Special Feature: David Cowen, Writer and Photographer
I want to welcome David Cowen today. I first saw his photographs a month or so ago maybe and was quite taken with his work. Here’s an interview and more with David.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what inspires your photographs?
A: Angle and mood are everything in a photograph. With modern digital wizardry, mediocre color photographs can become a canvass of so-called “noir” photography. Even so, a digitally altered photograph of a trash can is still a trash can. The object itself is only artistic if it is presented with the angle and mood that elevates the trash can into something greater.
I work in Galveston, Texas which has a plethora of subjects to inspire shots. There are so many historic homes, restored and unrestored, to shoot. The Old City Cemetery is a wonderful canvass as well. All these houses and buildings have unique windows with old curved or wavy glass. They reflect alternative worlds in the blurred and bent bends of light pasted on their surfaces. You can’t help but look around and think of angles and “quality shots” when walking or driving through the Island.
I also like macro photography but it takes a lot more practice to get the proper focus and depth of field. My favorite is a photograph of a dried leaf covered with droplets which magnified the veins of the dead leaf. I really liked that one.
Q: Do you have a process with your photography?
A: I make no claim to being a good photographer; only one who tries to capture everyday objects at the right time and angle to set a mood for the eye. Cemeteries seem like obvious subjects, but they are easy to do poorly. If you have ever tried to “shoot the moon” with a lens, you quickly find out that the beautiful harvest moon is often an illusion of the eye. Once photographed, the moon can become the same gray rock perpetually hanging over our heads. Cemeteries are the same. Often the granite or marble is bleached with weather stains that can easily wash out in the sun. You have to get your settings to handle the light. A thick fog can easily come out like a bleached sheet. Then you have to carefully choose your angle before you shoot, picturing the mood.
I have two favorite times to shoot the Old City Cemetery on Galveston Island. The first is the Fall when heavy fog rolls in the mornings. The fog is very thick and creates a gray paste over the stones. With the proper angle and depth of field, you can create wonderful scenes, hinting of ghosts or memories lingering in the smoky fields of obelisks and angels. One angel in the yard is even cracked so that water has flowed over the years giving the appearance of aged tears. Once you have the photo on your computer, then it is the age old art of cropping and digitally mixing filters to create the perfect shot. However, if you did not get the angle right to begin with, you have nothing more than an uninteresting block of white stone.
The other time is in late Spring when the yard is seeded with brilliant red and yellow wildflowers. The emergence of life in the field of the dead is very striking. Again, the angle and focus are everything. This requires getting down low and shooting from just above the blooms. Other angles center on the smaller stones such as in the children’s area. The blooms rival the stones for space on the photograph. Again, with the right angle, the mood is created and you can filter as you desire to create the final print.
Q: Where are you published, and where can we buy your books, stories, etc?
A: My fiction is still in gestation; that is, a work in progress. Time will tell if it truly develops. However in other areas I have published extensively. I am a published poet and author of a volume of poetry entitled Sixth and Adams (2001) by PoetWorks Press, an unfortunately now defunct independent press. My poems have been published in various hard copy and online journals for the past many years including those published by George Mason University, Stephen F. Austin University, Sam Houston State University and many privately published journals as well including in England, Canada and Australia. My poetry was featured in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Radio radio journal “Outfront” in a 2005 tribute on 9/11. This April, Thisibelieve.org published an essay of mine in its collection “On Motherhood” currently available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.
Three short scholarly articles on the subject of zombie films written by me will appear in June Pulliam’s “The Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth” to be published later this year by ABC CLIO publishing. Earlier this year CineAction Magazine, Canada’s leading film journal, published my essay review of Danel Olson’s The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film published earlier this year by Centipede Press. That issue is still available.
Q: Why do you write in the Gothic genre?
A: In the past I have focused on poetry and tended to weigh heavy on imagistic realism. Once in a while I would stray into more speculative genres in the poetry. Due to work constraints I did not try my hand at much fiction since I first got out of college and law school when I wrote two very short novels – one a gothic/science fiction apocalypse piece and the other a more dramatic book relating to growing up in Brownsville, Texas.
Over the past few years, I have begun to focus more on fiction, especially speculative and gothic fiction. Danel Olson is a good friend of mine. He is the editor of the Exotic Gothic series by Ash Tree Press and now PS Press in England. Several of his anthologies have been nominated for Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Conference Awards. He intrigued me with sabbaticals to Romania to study the heart of Gothic roots and we started to exchange ideas. I assisted him with some legal issues relating to his publications and he has encouraged me to branch out from the graphic realism of my poetry into Gothic literature and poetry. He helped me with early drafts of work and encouraged me to continue with it. I have a number of pieces in the submission process so we’ll see whether I can successfully add fiction to my accomplishments.
