Commentaries - April 2010

Rothenberg non-Adorno: writing after Auschwitz

Here is a short excerpt from a longer interview with Jerome Rothenberg. It has been transcribed by the wonderful Michael Nardone. The transcription is good but it's still a work in progress, and we hope to release this and other interview transcriptions through Jacket2 in the coming months. Meantime, here I am talking with Jerry about writing about the Holocaust.

FILREIS:
I guess the first question I have is about your uncle. You’ve said in a poem and in a preface, and also in conversation that the only story that has come directly to you, or indirectly maybe, about the Holocaust and your family is the uncle who was lost who found about his family killed, I think at Treblinka, and drank a bunch of vodka and blew his brains out. There were obviously others who were lost. When you got back, when you got to Treblinka, it wasn’t a roots visit, it was something that happened along the way because you were already in Germany. You decided to make the trip and you went to Treblinka but there you said that the poems you heard at Treblinka were the clearest message you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry. Can you explain that a little more, and specifically what do you mean you heard the poems at Treblinka?

ROTHENBERG:
It wasn’t as if a voice was speaking to me. [Laughter]

FILREIS:
Glad we cleared that up. Jerry—

ROTHENBERG:
But it was if that experience plus more. I don’t if I began to write those poems following the Treblinka visit, which was early in the trip. Later, having passed some time in Krakow, in Silesia, we then travelled to Auschwitz. But the whole thing, from the moment that I set foot into Poland, I had a great sense of upset, you know, it triggered something. I think quite understandably.

FILREIS:
But the clearest message you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry?

ROTHENBERG:
The clearest message, yeah, in the sense that I think for many of us, maybe most of us, who became poets and who had lived either directly or vicariously through the experience of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the great, very intense, brief period of destruction, you know, a few years. I’ve always tried to get an accurate account of how many people were killed during that time from 1939 to 1945. An extraordinary numbers of deaths, of burnings, of maimings.

I think I began to write poetry under the impact of that. I was still living under the, as were others of my generation. I don’t think I can define very clearly what I mean. I understood then, for the first time I was willing to say that something of what had happened there was what brought me into poetry in the first place.

I had been meditating to, or thinking about the statement of Adorno, attributed and sometimes mistranslated from Adorno about not writing poetry after Auschwitz. But that’s wrong, because really what drove me into poetry, or what I feel retrospectively drove me into poetry was the experience of Holocaust. And not just what happened in the death camps, although that was an extremity, but you know, the other, particularly once we got away from the war itself. And what happened at Hiroshima began to sink in first, I was a kid when we got news about that. I don’t think it was for me, at the age of 14, a sense of the horror of Hiroshima, but it didn’t take long before one realized what we had done there. And then, of course, things like Dresden only came to light for us much later.

FILREIS:
And you don’t really disagree with what we imagine to be the impetus behind Adorno’s statement, which is that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.

ROTHENBERG:
O no.

FILREIS:
That is to say you believe that the enormity of that situation robbed language of its capacity to express appropriately what had happened. The disagreement is what happens afterwards, because you believe strongly, and you’ve said this in Khurbn, you’ve said it at the end of The Burning Babe, I believe, and you’ve certainly said it in various statements that poetry is all we have left.

ROTHENBERG:
Well, I think that the transformations that poetry makes possible were to me a more meaningful response than silence. Although silence can be very powerful, but who will know about it?

FILREIS:
Well there are some artists who would argue differently about silence.

ROTHENBERG:
Yes, but somebody has to get the word out.

Anyway, silence was not an option.

FILREIS:
Silence was not an option for you.

ROTHENBERG:
Silence means withdrawing from the world.

FILREIS:
In the Elie Wiesel sense, if you’re silent, you’re helping the bad guys. Don’t be silent. In that sense.

ROTHENBERG:
Yes, it’s not just the Elie Wiesel sense.

FILREIS:
I know that, I threw that in there to get a rise out of you.

ROTHENBERG:
You generally assume that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. This is stated in many different ways. As a poet, I began more and more to talk about the response to that mid-century Holocaust, holocausts, and so much that followed, the response being through the transformed language of poetry, and of course other responses also.

bitter, rock, trash, Ben & gold

In our "7-up" series, 7 people talk for 7 minutes each about something - trash one year, bitterness another, rock a third, Ben (Franklin) a fourth. It's wonderful random stuff. Come and listen.

megachurches for spring break

When the gospel garage-rock we had so tolerantly been appreciating came to an abrupt end, Lon Solomon's face appeared like the Wizard of Oz on shining silver screens. A shiver ran down my spine and kept running as his dark mouth opened wide around words like "trustworthiness" and "veracity". My discomfort came on so strong because, well, Lon is an atavistic crossbreed of game-show host and far-right cult leader, fluffing his feathers in high perch as the Senior Pastor of the McLean Bible Church. His position gives him the opportunity to preach to ten-thousand people every week, offering sermons that cover the burning bush, gay marriage, and everything he misrepresents in between.

That's the opening paragraph of the latest (final?) blog entry posted to a blog titled "religioUSA" - written by students Kim Eisler, Hannah McDonnell, Sarah Souli, and Adrian Pelliccia. They traveled to Florida recently to study--for a second year--the role and function of the mega-church in southern culture.

Digital swap meet this week

The students in our CPCW/Writers House/ICA year-long seminar are hosting a DIGITAL SWAP MEET. It runs in conjunction with the Maira Kalman exhibit "Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)" currently at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and is the realization of a project called MILTON. Maira Kalman envisioned Milton as a conceptual space for pleasure and exchange, and DIGITAL SWAP MEET esteems those qualities above all others.

Come upload, download, snoop, peruse, and plunder during this four-day media swap. We'll provide the configuration, you provide the data. Bring your computer and hook in to each of our four drives to view their contents. Within our four terabytes of space, you're sure to encounter something eye-catching to take home with you, and to find room to upload your own files.

Theft is strongly encouraged, as is adding to the collection. So look through your hard drive, come prepared to bring something to the table, grab your computer, and join us at the ICA during some or all of the following hours:

Thursday, April 8: 12-8pm
Friday, April 9: 12-8pm
Saturday, April 10: 11-5pm
Sunday, April 11: 11-5pm

Los Angeles

Back from a fabulous week in L.A. The Geffen, which is part of MOCA, is at the edge of downtown adjacent to Little Toyko; it's terrific. Stop in if you're out there. Return visit to the cactus gardens at the Huntington. Unbelievably good Mexican dinner at a first-rate but little-known place in Silver Lake. Very good hotel 1 block from the beach in Santa Monica. Birthday dinner at 1 Pico (part of the Shutters Hotel). Hip French bistro in Venice (Lily's) where my son took no risk on ordering the beef tartare. The newish Frenk Gehry music hall, downtown, is stunning to see (and be in). An afternoon at the Getty Villa (the Aztec exhibit) with the Perloffs. Toured UCLA, too, which looked better than ever, despite its crumbling base of support and ballooning class sizes. We left and just a few hours letter a 7.1 quake hit. Weather, timing, everything: perfect. At right here is the famed proportionate L.A. Municipal Building reflected in the windows of an awful quick-rise police building across the street.