My next Razored Zen Author Interview features Mark Durfee. Mark is the first poet I’ve interviewed. Mark is a Detroit poet, what very well may be a breed apart. I’ve never met Mark in person but I know him from the online blogging community, and from his “Stink” trilogy, which includes Stink, The Line Between, and Scent of the Garden Within. I have read each of the volumes and reviewed them on Goodreads. Good stuff. So, here’ssssss Mark. (RZ represents Razored Zen and you know the drill on MCD by now.)
RZ: Tell us a little about yourself outside of writing. Home town. Family. Job. That sort of thing.
MCD: On steamy day in July of ’54 Mother Durfee had her second baby boy who was her fourth child. Though she had one more, two years later, she knew the oddest of all her children had been born already. That’d be me. I was born in Detroit and for the past 57 years never had a permanent address that didn’t have Detroit in it. I was born at the right time to be able to see the city at the tipping point of 1.7 million people to the current 700 thousand.
Our household was one of very literate, highly educated people, but I only paid half the fare so I became literate but not formally educated beyond high school. I enlisted in the navy at age 17 to get away from a mixed bag of problems, some self caused, some attributable to others but in either case now 40 years later I know it was the right thing to do. I may be the only honorably discharged veteran in the history of the United States to never fire a weapon, not even in boot camp. I had the compartment watch duty that day and was never rescheduled to hit the firing range.
My father went from his HS diploma to a PhD. In chemical engineering in the 5 years after WWII, my mother had her MSW by age 23 (social worker) and all of my siblings have advanced degrees, while I still need twenty some credits to get an associates degree in something. The thing about that much education in one house does is there were always books, newspapers, and an expectation that we would use them. My folks didn’t care what we read as long as we read. My father was a practicing alcoholic but a genius when it came to chemistry and especially polymers and plastics but he considered me to be his stupid child because I never could do basic algebra. Lord knows in his sober moments he tried to teach me but then I had more fun not understanding what a slide ruler was for but enjoyed making the parts move. I think it safe to say that I am my mother’s child, that woman could cut through more red tape for more people than any ten social workers and she spent 45 years at the same agency eventually rising to run the place.
The one thing I have always appreciated about my parents is they never shielded us from anything, nightly news with Walter Cronkite was mandatory. Many nights we never ate together but the Civil Rights, Viet Nam war and political news was a mandatory event. I believe they wanted us to understand not just the present but the effect of wars and what the black community not only in the south but in America has been through, they were good straight ticket democrats and personally I think they would be made crazy by today’s political situation after having lived as teens in the Depression of the 30’s and the war right after it.
After I was discharged from the navy, a few months before my 21st birthday, I looked around at a country still in turmoil with the winding down of Viet Nam (no I am not a combat veteran, I was a deep water sailor on a small ship on the North Atlantic.) and Watergate. The Arab oil embargo effects were still being felt and I looked at going into one of the auto plants for a job but I just couldn’t force myself to do that. Nothing wrong with it, it was a great living for them that could stand the same thing day after day but being at sea ruined that part of me. On the day I turned 21 I stuck my thumb out and 8 or so hours later I was somewhere in central Illinois.
I had no plan but to see what there was in America. So for the next 4 years I just moved about, sometimes I would work in the fields for a few days and other times just walk whichever way I was headed. In the military I had seen most of the East Coast cities so I pretty much stayed away from them and it was not un-common to spend a few weeks just quietly camping in the tree line. I never had any expectation for any particular day but it was at that time in my life I was able to be alone with the spirit of our being. And I found out through pointed questioning of that spirit creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. One has to do some unbiased research into it but they are both in my belief structure true. The cosmos and all in it, included man was created many billions of years ago.
In ‘79 I came back to Detroit got married and divorced and had 2 children in between a very short marriage. They were still babies when my ex took them to a smaller town because she knew she didn’t want them to grow up in Detroit. I don’t blame her to be honest and she married again to a great guy who did a wonderful job raising the kids. But farm country just wasn’t for me, I knew there would be no way I could make a living so I let them go without to much problem and did my best to maintain some relationship with my darling children. I met my current wife in ’83 or so and we have been together ever since. It was a package deal and I inherited another son 3 months older than the one living in Farmville.
