Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Tell me about the origins of Dropping Ecstasy
Dee: At the age of 30 – after a protracted period of some serious disillusionment – I experienced a ‘spiritual re-awakening’. It was of the flash-bang, ‘Road To Damascus’ type. I was staying on the Isle Of Iona, celebrating Christmas as a guest with The Iona Community, who are an ecumenical Christian group. I was not then, and still am not a ‘Christian’, but I was sympathetic to their less dogmatic vision, and in particular, to their idea of ‘Christianity in action’ (meaning they walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk). I had gone there with a girlfriend who was still nominally a Christian; and I’d gone there to get away from the vapid commercialism that passes for Christmas in the city.
Iona is a beautiful place, but in the middle of winter it feels barren and wind-swept, which suited me fine at the time. I spent a lot of time wandering round the island, clambering up rocks and across beaches, letting the wind blow the cobwebs away. I even went to the church and meditated. And as I did so, I felt something shifting. It was the metaphorical weight being lifted off my shoulders. And I felt a certain ‘joy’ replacing it. So joyful was I, I was actually volunteering to do extra chores.
Three days before I was due to return to Edinburgh, I was chopping wood, when I pulled my shoulder really badly. I was in utter agony, and my new found joy in tatters. My girlfriend, Debbie, told me she’d heard there was a ‘spiritual healer’ staying at the community, and I should ask her for a ‘healing’. I was dubious, especially as the only type of ‘spiritual healers’ I’d heard of were of the telly-evangelist type, but then again, being in absolute agony, I had nothing to lose.
The spiritual healer, Colette, was a surprisingly earthy woman, not at all what I was expecting. It turned out, she wasn’t even a Christian. As soon as she laid her hands on me, I felt a strange warmth, which built up to an intense heat. It was something I couldn’t rationally explain to myself. I also felt considerably better afterwards. Colette did two healings for me, and after the 2nd I was completely ‘healed’. Had Colette been a Christian I might have converted on the spot, who knows? It was a ‘healing’ in more ways than one.
I went back to Edinburgh a renewed person, with renewed vision, until about a week later when I pulled my neck. The neck pull was significantly worse than the shoulder pull. I couldn’t actually move my head left or right, and I was in utter agony. I was sure, if I went to the doctor, I’d end up in a neck brace for months. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t sleep at all that night. In the morning, I phoned a friend from the Iona Community to try and get hold of Colette.
I couldn’t get hold of Colette, but I was given the number of another healer, Lucy. I phoned Lucy and arranged an appointment, then I underwent the rather painful four mile bus journey from Leith to Bruntsfield. Every time the bus hit a pot hole I thought I was going to die, but I figured it would be worth it, to get a healing. I was SO wrong.
Lucy turned out to be a very strange middle-class hippie woman who thought she was a healer… but she wasn’t. Or at least, her ‘healing’ had no tangible effect on me. She put on a lip-bitingly hysterical show of ‘exorcising’ demons from me, waving her arms all over the place and huffing and puffing loudly. If I hadn’t been in so much pain I really would have found it very amusing. The net result of my exorcism was nothing. I was still in as much pain as before, and worse than that, I had to face a pointless and painful bus journey back to Leith.
On the bus home however, as I was stewing over my pointless journey, I heard a voice. It said, simply this: ‘healer, heal thyself’. This voice, which I now know and love, was from inside me, and yet, it felt external too. The reason it felt external was simply this, it was softer, gentler and much wiser than the person I think of as ‘me’. The voice was so sure, so beautiful, so surprising, I felt compelled to listen to it.
When I got home, I knew exactly what I was to do to heal myself. I got into bed, lay down on my back, and imagined a warmth building up in my toes. I then, slowly, drew that warmth up through my body to my neck. There, the heat intensified, and I was feeling the same strange tingling as I did when Colette laid her hands upon me. The heat was delicious, and it made me feel surprisingly drowsy. Eventually I fell asleep.
