An interview with Stephen Rodefer: you were a student of Charles Olson's in the mid-1960s at SUNY, Buffalo. What was that like?
On the way to the first class, in Cook basement I remember, I ducked in to use the men's room, and there was a guy at the other end of a row of sinks having a Marine bath, shirt off, suspenders hanging from the waistband at both sides, just going at it with a bar of soap. Five minutes later, sitting in the seminar room, we all looked up and a big clean guy in a water-stained shirt walked in, sat at the desk, unpacked a Wollensack, put on a tape and hit the button. Well, for the next half hour, perhaps longer, we were treated to, more like deluged by, a complex harangue having to do with archaeology, the Sumerians, someone named Havelock, Frobenius, or Merleau-Ponty, the pre-Socratics, the whole question of Enkidu, and all other manner of esoteric reference. I was twenty-two, it was all Greek to me, and I rather thought as well it surely had to be to the other students. Then he punched off the tape and carried on in the same voice much the same confounding discourse.
One learned years later via George Butterick, the director of the Olson Archive at Connecticut, who was in the class like me, that it was a tape of Olsons lecture given earlier that summer at the Vancouver Poetry Festival. And that Olson felt just too nervous to plunge in on his own, and so leant on his own voice and previous delivery to break the ice at this new job. And we were off.
Is it fair to say that you share Olson's concerns about the polis and his attitudes toward poetic composition? In the "Pretext" of Four Lectures you wrote, "My program is simple: to surrender to the city and survive its inundation. To read it and in reading, order it to read itself. Not a doctrine, but a public notice."
Not so really quite. Well, of course, part of me likes the comparison with the original master imago mundi librarian and archaeologist of morning, Who wldnt? But, some other parts quibble or nag, "yet not exactly." My own world I guess is perhaps less imagined directly from the CITY as indirectly from its quotidian marginalia, meridians, latitudes, or the airwaves all around and over it. I mean, it's internal as well. Just to cop Spicer's scarred radio idea of it. Though I suppose you could posit the world now as a metropolitan, with the countryside being many vast suburbs. The globe is the polis now, though that could be seen as exceptionally insensitive, say, to the suffering in the countryside, in countries all over the earth.
Olson kept saying re WCWs Paterson, for example, that Williams didn't have the first idea of a city. He would say such, wouldn't he? But me, I instinctively felt that to be wrong. The address in Paterson was citizenly, a metropolitainerie interior and exterior. It was shape of mind as such. The city was a mode of thought for the loca--present, suburban, and metropolitan all at once. He could flip up his typewriter-stand in his office, just as fast as he could his unit, and he did both.
For Olson, it was the whole deal--heaven and earth and all human history. That was a difference in their ratio and scale. You could propose Williams won the ratio bout, but the historical nut of Olson's o'er finessed him on the historical scalene, which was galactic. (Olson drove a Ford Galaxy Station Wagon in Buffalo, the only car he considered up to his size.) Well of course Wms naturally cldnt be bothered with such folderol, for he was a local boy. A Passaican New Yorker, chasing about his office a poetic clientele. Though at the historical edge of the locale, he could absolutely nail it--as with In The Ameri can Grain--just as he perhaps hippocratically and hermeneutically re-examined the Catholicism of his patient Polish-American mothers on the table.
Olsons hippocamp upped the ante on Williams. He was the requisite, the self-elected stand-in. He wld be his own imago mundi. It was his mind, or perhaps better the mind, though it seems he apparently thought there were no others equal to the job. There were just reference desks, like Frances Bolderoff in DC. He even used Jeremy Prynne as one. Of course he wld never reference Pound. Pound was better-read, smarter, if less righteous, though I think more rigorous. But that's certainly arguable. Pound captured the world city historically--and it was an assault and an ultimate victory, though of course with severe cultural loss--via Idaho, Philadelphia, then arrowed and hid by Swarthmore, then corrupted and seduced and rejected by London, Paris, and finally Venice and the U.S. Attorney Generals Office. And all his story was the historical metropolis.
Pretty curious, if not compelling, that our two most cantankerous poets emerge from Idaho, thinking of Ed Dorn of course--the pater's mint and Paters minuscule Victorian academia--all the way from "brotherly love" via Engelsland to Paris and Venice, if not Dorn's La Jolla.
You met Basil Bunting at Buffalo in the '60s as well?
Yes, I was lucky enough to work as his "assistant" in 1965 and '66, given that position for the nearly blind visiting Northumbrian by the SUNY English department (great teaching assignment for a TA). My penultimate assignment was to drop the needle (in the dark) on the correct cuts of the Scarlatti sonatas (all Wanda Landowski's but one), between the sections of Briggflatts, with the assigned young woman saki to keep the poet's glass full at the foot of his armchair, in possibly the first public reading of that poem, in Buffalo in 1966.
Can you speak a little about how you got started writing?
