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An Interview with Author Oliver Sheppard

Sheppard 1

Oliver Sheppard is a Texas writer and poet whose Thirteen Nocturnes collection of Gothic verse was a finalist for the 2020 Elgin Award for Best Full-Length Poetry Collection.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

The Funeral Colony is a collection of poetry, and so it began piecemeal—and, in fact, it began as a collection I’d intended as a kind of apocalyptic follow-up to my previous collection of verse, Thirteen Nocturnes. I’d been reading a lot of the strange and doomy, quasi-Gnostic liturgical(-esque) texts produced by The Process Church of the Final Judgment, who in their heyday years of 1967 to about 1975 were essentially hippies on a death trip with beliefs and a history too complex to go into here. I was inspired by a lot of their writing to pen my own meditations on the Eschaton—in the form of verse and prose-poems—and I intended to call this work The Final Process.

But lo and behold, a real-life apocalyptic event swept across the planet during my writing at that time—the global SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, pandemic. It hit the US in earnest in early 2020 and very soon afterward it seemed like real social collapse was an actual possibility. Covid-19 then seemed like it might be a plague right out of the Old Testament! And its appearance dovetailed eerily well with my plans for my The Final Process collection, not in any welcome way—but the immediacy of the pandemic led me to become interested in previous epidemics and plagues, and so I quickly started revisiting past poets’ take on mass diseases (and death). I became especially interested in the gloomy physician-poets of the past who had witnessed death and disease on a large scale, firsthand. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, for example, the physician-poet who ultimately committed suicide, began to inform some of my verse; and the German Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, also a physician-poet, whose Morgue collection of verse from 1912 evinced his own experience with disease and death—and the World War I medic Georg Trakl, who died at age 27 after overdosing on cocaine after he’d witnessed firsthand the grotesque horrors of warfare and disease—these poets’ writings assumed a greater importance to me. Indeed, the great Italian poet Petrarch lived through the Black Death of the 14th century, and I began to read about the plague colonies of the Mediterranean that populated his grim world, and the idea of re-centering The Final Process onto disease appealed to me. The frequency of disease and its devastating effects on global human culture and history just seemed writ large in my mind, then—just as it seemed to be on everyone’s mind in those dark days of mid-2020—and so I retitled my ongoing work The Funeral Colony. The idea of an island or separate colony for death just seemed like an apt metaphor as I watched the global death toll skyrocket daily, and it soon seemed like it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call the whole planet a funeral colony as newspapers regularly reported quarantines and death tolls in the millions.

Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and the Plague, and Albert Camus’ 1940s novel The Plague, as well as Michel Foucault’s notion in his 1974 work Discipline and Punish of the restrictive “Plague City,” of which he said “the dream of the state of the plague,” wherein “the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life, through the mediation of complete hierarchy”—these ideas all came into the mix for what I thought was a horrifying vision for a possible new future of humanity then. The really spooky thing about the great pandemics of the past is not only that they’ve never been eliminated—like Covid-19, past outbreaks of murderous diseases always flare up and mysteriously abate, like the Spanish Flu of the late 1910s, with many questions left unanswered—it’s how readily people have been wont to forget the ravages of the disease, as if they never happened, or that they were somehow aberrations from a norm, even when millions were killed, and kept getting killed. There is a comforting notion that health is the norm and disease is the exception, which is just as false as the idea that life is the norm and death an exception. In reality, the reverse is true.

The British philosopher John Gray (of the London School of Economics; not to be confused with anyone else of that name) in 2002 wrote a great book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, wherein he proclaimed, “Our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indossolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere. Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future than any hopes or plans.” And I use that quote as a kind of prefatory epigraph in The Funeral Colony. I think it sets the tone of the work and, more importantly, outlines a fundamental truth about the human condition that a lot of us just want to ignore: We exist at the pleasure of nature, and not vice versa, and she strikes when, and as powerfully, as she wants, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it in the long run. Look at our planet’s past extinction events. It’s a fundamental fact of human existence that disease has had its brutal way with us—it’s influenced the actual character of our societies and the course of our collective history perhaps more so than even war—yet, few choose to dwell on it. I wanted The Funeral Colony to dwell on it. And ultimately, we have no choice but to dwell on it, as a species, or individually, at some point in our individual lives. To me, poetry seemed the most apt vehicle for meditations about this situation. Poetry is a mode of expression that can be employed to more precisely describe things that cannot be detailed by prose alone.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

“The Funeral Colony,” as a title, was probably subconsciously inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony. But, as I read about plagues and pandemics of the past, I saw how prevalent the tendency to segregate the sick from the “healthy”—whatever that means in any given epoch—resulted in the reappearance throughout human history of colonies where “the sick” were fatalistically sent off to die in various types of communities of one sort of another. The Ship of Fools for the mentally sick, the lazarettos for the physiologically incurable, etc.

These all became colonies of mortality. Hawaii still has a leper colony in the United States that I mention in my book—the Molokai Leper Colony of Kalaupapa. Tourists can even visit it. Have fun.

And so Giorgio Agamben and his “state of exception” came to mind. The plague colonies of the Venetian lazarettos in the 14th and 15th centuries, the locked-down plague cities of medieval Europe, the modern “Isolation and Quarantine” centers during more recent outbreaks of disease in our supposedly more enlightened age—they all seem so often to amount to death colonies—or funeral colonies—for the afflicted folks that are ushered into their gates.