When I woke up, my neck was completely better. I could move my head fully to the left and the right, and only felt a slight twinge if I stretched it to the extreme.
Inside me, I knew I was that ‘healer’ that healed himself. The next thing I did, more as an experiment than anything, was to lay my hands on Debbie. As soon as I did, I felt tingling and heat. Debbie also felt it, intensely so. As I was doing the healing on Debbie, I went into a light sort of trance, and I started seeing a light shimmering round her, and even more strangely, stars started raining down from the ceiling. It was a God-the-Mother experience, which totally blew me away. Over the months and years after this happened, I went to meditation classes, psychic development workshops, shamanic workshops and all sorts of things.
I also read voraciously, and have come to have a deeper understanding of what went on then, way back in January 1993. I would need to write a book to explain it all… and maybe one day I will. This ‘thing’ that happened to me had a profound effect on my life. It made me a gentler, more caring, more sensitive, less selfish individual. And, to finally get to the point, the poetry in ‘Dropping Ecstasy With The Angels’ is a reflection of where I was in my thirties. Many of the poems are ‘spiritual’, but there are also poems that deal with pain and struggle… most often, other people’s pain and struggle, but sometimes mine too. Despite my ‘spiritual awakening’, life still throws up obstacles and problems. The difference now, though, is I recognise them as challenges that will help me grow.
Magdalena: Talk about the title.
Dee: I was 14 years old when I smoked my first joint. I smoked it with my mother who, recently divorced, had a late hippie flowering. I took to drugs with delight, enjoying them so much more than alcohol. I smoked dope, did magic mushrooms, dropped acid, and experimented with every legal high in the book. This was back in the late 1970’s in Scotland, when the quantity, variety and quality of drugs were severely limited, not like today.
To cut a long story short, I was almost religious about psychedelic drugs, and in my youthful enthusiasm, I probably overdid them… and eventually, I stopped enjoying them. My first love, cannabis, turned against me with a vengeance in my mid-twenties, and every time I smoked it, I was turned into a paranoid, gibbering wreck. I persevered for a while, but eventually I just had to stop smoking it for the sake of my sanity. Even to this day (I’m 42 now), if I take more than a couple of puffs of a joint, the experience turns very unpleasant indeed. By the time I was 28, I’d lost interest in all drugs. End of story… or so I thought.
It was round about then that Ecstasy started appearing in Edinburgh. Back then, in the late 80s, it was £25 a pill. I’d heard good things about this drug, but it was well out of my price range, and I dismissed it as a yuppie drug. I never really mixed in the sort of social circles where this drug was consumed, so the opportunity never arose.
The first time I encountered Ecstasy indirectly, was through my friend, Rosie Savin (who was a good friend of the then unpublished writer, Irvine Welsh). I met her on Princes Street in Edinburgh. She was floating in a total haze. She told me she’d just done Ecstasy for the first time the previous night, and she wittered on about how she’s seen God in a strobe light. I was deeply unimpressed, and rather concerned that she might be ‘cruising for a bruising’. I wrote the poem ‘Rose Thou Art Ecstatic’ shortly after that.
The next time I met someone who used Ecstasy was at one of these schemes they have for mopping up the unemployed. This scheme was specifically for musicians, artists and writers, and it was a bit of a fucking joke. Mostly, we just sat about drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking. I enjoyed the conviviality, and made good use of their photocopier, but aside from that the scheme was worse than useless. One day, I overheard a lassie talking. This is what she said – I remember it exactly, word for word: ‘Some fucking people say that techno is fucking boring without E, but I say fucking E without fucking techno is fucking boring’. This lassie had a face like the proverbial slapped arse, with permanently sour, down-turned lips. She spoke in a passionless monotone… and convinced me, without a shadow of a doubt, that the white-coats were right – Ecstasy use causes serotonin depletion and causes depression. Little did I know…
Many years later, at the age of 35, having just split up with a woman who had made me begin to feel middle-aged, I met an old friend, Claire. Claire was one of those mad, live wires you can only marvel at. Her hair was always a different colour, her clothes were thrown together with panache. She was larger than life. She was the sort of person who could blag her way into film premiers and gigs. I’ve got a hundred million anecdotes about Claire, but my favourite one is how she more or less forced Shane McGowan of the Pogues to take her on as a housekeeper. She was a big fan, so she wasn’t taking no for an answer. Claire also used Ecstasy on a regular basis… and if anyone was proof that the serotonin depletion theory was bollocks, it was Claire.