Well, I've already addressed this question in my only other published interview, in Lee Bartlett's book Talking Poetry (1986). Readers of this indulgent dubiaga can look it up. In brief, my father had on the bookshelf, in the ancient secretary, two poets: Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At the age of thirteen, in 1953, you can understand how a phrase like "Pubic hair crisp as lettuce" might jump out at a not quite pubescent young boy.
I was especially stoked, only a few years back, to read how John Weiners also placed Millay as an early influence. Edna, Johnnie, Moet et moi--poetic junkies all. Maybe Hart Crane into the Caribbean bargain. Both our fathers had street light/life-saver factories in Ohio. Candy and glass do the poem construct.
The Frost--A Boys Will or North of Boston, I forget, though I've got it locked up somewhere 'round this world--was signed, which impressed me. Not that Frosts signature meant anything at all, but that ones name in one's own hand could signify place and person and time in a lasting aureate way. That was a kind of revelation to a budding poet-taster. My own hand, writing "bastard" on the box the fountain pen came in, as a birthday present from my parents, was, like, slapped down, as they say, when my parents read perhaps my first really "written" word. But I got over it. And continued to write--more bastardly stuff I suppose you eld say even till now. The signed Frost had I believe a Canadian imprint. Which fact I remembered with pleasure years later--and even a little sense of privileged tradition--when my own first volume The Knife came out in Toronto, from Victor Coleman's press ISLAND, a precursor of Coach House, in 1965, simultaneous with Fred Wah's first book Lardeau. We ran them off together on a Gestetner at Victor s apartment, when his lovely wife Elisabeth was in the hospital and he was very friendly with my wife Penny, a spontaneous woman of the '60s. An ordinary kind of indulgent young life, but it still seemed unusual to me. So it was later, in Corrales, that that pedagogical comeuppance mounted in a plowed hippie daze, when my Volvo wagon turned back down the long driveway. Agamemnon Sanchez, I kid you not, would leave cucumbers, strings of chile and melon at our door, after a twelve hour day in the fields around the house. Where I found a beautiful Baretta revolver in the closet, now shelved in a padded envelope under B.
Anyway, my little stapled booklet The Knife got dreamed out of the house in summer of 1965, with my hand of Penny's name splayed across the cover and with an epigraph of Olson's about my father's Finnish hunting knife refusing to stick ...
Olson wrote about your father's knife?!
No, no--though they were the same age. I added that--though I spose he was, I mean litry speaking, kind of that. I added it after Vincent Ferrini's noggin, refusing to stick in the Poplar tree in our front yard, like I was about ten. Bellaire, the Switzerland of Ohio.
The Knife got a fairly quick negative review (premature, I think the word was) from Jerry Younkins (and I could agree, but it hurt--like Fred Wah was mature--you know, mountains) of the Writers Workshop in Detroit, which Olson had been touting in class as terrific. And/so, being a susceptible, readerly sort, I didn't publish anything more for eleven years. Though fairly, it must be said, John Sinclair, the WW director and producer of the band MC5, spent much of that time in stir for the possession of a single, possibly planted joint.
You mention your "pedagogical comeuppance"?
Well, I moved to New Mexico from Buffalo in September 1967 to take my first job out of graduate school, camping across the country with my wife and two young children in a battered station wagon. I had also been offered a position at the University of Kansas, which on the face of it seemed a better first job, but after my interview in Albuquerque I stuck around for a couple of days, and Larry Goodell took me around the New Mexico Indian pueblos (Taos, Santa Domingo, Cochiti, and others, where there were festivals and dances going on) and that made the choice obvious--that indiginous American desert environment against the wonderful hill town of Lawrence, Kansas, with its fascinating abolitionist past Kansas was already billing itself as the Harvard of the midwest. Well, what could you do with that?
At New Mexico I was to co-direct the creative writing program with Gene Frumkin, and would get to teach upper level and graduate literature courses. So it seemed ideal. This was the same year Bob Creeley went from there to Buffalo. He had been a lowly instructor in the UNM department for some time then. They wouldn't let him teach higher ranking classes, you learnt later, because he didn't have a PhD. One account has Olson granting Creeley a BA degree from Black Mountain, which he had never finished at the real Harvard, before he burnt the college papers against the coming bankruptsy. Well neither did I have a PhD but I was supposed to be finishing one, and on Creeley himself no other. He walked into the Chair s office that spring, the story went, with an offer from Buffalo at a salary far in excess of that of the man he was literally waving it at.
Those were the '60s and in many ways even then New Mexico was a fairly backwater scene, as I would soon learn. And of course, four years after Olson's appointment, Al Cook had almost single handedly turned Buffalo into one of the most astonishing scenes for poetry and contemporary culture anywhere in the country.
Well, soon enough it came about that Frumkin and I, with full university approval, were to be editing a special issue of the New Mexico Quarterly on contemporary poetry. Now, this was the principal journal of this up and coming university, established as a scholarly quarterly, specialty like anthropology and archaeology, many years before. You got the sense they wanted to make a splash and announce their arrival on the contemporary literary scene. Well, that dream didn't last long. After it had been through the press but before it could be distributed, the University locked the Quarterly up, literally censoring its own publication. The reason was its scandalous content: a poem in it by Michael McClure included the word "cunt," and that was quite enough. The university would not send its own magazine out to its subscribers with material like that in it.
The next fall, having failed in numerous appeals to reverse this backward university decision, there was little to do but mount some protest. It was 1968 after all, or perhaps it was '69. With the help of a few students, we put out a pirated edition of the censored journal, called the New Mexico Quarter. Eight and a half by eleven, mimeo. The cover was that striking LP photograph of the naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono, only just out, with the full face of the university presidents head superimposed on Lennons uncircumcised body. It caused a bit of a stir, featuring McClure's poem, some of Molly Blooms soliloquy, a pretty sexy poem of Creeley s, some Bukowski if I remember correctly (I had already invited him to read later in the year), my own "Ode to the University President Ferrel Heady and the New Mexico State Legislature" and other salacious material. Mine was a poem about having our mare (George Eliot) "covered" at a nearby stud farm in Corrales, whose first line read, "A horses penis, fully extended, is about a foot and half long" and ended in song, "Does your chewing gum loose its flavor on the Provost every night?"
Predictably all hell broke loose as they say. First off, unbeknownst to most people, an English Department graduate student had already passed around a class handout in a freshman writing course of an "objectionable" poem by the San Francisco poet Leonore Kandel. It happened one of his students' daddies was a state legislator and he hit the roof. Soon enough the issue of "dirty poetry" was all over the state. You could find copies of "Love-Lust Poem" ("I want to fuck you, I want to fuck you all the parts and places") on the foyer desks at city banks, with a warning-to-parents note attached. The clincher to the scandal was that this teacher was black. In fact he was the only black TA in any department on campus. The racial issue was always there but never really got probed.
Soon enough, the powers above established a University Investigating Committee in the New Mexico State House. It was not only the dirty poets they were after but it was the communists too. Somebody's attention had been called to the fact that a professor in the political science department had actually put Karl Marx on the reading list for his course. New Mexico, like, was still in the McCarthy era. The Investigating Committee had supoena power and we were quickly called to testify. Some of us lit those newly arrived Indian clove cigarettes while we defended erotic poetry or a materialist historical analysis before our elected representatives at Sante Fe. I was questioned at length about being the faculty sponsor for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and for LEMAR, the legalize marijuana group. My involvement with these societies was just to say "yes sure why not" and sign the form which would permit these thoughtful students to schedule campus rooms for meetings. We were a democratic society, weren't we?
This story is gelling too long and is quite likely a bit out of chronologic sync, given the time lapse. But it came to a rousing culmination with two poetry readings, the first 1 believe in 1969 by Kandel herself and the second, I think in 1970, by Charles Bukowski. We had to go to court, successfully it turned out (thank god for independent-minded judges), to quash injunctions brought by politicians and concerned citizens to prevent the readings from occuring.
Leonore Kandels boyfriend at the time was none other than Sonny Barger, head of the San Francisco Hells Angels, who threatened to accompany their muse as bodyguards, Harleys and all, to the lynching--that is, onto the stage of the symphony hall on campus, which was the only venue large enough to accommodate the much publicized event. It was nearly full, probably near a thousand in attendance, and there was even a claque of public protesters, concerned citizens reciting the Bible up and down outside the entrance during the whole performance.
Sonny came, but without the motorcycles. I introduced, with a few remarks about how ironic and unnecessary it felt to be squabbling about erotic poetry midway between Los Alamos and White Sands while so many American bombs were falling every day on Vietnam and Cambodia. Then Miss Kandel gave a beautiful reading, with modest applause, except for the uppity group of students and poets hollering their wild approval down front. Her reading included "Love-Lust Poem."
After this event 1 think, but a term before Bukowskfs (some student historian will have to figure out the sequence here), there was a massive anti-war rally in Albuquerque, simultaneous with others all over the country, against the bombing of Cambodia. The newly elected Governor called out the National Guard, who marched with fixed bayonets, and firing tear gas, slowly across campus phalanx style, to guard against the student threat. At least one student suffered a bayonet wound, and many went to the hospital because of the tear gas. It was nearly straight out of George Grosz.
Later, after fighting off another injuction in a downtown court against Bukowski s reading, the evening went off relatively without much to-do. The Buk acquit himself as usual, drinking beer in a hall called the Kiva, and regalling the audience with more material like his infamous "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" made famous in New Orleans with their serialization in the Nola Express.
But the icing on the cake came a year later, when CB sent me an issue of the "men's magazine" Rogue (#29) with his story "I just Write Poetry So I Can Go to Bed with Girls" in it. He didn't bother for the most part to change any names. There was Prof. Rodefer, Corso, "Rumkin," Jon and Lou Webb, Bukowskis publishers, all laid out in real life as they say. One of my most amusing and little seen "publications" to this day.
Gregory Corso was there?
