An interview with Stuart Ross
It has been many years since he stood on Yonge Street in Toronto wearing a “Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books” sign (he sold 7,000 of his books this way in the ’80s), but Stuart Ross (b. 1959) continues to be an active and influential presence in the Canadian small press. Through his work as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, performer, editor, organizer, and publisher, Ross has been an advocate for small press writers and publishers since his late teens. Ross is a prolific writer. Several of Ross’s own books and chapbooks, including Dead Cars in Managua (poetry, 2008), Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (short stories, 2009), Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (novel, 2012), and You Exist. Details Follow. (poetry, 2013), have received or been shortlisted for awards. His most recent book is Our Days in Vaudeville, a compendium of collaborative poems written by Ross and twenty-nine other writers. Ross lives in Cobourg, Ontario, a small town on the shore of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto.
In July 2014, we discussed surrealism, collaboration as a significant part of his practice, the relationship of his poetics to both Canadian and American traditions, popular culture, mentors, teaching, humor, the small press, improvisation, “nutso” imagery, and his current projects.
Gary Barwin: Let’s begin by addressing the surrealist elephant in the room. We’ll leave the sewing machine and the umbrella for another time. Discussions of your work often invoke notions of surrealism, and in fact you edited an important anthology of Canadian poetry that engages with surrealism: Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (Mercury Press). How do you see your work in relation to “realism,” language, the “real” world, and surrealism?
Stuart Ross: I don’t much concern myself with issues of what is real and what is surreal. I don’t set out to write surrealism, or to include surreal elements in my work. When I write, I simply don’t bother obeying laws of reality, and I have no problem if one of my characters, or some object, transforms into something else or flies, or sizzles, or otherwise does the “impossible.” My reading covers a real range: Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite writers because I like the closet of terror and paranoia she thrusts me into, and she’s as real as it gets, but I also love Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary and B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain. They’re real too, but they’re not real by being realistic. The “real” world: I don’t think there’s any such thing — or there’s nothing that’s not part of the real world. Language: it’s the thing I write in.
Barwin: But to follow up on your relation to the “real world”: I wonder about how you consider the relation of language to the construction of self, to the experience of being human (or the experience of flying and sizzling)? Much of your language, that “thing [you] write in,” plays with what seemingly bears some relation to a situation outside the language (if such a thing can exist). Your poems often play with the notion that language is a trickster that may appear to construct something that corresponds to the world, but also constructs a parallel world that, based on the experience and expectations of reading, may delight, deceive, beguile, or surprise.
The event takes place.
Sounds are heard.
You exist. Not yet.
(“The Event,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you imagine the process of reading, of moving through, a text of yours? How do you think about how a reader experiences your unfolding textworld?
Ross: I think more in terms of the discovery of self than the construction of self. That said, I don’t see my writing as a way to discover myself, but instead as a way to explore my interests, to amuse myself, to connect in some way to people outside of myself (however few those people will be), and hopefully provide some amusement for them, or get them to think in ways they find interesting. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying regarding language as a trickster, but when I’m writing I do like that you can immediately contradict yourself, or skew expectations, or provide another perspective on reality (as in “You exist. Not yet.”).
I like the question about how the reader might experience my work; it’s something I don’t think much about. I mean, how would I know how an individual reader would read my poems or stories? I don’t know their lives, their experiences, what they’re bringing to the act of reading. But I hope that they might look at my poems, especially, the way they’d look at a painting by Bosch. That they’d keep noticing new and weird things. That it might make them laugh at times and unsettle them at other times. I imagine they read the first word, and then the second, and then they keep going, and every so often something strikes them, and maybe they back up a bit or skip down to the bottom of the page. They might attempt to inflict meaning where I don’t intend any, because some people are oriented that way. That’s great! I love reading student papers on my work, and I love reading really in-depth explorations of my writing by creative and thoughtful thinkers like Alex Porco and Lance La Rocque, rare as such explorations are in my case. Throw whatever you got at me! It’s just nice to know someone is considering your work in whatever way.
Barwin: Can you speak about the energy of certain words? Sizzle. Poodle. Potato. (I think you might be the poet laureate of the word thing.) And what about tonal shifts, juxtaposition, and personification?
When we met, the sky had taken a cigarette break, and the clouds, caught
off-guard, were flailing, panicked.
(“When We Met,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
The ground had a hunch.
Furniture made no sense.
(“You Exist. Details Follow.” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
have you heard of time?
It’s a thing that matters,
like that other thing,
but less …
(“You Exist. Details Follow,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Ross: The word thing is something I love, and I try not to overuse it. On a side note, when I was working with David W. McFadden on his volume of selected poems a few years back, he made a lot of revisions to early poems. He often got rid of the word love and sometimes replaced it with the word thing. But while my interest is mostly in image-based poetry, and I use abstractions sparingly, there’s something big and beautiful about thing — as if you’re talking about something very specific but you actually don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re often bewildered by what is confronting us, and we wonder if what we are seeing is what we think we are seeing. Thing fits that situation nicely.
As for words with energy, like sizzle, potato, and poodle, or moon, canoe, and baboon, or gizmo, spelunk, and Parker Posey, they’re a lot of fun, but again, you’ve got to watch for oversaturation. You don’t want to show off. Poems aren’t about your own cleverness. But these effective, unusual, quirky-sounding words are crucial to my own poetry. They’re like characters in my poems.
Tonal shifts: it’d be boring if the tone of a poem didn’t change. Juxtaposition: again, used sparingly, it can be the heart of a poem, the poem’s energy. Personification: doors are people too, and hammers and broken clocks. One of my favorite novels when I was a teenager was Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit. It was filled with pieces of furniture and sheets of paper that spoke. I think it’s Hoban’s masterpiece. I see no reason to limit inanimate objects. That said, I’m also interested in stories where the main characters are inanimate objects that don’t think or speak or have any personified qualities. I’ve written two of those, and I’m working on another.
Barwin: Robert Bly writes about poems “leaping” from the conscious to the unconscious. In your work, I imagine not only a leap around the brain but also a leap around the culture. Your poems, in their incorporation of “non(traditionally)poetic” words and tones, popular culture (Parker Posey), and the forgotten material of the contemporary world (e.g., an elastic band, the inside of a shoe, a half-eaten hamburger), as well as larger themes of loss, family history, and more general existential themes, also do a lot of leaping — or perhaps, in some cases, it could be considered “synthesizing.” Also, much of your work uses a deliberately simple tone and sentence structure, often self-consciously so, which is played against more profound issues.
Hi there, inventory of my life.
(“Inventory Sonnet,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you see the role of this juxtaposition or integration of registers, this creation of a characteristic multilevel style of tonal and image? And maybe this would be a good time to also ask about the role of humor in your work. I like what Victor Coleman said about that: “the message in the chuckle is a punch in the gut.”
… a better poet than me
would insert a really good sediment
metaphor right here. (Or, more poignantly,
(“Sediment,” in I Cut My Finger)
Ross: The simple tone, as you call it, is the tone I feel most comfortable with. My high-school English teacher once wrote on one of my stories something like “Why are all your characters such blockheads?” Or “so dense”? I can’t quite recall. It felt like an attack, because I identify with these characters. We people, we think we’re so smart, but we’re really not all that smart. So I like those who embrace simplicity. It’s a state that many of us yearn for. Simplicity is a good place to start from to learn profound things. I don’t understand your question, but I hope I have answered it here. I also don’t follow how Parker Posey and the “simple tone” lead to the issue of humor — ask away!
Barwin: Why humor? Sometimes the surprise or incongruous appearance of minor pop-culture figures is humorous. Parker Posey. Montgomery Clift. David Carradine. Or the way the character speaks — often “simple” or earnestly, using non-standard English syntax — is funny in itself while at the same time evoking pathos, empathy or self-recognition. I see these “simple” characters as Beckettian figures. One feels great empathy for their existential or emotional situation and great solidarity with their struggles to express themselves. And one feels a kind of dramatic irony in knowing that they haven’t quite been able to find the right words, but yet, paradoxically, their inability and the language that results is somehow much more telling.
Did I be happy correctly? Do the smile go on my face right? … Am
people in general liking me?
(from “Happy” in Hey, Crumbling Balcony!)
One also feels somewhat the way one feels with Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. The simple language, or the naive yet inventive way of expressing things (“The year is invented.” “The water is solid.”), carries the weight of profound insight, a kind of Zen-like wisdom and presence. This, to me, is also humorous or, at least, piquant and droll.
My father and I build a tent
by the water. The water is solid.
We wait. The year is invented.
He teaches me what it can do.
(“The Tent,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Do you see this existential humor in some of your work and in the speakers you create, often a kind of everyperson Busterkeatoning through the language?
Ross: Montgomery Clift is a major pop culture figure! Or a major artist, depending on how you look at it.
But to your question, I don’t see this stuff as humorous, though I know a lot of people do. I’ve become used to people laughing during my readings when I’m reading something I see as poignant. I don’t hold it against them. I’m glad they’re responding. I see beauty in the simplicity of these characters and the kind of language you’ve pinpointed. I feel relief using such language, because it liberates me from having to sound “poetic” like A. F. Moritz or Ken Babstock; for me, this kind of language is more my experience of life, so I embrace it. Again, it comes from a yearning for naïveté, innocence, childhood. Just about everyone in my family has died, so of course I yearn for my childhood. Maybe most people do, unless they had horrible, unspeakable childhoods.
I love your comparison to Chauncey Gardiner. Being There was huge for me when I was a teenager; I’ve never thought of it as an influence, but it must have been. It’s interesting that no other Kosinski character has that “innocence” that Chance had. His other characters are burdened with “knowing” and “intellect” and “conscience.” And then it all implodes in The Hermit of 69th Street, a widely hated book that Kosinski continued to revise even after publication, until he killed himself. That’s his most fascinating work after Being There, The Painted Bird, Steps, and The Devil Tree. The poet David UU had a copy on his “current reading” shelf when he took his own life in 1994.
As for Buster Keaton, he’s also someone whose work I have loved for many years. One of my favorite films of his is Alan Schneider’s Film, from the script by Samuel Beckett. But now when I think of Keaton, I see he had a similar “innocence” in so many of his works. And part of this innocence is self-doubt and self-consciousness. Who of us hasn’t thought, “Am people in general liking me?”
And I think of most of my “characters” or narrators as being everypersons. Everypersons facing existential crises or decisions they are unequipped to handle. Perhaps this is why these characters become fixated on the “thingness” of things. A frozen lake is solid water. A year is something whose invention you must await. Then someone has to teach you what you can do within this thing you’ve maybe never heard of before — this year.
Stuart Ross performing as part of Donkey Lopez (photograph by Laurie Siblock).
Barwin: On the back of your book of reflections about writing and culture, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005), the reviewer George Murray is quoted as saying: “If Stuart Ross was living and working in the United States, and writing the exact same poetry he does now, he would be rich and famous. Well, famous, at least.”
If you do ever become rich, I’m expecting you to buy me a beer … made of solid gold … but do you agree with him about the difference between the US and Canada in terms of poetry, its reception, and the consideration of different styles? How do you conceive of being a writer in Canada?
Ross: George wrote that in his 2003 Globe & Mail review of Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that line! I’m not sure if I would have been rich and famous if I’d been writing in the US back then, but there would have been a lot more sympathy for my writing. There’s been a shift over the past decade or so away from such strictly nationalistic reading, where poets here barely read the Americans. I’d been reading the Americans since I was a little kid, and as I got older, I was especially blown away by Ron Padgett, Campbell McGrath, James Tate, Bill Knott, Larry Fagin, and a lot more. I loved how crazy these poets’ works were: it was different from what was happening in Canada. Now there’s more cross-border reading — at least in a southerly direction, especially with a new generation of American poets who have some audience here: Lisa Jarnot, Matthew Zapruder, Dara Wier, Mary Ruefle, and others. There’s been a good influence on Canadian poetry. Though I do see the formalist movement increasing here, too. Time for a mud-wrestling match.
As to how I conceive of being a writer in Canada — it’s not something I think about much. I try to write, and find poetry I like to read (which is a very small fraction of the available pages), find a way of paying my bills. We’re lucky here in some ways — because of the existence of various municipal, provincial, and federal arts-granting bodies — but I think the academy has too much clout here. It seems to me in the US you can be taken more seriously for writing more nutso stuff. Or is the grass just greener there?
Barwin: The range of your writing — through your many, many books — has expanded from an interest in (to use your term) “nutso” imagery, structured within a “nutso” narrative to include some other modalities: explorations of more abstract structures (many of your more recent poems include more parataxis, some based on list structures) and some engaged more generally with an increasingly abstract consideration of language. However, at the same time, you have poems that more directly refer to human experiences (for example, grief or loss). Are you now a “deep nutso” or an “avant-nutso” poet? How do you think about the development of your work, from that sixteen-year-old suburban Toronto poet who published The Thing in Exile way back in 1976 to the mature small-town Cobourg poet?
Ross: On my way to look up “modalities” and “parataxis” in the dictionary, I decided to hail some parataxis and let them fight it out over who gets my fare. And I don’t know what you mean by an “increasingly abstract consideration of language.” You have a PhD. I’m just a word schlepper.
Also, do you think I’m a small-town Cobourg poet? I think of myself as a poet who happens to live in a small town. Just as I used to be a teenage poet who lived in suburban Toronto. I don’t believe my poetry was suburban then, or small-town now. A lot of my interests are the same along the whole trajectory from 1976 to 2014. It all comes out of my panic about figuring out how to live in this world, how to arrange events and images so I’m more comfortable. Questioning things — such as the very idea of “good poetry” — because I’m not drawn to formalist verse and I can’t put things in order like the writers of formalist verse do. Given this context, I would say all my poetry refers directly to human experiences, centos and list poems included. It is all emotionally autobiographical, and some more factually autobiographical. Just about every poem is a kind of self-portrait. We choose words and phrases and images and juxtapositions, and all of this says a bit about who we are.
Grief, however, has become increasingly present in my poetry. After the death of my mother in 1995, my brother Owen in 2000, and my father in 2001, the idea of facing the world parentless and practically familyless, of losing friends to death, like John Lavery, Robin Wood, Barbara Caruso, Crad Kilodney, Richard Truhlar, to name a few, and losing other friends to … well, I’m not entirely sure in some cases; the deeper understanding of just how absurd our existence on this wobbly sphere is. It all manufactures grief. But I’ve been strongly influenced by Nelson Ball and by David W. McFadden, and I do try to find joy, too, wherever I can.
As to “nutso,” it’s just nutso. Back in my twenties, I used the phrase “demento primitivo” to describe my poetry. Sometimes I use the word stupid to describe some of my poetry, sometimes goofy. But I still take it seriously.
While your back was turned just now, I looked up modalities and parataxis. They’re good words, and yes, parataxically speaking, I have moved in many of my poems in recent years toward shorter, simpler sentences. In fact, I’ve been writing poems over the past year or so that contain two full sentences in each line. It creates interesting effects and tensions. It contradicts the idea of the line as a breath. It creates two gasps instead.
Barwin: I don’t see you as a “suburban” or a “small-town” poet, but I do see how place and the culture of place appear in some of your writing. The zeitgeist and the spirit of place affect the work, if only because as “self-portraits” the poems often enact the process of thinking, and your context affects you, not to mention providing specific imagery. (I think of the work of David W. McFadden and Ron Padgett in this regard, too.) Does that make sense to you?
Ross: It makes a certain sense to me. But place is just one element, if you’re talking about one’s context. If I am a small-town poet, I am also a Jewish poet, a prematurely white-haired poet, a socialist poet, a youngest-child-of-three poet, a chess-playing poet, an orphaned poet, a nonacademic poet, a poet born in the last scrap of the 1950s on John Glenn’s and Nelson Mandela’s birthday, a poet who dislikes most poetry, and a poet doomed to obscurity. I wouldn’t want any one of these things alone to define me.
Barwin: I want to ask you about collaboration, which has been a significant part of your work. I think these collaborations relate to this idea of poems enacting the process of thinking, or, at least, enacting the process of creation and/or the occasion when they were written.
You’ve written collaborative novels (indeed, we wrote one together, The Mud Game, almost twenty years ago), as well as many collaborative poems. In fact, your latest book, Our Days in Vaudeville, is a collection of poems each written by you and one of twenty-nine different collaborators. What is your experience of collaboration (I mean, other than the fact that collaborating with me was the best experience of your life)? What is it like working with different writers? What does the process bring to the writing of both the collaborative work and to your own solo works? How is a book written with twenty-nine collaborators different? Does it affect how one reads it?
Ross: I’m glad to talk about collaboration, because I believe in it deeply, and I’ve collaborated in many different ways throughout my sorry career as an artist. My first collaborations were with Mark Laba, my oldest friend. We wrote stories together and worked on sound poetry together for about a decade and did a collaborative serialized novel called The Pig Sleeps (it was published in the early 1990s, but we’re currently revising it for an e-book reissue). I was intrigued early on by collaborative works: in my late teens I came across the novels Antlers in the Treetops by Ron Padgett and Tom Veitch, A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and Lucky Daryl by Bill Knott and James Tate. (Knott was furious with me a year or two ago for mentioning that book, but I really love it). Later on I gravitated toward poetry collaborations by jwcurry and Mark Laba, and by Brian Dedora and bpNichol, among others.
Of course, I collaborated with you on several poems, a clutch of sound poems, and a short novel. And I’ve worked with a lot of musicians collaboratively — beginning in the early 1990s when a band called the Angry Shoppers lost their singer and guitarist and brought me in as a replacement, adapting my poems to their tunes and vice versa. (You can find clips of that ensemble here.) I have become increasingly fascinated by collaboration. Around 2008, I published, through my Proper Tales Press imprint, a book of Ron Padgett collaborating with Allen Ginsberg, Larry Fagin, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and others: If I Were You. And then a few years later I decided to start compiling a book of my own modeled after that. I collaborated with a few dozen poets and eventually published a book with collaborations with twenty-nine of them, Our Days in Vaudeville. I was hoping it would be the first of many such volumes, but so far the book has been met with almost unanimous silence. Strange, because my books are generally widely reviewed.
On a basic level, I’m excited about collaboration because it allows me to take part in texts I could never create on my own. I can work with writers who fascinate me, often writers whose work is very different from mine. I like that each collaboration begins with negotiation, whether it’s just the idea of taking turns and deciding who goes first, or actually coming up with a form or a constraint to work within. I like the idea of the collaborators, after this initial negotiation, not discussing the collaboration while it’s in progress, because it enforces a more equitable creation of the work — you don’t get to influence what’s happening in the piece beyond your actual writing of the text.
As to what collaboration brings to my solo work, I have no idea. At least, I’m not conscious of it. But collaborating gives me new experiences and exposure to different ways of writing, and I’m sure it ultimately influences my solo work in some way.
There haven’t been many books of collaborative poetry, and those that are out there are rarely taken seriously. Look how little collaborative work appears in literary journals. I’m not sure how people read these books and how it is different from how they read books by single authors. I know that, for me, I became giddy reading Knott/Tate and Padgett/Veitch, for example, because suddenly anything was possible, even beyond the anything-is-possibleness of those individual writers. Some people talk about collaborative writing as being about “play,” but I think all writing is at least partly about “play.” Some see collaborative poems as carnival freaks, and I’m certainly not disputing that with the title and cover of my new book, but carnival freaks are worth taking seriously.
Barwin: You’ve been active since the late ’70s in the micro and small press world. You’ve been called an “activist,” a “guerrilla,” and a “racketeer” (e.g., Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer). You’ve sold your books on the streets of Toronto, organized (with Nicholas Power) the influential Meet the Presses book fair (which became, for a time, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and has now become Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market). Through your Proper Tales Press, you’ve published a great diversity of writing — in chapbooks, books, leaflets, and other ephemera — of new writers (e.g., Nicholas Papaxanthos, Sarah Burgoyne), legendary figures (e.g., Bill Knott), mid-career writers (e.g., Alice Burdick), as well as your own work. You’ve also edited small press literary journals (e.g., Dwarf Puppets on Parade), created Mondo Hunkamooga, a journal about small press, and have run online poetry periodicals. In addition, you have your own imprint (“a stuart ross book”) at Mansfield Press, a small press out of Toronto, and you’ve been a literary editor for This Magazine.
So, a simple question: What has been the role of the small press (and by this, I include micropress) in your writing and in the writing world in general?
Ross: Before I get to your “simple question,” I just want to correct one thing. The monthly Meet the Presses event over 1985 didn’t “become” the Toronto Small Press Book Fair (in 1987). The MtP evenings at a local community center featured six to ten small-press publishers selling their wares, plus readings, talks, films. The Toronto Small Press Book Fair came about because the huge Toronto Book Fair collapsed, and Nick and I were approached to create something new to fill the gap. So we invented the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, the first of its kind in Canada. I was involved in organizing that event, which was a completely open, non-curated fair, for its first three years. When a rift formed in the Toronto small press community about twenty years later — when the then-organizers of the fair threatened me with a lawsuit after I constructively criticized, on my blog, the job they were doing — about a dozen small-press publishers and writers and former organizers of the fair came together to create an alternative event, under the umbrella of a collective called, again, Meet the Presses (both Nick and I were part of this group). We distinguished ourselves from the deteriorating Small Press Book Fair by making a smaller, strictly curated event called the Indie Literary Market. The idea was to gather the best of the area small presses into one room and create the highest-quality one-day bookstore we could imagine. The first couple of Indie Literary Markets took place while the Toronto Small Press Fair was still gasping its last, disease-ridden breaths. The Market still happens annually, and there are other Meet the Presses events as well.
Now, the role of small press in my writing: publishing, for me, quickly became a practice inseparable from my writing. Writing, publication, performance, and audience happened almost simultaneously as soon as I began publishing, at age nineteen or twenty. Also, I was influenced by the processes and products of other small presses and mags of the era: Crad Kilodney’s Charnel House, Opal Louis Nations’ Strange Faeces, Lesley McAllister’s Identity series, Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press, and Jack Skelley’s Barney: The Stone-Age Magazine, and of course that insane era of Coach House Press when bpNichol, Victor Coleman, and David Young were there. I later discovered Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry and Poco Loco, Ron Padgett’s White Dove, and many more. And then there were all the other amazing presses that burbled to life, including Beverley Daurio’s The Mercury Press, Daniel Jones’s Streetcar Editions, and on and on.
As to the role of the small press “in the writing world in general,” that’s a pretty huge question and has been dealt with a million times. The main nugget to take away is that small press is the breeding ground of invention. While a ton of bad shit gets published in the small press (as in the big), it’s where the most exciting things can happen, where the most exciting writers find homes. Sometimes these crazily inventive writers pop up in the big presses like Kathy Acker and Donald Barthelme and B. S. Johnson, but most of the activity, the sacrifice, and test-tubing goes on in the very fertile underground.
Barwin: We’ve spoken mostly about your poetry, but you are also a prolific fiction writer, and you’ve done work in sound poetry. Recent books include the short story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand, 2009) and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW, 2011). And the improvisational sound trio you’re part of, Donkey Lopez, has just released a CD entitled Juan Lonely Night. How do you see the relationship between your fiction and your poetry? And how does your sound work — I guess it could be categorized as a kind of “sound poetry” — relate to your other writing? While we’re at it, perhaps you can talk about the place of performance and improvisation in your work, too.
Ross: The primary relationship between my poetry and fiction is that I wrote both of them. And there have been times when I have published the exact same piece as poetry and as fiction, so there is definitely a blur. And when I was having trouble finishing my novel, Larry Fagin suggested to me that I just think of it as a poem; that really helped me barrel through to the end.
I don’t feel my sound work relates much to my other writing, except in that I am its creator. The improvisational work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez (the other members are musicians Steven Lederman and Ray Dillard) is mostly unrelated to my writing, except that I often use elements of my writing in it — I riff off of lines from my poems, and once or twice I’ve used a poem in its entirety — but mainly I see my role in Donkey Lopez as one of three instrumentalists (I play voice).
The sound poetry I did with you and with Mark Laba, and occasionally with jwcurry, was more closely related to writing. But even there it’s blurry: last year in Ottawa John and I did an improvisational piece that was almost devoid of words.
As for improvisation in my work: all of my fiction and poetry is improvisational but exists primarily for the page. I do readings because it’s a good “workshopping” experience, I like doing them, and they help me grow an audience and sell books. I have occasionally done works meant to be performed, such as “The Ape Play,” a puppet show I’ve done a few versions of with ape toys as my actors. The sound poetry, obviously, exists for performance, as does the sound work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez.
Barwin: You are a mentor for many writers. You coach, advise, edit, and teach writing to both adults and kids. At the same time, you are a big supporter and promoter of experienced writers and have enthused about their work and their influence on your own writing. I’m interested in your thoughts about community and the role of the writer as colleague, mentor, and apprentice.
Ross: All those things are optional. They come to some writers more naturally than to others. They aren’t conditions of being a writer. Obviously, I like community. I have organized a ton of readings, workshops, talks, fairs, etc., and for the last six or seven years I have sent out a free weekly email listing of literary events in Toronto (to about 1,200 subscribers currently) called Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv. But some writers are solitary. They don’t have colleagues.
I apprenticed the poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo for a year or two when I was a teenager. I helped him piece together his anthologies, and he critiqued my poetry in exchange. When I was a teenager I also learned from older writers like Victor Coleman and Sam F. Johnson and David Young and Robert Fones. So perhaps that’s why mentoring comes naturally to me. I began teaching workshops with elementary school students when I was in high school myself.
I am not one of those writers who goes on endlessly about themselves when they talk to other writers (except in interviews like this). Those blowhards are tedious, and they are many. I’m more interested in talking with other writers about their work. I think the deep interest in others is what makes me a good teacher, and what made me a good writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, and what makes me a good editor. But writers don’t have to be collegial, or mentor anyone, or apprentice anyone. I thrive on that stuff, so I do it.
Barwin: I know it’s hard to generalize, but what approach do you take in your workshops and individual mentoring — I mean, other than helping the students create jaw-rending heart-dropping works of impossible brilliance?
Ross: What I want to do in my workshops — and my mentoring — is to expand the possibilities for writers I’m working with: introduce them to new writers and works and ideas and writing strategies, shake them out of their habits and assumptions and complacencies. I want to introduce them to new experiences, help to expand their palettes, dare them to do something in their writing that they are resistant to or uncomfortable with. I like when they write something and say, “Holy shit, did I write that? It doesn’t sound like me. Can I put my name on that?” But I always encourage, and I am always positive. I admit, when I was writer in residence at Queen’s, I told a great young writer, Nick Papaxanthos, that something he’d written was “an insult to poetry.” I figured he could take it. And at the group reading at the end of my session there, he read that poem and introduced it as “Here’s a poem that Stuart called an insult to poetry.”
Barwin: And you eventually published a cool little chapbook of his, Teeth, Untucked (Proper Tales Press, 2011), so I guess both of you saw it as part of a more complex ongoing mentorship based on respect and not platitudes.
Finally, can you speak about your current and future projects? What kind of things are you dreaming up? Where might you imagine your writing going in the future — I mean, assuming there’s not a zombie poodle apocalypse?
Ross: I am currently working on ten different book projects (a story collection, two poetry books, a memoir, a book of essays, a poetry translation, a collaborative book-length poem, three novels). Some of these remain dormant for a few months at a time, or even a few years, but they will all be completed, unless I croak first. I’m trying not to add many more projects, because I’m fifty-five in a few days, and even if I publish one book a year, I’ll be sixty-five by the time I’ve caught up with these. It’s a race against time. And given that I edit about twenty books a year, and do teaching and one-on-one coaching, I don’t have much time for my own writing. Luckily, I’m fast and I think I’m good.
I am entering my literary decline (from not such a great height) reputation-wise, and I have neither the burden of fame nor agents nor audience expectation. There’s a freedom in that. Besides, I don’t want a complacent audience, however tiny that audience. With each book, or each writing project, I try to do something I’ve never done before, to push myself into a new discomfort zone. When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a psychological suspense novel à la Patricia Highsmith. I know now that that will never happen, and that’s freeing, too.
'To understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual'
This — as far as I know — is the last scholarly interview with Amiri Baraka before his saddening passing on January 9, 2014. Baraka here tackles subjects such as radical politics and aesthetics, Marxism and class struggle (in music), vanguardism, Black Arts poetry performance and activism, language writing, the modernist epic mode, and responses to “Somebody Blew Up America” as well as anti-colonial and United Front politics. The interview was part of my research trip to New York City in fall 2010, working on critical theory and the interdisciplinary uses of poetics under the auspices of Bruce Andrews at Fordham University. Achieng Warambo and Ulrich Geister — with whom I stayed in the remarkably segregated town of Teaneck, New Jersey — had helped me to finally get a hold of and visit Amiri and his wife, Amina, at their beautiful home in Newark. Although Amiri had originally given me “one hour,” we all spent the rest of that sweet afternoon together, drinking strong coffee, eating strawberries (!), and talking radical politics, while Coltrane, Sanders, Shepp, et al. were taking turns and blowing choruses throughout. — Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: It is a real pleasure, and a privilege, to get to sit down and talk with the poet icon and renowned playwright, novelist, Marxist critic, jazz scholar, community organizer, and political activist Amiri Baraka. Many thanks, Amiri, for inviting me and for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate that wildly. So let’s jump right in: For some fifty years now, you have been instrumental in illustrating the vicissitudes of poetry in contemporary culture as you helped rejuvenate political art in America and expand the postwar idea of the poem. Through a dialectical process — which William Harris has written about so well — you have forged a poetry that synthesizes modernist aesthetics and populist politics, employing African American traditions and avant-garde techniques to (anti-colonial) revolutionary ends. Do you think that is a fitting description of your aesthetico-political development?
Amiri Baraka: Yeah, I think, in a very general sense Billy Joe Harris — he’s close to my work, he’s studied it, he’s not only edited it, but he’s studied it — so he has his own understanding of what it is. I think he’s more accurate than most people. And, I think, the reason is that he sees the intent of it, whether he agrees with it or not. He sees the intent of what I’m trying to do. What I’ve been doing really raised people’s consciousness, in a sense, at the same time as presenting that, you know, as art, as an aesthetic kind of choice. So, that’s what it is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: How would you describe your artistic and political agenda today?
Baraka: Well, to a big extent it’s the same except, you know, what’s — and I say this myself — what we need now is analysis, we’re very much in need of analysis. I just got through writing a piece about, you know, these people who are attacking Obama from the Left. So, in the piece these two people say “why are you different from the Tea Party?” And so this analysis of the political trend, political direction in the country or society, I have to be able to also translate that into poetry, transform that into poetry, as well as just flat analysis. At least that’s my feeling, you know, because lots of times people will resist, people will resist, you know, just plain kind of narrative about … they’re just opposed to you becoming too, you know, teacher-like, preacher-like, you have to somehow involve that in a more convincing, more poetic kind of feeling to it.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Yes, and I can see that in the aesthetic forms that you’ve been coming up with the last half-century.
Baraka: Yeah, you have to do that because people will resist being instructed, unfortunately.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I wonder if you think of your art as praxis in the Marxian sense of “critical-practical, sensuous human activity directed towards revolutionary change?”
Baraka: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I, that is my, you know, my clearly held intention, whether that succeeds all the time is another question. And, you know, for many, many years I’ve had to hear people — the critical establishment — telling me that I was a better poet when I was, well, before I became a Marxist. That has never influenced me, though. I mean, you know. Isn’t that sort of thing to be expected in this country? What is it that you liked about that other poetry? That’s the question, you know. What is it, what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: White liberal critics mostly lamented what they saw as “waste of talent.”