So, two days later, I took my first Ecstasy, and I experienced what can only be described as ‘a return to innocence’. I became guileless, childlike and unafraid. I also experienced a heightening of my psychic and healing abilities, and I felt an overwhelming empathy for others. It was, in all honesty, a religious experience, and more profoundly moving even than when I awakened as a spiritual healer.
The benefits of Ecstasy are well documented. It was even used in conjunction with therapy and marriage guidance counselling before it took off as part of rave culture. The scare stories about Ecstasy are legion, and largely unfounded. If you believe that the government and the media are unbiased in what they say about Ecstasy, or any drug for that matter, can I suggest you watch ‘Reefer Madness’, which was a film made in the fifties about how Cannabis turns men into psychopaths and girls into sex-slaves.
Of course, there have been ‘Ecstasy deaths’, but considering that two million Ecstasy pills are consumed in the UK alone, each weekend, the casualty figures have been slight. If you compare that with the amount of deaths from alcohol poisoning, alcohol abuse, alcohol related violence etc, the casualties from Ecstasy are, forgive the pun, small beer. And don’t get me started on that other legal poison, tobacco…
But let me get off my soapbox here. I personally benefited profoundly from using Ecstasy. I used it a lot, and I enjoyed it. Sure, I liked the hedonistic touchy-feely stuff, the music and the dancing, but more than anything, what made it special for me, was the powerful connection with my ‘higher self’ and my ability to see underneath people’s skins, to see the essential goodness that is in everybody.
So, that explains the Ecstasy in the title, but who were the angels? Everybody. Inside everybody is an angel.
Magdalena: How did you decide which poems to include–did you have a rough theme in mind?
Dee: The poems I chose for this collection were those that I believed to be the purest. By this, I mean poems that resonate with what I call ‘first circle’ emotions, like joy, sorrow and empathy. Admittedly, some of the poems in this collection do not make for comfortable reading. I don’t live in toy town or fairy land, and cannot bury my head in the sand, pretending that ugly, horrible, terrible things do not happen. However, I believe that joy and sorrow are inextricably intertwined, and so (I hope) even my most despairing poems flicker with a certain beauty or hope.
Magdalena: How do you feel your work has changed/matured from The Bad Seed material?
Dee: The poetry that appears in ‘The Bad Seed’ was largely written in my late teens and early twenties. Some are more recent, the most recent written when I was 30. Prior to my ‘spiritual awakening’ I would have to concede I was a narrower, much more selfish person. I was also given over to debilitating spells of depression, and was often bitter. On the plus side, though, I was, when not depressed, very dynamic and very excited by life… and I believe all this comes out in the poetry that’s in ‘The Bad Seed’.
Some reviewers, in the more conservative magazines believed that I wrote my poems to shock, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The poems were written, in the main, as a form of therapy. It was a very cathartic process, and it was also a private one. I didn’t write them with the intention of publishing them. I wrote them for me, and for me alone.
It wasn’t until I was 24, after I’d been writing for many years, that I attempted to get my poetry published in magazines, but even then, I had no ambition to put together a poetry collection. I was much more interested in my artistic pursuits at the time, having just started a degree course at Edinburgh College Of Art. The poetry got kind of sidelined, and I’d only write something very occasionally. In truth, I didn’t start writing again in earnest until I was 30, and sometime after that, the pendulum swung slowly in favour of writing. It was round about then that I experienced my
‘spiritual awakening’, and naturally, I had more I wanted to write about.