In the meantime I went to work for the city of Detroit and spent 20 years in four different departments, by far my favorite was the Art Department hanging art at the Detroit Institute of Art. That is one of the few places I can honestly say I was able to with the curators explanations get a fine education in the different schools of art and styles used. *shrug* 5 years and bad times hit and I had to go back to laboring in a fresh water plant. Eventually I finished up as a general auto mechanic when I blew out my L4-L5 disc and that was that. I was forced into a disability retirement. And two years later was in a roll over crash that broke my neck which stopped the idea of going back to work. That was 12 years ago, so since then I have been on a permanent week end.
So to end this question I was a blue collar working guy, I have never lived anywhere but Detroit permanently, never was a suburban type (not that there’s anything wrong with that) I have 3 kids 1 an engineer, 1 working on becoming an engineer, and my daughter who is an adrenaline junkie is an EMTS. My wife (commonly referred to as The Old Lady) and I have been together the better part of 30 years and even though we live on 25% of what I was making when I had a job I, believe all is pretty good for us personally. We are fortunate to have no debt, don’t mind driving beaters for cars and most of our neighbors actually, we get along with.
RZ: What made you want to write? Is it a desire that’s always been with you? Or was there some particular event or book that ignited the fire? Why poetry as opposed to prose?
MCD: I think that the poetry and the earlier wanderlust will have to be blamed on my grandmother. She was a wonderful woman who lived to 105. As soon as she could she left the farm outside of Ottawa and went to teachers college then moved four thousand miles away from home by herself to teach English in Calgary Alberta. It was still a cow town in 1907 and she stayed for 5 years before moving to Toronto. Once she married in her early 30’s she settled down and was content to be a housewife. She took care of me and my younger brother when I was between 3-6. She didn’t like children’s stories but in the afternoon while dinner was cooking and she had time to sit, she read poetry to me. I can’t claim that I understood it, but she knew how to read it and I loved the sound of her voice as she read. She introduced me to Dickinson, Frost, Guest, Sandburg and her other favorites. Once I was able to read for myself at about age 5 I always included some poetry in my choices among the comic books and other young adult books. Shel Silverstein wasn’t around yet but I was able by then to at least understand short works by the likes of Stephan Crane.
When I first started to put pen to paper at about age 14, spending hours writing a piece, I think it was to piss my father off. He thought I should be out playing football (fat kid, hold that line!) or baseball but like the factories later, that just wasn’t for me. I never followed sports, although I did like seeing Gordie Howe’s picture in the paper when he had dropped the gloves and was smiling with another tooth gone. To be honest I have rudimentary understanding of the rules of hockey but the rest of them…well the Old lady has to explain them to me if I sit and watch a game with her. She is the fan of the family.
Once I started writing though I never stopped, I like the solitude of writing and it is usually poetry that I write. Funny thing was when I returned from boot camp all of my journals had been burned and for once I did the right thing, kept my mouth shut. Just kept on writing but for the next thirty or so years I never kept any of it. I would write and drop it over the side for Poseidon to read and judge or just hit the circular file with it. A couple of times during that period some curious people would pay for my lunch as a trade for the napkin I was writing on. That was an interesting experience, but still when you are living out of a back pack you don’t waste space with pages of paper.
Now I have been keeping most everything I write because Michelle Brooks (Michelle’s spells—the only creative writing professor I ever had) said she would beat me if I threw any more writing away. So now I delete instead of throw away (just kidding Brooks). I don’t have this burning desire that will bust my gut to get published or anything so intense that I will go even more insane if I don’t write about it, but like Brooks taught me “There is poetry in everything.” I am just one of those fortunate souls who are able to see it.
I write prose, I just don’t often put out it out there. I have 6 or 7 completed novels that all need an editor’s hand and a few dozen essays and short stories. I am a poet though and it took me decades before I could say that about myself and become comfortable in those shoes. If one were to Google up “All I wanted was a little weed Mark C Durfee” they would come to Ivan Prokupchucks blog where he published that story. That is an example of my prose, a short memoir I wrote a few years back.
RZ: Writers always get asked about their influences. Consider this that question.
MCD: The easy answer would be who. I could run through a list of poets and writers that range from Yeats and Crane to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I have favorite contemporary poets and musicians that I listen to and honestly love their work but what influences me I think most is yesterday, and today. Situations and people that come to mind who are for the most part voiceless or lost, crowded out by life’s loud and arrogant people. I have been in that position and I never liked it, then a couple of decades ago I learned to not be afraid to speak so in my own way I am speaking for my younger self as well as others who may stumble upon some of my work and find they can be courageous if they find a way to lose their fears. That one thought drives me, fear kills and I want most people to live, that they may learn to love honestly and fearlessly.