Corso was about because he had come earlier in the year to give a reading, his first since practically a decade of disappearance behind a drug habit. He was completely broke. So we managed to get him a well paid one month residency appointment in the department to lecture, largely about Shelly, the Gilgamesh, Ginzy, and himself. It was at first supposed to be only a few days until he found a place, but he stayed the whole time, nearly six weeks, with me and my family in Corrales, where we had a big house. Great fun but damn near busted up the marriage.
When I picked Gregory up in Santa Fe, before driving us down to Corrales initially, for his reading the next evening in Albuquerque, we had never before met. And he had a gun, stuck in his belt. And was ranting on a bit about things I couldn't quite get, just outside La Fonda, the fancy tourist hotel off the Santa Fe Plaza. But this was the great Gregory Corso after all. So I thought Steve, you can handle this. Well, midway to Albuquerque he wanted to pull over and take a leak, after which he began firing his pistol randomly into the desert. Later I found out that it was just a blank gun, the kind used to start the hundred yard dash, but I didn't know that at the time. I began to wonder if this really were such a terrific idea, taking Gregory to meet my wife and two young kids, and was in some consternation as how to carry on. But back in the car he popped a pill, took a long swig of Tokay and went to sleep thank god.
Seconal and Tokay the whole time, that seemed to be Gregory's diet, and he was sometimes shooting the pills. It was a great reading and most of the time having Gregory around was more exhilarating than really difficult. He slept a lot. But Penny would have another version of this episode, I'd have to add.
Before the end of his six-week visit Allen Ginsberg came to read. A kind of reunion for the two of them. Huge crowd. He read "Kral Majales," "America," "A Supermarket in California," "A Cottage in Berkeley," and a selection from Kaddish I think. Everyone was mesmerized, and a big crew of students and faculty came out to Corrales (about twenty miles) for a big party.
In the wee hours, maybe twenty people left, mostly students, Gregory suggested we have a pajama party. Preposterous. But soon enough a dozen mattresses materialized, from neighbors, upstairs, next door, all over it seemed. And our huge living room was soon wall-to-wall beds. Voila! Allen had his eye clearly on one of my fair-haired students, and Gregory insisted on a mattress next to Penny and me. Somehow the night passed without serious incident, except hopefully some passing personal contact perhaps for some.
A few days later as Gregory was leaving with his Ginzy (Allen was extremely careful of Corso's attention and also of his fragility, which most people could never see), we all laughed and cried outside for what seemed like an hour. After they pulled off, I walked back in the house to find a tattered blue suitcase in the hallway with a note on it saying something like "for all my long distance calls to New York City, Europe, and North Africa." Inside it was a smash of Gregory's papers: poems, letters, notes, tickets, wedding vows, used and unused prescriptions, addresses, bills, illegible gibberish, and more. I think it must be at Stanford now, amongst my own stuff.
That was the end of the '60s for me.
Your next book was the Villon, which with Four Lectures has generally been noted as your signature work.
One or Two Love Poems from the White World and Villon by Jean Calais appeared in 1976. I guess One or Two came out first, but they were sent to Michigan printers pretty much simultaneous. We had a book party at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, where I worked at the time--Tom Raworth was there, living in San Fran.
Well, I figured that still put me four years ahead of Stevens with Harmonium and Olson with his first book. These are famous markers for latish starts of course. And then the early gone--Catullpus, Sappho?, Chatterton, Holderlin?, Keats, Shelly, Byron, Schubert, Mozart, Jesus, James Dean, Rimbaud, even Verlaine, certainly O'Hara, Hank Williams, maybe even St. Vincent Millay and what's-her-name--who else?--were already dead at that age? But it don't matter.
You wrote the book under a pseudonym. Did people accuse you of charlatanism?
We are charlatans. Burnt out Latins since Charlemagne? What? How so? Why? WHAT? That word could be a stand-in for imagination or literature! All talkative writers will prattle. Socrates was the most brilliant of all charlatans. Most circumspective writers in a group have that charley horse built in--it's called obsession, momentum, deflection, redistribution or even perhaps inspiration or dramaturgy, playing the game with the process of "publication" as well as with the original "running" discourse of creation. If you are an rhapsode, you gots to try to preserve the tissue at the expense of what? Some claim to knowledge the real quacks so overconfidently possess. The poem does not accept the truth test of quacks. And the writer, like the visual artist, is more fakir than quack. And thank the gods, who might be pleased by that. Sidereal tricksters all, even when fakirs might still quack with humor and disgust.
Perhaps it would be more pertinent to return to your poems and biography and not get too sidetracked into Rodeferiana?
