Jerome Rothenberg, from Eye of Witness: “Toward an Omnipoetics” (excerpted from The Medusa Interview)
in dialogue with Rodrigo Garcia Lopes
circa 1999, revised 2012
[This is the final prose piece in Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, which brings together aspects of my work in a range of forms & genres (poetry, prose, performance, plays, poetics, visual, verbal, & vocal). Co-edited with Heriberto Yépez & published in early September by Joe Phillips & Black Widow Press. (J.R.)]
RGL: The connection between language & reality has been a major focus of your poetry & poetics. It seems that we've crossed a long way from Blake's "doors of imagination" to Bill Gates's "Windows 98". I'd like to start our interview with this provocation as well as pointing out the medium by which this interview is being taken: the e-mail. How do you think that this Media Age - of TV, internets, consumerism, & rapid technological advances -- is affecting the language of poetry written today (& specifically in the U.S.)? How do you think poets are responding to this so-called "Globalization"? Retaking the anxiety posed by Marjorie Perloff in Radical Artifice, "Given the particular options (& nonoptions) of writing at the turn of the twenty-first century, what significant role can poetic language play"?
JR: The question has a special relevance for me, I suppose, since I’ve long been engaged in a project that involves an interplay of very new & very old forms of languaging & representation. I think that one of the principal allures of poetry -- even or (maybe) especially for many of our most “experimental” poets -- has been the sense of engaging in a process -- a way of thinking & of saying -- that has until very recently been universal both in space & time. The time factor is a measure of its oldness, & the emergence of a “new” poetry over the last hundred or two hundred years has almost always been accompanied by declarations of “re”covery / “re”discovery at the heart of every new invention. This is clear enough in U.S. poetry, where someone like Ezra Pound, whom we take as radical — structurally radical — from The Cantos on, insists on pushing the time frame back & expanding it horizontally or culturally to a range of earlier initiating moments: first Anglo-Saxon rhythms merged with Homeric shaman journeys down among the shades in Canto One; then in his other & his later writings with the Chinese Book of Songs, the African “Gassire’s Lute” as given by Frobenius, erotic poems of ancient Egypt, re-castings of neglected Provençal & Roman poets. This was what put him in conflict with Marinetti & the Futurists – a “tale of the tribe,” as he named it, but curiously – in that fascist mind – a greater tribe than privileged race & nation might have led us to expect.
The same spirit of newness & transformation with relation to the past & present (what I used to speak of as "an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present") infused the work of many of us in post-World War II America – Olson, Duncan, Snyder, Kelly, Waldman, Schwerner, among the major ones from my perspective. And there were others too, outside of the U.S. as such – Tzara with his projected gathering of African & South Pacific poems; the Surrealists who set up a bureau (under Artaud!) of research aimed in that direction; & the French Negritude poets & their counterparts in the Spanish “new world.” ...
The Russian Futurists are possibly exemplary here. Unlike the Italians with whom they shared that name, they dug enthusiastically into their own prehistories – the past a necessary part of all that future. Malevich was a kind of folk artist before he made himself a Suprematist, & their rough & very lovely hand-made books had sources in an old, popular, very low-tech form of book making. And Khlebnikov & Kruchonykh are a mix throughout of science fiction laced with zaum as futuristic glossolalia. (Khlebnikov makes the connection back to religious chants with undecipherable word-sounds.)
I would, I think, want to suggest a pendulum moving for many of us between those same poles. In my own experience I remember a time – the 1960s, a part of the 1950s – when an anti-technological impulse was very strong. It wasn’t a Luddite, machine-wrecking thing for most of those I knew who shared some part of it. There was in fact an ongoing interest in machines, a use of machinery for traveling, writing, publishing & making images, or even (in the old wilderness of mountains & rivers or the new urban wilderness of cities) cutting logs & building houses; & by the 1970s there was an acknowledgement (within the art world certainly) of a new territory that brought art & technology together. What we’ve come into today – what you’re asking about directly – is an extraordinary immersion in the world of high technology – even for most of us for whom the past is also opening & deepening.
More specifically the question comes up about “this Media Age,” beginning with the fact that we’re conducting this interview by e-mail. I find this no more surprising or threatening in itself than were the telephone, say, or the typewriter earlier in the century. Quite the contrary. The first thing that strikes me about our situation is that we’re communicating between California & Brazil – that we’re doing it rapidly & with the luxury of setting it in writing – as we could as well by voice, although the costs of doing that in detail would be more prohibitive. With some more effort too we could deliver what we’re doing through the internet, could publish it, so to speak, without relying for approval on an intervening publisher who might be hostile or at least indifferent to our project. In this one week – in January 1999 – I’ve been in touch with France & Germany & Mexico & Greece & Yugoslavia & England – most of it by e-mail, some of it by fax & phone. And you & I might also – through a network or community of which we’re a part – meet together before too long in any of a number of places to which poets like ourselves can be transported across borders that are meant to keep us separate.
What this does is to further a globalism – the kind of globalism (not “globalization”) that I’ve always wanted & that I would not shy away from. It also insulates us – in our cyber-giddiness – from problematics that some of the other instances you cite still hold for us. The problem with most technologies – including poetry at the low-tech end – is that they’re double-edged. Like other means (or media) they can be used in good or bad ways – even evil ways, or what we used to think of à la Hannah Arendt as the ultimate “banality of evil.” If the magic of the old sorcerers & shamans could be used – as “black” or “white” for good or evil purposes – it’s true in much the same way for all that we class as “media.” In this way the internet tempts us as poets with the sudden ability to publish & disseminate over a wider network than older means afforded us as individuals. But it acts as a similar conduit for an ever expanding commercialism but – still more distressing – for the ugliest forms of racial & gender hatred (among other matters), with consequences still to be determined. Or maybe it’s a balance – what we want on one side & an ongoing banalization of word & thought on the other. Also I recognize – as we all do – the further encroachment of a monoculture, which I suppose is felt outside the U.S. in the growing hegemony of English & in the Americanization of the popular media, with whatever consequences those may have. For us up here it may make the globalism question seem much less threatening, may make the opening of new lines of communication seem an out & out gain with scant sense of the losses.