Baraka: Right. Well, one guy said that the poetry was better when it resembled T. S. Eliot. I mean, you have to put up with that, you know. Criticism is active class struggle, that’s what it is, you know, it’s “class warfare,” that’s what Mao said. So that if you’re in the midst of this society, you gonna get criticized about that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have always worked towards and contributed significantly to re-politicize poetry in the US at a time of neo-conservative backlash — a backlash that would hibernate the Carter years, experience its peak in the Reagan-Bush era, and return forcefully with the Bush II administration — always turning attention to “the ugliest ugly” that “is the social ugly.” Today, the dominant ideology of liberal pluralism seems to entail a form of repressive tolerance that shuts radical critique down and excludes Marxism from the political arena to maintain its liberal guise. What do you think about that?
Baraka: Well, you know, even liberalism now is a bad word, I mean, not to mention socialism. You know, I mean liberalism is — I mean we pushed so far to the right that liberal is sort of like another name for communist, you know, in this country. But the interesting thing is that they made such bogeys, such boogey people out of communism, and they accuse everybody of communism, like even Obama, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s ridiculous.
Baraka: Yeah, I mean, but that shows you not only don’t they know what it is, you see what I mean, but if they’re communist, then the actual communists … you know, then you’re actually over there, somewhere, free to cohort, because they don’t need to know what you are, I mean, they’re calling … oh God. I mean, the idea of them calling — well, they’re calling us fascist, too, at the same time. See, and that would be stupid, I mean it is stupid, but it would just be laughable if it was anywhere else. That can get over here because they have no idea — they know it’s bad — but they don’t know the difference between, say, fascism and socialism. They don’t know the difference. They don’t know the difference, you know. And so to be questioned about that by people is to expose their ignorance in the main, you know, and that’s what is happening now with the “Obama is a socialist.” The stuff that he’s been accused of trying to do is stuff that Europe was doing since the Second World War. You know, I mean, if you talk about socialized medicine, you need to get a hold of Europe, you know what I mean. But somehow it’s a terrible thing for us, and these people need it so badly, you know, it’s just, it’s extraordinary how they can do that, you know. But one thing of the backwardness is what Bush did, is he allowed the FCC to permit corporations to not only holding print media but electronic media. So you have a guy like Murdoch who was, like Australian, I mean, Jesus! — Channel 9, Channel 5, Wall Street Journal, you know, the Daily Mirror, Twentieth Century Fox — so you got this kind of stream of attack.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, we have Berlusconi in Europe.
Baraka: You got what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Silvio Berlusconi, in Italy. That strikes me as a rather similar situation, though maybe on a different scale, right?
Baraka: Yeah, but you know, when you talk to intellectuals in Italy, they’re all “Hey, Berlusconi?! How come people voted for him?!” Right when he got elected, I was in Italy at that time, you know. There is a backward person right there. In terms of his interests, how he manages to pull that off. But this is a very tense period in American life, very tense. And what will happen is — it’s gonna be important for the world. I mean, if they keep going, if they just start a war, I mean, not those two wars they’re involved in, but another big war — the whole Iran thing. Iran is not Iraq, you know what I mean. If you can’t beat Iraq you need to leave Iran alone. But that whole … the push between trying to make progress, as pitiful as it is, and being held back at the time, it makes a very tense, very tense kind of situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1970s, you harshly criticized the political naïveté of the New American Poetry, Abstract Expressionism, and neo-avant-gardes like Fluxus. Now, my impression is that while dissecting what you considered the political failure of the New Left in the face of global capitalism and geopolitical wars, dominant modes of artistic expression were brought under similar scrutiny. You criticized much modernist and experimental poetry for being ideologically flawed — an instance of petty-bourgeois bohemianism and expressivism necessarily to be co-opted by the mainstream ideology of American individualism.
Baraka: Well, that was the problem. That is the problem, still. That people think because they can do weird things that somehow it’s important. [Laughing.] But it’s not important, it’s just weird, you know. There was a guy — we were in Italy one time — this guy named Jackson Mac Low, well, he read this poem that consisted of numbers — “eighty-five, eight hundred and fifty, eight thousand five hundred” — you know, it was a poem that consisted of numbers, and so one of the Italians hit him in the head with a piece of watermelon [imitates the sound], right in the face. And I said, “Gee, it’s pretty rough out here,” and he said, “That’s what happens when you bring too many people into a poetry reading.” I mean, he had not understood at all. There was this “unwashed mass” reacting to his highly sophisticated … but that’s stupid, I mean, why do I wanna hear you read numbers, I mean, whatever your theory in that is, it’s still a guy reading numbers, so what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The theory makes the artwork then, but people don’t have access to that theory, or conceptual frame, or procedural method that generates the writing, and why should they care? Bruce Andrews, who’s also a poet I’m writing about, calls that “procedural (even aleatory) fetishism.”
Baraka: Calls what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Aleatory fetishism. People like Mac Low and especially later epigones who were working in the “tradition” of John Cage, mostly. But much of what they did was, in some ways, a fetishization of certain “chance” or generativist procedures.
Baraka: That’s what it is. The problem with that is … thirty years ago poetry was important, you know, it was important. I mean, people actually … I even got locked up a couple of times. It was actually important in the sense that it did get in the social motion in society, people were infected by it. Back in the 1960s, when you had all kind of revolutionary [inaudible] people wanted to be poets, there was poets everywhere. But what’s happened with the years since then, you know the rock up, rock down, then you have — they’ve tried to reinvest poetry with academia, they’ve tried to make it academic again, you know. They’ve tried to make it — to marginalize it, as a human kind of — I mean, it becomes purely the interest of a small group. And that’s what it is. And somehow — but see, what it is, that’s like capitalism really. Few people have money, most have not. So, the art becomes “a few people understand it, most don’t,” you know. It’s an absolute reflection of the society itself. So that’s what they’ve done, and they so made it academic again it’s become less interesting, except for the rappers. And then they had the slam poets, but that was misplaced to the extent that it then became about only performance, not content.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Right, and it’s also a form of competition. I mean, it’s like a friendly, “let’s be fair” kind of voluntary competition, but it’s still competition.
Baraka: Yeah, still like capitalism. It’s — you’re “grand.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: One thing we don’t need more of.
Baraka: I think the slam thing has sort of worn off a little bit, but the academic thing is what has spread. And I was the poet laureate here for a hot minute. The question was that you can be poet laureate, but you can’t say anything about the real world. I mean, to talk about the real world, you know, that’s a dangerous idea. That’s … who said that? That’s Sartre. Sartre said, “If you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I don’t know what it is, that’s art. But if you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I do know what it is, that’s social protest.” It’s still true. You can’t be literal, or exact, or direct. You have to talk around things, you know, talk around things. That’s why people don’t like it, because it doesn’t say anything directly they can understand, you know. And so you try to do that — say something people can understand but at the same time, you know — as Mao said — to be artistically powerful and politically revolutionary.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I believe you once called Mao “China’s greatest poet.” People were shocked.
Baraka: [Laughing.] It’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, since you’re mentioning Sartre … I’d be particularly interested, especially as a “German academic,” you know, in how you would situate writers like DeBois, or Hughes, or Césaire, too, in the context of the rather Eurocentric so-called “Brecht-Lukács” debate that involved all those important European Marxists — Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, and Sartre, too — in a passionate argument about politics and aesthetics.
Baraka: I mean, you know, in that sense, you have to remember how you yourself … what’s the social context of your intellectual development. No matter how my intellectual development was shaped, I was still a black man in America. And that’s — fundamentally, that’s the ground you stand on, that’s the air you breathe. Everything you see comes into that. So even if I don’t say “I am a black man in America” every time I write a poem, that’s still who’s writing it, and that’s the perception, based on my experience, you know. What DuBois says in, say, The Souls of Black Folk, and I’m reading a book, I’m reading this book here […], another fine book. When he says, in the beginning of that work, “How does it feel to be a problem?” See, that doesn’t resonate with anybody like it resonates with black people in the US. How does it feel to be “a problem?” It don’t feel good. But that’s the question. So the debate like Brecht-Lukács, people like that, becomes more of an academic understanding for me. The things that actually are “organic,” you know, that understand you — whether you understand it or not — that’s the question. And those are the writers, finally, that you have to seek, you know, writers that understand you. You can study all kinds of people, but when you read someone who understands your trials and tribulations, you see, no matter how they finally wanna put it, those are the ones that you go back to again and again.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m very much interested in a collection of essays of yours, in a book called Daggers and Javelins, which testifies to your vigorous attempt, in the late 70s, to identify an African American revolutionary tradition that could parallel anti-colonial struggles in the so-called Third World. Could you comment a bit on how the kind of Marxist analysis you were applying to African American literature, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, differed from what academic Marxists like Frederic Jameson, on the one hand, and a “liberal” Black Studies scholar like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the other, were doing?
Baraka: Well, Jameson was different, to a certain extent. I mean, he understands class struggle, classes, and there’s another (European) guy named Brown — Poetry and Socialism? ... I mean, they at least understand classes and class struggle, so you can relate to that in a very literal way. But Gates is just a reactionary. That’s what he is. I mean, colored though he may be, he’s reactionary, and he’s still a reactionary. He upholds the most backward tendencies in the university system. I was fired from Rutgers because in the speech that I gave to them, which was supposed to determine whether I was gonna become a professor, I just told them in this speech that the last, you know, that the university is the last bastion of colonialism, because they teach you not really American but English literature, and there’s been no English literature for a hundred years, you know. German philosophy, French drama, but what do we learn about the Western hemisphere? That’s my question, you know. What do we learn about American poetry, or Canadian poetry, or Mexican poetry, or Puerto Rican poetry, or Brazilian literature? And they didn’t take that kindly, they thought that was kind of a way out. But that’s the truth, you know … college students … the idea that you would be teaching English literature in the twenty-first century in the United States is bizarre. [Laughs.] I mean, you should teach it, but it shouldn’t dominate the curriculum, which is the trouble. You know, a friend of mine said — we were arguing about Milton — you know, I said “Why are they teaching Milton?” and he said “Well, they should teach Milton, Milton’s a great writer.” I said “But they shouldn’t teach him in the exclusion of this, this, this, this, this, and this.” You know, I don’t even like Milton, but still to me the question of inclusion is crucial.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In academia, unabashedly Marxist theorists and scholars are commonly charged with economic reductionism and criticized for the insufficiency of their theoretical models of mediation between the base and superstructure to account for the (relative) autonomy of culture and politics. Do you think that is a straw man created by liberal academics to avoid having to deal with radical critique, not to mention revolutionary thinking?
Baraka: Yes. [Silently, then a little louder.] Well, I wrote a poem called “The Academic Cowards of Reaction.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh, sure. I’m very fond of that one.
Baraka: Oh, yeah? Well, that’s what that’s about. They cannot — the thing — they do not wanna see the relationship to real life. Everything is abstract and academic, you know. But to actually come down with the thing? I read this guy who was putting down a man who wrote about — was it Balzac’s or Gorki’s relationship to reality? — but he’d said that was an absurd idea cause there’s no such thing as reality. That’s what he had come up with. There’s nothing you can relate to since all it is literature. You know, the thing is a thing, it doesn’t relate to nothing real, it’s just itself, right? Your knowledge is absurd. Then what is it? “What is a sign?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I think what happened with French neo-structuralism and especially Derridean deconstruction as it gets absorbed in the American academy — and I’m thinking here of people like Bloom and de Man in particular — is they turn it on its head. I mean, it was a form of ideology critique which emerged in a specific historical context and from a very specific cultural milieu, and it does offer a critical method for analyzing ideologically functional discourses. But deconstruction in (Anglo-American) academia — at least that’s my impression — has become a means to refute socially contextualizing counterarguments — not to mention political economy — in order not to have to deal with them at all, which really is a cheap trick.
Baraka: But that’s what it is. This whole group called the “language poets,” that’s what their thing is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You think so?
Baraka: They want to disconnect the doer, the writer, the author, you know. But who’s writing that stuff? You know, it’s incredible. We had an argument with them, and this one guy would say — I can’t think of his name right now — he said that, “well, the question is that Afro-Americans are oral, their work is oral.” The assumption then being “we,” i.e. him and his friends, are literary, as opposed to oral. You know, first of all, it’s racist. But to really think that … it’s a stupid idea. This is a bizarre thing because he’s talking about reality, and there’s no such thing as reality. I mean, that’s a wild idea. I mean, that theory is … that’s like the Britannica, you know, the Britannica Encyclopedia. You know, they have the hundred greatest writers in the world. There’s one woman — it was this Catholic woman in the Midwest, Willa Cather — and no blacks at all, although they mentioned DuBois. But essentially they would dismiss him because he wanted to talk about reality. It’s like you’re being locked up in some kind of room with nuts. It’s no reality … what is this?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, it is one thing to critically reflect that there is no direct, or immediate, access to the “thing-in-itself,” or to the “Real,” and another to bluntly ignore, or even deny, social realities … and yeah, I have sometimes literally been locked up in a room in the academy with nuts. [Laughing.] It happens.
Baraka: Yeah. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’ve got one more thing. Well, I actually have a couple of things. In a book called Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual, Jerry Gafio Watts writes that you utilized Cabral as sort of a “para-Gramscian” theorist of cultural hegemony in your CAP position papers. What do you think about that statement?
Baraka: I don’t think he’s read both of those people — that’s one thing. Either he’s read Gramsci, you know, and never read Cabral, which I think is probably the case. I don’t think he would read Cabral and not read Gramsci. They’re related, in a certain sense, but the difference is Cabral was a revolutionary leader. So, a lot of the things he said mattered to me, you know, and the books of his that I really admire — one book called The Weapon of Theory, and also Return to the Source — those to me are great books. Though the theory that he’s advancing in those books I don’t necessarily agree with, you know, because I thought he was influenced by the Soviet model to a certain extent. But so was Gramsci, to a certain extent. But I was always closer to Cabral, I think, because I actually read his works and met him and talked to him, and all of that. To me that was very important — to actually hear what he was saying, you know. As a matter of fact, that essay called “Return to the Source,” he delivered that in a program that I was attending.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Characteristic of the avant-garde as well as the engagé writer and cultural worker, your writing is characterized by a passionate longing for political change and social transformation. Your ideal of poetry seems to be that of the poem as an agent of social change that does not only prompt to action but performatively acts upon social realities. It appears to me that ever since the mid-60s you have strategically combined avant-garde techniques and political provocation in performance with the purpose of intervening into social power relations by creating or catalyzing a powerful counter-discourse and driving people to action. Would you agree?
Baraka: You’re talking about Ellison?
Büscher-Ulbrich: No —
Baraka: Who were you talking about?
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m talking about you — the strategic combination of avant-garde performance and political provocation.
Baraka: Provocation in the sense that people will react to what you say. But I always thought that you should say exactly what you feel, regardless of the reaction, you know what I mean, regardless of the reaction. You say what you feel. Although obviously you can predict —
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, certainly not in the sense of “playing a role,” like being a —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But even if you’re just speaking your mind, you may just function as the agent provocateur, in some sense.
Baraka: See, if you’re in a certain context and you say certain things, you know what the reaction’s gonna be, that’s for sure. But it’s not because you just want them to react. You know that they will react, you see. And hopefully …
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s utterly important, I think, because then certain political reactions and discursive control mechanisms become very visible, or identifiable. To “hit the beehive,” basically. I mean, you’ve been doing that for a long time now, ‘hitting the beehive.’
Baraka: All the time. They sting.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh yes.