Extrapolated more broadly, we’re all on the planet as a collective species and by definition we’re waiting to die as individuals, by definition from one disease or another—cardiac arrest gets everyone—so it seemed an apt metaphor to talk about the greater funeral colony of our actual planetary existence. And this seemed especially obvious to me as I wrote into late 2020, into 2021, and even as The New York Times noted American deaths from Covid-19 surpassed one million in a special edition of theirs in May of 2022. It was like the Spanish Flu, which claimed untold millions of lives almost exactly one century ago, in that it seemed the only thing more prevalent than mass death was a general unwillingness to acknowledge it coupled with a childlike and pollyannaish eagerness to minimize it all or forget it all as quickly as possible, to get on with having fun.

I was grateful to find (thanks to my friend Gary Evans—shoutout to him) Elise Engler’s Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020, which in its own way is almost like a great plague tract from the Middle Ages. But it’s a book about the here and now. And I reference some new works like this in The Funeral Colony.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

As I wrote much of The Funeral Colony, I found myself revisiting a lot of music I loved as a teenager. There’s probably something psychological there. Danzig 4P, the last album of Danzig’s classic 1988-1995 lineup, and that was supposedly inspired by the Process Church, the original inspiration of my originally-intended collection, would be on there. (The first four Danzig albums were on constant repeat as I wrote much of The Funeral Colony. And I maintain that Danzig 1988-1995 are one of the greatest classic American rock n’ roll bands of all time, period!)

Damanda Galas’ 1990 Plague Mass recording might be an even better soundtrack, of course. Christian Death and Rozz Williams’ fascination with the importance of the year 1334 as the foundational year of the Black Death in Europe—that reintroduced itself into my mind as I wrote. So there’d be cuts from Christian Death’s 1982 Only Theatre of Pain LP in The Funeral Colony’s soundtrack.

Fugazi’s “Give Me The Cure,” from 1988. And during quarantine I discovered on Roku the Berliner Philharmoniker channel—their rendition of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” would be up there, too.

Describe your dream book cover.

I love the minimalist-yet-stark book covers of Grove Press in the 1960s for novels like The Story of O.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’ve worked supporting observatories that use Xerox’s large-format printers to print star charts via their use of SunOS and especially Sun SPARCStations, and I did this while working for Xerox in North Texas (Lewisville). I was also a “premalancer” at Microsoft in Las Colinas, Texas, for a while, where the job title was “support engineer.” (By the way, this was a shockingly easy career path to get into in North Texas for a while.)

These kinds of jobs impressed my relatives and some friends, but it was never the sort of work never aligned with my inner self, and what I liked in my heart of hearts, which has always been my greater love of poetry and literature and music. And then I went to college for Sociology! The structure of societies fascinates me, far more than computers do. And in the end, in this and other subject areas, I gradually found I always came to trust the voice of poets the most—even the “bad” poets in history (that is, the ones who seemed to support the wrong side of history, somehow)—there was always struck a chord of humanity there that seemed much more grand than the political speeches of the day. As Joseph Brodsky, the US poet laureate of 1991, said: “By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman or the charlatan.”

And I have always felt like poetry is the way humans express themselves in more exacting and accurate terms when the formal strictures of prose and nonfiction fail. Poetry is music’s primal blood-brother/sister. According to one of my favorite living musicians, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye (quoting anthropologists), music probably existed before language. Poetry and its musicality probably links us to the earliest forms of human expression that there are.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

Gottfried Benn’s Morgue chapbook of poetry from 1912. Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ Death’s Jest Book collection of verse, published in 1850. Thomas Ligotti’s nonfiction The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, from 2010. John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, from 2002. Peter Sloterdijk’s Rules for the Human Zoo, from 1999. Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish, from 1975. Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, from 1985. John Howard’s An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe, from 1789. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, from 1842, similarly about a pandemic that claims all of mankind.

The US Centers for Disease Control and the UN World Health Organization’s collective science briefs on Covid-19. The Oxford Handbook of Epidemiology for Physicians, from 2012.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I’m not very teleological when it comes to this sort of thing. My point in writing and self-expression, in this vein, and especially in poetry, is generally not to “impart a message”—or, even worse, to “teach someone,” or be otherwise ham-fistedly didactic to “educate.” My own meditations upon disease, death, and the funeral colony—they’re not some sort of political position paper written for a think tank, but in verse—meant to sway anyone or to convince anyone of any view vis a vis public policy. It’d be better just to write a position paper, in fact, than to try to write a poem, if that were my goal.

So, I am not trying “to teach” anyone anything, and indeed I’m suspicious of poets who use poetry as a kind of weird, covert means to arrogate to themselves a position of a kind of wizened old sage above others, whether it comes to relationship advice (a favorite topic of a lot of Instagram poets, for some reason), or imitatively Zen/Buddhist life mantras. Nor is my poetry designed to guide anyone to any certain position in any “debate” that is imagined or real. That’s something I leave to those who view poetry in the vulgarly utilitarian and propagandistic terms of the politician. The Funeral Colony is a purely aesthetic statement on the state of life as I find it. In my previous collection of verse, I had a poem called Canto of Asmodeus that has a line, “Death evinces its jealousy of Life through the phenomenon of Disease.” That rang true for me in the years 2020 through 2022. My hope is that readers will engage it the way they would any other work of art—as perhaps a gateway to their own thoughts, a thread they can follow to their own meditations upon what things like “disease,” “purpose,” or “death” (and thus, “life”) mean for them. I surrender any hope for my work to have any meaning for anyone. It seems presumptuous to hope or strive for anything otherwise.

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