But I thought that was the thing here. I mean, interviews. They should first of all be cool reads, and then also something informative. Really, this is Poundiana and Olsonics and Edornicies. But so, all right, I'll try to keep "on topic" and press on. One thing Olson did teach, as though through osmosis, was the next thought jumping the next thought and the next--as though pressing ahead to some undefinable endgame of thinking. The only other person beside Olson I've ever heard whose conversation was so unstoppable and jump-skipping was Robert Duncan--or at times maybe Fredric Jameson. But all right, so, like, for Williams the city was more like LIT modes, vivendi more than operandus (nothing works but everything is). A registry of observant, immigrant melody, unexiled from the present, untethered of thought for any local hindrance. And it was here and now, present there, screaming like the babes of mothers he was sometimes doing in his office, just west of his own hoboken. No noose around his neck, though possibly a triadic foot in his gently clenched fist. His joint was properly tethered wherever it got tied, and still jumping on down the road ahead. The without preceeding the within, indeed seducing it: the behind proceeding on to the cascadent leading on AHEAD. This is getting good, isn't it.
But to get back to my work. In Four Lectures it was my mind, my city, my situation, my inundation, my survival, my visible date. As it was the light bulb, the clutter on the kitchen table after another dumb night, the hardscrabble of a sleepy and sleepless chaotic life--about to begin again, after a cup of coffee and some left overlooked VSOP. And so, soon you would be going out, all over again. The city whatever its era as a continuous going out and into it again. And I was a much closer reader in those days of Yeats, Williams, Lawrence, Rilke, Ford, Stein, Stevens, Dickinson, Sappho, Creeley, Dorn, Keats, Donne, Shakespeare, Daumal (even Krishna Murti), and certainly of O'Hara (not Pound curiously, except for the early poems and the translations) than of anyone else. So you try to read everything, but obviously you don't. The independent is his own eccentric. Of course Coltrane or Miles, or Van Morrison or the Stones were always in the backup airwaves. As Creeley said somewhere, if you have to venture a guess, Miles Davis had the greatest impact on recent American poetic practice because his music was, more likely as not, on behind it. Though God save us I abhor most psycho-biography, though I guess I'm having a bit of a whack at it here. But you could argue that those St. Elizabeths documents are a kind of seeming objective but unconscious, self-interested mercy killing. The mad, great, anti-Semitic bugger kinda deserved his demise in an incremental Yiddish accent (which Olson is said to have adopted in his visits to Pound at St. Elizabeths). And that's when Olson got borned, delivering himself full standing in the womb of Pound's loonie bin. The euthanasist becomes the midwife of his own delayed caesarian birth. These are the scalpels of influence.
The Villon is okay, I did it, and was happy I did. But I don't forget what was going on at the time--the usual rancorous d-i-v-o-r-c-e, with the revelation of a spouse's infidelities--with my students, as well as my friends. One had to write something about that. You know, like Eliot's remark that The Waste Land was just a grouse against life, or something like that. Well, that's a darn sight more innersting poeticalist theory than those footnotes to it, and all the subsequent hoohaw around them. And anyway, really, Stravinsky, was the basis of that poem, as Karlien van den Beukel has shown in her brilliant Cambridge thesis on dance and modernism. Not Jessie Weston or The White Goddess, thank god. So at last we can read the footnotes for the pisstake they were. Should have known already simply from the evidence that some idiot Faber editor was asking for them, apparently to elucidate the text. Well, that was likely Eliot's fiction--is there evidentiary paper on this? If so let's get a handwriting expert in on it, or at least a professional forger. Mebbe the so-called requesting editor was T.S. himself. Now, that would've been one way-cool move. But for chrissake, if we had just gone on an intuitive gut response and/or had had some good insider Bloomsbury gossip from the time, fuck-it-all we coulda saved eighty years of critical bullshit, not to mention all the students agony we all experienced to one degree or another.
Williams in that sense, more than Creeley, always seemed a better "figure of outward" to me-though that of course was only Olson's wall-scrap for his bruiser. And the lad accepted the imprint as his own, like a duckling mothered by a monstrous Ulukumian wheelbarrow, across from the too simple Rutherford library. And if you take this to be just me blathering on about it, well so be it. Pound meanwhile was likely as not an unsuccessful dandy about London town, fleeing the Gurdgieff meetings Yeats drug him to in South Kensington. Now, who do you think got more satisfactorily laid? Ezra was likely chasing frigid Bloomsburyites, or at best distant exotic Circassians. Whilst the doctor knew how to stick with his Polish-American mothers.
Translation plays an important if not fundamental role in your poetry. You are working on some translations of Baudelaire at the moment; but first I want to ask you more about Villon by Jean Calais. Williams said of the historical Villon that he only had one poetical theme--himself: his life and sorrows about Paris. Paul Ricoeur writes "the work of translation is advanced with some salvaging and some acceptance of loss." Salvaging and loss of what? "Bent out of shape is also bent into shape," as you've written.
Translation of course always basically loses. But it can still miraculously, somehow excessively, also be "negative dialectics" gain. Some translations may even exceed the original. (Catullus's version of Sappho may or may not be an example of this.) They should always of course be "up" to the original. I mean, as inventive and accomplished as the original. Of course most of the time they just aren't. You keep trying but it's not so easy to get there. Still, the effort is at the center of loss and salvaging, but sometimes perhaps of furtherance. So the Villon and the Baudelaire try to be an "advance," probably failing. Jeremy Prynne's recent "Tips on Translation" (on the Archive of the Now website) read a bit curricular and pedagogical on this notion to me, covering Poundian territory without the madman's succinctness.