Baraka: No, but that’s like these poems, you know. You write a poem that says it’s a poem. But in 1967, this poem I wrote — “Black People” — this judge sentenced me to three years in prison. He reads the poem as a prescription for criminal anarchy. So, you wanna know, “Judge, do you think that people ran in my house, read the poem, then ran outside and start setting fires, is that what you believe?” [Laughing.] But to read that as part of my sentence, a poem as part of — that’s bizarre, you know. But that’s what you have to expect. And the same thing with this thing in — the poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It’s just a poem. You told me that poetry was something that was permitted. And they went even up to the Supreme Court to say “You don’t have any First Amendment rights.” So, you need a poem to actually put you outside of the normal understanding of American citizens, you know, “I don’t have First Amendment rights.” Well, there’s a poet, I can’t think of his name, who said “You have freedom of speech, as long as you don’t say anything.” [Laughing.] So, that’s it. Do you say something, oh boy, you gonna pay for that. But the tension there is if you know in your mind the reaction and that holds you from saying it, see, that’s cause you don’t want the weight of that, you know. I even could tell, you know, once that controversy came up about my poem … then certain people I wouldn’t hear from anymore. Like Gates, for instance, you know. He had invited me, saying “Why don’t you come here and read, give four speeches, and we gonna put ’em in a book?” So, after the stuff with the poem, he disappeared. And then, one time, I actually found his cell phone number. And I called him. And he says, “Hello buddy!” [Chuckles.] That’s what Nixon used to call his wife. [Laughter.] So, I said, “Skip, now, are you really distancing yourself from me based on that poem?” “Oh, no, buddy, I wouldn’t do that. I told them that if they didn’t let you come up here, I was gonna resign!” “Oh, Jesus, he’s all up into fantasy now,” you know. If you think he would resign because of me, you’re really … that’s a dope knot, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Partly because of that poem you’re still being bated as a notorious “anti-Semite” by mainstream media, despite your serious self-criticism and self-assessment of part of your own Black Nationalist thinking as “irrational” and “reactionary,” a theoretical and political “dead end” — not to mention the indictment of anti-Semitism the poem itself evinces. I’m afraid we don’t have time to enter into a big discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism, the troubled history of African-American and Jewish-American relations, leftist as opposed to reactionary, right-wing anti-Zionism, neo-cons and the ADL, people you don’t wanna have on your band wagon, and so forth, but is there anything you’d like to get on the record?
Baraka: That’s a very serious problem, you know. It’s a very sophisticated form of propaganda.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Is it true that you received death threats, even?
Baraka: Well, people were calling me up, threatening me with all kinds of stuff, like “There’s a hundred six-foot Jews waiting for you,” you know. [Laughing.] I mean, what kind of madness is that? Who would think of something dumb like that to say, you know what I’m saying? It’s like such childish shit. But, see … fools know no ethnicity.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Your poetry, at least since Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, exhibits a special concern to synthesize the popular with the advanced. Commenting on the Free Jazz avant-garde of the 1960s in Black Music, you write that “the music reinforces the most valuable memories of a people but at the same time creates new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience.” It appears to me that this is the aesthetic paradigm you were trying to connect with Lenin’s notion of a “working-class intelligentsia,” a vanguard of “advanced workers.” Is that the audience that you’re still trying to target with your poetry?
Baraka: Well, I always think that that’s the most dynamic sector of the class, you know. Working class in general is one thing, but the most advanced workers, the workers who understand some things, you know, they might go to work every day, but they still read books and — you know, that’s a dynamic class. And I remember growing up in this town, and I grew up down the street, that there were always people like that on the street. People who, you know, worked in factories, made cars, or worked for the post office, and who still were intellectuals. And that’s a specific kind of understanding of America, you know, to understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual. To combine that is — that’s what I was talking about. Those people who themselves will study, study, study, study, study. Who may have never gone to a college but study, study, study, study, study, study, you know. That’s very important.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Much of your poetry is marked, I think, by the endeavor to turn from a Western cultural background — that you have, a college education — to the alternative “cultural flows” of Africa and the Americas. Would you say that your work aspires to escape the reifying logic of late capitalism by calling attention to the oral/aural dimension, processuality, and corporeality of live performance?
Baraka: Well, to actually give poetry a life outside of literature, to give it a life in the real everyday world, you know. The whole Black Arts Movement, when we used to go out into the street everyday on these trucks, four trucks, every day.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Every day? It was not like one scheduled event each month —
Baraka: No, no, no, it was every day, every day. Summer of 1965. What was the inspiration for that was the murder of Malcolm X, because I lived in the Village, Greenwich Village. When Malcolm was murdered, a lot of black intellectuals went out of the Village and went to Harlem. And that’s what we thought we were doing, we were bringing the most advanced culture into the street, you know. Musicians that people thought were too avant-garde to be appreciated, we brought them into playgrounds and play streets, on the sidewalk. Theater in the street, playgrounds, parks, you know, we set up easels on the street, you know, paintings. So that people who would never go into a gallery would see that. And so that had a real effect at that time. That was, I thought, “high level propaganda.” As a matter of fact, right on the cover of one of my books that just was released, Digging (2009), there’s a picture of that. I mean, there’s a picture of us waiting to go out into the street. And you’ll see Sun Ra at the top of the steps, you know, and we were waiting to go hit the street. So, [laughs] that’s a funny picture, because somebody coming back, I had just gone to the liquor store, you know, and I have a big bag full of wine. That’s our energy producer — wine that comes from no grape. [Laughing.] But that was important to do that. I think that should be done regularly, but now they’ve grown weary of that kind of thing … the source that would fund that. That was funded by the government.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It was?
Baraka: Oh yeah, they didn’t know what they were funding. That was the first anti-poverty program, see, it was called “Operation Bootstraps.” They didn’t know what they were funding, I mean, they knew what was on the page … “we’re gonna bring culture to the people.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: And you did that.
Baraka: We did that. But they didn’t realize the content of that, and how intense that was gonna be.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that reminds me … Lorenzo Thomas has suggested that your work is best understood as that of a “neon griot,” a term which I think suits you and your work very well, thinking of how you base poems on forms of language approximating ritualized speech acts and how you have been able to fuse African American oral tradition with decidedly avant-garde techniques. Do you appreciate that term being applied to you?
Baraka: Well, you know, I liked Lorenzo, I thought his poetry was great, I really loved Lorenzo. And I love his theories. I think he was a very fine writer. I’m very sorry that he’s gone. My whole generation is dying left and right, you know, but Lorenzo was — he was a perceptive person, you know. How he died, I don’t know how these diseases — when you get these illnesses — suddenly he’s there and whoop! he’s gone. And recently we had about three or four people like that, dying, you know. People in their seventies are getting out of here left and right, bam bam. Well no, young people, too, fifties. I mean, in the last two years, man, so many people I loved have died, you know. I mean, artists that I really … Abbey Lincoln, her funeral is October 1. That’s gonna be madness — [we have to get over there very early] — that’s gonna be madness.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have addressed central themes of Black history and culture from a genuinely Marxist perspective in poems like “Class Struggle in Music,” “Somebody Blew Up America,” of course, and your book-length epic poem Wise, Why’s, Y’s: The Griot’s Song Djeli Ya (1995). Can you talk a little bit about this modernist epic mode as well as your collaborative performances of those pieces?
Baraka: The pieces are meant to, again, to take history, which I learned from poets like Langston Hughes and Charles Olson and Ezra Pound, to take history and make it understandable artifact, you know. Something that you can recite and it would be actually history at the same time, you know, something that would stick in your mind. But that’s one function of poetry, the whole historiography. That’s important. How do you teach people history at the same time you’re trying to reach their poetic understanding, you know, their poetic appreciation, but understanding history, in a sense.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Not to be doomed to repeat it?
Baraka: That’s right. Or be cut down in the middle of your life by not understanding it, you know, it’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: When I was watching a taped performance of bits of Wise, Why’s, Y’s the other day, I felt like watching something right out of Brecht’s epic theater — a one-man play about the history of colonialism, capitalism, and racial oppression.
Baraka: Yeah. [Chuckles.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I loved that one. You performed using the microphone, I think, as a drum, because there was none.
Baraka: Right. We talked about improvisation. No drum, you have to use something, you know. But that whole thing, that was meant to be a history of the people themselves. I was very happy with that work, Wise, Why’s, Y’s, because it’d fulfill my intention, my intention was that. And it was something that I worked on, you know, you get this thing in your mind, you wanna do that, so those poems will come one day, two days later, the next day, next week, but they’ll keep coming and they’ll be part of that same thing. There were actually forty of them. Like forty days and forty nights. Yeah, I was very happy with that poem, and still am. I would still like to read that, the whole musical thing, with music and singers and stuff like that, one day. And like you say, that’s like theater, so it takes something to do that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It seems to me that some of the most remarkable poets that no one talks about these days, and some of whom never published a book of poetry, are jazz musicians. I’m thinking of Charlie Mingus, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, or Tom Waits. And your collaborations with the New York Art Quartet, with David Murray, Stephen McCall, and a host of others, are certainly prime examples of how New Black Music and modern poetry can be integrated in stunning avant-garde performance. I wonder how a self-consciously avant-garde and thoroughly politicized work like New Music, New Poetry, or more recently, 35th Reunion, would be received by your US-American audience?
Baraka: See, the musicians, even though they don’t say anything, they’re playing the horns and stuff like that, they understand what you’re talking about. That’s the most important thing, that the content of the poetry is not alien to them. They understand what you’re talking about. And though they might never say those things directly like that, unless they were asked, they don’t find that abstract, or obscure. It’s just mouthing. Now, one thing I’ve learned in doing poetry and music together many years is that many times the poet can actually induce the spirit of that poem into the musicians, they begin to — I can see that all the time — when I start, you know, they were playing when I started. It’s like they feel that, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s non-verbal communication?
Baraka: That’s right, they feel it. And you can always tell that because the music becomes — not only is it in tune with what you’re doing but it becomes — a reflection of that, you see. It’s not just poetry and music. It becomes a mass. Because you actually summon them with what you’re saying, you’re calling them, you know, it’s not two different things. You’re demanding that they “get in it,” and they “get in it.” That’s a good feeling. I mean, when you’re doing poetry and music, what really works is great feeling, you know, the poetry just sails where the music sails … if you got people who are not skilled then it’s like work, see. It’s hard work then, you don’t wanna do that. But I have got a lot of readings coming up.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I would love to be able to see and hear those.
Baraka: Oh yeah, we have a reading this Saturday, at a place called Skippers. And then there’s the Dodge Festival, October 7, 8, 9, 10, and then October 16, at Sistas’ Place. So that’s like a flurry of readings with music, which is good things in the fall, we’re opening up a new season. Plus I’ve got readings outside of town, two as usual, and I just came back from Norway about a week. I don’t know, but, being in Norway is … I’m really an American.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Like culture shock?
Baraka: Well, yes. [Laughing.] It’s a whole different thing. But that’s true, when I go away I always gonna come back, you know, right away. I mean, as backward as this place is, it’s still your home, you know, what can you do? It’s really got a deep addiction, you know. One should rather be abused here than anywhere else. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I have two more questions. Do you think we can do that?
Baraka: Sure, go ahead.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Some of the practitioners of so-called “Language-centered writing” describe themselves as coming out of a Brechtian tradition of social modernism, seeking to adapt the Verfremdungseffekt from the dialectical theatre to late modernist or “post-avant” poetry, or politicized experimental writing. While some academics are all too eager to portray Brecht as a fashionable postmodernist avant la lettre, neo-Marxist language writers such as Bruce Andrews, or Ron Silliman for that matter, take the example of Brecht very seriously. What do you think about that approach?
Baraka: Well, you know, first of all what the language poets would have to explain to me is why their poetry is so dull. I wrote an essay in the Poetry Project Newsletter that said, “Why get poetry so boring again?” And they are one of the groups that, I think … I don’t know what it is. Because maybe they write about intellectual themes, rather than … life … and how it provokes you like it provokes you.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So, you are concerned about the poetry becoming kind of a superfluous attachment to the theory?
Baraka: Well, you know, that’s what you have to watch if you’re an ideologue, even a Marxist ideologue.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, they are Marxists, I believe. At least the group’s “hard core” is —
Baraka: Not really, I mean —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But in their critical-theoretical stance, at least —
Baraka: That’s the problem. That’s the problem, you know. Artistically powerful? No. Politically revolutionary? No. So then what makes it “Marxist?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Okay. Well, one thing they did was they entered academia and they brought with them a lot of [Marxist] critical theory. And they’re teaching critical theory in academia. So I think that there might be an important social group there — those young academics. Because they all go out into the world and … they’re not exactly “working class,” but people have acted against their own class-interests before, historically speaking, and they might get to be some sort of “social engineers” and might enter into powerful positions, so they better be in contact with at least some critical theory and progressive ideas. Doesn’t that make them a counter-hegemonic force?
Baraka: Not really. They even think the kind of agent provocateur stuff that Ginsberg and them guys did, think of that as (what’s it called?) “a ridiculous ideology.” Well, if you don’t go out and stop those trains bringing nuclear waste, then what is your alternative to that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The writing won’t do it.
Baraka: That’s what I’m saying.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I agree.
Baraka: You don’t have to do that, but I can understand that, you know, as an activist I can understand that. If you wanna stop that you gotta go stop it. And that’s all you can do, you know. But to say that that is ridiculous because the poet doing that is ridiculous, that’s absurd.
Büscher-Ulbrich: There’s an article by Kristin Prevallet talking about how you met Barrett Watten at an NPF conference on the poetry and poetics of the 1960s — “The Opening of the Field” — in Orono, back in 2000. You almost picked a fight?
Baraka: Yeah, right, right, right. No, it’s stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Because that’s my line on that, you know, academics that turn the struggles of real people into post-modern subjects in order to get tenure — what are you looking awry? I know you got tenure, you’re teaching, you got tenure, you got theories, but what are you doing in the world here, what’s … how can we see the dint of your, you know, the dint of your, like, theories in the world. Now, where is that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, my next question is related to that. The proliferation of poetry readings and performances, avant-garde or otherwise, writes Charles Bernstein in 1998, “has allowed a spinning out into the world of a new series of acoustic modalities, which have had an enormous impact in informing the reading of contemporary poetry.” Black Arts poets during the 1960s contributed largely to this transformation of the institution of poetry in the United States. Now, coming out of that movement and being one of the most dynamic poetry performers — at least since Mayakovsky — you seem to be taking the poems off the page, out of the realm of ideas, and into action. Is that the task of the revolutionary poet — to help transform ideas into action?
Baraka: Yeah. But, see, the point is you have to watch that because, like the criticism that Lenin made of social democrats, like Bernstein’s “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” But that’s not true. I mean, I don’t believe just in that. There has to be something you’re doing that for. You know what I mean, there has to be a goal, a particularity that you want to affect. That’s it, but that’s true. You want to take … the things that you say have to be important enough to do. Truth is in the act, finally, you know what I mean. You know, I mean, it’s boring if somebody is gonna tell you that there is this and this and this and this. Where is that theme? I read a little bit of that, I can’t read much of that, talking about the language poets. But why didn’t I read more? Cause it was boring. You know [laughing], that’s the only reason. I mean, I don’t wanna torture myself, right?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that’s interesting [laughing]: “Boredom is counterrevolutionary. Always.” But that’s Guy Debord and the Situationists, who some language poets actually were very fond of and probably still are.
Baraka: And, you see, the other thing is that that stuff can be perfectly plausible — perfectly fit into the academic situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It is not challenging the status quo, you mean … despite its critical-theoretical stance?
Baraka: Yeah, they could be there, or they could be, you know, comfortable with that, you know. The university could be comfortable with that. But when I got kicked out of Rutgers, man, they told me, you know, “You’re through.” They had put all my stuff — when I went in my office they had taken all my books and everybody else’s books, because I was in somebody else’s office, so they took all of that books and my books and put them into boxes. So I walked in the office, they got all my stuff in boxes, and I said “You at least gotta let me get the tests out of that box, you know, cause it’s the end of the semester.” [He] says “No, no, no, no. I’ll come to your house.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: They kicked you out like that?
