Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Madness of Empty Spaces: an interview with David Cowen

David Cowen is the current president of the Gulf Coast Poets Society, a chapter of the Poetry Society of Texas. I mention this foremost in his notable biography because the Friendswood Public Library has developed a partnership with Gulf Coast Poets over the past five years;  a partnership that has brought many  fantastic and distinct poets to the library for poetry readings.  While each poet brings a unique voice and vision, the one constant among the society is a shared desire to bring quality to their craft.  Through workshops, readings, and collaborative efforts, they are achieving their aims, and it has been a pleasure to have a front row seat throughout the Friendswood Library’s off the page poetry series. 
I mention the many unique voices of Gulf Coast Poets and David Cowen is no exception.  His work, as I believe he would also attest, is possibly the darkest of the work among the Gulf Coast Poets; as he states in the interview below, he is pulled into the horror in ordinary things.  Back in January of this year, David was one of three featured poets reading at FPL and I was fortunate to receive a copy of his latest book, The Madness of Empty Spaces, which made the Preliminary Ballot for the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry. I don’t consider myself a devotee of the gothic/horror genre but I was intrigued by his reading, and by the title and cover of his book.  The poems revealed themselves to be much more than creatures pouncing in the night (but there is that too).  David uses horror to discern and express the darker variations of the human condition. The poems in this collection are often testimonies from the cursed, the guilty or betrayed; each one a plea for redemption; for a light to shine on the dark path of isolation or fear. 
Finally I should mention that all of the photography you see throughout the interview is the work of David Cowen.  When first viewing his photographs, I was struck by how they manage to capture the same feelings evoked through his poetry, each enhancing the other….haunted: solitary: searching. 

The following interview was conducted by email throughout parts of April and May, 2015.   

MR:  Danel Olson’s introduction to your book provides wonderful insight into your work, as when he writes, If the keenest instinct of the Gothic impulse is to record decay, that is what these poems do--with uncommon directness.  Abandonment, fragmentation, ruin, trammelled innocence, and someone's unsentimentalized demise are always in the middle or at least on the edges of his verse. 

I am impressed with the scope of reference in your poems; mythology, physics, folklore...with genres in horror, Romanticism, science fiction, fantasy, and true-crime among the forefront, and yet these competing influences are held cohesive by what Olson refers to as the Gothic impulse.  Could you elaborate on this impulse as it relates specifically to your work and expression? 

DC:  The term "Gothic" has its original roots from the "Goths;" the "barbarians" who continually threatened the perhaps over-fantasized rationality and order of the Roman Empire. Going past the Victorian notions of "Gothic," leaning towards distressed damsels in dark places or depictions of evil being overcome by ultimate good, the modern meaning of the term has reverted to its etymological roots.
In her book The Gothic Impulse in Contemporary Drama (UMI Research Press 1990) Mary Beth Inverse postulates that the "true Gothic" "pulverizes any sense of a morally operative universe." This moral and spiritual uncertainly facing us is one of the elements of true terror. The scholar Zugiong Ma, referred to the Gothic Impulse as the "malignant reemergence of the 'other', i.e., alterities (alternate realities) of the self and culture." Of course this "malignant other" is the part of ourselves and our lives we try to repress.  The Gothic Impulse postulates the possibility of the effect of this reemerged inner darkness on the sunlight of our normal living. 
Taking that further I have always found the tendency of much of my poetry to be pulled into what I call "The horror of ordinary things." This is why my pieces are immersed in concrete images seeking an emotional and maybe even visceral response from the reader. The images are often layered.  The monster at the door can be a vampire or a drunken father, and sometimes the distinction is blurred. My Gothic Impulse rises out of the day to day things that happen around us.  While most of my poetical themes are traditional I find myself often steering my words, like Pazuzu at the Quija Board, diverting the verse to a darker place. There is a disquieting beauty in noir. From the Old City Cemetery in Galveston in the fog to the
abandoned structures in old towns that once held light, life and mysteries.  It isn't that we want to live in that darkness.  We are just fascinated with what we try to hide from ourselves.  My photography tries to capture this as well.  I had a professor who opined that photography and film reached their artistic apex with black and white.   Color film was an art yet to reach true status as an art form because it took away the shadows.  Dark poetry is still an emerging genre even though its roots go back thousands of years - Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and Dante's Inferno as examples.   My hope is to further the genre.  

