Pierre Martory: an interview by Rosanne Wasserman.
Pierre says, of his camera: "It's very complicated, It's very simple, really, but you have to be aware of everything." RW is wearing Pierre's moss-green golf cardigan sweater. The poet Eugene Richie, her husband, has taken their two-year-old son Joseph out to a playground. Pierre is working on his computer. "Ask me how old I am. I will not lie," he says. Rosanne Wasserman: What's the name of your word processor? Pierre Martory: Logoscript. RW: How old are you? Martory: Seventy-two years. No, seventy-one years. I don't know. Twenty-one was one year. I am seventy-one and eight months and fifteen days exactly. And I am one meter 66.5. I don't know how many feet that makes. Sixty-three K. I am a bachelor, male. RW: Why did you become a poet? Martory: I don't know. I think it was love, because the first poem I wrote was for a girl, Francine Petton, and then I wrote all the time. Whenever I had a dissertation at the lycee, sometimes I wrote them in verse. And sometimes the teacher congratulated me but others told me I was a pretentious student. . . . RW: You don't mean precocious? Martory: I started to write poetry seriously when I was in the army. In February '41, I went to the army. I enlisted for three years in Morocco because France was occupied by the Germans, my father was an officer of the Moroccan army, et cetera, and I wanted to escape from France. I decided to go to Morocco to the regiment where my father had been years before. But I was very lonely, I was alone--I was not alone, there were plenty, not plenty but a few French people, but they were not of my, let's say, education; I was quite pretentious at that time. I was feeling very lonely and I began to write poetry. There was a magazine for the army. I sent some of my poems to the magazine and I received a very nice letter from the editor, saying it was very good, et cetera, and that I have to go on writing poetry. So I went on writing poetry, but I didn't send any poetry to any magazine or anything. RW: So first it was out of love and then it was out of loneliness. Martory: Exactly! RW: Are you finding yourself today often going back to very early work? Or is this unusual? Martory: It's just because now I have been making a kind of collection. So I am going back to my early poems. Sometimes I destroy them because they're very childish, but some are quite interesting and I rewrite them. I mean I don't get the inspiration but I rewrite only for the form. I make it more dense; I erase some superfluous expressions. That's a kind of editing. RW: Do you expand any? Martory: No, they're always shorter. RW: Do any provide new inspiration for new work? Martory: No, my inspiration is completely different now. RW: When you say you destroy them, do you mean that literally? Martory: Yes, I destroyed some, silly love poems, because I was very romantic when I was a young man in the army and I had no friend and no girl and nothing there, so I wrote just silly things. Also, I wrote verses which were only descriptive and without very great interest. RW: Tell me more about your new collection. What is the collection going to be? Martory: I don't know. I was discussing it with Eugene the other day. I cannot find the connecting thread for this collection of poems because the poems were written over a period of forty year now--more--and there are some poems that I find very inspired and very new in form and in expression, which I like. Some are full of maladresse, not very polished; there other ones I want to keep. I have the idea of making a collection of my most recent poems and then if necessary I could publish the older poems later or make a collection of all my work up to now. But if I continue to work--I mean if I die tomorrow, it's okay, that will be my work, but if I continue I don't know. I never think of doing this as a career. Even when I was writing novels, or something like that, I was never thinking of making money. RW: When did you start to do novels? Martory: I started to write a novel in Morocco, and the first novel I wrote was published. RW: Phebus. Martory: Yes, I wrote a short story first and then I developed it, and nobody helped me work; I had no advice or anything. So I wrote two versions of it, one quite long and the other shorter. When I was working at Air France in Bordeaux, just after the war, I was working at the airport and I had a lot of free time there, waiting for the planes to arrive late. I had a typewriter and I wrote. Once my boss came looking over my shoulder and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I am writing a novel," and he said, "You're silly, writing a novel! What will your novel be about? You are writing a novel! Do you think you can make me believe that!" So when I published it I sent him the novel. But I was not working in Bordeaux anymore, so I