i become death
I was inspired to draw on that characterization after reading about large clouds of alcohol floating through the universe and that comets smell like methyl alcohol (which is in poisonous moonshine). So much of the poem is about looking outwards for answers, it made me feel like a child searching for an absent father. It felt right to direct the searching towards a physically and emotionally distant god, which gave rise to the final stanza.
RR: We love the way this poem deals with themes of loneliness and questioning of the unknown through the setting of outer space. What is the significance of connecting space and God in this poem?
DvdB: There’s something about space that triggers melancholy reflections on our collective mortality.
The inevitable heat death of the universe is one of my 3 a.m. obsessions. Long before it occurs, our universe will have expanded so much that no other galaxy will be visible to us. Before that, the sun will either swallow the earth whole or bake it to a crisp, wiping out all signs of life. The earth itself is so old that civilizations may have existed before now, but were utterly lost in the geological record. After our own erasure, civilizations may yet arise and be utterly incapable of detecting our existence either.
The timescale of galactic events, the possibility of our memory being extinguished, can trigger really intense anxiety for me (for many, I’m sure). I see myself as such a small and unimportant piece of a larger cosmic flow, which itself is so small and insignificant that even it could be called meaningless. While I am not religious, I find that I have to hope that there is a larger or ongoing consciousness to everything. I want things to make sense, to matter in a grand narrative. I crave meaning, and have a hard time believing that I’m innately valuable enough to give meaning to my own life.
That’s why space is so bittersweet to me. On one hand, it is a constant and impartial reminder of my own ticking clock, but also the possibility of escape and advancement, the grand continuation of something that I am a part of.
As for the connection to god, it’s really a question of looking outside for meaning, a question of hoping to find concrete and material evidence that I matter, and being disappointed with what I’ve found.
RR: We are captivated by the strength and distinctiveness of the voice in this poem. How do you approach the concept of voice when crafting a piece?
DvdB: I grew up in the south and spent a lot of time in and around a trailer in the swamp. I have early memories of sitting around a roaring bonfire while the men drank and smoked cigars and sang and told stories. That’s usually the kind of voice I want in my pieces. Something cracked and broken and tellin’ about something honest and true. Something open and simple with its introspection and judgment, and worn down enough to see them accept the ugly as it is.
RR: How do your areas of study—religion, anthropology, and archaeology—influence your work as a writer?
DvdB: I think every writer wants to explore what it means to be human. Those areas of study gave me a decent basis into understanding various world myths, their significance and origins, and how myths are repurposed and reshaped according to the needs of any particular time (coinage iconography in Ancient Rome is a fascinating example of this but I won’t bore you with that).
I’m not religious, but I was raised to be. Understandably, a lot of my poems draw on Christianity. However, I’m fascinated by the pantheon of deities that predated and co-existed with Christianity (and, in many instances, were incorporated into Christian practice and belief). Having such a wide cast of flawed divine affords a great deal of freedom to storytellers who try to make sense of the world.
I’m also particularly struck by the story of the priestess Cassandra (she shows up in a few poems) and by the mythos surrounding Robert Chambers’s “The King in Yellow” (shows up in quite a few poems, including my personal favorite: carcosa).
RR: Will your upcoming poetry collection, Love Letters from an Arsonist, have similar themes as those presented in this piece? What can we expect to see?
DvdB: Unfortunately for everyone, it will.
Love Letters from an Arsonist is divided into three epistles (so called to give a biblical reference, offer a stylistic outline, and give a feeling that the reader is reading a collection of letters). The first epistle, salt river blues, features my most southern gothic poems. There you will find ghosts, blackwater swamps, magic, my prayers before the Rhino King. The second, midnight gospel, features poems with a strong connection to religion or spirituality. These poems include the midnight gospel itself, prophets, and a glimpse of life that is to come in the dark beyond the stars. The final epistle, pinecone son, offers poems that are more personal or directly autobiographical.
Love Letters from an Arsonist is scheduled for publication July 2022 with April Gloaming. I’ll be forever grateful if you pick up a copy. Until then, you can follow along with me on Instagram @ohnonotthatguygoddamnit, or check out Prometheus Dreaming where I serve as Editor-in-Chief.
Thanks for your time.
David van den Berg’s work in Issue 9.1: