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An interview with Edward Dorn.

was saying, many explicitly called themselves anarchists. Among poets there seemed to be this sense that capitalism was obviously no good, but if the two alternatives were going to be American capitalism and Stalinism, they weren't buying either one. Yet at the same time you get a mainstream cold-war consensus version of this with the idea of the "end of ideology." Did the Daniel Bell notion make sense to you as an expression of your sense of "beyond ideology," or was it something else?

ED: Well, I know what you're talking about, but not so much, because I never really had an ideology in the first place, so I Edward Dorn was born in 1929 and grew up in the farm country of eastern Illinois. He found his way to Black Mountain College in the fifties, where he came across writers like Jonathan Williams, Robert Creeley, and, most importantly, Charles Olson. Dorn first received national recognition as one of the poets of the Black Mountain School with the publication of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry in 1960. Since then, he has taught at universities throughout the American West as well as at the University of Essex in England and has produced a remarkably varied body of work in his poetry, prose, and translations. His books of poetry include Hands Up!, Geography, The North Atlantic Turbine, Recollections of Gran Apacheria, Gunslinger, Hello, La Jolla, Yellow Lola, and Abhorrences. For a number of years, Dorn assisted his wife Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, in editing Rolling Stock, a feisty journal of politics and the arts. This year, Black Sparrow Press will publish Dorn's Way West--Stories, Essays, and Verse Accounts, 1963-1993.

The interview takes place at Dorn's home in Boulder Colorado, on 4 September 1990. John Wright, whose adopted home is northwest Washington, begins by asking about Dorn's early years in the Skagit Valley and his novel By the Sound. Later, Jennifer Dunbar Dorn joins them and the conversation for a while.

John Wright: You found your way to the Skagit Valley early on in your career, and it was there that you wrote your novel By the Sound. Tell me about your time there.

Edward Dorn: Well, I went to the Skagit Valley before I was even married. I was working in the timber, and that was when I was still in the middle of my Black Mountain years. But before that, when I was at the University of Illinois, I had known older students who had connections for summer work in Seattle, so I worked a couple of summers at Boeing. That's when they kept records by hand. This would have been '49, '50, along in there. There were whole rooms of people just transferring parts and keeping them on 5 x 6 cards. It was all intensive hand labor entry. It was very boring and so forth, but the pay was pretty good. I made my tuition doing that, and we'd rent rooms together to keep costs down, one time on Queen Anne Hill and one time in the Ballard District.

JW: Seattle was still a pleasant, fairly funky town, even ten years ago. It's all cleaned up now.

ED: Californians always dehumanize places. They're the lemmings of the real estate group. They just rush to the next cheaper place.

JW: And it's an exchange of different kinds of dirt. The streets are cleaner, but the air's filthy because of all the cars, and people are campaigning for mayor on the traffic issue because the freeways are unbelievably gnarled up. It's becoming like L.A. in that sense, while the rest of the city still feels like what San Francisco might have felt like long ago.

ED: Well, they bring all that with them. But Seattle was a very liveable town, actually. It was human.

JW: And you went up to the Valley after Black Mountain?

ED: Well, when I got married, my first marriage, we lived in San Francisco for a while after Black Mountain, and then I needed work. I was an itinerant worker in those days, and I went back to the woods because I knew how to do it, and it was easy to get a job in those days because there was no ecological movement stopping clear-cutting or anything. The late fifties was still part of that fifties "cut 'em down." There was a lot of building going on then, too. That was before they were shipping the logs to Japan and re-importing the plywood. Actually, Anacortes was a thriving plywood town, a big plywood town. I don't know about it now.

JW: Well, it's gone through another bust phase, and now they're talking about growing seaweed. You know, there's always a plan for Anacortes to become a permanent boom town. But did you do any lookout work when you were up there?

ED: No, I never did that. Kerouac did that.

JW: Did you know those guys who were working in the woods--Kerouac and Snyder and Whalen?

ED: I knew Kerouac. Actually, Kerouac did a lookout up the Skagit Valley, up around, up above...

JW: Baker?

ED: Well, it would have been south of Baker. It would have been Marblemount or something, but essentially in that area.

JW: But Gary Snyder got him that job, I guess.

ED: Right, and I never did that. I worked as a logger.

JW: So at the time you were out there doing that, you didn't know those guys?

ED: I had met Kerouac before I went up there, in San Francisco. We were in San Francisco in '56, '57, and we went up north in '58 and '59. That's before we went to New Mexico in about '60, I guess. Or it was '59, actually. We were up there a couple of years. And that's where I wrote By the Sound, which was then called Rites of Passage. Harvey Brown published that in Buffalo, and he just died last January.

JW: Oh really? And then it was reprinted by Frontier Press in Mount Vernon? Who was that?

ED: Well, we just put "Mount Vernon" on it because that's where it was. Harvey Brown was a real flexible publisher; I mean, he didn't care in that sense. But it was actually published in West Newbury.

JW: Oh, I see. I'd always wondered what the hell Frontier Press was in Mount Vernon because...

ED: It wasn't there.

JW: doesn't exist there now and I guess it didn't then. |Laughing~

ED: No, it never did, and it was probably the only book ever published in Mount Vernon |laughing~; it was a bit of a joke, really.

JW: Let me ask you about the context of fifties avant-garde poetry. I'm interested in the extent to which avant-garde poets were calling themselves Romantics or neo-Romantics. Duncan certainly was, and this was true even of a poet like Creeley. While the "average reader" might look at Duncan and say "yeah, that's a Romantic poetics," in terms of stereotyped notions of Romanticism, Creeley's minimalism and objectivism don't usually strike readers as Romantic. Yet all over the place he's called himself a Romantic and talked about Romanticism. As far as I know, you never did talk about yourself as a Romantic, and you were developing a different kind of poetics, heavily influenced, of course, by Olson. So when you were at Black Mountain and then were meeting the San Francisco poets, did it seem to you that you were in the middle of a movement that was being characterized by the participants themselves as a Romantic or neo-Romantic movement? And how did you feel, apparently not feeling yourself to be a Romantic?

ED: I never felt that, no. Olson soft-pedaled the Romantics because I think they were intellectually soft to him, in a sense. And besides that, he guided me more toward a kind of geographical-mindedness about all of that. The whole point there was intellectual inquiry to discover what was useful to you; it didn't matter where it was. I mean, it could be pre-Romantic; it could be anything. That line that you mentioned before we began the interview--about |Dorn's early "desire" to be~ "a classical poet"--that's just something that occurred in this rather, to my knowledge now, crude, sort of discursive, kind of "on the road," trip-like poem |"Idaho Out"~. But subsequently, now that I've learned more what that kind of ambition is, I really don't have it, and I wouldn't claim that any more. I mean, I can see that, say, Eliot's intention in that line--another reactionary against the Romantics; he didn't really have much patience for them--would make a lot of sense, for him. Because he had the kind of training that would allow the mind to encompass what that meant. I never did and still don't, actually. It's true that I respect that sort of rigor and elegance and dryness more than I do the Romantics, but that doesn't make me anti-Romantic, or Classic, or Classical. It's just that that would be sort of a matter of taste, I suppose.

JW: And so those categories in particular wouldn't have been meaningful.

ED: I wasn't so much aware at Black Mountain of those categorical designations in terms of the ambition of either Creeley or Duncan. I mean, I could see it, perhaps; I'm just saying I wasn't really aware of it. I can see that more, you know, in Duncan's neo-Platonism. And it makes a certain amount of sense. Although I suppose he was like the Romantics, too, in his style, in what used to be called life-style. |Laughing~ But I have a harder time imagining that Creeley has much of a relationship to the Romantics. For one thing, he doesn't inspect phenomena like the Romantics do. He's not very political like, say, Shelley was; he's not very reflective, like Wordsworth; he's not philosophically religious, like Coleridge; and he doesn't have a club foot like Byron. |Both laughing~ Now, whatever he means by that might clear it up, but I'm not actually aware of that, either. Maybe he just would prefer to be thought of that way than something else, but technically, I have a hard time seeing that.

JW: Well, it could have to do with his focus on the vicissitudes and the trajectory of the individual subject. In his book, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980, Robert von Hallberg talks about your relationship to Creeley, who served as your "outside examiner" when you were graduating from Black Mountain. He says, "Creeley could be Dorn's outside examiner, but he could never be his mentor," referring to Creeley's focus on domestic relations and the personal while your attraction was more toward what Olson was doing in term of a discursive poetics.

ED: Well, for one thing, the kinds of assignments that Olson set could never have been fulfilled by Creeley's methodology because they involved a certain kind of docu-poetry. Nobody called it that then, and nobody calls it that now, but I've come to recognize that's sort of what it is. In other words, it's not that far from journalism, really, which is a term that doesn't scare me, because actually later on...

JW: Well, you do Bean News; you do Rolling Stock...

ED: Yes, and besides that, I got to read a lot of Johnson, his pieces from the Gentleman's Magazine and the Tattler and all that, but I didn't get that at Black Mountain, because Olson never even brought up Johnson.

JW: So if Olson was diatribing against Romanticism, he wasn't propping up a neo-Classicist like Johnson?

ED: No, not at all. You know, he really did come out of Pound, in a sense, as being immediately a predecessor, and he came to his sort of trans-cultural interests through Pound, although Pound knew a lot of languages and Olson didn't. I mean Olson took up these anthropological, archeological, and linguistic elements, while Pound was obviously more interested in cultural internationalism, archeology, and things like that. Those sort of soft sciences didn't interest him at all, that I could see, because he stuck with language, whether it was the troubadours or Renaissance Italian. To him, the whole key was the language, right back to the Greeks. And he wasn't really interested even in the Egyptians, either, let alone the Abyssinians or the Hittities or the Sumerians.

JW: Olson goes back further, for one thing; he goes back to the Sumerian, at least.

ED: Yes, but they shared that same interest in the culture.

JW: And perhaps in reconstructing the cultural tradition.

ED: Sure, and it's sort of like a cultural archeology, too, in both their cases, really--although Pound wouldn't have thought of it that way--which involves going back to roots, doing ethnologies of that kind, which increases knowledge and results in the greater power of knowing. And so it gets away from the surface. Actually, a lot of the Romantics' preoccupation with the self in relation to whatever environment they found themselves in was really superficial in some ways. You know, the dark figure, the lonely figure, by the sea, in a glade. But that's all self-reflective; it finally comes from Narcissus in a strange way, looking into the pool. I mean, they had a lot more pools. Landscape was important, that in which they set themselves as figures and in which they imagined their existence and so forth.

JW: In so much of Olson's work, it seems he was attempting to cut through what you just characterized as this sort of superficial Romantic preoccupation with the position of the self in the landscape--which existed for obvious historical reasons--and get through to his new humanism.

ED: There was another thing about the Romantics, which is really pretty simple, too, and this was their metaphysical preoccupations with the other world--ghosts, monsters, metalinguistic expressions of all that, and magic.

JW: The relationship between Duncan and Olson is extremely interesting in this regard. How did that strike you, when you were first getting to know these guys? I ask because with Duncan, of course, you get his interest in all these things you were just describing, whereas you don't in Olson. Yet they saw themselves, apparently, as tracking parallel courses toward more or less the same or a similar end, yet through these very different paths.

ED: Well, they shared this real interest in mythology, of course. It's just that what it meant to Olson is not what it meant to Duncan. That is, Duncan would just talk automatically about everything; he was like a real free-form talker. If it hadn't been intellectual, well, the non-intellectual later expression of that was called "psychobabble," right? |Both laughing~ But this was psychobabble of some kind of incredibly interesting and lofty order, in which the connections being made, and the free-association over time and throughout the literature and the power of tale--both human tales he had heard and relating it to the mythology of the record--was Romantic, I suppose, in a sense. But with Olson it always had a certain kind of structure. And the purpose, really, was to find out what you could know. But I don't think that bothered Duncan at all. These were all just materials of the psyche that could be spilled and disgorged.

JW: What was your own relationship to Duncan's work?

ED: Certain things like The Venice Poem and so forth were very influential to me. Just the fact that you could organize thought into a long, sustained, and fairly ordered structure. His preoccupations with his own relationship to H.D. and how he built huge things--that kind of thing interested me a lot less. Still does.

JW: How's that?

ED: Well, because that's a kind of psychological exercise, and I'm not psychological.

JW: And metaphysical.

ED: Or metaphysical. I could understand what he was doing to a certain extent, but it was nothing that I could actually find of use. For one thing, I never had any relationships like that. I mean, that's not even my world. Even if I was interested in it, it would be abstract in working terms. Totally.

JW: So it's not the methodology, because the method seems not unlike Olson's. That is, you were describing The Venice Poem as the long construct, the sustained intellectual endeavor, so it's more the specific materials Duncan's working with--the psychological and the metaphysical--and the connections he makes with a previous mind that make the difference.

ED: Right. As though they're there, actually. There's a strange way in which that's not historical. I mean--and again I suppose this is Romantic, too--it's suddenly present; it's being generated in the present. It's not like "I knew H.D., and she said certain things, and then something else happened," which is historical. But it's like, "this is a living presence." That's the whole thing about the message of ghosts.

JW: So it's kind of an idealist history. That is, since different poets will have different notions of tradition, some will have a much more historicized, maybe materialist, sense of the way tradition works. Foucault talks about the notion of "genealogy" that he gets from Nietzsche, wherein tradition is something that's patched together, and one doesn't assume an inherited tradition. And what you're describing with Duncan sounds otherwise; if H.D. is living as a present presence...

ED: A psychological presence, yes.

JW: ...that is more like an idealist history than a stitched-together, materialist expression.

ED: That's right. Well, of course, I think Olson's view of that was more that the condition of the past is up to the present.

JW: What is of use to us now, right?

ED: You see, if the present doesn't maintain the past, there is no past. And the corollary of that would be that the condition of the future is up to the present as well. For instance, if the past isn't cared for, then the future isn't going to really honor this present, which will be its past. And one of the great problems, of course, with the lead-filled mind of the present which has erased its memory--too many fumes, man--is not just that it doesn't have a memory, but the effect of the past is shocking right now. You can feel it. Now what that means in terms of the future is pretty devastating, actually.

JW: Its effect on the past. But if the past doesn't exist, in Olson's terms, what you mean is its effect on...

ED: You see, it's almost like the past now is being reconstructed. I mean, that's the sense of the present. Historians are as willfully anti-intellectual in a way as, say, English and literature departments, with this will to redefine everything in such a way as to erase responsibilities for it. And to erase the responsibility for knowing.

JW: Yet you could describe Olson's project as a reinterpretation of history in not accepting the received tradition. And Pound did the same thing. But you wouldn't say he's reinterpreting history in order to escape responsibility for it, would you?

ED: No, but I think that, for instance, the use he made of the records, like Johnson and like all of the characters in The Maximus Poems and like the seventeenth-century--largely the seventeenth century, obviously, and to a certain extent the early eighteenth century--I don't see that as revisionism. That's an attempt to re-order what's there; it's not an attempt to change it. It's an attempt to re-order it as another means of preservation, so that it can be seen, not so that it can be used to blame the past. You know, now blaming the past is one of the professional preoccupations. |Laughing~ It wasn't modern or postmodern and deconstructionist in that sense at all. It was like constructivism, really, not reconstruction. Actually, that's rather traditional, despite where you want to date the term from. But that's beside the point. It was, in other words, positive...

JW: And it was aimed toward the present and the future.

ED: all of its aspects. Oh sure. No, I think that he thought he was creating an edifice that people could climb around on.

JW: This is interesting in relation to Eliot, who you mentioned earlier, and his kind of Classicism, which you could say presupposes a stable culture. I was talking to David Antin last week, and he was saying it seemed to him that the academic poets of the fifties, many of whom were calling themselves neo-Classicists, were positing that the post-war United States and England were in fact a stable culture. This is quite different, of course, from Olson's sense. It's true that you can see similarities in what Olson and Eliot were trying to do--and this is important, since otherwise you end up with the stereotyped notion that you've got Eliot and the academics on this side, and the avant-gardeists on that side--yet a difference would be that if Olson was interested in the notion of a stable culture, he certainly wasn't asserting that we were living in one in the fifties. |Ironically, at this point a loud, speeding car races by outside the window.~ Do you see that the kind of constructivist work that he was doing was done in order to possibly get us to a place where we would actually inhabit the locale, have our feet on the ground in Gloucester and then work from there toward a stable culture?

ED: Olson's idea was that the degeneration of culture, the destabilization of it, was actually based on a kind of citizen responsibility which was being shirked. Eliot's Anglo-Catholic feeling was authoritarian, and like all authoritarians, he wants the structure to do the work for him. Well, Olson's view wasn't that. He was like a republican--you know, not Republican Party, but a republican--in a real way. But you see, he was a Catholic not by conversion or ideology, but by birth. So he didn't worry about that; he didn't think about that because he knew he couldn't invest his work as a Catholic. Nobody can. That's dead; that's impossible. He would have had no legitimacy whatsoever; he was quite aware of that. And for the same reason, of course, Eliot allowed Pound to take all his trite, religious, conversionistic messages out of The Waste Land. Even though he didn't repudiate them or anything like that, Eliot knew that Pound knew that that was best for the poem. It's a curious work, isn't it? I mean, it is the product of two people because it's not like criticism and editing. It was an absolutely direct interference because Pound was a virulent anti-monotheist and just hated all that stuff that Eliot had in there. If you see the three manuscripts together, that's a lesson right there.