never knew his reaction. RW: Wonderful. You're worried about the idea of making a collection out of forty years of work. I am thinking of a poet like Yeats, who very consciously structured his work, from the time he was a teenager to the time he was an old many, trying to make one big monument, one big power out of it, and how opposed that is to most of the collections you see now, where the poet, if he's gone to the left, then he goes to the right, and he wibblewobbles in the middle sometimes, and that's okay. Martory: I have no direct line in my poetry. I write what goes through my head. But now I have a more directed line because I want to write more about the decadence of our civilization, I mean the city, the beautiful city destroyed like Beirut, or Dresden, which the British destroyed for nothing, just for revenge. And about the position of man toward God, because I think that God is unnecessary, absolutely, and man should be the god of himself. So I want to write about this, this is a preoccupation of mine. Also, I want to speak more about nature, but I have very little contact with nature and [a firecracker explodes] and that is the kind of contact with nature you have here! RW: Yes, I see, I see what's out the window! Martory: And I would like to be more able to go out to the woods, perhaps, for instance, and think of everything there. RW: That's hard to find. The cemetery this morning was just so much like a little city. Martory: Yes it's wonderful. I like it, because you have seen only the kind of skyscraper side of it, the monuments, but there is this other part that is more woody and there are many graves that are open. You see the coffins there and not the rest, because the bones have been taken by robbers, stolen. RW: The Buttes Chaumont poem seems to be certainly a nature poem in Paris. Martory: Yes. RW: But the park is so eerie because everything that looks natural, when you look closer, is concrete. Martory: Yes, but if you are in the little temple above, you see only the top of the trees and you see the city opposite, so you have the feeling that this is nature where you are, above it, and just across the street there is a city. But my poem of the Buttes Chaumont was a poem inspired by my private life. First it was a place where there was very much cruising up to twenty years ago, and it was pleasant, not very dangerous at all. I met very many people there who were very nice. But I thought of going up to the top of this temple and giving all the city to my lover; that was the general idea. RW: Then there's been a real change from that to what you're thinking of now. Do you think also of the destruction of Paris in your new work? Martory: No, I don't think of the destruction of Paris. Paris may be the last to be destroyed and the Parisians the last witnesses of the destruction of the world. Because Paris is very well protected from other civilizations. There is very little Americanization and Nipponization and the suburbs are not on the sides of Paris. There is no trouble, very little, so--it is not exactly a glass sphere, because life goes in it, but it is not contaminated by life. And the idea--it is not an abstract and poetic idea, it is a factual idea--is that Paris will be the last city standing in the world to represent our old civilization, like Rome was perhaps for a long time and everything crumbling down, or perhaps another civilization will be born somewhere else, and Paris will be the testimony of the old civilization, its stones, its monuments, which were not touched by the war for instance. RW: Yes, one of the cities in Europe that wasn't. Martory: Madrid was not destroyed; Rome has not been destroyed, but London has been destroyed, not to mention the German cities. RW: That's an apocalyptic vision, but without the end, really; with a change. I wonder how easternized things will be. Have you been influenced by your Moroccan experience in a literary way? Have you read any of their writers? Martory: No no, I have met some young poets, but not very many. I was surprised when I spoke with young people of seventeen, sixteen years old, and they would say to me, "I'm writing poems." They sent me some poems which are of no interest in themselves, but they were poems written by these young Moroccans. But I don't know any Moroccan poets, recognized poets. RW: You've heard Michael Gizzi and Peter Gizzi reading their works? Martory: Yes. RW: Other American poets? Martory: Not very much. RW: You were not really influenced. Where were you, however, in terms of inspiration or motivation, when you were done with the novel writing? Did the novels move you in one way or another? Martory: No, they were completely separate. RW: And what about your journalism? Martory: Completely separate. I wrote one line, I wrote about the destruction of the city, but no, I'm not inspired by that. Not even the art column. RW: So you didn't pick up on that. Martory: It's very difficult for me to say which writer or what influenced me. I know that John Ashbery wrote in the introduction to my little book there [Every Question But One (New York: Groundwater Press, 1990)] that I have been influenced by Raymond Queneau. Of course I wrote a poem after Queneau, but it's a kind of exercise. It's a silly poem in a certain way, but it's a poem which is quite long and happened in one instance between the two lights at an intersection of streets. Two vehicles were going in two directions, one bus and a car. In the bus there is a young girl and in the car there is a man and the man looks at the girl in one second and he says, "Oh, she is beautiful as she can be, a movie star!" And the woman looks at the man and says, "Oh, he has a huge car, he might be a mogul, a producer!" That was just a game; I don't think that Queneau could influence anybody, because he's an interesting poet but not a deeply profound poet. RW: That's as close as the Oulipo has come to what you're doing? Martory: Yes. RW: Harry Mathews's sphere. Martory: No, no, I wrote one poem in this style. RW: What about New York School people like Jimmy Schuyler? Martory: I've been influenced by John very much, possibly because he is the first foreign poet I read closely because I had to translate him. Of the great French poets, the last one was Mallarme and Valery, and that's all. But also I'm very influenced by the form of French poetry, the twelve-syllable line. I have to fight because naturally the rhythm of twelve syllables comes in my mind; I can write perfect verse, inside. RW: Professionally, that's detrimental, I know. I have that same problem; I sort of think in iambic pentameter and can't break it. Like Ezra Pound says, it's so hard to break. Martory: It's very difficult. It's a kind of automatism that comes in my mind. I learned so many verses in my studies during my lycee years that I have thousands and thousands of verses in my head. I can remember these and I also read and learned very many German verses, which also are dodecasyllabic sometimes. They have a measure, a rhythm, which is very strong. RW: Which Germans? Martory: I like Schiller; I like Holderlin very much too, but I like some Goethe. The short poems of Goethe are marvelous. And, oh yes, I like Lessing and Stefan George. RW: Do you read any moderns, twentieth century? Martory: No, no. RW: Do you read any other modern French poets? Martory: I have a kind of suspicion that all the French poets belong to a clique. RW: So there's really for you no French writers' society or community that you have, but you have a following, a very enthusiastic following, in New York City. How do you feel about that? Martory: Well, I feel very strange. It makes me proud; I am happy, very happy, to have this, and I would like to have the same audience in France. But I like very much to have these New York people interested. I don't know if they understand all that is in my poetry, the content of my poetry, but I think it is all right. I like it too, even though I have no ambition to pass anything to posterity. I spent a happy moment in New York reading my poetry and speaking about it eventually with people. And I never did that--no, oh, yes, I did that once in France, in 1952. I was here, I had come from Bordeaux to Paris and i met a group of poets. We were reading in a little brasserie in the Rue Saint-Louis once a week. We were a bunch of people there who were kind a ambitious to stay together. But we had no sense of being a school or anything like that. We had no unity of thinking or anything; it was just the pleasure of reading our poetry and discussing poetry on the river until morning. It was very nice, but when I left the neighborhood I got out of touch with them. RW: We've had several groups come and go the same way. And in fact the "New York School" poets always protest that they weren't a school, either. Martory: Yes, but they kept together a long time. RW: They still do; but of course you are by extension one of the "New York School" poets. I think that's why the attention of our generation, if I can say that of myself, and Michael and Peter, and the rest of us, why we are trying to learn your work and about you, because you're mysterious and familiar at once, we've read your name in everybody's poems, in Jimmy's poems, Frank O'Hara's poems, and John's poems, and you've turned up again in Alex Katz's portrait that John has. Your presence is there, and so you're mysterious to us because your work isn't all in front of us, and now we want to find it, a search for a lost mother! Martory: Yes, but when you have my work in front of you, what do you think? You may be disappointed to see my poems, no? RW: Not at all, we're inspired, I think, and informed; and one of the treats for me, anyway, about your work is that you have not been ambitious. It's not that you haven't been successful in a writing career, if you look at success in terms of beginning and ending; you've carried it through and continued to produce, and been inspired to write. Martory: I don't know; I've never felt any pressure to be known, to show what I did; perhaps I was a little shy. It was a little shyness; perhaps it was something else that I have to be psychoanalyzed to discover, but I don't care. No, when I told you that I sent this poem to the army magazine in Morocco it was because I was bored. They published some poems I sent them--one, two poems--they were very nice, but they were making comparisons. They said that my poem was like those of Leon-Paul Fargue. I had the feeling already that the people who were working in Rabat--I was in another city. Meknes--were building a sort of a clique, having escaped from Paris, because they said they would see me later (after the war) at Saint Germaine des Pres. So I had no feeling of being a part and I still don't feel as though I belong in any group. RW: What was it like living with someone as prolific in publishing as John was in those years? I know Eugene and I reached these sort of seesawlike standoffs when we first were together. We were very afraid of each other because we were both ambitious poets, and we thought if one succeeded the other would have to fail. We didn't have any idea of how we could both swim at the same time. Did you ever feel that kind of pressure with John? Martory: No, I've felt very strange about John concerning my poetry. I showed him my poems without putting any pressure on him, and he didn't seem to pay any attention. And so I though to myself, "He's a poet, he's published, he's recognized by people, he can read French, and he doesn't say to me, |oh, yes, you're a good poet, you must do that, go, go on." I needed somebody to take my hand and take me out of my solitude or shyness, but he didn't do that. He did do that later, much later. RW: He's doing it now. Martory: Yes, he seems to have discovered suddenly that I am a poet. But I don't care, because I have continued to work. I remember when I was living with him in Rue d'Assas, he was spending days and days writing, writing, writing. I heard him on the typewriter in the other room and I admired his determination to write and write and write. I was just writing a poem every month, something like that, I didn't care. I was really like an amateur living with a professional, like if you live with a diva of the opera and you can just sing "Au Clair de la Lune." Now he has done a lot to get me out of this well of darkness. RW: I think we all have that feeling around John. The year that he was writing Flow Chart, sitting down every day and hammering it out, and I felt like, "what fuel is he burning?" But you can do it your way; look at Jimmy Schuyler who didn't come out of his shell until the very end, when he decided he would go and push, and very successfully; but so late and it's such a pity he didn't have ten more years. Martory: I had a feeling that John was like a spider making his web from his abdomen; there was something getting out verse verse line line line! And I could not admire it--I watched it, that's all. I was completely flabbergasted sometimes. RW: It's phenomenal. Do you find that you use the same sort of ironic--? I mean, in some ways John's approach to language is ironic, his ability to transform cliche into comedy. Martory: I don't know. RW: It's not really . . . ? Martory: No, I don't do this. My poetry is rather well metered, you see; sometimes when I read my poetry I have the feeling, I feel like stamping on the table, like that! RW: Flamenco! Martory: Yes, but not flamenco, an energy, something like that. You know that sometimes when I talk I can also be very strongly energetic. I don't want to be, but I think my poetry has the secret ideas or ambition behind it to shock people and make a strong impression on them. RW: You also have something of a surreal imagination, which I think is another place of meeting for John and you aesthetically. The dream you had the other night, about the rocks and the women--could you tell me that dream again? Martory: Yes. Well, I was walking on a very sunny day on a very sandy road, very flat, very smooth, and it was in the middle of the Sahara and Eugene was at my left and you were at my right with Joseph between both of us. And Joseph was very happy; he was walking very much, very nicely and the sun was very hot but we were not suffering from the heat at all. I asked Eugene what time we had left. I didn't know when we had left. So he looked at his watch and said we left at six o'clock. And then we arrived at a kind of military post; there were soldiers around the road and little constructions, very low, and little cannons, and they were looking very quiet. And you had to go to the toilet and you went to find a place for that, and you went behind this military post and there was a road at the edge. It was supposed to be a practical road! But it was completely chaotic, the opposite of the one we had taken. It was full of big stones, and big pebbles. It was like the bed of a river. And you went and you came back and said, "Come on, come on, see what I have discovered," and you showed us that behind these pebbles there were about a dozen, ten or twelve women, pregnant, their bellies uncovered, being in the sun like bees, like termites, some insect or something, waiting for the sun to make their babies arrive. RW: And their stomachs were like the stones, they looked like the pebbles? Martory: Yes, exactly, exactly, they were the same color, the same shape. At a distance the pebbles and the bellies were the same; it's when you were close that you could make a distinction. RW: That's a beautiful dream. I'm going to ask you about the early days in Paris with John. Did you meet the others? Did you meet Kenneth Koch or Frank O'Hara then? Martory: Yes, I met Kenneth; I met Frank many times but he was quite distant from me, and I met Kenneth with his first wife, Janice, and his little Katherine. I met Jimmy the first time I went to New York in 1958, and then later I met a lot of people there. Harry Matthews-- RW: You met Harry in New York and not in Paris? Martory: No, I met Harry in Paris and his wife, Niki de Sainte Phalle, and many people around them, painters, painters more than writers. Larry Rivers, who came very often with Clarice; she was a beautiful English wife. RW: Anne Dunn? Martory: Yes, I went very often to her home, Saint-Esteve, too. It was kind of a group to which I didn't belong. But I was in it, you know. I met Joan Mitchell too, very often, and her friend, also a painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle. RW: These were more social than aesthetic occasions for the most part? Martory: Yes, Oh, I went to every opening, but that's all. I never discussed art with them. RW: Did you form a friendship with Jimmy Schuyler? Martory: No, I never felt close to him. In 1958, the first time I went to New York, I met him, but I think not very often. We went once to the Maine island belonging to the painter Fairfield Porter. Robert Rosenblum had a great influence on me, but on my poetry too, because he opened up the field of art and art history to me, and we went to visit many museums in France and Spain and Italy. RW: Robert Rosenblum, the art critic. Martory: Yes. I learned a lot from seeing classical art, more than modern art, but modern art too, because he was studying it. He wrote a book on Picasso. He was funny and he was very bright and very informed about art. RW: Here is your American chapbook, Every Question But One. Can you tell me something about the poems? This is "Prose des Buttes-Chaumont," in John's translation. Martory: Well, this is a kind of description of where Buttes-Chaumont is, a kind of sketch. And then I say:
I wanted to seize you hand and plunge bottomward
So we can take off into space together
Like figures in Puvis de Chavannes'
The Sacred Wood Beloved of the Muses and the Arts
Or like those dreams we were talking about,
Where, walking in a crowd, we have only to take a giant step
To fly away, up above, grazing heads as we avoid the streetlamps,
The glass insulators on telegraph poles, the weather vanes. These figures are very connected to my youth because when I was twelve years old I had a prize for writing an essay against alcoholism. I won the first prize in all of France and I was crowned by the official ministers or something in the great amphitheater of the Sorbonne. I remember that because there is a huge fresco, "Le Bois Sacre Cher Aux Muses Des Beaux Arts." RW: And they were watching you receive you crown! Martory: And this is a dream I had very often too, when I was an adolescent. I would be walking in a crowd and suddenly I would take little steps, give a little push with my knees and my legs and I would jump above and walk at the level of the gaslights, of the street lamps. To go on:
How does it take in my city, your look
Still hanging on the hispanic fringe of Riverside Park,
Or down by the Flatiron? This is a stranger with me; I ask, "And how do you see my city, through your eyes?" RW: From the New York vision of Paris. Martory: Yes, it's supposed to be a New Yorker with me, so it's a different thing than what you see. It's the image which could come in your mind, then:
The street below probably leads to the embankment
The embankment always ends at the bedroom
The bedroom is always filled up by the bed
The bed has room only for your body
Your body is reduced to your mouth This is an evocation of death through love. And I gave Paris to my love, I say, "Paris is you."
