Goldfinches Fed from a Sunflower's Ear - An Interview with Catfish McDaris

It’s Animal but Merciful contributor Catfish McDaris shoots the breeze with George Wallace  

Catfish McDaris didn't always used to work in a post office in Milwaukee. And he didn't always have a name like Catfish. He used to do all kinds of rugged and romantic jobs in the American Southwest. Cowboy jobs like wrangle wild horses. Smelt zinc. Paint flagpoles. He did a tour of duty as an artilleryman. He's very proud that he can lay a brick straight. He still calls people "Amigo" and uses words like "cattle trough." He's in a chapbook with Bukowski and Micheline, hung out in Paris, and he's got a reputation for writing poetry that skirts the delicious line between the sacred and the profane. He's also got new chapbook coming out next month from Kolkata, India called Naked Fly Cherry Marijuana—but this interview's not about that.

GWFM: Why does any man have to paint a flagpole? And why would anyone want to tame a wild horse?

CM: The dangerous and big money is in painting flagpoles. Bottom line is a shortage of cash. You take a job like that if you're stranded on South Padre Island and want to get back to Milwaukee because your Ford Pinto got swallowed by the ocean. Your amigo can't swim, so you can't get a job on a shrimp boat. The same situation on wild horses. If you know from your Apache friends how to gentle mustangs and you need money and you're stuck near the Grand Canyon, you earn your way. I'd rather the horses were tamed than end up as glue and dog food.

GWFM: How damn cold does it get in Wisconsin? Can you really go fishing and wriggle your feet in the icy water?

CM: It gets cold here, not as bad as Buffalo, but worse than NYC. I'm enjoying retirement and lots of projects. We go to Mexico every year and I try to see the bullfights and fish with my nephews. I used to fish a lot, but my daughter is grown and I have less patience and I hate cleaning the slimy bastards. Black bass fishing in the Mexican mountains is toe wiggle time.

GWFM: I thought Wisconsin was a liberal state. What the hell, man!

CM: Many rich vampire tycoons trying to suck the vital forces from the people. Wisconsin is a bit of rust belt, dairy farms, lots of rivers, Lake Michigan. Lots of good beer here, although I quit drinking long ago. When Chicago burned in 1871, most of the big brewers moved to Milwaukee.But my lady and kid have good jobs here.

GWFM: The story is you got the name Catfish in somewhat of a casual manner. You've worked so many colorful jobs I'm surprised you didn't get a nickname based on one of those. I mean how come they don’t call you Zinc?

CM: The zinc smelter I worked at was in Amarillo, Texas, I lasted for 2 months. It was the closest to being in hell you could find. The melted liquid zinc ran through pumice cones and they broke and fell off, I had a pitch fork and wheel barrow to pick them up and I filled a dump truck, it was pure nasty grunt work. Low Dog Reeve ( a pal of Buk's), editor of Zen Tattoo, gave me the name Catfish, after I told him I wanted to start a catfish farm. I guess if I told him I liked the zinc smelter, I would be called Zinc Smelt.

GWFM: What’s so hard about making straight walls out of bricks?

CM: There are so many ways to screw up a straight wall and a brickie, not counting the weather, it's a non-bricklayer question.

GWFM: Can working in a post office kill a man?

CM: The Main Milwaukee post office where I worked could kill you. We had bombs going to Jeffrey Dahmer, shoot outs, anthrax, and ricin scares. Zip code madness can make you go postal.

GWFM: Can it turn him into Charles Bukowski?

CM: Nothing can make you into Bukowski.

GWFM: How was Paris, and Shakespeare & Company? Did you see any literary ghosts?

CM: My lady speaks tolerable French. I tried to ask where was the toilet in a café and they brought me some chocolate ice cream. There was lots of Beatnik stuff in Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, it was crammed tight with books and a bit claustrophobic. I saw no ghosts, I know Pam Beach Plymell, and I met Mary Beach in Cherry Valley, NY at a reading near Ginsberg's farm in 1998.

GWFM: Would you really like to give up all the debauchery, crawl back into bed and dream about Paris? Or are you just saying that?

CM: A person can always dream. Lately mine have all been east of the moon.

GWFM: Can a poet grow sunflowers out of Van Gogh’s ear?

CM: Definitely. I've always felt a strange connection to Van Gogh. We were both born in '53, he died on my birthday, July 29th. My first chapbook was Van Gogh's Ear. My bro-in-law brought me sunflower seeds from Arles, France. We plant them every year and golden finches and chickadees fed from them this summer.

Find Catfish's poem "Never Take Peyote & Go to Work" in our anthology

"It's Animal but Merciful"