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3am Interview













"Writing is such a cerebral thing, for me. My balls are pretty much 'sucked up in my brain', so to speak-- when the words are flowing well. I'm convinced that the Muse is a female entity, though I believe she's much more interested in making my scalp tingle, than getting my penis erect.Ē

Dennis Mahagin was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2003 for his poem, "Aural Sex", published in the online journal Erosha. He is also a seasoned musician, who was sought-after as a bass player in the Portland Oregon Blues and Top Forty scene during the 80s and 90s. Mahagin at one time played with blues legend John Lee Hooker. He has spent the last year and a half in Las Vegas Nevada, where many of the poems in his debut collection ďGrand MalĒ (Suspect Thoughts Press, San Francisco 2006) took their shape. His work has appeared in publications including 3:AM, Absinthe Literary Review, 42opus, Deep Cleveland, Frigg Magazine, Erosha, Edifice Wrecked, Slow Trains, and Clean Sheets.

Some might call Mahaginís poems degenerate and disgusting--work evangelical ministers would insist evoke the power of sin. When presented with this statement Mahagin says: "Well, it's quite possible the average reader finds them lots of fun." I asked Dennis to explain himself. I am sure his mother wants him to anyway. He tackled this inquisition with his inimitable mixture of quasi-profundity and self-deprecating humor--laced with the intelligence of an insightful observer of human nature, and twenty-first century culture.

3AM: Letís start at the beginning. Where were you born and when?

DM: Butte, Montana, in 1963.

3AM: How did you get from there to Las Vegas Nevada?

DM: Vegas is a recent thing. A lark. My formative years were spent in Portland and Seattle--with a couple short lived stints in Anchorage, Alaska.

3AM: Tell us about your formative years.

DM: I have two younger brothers. We grew up fairly happily next to a nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington. As a kid I was a classic bookworm--hermitic and precocious. I remember reading "All Quiet On The Western Front", and "Lord Jim" when I was about 11. I started writing at about that time also. I wrote a lot of Twilight Zone-type short stories. Then I became a jock, took a scholarship at a prestigious liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington (yes, there really is a town called Walla Walla. I'm not hiccupping) where I studied English Literature. Inevitably however, I got a yen for the big city. I moved to Portland Oregon in like 1983, where I remained for the next decade.

3AM: Does living in Las Vegas influence your writing?

DM: It did when I first moved here. I was overwhelmed by the energy of the city, and the real plethora of "characters" who abound here. The novelty of this wears off eventually, however--as is the case with any city. This "wearing off", it is inevitable. Actually, there is a pretty happening poetry scene in Las Vegas, believe it or not. A lot of very competent poets live here. Jarret Keene is one.

3AM: What do you do in Las Vegas besides write poetry?

DM: I gamble. I watch the people. Garner material. Occasionally purchase meaningless sex from beautiful, fucked-up young hookers. I currently work as a booking agent, but I can feel the "axe" getting ready to fall any day now. I could easily end up handing out those slap-happy "Girlie Placards" on the Strip. It could happen. Who knows, I might even like that job better than being a booking agent.

3AM: What does a booking agent do?

DM: A booking agent is a promotional liaison between an artist (or usually the artist's management) and the "venue"--which here in LV is almost exclusively casinos. We book acts ranging from comedians and magicians to aging rockers. My office has contracts with five or six big-name casinos, as well as some that nobody's ever heard of. There is always a big push to get additional contracts, and sign up more acts to work with us. It is really a sucky job. One of the suckiest I've ever had.

3AM: How did you find poetry?

DM: More like poetry found me. I was hooked after reading Corso for the first time. Bukowski really nailed me too. And later, Charles Simic. Before those guys, I was more of a fiction reader, as well as a student of History. I have a Bachelor's Degree in History from Portland State University.

3AM: Do you identify with any group of poets and or writers?

DM: I like the Imagists. All of Pound's Bromides--they ring true. And the Black Mountain Poets. I think, however, that I identify most with the Beats. Especially Gregory Corso. I don't care for Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg, however.