Going back, however, to my own awakenings post-World War II, I recall being driven by a sense of un-ease – a feel about a language that had been corrupted by propaganda & mindless sloganeering – & more insidiously, because more omnipresent in the time that followed, by the vacuities of (well-made) advertising & the developing role of news[reality]-as-entertainment. That made some of us look toward poetry as the “other” language – a language for calling language into question – the banality of language as underpinning for the banality of evil. The new technologies give us a bigger opening – or seem to – to let that otherness emerge. It is still a language & a process I prefer – a way of “othering” that brings a range of poetries together in my mind. But the greater push, I must admit, is overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.
RGL: It is frequent to hear claims about the impossibility of an avant-garde today, as well as complaints about the scarcity & poorness of contemporary poetical production. I feel that "Millennium" brings a more positive stance, emphasizing the possibilities, the "revolutions of the word" still to come, not their closure. Thinking specifically of the international experimental traditions you gather in "Millennium", do you see that poe(lit)ical movements are possible or desirable today? If they exist, where would they be occurring?
JR: It’s my belief that those “revolutions” are inherent to poetry as we’ve made it & will continue to be so into the foreseeable future – as long, at least, as ideas of freedom & transformation (change) remain a part of our outlook over all. I don’t say that with any certainty, however, because revolutions are an area in which authority – the wisdom or the will to get it done – is, unlike some other things, a matter for the very young. So while I feel, as ever, ready for those kinds of revolution, it’s not for me to say.
Revolution – if that’s still the going word – is something more than a change of style or fashion. So when you’re playing with the words & come up with a portmanteau like poe(lit)ical, you’re hitting on the dual characteristics (poetical & political) of what was once the avant-garde & certainly the avant-garde of art & poetry that formed itself as movements. For those in the early days of experimental modernism – Futurists & Surrealists & Dadas – the ambition was to transform society & consciousness together, & it was only when the social transformation was separated from the poetic one (under the pressures of communism on the left & fascism on the right) that the avant-garde project put itself in question. In the post-World War II time, the poets of the avant-garde – whatever avant-garde there was – were no longer so quick to place their art, as the Surrealists once had it, “at the service of the revolution.” The general tone, as in words from the Cobra poet Christian Dotremont that we cite in Poems for the Millennium, was “against all isms, against all that implied a system.” This meant – for many – a politics against a politics, but with a leftward tilt & keeping, over all, a freedom of occasion – where & when to act. And the occasions included a widespread opposition to war & to resurgent forms of nationalism & racism, but also a reawakened sense of the poet as a spokesperson for peoples & species under siege.
The result by the 1960s was the appearance of a new “dialectics of liberation,” political & personal & marked by a sense of resistance, of breaking free (in word & act, mind & body), while retaining a more-than-formalist conception of the poem as vehicle-for-transformation. As Allen Ginsberg wrote, drawing from an older source: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” And the Japanese “postwar poets” (in a “demand” voiced by Ooka Makoto): “Bring back totality through poetry.”
That anyway was where I found poetry – in the days in particular of the postwar & the cold war. Even in a movement, say, like that of the American “language poets” – the emphasis falling on that key word “language” – the underlying issues remained political & existential. Indeed, as Charles Bernstein put it, “In order to fully develop the meaning of a formal rupture or extension, we need a synoptic, multilevel, interactive response that accounts, in hopefully unconventional, antiauthoritative ways, for sexual, class, local-historical, biographical, & structural dimensions of a poem.” Or, in Ron Silliman’s words, which still ring true to me: “[A] critique of reference and normative syntax ... situated within the larger question of what, in the last part of the twentieth century, it means to be human.”
Other movements, like those grouped around ethnic & gender identity, were & remain more overtly agenda-driven & sometimes, from my perspective at least, lose the sense of how a “revolution of the word” relates to those other revolutions. But even here, as I’ve stated above, there are language questions at issue – black voices / white voices, female voices / male voices, dialects & dialectics, written word & shouted word. Such language issues – the whole slew of them & more – are still the heart of our poetics, though what the future holds is never amenable to easy guessing or glib prophecy. Certainly, as I see it, the work is far from done, & the challenge of a poetry & a counterpoetics is as much needed as ever. That in the end it may be a largely losing proposition is also possible, but I can only act as if it isn’t.
POSTSCRIPT. On the matter of revolutions of the word & how they might exist today, that brings me back to your first question – the future of poetry in the computer age. … I would urge – but with some limitations placed upon that urging – that the globalism of the internet opens up the possibility of a worldwide avant-garde. The limitations, given the dominance of English & other hegemonic languages, involve the threat to cultural & regional particulars. Against this, perhaps, the internet, the web, offers a new arena for visual, performative, & interactive modes, moving (sometimes at least) in multiple cultural directions. The number of such web sites & displays is in fact enormous, so that watching the experimental work already triggered – the technical ease in its construction – there’s a sense, isn’t there, of a futurism that has come into its future.
All of this -- & more – is what I’ve more recently come to call an omnipoetics.