*Editor's note: This conversation between myself and Mr. Dust covered a lot of ground. I could cut it down, but I'd rather leave as much in as possible. Before we got to the meat, Eddie said to me, "I ain't one for leaving my skeletons in my closet… there are a fuckload of other males going through that same Hell. Maybe something we dig up between us can help." So this one will be posted in two parts. I've cut a little bit out, moved around a few paragraphs, but this is pretty much all of it.
E. Mersereau: So Eddie, you've performed remarkably well during your undergrad at UNB, but this is not your first degree. What's been different about this go around?
E. Dust: Jesus, what isn’t...?
The first time through, I really was just using university as a way of avoiding the so-called “real world”. Due to my undiagnosed bipolar 2 and PTSD from an extremely abusive childhood (what a fucking combo…) I couldn’t much function outside of academia. But simultaneously due to my issues I couldn’t really effectively attend class. My grades were either As or Fs (due to incompletion). Took me 7 fucking years to get a 3 year general Arts degree.
This second time around I know what I want. I want my PhD in English. I want to be a writer - theatre, screenplays, poetry, short stories, novels, goddamned greeting cards and bathroom stall graffiti… to quote Lennon: “You give me a fucking tuba, I’ll get something out of it.” (NB: Lennon was a sleazy misogynist and I think he was a douchebag) I’m not here avoiding life; I’m here to hone my skills so I can better participate in life.
Partly I’m older (43), and that takes away a lot of pressures. Profs give me leeway they wouldn’t necessarily give a younger student. And I’m not intimidated by professors at all, which makes it very easy to get to know them as people. And no matter how stressful school gets, I’ve been through way, way worse.
All that said I nearly fucked the whole thing up. When my cat Monkey died last September (for a cat he was a klutz, hence the name) I totally fell apart. I missed almost two weeks of classes. Thankfully I out-and-out told my profs what was wrong. They gave me extensions, notes, whatever I needed. They directed me to counselling services at the University of New Brunswick and there I got my diagnoses and my lithium prescription. Two profs even offered to walk me there. Since then my moods have been much more stable.
Once the wreckage of my traitor brain got swept away, I was able to finally function for relatively long stretches of time. Once mountains now molehills, I suppose.
Think of it this way - let’s say you spent your whole life wearing heavy weights on your limbs. Then one day the weights come off. How fucking strong are you now that you are no longer held down?
Ultimately though, I have to say it’s because of the human connections I’ve made. The professors of the UNB English department are absolutely above and beyond. They saw to it I got the help I needed. The university made sure I was taken care of. The resources were available to me. And the friends that I made here accepted me for who I was (Aside: I really like Gen Z - they’re anxious as fuck, sure, and often socially awkward, but they have far more compassion and acceptance than any generation before them. Those I know are socially aware and political AF. They’re pessimistic but not cynical. That’s an impressive combo).
All that I had going for me is in truth a sign of unbelievable luck, when you think about it. Were I an American I’d probably have shot myself decades ago… makes the soul curdle to think of all those who don’t have access to the kind of compassion, understanding, and mental health resources I do, don’t it?
E. Mersereau: I'll tell you what though about Gen Z: I'm four years older than this year's grad class and even that difference really shows. The kids I grew up with- we were cynical. I had to learn this compassion thing from the people I met in uni. You're right though, they're a good bunch. They call BS and demand better in the places that count, and they accept someone's shit because they're dying to scream about their own.
You ever listen to A Perfect Circle? They did a cover album like 15 years ago with this funeral-march version of "Imagine" on track 2. I always thought it was a more honest take on Lennon.
E. Dust: I know A Perfect Circle well. I’ve been a fan of Maynard since Opiate. “Judith” and “3 Libras” are probably my favourite of APC. As for Tool, Jesus… probably “Prison Sex” is the song I come back to most, although “Bottom” and “4 Degrees” both hold a lot of love in my heart. There’s too much to choose from but mostly I like their angrier stuff. Someone described listening to Tool as falling down a rabbit hole and I have to agree. I met a guy who went to one of their concerts. I wanted to eat his eyes and ears in the hopes I might absorb what he saw and heard.