I give you--adding speech to speech--
The billions of words pronounced at this instant.
Look: a single liquid crystal and it's your name.
I give you the furnace of bodies thrown
Into the mouth of time.
What is it made of, this landscape of men
To which you belong?
You walk there with me,
Feeling no vertigo
You're too sure that the abysses
In which the others are lost
Will not exist for us. Because we are in love with each other. RW: It's a beautiful vision. In your idea about the destructions of cities, how do you see New York? You're a New Yorker some part of the year, too. Martory: I think New York is being destroyed not from the outside but from inside, not by some invader or some airplane bombing or something. I have this image of the part of Harlem that you cross when you go to Hudson, these crumbling buildings and these streets that look like a mouth with just one half left, and the lower jaw is completely open. But it has nothing to do with reality, it's a kind of vision. RW: It's a vision. They speak in American cities of cancer eating the city, and it's so different from the idea of an outside aggressor, which just doesn't occur; it never occurs that way. And Hudson-- Martory: Oh, Hudson is strange for me. RW: It's nothing like a French provincial town. Martory: Not at all. First, it has no center; it does not have a place, a central place with everything there, with a town hall, a church, the grocery, the tobacco shop, the bakery and things like that. It's all along the street, and the center, which is the square, the country court square, is at one side of the town. So it's a sort of an addition to the city, which has nothing to do with the real city. RW: It's such a patchwork. Martory: But I don't know other cities very well. I don't know Boston; I don't know Philadelphia. I've seen Chicago, yes; I've seen part of that city. RW: When you go to Bayonne, what is it like? Martory: Bayonne! RW: The old folks at home? Martory: Yes, Bayonne is my native city, the city where I was born, so I have a memory of everything. Each time, for instance, now that I cross a little street, a street as wide as this room, called Rue d'Espagne--it was a street that was a part of the block where my school was a child, and the block where my grandparents lived was very close. We would cross there and there was a woman who would take us from the school to bring us to our parents. It was about two hundred meters, and she would say, "Traversez, vite, vite, vite!" Madame Melies she was called. And now I see that the street is narrow, like that, you know. RW: You could cross it in one step. Martory: Yes. And I go to see the little school that I attended. I went to two schools, a kind of kindergarten and another school; it was a Catholic school. So I have many memories, which go back very far away. Bayonne is a fortified city; it is like a circle; the cathedral is in the middle, and there were walls around the city until 1900. So this part of the city is very compact, with narrow narrow streets and high buildings, comparatively high buildings. My grandparents lived there and I remember everything: the butcher at the corner, the milliner in another part, and the barber, whom I called M. Sent-bon. I think Bayonne is perhaps more the home of my art; that is why I always lived there. Because I lived there seven years, then I went see the world with my father, and I came back when I was eighteen. I have my childhood very very well kept in my memory and the places have not changed. RW: And that has something to do with poetic inspiration too, to have childhoods that are preserved for you. Martory: Yes, perhaps. RW: I'll ask you some crazy question. What's the difference between a child and an adult? Martory: I don't know. I think the best adults are children, and the longer you're a child the better adult you are, because you can be, you know, a child. Like your child--how many things, how much about things he knows! Having the entire world there, being conscious of the existence of everything, everybody, and at the same time having this freshness, you know, this fresh air of the spirit, and this generosity, which he has. Some adults are disgusting; I think all the impressions of the adult's life are there, when you are seven years old and they don't change very much. For instance, speaking of intimate experiences, you see, they were influenced by what I thought from my youth. RW: Is that how you keep the child alive? Martory: I have not made any effort. Sometimes I think I am silly to have kept this child alive so long. RW: I don't know. I think it's always a question in my life. I've never felt so adult as when I've actually had a child to watch all the time, and at the same time all my childhood is recurring when I'm around him. Everything I do becomes ambivalent, and so does this, two different ways opposed to one another that happen all at once. How do you keep writing all your life and not stop writing? Martory: How do I keep writing all my life and not stop writing? RW: Yes, have you ever had a writer's block? Martory: I could have gone six months