My book is a collection of my detour from bluebonnets and spring into something where shadow is not a byproduct but rather the theme. 

MR: This question may digress from our main journey, but since you mention noir and film…it put me in mind of your poem Dreaming in Black and White specifically, although other poems have similar elements…also Gothique.  I was wondering while reading Dreaming in Black in White if you count the film-noir films of the 40s and 50s as an influence or inspiration, or even before that with the German Expressionist films of the 1910s and 20s? These films deal in shadow…what we can’t see as much as what comes into the light.  Many of the Classic noir directors moved from Germany to Hollywood to escape the war.  They brought their craft with them.  The visual style and mood is made to emphasize the emotions of fear and dread, a feeling that comes across in the concrete images of your poetry and photography.  Many of the German Expressionist films of the tens and twenties are Horrors such as Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or F.W. Murnau’s great film Nosferatu from 1922. Am I stretching to see an influence (or appreciation) in the dark shadows of these films? 

 from Dreaming in Black and White: 
one street
rimmed with broken concrete
black blooms emerging from the cracks
caliche driveways spilling onto asphalt

Then later the image of a Chevy:
its chrome ornament streaking the gray field
with the reflected memory of light from a diffused sun

from Gothique
clothes draped over a chair,
a row of perfumed decanters on a dresser;
Dresden-laced ballerinas
stoically posing in porcelain;
the contortions of shadow
are only the interference
with the sulphured glow
of a distant street lamp
bleeding through the imperfections
of your window coverings

DC: I am very familiar with both of those films and enjoyed them very much. Two others that always come to mind are from the early works of Fritz Lang. His film “M” with Peter Lorre was the first film I saw as a young teenager that revealed to me film as an art form and not just entertainment. “M’s” magnificent use of black and white and the intricate camera shots of the actors' faces amazed me. Metropolis was an amazing science fiction opera as well. However, I can’t say that any specific film was on my mind when I wrote this piece.

Poems are often collages of many memories and thoughts that get pasted together. This poem is that as well. The street is in Brownsville, Texas where I grew up. It was not unusual for various teenagers to hang out in driveways leaning on their cars. The “Black and White” theme has two origins. First, due to the hardships of my family, and whatever other reason likely necessitating years of therapy I judiciously avoided undertaking, many of my childhood memories come back to me in black and white. I often dreamed in black and white when I was small. I vividly remember one of the first color dreams I recall actually waking up with the memory still fresh. It almost shocked me that I could actually dream in color; later of course learning that dreaming in color is what we are supposed to be doing. Color is now the norm for my dreams.

The other is that I was thinking of a noir style setting. The one facet of noir that many people do not even focus on is that despite the dark overtones and shadows, you have to have light, sometimes brilliant light, to create shadow. The references to light in this poem are deliberate. Light makes shadow. Nightmares are dreams where the light creates shadows. The looping dream, made more horrifying because the dreamer is now lucid, watching but unable to control these dark events. I recall walking down streets of Brownsville at night, the light poles set apart just enough that each created a separate globe. Anyone entering the globe would become a shadow when seen from a distance. The light, while seemingly a shelter from the dark, was a false refuge. It did not keep out wind, rain or mosquitos. When you stood in those globes on foggy days, nothing seemed to exist beyond the edge of the glow. These are very vivid images and reinforced my desire to project an emotional response in my readers witnessing such events through my words. 

Going back to noir film, in The Exorcist, one of the most powerful such scenes in my mind is when Max Von Sydow first approaches the threshold of Regan McNeil's house. He approaches as a shadow bathed in the light of Regan's uncovered window. In that darkness, the false nature of light as a refuge becomes starkly apparent. The power of that image is what I want to produce in my work. 