I was very pleased of course, once reading the Jean Calais translations in Paris, after Pierre Alferi read the original French, when Pierre said something like they could get it in your English versions more readily than in the original. I was certainly up and out with that un-expected idea. Though I'm not sure I believe it. And so what or not. It was another great night rousting in a beloved Paris. Everybody got laid by the city at large.
Look, perhaps this all sounds too high-falutin in the end. Perhaps your interviewee is just another renegade anti-Pope in a displaced Avignon. An interesting outsider at the edge of the center, as Jean Day once allowed. You do what you can, hopefully what only you can do. And "we're all turkeys," as Creeley brilliantly observed. You're just another person breathing, who has adopted an art to attempt some momentary stay against confusion, or some such adroit obfuscation. Who said that? Well, I do too. And I obfuscate, even when I cannot stay. I slide, I stray, I glide. That's what my mother said at eight-nine in the old folks' home. She was speaking for me in fact for most of my life. Well, she did give birth after all to something.
You taught at Cambridge in the 1990s. You mentioned meeting Tom Ra-worth in the Bay Area. Was he your connection to poetry in the UK?
I met Tom in a bookstore. He was living for a year with his wife Val in San Francisco. Prynne turned up in town around then as well, in tow with Tom Clark, perhaps still the editor of the Paris Review, one some kind of U.S. tour. In that sense, my connection to things English was early and periodically cumulative. Though it seemed fairly random at the time. And it was.
Teaching at UC San Diego in the mid '80s, where I ran the reading series and curated the Poetry Archive, Paul Vangelisti in Los Angeles, working I'm sure of my slight connections, asked me to gather a small supplement of new British poetry for the magazine Forehead. Which I promptly enough managed to do: several pages (a few each) of Ian Patterson, John Wilkinson, Rod Mengham, and D.S. Marriott. Subsequently but not because of that, in 1992, I got a Judith E.Wilson Fellowship to each at Cambridge.
That place, and all the persons associated with it, led fairly directly to what I wrote for the next ten years practically--the work Ian Hunt so beautifully published in his Alfred David edition Left Under a Cloud and Geoff Young in Mon Canard. I suppose you could say "Cambridge" enhanced a certain lyric, elegaic, and satyric poetic disposition already encompassed in my hippocamp.
How did you get to San Francisco from New Mexico?
After the job was finished in New Mexico and getting divorced, I traveled to Mexico and from there naturally enough to the Bay Area, following new life, new poetry, new love, new birth. That Pacific Rim come full circle.
And you live in Paris now ...
After returning to the States from Cambridge in 1994, a friend offered me her apartment in Paris for a month--and to introduce me to all of her friends, one of whom now is the mother of my eleven-year-old son Dewey. Except for two intermittent years in New York (1998-2000) I've been here ever since.
In the "Pretext" of Four Lectures you wrote: "It is not the business of POETRY to be anything." This seems an extremely simplistic position. What did you mean by it?
Well, I think I had, I think, the simplest meaning in mind. It was the late '70s of course, and early Language poetry prescription, soon to turn into proscription, was already abroad in the land. "I am absolutely programmed against personism per se" was written to me by Barrett Watten, rejecting some poems of mine for This or Poetics Journal, where he did finally publish the "Pretext" and "Codex" of Four Lectures.
Though I kant remember where, I do remember that "there is no business for poetry to be anything at all" was in response to something Ron Silliman had written about the responsibility of poetry I think, but it was so long ago I'm not certain what it was. Anyhoot, I preferred Robert Duncan's sense of it, that responsibility meant maintaining "the ability to respond." Also of course that poetry could be anything at all, or just about anything at all, as in "around" anything at all or "about the idea of anything," as proposed in an early sentence of that "Preface", bien sur. So, not the business of poetry to be anything at all--except great. And the great? Active, careful, musical, intelligent, "technically sincere," inspired, and sublime. That, like the man said, which will "please the gods."
Your description--active, careful, musical, intelligent, etc.--points to a notion of integrity. Pound understood the ideogram for integrity to mean "man standing beside his word." Do you think that great poetry relies on the personality or biography of its author?
Life is all biography of course. Poesie as inadvertent autobiography, like a blog a "advertent" informercial. Interesting position, perhaps now, given the return of the disgraced beak of the "I", in regard to earlier rejection of Olson, Ginsberg, and O'Hara by the core faculty LPers, but now as though "projected" onto the new Grand Piano project. Programmed against it, that is, until it no longer suits an already established biographicist, careerist paradigm. The career is the snoz now, rather than the previous "beak."
