From Hunger Volume 5, #2, Issue 11, 2003
Interviewer: J. J. Blickstein
1) What is your assessment of the current state of American poetry?
At the turn of the 20th century, American poetry, with the compelling exceptions of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, was filled with Victorian decorum and was a poetry of taste, on extremely limited subjects, written almost exclusively by white males. At the millennium, this picture has changed radically: written by African-American, Asian, Chicano, as well as white heterosexual and declared homosexual men and women, American poetry, as a composite force, has become more representative of humanity.
This democratization of poetry must be evaluated in the light of some three hundred undergraduate and graduate university degree programs offering majors in writing poetry and fiction. This system is now producing thousands of talented but unoriginal writers, many of whom would not be writing at all if it were not for jobs. Once upon a time there was a "left bank" and a "right bank," in our poetry: the innovative vs. the traditional. Today the writing scene resembles a blizzard on an archipelago of sites. Not only has the laudable democratization of poetry been compromised by being brick-layered into the academy but with few exceptions there is a lack of strong "signature" and a tacit affirmation of the bourgeois status quo, the politics of no-politics.
Exposed to the information avalanche generated throughout a country whose interventionist tentacles are coiling about all parts of the globe, the tendency of poets of all ilks (especially those with jobs at stake) is to preoccupy themselves with word games, displays of self- sensitivity, or pastiches of entertaining asides. Not long ago in The New York Review of Books, the poet/reviewer Charles Simic praised as a major achievement a poem by the current Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, which basically expressed Collins' "sensitive" surprise that cows actually moo.
In the official verse culture backed by The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, reviews and contributions are determined by taste, precious intellectuality, and an old boy's club (which includes old girls). X may be exposed but only under certain conditions and in certain decorous ways. There is still something paddling around in the Puritan depths of the American poet that says: do not investigate the real news, and hold off saying anything that will disturb or demand anything more than an immediate response.
On one hand, the writing programs have reinforced the official verse culture by providing hundreds of young writers each year eager to be accepted, get jobs, and win prizes (virtually the only way you can get a first book done today is by winning a contest judged in most cases by well-known conventional writers). To my knowledge, few writing programs back a genuinely international viewpoint, exposing young poets to the range of materials one finds in the two volume Poems for the Millennium (ed. by Rothenberg and Joris). The same names reappear with deadly regularity as featured writers in summer retreats, as judges, as grant recipients and as those invited to campuses.
On the other hand, as always, there are a significant number of poets who are doing solid work in their mature years and younger poets who look as if they are capable of contributing a fresh body of work. The first names who come to mind in these regards are Adrienne Rich, Robin Blaser, Gary Snyder, Gerrit Lansing, Robert Creeley, Jerry Rothenberg, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, Robert Kelly, Kenneth Irby, Rachel Blau du Plessis, Nate Mackey, Michael Palmer, Pierre Joris, John Olson, Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, Christine Hume, Catherine Wagner, Dale Smith, Linh Dinh, Wang Ping and Tory Dent.
2) How are you addressing the current events on the world theater, 9/11, the imminent "War for Oil" with Iraq, the North Korean conflict, in your work?
My initial response to the 9/11 assaults, as a reader/investigator, was to start making myself more aware of what we might have done to others, beyond our borders, to instigate such action. I read William Blum's Rogue State, and am now reading his Killing Hope. Learning of Bush's bizarre and utterly irresponsible immediate response to the assaults (he continued listening to school children read to him in a Sarasota grade school for nearly a half hour), I also began to learn more about him by reading Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon. Then Gore Vidal alerted me to the considerable possibility that the official version of what happened on 9/11 was bogus. Vidal's information was based on Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed's The War on Freedom which I studied for several weeks, at the same time checking its information with the numerous 9/11 sites (e.g., Paul Thompson's The Complete 9/11 Time-site). I have not found any information that contradicts Ahmed's. There is additional material in David Icke's Alice In Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster, but one must ponder it in a context that is Blakean and obsessed with global fascist conspiracy controlled by reptilian "entities."
After studying the Ahmed book, I wrote "The Assault," which opens with compressed time-line data on some of the evidence that contests the official 9/11 version. Part II is my own lyric response, written out of the angry indignation I associate with Robert Duncan's "Uprising," the key declaration by a poet during the Vietnamese War. My poem can be read on the Skanky Possum web site.