Baraka: [Laughing.] They put the books in the box.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Unbelievable to me.
Baraka: And, I said, “Well, look, I’ve got the tests in the box.” They said, again, “No, no, no, I’ll come to your house.” And the guy drove from New Brunswick up here. I mean, he was a nice enough guy — he’s just acting [on behalf of the] head of the department — he actually had cried. Him and my wife were friends, and he actually wept about, you know, how they’ve taken me out. But he had to carry out, see. And I had three elections, you know, to get on the faculty you have to be elected by the faculty. So, the first election … I won (by eight or nine votes). So they said, “Since you are a full professor, you have to have another election, and only full professors can vote.” So they figured, “All right then” … I won that, too. But I won that by about three votes. So they said, “That’s too close.” And the third election they send out, and so I said, “Oh, I see … it’s over with.” And when I went back to my office, the books were in the box. Plus, the guy who was running that department, Richard Poirier (he wasn’t a chairman, he was running the department), he had written an essay before I even got to Rutgers, he’d written an essay saying why he would never teach my work. You can look at that essay in Partisan Review. He’d never teach my work or Richard Wright’s. And I come to the campus … I didn’t even know that essay existed, until I came to the campus and they showed me that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, thinking of German academia … it’s not exactly progressive, but it’s liberal, at least it’s liberal, although increasingly neo-liberal, of course. It’s certainly not a leftist —
Baraka: I understand.
Büscher-Ulbrich: — environment, but, for instance, your work is appreciated. It’s taught, basically, in each and every American Studies department, all over Germany. In Hamburg, as I remember, a group of students even played a recording of “Somebody Blew Up America” on campus, over the loudspeakers, while preparing for a protest march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baraka: It’s funny … that’s very funny. I read that poem, at the last Dodge Festival I read that poem, and that’s why that happened, you know. The last two people that came — it was about a thousand people — the last two people — I was signing books, my wife and I were signing books — the last two people to come to me said “That’s a hateful poem.” Hateful, you know. What part is hateful? Anyway, the next day the Governor’s office called me and said “Apologize and resign,” which, you know, to me was stupid. But that’s, again, you know, “You said this in a poem!” It’s like I threw a bar, or something like that, you know, or shot somebody. If you don’t like the poem, say you don’t like it, or why. That’s all. But to go around with this hysteria about that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: One last thing I want to ask you about, because it has been on your mind now, I think, for decades and because it has been so thoroughly discredited by many contemporary Leftists: the notion of a “United Front.”
Baraka: Two people were always talking to me about United Front. One was Malcolm X. The other was Martin Luther King. Ironic that they had the same ultimate understanding, you know, when you would think that they would be miles apart. But not really … Malcolm, about a month before he was murdered, and I talked to him all night in the Waldorf Astoria with an African named Mohammed Babu, who became the minister of economics in Tanzania. He was one of the revolutionaries who helped form Tanzania. So I was trying to be militant, and he was telling me “Better you try to get in there” — in the NAACP — “and influence them,” rather than to be outside and be less effective. So, Dr. King, he came to my house — I was living on the other side of town — he showed up at my front door when he had just finished a march in Newark, and I thought, “Somebody pinch me,” you know. He’d come to talk about a United Front. A week later he was shot dead in Memphis …. See, the same people that elected Obama, the same coalition that elected Obama — and that’s the only coalition that has the material base to do it — have got to come back together to defend the little inch of progress we made … ’cause they gonna take it back. They gonna take it back.
Newark, New Jersey, September 23, 2010
1.This is a line from Baraka’s “Afro-American Lyric,” originally published in Poetry for the Advanced (chapbook, 1979) and reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York: Morrow, 1997), 322–27. For a videotaped reading of the poem at Naropa Institute of Disembodied Poetics in 1978, go here.
2. Bruce Andrews with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The contextualizing capacity of the writing itself,” Jacket2 (October 2012). Andrews introduces the notion in his “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” published in Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays on sound in poetry, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73–85.
7. Amilcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” (1966) and Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral (New York: African Information Service, 1973).
8. For a critical account of this, see Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The Poet/Poem as Agent Provocateur: Sounding the Performative Dimension of Amiri Baraka’s ‘Somebody Blew Up America,’” in States of the Art: Considering Poetry Today, ed. Klaus Martens und Ramin Djahazi (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2010), 86–101. An excerpt from the court transcript is quoted in Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 201–2. The original source is “State of New Jersey v. Everett Le Roi Jones, Charles McCray and Barry Wynn,” Essex County Court, Law Division: Criminal Indictment No. 2220-66, January 4, 1968, 17–18.
9. V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (vol. 4), 269. Both Hard Facts (1975) and Poetry for the Advanced (1979) are reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York, Morrow: 1977). For Baraka’s explicitly Marxist-Leninist notion of vanguardism, see his preface to Poetry for the Advanced. However, as I have suggested elsewhere: “In a remarkable collection of political essays and analysis, Daggers and Javelins […], the Marxist-Leninist Baraka finds himself aligned, as it were, with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a “minor literature.” Rather than being stuck with a vulgar-Marxist notion of “reflection” when pondering “the revolutionary tradition in African-American literature,” he conceives of it as “a projection of what [the people] struggle to become” (148).
11. Amiri Baraka, “Why Most Poetry Is So Boring, Again,” PPNL 209 (December 2006/January 2007): 14.
12. Kristin Prevallet, “The Exquisite Extremes of Poetry: Watten and Baraka on the Brink,” Jacket 12 (July 2000) and Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr, “Baraka / The Divide,” Jacket2 (January 4, 2014).
14. That is, the aphorism or pragmatic slogan of the German ‘revisionist’ Eduard Bernstein: “I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism.’ This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me. The movement is everything.” Bernstein: The Preconditions of Socialism, ed. Henry Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), xxviii.
An interview with Grzegorz Wróblewski
In early April 2014, Polish writer and painter Grzegorz Wróblewski gave readings from his book Kopenhaga (trans. Piotr Gwiazda, Zephyr Press, 2013) at Columbia University, Cambridge Public Library, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The following interview took place in Providence on April 7. It was transcribed and translated by Piotr Gwiazda.
Piotr Gwiazda: What is the relation of Kopenhaga to the rest of your oeuvre?
Grzegorz Wróblewski: Kopenhaga started to materialize in my head when I was still living in Poland. It is an urban text, a kind of theory of urban life. It is about human beings entangled in various aspects of modern civilization. So it gives you a good sense of my worldview. Of course it is mainly an objectivist record, so I don’t share my political opinions, et cetera. Nevertheless, it shows you what I care about, what I pay attention to. It’s an important text in my oeuvre.
Gwiazda: How long did it take you to write it?
Wróblewski: It took me many years to write Kopenhaga. I wrote most of it after I moved to Copenhagen in 1985. The book came out in Poland in 2000. As you know, our English version also includes some later additions. But the core part of Kopenhaga took me about fifteen years to finish. I wrote things down, kept an eye on the whole, tried to be selective. I wanted the text to be perfect. I wanted it to have formal integrity. I definitely didn’t want it to read like a diary or notebook.
Gwiazda: Would it be appropriate to call Kopenhaga a book of prose poems?
Wróblewski: Yes, because it’s partly poetry and partly prose. Some texts are closer to poetry, others to prose. I myself have used the term “essays” [szkice] to emphasize the mixture of these two elements. But there is no reason to worry about definitions. You can choose any definition you want, as long as you can defend it.
Gwiazda: What did you try to achieve in Kopenhaga?
Wróblewski: In Kopenhaga, I tried to capture the rhythm, the pulse of earthly life. Copenhagen was my testing ground. Although many parts refer to Copenhagen, I wanted to portray archetypal scenarios — the universal human condition. That was my goal, at least.
Gwiazda: Is it also a kind of autobiography?
Wróblewski: Yes, in part. Some passages seem real, but are in fact surreal; they are hallucinations with bits of reality in them. I put everything through the filter of subjectivity. The book gives you a sense of Copenhagen’s topography, the streets, the people. But you can’t read it as a personal transcript. Again, if I had wanted it to be an autobiography, I would have used the form of a journal. Kopenhaga aspires to be something else. It is a conceptual text, in which I explore various aesthetic and theoretical questions.
Gwiazda: Were you ever tempted to explore these questions through the genre of literary criticism?
Wróblewski: I already work in many genres. Besides poetry, I write experimental prose, plays, hybrid texts. I am also a visual artist. So I do many things in terms of genre. I believe that there is an element of criticism in my prose writings. That is where I express my opinions, where I comment on literary, artistic, and other issues. So I have no need to write criticism professionally; I was never tempted to do so. If people want to learn what I think about literature and art, they should simply read my work.
Gwiazda: Is this also true of your painting?
Wróblewski: Yes. But the situation here is slightly more complicated because of the presence of two elements: calligraphic art and acrylic painting. The combination of these elements amounts to my technique.
Gwiazda: Can you comment on the importance of Eastern philosophy in Kopenhaga?
Wróblewski: I’ve always been interested in Eastern philosophy. Buddhism more than Hinduism, especially Zen Buddhism. This is the nihilistic version of Buddhism, which offers no promises. We are all children of the world, mere particles in the universe. I’ve always liked how Zen Buddhism tries to reconcile us to the cosmic nothingness, how it prepares us for death through meditation. This has always been something close to me; I treasure books like Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. There is also a certain Japanese aesthetic in my poetry, though transposed onto European sphere of reference. I am fascinated by haiku and other traditionally Japanese forms.
Gwiazda: For whom do you write? For the Polish audience or a larger European or even world audience?
Wróblewski: You must remember that, above all, I am a Polish writer. Even though I live in Copenhagen, I write in Polish, so at least theoretically my first addressee is Polish. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, my book Nowa Kolonia first appeared in Denmark, in Danish translation, and only much later in Poland. You yourself know my poems that will first appear in their English versions. [Interviewer’s note: Wróblewski’s most recent poems are forthcoming in The Buenos Aires Review.] So the basic answer is this: I write for Polish readers, even though my situation is rather complicated, as I don’t live in Poland; I’m not there physically. Sometimes this leads to surprising developments. For example, my plays are never performed in Polish theaters. (My absence from the Polish stage is a topic for another conversation.)
Do I also write for other readers? It depends. My poems are often translated, not only into English but into other languages as well. So they reach readers in many places. Yet it would be overly optimistic of me to say that I write for a large audience. I hope to have more support from Polish cultural institutions in this regard. I’m convinced that my poetry would reach more people then.
Gwiazda: Would you say that your poetry translates easily?
Wróblewski: Because my poetry is lyrical at a very basic level, I believe it is not very easy to translate. It demands vigilance on the part of the translator. It also demands a particular kind of translator. Not everyone can do it.
Gwiazda: What about future readers? Do you ever think about them when you are writing?
Wróblewski: Well, the earth keeps turning, keeps changing. In poetry, it’s always just one generation at a time. The same goes for poetry criticism. You can consider yourself lucky if your work survives for a few generations. It’s hard to talk about the future. I have no idea whether anyone will read my work in five or ten years. I have my doubts, because I am a Polish writer and there are strange things going on in Poland these days in terms of critical reception, the kinds of poetry that gets official support, etc. I am lucky to have on my side the great poetry critic Anna Kaluża. So maybe I have a chance.
Gwiazda: Some poets imagine that they write for their predecessors. Do you?
Wróblewski: It’s always a form of conversation with the past. These are authors who showed you how to write, what to do. They broke new ground, changed the rules. They were precursors for many schools and kinds of contemporary poetry. You don’t write for them, because in most cases they no longer exist. But, in a sense, you believe that you carry on their work or at least offer an alternative to it. You can have a dialogue with them. You can imagine that, since they were not able to finish their projects, you continue their efforts in their name. It’s a complex matter. But this is not something to be obsessed about. I don’t think about it much.
Gwiazda: However, in Kopenhaga you seem to make such connections with at least two Polish poets.
Wróblewski: I mention Julian Tuwim, a great city poet, and Tadeusz Różewicz. Różewicz is also a great poet, but unfortunately he quickly lapsed into mannerism. He was original for ten or twenty years, then began to imitate himself, became monotonous. Yet I still respect him as a genuine innovator. [Interviewer’s note: Różewicz died on April 24, 2014.]
Gwiazda: Are there any other Polish poets that influenced you?
Wróblewski: If you look at the Polish poetic history, you will surely find poets with whom you feel you have something in common, even though you write differently. Every epoch has its great makers. The Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski can be as useful as the nineteenth-century Romantics. As for modern poetry, take Andrzej Bursa, active in the 1950s, who has been translated into English but is not as well known in the West as Zbigniew Herbert or Czesław Miłosz. In my view, he is more interesting than those two.
Gwiazda: Even though he wrote so little?
Wróblewski: Definitely. Whether you write ten or one thousand poems, what matters is what you write and how. Some of Bursa’s work is pure genius. I also like the work of Miron Białoszewski, especially his poems about Falenica (a Warsaw suburb) with their portrayals of existential boredom.
Gwiazda: It seems to me that generally you are more interested in poems than poets.
Wróblewski: Yes, because ultimately everything is transient, seasonal. I can think of no artists who had a strong phase for longer than five or ten years. In fact, we remember artists mainly for their individual creations. Since we happen to be in the United States, let’s talk about American poets. Take William Carlos Williams, one of the world’s most interesting but also uneven poets, the author of marvelous objectivist poems but also of many inconsequential and unnecessary ones. He was certainly a great artist — and a very important model for me. But he was also very uneven. I own his Collected Poems, but I can’t read many of his poems because I find them intellectually and formally uninteresting.
Gwiazda: Ultimately, then, do you write for yourself?
Wróblewski: In a sense, yes. It is always an opportunity for inner dialogue, a kind of artistic and personal challenge. I can’t imagine an artist — whether a writer, painter, or film director — who doesn’t create partly for his or her own satisfaction.
Of course, there are different ways of going about your work as a poet. You can imitate other poets or you can aspire to originality. So you master your individual style, try to avoid worn-out metaphors, but that in itself can be dangerous. Writers who want to be original at all costs end up producing banal contrivances. Sometimes being an imitator is more interesting artistically, because at least you don’t waste your time. And yet that also is a blind alley. I myself don’t write this kind of classicist poetry. I have always tried to be different formally. For example, when I was writing Nowa Kolonia, I faced all kinds of formal challenges that took me months to solve, because I needed to balance formal considerations with thematic ones. All poets face their own struggles.
Gwiazda: What is your take on contemporary politics in Poland and the rest of Europe?
Wróblewski: I’m not an optimist anymore. I was born in 1962, so I’ve had a lot of time to observe. I had hoped for big changes in Poland. Today I am completely astonished when I look at the state of political affairs in Poland. I see something similar in Denmark. The return of nationalistic sentiments, for example. It’s not a pretty situation.
Gwiazda: Do you consider your poetry political?
Wróblewski: Yes, definitely, since it is poetry about the world. I don’t live on a desert island, even though I sometimes feel isolated from other people. Because my poetry is also about the life of the mind, and the state of one’s mind is a political matter, my poetry is both very hermetic and very social. It comprises these two elements. One doesn’t negate the other. On the contrary, by being isolated, you can see certain things more clearly. Because you can see more clearly, your poems are stronger in the political sense.
Gwiazda: Do you therefore view yourself as a kind of intellectual or moral authority?
Wróblewski: No, because I ultimately don’t know who reads my work. Sometimes I feel like I’m just here for the ride: you know, the passenger syndrome. Ultimately I have no idea what my role is as a poet. When I give readings, I meet and talk with different people, but I don’t know what I represent to them. Besides, I’m not in a position to offer advice. Especially advice on how to survive. I really don’t have any.
Gwiazda: You said you don’t live on a desert island. So where do you live?
Wróblewski: In one sense, I live in Copenhagen. That is where my official address is since 1985. But I also live in a particular section of the city, Amager. This matters a lot. If I lived in another neighborhood, I would be a different writer. Location has a huge impact on the writer’s work.