I could spend all day listing modern poets I admire. Charles Simic absolutely rocked my world, when I was first introduced to his work. There is also a guy named Stephen Dobyns, who is awesome. There's Yusef Komunyakaa, and Donald Justice, and Thomas Lux. I also like the "Long Beach School" a great deal-- guys like Ron Koertge, and Gerald Locklin. Raymond Carver's poetry is incredible, as well. I like his poems even more than his stories. That is saying a lot.

3AM: What is it about the writing of these poets like Simic and Corso that attracts you?

DM: As far as Corso is concerned, it is the language--the musical Zen-like properties that pervade his strange and wonderful poems. With Simic, it is his incredible imagery, and the way he makes his art seem so simple. Both these guys are a pure joy to read, although they come from polar opposites on the poetic spectrum. Kind of like comparing T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Those guys are no slouches either, BTW.

3AM: When you write a poem do you consider metaphor, rhythm, line breaks, hyperbole? All the things creative writing classes teach about poetry? Or as Bukowski, who is one of your idols, said: "If writing doesn't flow don't write."

DM: I think you may be referring to his poem "So You Want To Be A Writer." Well, anything Bukowski says about writing you can take to the bank. It is gospel. I would never make the mistake of trying to write like him, though. That ain't gonna happen.

For me, rhythm is the most important thing. This comes from my background as a bass player, I think. I want the poem to be "experienced", not read. I want all the visceral, musical things in there--that the reader can hang his or her hat on. I'm very much into the concept of "hooks"--another songwriting connection. The first line of a poem--exactly as in a song--is the most important thing. Everything hangs on that first line, I think. How it sounds, how it sucks the reader in.

3AM: You also write short stories.

DM: I love stories! I really get off on reading a good short story, or novel. Graham Greene, Robert Stone--guys like that. And John Cheever. Fiction does not come easy for me, however. It is hard, hard work. Very rewarding though. I suspect I'll be doing more of it. "Dead Soldiers" appeared in the summer issue of Edifice Wrecked, and "Tweaking The Sub" was published by Clean Sheets in October 04.

3AM: What is your definition of pornography and erotica? What do they have in common? Do you consider your work pornographic or erotic?

DM: I believe they are part and parcel--it's just that porn comes in a brown paper wrapper and erotica is all pretty pink bows and lace. The bottom line should always be: is it good writing, or not? Can we create a new definition? How about Pornorotica? I like the sound of that.

And yes, some of my stuff is definitely Pornorotic. As to whether it is good writing or not, only my hairdresser knows for sure. As well as critics, who are merely hairdressers with an altered state of aesthetic. Anyway, you can't go wrong parting your tresses right down the middle. I'll split the difference with ya. Howz that?

3AM: Has anyone called your poetry raunchy?

DM: Not in so many words. Yet. Actually,it wouldn't bother me if someone did. I would take it as a compliment. I've always dug that word: Raunchy. Yes indeed.

3AM: Why is sex your muse? Why do you think the muse must be female?

DM: It is common knowledge that she is Female, and she frankly resents you even questioning her gender at all!

Seriously though. Sex, in "all its forms", does indeed fascinate me, from a critical standpoint as well--the repression and hypocrisy that walk hand in hand through the tall grass of our "MTV Wonderland." I mean, the Super Bowl thing with Justin and Janet--this is but one minor example. We Americans are so prurient, and horny and exhibitionistic, almost to the point of perversion--and totally in denial about it. The French and Dutch and Italians, for instance, probably laugh their asses off at us, at the same time they are downloading our plentiful home-grown porn, which is as nasty as it gets--anywhere in the world. The dichotomy is depressing, but undeniably intriguing as well. And it's only gonna get more pronounced. In the future.

3AM: Why do you think this dichotomy will get more pronounced in the future?