JW: And it's wild that Eliot let him do it, because in all of Eliot's essays...

ED: Well, he let him do it because his taste made him let him do it.

JW: Even though in his essays, all that stuff about Catholic culture is right in there, foregrounded.

ED: That's right.

JW: But you're saying that he had the sense that for the poem...

ED: But in fact, Pound made that a great poem. Eliot wrote a great poem, but Pound made it a great poem. We wouldn't even be reading that now if it had been published in its original form. It would be obscure or something. It's hard to say. I mean, it's impossible to imagine what its fate would have been. We wouldn't even have been talking about it. So the literary superiority allowed it to be a great poem. I think it is still the great poem of the twentieth century. I mean, the century's almost over, so I guess that's going to be it.

JW: Even more than Maximus, eh?

ED: Oh sure. Well, it's not the same thing. Maximus is in many ways a larger work, but it's different, you know. I mean, this slick little piece of criticism of the modern age... And The Waste Land really is a religious poem. People read it as a great attack on materialism and so forth, and it is that, too, but it's really a religious poem. And actually, Maximus is very secular. They're not even the same thing, but in terms of the profound sound of the language, and its compactness, and its incredible brevity and the expansion inside that compression, The Waste Land is simply the greatest poem of the twentieth century to me, to my assessment. And it is also very revolutionary because it admits, I guess for the first time, the virus of quotation, as it's called. In other words, that poem is like total quotes; it's a cultural trip.

JW: Hence the footnotes. |Laughing~

ED: Even to the footnotes. I think that's a bit gratuitous, in a way, because it's like one huge footnote itself. Then adding footnotes is weird, almost. |Laughing~

JW: And you play with that in Hello, La Jolla, but he apparently wasn't playing with it. |Laughing~

ED: No, oh god, that Hello, La Jolla thing is just trivial. Well, it's a trivialization of that, I suppose.

JW: What was the discourse about The Waste Land at Black Mountain in the fifties? Were you folks talking about it?

ED: No. I mean, people might have, but I didn't particularly talk about it, no. Sure, I read it, but actually, the things I read at Black Mountain tended to be more the things that had been left out of my education before I got there, which would have been quite bad. It was unguided, really. In high school I read novels--Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Knut Hamsun. Just European stuff, because it was in the library. And Dumas. |Laughing~ The Count of Monte Cristo, stuff like that. But at Black Mountain then, the poetry I read was like Gerard Manley Hopkins...a lot, actually. And obscure people Olson put me onto like Haniel Long, which was my first trip West. But I was preparing for examinations, so in that sense I didn't go to Black Mountain like a lot of people did. An awful lot of people at Black Mountain that I knew and talked to and learned from had graduated. In many ways, Black Mountain was a finishing school, finishing up, you know.

JW: Well, I guess Creeley got a B.A. there, right? |Laughing~

ED: Well, Olson wrote a lot of script before he closed it down. |Both laughing~ But John Wieners, for instance, had graduated from Boston College before he came down. And I was an undergraduate, unlike lots of people. Many, many people. People who had already graduated from somewhere were studying with mathematicians and linguists and so forth.

JW: We were talking about Eliot and then you mentioned Hopkins, and I'm wondering again about your notion of yourself as a Classicist, although I don't want to lean too heavily on that one line from "Idaho Out." But in the fifties, did you have a sense of your own relationship to the academic poets, many of whom were calling themselves neo-Classicists, while you were in the context of Black Mountain, which was ostensibly opposed to that whole movement?

ED: Not particularly. I read Lowell and Berryman and people like that later because, again, they weren't really emphasized. I mean, there were people around who were reading them, and they were talked about, but that's not really what went on for me at Black Mountain. Now I was in and out of there, and I don't really know that much, although I stayed in touch with people, but the basic proposition at Black Mountain was that knowledge was necessary to poetry. Not feeling. And the reading that was meant to provide poetry with its stuff was like Braidwood, at the University of Chicago. In fact, that whole Oriental Institute at Chicago was important, and they went down for a conference that Olson set up. Very big stuff. And Maria von Franz, the secretary of Jung, went, and it was all on the trans-curricular idea, the inter-relationship of disciplines and so forth, which Olson was real big on.

JW: How did Creeley stand in relation to this? I ask because there might seem to be more feeling in his work. In others words, was it puzzling to you that Creeley and Duncan were involved with Olson, or did it make perfect sense to you in terms of what you were just describing regarding knowledge in the poem?

ED: No, I don't think it was puzzling. You see, another thing about Black Mountain was that there were an awful lot of different minds involved there. There was no central ideology; there never was, really. I mean, if there was a central ideology it was the thing that stayed alive from John Rice, the founder--and it got weaker and weaker all the time, but still kept its thread--which was the idea that pedagogy was serious. Period. More than anything else, and it encompassed everything. As you must know, Black Mountain went through at least three phases, and there were dominant ideas during those three phases, and Olson was just the last one. And so when he was rector and the main guy there, his notions prevailed, of course. But when Josef Albers was there, and the Germans who were emigres from the Bauhaus and an exploding Germany--mostly Jewish people--that was something else. They were quite formal European people. And before that, during the John Rice period in the thirties, since he had been trained as a Classicist, it was that. He had come from one of those Southern academies which still did Greek and Latin, and he had been a Rhodes scholar. And people get the strange feeling that the Black Mountain thing was kind of a progressive place, was more loose or something. No way. It wasn't. It took things very seriously. It's true, in the thirty years it lasted, that in the end people were reading translations, which John Rice didn't really approve of, but that was just the normal progression of things in life in the United States, anyway.