E. Mersereau: First time I really listened to Mer de Noms I was on the city bus for my morning commute. "Judith" hit and I immediately knew public was not the right place to hear that the first time because it was just so much and I had to keep everything I was feeling locked in. As much as I love that album, I'm more about Thirteenth Step. MJK does things with his mouth on that album (like the way he says "Dig into the" on "Weak and Powerless") that have stayed burned into me like a memory you can't lock. But it's the ambiance that I keep returning for.
Anyway, I get your weights analogy. I've had depression for a decade now and I finally got it squared away with the right drugs and people.
E. Dust: Depression is a total bitch. I liken bipolar, bipolar 2, and depression to heaven and Hell. When you’re bipolar 1, you go all the way into heaven, and all the way into Hell, though BP1 don’t spend much time in perdition compared to the others. They get to talk to god. Hallucinations are extremely common. Lots and lots of the homeless are bipolar 1. Bipolar 2, you get to visit the parking lot of heaven. You get to have a huge party like the parking lot at the Super Bowl. It’s fun times but you don’t see angels. You don’t get to go past the pearly gates, but you can still hear the music coming from within. You can see a little through the bars.
Depressives never get to see heaven. But you sure know Hell.
Bipolar 2s spend about 50% of our time with you, in Hell. We’re 15x more likely to kill ourselves than the general population. When you’re really, really depressed, you don’t even have the energy to die. When you’re both manic and depressed (called a mixed state) you have the energy, the drive, and the desire to kill yourself. So it’s very, very dangerous to be bipolar. Bipolar 1s have it the worst of us all, in truth - they go totally pie-in-the-sky manic and leave a trail of wreckage behind them - sexual promiscuity and extreme risk-taking is part of mania. And a depressive episode often follows the mania.
At least the mania is awesome.
I don’t envy you your depression. I go up and down like a motherfucker but I at least go way up. When you’re hypomanic, you’re Odysseus and Achilles combined.
While I don’t get those highs anymore, I still go higher than most people. And I still go low, but compared to the suicidal days, it’s a goddamned breeze. I don’t mind a winding road, so long as there’s rails. Plus I know it’ll end.
But depression eats you up. It’s pure exhaustion. It’s a feeding leech. And it doesn’t necessarily end this side of the shovel.
As a fun aside, the etymology of “happy” is telling. It comes from the word “hap” which means “lucky”. I don’t need to explain that, do I.
E. Mersereau: I'll give you a taste of a depressive's heaven: other people - the moments where you can totally share yourself with someone else. Not in a romantic or sexual sense - though those are fulfilling for their own reasons, some related - but a moment when you can be fully present with company, make them laugh, give yourself fully to what they're saying and doing without having to make an effort, without it being a heavy moment. Maybe just making a lousy meal together with the best intentions in the cabinet, or riffing back and forth on each other's nonsense. Being alone and not fucked up is bliss, but being with others like you've never been fucked up is heaven. Living, and being exhausted from it - emptied instead of empty: that's a depressive's heaven. Or at least it's mine, because it's in spite of condition but not absent from it; it requires a break from the isolation. The condition doesn't bring you into heaven like mania, but it makes even a sample euphoric. So no, you really don't need to explain "hap."
E. Dust: I definitely agree - it’s our interconnectedness that keeps life worth living. It’s isolation that leads to a broken soul. Life really is about other people. Sartre was only half-right when he said Hell is other people. So’s heaven. So’s everything.
Doesn’t that make “the pursuit of happiness” a dumb idea? You’re pursuing something only achievable by luck! Go for fulfillment. Happiness is only going to get you killed when you realize it doesn’t actually exist outside of the past. You can only have been happy.
E. Mersereau: As it turns out, yeah, I've just been thinking about the pursuit of happiness. I was seeing a counselling therapist to help clear some shit recently, and she told me on our first meeting, "So I don't usually suggest this but have you ever read any Slavoj Žižek?" I don't know if it was my unkempt beard or what, but I don't know what about me says "I bet that guy has read structural theory or could highly benefit from it." Anyway she sent me home with a prescription for Violence, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, and some Youtube links including his 2-minute appeal to being interesting instead of happy. Factor in this root of luck in happiness and yes, I can definitely see happiness as something absurd.
