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Undertow: Interview with Chad Curtis Rose

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KGB is always eager to promote emerging writers with interesting new works that push the “creative envelope.” As such we are excited to point the spotlight on Chad Curtis Rose, a talented, published poet who recently finished a challenging, soul-searching memoir.  ‘Undertow’ is a harrowing thrill-ride, a taught and tense revealing of the author’s personal battle to overcome Bipolar Disorder, an abuse-riddled childhood, addiction and, eventually, incarceration and solitary confinement.  The book also breaks new ground in form, artfully mixing metaphor-rich poetry with blunt narrative, taking readers on a memorable journey into the experience of the human psyche in crisis.  But there are many light moments.  Undertow is filled with humor, wry observations on an America in flux, and an ending that will make you root for this author to keep up the fight…and write more. 

In a gritty give and take, we asked CCR to share with us his feelings on the book and the writing life. 

Q:  It is very difficult to write honestly about one’s own life, particularly when the memories are painful.  In Undertow you probe deep into this pain, sharing your struggles and some of the darkest periods you’ve experienced.  How were you able to go to these places during the writing while maintaining the objectivity needed to craft such an excellent book?

CCR: For some reason, those catacombs and dark hallways of my life are easy for me to renter and tap into.  But often it’s an extremely painful as well as physically sapping process, and also foreboding, knowing beforehand what I am about to endure yet again, what I’m about to stir up from below my surface.  This process was made even more difficult during the writing of the book, which I completed while in prison, spending 480 days in a 6 x 10 cell with a tempestuous anxiety disorder that mentally seethed and rebelled against the walls.  My salvation was to completely immerse myself into the memoir, reliving every moment and molecule of my life while simultaneously putting pen to paper.  This also came at a cost, as it forced me to confront, so to speak, my Bi-Polar Disorder, an illness I long had tried to evade and cure through self-medication.  Facing this illness head on, allowing myself to think through every detail of its impact on my life, was difficult but also a revelation, as I saw that it also provided me with artistic reach. 

Q:  So, in a way, you were able, through writing the book, to see your Bi-Polar Disorder in a more positive light?

CCR:  I would never choose this illness, or wish it on anyone, but I see now it has helped me artistically and influenced my poetry and writing.  I actually refer to the disorder in the book as my ‘Dark Gift.” I have done research and know that many artists, poets, musicians, philosophers, composers etc. have been plagued with similar mental illness during the course of their lifetime, most often dying at a tender age.  I used to be hell-bent, following in their footsteps, especially that collectively extensive pool of copiously talented artists that, at times, mystifyingly died at that magic number of “27.” But even while their feet were in the flames and their mind were being burned at the stake, again and again, every one of them fervently rose to the occasion to create everlasting and magnificent art. The monster can chaotically rage on the inside while somehow my being is still able to function and live on the outside; it is a dichotomy that I would not wish on the worst of adversaries.  But I have found a debilitating and strangely intricate balance amongst the chaos and disorder while simultaneously being on life’s stage day and night. 

Q: There is a pivotal scene in your book, and also a changing moment in your life, when you almost drown while kayaking on Lake Ontario, near where you grew up.  Describe briefly this experience.

CCR: It was a tumultuous time in my life, back in 2007, when my disorder was relentlessly torturing me and I was attempting to simply endure and mentally escape the demonic anguish.  As a result my self-medication was well beyond mythic proportions.  I had been up for days abusing drugs, the chronic norm for my everyday life by then. With several working and archaic poetry journals stowed away in my knapsack, I took my kayak out in the early morning hours to find a safe and secluded spot on an adjoining beach to put my agony and torment into words.  Even though I’m an experienced kayaker, I unexpectedly rolled the boat without a life vest on and could not recover. Strung out and helplessly immersed in the cold waters, stranded out on an extremely rough Great Lake from early morning till late afternoon, I finally reached the point of wanting to end-it-all, to breathe in that very water like amniotic fluid. The pivotal moment occurred with these persistent images in my head, hovering above the sight of my devastated mother attending my funeral, draped across my dead body and also the cold hard fact that after all of these decades of my poetry and writings, that were now lost forever in the murky water. So, I hung on for dear life…

Later, I wrote this poem about the experience, which I included in the book.

My words and wine
The vine
Unwritten pages
In plastic on her dining room table
The stench of old lake
Around the vase and doilies
Still not dry
From a kayak
Summer September
8 o’clock water
strewn with disorder
a willingness to drown
murky or light
Coast Guard height
Three lifesavers
Net the green soaked bag
A tablet inside
Wet with black blood ink
Aboard am I
Draining wicked
My words
No wine
Towed in by the vine

Q:  So poetry is an important part of Undertow.  Explain your relationship with poetry, that is, how long have you been writing poetry and do you have any preferences in style or other poets you admire?

CCR: As a child in grade school I enjoyed creative writing, I was drawn to anything that commanded me to utilize imagery and painting a picture for the reader with language and words. I was drawn to the craft of writing poetry in my early high school years although I had most likely written in an earlier age, that I surprisingly couldn’t remember. There is no style that I practice but what gives me the euphoric feel of creating is utilizing metaphor, imagery and also crafting my own words or couplets of words that typically go against the grain of what normal practice would be for the art of writing poetry. I think I actually just wrote another metaphor or an example of, because for most of my adult life I have been going against the grain of everything that opposes my pathway and this includes the society that shuns those plagued with a mental illness.