JW: If from Olson comes the notion of knowledge in the poem, can you tell me about the '65 Berkeley Poetry Conference? I want to ask you two things. Robin Blaser was telling me about hearing you read sonnets at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in '65. He said that Olson sat him down and said, "listen to this man"--you--and you were reading sonnets, maybe in quotation marks. At any rate, they were apparently sonnets in form, but what blew Robin's mind was what he called the "flatness" of the language, which he thought was marvelous. And he had been unable to hear a function for that sort of flatness before because Robin, being involved in Duncan's poetics, was involved in a whole kind of musicality, among other things. And I'm wondering about this in relation to what Robin also told me that Olson was doing at that conference. Apparently, at one point, he was into his diatribe against the canonical Romantics, and |Duncan's companion~ Jess and Duncan walked out. And the sense Duncan had wasn't that this was really a split--Jess walked out first and Duncan just followed him, according to Robin--but that Olson was reading the Romantics in a received, conventional way and wasn't able to read them as Duncan read them. How do you remember Olson, especially considering his interest in Keats, slamming the canonical Romantics? And did it seem to you to be particularly related to this question of the way language should function--that is, musicality versus a kind of flatness of discourse?

ED: Well, he might have thought I was reading sonnets. I doubt it, because I don't think I wrote any sonnets, ever. They were sort of short poems. That was my Idaho period, and things got pretty flat, it's true. During that time, I was writing poetry which was actually rather clotted and stiff and unyieldingly severe, and that was a period I was going through that I got over. I got over it, and it was the sort of thing that you go through in order to get over it or something like that. And I think it had a certain bearing on the literal physical circumstances that I was imprisoned in, in a way. Flat? I suppose, sure, flat. I think there are a lot of ways of looking at flat.

JW: Well, again, Robin was praising this.

ED: Yes, I know that. But I mean musicality can be flat, too. You know, I thought a lot of Duncan's later work was not necessarily made more musical by this |gesturing Duncan-like~. |Both laughing~ That little habit he had of like leading an imaginary orchestra when, in fact, a lot of the stuff was just the same as it was. And I think, you know, there was a certain kind of inherent lilt in a lot of his work, which I felt was quite nice. But I was quite uncomfortable at the Berkeley conference.

JW: Tell me about that.

ED: Well, I was from the sticks and had been there for a long, long time, and I was a substitute for Baraka, and...not Baraka then, but for LeRoi Jones. And I was kind of made to carry Olson's classes or seminars or whatever.

JW: What do you mean, "carry" them?

ED: Well, he had been in Spoleto with John Wieners and arrived a couple of days late. And I felt not up to that, and I felt not prepared for that because I hadn't been told I was going to do that. So it was pretty dreadful, and I felt real uneasy and scared. You know, "why am I being asked to do this, and why am I actually complying?" So I was upset a lot of the time and didn't feel really right about this. I mean, so in a way, it might have been flatter than it actually was. |Both laughing~

JW: So Robin's talking about the performance!

ED: I think so. I had terrible pressures on me that for a long time were like nightmares.

JW: In terms of filling Olson's shoes? That's a trip.

ED: Well, I never even thought that I could or would or should. But being put in this position of kind of explaining Olson before he got there? Come on. I mean, it was extremely uncomfortable. But then he gave his great political speech, in which he said many times that he wished he had one of those leg flasks to piss in. Because he carried it back to the thirties, the old-time convention in which you just, kind of Castro-like, went on and on and on. And he made people swallow it. He did a terrible number on that crowd, which they absolutely deserved.

JW: What do you mean?

ED: He paid a lot of debts off. Sure, a lot of people walked out, not just Duncan and Blaser. I mean, there were some people from the Black Mountain days there that he crawled all over. He settled a lot of scores. It was magnificent in many ways--loose and rambling and interminable.

JW: And so he settled scores with people he had been associated with?

ED: It's 1965; he's done his Buffalo thing. I guess Betty has died. Yes, she got wrecked in the spring of '64. I would not say it was ever comfortable, but his circumstances had been eased considerably, and he feels like doing it, you know? |Both laughing~ It was a big moment for him. And a lot of people still, if they don't actually resent it, they've got problems with it. That's still a very significant event for those people who were there. Remember, my God, that's what? That's twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five years ago. So there are people who were there who are getting on. It's one of the big things.

JW: But according to Robin, the fundamental issue was his attack on Romanticism. How important was that in your memory of the scores that were being settled?

ED: Well, in 1965 you could see that deconstruction stuff coming.

JW: Really?

ED: Oh, of course. |Laughing~ I mean, it was French anyway, wasn't it? But there was the whole attack on the rational, and his sense of discontinuity was like Whitehead and physics, not linguistic. And after all, I've never run into anybody who respected tradition and the canon more than Olson. He certainly rebelled against parts of it and argued with it and so forth, but the whole point was that if it weren't there to argue with, that would be hideous. That would literally be the loss of memory and the death of the mind. An altogether different attitude than the present attack on the canon which simply seeks to substitute the dull for the interesting. And nothing else, really. He had a very different attitude. But he was born in 1910. He was educated when those assumptions were all in place. Vernon Parrington is already complaining in the twenties--when he's winding up that big book, Main Currents in American Thought--about the irresponsibility of not knowing. That long ago. So you see this... |Pause~ Olson knows that he's going to be attacked for being a whiteguy. He knows that he's going to be attacked for having a certain relationship with women. He knows he's going to be attacked for being an elitist, or, to use the most current term, an "ablist."

JW: An "enablist"? |Laughing~ I haven't heard that yet.

ED: An "ablist."

JW: I've heard about enablers, man, but I haven't heard of an "enablist."

ED: Yes, well, they should stop it. To be an ablist means that you can walk up the stairs instead of having to try and grind your way up the ramp.

JW: Oh, OK--that's an "ablist," eh? 'Cause you're abling and ambling along, right?

ED: Just to be able is a very elitist thing.

JW: And so you're a fascist if you praise the able. Or an ability to get something done, whatever that may be.