"Maybe you think you've gone on, but you still have to go through us," Watten has reportedly sd recently to a younger writer, likely in her forties. It's like a calculated consolidation of one General's project. Watten in this arena does bear some resemblance to Breton in the surrealist project. He's got the theory down. The definer and the excommunicator. But he needs the others to hold him up. It's symbiotic. A move on lit'ry history decked out as an experiment. But so was romanticism, surrealism, Ulysses, and The Waste Land--the last three all practically simultaneous interventions. All avant-gardes (and they have all been recent) have been "pre-sold." And we could use some more of these illusions, to keep us momentous and momentary. It's almost like some Kapital of literary history--though with little revolution or striking workers--generally as the western world is now. It all roils on unsuccessfully but successfully unrolling. There is generally just too much consolidation and embarrassing "company town" mentally at work around this question. Though I feel sure it'll be a pretty good ten-volume read, at its post-modern, "post avant," "post-age" emplacement, at the next escarpment and, if fortunate, on the next after that. The continuum of litry history is its own unpredictable and sometimes absurd (unhead) and always really uncontrollable unfolding. Though future generations will attempt to control it.
CLANG: And the horses are OFF! The turf is dry, the pack is tight, and around the second post the distances begin to tighten. And there's Pound Psychotic leading slightly around the bend. But Poem Of A Life catching up from the outside! Alphabet coming on strong in the middle! With Detroit Progress gaining! and A Draft of Thirty Horses making her move at the back! Reading A Life lagging far behind. But Post-Avant closing fast. But its Pound Psychotic in the stretch by nearly a length and a half. Well ahead of Reading A Life and A Draft of Thirty Horses, but they're some some challenges mounting. But at the finish it's Pound Psychotic by nearly two lengths! With Universe and Long Poem scratched at the start. What an incredible race! Not since Ode to the West Wind won the Preakness by a hair in '22 have we seen such a finish!
Or "In-house, back-scratch, his'n'her poetics"--coming at the same question by the copulative dorsal fin. Lice in her blouse, a carlist association for a post well-donne lil' insect, whose sting is the orgasm the poet writes without. There's no escaping poetry being autobiographical, or of its defining an "I," no matter what the meretricious reposts the corest Linguinis may've put forth. You know, Wattens Progress is as autobiographicial as Hejinians My Life is, or Sillimans Alphabet. Though it seems to "correctly" erase the ego, it includes it by its absence. Its a bit like Kerouac without the subject, as I think I remarked decades ago in Ben Friedlander s Jimmy and Lucys House of "K"--in a thing called "What I See in the Silliman Project," which Friedlander has otherwise noted in his stunning book Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism. Is this boring enough here?
Though of course the Silliman blog nicely enough does not, with the adverts on every left margin, avoid its subject. Its outright and foregrounded advertisement, like any website. But it is a useful, servicable kind of collective gathering, absolutely. And provides him his million hits (and you read it there). Ron has an opinion about everything, everyone knows that. Dig his movie, his art reviews, and his sports commentary. But the man who wrote The Alphabet and The Age of Huts has the right to do anything with the new American blog he damn well pleases.
But as everything expands on the NET, it doesn't exactly aid his New Year s resolution to blog less and blog better. It's a win-loss situation for him. But it gets him out of bed anyway. The best way perhaps to blog better is just not to blog at all. To keep you from it, sleep till noon, as Robert Frost admitted always doing, upon being asked a question about the light morning snow some nice crow shook down on him. At a small Amherst College meeting with a few students (c. 1961), he would say, "Venus! What d'they want to go to Venus for? All they'll find is venereal disease." The New York film maker Shirley Clark was there shooting it for a documentary that later got an Academy Award. We were in it, sitting on the floor, playing enraptured students.
But I really like and miss all those people. We were once a community, pretty operable too, one where any arguefying was naturally dealt with within or on the side. I suppose time and academic advance direct disagreements into schisms that mightn't have been so adamant in their original small-potatoes commune. That eleven are way more than interesting writers, they are probably about the best we have. With the addition of some several dozen others.
Are you sure of yourself historically?
Of course not. But you couldn't continue if you weren't some ways sure. But you are never really sure. You're sure that it's not good enough. And not sure that it isn't a waste of time. And as such, recent written history is largely a waste of time. We await the historians of 2084. Failing them, of 2101. Allende was a victim of 9/11 also. And Samson was one of the first terrorists. Bring the house down is a rock'n'roll command, and poetry's as well. How can we tell the Vatic from the Vatican? This is not some in-house competition for a Wallace Stevens prize. This is the long haul. This is fakeless, faceless eternitie. Lit'ry life in America now can seem little more than a jockeying for position in the tradition. This is true for the novelists too. Wrong from the start.
For it is an unforeseeable helix unwhirling and unraveling. Its mis-takes are delineated in the vortex. And the gyre will eventually spell it out. Live free and die. Publish and perish. And nothing remains but the remains. A better title perhaps than Clark Coolidge's The Maintains. Though that's a helpful instruction. To go on, when you can't, with your own chosen definite article. What does not remain is only the unstayable. And the next reading.