But more generally, I live on planet Earth. Wherever I go, I see the same phenomena, the same absurdities. We are all humans, we exist to satisfy our physical and mental needs, often through illusions, self-deceptions, religions, other substitutes. It’s such a sad condition: going to work, earning money, watching TV, reading the newspaper, worrying about politics — nothing makes sense, to be honest. I think of the earth as a kind of insane asylum. You have to be an idiot to survive. If you are not an idiot, then the only choice is suicide. It’s the most obvious choice, intellectually.
Or maybe what makes sense is the possibility of human contact, a friendship, a meeting of the minds, perhaps through literature. Through literature you send signals to other people. Maybe someone in the universe who feels the same way as you do will receive them. This wouldn’t be a victory, but at least it would give you the strange satisfaction that you are not alone.
An interview with Maxim Amelin
“Poetry has enemies,” Maxim Amelin once told us, “both internal and external.” Among the latter he cited “philologists and historians of literature,” a deliberately provocative stance considering that Amelin, trained as a philologist, mines word roots and literary history for poems. (It is a stance he has since softened.) Among the former we would cite poetic indifference, or the tendency for poets to discount poetry hailing from movements or nations not their own. “Three percent,” we’ve all heard: that’s the share of the US book market devoted to translation. Toward that enemy, no softening is required.
Maxim Amelin suffers from that indifference — only a dozen or so of his poems have appeared in English — though his career in Russia draws both attention and praise. An influential poet, translator, and essayist, he received the Anti-Booker and the Novyi Mir Prize in 1998 for his first book of poems Cold Odes (Холодные оды, 1996) and the Anthologia Poetry Prize and the Moscow Reckoning Prize for his second book, Dubia (1999). More recently, he received the 2013 Solzhenitsyn Prize for his lasting contributions to Russian culture. In honoring Amelin, the prize committee noted both his “innovative experiments, which expand the limits and possibilities of lyric poetry,” and his “development of the various traditions of Russian poetry.”
This is an apt description. As a loving collector of eighteenth-century neologisms (coined by his models, the Russian classicists) and a devoted student of Revolutionary word-smithing (à la Mayakovsky), Amelin keeps his poetry in suspension through the tension of opposites. He is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union and saw his culture and language change rapidly under the influx of Western words and ideas. The poet Alexei Tsvetkov, writing about Amelin’s generation, the so-called tridtsatiletnye (“The Thirty-Year-Olds”), called them “the children of perestroika — or one should say the orphans, since their alleged mother went missing long ago.”
Amelin was born in 1970, grew up in the provincial center of Kursk, then spent ten years in Saint Petersburg leading the publishing house Symposium. He is currently editor-in-chief at the prominent publisher OGI and lives in Moscow. His work has been translated into Hungarian, Vietnamese, Croatian, Chinese, and French (among other languages), and he reads at literary festivals and book fairs across Eurasia. He has also made two recent trips to the United States, joining a 2009 delegation of Russian writers at the University of Iowa International Writing Program and a “Read Russia” delegation at Book Expo America in New York last year. The most complete collection of his poetry and prose, Bent Speech (Гнутая речь), appeared in 2011.
We first met Amelin in the summer of 2009 and have been translating his poems — our project, tentatively titled The Joyous Science: The Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, received a 2011 NEA grant in translation — ever since. This interview was conducted via email in the fall of 2013. Below it, you will find three poems by Maxim Amelin, with links to other lyrics appearing throughout.
Anne O. Fisher and Derek Mong: Talk to us about translation. You’ve translated from languages both living (Georgian and English) and dead (Greek and Latin). How does the process differ? How does it change when you’re working with the original poet, as you do with Georgian poetry? Is there one translation project that has had a more lasting effect on your own poetry?
Maxim Amelin: Two fundamentally different approaches are required for working with ancient poets versus contemporary ones. In the first case the translator sits one-on-one with the original and whatever’s been written about it. There’s no one to explain things, answer your questions. A text from two thousand years ago usually seems flat, devoid of stylistic features, because in the intervening time all the words and phrases have been worn down and smoothed over. In this situation, the translator must work like an art restorer, reconstructing the work’s original appearance based on his own understanding of it and on his knowledge of its general context. The poetry of ancient authors is marked by a higher semantic saturation than our contemporary poetry, but at the same time, it’s also more open-ended. Every line taken independently carries its own semantic load, but is also meant to be interpreted broadly once the line is removed from the context of the work. As it happens, seventeenth-century English poets and eighteenth-century Russian ones share this quality.
In the second case, when someone translates a contemporary, it’s always absolutely necessary to have direct contact with the author, since many things are hinted at or assumed in a poem, and the text itself is more of a closed, self-contained entity.
Translating the entire corpus of Gaius Valerius Catullus, as well as Pindar’s Victory Odes, has had a pretty strong influence on my own writing, primarily in terms of the composition, of how the poem’s mechanics are constructed, and in the way a line is endowed with meaning (as discussed above).
Fisher and Mong: In 2011, Read Russia and the Institute of Translation were founded. Both are government-sponsored initiatives intended to spread contemporary Russian literature abroad. In this they’ve succeeded, but if you scan the supported titles — we’re looking at the 2012 list from the Institute of Translation — the overwhelming majority is fiction. Are these initiatives doing enough to promote Russian poetry? Is there something about Russian poetry — too esoteric, too culturally specific, too “untranslatable” — that restricts it to Russians?
Amelin: It is true that the Russian government’s translation initiatives are generally concerned with prose. There’s nothing surprising about this, as a greater number of people understand prose, and it’s easier to translate. The government probably wants quick results. However, in my opinion, poetry in contemporary Russia is far more interesting, inventive, and expressive than prose. You can get a clear picture of this from, for example, The Best Poetry of 2010, a yearly anthology compiled from Russian publications in literary journals published in Russia, Israel, the US, and other countries. As the founder and publisher of this series of anthologies, I can vouch for it.
Of course, there’s also something specifically Russian, something untranslatable, just as in any poetry with deep national roots. But lately globalization has made itself felt in poetry too. “Festival vers-libre,” as I call it, has no individuality, no nationality, no notable formal inquiry of any kind, and, consequently, no formal innovation. This, the art of entropy triumphant, is proliferating far and wide, and it’s one of several trends that I personally oppose.
Fisher and Mong: In May you received the Solzhenitsyn Prize, becoming one of the youngest recipients, and one of only a few writers, to be honored for contributions to Russian culture. The prize committee singled out the way your work develops the “traditions of Russian poetry.” You’ve also been to the US twice in the last five years, giving readings and lectures.
Which of these “traditions of Russian poetry” do you see as most potentially relevant to contemporary American and/or international audiences? And given your own interest in periods of linguistic transition and cultural shifts, which American poets, poetic movements, or periods do you find most compelling?
Amelin: In a sense, Russian poetry is currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, world poetry didn’t sit idle during those eighty-odd years following the Stalinist destruction of Russian modernism, while the experiment of Soviet poetry, overly regulated in form and ideologized in content, is, with the rarest exceptions, rejected as untenable by virtually all serious poets. And yet, in the general public’s consciousness, it’s precisely this would-be “poetry about nice little birch trees” that continues to be considered the real thing, and it’s very hard to fight this, like fighting the aftereffects of a bout with cancer. On the other hand, right now there’s an ongoing process of trying to understand and reevaluate the multifaceted experience of Russian poetry, as it has developed from the beginning of the eighteenth century on up to the age of modernism. There is a return to a natural poetic development, an attempt to reconstruct continuity, and the quicker this happens, the better it will be for Russian poetry.
There are things happening in contemporary US poetry that interest me: for example, the syllabicists who’ve sprung up over the past ten years; as far as form goes, they’re looking for new structures in poetry, and as for content, they’re honing a flowering intricacy. My own current inquiries lie somewhere along the same coordinates, and so I feel very sympathetic toward these developments.
Fisher and Mong: That’s interesting. Which American poets do you have in mind? Since the “invention” of English syllabics by Robert Bridges — who misreads Milton’s prosody to create “Neo-Miltonic syllabics” — the meter has remained a very minor one in English.
Amelin: I saw a series of syllabic poems by various contemporary authors in some anthology or other, but I don’t remember which one. Derek himself has poems like that. It goes without saying that neosyllabics isn’t the underlying principle of how poems are put together. Still, it’s a significant limitation or constraint that poets can adhere to in their search for structure. And that’s important.
Fisher and Mong: You’re known for your neologisms, coinages based on Old Church Slavonic or common Slavic roots that are — we must admit — very difficult to translate. The art of minting native-based neologisms goes back to the eighteenth-century neo-Classicists like Trediakovsky, although Soviet Futurists like Mayakovsky also reveled in it. What is it about the twenty-first century that prompts you to return to the eighteenth?
For you, this seems to be more than just a reaction to the post-Soviet proliferation of foreign words (particularly English ones) in everyday Russian language. What’s the state of the native word in twenty-first century Russian poetry, and in your own work?
Amelin: Ideally, a poet has to work on all the levels of the poetic apparatus: on the word level, the phrase level, the sentence level (or colon, κῶλον), and on the level of the text as a whole. It’s like how an architect, developing the general look of a building, has to keep all the details in mind: how will the doorknobs look? The window latches? To me, nothing is less important than anything else. Neologisms created according to models already extant in the language give us the opportunity to express our understanding of a given object or event more precisely. More often than not, ordinary dictionaries don’t give shades of meaning, and if these are what are required, then that’s when the need to create new meanings arises. So it’s not a coincidence that poets tried to create new words and expressions at times when the language was going through periods of rapid development, like it was in the eighteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Russia’s in a similar situation right now.
At any rate, I personally feel the need for new meanings. The Russian language is very adaptable as far as influences and borrowings go; its ability to accept and assimilate words from other languages is staggering. Many English words enter the language, get Russian endings tacked on to them, and quickly become Russified — although these are primarily technical or financial terms that don’t have any direct connection to poetic language. Poets work with a language that’s more common to humanity as a whole, and they don’t have the time to keep up with the fleeting. And they shouldn’t try to.
Fisher and Mong: What about syntax? “Temple with an Arcade” and “Every Day” are both single-sentence poems, while much of your poetry features the complex, coiled syntax more readily accessible in an inflected language. One thinks of Pindar, whom you’ve translated, and how you’ve both been called “academic” or a “difficult” poet. Are you?
Your poem “Long Now You’ve Lounged in Earth” admonishes poets for using tired old metaphors, such as “words flowing like water”; is there a tired old syntax your syntax rebels against?
Amelin: “Branching” syntax, as I call it, comes to me primarily from reading and translating the ancient poets Pindar, Catullus, and Horace, and also from the Russian poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Vasiliy Petrov, Gavriil Derzhavin, and Nikolay Yazykov. Derzhavin, for example, has one period that goes on for 180 lines. In the twentieth century, no one save Joseph Brodsky worked seriously with poetic syntax. Syntax in poetry is tied directly to stanza formation. Thus my experiments are, in a lot of ways, a kind of reaction to the stanzaic poverty of the poetry of the middle and second half of the twentieth century, when the four-line stanza with alternating rhyme became canonical for Russian verse, and where every line or pair of lines ends in a colon or semi-colon. It’s just this kind of vacuity — and Soviet ideology specifically cultivated naiveté and simplicity in art, including poetry — that I wanted to stand against, by countering simplicity with complexity.
Fisher and Mong: Your poems “Fire-Breathing Beast, Your Heavy Mane” and “Worse Than Bad, Better Than Good” paint harsh pictures of an (unidentified) tyrannical State. Historically, political conditions and censorship in Russia meant that literature and the other arts, not the press, had to serve as the venue for political and social discussion — hence the Russian tradition of exiled and suppressed writers and artists, one that is virtually unknown in America. Given the Pussy Riot trial and its aftermath, one could argue that this tradition seems to be continuing up to the present day. Do you feel pressure to comment on the current political climate in Russia?
Amelin: There are a few poems of mine, such as “Fire-Breathing Beast,” that would’ve seen me shot or sent to the Gulag if they’d been written in Stalinist times, although I don’t write political poems as such. There is political poetry today, and it’s fairly radical, but the government doesn’t even notice it. The current powers don’t read poetry and don’t give a damn what’s in it, and so you can talk about whatever you want in a poetic text. It just so happens that a lot depends on the context of the time. An act of protest that is widely publicized in the mass media is a different thing entirely. On the whole, artists in Russia have always had it pretty hard. In the last twenty years an economic pressure has replaced the ideological one, but the actual level of pressure hasn’t declined in the least.
Fisher and Mong: We noticed that your third book — The Horse of the Gorgon (Конь горгоны), published to wide acclaim in 2003, when you were thirty-three — often makes reference to your thirtieth birthday: “In August the Stars Shoot Through the Night Air,” “I’m Thirty But Feel Three Hundred,” and “Rising At Morning from My Graveside.” The self in these poems is often divided, and it seems you entered your fourth decade on an ambivalent note. In 2000, the world too entered a new and uncertain age, for Russia perhaps more so than other nations. So: what was going on at the turn of the century that had you so ambivalent? What has changed?
Amelin: There’s a kind of number magic at work in the human consciousness that makes us operate in categories of time ending in zero. In actuality, these aren’t that important, of course. The preceding century began not in year one of the century, but around year fourteen or fifteen, when the people of the last century pass on to the next world, taking with them the cultural landscape of the forgone age. In other words, we ourselves are only just now beginning the new century.
Here in Russia, our best philological minds have gone to the great beyond. These are people who determined Russia’s current state, but who did not, alas, leave behind any schools of learning, much less a few scattered pupils. These were first and foremost our titans, our encyclopedic minds who worked in several branches of the humanities at once: the classicist and philologist, also translator and poetry scholar, Mikhail Gasparov; the scholar of Sanskrit language and literature, and of Russian culture, Vladimir Toporov; the medievalist historian and cultural scholar Aron Gurevich; the Byzantine scholar, cultural historian, and philosopher Sergey Averintsev; the linguist, and translator of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, Tatyana Yelizarenkova; the philosopher, philologist, and translator Vladimir Bibikhin; the philologist, folklorist, and mythopoetic theorist Yeleazar Meletinskiy; and other great scholars known worldwide whose lectures I’ve had the good fortune to hear and whose books I’ve been able to read.
Russia is a land of single, isolated geniuses on whom everyone else always relies, rather than a land of conscientious workers scattered evenly across the university system. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way it is, and it’s why the sense of the past few years’ irreplaceable losses has been especially sharp. Even as it comes into its own, the new age has shed its old skin for a thinner one. This happens with every new age of humanity, when the acquisitions fail to replace the losses.
Fisher and Mong: You’re originally from Kursk — a provincial capital and former WWII battlefield — but now live in Moscow. How does the relationship between the provinces and the center, between outsider and literati, inform your work? In America, among a certain segment of the population, there’s a line drawn between the “Real America” and the coasts, the cities. Is there a “Real Russia”? How does your work speak to it?
Amelin: There are two kinds of countries in the world: centrifugal, with a highly developed local government, where culture and civilization are more or less evenly distributed throughout the territory, and centripetal, in which all life and any activity are concentrated in and around the main city. Ancient Greece, Germany, Italy, and the United States can all be assigned to the first group. In the second go Ancient Rome, France, China, and Russia. Here, the capital extracts all the most gifted, active, and ambitious people from other cities, and it’s been going on that way for several centuries now. There was an attempt to decentralize in the nineteenth century, resulting in rapid development of provincial cities with their unique culture, but all that ended after the 1917 Revolution, and everything went back to its usual state.
And that’s the way it’s been going ever since. For example, there are practically no serious publishers outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there’s no normal cultural life, and — again, with a few rare exceptions — there’s not even an elementary level of intellectual discourse. The Russian saying “The town of your birth is where you’ll best serve” hasn’t worked for a long time. This is what the real Russia is like.