ED: Well, you're probably a fascist anyway |both laughing~.

JW: Could you tell me more about the poems you were reading at Berkeley, in relation to this question of musicality versus a flatness of discourse?

ED: I'll tell you what I would have been reading. This book which was published in England as Geography. And also...the two books of that middle period where I was trying to sort things out in that way were Geography and The North Atlantic Turbine. And The North Atlantic Turbine was done in the year and a half when I was first in England, so those books were quite close together. It was the end of Idaho and the beginning of England. And they're rather discursive. In a way, it's some of the most boring work I've ever done.

JW: You really think so?

ED: Yes.

JW: North Atlantic Turbine?

ED: No, Geography. Insofar as I can even remember it. I was sort of stretching my mind to see how much I could get in of the content I was going to use, but I was fairly indiscriminate in the sense that I didn't really--according to the way I would see it now--make enough of an attempt to compress and sort the material. In other words, in those terms, I wasn't doing the right work for the reader. In saying this now, I'm just looking at it from an alien point of view, I think. Although I haven't looked at it for a long time.

JW: So when you're saying that, you're not critiquing what you were trying to do, but you're talking about whether it was effective or not.

ED: That's right.

JW: In other words, this isn't a reassessment of, say, the value of Carl Sauer for you.

ED: Oh no, not at all. I just wasn't, at that point, as able to use what I was trying to use.

|Jennifer Dunbar Dorn enters at this point, and the conversation turns from Geography to recent weather patterns in the Southwest and then back to poetry.~

JW: Regarding "use" and the effect of social and political poetry, in his book on Olson |Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art~, Bob von Hallberg discusses the difference between Oppen and Olson in terms of effectiveness and political action. Oppen became a Communist organizer, and Bob says, "but Olson had a different--or a better--sense of the politically efficacious nature of poetry." Some long-term trickle-down theory, I assume. But you've also got to believe there's going to be a long term, I would imagine.

ED: Oh yes, but whether it's efficacious or not, the fact is there's a huge politic in Olson and a huge knowledge of it. With Oppen, those are small, pretty unpretentious, quite well-crafted objectivist poems, but they don't engage the world. They engage a personal, local reality. I think actually that's a Romantic inheritance insofar as it's personal. And all of the Objectivists actually are probably mini-Romantics in that sense.

JW: That's interesting because that reminds me of something I was going to ask you about the relationship between Denise Levertov's political poetry and yours. In the book on your work that William McPheron wrote for the Western Writers Series, he breaks your career into phases, with a middle phase where a distinction occurs between the personal and domestic on the one hand and the social on the other. And that struck me as a very different approach to these matters from what someone like Levertov is trying to do in taking a sort of imagist and objectivist poetics, which usually is applied to the domestic and the personal and maybe the subjective--whatever you'd mean by that--and trying to bring that poetics to bear on social and political matters. And somebody like Charles Altieri will talk about how that isn't easily done, and that it can't be done. I was wondering if you shared a sense that that can't be done and that's why you're trying to keep those realms separate.

ED: I just never considered household events as interesting materials for poetry. But then again, that goes back to my original instruction with Olson which was about the world, really. Denise Levertov, you see, came into this as an English person who converted, in a sense, after she was discovered by Rexroth in that anthology that he edited...

JW: The New British Poets.

ED: That's right. In a sense, she learned American vernacular as a foreign language. Just as you have English as a foreign language, there'd also be American vernacular as a foreign language. She did master that, and she did learn it. And Williams was her big model in that sense. So I suppose that Williams did use a lot of domestic circumstance because he was kind of caught. He almost had his office in his house, and there are all kinds of stories about the manuscripts and the pads and the door between office visits. He'd do his stuff. And so it was like this professional, and his material is that kind of humanist viewpoint that a trained doctor would have that couldn't be distinguished in a sense from the domestic because it was there. It was part of it. That's a very different thing. And if your experience isn't so closely associated with your profession, then I don't see how that could happen. You know, a lot of Creeley's early preoccupations with his marriages--which were obviously, sort of like warfare all the time--I suppose that was another integration. He was so preoccupied with it that that integrated with everything else, and so it seems to me that's how, maybe, that a domestic poetry can come about. I just never had any sense of it.

JW: But aside from domestic content per se, what of the notion that an objectivist or imagist poetics can't be applied to social and political matters? Because to a large extent, Olson was involved with objectivist poetics and epistemology--"objectism." But he didn't restrict it to domestic content, which as I was saying before, is the way those poetics usually seem to be practiced. Altieri's point, for instance, is that you can't take objectivist and imagist poetics and use them to speak about social and political matters. Does that make sense to you?

ED: I don't know. If the mind makes a kind of a metaphorical leap from the household to trans-national events or characteristics, I suppose that's possible, but I think it stretches the possibility so thin that I'm not interested in it. It just seems quite false to me. I mean, you can do anything, if you want. You can make anything out of anything you want, if you want. But I don't think that there's any rational necessity to it. I don't think there's any inexorable conclusions or connections that one has to make. And if they're not there, then it seems one is... You see, it seems to me that domestic preoccupations in art are just an excuse to not actually take mental responsibility for something larger.

Jennifer Dunbar Dorn: But what he's saying is the opposite, that these poems are about politics, like Denise Levertov's political poetry.

JW: Yes, when she was writing about Vietnam, for instance.

JDD: And that a poet like her, because of her imagist dictates, can't...

ED: Well, how does that work? "I got up this morning, and my husband was being unfair to me, and he took a pistol out of his pocket and held it to my head, and my brain went out the other side of my head. And that's like the picture of an execution on the streets of Saigon" or something? See, I don't know how it works.