E. Dust: I’ll check out Slavoj Žižek - I’m always looking for something to read.
I don’t think I’ve ever been happy. But I’ve certainly felt fulfilled, and that beats even bliss any day.
In my rarely humbly expressed opinion - whatever your current or past goals, pursuing them solely for the hope of happiness I think has dangerous potential to totally blow up in your face. You might achieve your goals and find you’re no happier. God knows I’ve found that out the hard way, over and over and over some more.
Look at all the famous people who still kill themselves. Heath Ledger was at the absolute pinnacle of his career. Famous beyond understanding. Handsome, talented, beloved.
Still killed himself.
There’s things our society has either failed or refused to acknowledge - that materialism and ladder climbing is an unfulfilling, Sisyphean existence. That the zero-sum game is a pile of divisive, hateful bullshit. That our society is a hoarder’s society. You look at stores overflowing with perishable merchandise… you look at how much we throw out… you look at the depression and anxiety rates, which are soaring even as life gets supposedly better with every passing decade, even in the face of constant growth… it's like some malignant tumor of which we’ve grown fond… and all of this nonsense is predicated on the idea that that sweet, sexy jacket coming out this fall is going to make you happy or act as a lure to snag a bit of happiness on your hook.
And it’s all horse shit.
Although it is a really nice jacket...
We’re definitely missing some kind of soul work. Religion just isn’t doing it anymore - too many questions, too many unanswered, too little evidence, too many monsters locked up in priestly frocks instead of prison cells. There’s some nebulous amalgamation of one’s thoughts and beliefs and experiences I think of as a soul - the essence of a person so to speak. That thing, whatever it is, needs exploration and we have no trustworthy guides. Where’s a reliable psychopomp, for fuck’s sake! Where’s my boatman Charon?!
There isn’t one. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing and no god is out there looking after us from above. Alan Moore put it best: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” Conspiracy theorists and the religious - same thing. Both invent these preposterous hierarchies to give some meaning to a meaningless existence. What’s the difference between The Illuminati running the world and an all-powerful god fighting a hidden war against his own treacherous angels with human souls as the ultimate prize? The Illuminati makes slightly more sense.
I do want to point out that I think Jesus is a pretty badass character - like Superman with a humbler skillset. And if a person said they wanted to act like Jesus, not because they believed in a heaven whose property you purchase via good deeds, but because Jesus was a good guy and had a lot of good ideas. I’d support that any day. An atheist christian, basically. Then you could actually apply logic to the Bible. “If Jesus said love, charity, acceptance, and compassion, then the whole of Leviticus should probably be completely ignored.” An eyes-wide-open christian. I’d have a lot of respect for such a person. But it seems more tribal than anything to me, religion.
But I have no great wisdom to offer. When it comes to wisdom I’m my own refutation. There’s no book I can recommend, no self-help guru I trust or respect. I’m just as lost as everyone else.
All I can say with certitude is what Blue Rodeo sang better: “And if we’re lost / then we are lost together”. Pretty sure that fulfills our Canadian content quota.
E. Mersereau: It's all CanCon all the time on this website; the CRTC ain't got shit on us. We've more than earned a few international hits, but my mom will really appreciate the Blue Rodeo - that's her favorite band.
How'd you figure out you wanted a PhD? That's not a decision someone just kinda comes to, is it?
E. Dust: I dunno. I guess I know that I can’t get by in the real world. I ain’t a muggle, which means I have a choice between art and academia. The PhD covers all bases. Plus UNB now offers an expedited PhD program for Creative Writing. I’ve got the grades and am working on the accolades to qualify.
It’s a funny balance, though. Think of it this way: an artist requires celebrity and an academic requires reputation. One gains celebrity by doing shit like this - honest, uncultivated interviews, risk-taking… you rip out your heart and hold it high before the world. Anything less than the risk of death and you’ll wither beneath livelier vines. One gains reputation by NOT doing shit this way, but rather through careful, articulate responses and deliberate, well-considered academic contributions. One does not rock the boat; one reinforces it.