The 9/11 matter has taken up nearly all my political reading time over the past months. I try to make myself aware of the political dimension but not be taken over by it. I am of course dead set against an invasion of Iraq, and see it as stepping stone #2 after our despicable bombing of Afghanistan (there is still no evidence that would hold up in court that bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 assaults--in fact there is considerable evidence that bin Laden is a CIA asset, and that the assaults were either permitted to happen or arranged by our own government in order to get the public outrage backing to go into Afghanistan, an invasion that was planned months before 9/11--primarily to get rid of the unreliable Taliban, which we created in the first place, and to install a government amenable to a UNOCAL oil pipeline into the Caspian reserves).
I haven't spent much time on the North Korean situation and probably know less about it than you do.
I think there are certain occasions that call for a politically-focused poem; in that sense I wanted to get possible government conspiracy on 9/11 into the poetic record. Beyond that, I seek to build an atmosphere of political awareness into everything I write. I have done this for some years. I want a sense of my own time, in a national and international way, to permeate my language. The only way the American poem can remain human, as our government expands its imperialist domination of the world (and space), is for the poet to ceaselessly indicate awareness of the monstrous interventionist framework within which, as a tiny and impotent god, he mixes his poisons and proceeds. In this sense, I am an alchemist with one eye on fire, literally and figuratively.
3) What, in your view, is the responsibility of the American poet, and poetry editor, right now?
To believe that writing remains significant, that significance is not the enemy--the enemy is the eternal game of pretending not to know what is going on. To return to 9/11 for a moment: it opened up not a can of worms but more like a silo of hydras, and the event itself should drive every writer crazy with curiosity about what we must have done to people to make them do that to us--I think that is the first command; the second would be to openly bend the first command back upon ourselves and ask: do we now have the kind of people in government who would sacrifice thousands of American (and Afghan) lives for greedy, global ambitions that they themselves do not understand? I think that significance has to face such commands and to risk being overwhelmed by what the writer finds out during his investigations.
I feel that it is absolutely wrong to say that an event like 9/11 provides justification for a poetry that avoids meaning, or to believe that 9/11 changed the world because it happened to us. Of course those directly impacted by the assault on the WTC and the Pentagon must grieve, and work through their grief but the rest of us should not feel sorry for ourselves. If anything 9/11 should make us angry at our foreign policy of the past 50 years for, allowing for the possible truth of the official story, there is no reason to wonder why people from the Middle East or other Muslim countries would want to commit terrorist acts against the United States. Over the past 20 years, we have shot down Libyan and Iranian planes on several occasions, bombed Beirut, created a Vietnam for the Russians in Afghanistan, aided both Iran and Iraq during their war in the 1980s so as to maximize the damage each side would inflict upon the other, bombed Iraq, imposed grueling sanctions upon its population, blown up a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (that I understand provided half of that impoverished nation's medicine), given 10 million dollars a day to Israel despite the fact that it has so ruined the quality of life in Palestine that it is no wonder that the humiliated and abject young can only think of themselves as ammunition, and established hi-tech military presences in Islam's holiest land, Saudi Arabia.
9/11 aside, if that is possible, responsibility has to involve responsible innovation, a poetry that pushes into the known and the unknown, insisting on making not non sequitur nonsense, but uncommon sense. The ancient base for art is still true: that of clearing new ground in consciousness. Blake's "Without contraries there is no progression" is quite relevant--unless a poet learns to stave off and admit at the same time, or to work with constant ambivalence, to hold open to the beauty and horror of the world as he holds open to what his perceptivity and subconscious provides him with, then you are pretty much left with "official verse culture" (the term is Charles Bernstein's, and appeared in an article by him in Sulfur #10). Poets do not lack an audience because what they write is difficult and demanding--they lack an audience because the writing that is foregrounded by the magazines and newspapers I mentioned earlier, and by most of the trade presses, and writing programs, is superficial and a waste of a serious reader's time. People who read The New Yorker for the engaging investigative reports and occasionally fine fiction must find nearly all of the poetry in its pages ridiculous. A judgment is made: poetry is categorized as a waste of time.