It's all Blake's ladder in the end. How'd that loner ever get so prophetic? Never send a self-addressed stamped envelope with any submission. Send in another fusillade. Ask after a wafer. And then go post another sublime text if you got one. It's all light on a dark page. Mister B. was naked in the tree with those angels. The royal tax collectors never got to him. A fully reposed quietude and pro-active proposition may be not that different in the end.
Which are the last American poets who still cut it for you?
Oh you know, like Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Ginsberg, O'Hara. The boys. That's the great generation--and not all that recently gone. That Ashbery is still at it so strong is both an example and an anomaly. A bit like a Disney institution, but a very good Walter Disney. Or a coefficient of the previous "immortalization" of Auden and Stevens, but of course much beyond that.
Well, I guess that's just practical or dumb history. Fractal but not necessarily virtual. But it gets mistakenly empirical like that unfortunately. I think Fanny Howe is about the greatest poet around--and Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Bev Dahlen, Lydia Davis, and Jean Day. And I really admire the work of Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jar not, and lots of others. Time will tell, of course, is the old saw.
Though, forgive me, it's not so easy to find a Dickinson or a Melville, a Stein or an Edith Wharton or a Flannery O'Connor, among em. After Henry James, are there great American writers except Pound and O'Hara? Maybe Saul Bellow, maybe not. And the only one before that of course is Whitman. We may well become the shortest-lived great nation in history with an exceptional literary tradition.
You mean it's all cabin culture from here on out?
You think those figures didn't inhabit cabins?--no matter their mansions, manses or castles? It's always been like that. And well, you could likely bet that none of our little huts will survive history's tsunami. But time will tell. And soon there may be heaped more tides on the proposition itself, completely beyond any lit'ry control. Recent U.S. literary history on the experimental side is all about CONTROL, as has been pointed out elsewhere.
The future shout in the street is not likely to be ours. Our barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world are probably, and perhaps best, long gone. But hopefully not entirely forgotten. But American barbarism had its culturally defined limits in the end. Poe and Whitman inaugurated it. Pound, Olson, and O'Hara (in his elegant colloquial way) pretty much finished it. Though there has been a great deal of yawping ever since, not to mention the endless quasi discrete echo of Oppen and Zukofsky along the wayside. It feels like we are in an interim moment, no matter what the "post-avant" blog is promulgating. Rather like the gap beween romanticism and modernism. And the "post-avant" can seem little more than neo-Russian formalism revisited, with a high-ho, pragmatist (read recuperative) American twist. We all want to be like them Russians, before they were bad. Why aren't the self-appointed CEOs of current Am Lit looking at eighteenth and nineteenth century examples? Only Susan Howe and Ben Friedlander and a few others seem to be doing that.
To appreciate present conditions, collate them with those of even recent antiquity. See shadows, but think the sun. Or where we are now, is that better vice versa? Before the storefront window of so many reflections of "next-up" poetry, as Michael Gizzi has so trenchantly observed. And forget the world of letters in any city on earth. That's all shortsighted, blind-sided capitalism or just more academic pizzazz. What we're after is the sack of the knot in the rush. Bit like William Butler Yeats speaking again. Oh where is that crew when we most need such example now? Original, barbaric, intuitive, and independent of any theoretical orthodoxy? You may not read about it for years, and may you live for sixty more and beyond. John was late, but still early. We've always had our earmuffs ready (you have to protect your ears), and our real ears themselves in mind to hand, to the track and to the wind. You were there perhaps. It continues Blakean. And it's the only place to be.
Such a backyard genius to be the pole. But it may be the one truly elevated place to think of as home. Somewhere in the woods or the frontier of the excommunicated locality of ideas. Forget your school address, even though you still use it for references, correspondence and conferences. For we perch now in explosive, untrimmed un-American trees. But there is ample time to confer later on that limb above the one above, where Troilus sat, looking down on what had just passed.
Care to leave us with a valediction?
Okay, so boat hope nick dreams--whilst there's still time to write from this unmoored flotilla, outside some erstwhile philippine harbor or other. While the little ditties still lie sleeping on their glass desk, by the sextant, before the disappearing light and yet another unremembered dream at dawn. Where it'll all return, as it always has.
And inter-view it ALL: to thank any readers for these opportunities. And so to bed. Sleep well. Write better. Then maybe of course, obligatoire, retire--beyond sleep, writing and retirement. Till death is the only place really eternally to be--after tomorrow, or maybe the next day, or the second following after that. The year next or the year after. There are only a few short terms left to go, we all know that. So I urge everybody to get on with it forthwith, before we're all toast. Or already dosing.
As Coleridge sometimes spelled that word.
This interview began as an e-mail correspondence between Rodefer and Kindellan in May 2007. The following autumn, after making a number of substantial revisions, Rodefer delivered the interview to CR. Kotin and Adams then worked with him to complete this draft.
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|Author:||Kindellan, Michael; Kotin, Joshua; Adams, V. Joshua|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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