MR: Lang’s film M was also influential to me and it was probably from that, and then looking into Lang’s entire filmography, that led to my appreciation of film noir and became another piece to the puzzle of understanding film as an art form.  You stated earlier that your poems “are immersed in concrete images” and that you seek “an emotional and maybe even visceral response from the reader.” In reading your poems I clearly see what you mean, and these images sometimes take on, for me, a cinematic quality. You also state that your poems are drawn toward “the horror of ordinary things.” This put me in mind of your poem The Travelling Salesman Finishes his Run.  You have taken something very ordinary, a salesman returning home, and turned it into something rather extraordinary, including faster-than light speed, slugs, and unique vistas, for lack of a better word:

looking out
at the cerulean pearl
imbedded with swirls of red storms
circling a familiar bloated star

I’m not certain this classifies as a horror, but I feel that this entire scenario is pointing toward things in your imagination…in your creative strata, of which I am still traversing its crust.  Would you consider providing some insight into this extraordinary poem?

DC: You had me with "extraordinary." Thank you for the kind words. This piece is not horror, but rather speculative or science fiction poetry. I have experimented with science fiction poetry for a few years now trying to write something that fit the genre but also was what I believed to be a decent piece. Nothing in genre poetry should ever get a "bye" when it comes to quality. Genre cannot excuse a bad poem. It has to stand on its own without regard to genre.

To reconstruct the "building" of the poem is a bit twisted. I am a fan of South Texas Poet and Writer, Juan Manual Perez. He opened my eyes to the potential for science fiction themes in poems. So in writing this piece it started with two ideas -- the first a sort of slipstream image of someone going through "warp" drive to go someplace. But since that whole thing is cliche, the other thought was how often television or movies use this sort of thing. Recalling the wonderful scenes in Kubrick's 2001 of the flight attendant with velcro slippers serving passengers on a flight to the moon, it occurred to me that someone making a trans-galactic flight, experiencing this psychedelic shift in reality, would eventually get used to it.

Then it brought to mind that such a person would not just be the pilot, since that would add some sort of perhaps larger than life flair to the point of view, it needed to be a business person. Someone like a galactic Fuller brush man. If you travel a lot for business, you hear these sales people -- always on the phone or always telling a "war story" about some sale. My poems are almost always telling a story of some kind, so this concept fit perfectly.

The next step was taking the slipstream element and adding in the "ordinary." I have the man contemplating the boring nature of this otherwise amazing event returning the mundane crackers and peanuts we all know from flying, along with the ordinary things we are told to do when preparing to land. So, here is this fantastic thing -- interplanetary, if not galactic travel by way of an Alcubierre drive, a theoretical mode of transport and the man is bored, tired and just wants to sleep in his own bed. All the promise of the future and mankind stays the same. I made home someplace other than earth because, of course, it is the future. Also, seeing the home planet with all its swirls is like seeing the first road sign pointing to your hometown on the road after being gone for many years. It sets in motion a sense of ease; "you can relax now," "you're home."

The part of the cat are the lines I struggled with the most. Originally, it ended right before that but I felt it was unfinished. I also thought a touch of macabre humor might be in order. For this type of travel it may be a few days to the traveller but could well be years for the home. Forgetting to put the cat out means you have a real mess to clean up when you get back. Maybe the horror is in that one link. 

MR: I think you are getting something across, in a creative way, about how much we can take for granted.  Advances in science and technology are astounding and yet it’s easy to view these things through our life experience primarily, not so much relative to historical or scientific precedent. The advances themselves promote a kind of living in the moment….a kind of speeding up and slowing down, much like your salesman: the Classic ennui… I’m moving fast but where am I going really.  Please correct me if I’m wrong here. 

DC: Yes. With this particular poem, there is also the notion that we absorb technology into that moment. It simply becomes another way of letting us do the same thing and accomplish the same tasks, even if in a different mode. Perhaps the major difference is the loss of true personal interaction. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Kairo, though technologically a bit behind the times even when filmed, posited this dark view of this loss. In Kairo, a virus is spread through bored people accessing a forbidden site on the Internet. It’s a very cliché premise now, but not so much when first filmed (predating Facebook, Tinder and Skype). Besides opening the user to potential attack from the typical long-haired psycho ghost girl, this virus would infect an illness in the user. All joy and color would fade from their lives. As they retreated internally, they would become more and more despondent until finally they would simply be consumed by despair, the only remains of their existence being an ashen shadow on the wall or floor. Kurosawa was exploring the disaffection of humanity from itself as a result of technology. While seeming to be a new form of expression, communication and entertainment, Kurosawa’s view was that it actually isolated us even further in the great urban dystopian sprawls that had already engulfed humanity. Eventually these sprawls would become empty.
 My poem Traveling Salesman perhaps takes a more positive view. Despite all the changes, the fundamental “I” will prevail; even if in the end we are rather mundane folk just trying to make do in life. 