You also ask about a poetry editor's responsibilities. As far as magazines are concerned, I think my view is made clear through the way I handled Sulfur. I think that poetry should find its way in a context that includes art, art commentary, reviews, archival materials, and investigative information--that is, it should not detach itself into itself, as it does when you have magazines that are 100% poems. A good editor constantly reveals where he is coming from, not only in his editing, but in the positions he takes, attempting to herald the cogent new, and reveal the emptiness in esteemed mediocrity.
4) You've commented in the past that translating another poet's work is a form of apprenticeship--but tell me more about the "permission" it gave you in your "...quest for authenticity and for constructing an alternate world."
Permission, in that sentence from "At the Locks of the Void: Co-Translating Aime Cesaire" (in Companion Spider), means to me not only the freedom to act but the ability to refuse, which translates as a kind of functional ambivalence in regard to self and world. While Whitman is famous for "Do I contradict myself? Ok, I contradict myself--I contain multitudes" (or some thing close to that), his work is not contradiction-infested in the way that Cesar Vallejo's is. Vallejo's contradictions move like non-sequiturs throughout the poetry he wrote in Europe (1923-1938), and the context for them is richer there, and less abstract, than in the earlier Trilce (1922). I was a walking contradiction that had not met itself when I encountered Vallejo's poetry in the late 1950s. Discovering poetry was like finding myself suddenly in a jungle with no know-how, no survival smarts, and it, poetry, immediately informed me that my life up to that moment made little sense. It was as if by working translationally through the Poemas humanos I was also opening up galleries below the text for my own soul to crawl through. I thought Vallejo day and night, dreamed Vallejo, went to Peru with a pregnant wife and $300 in 1965 to try to get at his worksheets for what I was translating (since all the editions in print were full of errors). I turned Vallejo into a way, of sorts, and by making his Spanish yield my English, I learned how to make my mind invent an imagination. I should add here that during the years in Kyoto (1962-1964) when I was translating Vallejo daily, I was also reading all of Blake. His honorable life, his incredible inventiveness, and his unbreakable belief in his imagination became my spirit familiar, a kind of cobra spreading its hood and hovering over me while I worked and slept. I think that Blake got into me as deep as, if not deeper than, Vallejo, because I once passed out while reading The Book of Urizen. The spiritual charge was greater than I could accommodate at the time, and it simply ate my consciousness for an hour or so.
Translating Antonin Artaud has also offered its own range of permissions, primarily in a greater respect for the coherence of the subconscious than I had before studying his writing and drawing. Artaud after electro-shock is a mined man--his life has been pillaged, he is like something that has been bombed, poisoned, and raped--which is to say that he has also been completely released from any dependence on decorum or taste. From 1945 to 1948, when he dies, he simply writes and draws what comes through, what the pillage yields. Another way to put this is to say that the mental lines between his consciousness and his unconscious have been erased. I am not at all in Artaud's position, understand, and I do not in any way pretend to have incorporated his life into my own. What is valuable here relates to shamanism and to mental travel.
I think that the most delicious place to write from is from a state that might be called Dreaming Awake, a state of trance, in which the two-way movement between the subconscious and consciousness has been made maximally flexible. Blake's contraries again. You realize that most people are walking accident sites, filled with constant smash-ups between conscious and unconscious worlds. Artaud is also a very tragic figure, because he almost had to be crushed in order to realize himself imaginatively. I feel a great deal of affection for him--even tenderness. He is about as close to a living ghost as one will find in a poet. Wasn't it John Berryman who said that the best thing that can happen to a poet is something that will all but kill him? Generally this is not true at all! But in Artaud's case, Berryman's point is made.
5) Tell me a little bit about Juniper Fuse, the Upper Paleolithic imagination, and the 25 years of work it took to research, compose, and compile the book.
In the spring of 1974, my wife Caryl and I rented for several months sight unseen an apartment in a farm complex several kilometers from Les Eyzies de Tayac, in the French Dordogne. We were inspired to do this after having spent an evening with the translator Helen Lane in Paris. Helen said: you must see the Dordogne before you leave France, and she spoke of it in such magical tones that we were won over (a similar inspired pitch for the Dordogne may be found in the opening pages of Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi--Miller goes so far as to call it the land of the poets, a land which the poets will reclaim after civilization has destroyed itself!).