RZ: Mark, much of your poetry has a clear sense of place about it, and that place is Detroit. What is it about Detroit that sets you off?
MCD: Although I have spent my life here I do not love Detroit. I have great respect for her but it just seems that it has become too easy for the rest of the nation to say “bulldoze Detroit” and that pisses me off. I am honest, brutally so in my poetry that is centered on this city. I am not afraid to tell the truth of Detroit today. But Detroit is so ugly it is beautiful in its own way, it redefines beauty while at the same time acts as a portrait of the way America herself could find itself in as short as another decade if we don’t set our minds united to solving the great divide that is happening right now nationally.
Detroit since the early 20th century has always been segregated, not as racially as it is now but ethnically. Everyone who came here from somewhere else for a job moved into neighborhoods that they made their own. The Irish one place, the Poles another, Hispanics another etc. and no one ever integrated anywhere but on the factory floors. But what I find odd is that this city was one of the true drivers of the middle class, that group that earned a living wage and had access to some small luxuries like college for the kids or a boat or summer cottage.
Now that the factories are mostly gone, decaying or torn down the population within the city for the most part still does not yet value education because for generations, an 8th grade education could get you a great job. Those families that did value education when it was affordable have moved on now so what we are left with is a class of people who are semi-literate, and struggling with a 25% unemployment rate, not able to help their kids with homework and stuck in place. I could leave but I keep asking myself where would I go that I could do more than where I am at right now. I tutor first graders in reading, I do open mic’s in the suburbs and the city and I mentor other writers who ask for the help.
I don’t see Detroit as a hopeless place but rather like one of those voiceless people I mentioned earlier and I have a blog and a voice and I try to use both to reach an audience to inform them that “hey we are still here, we are able to work but someone has to come and do something with this 75 square miles of vacant and abandoned land within the city limits.” I see a reason for hope in a hopeless place and I want to stick around long enough to see some real change created by the hands of the people who live here. I don’t know what form that change would take but we are not on any known fault lines, are not prone to hurricanes, flooding or tornadoes and don’t have particularly brutal winters. That seems to me to be a starting point for some companies to come in here and build big projects, nuclear plants, hydrogen plants or anything that needs people who know how to use their hands and heads when putting things together.
RZ: What, or who, inspires you?
MCD: I do not like the word god. It is too generic a word. Who inspires me is that being that squeezed all matter so tightly it exploded into a cosmos for us to be awed by. I am still inspired by stars dressed in a dark blue cloth of sky. After that knowing my own individuality and commonality with others inspires me to want to keep breathing for awhile yet, I don’t think I am ready to have the last page of my personal book written yet. But if so I at least know I have been kind and done all I could do while I was here. In short that point where the mortal touches the infinite is my greatest inspiration.
RZ: Are you working on anything currently? What’s next for you?
MCD: I am not physically setting anything down for publication right now. The Stink trilogy took me about two and a half years to write and edit so I am not quite ready yet to shift gears to another theme. But I am thinking on a book of the political poetry I have been writing off and on because I am one who is always ready to make known my thoughts on religion (mostly a decent place to start but a poor place to end) and politics, which since the Reagan era has run the train of America off the tracks that a greatly diverse nation should be on. I am also thinking of doing an anthology with another much younger poet, I love her work and it is just as honest and raw as my own usually is, but she has a greatly different perspective on life. Either way it would be 6 months or so before anything would be ready. But the beauty of self publication once it is done the rest moves pretty fast.
RZ: What work is available from you right now and where can readers find it? Is there a place online where folks could go to learn more about you and your work?
MCD: I self publish, even though all of the three previous books have a publisher listed to get an ISBN for them, but the only way to get the books you named in your intro is at email@example.com I do it this way because it keeps the cost down. If I went the conventional publishing route the books would be subject to editing I may not want and the price would be in the $15-$17 range. So far I have been able to sell each 80 page book for $10 US and that includes return postage to anywhere in the world. Generally I am not trying to make a great profit on these books but just to be heard and maybe in being heard help someone find their way out of a briar patch.
No one, including myself has written a Wikipedia page about me yet so the only way to learn more about me is to ask me. I write The Walking Man blog where I float quite a bit of my poetry.
Mark, thanks for visiting Razored Zen.
From the bottom of my being Charles, thank you. It is to me a great honor to appear here and get a chance to really think out again why I am and how I have come to be as I am. I truly appreciate your readers and find them not only to have a wonderful sense of humor but to truly be interested in the craft and art of writing.