MR: While reading your poems I find a common theme of movement and searching, and also of confinement…empty walls and hallways, bolted doors or doorways being opened and shut.  This searching may be elemental to poetry in general but you have placed the search in some very concrete, unique locations and time-periods.  Poems such as The Choice of the Last Child of Proveglia and the path seem to be prime examples of the search in your poetry, or the title poem which I hope we can explore later.  Would you care to discuss the themes of searching and confinement in these poems or in your poetry in general?  Also, while doing a cursory search for Proveglia I came across some information on the island of Poveglia.  Is this the setting or inspiration for the poem?

 DC: Your question touches on two themes here really. The first, the perpetual “search” is more than a journey to find something. When you read the pieces the characters seem driven to go down these corridors towards a certain fatalistic end. Their journey is confined. The doors along the way may give the impression of choice, but you have no choices when you can only find one of the doors unlocked.
Horror and dark fantasy are allegories of ourselves and our fears of the worst of ourselves. Vampires, werewolves and brain eating zombies are the classic addicts. If you have ever known someone severely addicted you sense in them a fatalism. For all their talk of changing and turning the corner, they really think the game is rigged against them. They are going to fail because the pathway has been laid out so they have no real choices. The traditional horror monsters are almost always forced to suppress anything good in their nature. They eat because it is their nature to eat. No matter how they want to change their nature in the end they consume. The worst of them wins.
 Hallway passages have always been a classic image to me. In larger hotels the hallways seem endless. You go down searching for your number. You have the key for one door only unless you exit altogether. Often, if the hallway is long enough there always seems to be patches of dark down the hall. As if somehow there was an interruption to the flow of the path; or if somewhere down the line, the path just ceases to exist. In Kubrick’s The Shining the continual shots of little Danny rumbling down in his Hot Wheel were the most visually disturbing to me. The rumble of the wheels and the relentless stretches were a bit unnerving. You just knew that somewhere on that pathway something bad was going to happen. Hotels are imperfect imitations of home anyway. No matter how comfortable it isn’t home. When I travel for business it doesn’t matter what hotel I am in, if my family isn’t there it isn’t home. I never sleep well. The only thing I have to look forward to when finally getting to the room is a bed some other stranger has already slept in.
.…I came across a reference to the island of Proveglia last year when the city of Venice decided to put the infamous island up for sale. I read its history – literally thousands died on that island. The island was a “lazarreto” or quarantine station. During different plagues up to 160,000 people were sent there to die. The locals, as would be expected, strongly believe it is haunted…. After discovering the history of this island, I wanted to write about it. The last major use of the island was as a mental hospital of allegedly dubious character with some type of riotous end. So I envisioned this place of death and despair where those facing the onslaught of demons (the plague in creature form) desperately fight to survive. 

MR:  In reading the Emperors of the Grass, and to some degree Crossing the Realms, I find myself reflecting back to Shelley’s Ozymandias.  I don’t mean this to imply mimicry, but really as a compliment in comparison to a great work of literature.  If I’m reading this right we are speaking of a similar theme….Shelley’s is a sonnet….but both poems express futility in the face of vanity, using a monument to expose the futility of a hollow, boastful pride.  Time will deal with all transgressions.    
what regalia is the matted grass
under the dripping moss;
the warm ground searing the metal laden subterranean
the airless keep protecting its proud master.

Am I correct in seeing an affinity to Ozymandias, and if so, to the larger scope of Romantic writers and themes; writers such as Shelley, William Blake, or Edgar Allen Poe?  I’m thinking of Romanticism in the sense of valuing intense emotion, even horror in the face of extreme rationality, or placing intuition over reason.  I sense other affinities; you mentioned Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Odyssey; a shared affinity toward heroic individualism. And also you mentioned a disquieting beauty in noir, maybe something like the sublime found in Romanticism.  Before I spend more time on what could be my own futile attempt to connect imaginary dots, please chime in and set me straight.