It turned out that the English secretary of Hallam Movius Jr., a famous paleo-archeologist from Harvard, who had worked on a dig at Abri Pataud, in Les Eyzies, for years, lived in the basement of our building, and she told us that if we wanted to visit Lascaux she could arrange it via Movius (Lascaux was closed to the public in the 1960s because of deterioration in the paintings caused by the irresponsible handling of tourist traffic in the cave). So we visited Lascaux and all the other caves open to the public in the area--about a dozen all in all--and we were profoundly impressed by what we saw. The fact that we saw these paintings and engravings where they were made--between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago--and not in a decontextualizing museum was part of the thrill. Helen Lane loaned us her cave book collection and I discovered something of equal importance in regard to anything that I might write: no poet had taken on the Upper Paleolithic and performed what Charles Olson called "a saturation job." All the writing up to then, with the exception of Georges Bataille's monograph on Lascaux, was done by archeologists. I had no idea where I was heading, but before we left the area that summer I had determined to return, and to begin an open-ended investigational project.
Over the next two decades, we returned to the Dordogne whenever we could. We could not afford trips at our own expense, so we had to figure out special ways to get back there. We returned twice in the late 1970s on my Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships. On a couple of occasions, we returned on the basis of writing travel articles, and in the early 1980s we organized and led two small tour groups to the region. We now lead a tour each June (no more than 20 people), sponsored by the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota (if any Hunger readers are interested, they should get in touch with me).
The majority of the 160 caves in France with Upper Paleolithic imagery are neither open to tourists or closed to them, as Lascaux is. Some are still privately-owned, and the rest are under government control. Such caves are studied by archeologists and are often difficult to explore, requiring cave expertise and spelunking equipment. In the late 1970s I made contact with Jean Clottes, then in charge of the caves in the Ariege (the southern-most region of France), and he arranged for us to visit Les Trois Freres, Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Le Portel, Marsoulas, and interior areas of Gargas and Niaux that tourists do not see. The visit to Le Tuc d'Audoubert was especially exciting and important to my project. It is a difficult cave, and one must mainly crawl upward (on knees, belly, or waddling) for 800 yards before reaching the chamber with two bison sculpted out of clay, around 15,000 years old. The piece I wrote, "Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d'Audoubert" jumps back and forth between poetry, prose poetry, and prose, and made me realize that it was a model for the book I was to write.
Between 1974 and 1997 (when I was given permission to visit the Lascaux "Shaft," and realized that I had come to the end of my investigation), we must have visited around 40 caves, some a couple dozen of times. Unfortunately, I was never alone in a cave, and was unable to spend a day or two in one to really experience sensory isolation in the dark--a key factor I believe in Cro-Magnon's spiritual response to the caves leading to spontaneous engraving or painting. Perhaps I should add here that the range of image-making for this 25,000-year continuum is immense, with what appear to be wall scribbling by children at one end of the spectrum, and the bravura depictation of animals, including perspective and shading, and undoubtedly planned in group coordination, at the other end. On the basis of some remaining footprints in the clay floors, we know that men, women, and children frequented the caves, and it is best to assume that all were involved in image-making.
I was feeling very frustrated in the early 1980s about the direction my work was to take, and I began to pray for some divine aid to open up a vision for me. The problem with calling the gods is not whether they will respond or not, but how--and my prayer was met by my nearly losing my life! Caryl and I had rented a stone cottage outside of Les Eyzies. We met a young French couple, had them over to dinner, and after I drove them back to their place they told me they had a cave on the property that they wanted to show me. There was no image-making in it, and I should have said no. But I allowed myself to be talked into it, and we emerged several hours later, covered with mud. As I was pulling myself up from a bottleneck in the cave I twisted my left ankle, and was limping when I returned to the car. Driving back home, on the narrow one lane road, suddenly a spasm went through my ankle, I lost control of the car and plunged into a ditch, breaking my ankle in three places. Had I plunged right instead of left, I would have ended up at the bottom of a 50--foot ravine. It happens that I had been invited for some readings and lectures in Germany during the following weeks, so after I got out of the Sarlat hospital, leg in cast, Caryl drove us to Germany and I crutched through my programs. While riding on the vast Autobahns, out of remorse for being so careless, and desperate to make something out of it, I wrote "Visions of the Fathers of Lascaux," a 17--page poem that attempts to imagine the psychic interchange between the cave and those who covered it with paintings and engravings.