JW: Well, the way it worked more often, say with Denise, would be in a poem like "Modes of Being" which used a sort of collage technique, where she's doing the television image of the guy getting his brains blown out and juxtaposed not to a parallel domestic situation but quite the reverse. Where her life on the immediate, minute level, is great, is filled with these numinous moments of awareness, which is to a large extent what you get in an imagist approach to things. "The way the dappled sunlight is coming across the leaves that I can see from here through that window," and the pleasure she gets from that. And there's that tension in her own experience, between having the pleasure she's able to have in her minute-to-minute daily life and her awareness of the trans-national situation. And so all sorts of things, then, perhaps reverberate from that. Some sense of American social guilt over your ability, even though you oppose American imperialism, to still enjoy your life. Or through that very juxtaposition the question is raised about the relationship between the domestic and the trans-national or whatever. And not in this kind of parallelism that you were describing but in this other way. But as I say, somebody like Altieri has looked at that and said, "it doesn't work. It's an attempt to yoke these things together"--and this may be similar to what you're saying--"but..."

ED: Well, that's exactly what I'm saying. I didn't put it that way, but you see, when the television comes into your house, I don't consider that domestic property. Anything you see on television is not domestic to me. That's just like the end of a worm you've let into your house, and it dumps all this shit in there. It has nothing to do with the house. That's the nation. But that's what I meant by saying that metaphor gets stretched too thin. Or maybe "metaphor" is the wrong word. The parallels are too arbitrary and imposed, in a way. It's true, you get back to that Chinese thing about how you can't have order in the nation if you don't have order in the household, and there may be some truth to that. But I think if you have order in the house, you still might not have order anywhere else. I think that great Confucian flaw ought to be evident to everybody now. That in fact it has no effect at all. Once the social organization has been so dispersed and is under such radical attack from all forces, the family in that respect has been busted, whether it's broken up or not. It doesn't matter, because then it's rendered ineffective. If you have certain families who are still effective--oh say, the Kennedys, say the Bushes--then you get into the necessity of defining what's the effect. If you have a choice here, and you have to pick between Chappaquiddick and Neil--and the gutting of Silverado--well, there was death in one case, but we don't know that there wasn't death in the other. The hardship caused by Silverado--how does that translate into how many homeless people? I wish I did know, but I'd be willing to believe that it might into some, and it probably will into more. The social discriminations there get extremely difficult. But that's all we're talking about family now. I mean, when Bush says that he wants to take the tax off of capital gains in order to benefit what he calls "the investing classes," everybody knows there's no trickle-down, that these people keep all that. They totally keep it. They put it in their pocket, and they button the pocket. There is no trickle-down.

JW: The problem, of course, is that not everybody does know that.

ED: That's what families are now. Anybody else is not a family. You're not saying that the domestic or the family can emanate from a house of working stiffs and wage slaves. I don't believe that for a minute. Absolutely not. It's just a struggle. That's not a family. Unless the "family" is also being redefined, meaning the family is suddenly somebody who's not divorced. Jesus, what a cheap definition that is. I think it doesn't yield anything, and I don't think it ever did. Maybe a certain kind of domestic, pastoral beauty spun out of that kind of relationship which would go back to, what?, the third-century Greeks or whatever, maybe that's possible. I think that was Olson's interest in Hesiod, for instance, because that's about the last time those virtues were lifted, really. Since then it's just been one kind of degradation after another. We know what it was for people in the industrial revolution. We know what it is for people in the post-industrial revolution. And it's just nothing but horror and brain cancer and starvation and homelessness. And that's even here, and everywhere else it's even worse. And it's just...I don't even...I'm afraid when you talk to me about that, you run into such a vast prejudice and unwillingness to grant any virtue there that we should go to another subject. |Both laughing~

JW: We were talking about kinds of Classicism presupposing a stable culture. One take on that is what Gary Snyder does, and his position in this is as the person everybody points to and says "he's Romantic." He says he's not. I mean, you wouldn't describe yourself as Romantic, but people aren't pointing at you and saying that you're Romantic.

ED: No, they're not.

JW: People do that to Gary, though.

ED: Well, maybe that's because of some kind of Ruskin equation about wanting to restore the ecosystem because he has this reputation as being an ecologist and so forth, whatever that means. The association with nature.

JW: But he himself has talked about the figure of the artist as a suffering and crazy Romantic and said, "well, look, you can historicize this. In the last two centuries in the West, we've really been through a period where that's our definition of the artist for all these obvious historical reasons. And it doesn't have to be that way--I study a lot of classical Chinese culture, for instance, and it's not that way there." And he says, "Part of what I'm trying to do is show that this doesn't have to happen, that one can try to build"--and this connects again with the domestic in his experience--"a stable existence to the extent I'm able to do it." And there is a relationship between these ideas and his notion of bioregionalism which he shares with Peter Berg, which provides a bottom-up kind of approach that suggests that if there's any hope or direction at all, it would be in reconstituting families, communities, and relationships to places, and then building up from there.

ED: Oh well, sure, maybe that is Romantic, then. I don't know. But if anybody's using the term Romantic, and they don't mean Sheets and Kelly |both laughing~, Byron, Whitman, Coleridge, actually I'm not sure what they mean, really, when it comes down to it. I'm not sure I do. I think that's a term that was probably dead by Browning's time, but it stays around. Browning was the last manifestation, if you want to buy, say, Eliot's idea that what that actually produced was a fractionalization of the consciousness and a discontinuity of rational morality and all of that stuff. And you know, you're passing by one of the great poets in the language, of course, who apparently was not infected by the virus of mental dislocation, and I'm talking about Tennyson. But then you finally get to Browning, who somehow managed to build out of this wrecked edifice these long, utterly incomprehensible narratives, that nobody ever figured out--in some sense they never have been figured out--but were compelling enough to read because of the power of the language, and a few crazies still read them. But that's it. That's the end of it. And to me, the poem that puts the nail in the whole thing, and relieves us from ever having to deal with it any more, is "Dover Beach." That, I think, is the tract. And I don't know how it works. I don't know whether Arnold said to himself he was doing this, or whether he said to himself, "I'm just going to write the most beautiful poem ever written, and that's going to be it." Finished. That's it. And then we get into culture as the stuff of poetic concern and procedure. And that's Pound and Eliot, really. I mean, in my simple mind, in my head that's how I hang this all on the graph; that's how I keep it straight.

|JDD exits somewhere around here~

JW: But what he's putting the nail in is the notion of dislocation?