It wasn’t until I was 34, after much editing and revision, that I felt I had a collection on my hands. The sort of poetry I was writing post-1993 was very different from the material I wrote prior to then, so none of it made it into ‘The Bad Seed’. I still like the poetry I wrote when I was young, even if it is bleaker, narrower and much more self-centred than the poetry that appears in ‘Dropping Ecstasy With The Angels’. I think the poetry in my second collection reflects who I was in my thirties… a rounder, more whole and more wholesome person.
Magdalena: In a recent interview you conducted, David Knopfler cites Joseph Campbell’s belief that when you follow your creative bliss, doors open without really needing to knock too loudly. Has this been your experience?
Dee: Yes, very much so. Not just creatively, but throughout every aspect of my being. That said, I am not a prolific writer… after the initial inspiration, I always need to leave my work lying around for months or even years before I can gain the pseudo-objectivity needed to edit the work. With some poems, this process seems endless. I have folders stuffed full of material that was initially conceived as long as ten or even twenty years ago; and I am still working on this material…
Magdalena: In many of your interviews you talk about that oft cited comment that most poets sell less than 1,000 copies of their chapbooks. Why do they/you/we keep doing it? (in other words, why does poetry matter, even if it isn’t a powerful presence in the book market?)
Dee: I can’t speak for anyone else. I don’t know why anyone else bothers, but I do know why I do. I think in poetry. The ideas, the thoughts, the feelings tend to come out in poems. There is an immediacy to them that lends themselves to the mercurial nature of my mind (and yes, I am a Geminian). Even if I tend to take years to bring a poem to completion, the initial draft is usually completed in minutes… or, in the case of longer poems, a couple of hours. I suppose I like the instant gratification of a poem, even if I’ve got to knock my bollocks off for years to bring the poem to completion.
That said, I am not just a poet. I also write short stories and novels. And, indeed, if you don’t mind me plugging it here, my novel, ‘Stealing Heaven From The Lips Of God’ has just been published.
The problem with short stories and novels though is there is no instant gratification. You have to slog your guts out just to write a first draft, and when it comes to editing it’s a fucking nightmare, because if you change something, it has implications all the way through the story or the novel, and you have to more or less go back to the drawing board each time. So, naturally enough, I prefer writing poetry.
Of course it distresses me that poetry is held in such little regard. I wish it was otherwise, but it ain’t and I’ve just got to deal with it. I didn’t choose to be a poet. Poetry chose me.
I do believe poetry could be resurrected one day, and appreciated by more people, but first we need to change the way it’s taught at school (ie murdering it by analysis, and then forcing 12 year old kids to dissect it) and we need to change the power structures in the poetry world. Too much power is in the hands of academics – ie, the ones that actually enjoy the vivisection they were taught as 12 year olds.
Magdalena: Your blog looks like its fairly new. Tell me about it (how do you choose what you write about, is it planned or freeform, do you get much feedback, do you think people will read it and choose to spend their money ethically?)
Dee: The intention with my ‘blog’ is to use it as a vehicle for ideas that are perhaps a bit too didactic to ever become poetry, or be included in a short story or novel. The cardinal rule with creative writing is to ‘show not tell’. My ‘blog’ is a case of telling it as it is… or at least, how I perceive it to be.
What I have begun to do with my ‘blog’ is to write down many of the ideas that have been fermenting in my head these last couple of decades. I want to put my ideas out there, into the cyber universe, and like all thinkers, I hope some people will read what I have to say, and that it will affect them.