When you’re sloppy and let’s say emotionally clumsy as I am, celebrity is the easier of the two. It’s a quandary. Thankfully academia is something of its own solution - eccentricity, so long as it’s harmless and great to talk about at parties, is an asset. No one wants a writer in residence who’s boring, nor do they want one who is going to be featured in the Opinions section of the Washington Post. Unless it’s as an article. And it’s well received.
E. Mersereau: What are these other accolades you're working on?
E. Dust: For my own trajectory, the Direct Entry PhD program at UNB allows you to skip the master’s and go straight to the PhD. It requires a 4.0 minimum GPA and basically whatever else you can show that makes you competitive - for me that’s trying to win awards for my work. So far I’ve got the marks and I've won the Angela Auden Levine Memorial Book Award - it’s a UNB-specific creativity award. I think I won it due to a TV pilot I wrote, "Crisis, Inc." I’m hoping to pitch the series to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but getting access to someone to pitch to is a miserable ordeal. There’s too much competition for too little attention.
I think all writers need to more seriously consider working in TV format. The visual mediums have always been the most popular - Shakespeare wrote mainly plays, after all, and those are what people return to most. While there’s no real room for creativity in movies right now (at least in Hollywood - there are amazing things being done overseas), there’s loads of room for really interesting premises in Netflix and Amazon. It’s also a good paycheque if you can get steady work. While poetry is my passion at present (as is, apparently, alliteration), it don't earn squat. It’s the interpretive jazz bar you keep losing money on, but you fucking love interpretive jazz for some disturbed and hermetic reason so you work three jobs just to keep the joint alive.
E. Mersereau: You've said of your writing that you want your readers "to weep like Alexander," and for professors to teach your poems. Now that comes from a context of something like you've died and there will never be another Eddie Dust release, but I'm wondering what it is specifically you want to leave people with. Is this a general goal for your writing career, or is there a thing - a message, an arc, a realization of subtext, a destructive climax, a moment, etc. - that you want to drop on a reader?
E. Dust: That’s a complicated question.
I don’t have a specific agenda except to create. I want to wear both masks, so to speak. Comedy, tragedy, action, introspection, surrealism, I’ll try anything. I’m no guru and I’m not an advocate. I’m just a writer. I love wordplay and I love the variety and precision of English. It can be either beautiful or blunt or biblical. I think too few poets care about alliteration and rhyme. That shit can be devastating. I am always drawn to “Carrion Comfort” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s an overflowing sink of alliteration and sound work. All that said I don’t want to churn out a bunch of forgettable bullshit that is popular in the moment.
If anyone remembers me, I want them to be inspired by me and not repulsed by me.
I guess if I had to push some kind of agenda it would be that there are many ways to be a polar man [I refuse the term “cis” - it sounds like cyst, and seriously, fuck that. Heteronormative is a goddamned mouthful. I like polar - it accepts the idea that sexuality is a spectrum and not an X or Y statement and is pretty clear that I mean heterosexual without being disparaging (I don’t like “straight” because the opposite is “crooked”, for example) I will say that I’m willing to hear any arguments one way or another - people forget that English is a living language and that these debates over what words to use are signs of a healthy and vibrant language].
Hemingway isn’t the only way to be tough, nor is he the best interpretation of the strong, stoic male. I think a lot of young men and boys are desperate for a healthy, masculine role model. I don’t imagine myself anyone’s role model, holy shit, no! But I’d like to be able to at least offer the world an alternative form of tough guy - something that doesn’t involve misogyny or destruction or conquest. Yes I’m big, I’m bald, I’m tough, and I’m scarred. But I also raise orchids and write love poems.
Consider Hugh Jackman. He was Wolverine. But he also sang musical numbers. That’s a much more versatile way of being a tough guy than has been allowed in the past. I want to expand on that with my own interpretation of healthy masculinity.
Assuming I’m healthy.
And you know what they say about ”assume"...
Continued in Part 2
As the ACPA Editors, we wish to keep you up to date with new entries and exciting poetry news.