Coffee Conversations with Dustin Pickering

Today’s Coffee Conversations installment: I discuss Troy Camplin’s new releases from World Inkers Printing and Publishing. Camplin is a multidisciplinary scholar with classical liberal views. In this installment, we discuss what he hopes readers will take away from his new poetry collections.

Dustin: I understand that you wrote the collections Words of Gratitude and Songs of Resentment before a recent spiritual transformation. Can you share some of the details of the experience? How do you feel about these collections before and after the experience? Are the books still important to you?

Troy: I’ve undergone a number of transformations over the years. In the past, they have been equivalent to entering the underworld and returning (as artists are wont to do) and ascending from the cave into the sunlight and returning (as philosophers, mimicking Plato’s Cave, are wont to do), but this one was different, even if in many ways I’ve been prepared for it by these previous transformations. You could kind of think of it as being transformations of the mind, soul, and spirit. Transformations of the mind give you philosophy; transformations of the soul give you poetry; transformations of the spirit give you religious enlightenment. Any one is typically more than enough for any one person. Why I have gotten all three is beyond me, but I do feel that I have an obligation to make use of those transformations. Intellectual pain brought me philosophy; emotional pain brought me poetry; physical pain brought me enlightenment. There’s a reason religions are full of tales of ascetics depriving themselves of food, companionship, and comfort in order to get enlightenment. However, there are also people who receive these things externally—by God, if you will (and I will)—and are thus brought to enlightenment.

Recently, I went through an emergency back surgery to remove cancer that had developed on one of my vertebra and was pressing against my spinal chord, causing both extreme pain in my back and increased incapacitation of my legs. During the surgery, I woke up. Wave after wave of excruciating pain ran through my back—but here was the strange thing: the experience I was having was as something I remembered having gone through before. I predicted exactly what not only I said, but what everyone in the room was going to say. But, in addition to all of this, I had my present I thinking about everything that was happening, observing it all. It was as though the experience was determined, but I still had a kind of free will dancing on top of it, observing it. The experience-as-memory went on for a while, until I reached a point where I remembered there being the long beep of the heart having stopped. I thoroughly expected that I was destined to die. Except… the experience continued past that memory—and the commenting I observed that I hadn’t died, that I had been given more time. That I had been given more time for a reason.

I have written scholarly work (philosophy), and I have written poetry, plays, and prose fiction (poetry), and now I have been given the additional task of writing more spiritual works. These can—and likely will—take the form of poetry and be informed by philosophy. It’s never been about replacement, but about synthesis. The tensions to date for me have been between poetry and philosophy, but now there will be a spiritual element added. At least, a more explicit one. I can certainly point to any number of poems that feel out spiritual positions, but I suspect that something more will be coming in the near future.

For me, all works are of their time and should be respected as representing the artist as they were at that given time in their lives. I’m pleased with these two collections, but equally, I’m not looking back at them, either. They are definitely important to me, though any future investigations of these topics (I mean, they’re obviously main themes in my poetry) will likely take on more spiritual dimensions. Thus, they are definitely important to me as a chronicle of who I have been and as foundational to who I’ll become.

Dustin: The books are dual expressions with social intentions. What do you hope readers will take home from reading them?

Troy: I am hoping that people will think about the consequences of gratitude and resentment, both for themselves personally and for society as a whole. The degree to which you favor gratitude or resentment affects your world view and your politics. Feelings of resentment toward others is often the source of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and other kinds of hatred, including toward those who are materially better off than you. While resentment is certainly a natural reaction to perceived injustices, if we allow resentment to overtake us, it becomes a poison. We shouldn’t allow a momentary feeling come to dominate our soul. Songs of Resentment does express some feelings of resentment, but there are many poems that problematize resentment as well.

The solution to resentment is gratitude. When we focus not on the personal affronts and injustices and instead focus on what we are grateful for, the world becomes a better, more benevolent place. When we are so focused on the fact that we don’t have billions like Jeff Bezos, we ignore the fact that we in fact are living quite wonderful lives. Unlike most people throughout most of human history, we have electricity and clean running water, these amazing objects called smart phones with which we can do and access almost anything, a roof over our head, clothes, food, etc. We should feel gratitude toward our families and friends and other relations. We should feel gratitude for having jobs—even if we don’t like our jobs and are looking for another, we at least have one to keep us fed, etc. while we look. Too often, we are too busy feeling resentment about things not being perfect that we fail to realize how good we actually do have it the overwhelming majority of the time.