The more I look at the world, the more I believe it is completely arse-over-tit. As Moby said, ‘everything is wrong’. Of course, there’s no point just moaning that everything is wrong if you don’t actually intend to do something to address the situation. My attempt to address the situation is to suggest some alternatives… As for feedback, mostly I get positive feedback from people who agree with my position and negative feedback from people who don’t. I have no confidence that anything I say will actually have any impact, but if it affects one person, then my mission will have been a success. And even if it ultimately affects nobody, at least I tried…
Magdalena: Tell me about the Independent Press Guide. Why did you do it?
Dee: It started off as an appendix to Dada Dance, many years ago, but I abandoned it when I stopped publishing Dada Dance, back in 1990. Then I esurrected it when I launched Acid Angel in 1998. Eventually it outgrew Acid Angel, so I launched it as an entity on its own. Initially I sold it as a CD rom. Then, after the demise of ‘The Small Press Guide’ I decided I’d bring it out as a book. I was in negotiation with A&C Black, who publish The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and it looked like it was going to get the green light, but then they changed their mind. So I thought, fuck them, I’ll publish it on my website, and I’ll do it for free.
Why do I publish The AA Independent Press Guide for free? Well, kind of in the spirit of love and co-operation. There’s all these websites out there trying to scam beginner writers, so I thought I’d try to counteract that by offering something for free.
Magdalena: You’re also a professional artist. Do you tend to work in each medium separately, or do you write poetry about the pictures, or create pictures from the poems, or do both simultaneously? Have you done or plan to do multimedia work?
Dee: The writing and art are quite separate from each other, in that I will use art to express ideas that are beyond words. I am often asked to ‘explain’ my art, but am unwilling to even try to do so, because it would take a book to explain all the threads of thought and emotion that go into a picture, and even then, this would not be an accurate explanation, because a picture is viewed all at once, and an explanation would have to be read linearly. Invariably my writing and art will inform each other, so there will be common threads, and I find I can match drawings to poems (although neither actually illustrates the other). I am hoping to publish a book in the not too distant future that has one artwork to each poem or prose piece. It is one of the projects I have been working on, on and off, for the last couple of years.
I would like to collaborate with a musician or band, to put my words to music. I’d also like to do something with poetry and performance art. At present I don’t have any actual plans in that direction, as I’m yet to meet anyone who would be interested in such a project. But that’s largely my fault as I don’t really ‘network’. My dream would be to work with people like David Byrne, Brian Eno and William Orbit, but I don’t really move in those sort of circles. Maybe one day, if fortune smiles on me. One of the people that really inspired me that way was Laurie Anderson, who I think is terrific.
Magdalena: Will there be more Acid Angels or Dada Dances (or some other incarnation)?
Dee: No, not unless I forget how much hard work is involved. Which might happen, as I forgot how much work was involved when I launched Acid Angel. Realistically though, I don’t think I’ll ever do another lit mag. I might put together some more anthologies, like The Book Of Hopes And Dreams.
Magdalena: Tell me about The Book of Hopes and Dreams. How is it coming along? Has there been much interest?
Dee: There’s been a huge amount of interest. I’ve already received near enough 1,000 submissions, and it’s still four months till the deadline. I’m very pleased with how it’s been going, and confident it’s going to be a brilliant book. The only disappointment is that there haven’t been more art submissions.
Magdalena: What are the big projects/concepts on your horizon?
Dee: The main thing I’m working on at the moment is the website. I’ve been developing it for the last year, and am very pleased with how it’s going. I will be trying to ease off the gas there, because I have a good number of other projects on the go. Aside from The Book Of Hopes And Dreams anthology I am working on two collections of poetry, a collection of prose, and I’m tinkering with three or four novels. All of these projects are seriously long term numbers, but I do hope to have something ready for publication by the end of the year. If not then, who knows when? It’s hard to tell when things will finally reach completion. All I can say is I’ve got enough material on the go for about ten books, but none of it is ready for publication yet… and knowing the way I work, I could end up doing a ‘Glasgow bus’ number: ie, nothing comes for ages, then three busses come in a row.