DM: Technology and the Media will exacerbate it. I myself never exacerbate, however. You can friggin go blind! Or be sent to Purgatory. Word up!

3AM: Do you think people who write about sex have active sex lives?

DM: I'm inclined to think not. I could be way off base, but it seems to me that people who are having a lot of good sex would tend to say: "fuck writing...I want to try this new Tantric position I saw on a porn infomercial, or whatever. Good writers shouldn't really have the time for very active sex lives. The craft is so all-consuming. Now, if it's two writers you're talking about (or a writer and a blues singer) I think the situation could be quite different. A horse of a different color, in that type of scheme. If you get my drift. At any rate, "getting some" definitely has it all over cerebral hemorrhages, and Talk Radio, and late-night schpiels from Ron Popeil with his holographic blonde bombshell assistant--manning the "appliances."

3AM: Here are some lines from your poem "The Jefferson Theater". Very imagistic sexual metaphor.

"...The shiny glass
candy and popcorn case
in the lobby

is garish as a tanning booth
left ajar- the backlight scrotal bulbs
like fluorescent necklaces
on the mirror walls
of a starlet's trailer..."

You juxtapose many images making your poetry like a collage. Are you a visual person?

DM: Not really. I suck at drawing and stuff like that. Although I do see faces in clouds and wallpaper patterns and carpet fibers and stucco ceilings, all the time.

What happens with me is I usually hear the line first, in my head. Then the images kind of coalesce around the sound of the words. It is songwriter's type approach--combined with a storytelling element that I throw in there.

3AM: Where did the metaphor come from in the above lines from the "Jefferson Theater"?

DM: See, there really is a Jefferson Theater, in Portland--up by the University there. It's an old fashioned porn theater. Kinda classy. Iconoclastic. A real landmark there. I was just trying to describe the lobby of this theater as accurately as I remember it. I was there, you see, collecting for Unicef a few times, back in the day. And once, I ducked in there out of the rain! Very cozy in there. Any port in a storm, and all that, eh?!

3AM: How does popular culture influence your poetry? Is she another muse? References to consumer related products, services, and icons from the music world, politics, motherhood, and religion pop out in many of your poems. Are you a consumer? What is your intent in using these images? And do TV, radio, movies, CDs, play an important role in your daily life as inspirations for writing?

LOT'S WIFE IN THE LAUNDROMAT ( excerpt)

waitressing at a Spokane Denny's
years and years ago,
when the Mia Farrow-looking
mother of five
cloaked the dinner roll basket
and deep fried zucchini platter
with the steaming
discarded diapers
of her squalling twin infants
right there, in real time
at table eleven

and then left her
a fifty cent tip.

But now
coming up
on Spin Cycle
and she's staring hard
at the fat college girl
who is folding fitted sheets
in a shower of spit
and flying crumbs
while simultaneously
humming a Shania Twain tune
as she goes to work
on her fourth can of Pringles--
dabbing at her doll's mouth
with Febreze fabric softener sheets.

DM: I am so NOT a consumer. I do very much love my Pringles, though. I go through a couple cans a day. I don't care for Shania Twain, at all. I'm ambivalent about Denny's. Denny's Restaurant really engenders the purest of ambivalence, don't you think?

Ideas can come from many sources, but T.V. is rarely one of them. I do like the idea of "soaking up" the popular culture. But I like people watching, not TV watching. Movies and CDs are good though. Yes Indeed. Love those. And I get most of my news online. I scan newspapers, for intriguing headlines, but don't really "read" them, like religiously, and do crosswords and stuff. I would go mad if you forced me to do that! lol

3AM: Please explain the title" Lot's Wife on the Laundromat". It seems a bit Biblical for you.

DM: Well, I just believe that laundromats--their form and function--reduce us all to pillars of salt. Intermittently, but inevitably.

One day I was in a laundromat, and saw a guy punching out a defective quarter machine--I mean really going off on it!--while his Significant Other just kind of stood there, frozen, watching him. Everybody was watching him. I so felt for the guy. I've gotten that angry at change machines, plenty of times.