Q: What is your writing process?
A: For poetry I typically write when “inspired.” Something triggers a sequence of words in my head. It may be watching a string of gulls floating alongside the container trucks on the Galveston causeway. It may be as simple as two glasses clinking together. These things, like seeing the perfect angle for a photograph, trigger emotion and thought. Sometimes it’s a phrase and a poem seems to wrap around it. It is not unusual for me to start with one idea, triggered from some rekindled memory, and have it evolve.
A lot of people read a poem and assume the narrator is the poet and the poem is about the poet. But a poet, while being true to the art, is not obligated to tell the reader the truth about an event. The term “poetic license” was invented for a reason. The poem, even if short is a story. My stories are aimed at evoking emotional response.
Fiction comes differently. Ideas will swirl in my head for short stories, but due to time I often have to file them away. Unlike poetry which I can compose in my head and write down after, fiction has to be developed into a framework before my fingers hit the keyboard. I don’t have to know the ending when I start – which many writers will disagree with – but I do have to have the basic framework sketched out in my mind or on paper. I can write a short, short story in an afternoon, but it will take a long time to make it satisfy myself that it is something I think others will want to read.
Q: Do you find writing poetry very different from writing fiction?
A: Yes. A poem is a tissue slice on a slide. The poem has to convey enough to bring the reader to the experience of the images and words and emotion; but, even if telling a story, the poem cannot delve into the detail of a novel or even short story. A poem can be inspired by a split second; a sound, a smell, an image. The words can form in my head and over a day or so be completely gelled. Once on paper (digital or real) I can massage the effort and then declare myself done. Fiction is planning a wedding. You can’t rush it; you have to remember the small stuff and you can’t forget the party favors. It’s a lot more work to do it right.
There can be no excess words in a poem. Some publishers may push authors to add hundreds of pages of text in order to make a thicker novel. You can’t do that with a poem.
Converse, fiction can be poetic, but it has to draw in a reader for an extended period. You cannot do that without giving the reader a reason to stay a while in the pages. The fiction writer is not asking the reader for a drive-by commitment. You want the reader to come into your book, hang his or her coat in the closet and stay for dinner. You can’t do that with a style that doesn’t keep the reader interested and engaged. The reader can easily re-read a ten or twenty line poem, allowing the meaning to piece together as they do.
When William Blatty finished the draft of The Exorcist, he told his publisher that he wanted to go back and add another 100 pages to the book. The publisher balked telling Blatty that he just couldn’t do that to the reader after all he put them through. You can hit in the gut with a poem, but you can’t captivate the reader for weeks at a time with a poem like you can with fiction. When someone finishes a novel, you have taken part of their lives from them; fiction has to give them something equally worthwhile in exchange.
Q: Where do you see your writing/photography going in the next few years?
A: My intent is to branch out further in my fiction. I am not going to quit the day job; a very demanding and time consuming day job. Instead I will focus on trying to produce short to medium works of fiction along with whatever poetry I write along the way. I also intend to continue with the more scholarly avenues regarding speculative and gothic films that I have been enjoying some success with lately.
The poet William Carlos Williams was both a practicing family physician and one of the most famous American imagistic poets of his time. I consider him an inspiration and aspiration; even if attempting to achieve these possibly schizophrenic outlets is a tall order. My photography goes hand in hand. I often will try to compose poetic pieces centered on photographs. I hope to continue to explore that.
Q: You have mentioned a bit about this, but how has your career as a trial attorney informed your writing?
A: One element of the practice of law that movies and television do not focus on is the fact that an attorney is someone who is usually called in by someone to undo or fix a contractual or emotional mess. Most people think they don’t need attorneys or think know the law well enough to take care of themselves. When this proves to be fallacious they go to an attorney with the expectation that this stranger will make things right because that’s what justice is all about. Justice, however, is more of a process than a result. You get your “day in court” if you want, but there is absolutely no guarantee, no matter who you hire, that you will like the outcome.
The attorney’s mindset, then, is to have to look at people with a slanted and skeptical eye. While most people want to take those they meet at face value, the attorney does not have that luxury. We have to assess what we are told; testing it and even prodding it. Lawyers do not make facts, but they do argue from them. A simple gesture can be characterized as malevolent or charitable depending on the side you are on.