Poets I enjoy reading include Poe, Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg. When it comes to influences that are extremely powerful in my writing, without question they are Allen Rimbaud and my personal favorite, probably one of the greatest American poets that most people are unaware of as a poet and his works, James Douglas Morrison. Many of the aforementioned poets, while we are on the topic of mental illness, were also tortured souls and most died at a young age. Jim Morrison died at the age of 27…

Q:  Nature also plays an important role in Undertow.  It is clear from the action described in the book that you are an avid outdoors person, and the writing often uses wild spaces as metaphors for what you are feeling and dealing with.  But it is also clearly a source of stability for you in your life - and in the book.  Describe your relationship with nature, the outdoor environment of Upstate New York you know so well and why it is so important in the writing of Undertow.

CCR: My first memories of nature having a significant impact in my life were at the age of 3. I’d be anxiously waiting for my father to walk through the door from his job as a tool and die maker when I knew there was plenty of lake effect snow on the ground.  By then, I would have excitedly suited myself up on my own and already be wearing my helmet, in the meantime fogging up the shield but beaming of the notion that I was about to sit in front of my Dad, between his knees and feel the roar of that two-stroke engine in front of my tiny buzzing belly as we speedily ventured out into the dark night of the woodsy trails around us. I’d fall asleep in less than a half hour but it was and still is a dynamic passion that has only grown stronger and deeper over the years. I often refer to a snowmobile as my own personal therapist that comes with a vast amount of horsepower, bestowing my mind with infinite picturesque scenery and one of the most adrenaline-fueled means of escape.  In my eyes it’s a much more expensive medication, yet at the same time, a priceless prescription and the side effects are healthily addicting.

Not many years later, when my manic-depressive father became even more mentally erratic and physically abusive, I always looked towards the woods, fields and small streams and ponds that surrounded where lived not just as a means of escape, but also as a natural salve to sooth my wounds. The ambiance around me eventually became not only a physical medication, but I’d soon realize how effortlessly the woodland surroundings and trout streams seemed to cascade a childlike peace and tranquility over my fear-laden mind. To me, one of the most precious qualities that nature possesses is that it’s nonjudgmental, this beautiful world does not criticize; the remote bass ponds located in rolling farmlands were not jaundiced and when I found myself out on the ice, fishing for northern pike and jigging for perch, time and again feeling unprecedented, the frozen lakes unconditionally accepted me for who I was, gave me the freedom to express myself anyway I chose, never swung the unsparing rod and simply loved me for just being me. These moments out in nature allowed me to escape from my own prison.

Q:  Many passages in Undertow deal not just with your struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder, but also your quest, oftentimes frustrating, to receive quality and compassionate professional help for this illness.  You also, in the book, state that you hope what you have gone through will help others who are similarly-suffering realize that they are definitely not alone, encouraging them to be proactive in seeking professional help.  Talk on this a bit, and also why you think it is important to get this message out on a large scale.

CCR: This is a more than emotional topic for me. Some of the treatments that not only I received, but also the inhumane medical care of inmates, will continue to be a disturbing memory and image in my mind for a long time to come. Now you’re talking about one of the most concentrated congregations of people with an obscenely high percentage of these individuals that not only suffer from a mental illness but also addiction and alcoholism runs rampant in these institutions. One might assume that even in this netherworld, to everyday people, but have a high concentration of not only mental health care professionals but also support groups, counselors, preparatory exit strategies back into society and there is none of these. In my case, I had to mentally endure my confinement with a nearly nonexistent mental health care team in place that seemed to utilize their own ideas of how to treat the suffering from ideology from the Dark Ages. It was absolutely appalling and at times traumatizing of what I and many others were forced to experience during the time of serving their sentences. Many stories which I plan to persistently research and continue to expose, including inmates that left that jail in a body bag should never have been subjected to the treatment that eventually put them there in the first place. In my eyes this world should be screaming for change.  But I sincerely hope that my life story will speak to (and help) the millions of people in this country who struggle with anxiety, depression and more severe mental illness.  I hope my voice will ring true to readers that the days of shunning, avoiding or simply ostracizing human beings who suffer from a mental illness needs to end and it needs to end now!

Q: There are many funny moments in Undertow, and humor often goes hand-in-hand with the tragedy you experience.  Describe the importance of humor in your life and in the writing.

CCR: Even though I’ve often been reclusive in my life during some of the murkier periods, the most beautiful moments are a teeming collage of road trips, unforgettable camping excursions and wild Rush concerts. I’m often the nucleus of such entertainment which consists of mostly me playing the prominently improv comedic role which I thrive in!  However, the tragic events in my life don’t always find silver linings, but trying to find shafts of light that may eventually create the sound of laughter is something that’s almost unexplainable.  Even in my Spartan cell for 480 days, and doing the worst of times, solitary humor and introspective laughter was a priceless gift that perhaps prevented me from swimming into the sea of madness. To me comedy can be the remedy for a scroll of deprivations.  I simply love to make people laugh, and I’m told I do it well. I suppose it’s true because even when I am alone I am often dying on the inside… the good kind, mind you!

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Chad Curtis Rose lives in Rochester, New York.  His most recent poetry can be found in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.  Find him at https://www.facebook.com/chad.rose.3760