The city where I was born, Kursk, is a city with a thousand-year history, but in the past twenty years it’s been so disfigured by the destruction of the old city’s remains and the barbaric construction of monstrous shopping centers on the sites of historical buildings that I can’t even look at it without pain — and so I don’t go there very often. My Kursk is in me, and I may be the last witness to her former beauty, the one who must tell the world about it. A city that isn’t described in literature doesn’t exist, so to speak, in people’s consciousness.
Fisher and Mong: We’d like to ask you about your relation to the Classics. You’ve already mentioned your work on Catullus and Pindar, but you’ve translated Horace and the Priapus poems too; imitated Ausonius’s centos; and written many odes on classical and mythological themes, complete with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. This influence comes early in your career, so we’re curious: how did the Classics prepare you for what followed? And how do you square your interest in ancient languages with your commitment to Russian roots?
Amelin: I wanted to return to the source, to the beginning of poetry, because I was unsatisfied both with the poetry that was allowed in Soviet times, and the poetry never subjected to the censor’s pen. Whether I went there consciously or not isn’t really important anymore. And where could I find these beginnings? In our shared European storeroom of Greek and Roman antiquity, on the one hand, and in Russian folklore, Russian poetry of the eighteenth century, on the other. Later, these two components evidently merged into one, in some fantastic way. Then what became for me the third element of this mix was ancient Indian poetics, its teachings about ornament (alankar), bent speech (vakrotki), and hidden meaning (dhvani). And what came out of this as a result was, well, what came out.
Fisher and Mong: That’s great, particularly considering you titled your new collection Bent Speech. We’re curious, though, about dhvani. In our reading we found the term more commonly used to mean “sound” or “resonance.” Could you clarify your use of dhvani?
Amelin: Dhvani is otzvuk (отзвук, echo, repercussion, reverberation) — that’s the direct and immediate meaning of the word. But in poetics it has precisely the sense of “hidden meaning.” It’s the meaning that remains after the work is read — hence otzvuk. And usually it’s not evident in the words, sometimes even going against the meaning of the poem’s sum total of words. This is exactly where “bent speech” comes from, which I understand in a broad way as all poetry and everything that is related to poetry.
Fisher and Mong: There’s a sense of play in many of your poems, built on an appreciation of juxtapositions. I’m thinking of your evocation of the imposing Mayakovsky statue in downtown Moscow amid the drunks and prostitutes who gathered around it (“Classical Ode to V. V. Mayakovsky”). You move quickly from the sublime to the absurd! But no one ever mentions play, the unexpected juxtaposition, when discussing your poems. What are your own feelings on play?
Amelin: The principle of play is, to my mind, essential for poetry. Play has a refreshing effect, which can sometimes emphasize the seriousness of the conversation. That’s what it does in that ode, for example. Mayakovsky (as monument) enters into the context of his own poems, which are themselves realized once more, not as metaphor but in real life. For example, he has the following lines: “Me alone, through a burning building / the prostitutes will carry in their arms, like a sacred idol, / and display to God, to exonerate themselves.” Or he talks to the Pushkin statue that’s come alive: “We’ll stand almost next to each other after life’s end: / You on ‘P,’ and me on ‘M.’” He also has this couplet: “Eat your pineapples, gobble your grouse, / your last day’s coming, you bourgeois louse.” In addition to this, Mayakovsky was one of the founders of the Soviet advertisement-in-verse.
All this context suddenly rose to the surface in the mid-1990s in Russia. And the return of such a long-vanished context seemed to me to be pure farce, buffoonery. But the poetry of Mayakovsky is essentially odic and was written with regard for the eighteenth century ode. So I tried putting him back into this same ode, and I wrote the poem in a ten-line stanza, in the classical stanza of Lomonosov. Here the play is on the level of form, first of all, and on the level of quotation. Incidentally, the Israeli philologist Mikhail Vayskopf wrote a monograph, At the Top of his Logos: The Religion of Mayakovsky (Во весь Логос: Религия Маяковского), which examines his ties to the odic tradition of the eighteenth century and came out the same year. So evidently my feeling about this wasn’t wrong.
Fisher and Mong: Your apartment in Moscow just might have more books per square inch than any bookstore — let alone residential dwelling — we’ve ever seen. In both your publishing and your poetry, you’re a collector of unusual writers, like the Pushkin-era figure Count Khvostov. Do you think of Bent Speech as a linguistic Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s trove of curios? What links antiquarian books, collecting, bibliomania and your writing? We’re thinking of your poem “On the Acquisition of a Volume of V.I. Maikov’s Works and Translations,” but also how some critics read Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” — as a masterful (if limited) poem, because it relies on books (and not life) for its art. We imagine you’d disagree?
Amelin: I definitely don’t agree. Because a real story, something that actually happened to me, stands behind every poem. You could say that all my poems, even the ones that at first seem to be the most abstract, are grounded in the most absolutely real facts from my biography. Sometimes this connection is found right on the surface, sometimes it’s buried deep. And anyway, a biography can be internal, too, not just external. And while the external one is pretty much self-explanatory, the internal one should include, for example, old books, which are breakthroughs (or hiatuses) — from the everyday and the contemporary — into another reality. They make up that essential background, and they are that palimpsest everyone living today writes on, whether consciously or not. One of the fundamental components of poetry is genuine feeling, and it’s not really that important which exact person, object, or event was the source of that feeling. The main thing is how it’s expressed in the text.
Fisher and Mong: You are fascinated with the Russian religious philosopher Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task,” which states that the saved will be resurrected back into their actual, physical bodies. Talk to us about this philosophy, and relate it — if you will — to poems where we see it appearing: “Where Burdock and Nettles,” “There’s No Peace on Earth or in Heaven,” and “Rising at Morning from my Graveside.” Why has this idea so captured your imagination?
Amelin: Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task” is probably the only unified philosophical system to have developed on Russian soil. There are philosophical ideas diffused throughout Russian poetry and prose, but apart from Fedorov’s we have no stand-alone philosophy as such. A rough approximation of its essence would go like this: all of contemporary humanity has to stop its wars and factions, and focus instead on a single (and attainable, sooner or later) goal — the resurrection of the fathers, the ancestors. But what’s more interesting are what Fedorov describes as the means of achieving this goal: universal disarmament, influencing the forces of nature, claiming the cosmos, preserving the memory of individuals by creating museums, transmitting information from generation to generation, and so forth. Notwithstanding what we initially see as the utopian nature of Fedorov’s ideas, these ideas ended up being extremely productive, influencing not only writers from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Platonov and Solzhenitsyn, not only the artists of the Russian avant-garde, not only composers — first and foremost Shostakovich — but also scientists such as Tsiolkovsky, Chizhevsky, and Korolev, who developed spacecraft.
In other words, the best of everything that Russia gave the world over the past 150 years traces back somehow or other to these ideas. At the same time, Fedorov’s works were banned during the Soviet period and were first published in 1982, and in a heavily censored version to boot. Still, what was printed made a huge impression on me personally. I wanted to apply his ideas to poetry, about which Fedorov himself had written next to nothing, and this application came out not only in a whole series of poems — “Katabasis for Saint Thomas Week,” “To Count Khvostov,” “Temple with an Arcade,” “Every Day,” and others, including the ones you’ve named — but also in the very idea of returning undeservedly forgotten and misaligned poets back to readers. For historical reasons there have been quite a lot of these poets in Russia.
Fisher and Mong: “Satiety, Not Flavor” and “Just Like a Chance Rhyme in Prose” comment ambivalently (if not sardonically) on Russia and the Russian character. And yet you’re fiercely proud of the Russian language and all its potential. Is there a Platonic divide between the Russian language as it could or should exist, and the language as it’s used daily by Russian-speakers? Is it possible to reconcile the two?
Amelin: An interesting quality of the Russian character is its capacity for humor, irony, and self-irony, despite the very harshest conditions of everyday life, despite an existential (or real) horror at what’s going on all around. The ability to laugh at yourself and at your bungling leaders may just be what helped Russians survive all the horrors that were their lot in the twentieth century. Otherwise there’s no way to explain, for example, the surge of satire and humor in the 1920s and 1930s (Ilf and Petrov, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov), or the fact that Tvardovsky’s ironic, comical poem “Vasiliy Terkin” became the primary text about WWII in Russia, or that [the country’s] utter stagnation was reflected in Prigov’s poetry about the “Policeman,” and in Irtenev’s and Kibirov’s ironic works. These days, actually, that quality has vanished: young people have stopped understanding humor, they don’t joke. For me, this is a bad sign of the times. But it probably won’t last much longer. You can’t live for long in Russia if you’re totally serious — you’ll either go crazy or lay hands on yourself. Only laughter can save you. Incidentally, Russian secular poetry got its beginning with Kantemir’s truly hilarious satires.
Once a Polish intellectual tried to catch me out by asking, “How is it that Russian is so well developed? A lot of great poets worked on Polish for a long time, starting back in the fifteenth century.” I deflected it with a joke — though one that reflects what really happened — by replying, “In Russia it was the people who worked on the language, so it was already done when the great poets arrived.”
Poems by Maxim Amelin (Russian, b. 1970)
Translated by Derek Mong & Anne O. Fisher / Portland, OR
At the Genoese Fortress in Sudak, if you enter
the Main Gate, at the left, and approach the wall’s elbow,
then head up from a post — it doesn’t strike
the random rubbernecker as much — protruding
like a codger’s last tooth, there is a cupola
plopped on a stub-necked octahedron
that glows, a hemisphere’s bowl;
this is the Lord’s house, where a sequence
of people, lips parted in peaceful prayer,
washes like waves through the door:
see the law-abiding Mahommedans,
flooding in from the wild steppe
to sing “La ilaha illa Allah” in a slow monotone;
see the foreigners hauling their alien art
along the rippled path from the Ligurian Gulf —
they chant their gruff
“Pater Noster” in a language now dead;
or see a distant land’s exiles
with their “Sh’ma Israel,” who learn
by heart the scroll’s trusted marks;
see the conquerors of panoramas
and oceans, who proclaim “Otche Nash” all around,
vesting all hope in hammer and banner;
see the direct heirs of dire Martin
spreading his simple writ, “Vater Unser”;
see the fertile vale’s natives embracing
Noah’s ancient haven, Monophysites
honoring the Most High, each one
ardently affirming “Hayr Mer,” each cherishing
a grief sadder than low intellect can know …
all of them once traveled here, but now —
a free museum that’s open eight to eight,
where polyglot inscriptions intermix
with frescoes and the mihrab, where God
hears, with equal heed, entreaties
from all the fractured hosts of Man.
Vindictive Goddess, Statue Now Woken
The son of Providence, trusting his budget,
said unto us: I prophesy the hour of comets.
— Count Khvostov
Vindictive Goddess, statue now woken,
you’re evil’s bright herald!
What more do you foretell, tailed one?
What else has that tail carried?
What is — of famine, misfortune, sorrow —
your most irresistible menace?
Ice floe, frigid in Heraclitan flames:
his irreconcilable struggle!
Go out doubt-free, and feel no shame —
sow coffins into the hibernal
earth, while a weedy sward grows
shoots for mole-crickets and den mice.
Sow what’s useless, maddening, absurdist,
between cornflowers and lily,
upon that clockface, ticking pendulous
over the world. It’s time to mark our jubilee.
And please comb your hair for this event.
You’re obliged to be transformed.
It’s time to put sin aside, for though it
sextuples our vigor,
it should now be cut off — we’ve profit
enough to satisfy creditors.
Recompense gluts the pockets
of the prosperous; war is our gain.
The sun’s sightless, the moon’s couponed;
starlight’s tight lips have crusted shut.
And like an uninvited guest — worse than
a Tatar — you suddenly turn up
at this belly-laughing, black-tie banquet
to unloose a new turn.
How, without breaking into Pindaric odes,
can I stand by on the sidelines?
I’d blow my poetry’s fiery load
on the few years I’m resigned
to. Having removed this pearl — iridescent,
smooth — God gathers it in.
Earthbound from God’s elderhand
and barefooting straight from bed —
with no shawl to veil such lucid
skin — a red-head sails, her girlish braid
trailing from her head —
she’ll answer for everything.
Why Repeat Ourselves?
Why repeat ourselves? More than was called
for has been said, done, or rescued
from breakdown and downfall —
the ripe seed sleeps beneath the earth.
Shoots peep from soil into sunbeams;
neither heat nor hoarfrost crack
them. God guards each one from
the brigands — insect throngs, the wild flock.
Let foe follow foe, for all are earthly
vanity. The foliage that’s fallen
down won’t wither, it will redouble.
The sad vigil ends with morning’s adulation!
A flame forced the water to run,
and moisture fanned the fire’s spark,
but for the grand constellation now spun
there’s no harrier or stumbling block.
On the penny-wise all pound words
are wasted. The buried cities they insist
will be reborn simply confirm
what we already know: Pompeii existed.
«Храм с аркадой»
В Судакской крепости, если от Главных
ворот — налево — до локтя стены —
и вверх, особым на первый праздному
зеваке с виду ничем не приметный,
с торчащего зубом во рту столпа
единственным и с полушарием купола
по-над осьмигранником кратковыйным,
сей дом Господень, куда чередой
в устах отверстых с молитвами мирными
одни за другими, что на берег волны:
из диких нахлынувшие степей
петь “Ля илляха илля-Лла” протяжно;
по зыбкому от Лигурийских пучин
пути пришельцы искусствоносные
свой строгий отчётливо “Патэр ностэр”
на мёртвом наречии повторять;
со “Шма Исраэль” далёкой изгнанники
земли, во всём полагаясь на свиток,
чьи буквы ведомы наперечёт;
пространств на суше завоеватели
и на море, “Отче наш” возглашая,
крюкам доверяться и знаменам;
простых прямые Мартина грозного
писаний наследники с “Фатэр унзэр”;
единоприродным Вышнего чтя,
из злачных вкруг древней Ноевой пристани
юдолищ выходцы, дабы страстно
“Хайр мэр” твердить и лелеять грусть,
рассудку низкому неподвластную, —
все были некогда здесь, а ныне —
в открытый с восьми до восьми музей,
где фрески, михраб и разноязычные
по стенам надписи, вход свободный,
и внемлет мольбам одинаково Бог
всего разобщённого человечества.
Гневной богини ожившая статуя
Сын промысла, поверя сметы,
Речет: пророчу час кометы.
Гневной богини ожившая статуя,
светлая вестница зла!
Что ты еще предвещаешь, хвостатая?
что на хвосте принесла?
Чем ты — невзгодами, скорбями, голодом —
Хладная льдина в огне Гераклитовой
Не сомневайся, стыда не испытывай –
в стылую землю гробы
сей, и дождутся на поле неполотом
всходов медведка да мышь.
Сей бесполезное, бренное, дикое,
меж васильков и лилей
по циферблату надмирному тикая, —
время справлять юбилей:
ты расчесаться по этому случаю,
Время с грехами, какими бы ни были,
разом расстаться, — достаточно прибыли,
чтобы расходы покрыть;
будет возмездие, благополучию
только на пользу война.
Солнце ослепло, луна отоварена,
звездам залеплены рты, —
гостем непрошеным — хуже татарина —
вдруг заявляешься ты
непринужденному званому ужину
новый придать оборот.
Не разражаясь торжественной одою,
как устоять в стороне? —
Весь поэтический жар израсходую,
на год отмеренный мне:
вынув, Господь уберет.
Послана миру десницею Божьего,
прямо с постели, босой,
без покрывала, с прозрачною кожею,
с длинной-предлинной косой,
большеголовая рыжая девочка,
чтобы ответить за все.
Что повторяться? — Больше, чем надо,
сказано — сделано — спасено
от сокрушения и распада, —
спелое в землю легло зерно.
Всходы проклюнулись из-под спуда, —
их не сломили ни жар, ни хлад,
Бог сохранил от лихого люда,
толп насекомых и диких стад.