I completed "Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld" in 1999. Penguin Putnam held it for over a year and returned it unread; then Coffee House held it for nearly a year, read it, said they would probably publish it if I would shorten the ms. (which was originally 570 pages), which I did--to 440 pages--then they said they could not afford to do it and returned it. I then showed it to Wesleyan University Press and they accepted it, and will bring it out in the fall of 2003. It is about 65% prose, and 35% poetry, with over 100 photos and drawings. While I studied the writings of archeologists like the Abbes Breuil and Glory, Annette Laming, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, S. Giedion, Max Raphael, Paolo Graziosi, Alexander Marshack, Jean Clottes, Margaret Conkey, and Paul Bahn, I also drew upon a range of thinkers outside of archeology proper, such as C.G. Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Geza Roheim, Mikhail Bakhtin, Weston LaBarre, Charles Olson, N.O. Brown, Kenneth Grant, James Hillman, Hans Peter Duerr, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. I propose a two-part thesis as to why image-making occurred when and where it did, and I tie one aspect of the image-making into the roots of poetry. I believe that following poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits real bedrock--a genuine back wall--but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My growing awareness of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pre-tradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making. Such has released me from some of the alienation and hopelessness that have permeated the 20th century.
6) What's next for you? What would you like to tackle that you haven't yet had sufficient opportunity to research or engage?--I certainly hope that you continue to write about art and artists.
I have stopped translating, editing (Sulfur ended in spring 2000, with #45/46), and as of this May, I will retire from teaching. I have assembled all of the translations I have done that I feel are first-rate, and not part of the big single author books, into a manuscript called Conductors of the Pit: Poetry Written in Extremis in Translation. I am now seeking a publisher for this, and I hope to also find a publisher for A Sulfur Anthology that Jed Rasula and I would edit. Workwise, over the years I have collected materials on Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, or The Millennium, as some call it, and if I can figure out the right angle (or angel) by which to approach that monster I will try to take it on. I also have a lot of books on the Maya, and having visited a number of sites in the 60s and 70s, I can see a possible project there. You mention art and artists--yes, I continue to write about artists whose work really engages me. There are pieces on Henry Darger, Leon Golub, Francis Bacon, Henri Michaux, Camille Corot and the sculptor Noguchi in Everwhat, a collection that Zasterle Press, in the Canary Islands, will publish this spring. There is a piece on Mary Ann Unger (a powerful sculptor who died a few years ago), and passages on Jackson Pollock and Peter Beard, in My Devotion, which the new incarnation of Black Sparrow Press will bring out in the winter of 2004. A few weeks ago, I completed a piece on beheading in Caravaggio, a project that has taken a couple of years.
What I really want to work on, in a sense of poetics, is to figure out how to access the language I hear in dreams. Every so often, I have a dream in which a voice speaks a kind of magnificent nonsense, English and not English which, in the dream, makes perfect non-common sense! I think that this language must relate to the language-twisting of the shamans, and I suspect it is still writhing on the ground floor of poetry. When I try to reproduce any of it awake, it doesn't work to my waking mind what I come up with is merely babble.
7) Who is your favorite Iron Chef? I'm torn between Morimoto and Sakai.
For me, the Iron Chefs are the poetic equivalent of Poetry Slams. Sorry to rain on your parade, but that is how I feel. I enjoyed the first two or three, with all that intense dramatic action, then lost interest. So I will have to respond to your last question in a different way. Listening to a Bill Evans ballad evokes the cooking of Thomas Keller, layered, chord-like. Keller is the chef-owner of The French Laundry, in Yountville, California, and a real artist. His restaurant is in a universe parallel to ours. Thinking about Keller's food assemblies also reminds me of Hart Crane's metaphors. Keller will put several things together you never imagined making up a single dish, in somewhat the same spirit Crane writes "Thy unmangled target smile" at the end of my candidate for the greatest 20th--century lyric poem, "Lachrymae Christi."
Of course, it is rarely that Caryl and I go to Yountville to eat at The French Laundry. Mainly I stay home and do the cooking. For that, I mainly use Richard Olney's Simple French Cooking, along with some of Marcella Hazan's Italian books. I recommend Olney especially to Hunger readers: his recipe description is so coherent and clear that one friend of mine, Jim Wanless (who translates Michaux) uses paragraphs by Olney in his freshman composition courses. Olney is also one of the few cookbook writers I so trust that I will do a recipe for the first time for company.