Thursday, 5 September 2013

Wild Wolf Revealed: Part One of an Interview with poet and publisher Wolfgang Carstens

Wolfgang Carstens is an impressive figure. Not just physically, either, though I certainly wouldn't want to have to tangle with him in a fight. The Canadian has had a huge influence on my career as fiction writer, publishing my first novel Stumbles and Half Slips, and several stories in various journals and magazine he's published.

But he is also a very fine poet in his own right, the author of collections such as Crudely Mistaken for Life. While his style is very accessible, his subject matter can often be challenging in terms of its subject matter and its sheer guts.

Very much a man who believes in the power of the printed word, I asked Wolf about his relationship with the wilderness of his native western Canada. Lone Striker's main focus is usually on how sport and literature interact. Wolf's sports are a little more primal than many people I know, though. A true outdoorsman, Wolf sees the processes and narratives of the wild as central to his being.

Certainly, living in Alberta means that Wolf's experience of nature is vastly different to that of most people in the United Kingdom, and in much of Europe. I wondered if being in a place 'on the edge' of the world had shaped Carstens' attitude to writing at all?

"The 'sense of being on the edge of the world' has always influenced my thinking," he said.

"When I experience natural phenomena like the northern lights or thunderstorms, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the ancient philosophers and try to reason as they would.

"I do not believe that original thoughts are impossible or that modern humanity has answered the great questions.  Modern views on so many philosophical issues (like consciousness and dreaming and free will) are not only incorrect, they’re primitive.

"The remoteness of my surroundings has given me time to think deeply about paramount questions that humanity continues to wrestle with.  I don’t think most people encounter these questions in the same way that I do.

"Maybe it’s because city life affords too many distractions; maybe it’s the copious abysses available in our electronic age in which to fall into; maybe it’s because most people are too afraid to be alone with their own thoughts: maybe they want the easy answers; and maybe it’s because most people don’t want to think deeply about philosophical issues.  I don’t know and I really don’t care.

"I do know, however, that everything begins with great thinking, and both writing and publishing are secondary to that."

Much of Wolf's best poetry is deeply rooted in the western Canadian experience. His narrators carry hunting knives as a standard accessory, there are continual reminders that he lives in a huge landscape where snow, rain, wind and the rest can often be a little bit more than just weather. The animals which one might encounter are also a little more threatening than wild goats or badgers.

"A closeness to the rawness of nature makes you acutely aware that you aren’t at the top of the food chain any more," he explains.

"I don’t place myself above and beyond other animals in the animal kingdom.  Many places are inhabited by bears and cougars and these two predators add an element of danger to the most mundane tasks.

"You need to keep your guard up because if you don’t, you’re likely to die very young.  Ironically, rather than become less sentimental about nature, it has made me less sentimental about humanity.

"When you’re constantly confronted by the savageness of nature, human death seems less tragic.  In fact, I think animal death strikes a deeper chord with me than human death.

"This has played an essential role in my own thinking and writing.  I don’t think being in the wilderness is essential for the development of a writer.

"What is essential is thinking through fundamental questions on your own and arriving at your own conclusions before you learn what conclusions others have drawn.  If the question of free will is important to you, for example, don’t research what others have said before you determine your own conclusions.  So many people start with the so-called 'experts' and it corrupts their thinking."

One thing which playing sport of any kind, especially those which require a great deal of action, often creates is significant moments. Moments where life slows down and becomes eternal. Carstens believes that something similar happens in the wilderness.

"I experience moments like that every day," he said.

"Whether it’s a Great Blue Heron soaring directly overhead, dwarfing your tiny shape; an Elk leaping out of nowhere into your personal space, sending your heart rate through the roof; seeing a Lynx creeping behind a bush, stalking your children at play; or stumbling upon a creepy abandoned house in the middle of the trees, there is that moment of crystal clarity.

"The events that frame those moments seem to be when you’re lost in your own thoughts, on autopilot, stumbling through life like a sleepwalker, when the realization of living creeps up and hits you like a ton of bricks!"


Wolf Carstens was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of  'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press. Find them on Facebook and Twitter too.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


This is a poem which is, in part, a reaction to a recent visit to Wigtown, and the Martyr's Stake, an austere memorial to Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan. These two women died because they would not swear obedience to King James VII of Scotland and II of England. Wilson was 18 years old, while McLachlan was described as an elderly lady.

Stone kirks, white-washed inside
with clear, glass windows
to see the Lord's Light with clarity
among Scotland's southern hills.
A leal land, for a pious People,
sprung from Ayrshire touns sic as Sorn,
Gallovidians gallus with austerity
as they listen to Prophet Peden's
fause-faced preaching from found stone pulpits.

Later, the soldiers came.
They drowned Margaret Wilson of Wigtown.
   She choked her last
                                  in salty sands,
defiant, neck forced into a bow
                                         to drown,
Margaret McLachlan by her side.
[though the Anglicanisers turned her into Lachlinson
in their official recommendations.]  
They died in Ninian's Solway sands,
some echoes of the old purity of Candida Casa
A stane stake marks it,
planted in dreich peat moss
to show the way to the lonely.
This choking, damp death,
                                        no thrill of redemptive fire,
just another refused oath.
Royal soldiers failing,
choking submission never coming.
A victory to sap the soul.

In the hills, the Conventicles
were armed and ready,
in the heaven of their Galloway glens,
pulpits handy-made from the same stane
later hacked to build the wee kirks
which would have ruled all Scotland
if only the Time of Saints had persisted.

The Document itself remains impressive.
A multitude of ready souls
                                      of all kinds
                                      of all pairts, all trades
scratched their names on the great Parchment.
No crown, or mitre, ever really moved this many,
stirred souls like this army
                                       of such stiff principle.

Orange drummers will beat
                                         and bleat
that these Covenanters are their folk.
But Peden's People never bent their knee
                                        to any crowned head
[save the thorny one
                              of the Prophet's theories and dilemmas].
Charlie's Tartan Army
claimed Scotland's souvenir tin image
when they marched to Derby and back.
A culture hi-jacked by the dreams of a Prince,
with Border baronet Scott later completing the job,
banging the drum for Bonnie Dundee and the boys
on the Teuchter's behalf.
                                    [Posthumously, of course,
                                     too much of the real Gael,
                                     'Garb of old Gaul' and all,
                                      being, by then,
                                      a Bad Thing.]
Woe woven into spun stuff
by a pair of alleged Poles.
Peden never foresaw this shroud, for sure.

Papist eyes tend to look away,
in frustration, perhaps, in fear.
And Bishops sneer
from Episcopal heights.

But this People
died for Scotland's Kirk
not a King.
And that, here, in itself,
is a remarkable thing.

(c) Zack Wilson, 2013

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from