DC: Great question and observation, but there are no particular poems that gave rise to those poems. There is a definite romantic theme in many of the poems. I think the book could be labeled a more modern form of gothic romanticism. The noir of mankind derives from his own nature erupting from the sheen of civility and moral “high ground.” The question that comes from this is whether Man has “fallen” because of this nature or because he has created an ideal for himself that artificially tries to separate Man from this nature? Are we bad because we have decided what is right and wrong and judge ourselves despite how we were made. If we are made to be who we are, how can we be monsters for following the natural disposition of our creation. The “monsters” of gothic literature or horror may be the dark side of this moral struggle. 

Emperors and Realms have two different backstories. Realms came out of a writing exercise on a writing listserv I once belonged to. We were given the title and asked to write around it. The title struck me as rather dark. Instead of some flowery description of entering another time or dimension (or some equivalent of the hereafter), memories of walking through old Christ’s Church in Old Towne Alexandria, Virginia popped in my head when trying to write the piece. In the churchyard are old gravestones so worn no names can be read. I suppose the church has the record of who they put in there, but it struck me profoundly that after some point even our very names would be forgotten. Everything that is important to us has no importance after a time. That set the piece off with some allusions to Greek mythology (Sisyphus -- that or struggle for some higher purpose is like the old king rolling his stone) as well as the dark horseman. The idea is that only the living who fear death and only the living who suffer from the plagues and things that can bring death. Hope itself belongs to the living. So, we have this moment; this one time to rant and rave against anything adverse. Our job is to take it and do with what we have. We can count on nothing else. 

Emperors came into my head starting with the first line. There are several references to Shakespeare in the piece (e.g., “my kingdom, my kingdom). So, I wanted to create at least a faux impression of something more traditional. For the rhythm of the piece some of his more famous soliloquies (McBeth’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech for example) come to mind. The poem vaguely attempts some meter and ends with a classical couplet.  
There is a mocking in this piece. Mocking the monuments of death and the trappings put in place by those who somehow believe the larger the stone, the more life they will salvage. So the notion of the grass being some type of royal cloak came to my head and I worked with it. Some of the lines were a sardonic jab at the physical reality of death itself.  
These two pieces are not my favorites of the book, but they were included because they cover the dark themes you pointed out. Ozymandias was not in the front of my mind when I wrote this. Ozymandias and Poe’s El Dorado have been part of me since I first encountered them as a grade school student. They both focus on the pride and fall of man; even the good man. The point of both these poems is not to breed hopelessness. It’s the opposite. Ozymandias (presumably inspired by the buried ruins of the sphinx) thought he could overpower time itself with his great works. The Gallant Knight in El Dorado spent his whole life trying to find and achieve some ideal or purity of being that could never be reached. The lone hero isn’t brave because he wins, he’s brave because he fights even if he knows that he will lose. The hero does not forget the purpose of his journey. As with Emperors and Realms if we get caught up in the false promise of immortality among the living, that is living forever in this world in some way, we lose the trueness of life’s moments. But because our own flaws, we will likely fail to see that. The afterlife will be what it is and once we are there, I doubt we will look back. Perhaps that was the true punishment of Lot’s wife when she looked back at her hometown being destroyed for wickedness. 

MR:  Let me start my final questions by thanking you for your time and the thoughtfulness with which you conducted the interview.  I believe your answers have provided wonderful insight into your work.  As a librarian I am always interested in promoting writers (especially local writers) to a wider audience and I hope this format will help in that aim.  While I read all types of writing, I really value poetry as the highest form of written expression.  To do it well requires diligence to the craft and a true love of language.  As a young man, the work of Whitman and Eliot, Jeffers and Plath, the poems of Tu Fu; these poems became a part of me and continue to open my perspective.  I think only poetry has this power. Could you talk a little about poetry today.  It’s cultural relevance in a world moving at hyper speed; a world maybe moving toward a more visual expression. 

DC:  You are very welcome. I want to thank you and the folks at the Friendswood Library for the support you all provide to local artists. Houston has a huge and diverse poetry scene. Reading venues exist throughout the city. Writers I have met from the East Coast speak enviously of the many avenues for poets to read. Nationally, more people make a living from poetry than perhaps in any generation in history. MFA programs produce teachers who go out and teach, hold workshops and readings. Students take the classes so they also can earn MFAs and hope to teach or workshop.  The advent of Create Space and similar services has spawned a huge number of small "kitchen presses" that literally involve publishers working at night in their kitchens to edit and publish books through ebook and print on demand services.  