ED: Well, it's like discontinuity, dislocation, and fragmentation, and the idea that not to know can be a solace and can actually be permitted. And then after that, of course, it's encouraged.

JW: Required.

ED: Of course. And I just think "Dover Beach" summarizes the heart and the flow of feeling of the great tragedy of having lost track and having been set adrift, in its burning beauties. It's like a low flame, but intensely hot, of being lost for good. But nevertheless, take heart if it's possible, if you can find a way. It's lonely out there, the universe is dead, we're all that's left. And that's it, you know. I mean it's so conscious in what it's doing. To me that's the ultimate poem that knows. That poem knows, absolutely knows.

JW: Do you think he's putting his finger on causes and sources?

ED: I don't think he cares, no. It's not like that because, you see, he never wrote another poem of anywhere near that power. And it's not a poem you would have thought he would have written. It's strange. I mean, it's like one of those things, you know--"Matthew Arnold wrote this?"

JW: Right, because in the context of everything he devoted his life to...

ED: There's something odd about it; there's something odd about it. That's the closest instance I ever came to thinking that something could actually be dictation. 'Cause I don't believe in that shit, right? |Both laughing~ This might be, actually, because I can't explain it otherwise. There's nothing else in his mentality that would seem to explain it. You know, I like him; I mean, I don't have any problems with Matthew Arnold as part of "the problem." |Both laughing~ A lot of people are into "the problem." I don't have any of those problems. But this thing is so unique.

JW: Although Olson has his own bit, you know. Often the way he would articulate things would be in terms of, "this is the problem--this is where we got off the track. And the solution will be..."

ED: No, I didn't mean that. I meant that now Matthew Arnold's a big no-no--inspector of schools and the ultimate whiteguy. |Both laughing~

JW: But you were referring a moment ago to Olson on Hesiod and then giving your take. Were you saying that you share Olson's view of that as a stable situation?

ED: Sure, the fact that the Theogony was a pastoral scene, with shepherds and nymphs and all the real life of a non-pernicious order. That is, there's no supra-national state; it just goes back to the hearth and, well, the real Romantic tie, actually.

JW: There's domesticity and the stable hearth and home tied in with the Confucian sense of the stable social order, right?

ED: Yes, these are the tales of that mythical time and reality, and who knows if there ever was or not, but anyway, that's the tract, and that's the report, and that's the book.

JW: All without this overarching state.

ED: And then you get into the hideous thing that apparently will never go away, which is the rise of the state and the shifting of people off the land to the city which started then, and nevermore will people ever be left alone to do what, presumably, they ought to do. And they will be slaves forever, as they are now. Slavery simply shifts its terms. It never ends. There's one kind of slave that's black and came across on a ship, on a shelf, and there's another kind of slave that was born in Manchester in 1710.

JW: Indeed, a wage slave. Speaking of which, how important has a Marxian analysis of this historical development been to you?

ED: Well, not ideologically at all, but in terms of a storyteller and as a writer of a great book, very, very important. I mean, after all, Das Kapital is one of the funniest books ever written. |Both laughing~ Unfortunately, Marxists never read it and don't know that. That's why they're so humorless. You know, in spite of all the jokes, Karl Marx was a greater wit than the Marx Brothers, really.

JW: I was wondering if it's been important for you to define or characterize your own politics. In Abhorrences there are a lot of specific references to capitalism, and that critique extends throughout your work. I was reading, at UCLA, your letters to LeRoi Jones in the early sixties, and there was an exchange about Cuba where at one point you referred to yourself as an "anti-state guy." A lot of poets, like Rexroth and Duncan, called themselves anarchists. But has this been important for you--to characterize yourself as some kind of Marxist or an anarchist?

ED: One of my problems is that I don't really have any politics because I could never really understand what an anarchist really was. Because even though I think that the state is the most pernicious invention, after God, that man ever perfected, I still could never conceive of how anarchism would work. You know, I certainly believe it, but I just couldn't see it. So I don't know. I guess I'm not an anarchist. Actually, I'm not anything, really; I'm just against everything because I know it's bad. If it's proposed by mankind, then it's gotta be fucked. Which is not a politics, actually. |Both laughing~

JW: A friend of mine is becoming more of a Hegelian day by day, and when we were talking about Rexroth's and Duncan's anarchism, he said, "the state is like an armchair--you need something to sit in," despite all the problems. And it's hard to know exactly how to respond to such dismissals of the anarchist critique.

ED: Well, it's a beast for one thing. There's no way to keep the state from becoming a beast. There are some very good proposals for states, and some are better than others, but they all become beasts. And they devour their populations like this one is doing right now. It's just devouring. There's no stopping them; they're incapable of not doing it. It eats its progeny. I remember Roi was saying to me, "what's all this anti-state stuff?" This was a long time ago. I don't know if he was a Stalinist at that point, but he was certainly getting there. And that made sense--I mean, in so far as it could--because he wanted a real order, man, in that respect. Because in his viewpoint, that's the only thing that could give possible protection, and he didn't care whether it worked or not. Now, obviously, it would be pretty difficult to be a Stalinist, I suppose. I saw him a couple of years ago, and we didn't talk about that; he doesn't get into that anymore, anyway. But there were some pretty stiff times back there.

JW: Part of what was happening at that time, in the so-called mainstream discourse, was Daniel's Bell's notion of the "end of ideology." And a lot of the avant-garde poets at the time were saying things like you were about being anti-state, and as I
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Title Annotation:American writer
Author:Wright, John
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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