When you are trained to do this, you can’t help but have that infect what you write. My training as an attorney, coupled with growing up in a very large and extremely poor family, has stripped away the rose from my lenses. I tend to see things in harsh tones. I tend to like the appearance of an old house on a gray day than on a sunny one. Anything new and shiny seems pompous; a façade that will quickly fade. Existence is not accompanied with a sappy soundtrack. I view humanity as a mass loneliness trying to find ways to connect. No matter how we are loved or whom we love, at the end of the day, it is our solitary thoughts that take us into sleep. It is our singular dreams that guide us in sleep and wake us in a start. No one else can invade those walls. As an attorney, I see this struggle and often feel the weight of trying to help others who have been unable to sort out their own lives or have others attempt to undo them.
Q: Why are these photos your favorite of the Gothic ones you’ve taken?
A: Its’ the overall mood and effect; like a good crisp poem. This photo for example is a favorite:
The two sculptures are unrelated, but when taken at this angle, with a hint of a vignette border, there is the illusion that the stones are moving. The angel in the rear appears to be following the mother and child, but why? – to bring death? for protection? Are they simply stragglers in a procession of the lost; or are they warming up for the danse macabre? The viewer gets to decide. The way the statue of the mother clings to the child and the weathering of her face present a dolor that was very moving to me.
The photo of the small angel is from the children’s area of the cemetery. It depicts a praying angel; again heavily weathered. When people bury small children, some place these cherubs to reflect the age of the lost child. The smallness and the weathering strike me as sad on an almost ethereal level.
I like the raven photo because, well, who doesn’t love Poe and his Raven poem.
The photo of a number of stones standing actually inspired a poem I called Spring Cleaning. It is very short:
In this field of granite
Once you bounced me
on a bony knee
and I complained
Now my knees complain
sinking in the spring soaked sod
from your hair.
The poem, like the photos, is a complete image. An entire life and loss is reflected in those few lines.
The Old Cemetery has weathered many disasters and floods over the past 150 years. Many of the stones are broken as well as weathered. Several of these, like the ones I have sent to you are so striking to me. The dissolving and crumbling stone makes even the seeming permanence of death appear transitory. I especially like the economy of the statue with the broken head. No use replacing it when it makes a handy flower pot.
Two are of the Virgin Mary in distinct poses; one like a spectre and another like a saddened mother. I liked the mood and the shadows; like the one of the dark cross set in front of the oblivion of the thick fog.
The Old Cemetery has a number of crypts that have not faired well. Often the doors to the chambers are broken or unhinged. Hurricane Ike, which hit in 2008, broke several of them. I like to fancy these as perhaps the escape of the souls from this Purgatory Yard as I call it in the album, which of course I hope to someday translate into a book.
David’s Bio: besides being a trial attorney by trade I am a published poet and author of a volume of poetry entitled Sixth and Adams (2001). My poems have been published in various hard copy and online journals for the past many years including those published by George Mason University, Stephen F. Austin University, Sam Houston State University and many privately published journals as well including in England, Canada and Australia.
My poetry was featured in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Radio radio journal “Outfront” in a 2005 tribute on 9/11. This April, Thisibelieve.org just published an essay of mine in its collection “On Motherhood” currently available in bookstores.
I have just completed a picaresque gothic novel entitled The Goth Sabbatical which is in the submission process and a novellette called “the zombie appeal” satirizing the potential civil rights ramifications of the movie depictions of armed citizens attacking infected zombies (I have handled civil rights cases in my practice, so the concept of zombie rights is sort of compelling. If zombies are diseased, you can’t just shoot people for being sick or different can you? No one could go into the Special Olympics with guns blazing just because they didn’t like the participants. Of course, with zombies and zombie apocalypse, if you don’t do something the problem does get bigger.)
Also, three short scholarly articles on the subject of zombie films written by me will appear in June Pulliam’s “The Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth” to be published later this year by ABC CLIO publishing. Earlier this year CineAction Magazine, Canada’s leading film journal, published my essay review of Danel Olson’s The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film published earlier this year by Centipede Press. I am currently the Vice President of the Gulf Coast Poetry Society based in the Clear Lake Area of Houston. I have lived in Houston since 1984 with my wife and family. I have helped Danel with some legal issues on his Exotic Gothic series and he has given me credit in each volume for my assistance and encouragement.
As to the photos, after shooting them I started on a novella trying to see if I could make a picture book of some sort using them with a story of a man who finds himself attached to the cemetery after a very long life of wealth but no love; drawing an analogy of the lack of love and the quest to find love (not romantic but more of sharing and giving type) as the path out of his own purgatory. The man would be very loosely based on some of the more colorful local characters who struck it rich in the 19th century in Galveston. It’s still a work in progress.
David’s photos on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2441142275763.2108222.1467996600&type=3