Laundromats are actually great places to garner material--but I really don't like hanging out in them too long. Doing laundry absolutely sucks ass, as far I'm concerned. If I could get away with never doing another load of laundry in my life, I would. But of course, this is not possible. There's the rub, you see.

3AM: Recently you had surgery to correct a heart problem. How has this affected your life and work?

DM: Dramatically, I should say. A brush with death can do wonders for an artist's focus. You begin to see procrastination as a ludicrous artificial construct that is bred in the bone of people who take their existence for granted. There is also some kind of spiritual thing going on, as well--that I can't really explain adequately. Some kind of closer connection with the source. I would only sound stupid and pretentious trying to spell it out. If people had a brushes with death like, twice a year, this world would be a totally different animal. A cooler place to live, definitely.

3AM: Have you written any poems about this experience?

DM: It all comes out in the work. One way or another. I may try a creative non-fiction piece that deals explicitly and directly with the experience. This would be "down the road."

3AM: What do you think your poems are about?

DM: They track the long, twisted, terrifying yet scenic road, which is neatly bisected by the white dash fissures in my pointy alpine cerebellum. And I think Raymond Carver, in one of his poems, said it best: "Use The Things That Are Around You." I try to do that.

Much of my stuff is simply inspired by direct day-to-day experience like the "Lot's Wife" poem. I don't start out writing a poem with a particular theme in mind. I try to transmute raw thought waves and reactions to situations into rhythmic, lyrical language that is, hopefully, both original and accessible. Often, as well, I try to hang a mini-narrative in there, a la Carver, or Stephen Dobyns. Themes tend to take care of themselves, upon proper revision[s] of the poem--should the work get that far. If you think about fly fishing, and panning for gold at the same time-- that is what writing poetry is like, for me.

3AM: How about a little oral sex, I mean, Aural Sex, Denis?

DM: Sure, I'm down. (No pun of course!)

AURALSEX

Home from the pawn shop
at last after an itchy hiatus
lying untouched for months
on a hot, dusty shelf sandwiched
between archery sets and mink coats

my sunburst fender precision fretless
is petulant at first, going in and out of tune
as I slide my left hand lovingly
from the nut to the twelfth fret,
and listen to her vent.

"I know baby," I whisper into her
thrumming front pickup. "I know..."

I start to coax her, pinching harmonics
like hard, pouty nipples up against the new
painful pink callouses, and she starts
to respond, opening up the dark, rich
and heady overtones.

So I begin to pluck--hard, insistent rhythm
with the first two fingers walking a riffle
of yellow pages in a blur of double stops and slurs.

When I've got her going good,
I bite my lip, and try a frenetic Jaco Pastorius line,
picturing Joni Mitchell's face contorted
in the throes of climax...

I slap my palm on the swelling
cutaway, and bang her
whole body against my hip,
squeezing out every last drop of feedback...

She's beside herself by then,
and starts to moan like my good girl,
the sounds coming out of the amp
causing all the neighbors to blink, and cock
their ears, involuntary like a blush spasm--
a note bent outside the root chord
in vibrato-hum until you can't hardly

stand it.

3AM: Mahagin's Philosophy of Life?

DM: Switch to Decaf after 4:30 in the afternoon. If you can play three power chords really, really well, you can make kick-ass music. There are no answers in this universe--only choices, and consequences. And improvisations. Strive for a sense of urgency in the way you live, and write--but NEVER take yourself too seriously. That is the kiss of death.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of cunnilingus in combination with a well-played slide guitar. If you can make your writing sound like this juxtaposition, you'll be pissing in the tall cotton with the big dawgs.

I guarantee it. This is a given.




ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Elizabeth P. Glixman is a poet, artist, and writer living in the USA. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including 3:AM Magazine, In Posse Review, Wicked Alice, Outsider Ink, The Richmond Review, southStory, Skive Magazine and several poetry and mass market story anthologies.





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