without writing a poem, but because I was busy. RW: Not really blocked. Martory: No, it was just that I had no time. RW: Well, you've got forty years of poetry! How many poems? Martory: Perhaps one hundred. RW: One hundred in forty years? Or one hundred that you like? Martory: No, one hundred I kept, because I have plenty in my little exercise book. And journals too, but, well, posterity will look into it. I have no time. RW: Have you ever done journalkeeping, a diary? Martory: Oh yes, many times, since I very young. But I wanted to keep some things secret in my life. First was the fact that I was gay, and I could not say that to anybody, and I didn't say that to my dear diary. I discovered that my diary was read by my parents because something very trivial happened and I noticed that my father read my diary. It was a complete intrusion on my privacy, which I hated. Also when I was a soldier I kept on writing my diary, but I was sleeping in a dormitory with nineteen other people. RW: Yes, you've told me this story once. Matory: It was very upsetting, you see. RW: They found your diary and punished you. Martory: Yes. RW: Shame on them! But what about the influence on your poetry of not being able to discuss or confess in your poetry? I mean, you're not a confessional poet, but how did gay life, the necessity to hide gay life, change what you were writing? Martory: My poetry is completely impregnated with being gay. You have to look at phrases and things like that, and anything could be discovered if you got this key. You could see a lot of things which are even unconscious to me and are not primarily what I wrote about. But I think it's impregnated, because I always think about what it means to be gay. But I would have been the same if I were not gay, because I am a very sentimental person. I am also very crude sometimes, very cruel sometimes, I can be cruel too; but I only with gay men the possibility of being on the same level of sentimentality and of expressing everything I want to, and also of having the joy of sex. I have very seldom slept with a woman, once or twice. It was not a success because I was not very willing to; it was kind of a sentimental rape. RW: It was their fault? Their suggestion? Martory: Yes, at their suggestion, of course. I never made the first attempt. I have flirted many times, and I have been engaged twice, but you know it was impossible for me to have the same kind of openness. I expected too much from her perhaps, from living together with somebody. I don't know, that is past anyway. I thought for a long time that my grandmother was my mother because I called her maman, until I noticed that my mother had died, which happened very early. I remember that somebody told me in elementary school, sixth year, that my mother had died, and I figured it out. Then I asked my grandmother, and she said, "Yes, your father has gone to Syria, because your mother died," and she took me to the grave of my mother. I felt this, this absence, very strongly emotionally. I had good substitutes because my two aunts were very nice to me, my grandmother was completely wonderful, I didn't have to suffer at all, but I lacked this, I missed this kind of contact. And perhaps if I had had a mother, I could have turned--I don't know. It's not necessary to think that, because it's happened like that. RW: How old were you when she died? Martory: I was two years old. RW: Just two years, oh God, Joseph's age. Martory: I was two years old and she died in January. I was two years and two months. RW: That's too little. And you're right that the child feels everything and knows everything, but he doesn't have the construction to put it in yet. It's like handling someone water, like pouring water in their hands and they don't have a bucket yet. They feel the water! But there's just nowhere to put it. Let's find another poem from the chapbook. What about "Dialogue"? Martory: That's the same thing; it's a dialogue between two people. Sex, yes, it's "he says," "he says," but it's "Il dit,"
He says I look at you like the image of myself
He says I am the mirror and the two sides of the mirror
He says You belong to me as I own myself
He says I don't want to be yours or mine
He says I enter as a meteorite and I burn your forests
He says I am inside when I am outside
He says I build you and I transform you
He says What I have found I do not change
He says I have to touch you and we are one
I touch you and the sky separates itself from the waters Birds settle in the trees For they are waiting for that moment since the moment When pushing open the door of the days Birds settled in the trees Each one finding under a cloud the cloud Where it could gather its impatience and break it For they were waiting for that moment since the evening When shaking off the sand at the garden gate You arrived singing hymns Naked as your smile Haloed with words And I held out my hand waiting At the bottom of the days the clouds the gardens For the snow to melt between your lashes The birds to enter the trees The sky to separate itself from the water For you to touch me.