Even so, poets I know often ask aloud the same question, "What purpose is it if the same people always come to their readings?" Put another way, "Is poetry a living art when the only audience for poetry appears to be fellow poets." In the days of the Medici's and nobility it was considered the duty of the nobility to sponsor art. Much later, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Elliot and Dylan Thomas could fill large lecture halls with paying audiences. Poe scraped a living from publishing poems in newspapers. Others did very well publishing regularly in gazettes and magazines. Imagine the Houston Chronicle having a literature section, much less paying a poet for work. Horror publications, thanks to the Horror Writers Association's efforts, are the few who will pay for poetry. You cannot live on such payments as maybe in the past. I once figured that for the going rate, even in horror, I'd have to publish over 5,000 poems a year to make a modest living. Somehow poets did it long ago. Shakespeare as we know wrote for the common man and was rewarded for it.

This was, of course, before television took root, and of course, it's electronic progeny cable, wifi, and smart phones. The entire world at your fingertips and yet we are more alone and less literate than any generation in history. 

I recently read a study paid for with federal money that less than 8% of the general public said they had read poetry on any regular or even irregular basis. If you look at the bios of college or major publications you see two major trends -- the poets come from academic backgrounds and you have never heard of any of them unless you run in their small circles. As active as the Houston Poetry Scene and those in other cities have become, the academic poetry world still dominates this very narrow field. This means that the local poets, no matter how well liked they are among their peers, are essentially ignored by a predilection for the academics to only publish their own. By doing so poetry is farther removed from the broad audience it once seemed to enjoy. I wonder where poetry will be 50 years from now? Will poets be reduced to the lonely practitioners of a forgotten religion; relegated to empty ceremonies honoring their long dead gods?

MR: And finally, in getting to know an artist I think it is helpful to know what inspires them.  Could you share some of your favorite artists (be it poets or otherwise), and maybe mention a few things about their work that inspires or influences you.  Thanks once again for your participation. 

DC: You are very welcome. For me inspiration is wide and far reaching. I suppose growing up poor with a large family, an alcoholic father who died when I was very young the same week our house burned down and a mother who stoically persevered was an inspiration. My poetry reflects a grittiness that comes from the world I was raised in. My mother was an English teacher and brought home records of poets and I would listen to them over and over. I discovered Poe, Sandburg, Auden, Frost, Pound, Thomas and Elliot through these. Listening to these voices made me want to emulate them; to put into words something that moved the reader. I also loved Whitman and Stephen Crane.   The poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks brought me to see the struggles of others and the nobility of hope despite the daily despair of so many.
But anyone in my generation who denies that they were influenced by rock and folk poets is simply trying to be falsely pretentious. Bob Dylan was righteous. He spoke of haunted frightened trees; of electricity howling through the bones; of dancing beneath the diamond sky. Paul Simon told me that the angst and introspection I was living was shared by many. Kris Kristofferson amazed me with Casey's Last Ride and Jesus Was A Capricorn. Springsteen sang poetry of the streets and Bernie Taupin's lyrics stirred me. And who didn't have chills when you first heard "Breathe deep the gathering gloom" in the Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin.  These poets made me want to express my thoughts in poetical form and to touch my readers with my word as they had.  

Later, in college, SHSU Dr. Paul Ruffin, later to become a Texas Poet Laureate, taught me how to collect the emotions I felt and put them down in a flowing, living piece. He introduced me to Galway Kinnell -- literally and personally at Ruffin's house-- before he won his Pulitzer, where I was able to ask him if The Bear was based on his own experiences (it was not). I met Donald Justice, before his first Pulitzer. I got to pick Larry McMurtry's brain at a dinner party after a reading of his books. All of these experiences and writers molded me.  In the end it was the simple "make do with what you have" Missouri wisdom of my mother that has molded me the most. She instilled in me an eye for the practical and taught me to cherish the wonder of everything around me. Nothing is common. Everything and everyone has a story. 

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