Dustin: How does a person adjust to resentment of personal and political natures? We all suffer jealousy and frustration. How do we overcome them?

Troy: As I suggest above, the solution to resentment is gratitude. Feelings of resentment are easy enough to feel, but gratitude is a feeling we have to work on having. It requires us to actively think about what we’re grateful for, to list them, and to do these things every day in order to create a habit. Virtues almost always have to be developed and worked on, while vices are all too easy to fall into. As Hamlet tells his mother, if you don’t have a virtue, act as though you do until, through habit, you develop the virtue. That’s what is needed to reduce resentment in your life and develop greater gratitude.

Of course, I can imagine all sorts of people objecting that without resentment, we will simply allow injustices to occur. Nothing could be further from the truth. The initial feeling of gratitude may direct our attention toward a perceived injustice, but feelings of gratitude moderate those initial feelings such that your feelings better match reality. One should feel resentment toward racism in the contemporary world—but those who say that racism is as bad as it’s ever been have allowed their resentment to blind them to the realities of how much the world has in fact improved in this area. The danger of failing to acknowledge the reduction of racial injustice in our culture, for example, is that since one cannot make large leaps in erasing injustices (as we did during the Civil Rights Era), demands for fostering injustices against the majority race (or races) will start to increase. This is no doubt one of the reasons anti-Semitism is on the rise. Indeed, anti-Semitism is rooted in resentment for a group of people who have historically done quite well for themselves and made major contributions to the world, when we ought to in fact express great gratitude for all these have done for us. One could certainly do the same things with each and every race. Much white racism against blacks is rooted in the fact that, after slavery, started to rapidly climb out of abject poverty, while poor whites remained exactly where they were, economically. This is why Jim Crow laws came about, so poor whites could continue to pretend they were better than former slaves. All of this is, of course, grown out of resentment. There are perhaps few feelings more important to overcome than resentment.

Dustin: Tell me about the opening poem you share at the beginning of each book. What relevance does it have for you?

Troy: I share the same poem at the beginning of each collection: “Creating the Real.”

“You’re just not living in reality.”
In what reality? In whose? The real
That others make, or one that makes me free,
Creator of the world. The things you feel
Create reality for you, and mine
For me, to make the real emerge between
Us, be it terrible or be it fine.
To see the world in gratitude and hope—
To see it in resentment and in fear—
The one you choose is how you choose to cope,
It’s how you see and taste and feel and hear.
Within the real, there’s taking and there’s giving—
You choose the human life that you are living.

In this poem, I am proposing that “the real” –at least, in the social sense—is interpreted through our world views. That is, if we interpret the world through resentment, it will look quite different than if we interpret the world through gratitude. For one to complain that the other isn’t “living in reality” is really to complain that the person isn’t viewing the world through the same lens as us. Now, are there better or worse lenses? Of course. I make the argument that gratitude is a better lens than resentment, even though a healthy balance is likely even better. Remember that on the one hand, resentment can draw our attention to real injustices, whether personal or social, but that it can also lead to group hatred and destructive politics. To keep it tuned in to bringing true injustices to our attention, we have to always moderate it with gratitude. Either way, it’s our social interactions which create reality. Which reality do you want?  One driven by widespread resentment, leading to increased injustices in the name of opposing injustices? Or one driven by gratitude and hope for the future? Which feeling will lead you to treating others better? Which feeling do you want others to feel toward you? (And, in regards to this last question, what are you doing to ensure it’s gratitude people feel toward you?)

Dustin: Over the years I have had mentors in my writing experience, both personal and impersonal in the form of others writers. Who are some key people you’d like to share gratitude with in conclusion?

Troy: I have two poems in which I mention Frederick Turner—one is in fact about him, personally. Certainly, I feel a great deal of gratitude toward him for influencing and inspiring me toward the use of formalism, which I think has greatly benefited my poetry writing. I also had an undergraduate writing professor at Western Kentucky University who told me, after I turned in a poem instead of my usual short story, that he thought that, perhaps, I was really a poet. At the time, the last thing I was interested in was poetry. I wanted to write fiction. But his saying that made me think about the possibility that I was in fact “really a poet.” This sent me down a new path that has also greatly influenced my fiction. After all, I have managed to weave poetry into a great deal of my fiction, especially in my novel manuscripts and plays. Most of my plays are written in verse, and poems are central to the story of my short novel Hear the Screams of the Butterfly, as well as a novel manuscript I have finished and another I have been working on. Finally, I would certainly have to express gratitude toward Dustin Pickering for believing in my poetry and in my aforementioned novel enough to publish them.

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