RW: Was this inspired by any particular friendship? Martory: No, I think this comes out of myself in one piece. RW: Is it a kind of novelistic imagination of characters or is it more personal? Martory: No, I think the first idea. I am the mirror and the two sides of the mirror; I am the mirror and the person who looks through the mirror at his own reflection; I am three. So you belong to me and beyond myself. It is a love poem. RW: Yes. Martory: But it's a love poem to myself, narcissistic, because it is a mirror, and it is a love poem to anybody who could be across from me. And this is my opinion of love; it's a poetic vision, so I could have said that; I could have been both characters in the poem. RW: I love this poem. I really do. Martory: And this is very sexual: "I am inside when I am outside," a sexual thing, and then it's the joy of love, I touch you and the breath comes up like water. RW: This is tonight! Look! The night of July 14th in "Every Question But one." [Both laugh.] Here it comes! This has a very aggressive tone:
The audience is free to ask
On pain of disappearing
Through the trapdoor
Opened by the master of ceremonies
A heavy man
Masqued with flaming newsprint.
I can start my prayer in petto
And end by receiving
A lump of sugar on my tongue
For arriving--but in what condition!--
At the cut edge of the galaxies
The night of July fourteenth full of glory
That there were other discoveries to make. Martory: Yes, it's a poem against God. You noticed that. So you have put every question to God. He doesn't exist, but you want to punch his face. So he exists! It's an eternal problem, yes? RW: You can hear the firecrackers. Martory: This is from a kind of crazy poem, "Registered Letter."
When you telephoned that you were arriving from Freetown
I was immediately at your door with a bottle of arak under my arm
Your smile irradiated in the iris of the peephole RW: I like it because of the Arabic influence here, the arak and the kriss and the scarab; you have a lot of Africa in it. Martory: Yes, it's the story of a steward coming back. In Beirut in 1959, I met a Dutch steward and we had a little something for two or three days, and he had an Arab lover and he was mad. The idea is people living together and being very careless about what happened to the other, as soon as they loved each other. This is very sexy, too:
Then you wrote me from Borneo: "I have shown my zebra skin to
The Doctor of the Administration of Health, a big
Hairy ape with a kriss between his teeth, very intrigued."
I know what cries are choked in the clamminess of the jungle
And how when flayed you moaned your mouth full of pleasure
And what that stain on your last letter means. RW: Yes, I told Eugene that's what it was. I don't know that he agreed. There's an old English song, "Oh love, Oh love, Oh careless love! See what careless love has done." Martory: Tears or something else. RW: Gene said it's tears, I said something else. Martory: But this is about death, the letter. RW: You had that dream about death the other night that you told us, the name carved on the tomb. Do you have a lot of poetry now about death? Martory: Not very much, no. RW: Turning forty and being too busy and having a new baby and losing a lot of my friends this year, I find myself starting to think about it more than I want to. Martory: No, I want my death, I think of death when I read in the papers, of something that will happen in the year 2009, like getting a new driver's license. RW: That's the only time it bothers you, Pierre? Martory: No, when I go to sleep and do not sleep very well. I lie there like that and I cough. RW: Death and sex, those are the big ones, money and poetry. Martory: Thank you, Ms. Wasserman. RW: Oh, Pierre! Martory: For which newspaper are you writing? RW: Nobody knows about this yet! Martory: Well, I give you this.
Rosanne Wasserman's latest book, The Lacemakers, was published in 1992 by Gnosis Press. With Eugene Richie, she operates the Groundwater Press. She teaches in Kings Point, New York.