Враг за врагом — суета пустая,
ибо, со древа упав, листва
не истощается, нарастая, —
нет нощеденства без ликовства!
Пламя заставило литься воду,
влага сподвигнула жечь огонь,
а величавых созвездий ходу —
ни преткновения, ни погонь.
Мудрому сумерки по колено, —
им утверждаются без труда,
вновь из-под пепла восстав и брена,
все погребенные города.
An interview with angela rawlings and Joshua Liebowitz
My inspiration for this interview emerged from a sense that something is missing from conversations about sound and poetry. Sound is not necessarily music. Joshua Liebowitz and angela rawlings (a.rawlings) are two artists I see as deeply engaged with the materiality of sound, and yet their work is extremely different. Joshua’s work uses technology to build and alter sound-structures, while, in angela’s performance-based work, I hear voice and breath sounding the limits of the body. In bringing angela and Josh together, my hope is that the conversation surrounding sound and poetry will continue its development beyond the scope of music. It’s also my hope that by engaging questions of collaboration, polyvocality, language/meaning, and space through an interdisciplinary lens of sound, poetry, and performance, new possibilities will emerge. In the spirit of our subject, the following interview was conducted over the phone and later transcribed. — Afton Wilky
Afton Wilky: Thank you both for your time and willingness to talk about your work. At first your projects seem quite different, but aspects of them are very much in conversation with one another. I hope that in coming together in this way that we can discuss sound and some of the ways that, as a medium, sound plays a role in your work and practices.
a.rawlings: First of all, I just wanted to thank you, Afton, for suggesting we do this in a spoken format rather than a written one. I will say, I am from Canada, and while I don’t have to speak the way I usually do, I have been living in Iceland for a couple of years and I have a tendency to lose words a bit. I’ll be thinking in another language — but mostly you’ll notice that I will say yes as já and I won’t even think about it (já is Icelandic for yes) or I will say it on an inhale, which is an Icelandic affectation that can be unsettling to a foreign ear since it sounds a bit like an asthma attack — já on the in-breath. So if you hear me say já or já [inhaling] then you know I’m in agreement with something. I’m not just having an anxiety attack.
Joshua Liebowitz: Absolutely, we just got started didn’t we? We’re right there [laughing].
Wilky: My idiosyncrasy would be that I say um way too often. I’m self-conscious about it and try not to … that was where I would have said um. Did you hear it [laughing]?
rawlings: You both might enjoy knowing — maybe, Afton, you can pick up this habit — in Icelandic, there are two interjections that people use in lieu of um. The first one is bara, which means just — like, I just went to the store. You would say: I bara went to the store/I um went to the store. And the other one is hérna, hér, which means here, and then na is related to núna, which means now. So it’s like you’re saying all the time, I am here now going to the here now store. It’s like you’re always situating yourself with total mindfulness practice with this Icelandic um.
Wilky: That makes me think of how I’ve been working very hard to learn Farsi (it’s my husband’s first language). In order to speak it, you have to use different muscles — ones that are far back, like your soft palate, and others that are right at the top of your throat. The way that speaking a different language makes you reconsider your relation to things — like you were saying, angela, about the positioning yourself with here now — but then also the way it can shape your body by making use of sounds which occupy different spaces in your mouth …
rawlings: I love that this is a way of traveling. It’s like you’re traveling by just placing a language within your body and getting used to the pronunciation differences. You get to know your body in a different way.
Wilky: This seems like a good moment to segue into some of the questions I was hoping we could address: angela, I’m thinking of your performance of a book project called Eh film nors tu vwy (a title comprised of the letters which spell the pronouns in English) with vocal and performance artist Maja Jantar, at the Kelly Writers House for North of Invention (available on PennSound). And I just have to say how beautiful it was in the video when you listed the letters of the title — you said them so fast, it was clear that you know by heart all the letters in the English pronouns. The experience of trying to catch them all and realizing that, while I speak English every day and while pronouns are some of the most complex and fascinating spaces in language, I couldn’t actually list them myself … it was eye-opening. Introducing the project, you describe the book as a closed linguistic ecosystem, and in the performance repetition seems to be one of the many means by which transformation occurs. In particular, I’m thinking of the “I will not ruin the environment” thread. When it is first performed, repetition allows tonal and harmonic variation to be heard. When it returns, later on in the performance, there are more intense moments of dissonance which resolve momentarily in unison before they creep again towards a new dissonance, occupying an interval between a seventh and tonic not really accounted for by the music theory I was taught growing up (though I’m sure that there must be places where this is addressed).
The experience of hearing this is amazing. But what also begins to happen is that the words themselves start to become similar sounding words. For example, “ruin” becomes “run” and the phrase is then “I will not run the environment.” For me, one of the really compelling transformations is when the “ment” in “environment” be comes “me.” The way that the “environment” in the book is a linguistic one, the way that the author may both “ruin” and “run” that environment, and the way that running and ruin in the performance happen through a sort of slippage and echo is really exciting. By the end of the piece, saying the word “I” becomes impossible — both you and Maja begin to choke on the word. That pronouns themselves are both environments and make up environments becomes evident.
So this is a long preface to my question about how you would describe the roles of meaning, language, and sound in your work.
rawlings: It’s really nice to receive your experience of Eh film nors tu vwy, Afton. You have such a keen ear and way of existing with the performance recording at Kelly Writers House. I think it’s just such a gift to hear your experience of it and feedback in the way that you do … I’m just so thrilled with that. The answer to your question [laughing] is, yes.
I know it’s a really jerky thing to answer a how question with a yes or no. There’s something in the way that you, with such detail and eloquence, capture what’s going on with what you saw in the performance and within the work. In some ways you’ve already demonstrated my relationship to sense-making and to sound within text. But to come back to your question, I’d say … interdependence. … They’re all kind of existing within the same imaginative ecosystem. Eco isn’t exactly right, but it’s definitely a system. They all kind of hang out in the same space and they’re all dependent upon each other, but I think that there’s some way to see their independence at times as well. Or to pull the focus onto one with the other still orbiting around or in support in some way.
At times, with the work that I produce, I will be more focused on one area than another. Like, I may be very focused on something that’s pre-semantic and very sonically driven. At other times, I may be focused on the language or linguistic aspect of the work that may be, in a way, drawing a focus to the materiality of what language is, but which may not be sonically driven or semantically driven. And then at other times I’ll be quite focused on the meaning itself. This “I will not ruin the environment” and the kind of deconstruction/transformation of that line — the kind of transformations that it goes through where there’s a sort of re-jigging of the syntax and an exposing of the alternative semantics that exist, lurking within the depths of this line. But then also the sonic play that comes up and how that can trigger a different … emotional connection. All of this I find quite compelling and, again, to be interrelated spheres, though sometimes I only want my focus to hang out with where the emotion is somehow, or the meaning-making process somehow.
Wilky: I love the way you distinguish between the material qualities of language and meaning, especially the way focus on one over another is temporary rather than permanent. When there’s so much at work, it would be next to impossible to pay attention to all aspects at once. In fact, it seems like any use of language must choose a focus in order to manage all its possibilities. The difference would be in whether or not someone allows that focus to become fixed or ingrained — assumed. And particularly, in your work, where language, as both meaning-making and sound-making, is so shaped by the body …
One of my intentions in this interview is to be able to position your work, angela and Josh, side by side. I see both driven by attention to materiality and sound. I hope that your responses will start to sketch out a space.
My next question is for you, Josh. In your essay “Musical Drift: Toward a Method of Sonopoetics,” published recently in Evening Will Come, you draw a distinction between sound and music. In it, musical traditions have their own sort of “grammar” which excludes some of the sonic material you’re interested in working on:
There is no shortage of chatter on how much Music and Poetry have in common. We hear there is as much a syntax to music as there is to poetry; that poetry and music share rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo — timbre, even. What we don’t hear enough about though are the physical properties that give form to both in the first place. This is because the classical characteristics by which we understand poetics and so categorize Music and Poetry just don’t work when we start talking about durations, positions, and tensions of speech units and space, which are the elements of poetics itself.
I’m hoping you could describe the roles of melody, harmony, and sound in your work.
Liebowitz: First of all, thank you Afton for putting this together and angela for being a part of this. Responding to your answer from before, I love this idea of areas hanging out with one another. I think we work similarly in that regard.
I try my best to stay away from melody and harmony. In my mind, that’s the realm of music. To me, music wants metaphor and representation and it produces them through melodic lines and chords, with harmony becoming a sort of sense-pleaser in the end. Whereas I’m interested in how and what we sense and in sound as a material for investigating this question. Essentially what I’m after are sonic structures that offer more than just “hashtag emotion” and allow instead for a direct physiological experience with sound as a phenomenon, so that you become aware of your listening, while you’re listening. This is why I use spectral software: it can split a sound into its most basic components. When the sonic data is broken down there’s less timbral weight and signage to hold on to, but you realize that these quantum bits of loudness and duration, space and time, really, can be bundled together and shaped, bent, curved, or smoothed out … they’re pliable. And so they’re organized differently from a musical composition. I’m layering basic phenomena, rather than notes and instruments. This is also why I’m shamelessly happy to be unfettered by real-time instrument performance, and tied instead to a performance of listening and concentration.
Wilky: Framing seems particularly relevant to the way we distinguish between sounds in the environment and sounds that are “music.” I realize I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but to point out sound’s role in orienting the body, I’ll share this experience. The other day, I was listening to a 3D audio track I had recorded at a coffee shop the year before. On the recording was the sound of a fountain, traffic, and two guys talking about football at a table behind me. While I was listening to this recording, I suddenly heard my husband’s voice. He had been with me when I’d recorded the track, but I couldn’t remember him speaking to me. I was trying desperately to remember when I realized my husband was standing right next to me, trying to get my attention. It was a moment of total fall-out. Having been so absorbed by the place I was hearing, I instinctively positioned the sound of his voice in that place.
It seems to me that an important distinction between sound and music is that sound is a primary means of orienting the body. … Three-dimensional sound is captured by positioning one microphone near each ear and allowing your head to deflect sound waves. This ties back to what you’ve said, Josh, about wanting to produce a physiological experience of sound. Considering what you say, Josh, about bending space and time through sound and, angela, the way that you work so often in collaboration, I was hoping we could talk about the multiple voices and audible threads in your work.
angela, you have an ongoing and extensive collaboration history which has resulted in numerous performances and audio pieces. In your text-based work Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, I also find a number of “voices,” namely a speaker, an italicized voice which responds to the speaker in the poems and perhaps articulates some of what the speaker would not say, and threads of sound caused by movement. I’m hoping you can talk a bit about the role of multiple voices and levels of sound in your work.
rawlings: Seguing from your conversation with Josh, and space, and sound — maybe I’ll just rearrange the letters in space as scape. … I’ve been super fascinated by acoustic ecology and soundscape studies and, in particular, a devotée to a Canadian composer named R. Murray Schafer who did this kind of revolutionary work both by helping to found acoustic ecology as a realm of study but also in his sound education and music education exercises — one of which is, and the one I probably care about the most, called “Ear Cleaning.” It sounds maybe a little bit like the experience you were having the other day, Afton, when you were listening to your omnidirectional audio recorder. So with “Ear Cleaning,” the idea is that you’re listening with attention and awareness to the space around you. For example, listening to sounds which may be perceived as coming from inside your body or from around your body, but then also extending your hearing out as far as you can in every direction — around, above, and below — just to see how far you can hear in all directions and what it is you’re hearing. This isn’t necessarily done to produce a catalog of sounds — like car, child, mouse, pencil — but just to have an awareness that there are things to hear and maybe to start to see how we respond to these sounds (do we label them, how do we label them and relate to them). This “Ear Cleaning” exercise is something that has been close with me for many, many years now and usually done in a stationary way, but then this has been extended into doing sound walks. I, with some frequency, lead sound walks when I get the opportunity to — like whenever I lead sound poetry workshops, or creative writing workshops — if it seems right I will incorporate in an ear-cleaning exercise.
This is a lateral way of moving into your question. I’m in, as much as I can be, a practice of listening, or especially a poetics of listening. To me that means being within a tension and an awareness of the many possibilities that start to come up. Like when I’m starting to script work or if I am sounding/producing sound-oriented work. For example, if you want to talk semantics, what are the different ways in which we can interpret this … but then we could also talk about non-semantic interpretation if we want to, finding out where does this and how does this work carry us. We could consider those kinds of different interpretations to be different kinds of voices in some ways.
But now, to move and step again laterally from that, any time we are writing a text that has any kind of narration to it, like an I as an example, the I is always multiple. There is the I who is writing down the work, but then there’s also the I that is the character of being the I. There are at least two Is present, even in that single I as a pronoun. Then the question becomes, so what if we’re using a we. As an example, in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, that book was written entirely using we as the pronoun. We descend on a field by a lake. It’s always a multiple and a collective, but it’s never enumerated how many. The we also implicates the reader as being culpable or part of it. And I think I and you do as well. Maybe he, she, and they are the only places where we start to get off the hook a little bit with how we’re being manipulated as readers. Or even how we’re being implicated or coopted into the linguistic experience.
I’ll just step once more, laterally … I’ve been really fascinated by penning multivoiced works. I think this started when I ran a reading series with an awesome, awesome human named Bill Kennedy in Toronto for about five years. The reading series was called the Lexiconjury Reading Series. It was monthly and we had the real benefit of having people come from across Canada and a little bit from the United States to perform for us. I got a chance to see a lot of different poetry performance styles and through this I got particularly enthusiastic about scripting work for multiple voices. The first text that I picked up to do this with was “Identity a Poem” by Gertrude Stein. I wrote the piece for two female voices and my friend Katherine Parrish, and I would perform this poem — it’s about a four-page poem. This poem is arranged like a play and it talks about itself being a play at times. … There was a kind of exercise for me to explore when I was writing what are the ways we can do things simultaneously, or one person speaking and the other person speaking, we can do something in a round or repeat each other, we can play Beastie Boys with it, like I say a line and then she’ll jump in with the last word, we can start to play with gesture, or speaking and pointing to different parts of our bodies …
After I worked with this text, Katherine recommended Juliana Spahr’s poem “Switching,” and I turned it into a multivocal work. I’ve done this with a couple of other pieces by poets whose works I admire. This gave me a bit of an exercise in exploring the different ways to work collaboratively. With Wide Slumber I didn’t consider performance until after I had finished that book. I’d spent about five years writing it and then once it was published, I realized that I wasn’t done existing within the world of the work; anytime I would sit down to write, it would come out sounding like Wide Slumber. But I knew that I wanted to continue to be in it, so performance was the way. I had the chance to work with two theater/dance/music performers and we did vocal work for three bodies. Since then Wide Slumber has gone through many, many voices — just two people working together, or I do it by myself … and then of course that has extended into working with people who might be identified with other disciplines more often in order to work cross-disciplinarily or interdisciplinarily, working either with many bodies or voices or instruments or different ways of approaching the body and the voice and language.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve been very interested in the spectrum that exists with rehearsed work and improvised work, and in how structure plays a role in the rehearsed and in the improvised. I’ve been very much with a practice of working with structured improvisation — both vocal and contact for many, many years now — as a way to supplement the more obviously scripted work that comes out of the page-based stuff I’ve produced.
Wilky: I love what you say about improvisation and structuring performance and also that the I is multiple. The idea that “collaboration” might happen both inside and outside the work, as in the way your experience running Lexiconjury developed into collaborative performances and became a way of coming back to page-based work and revisioning it after that space had closed, is really exciting. Reiterations and reworking of the text through performance seems like another means by which the I multiplies.
In your work, Josh, I find sound creating an extraordinary space out of the layering and recurrence of sonic threads. We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I hear this as a highly constructed space, in a music-like register but without the types of harmonic and melodic structures one would expect. It’s made up of a series of hums, vibrations, and tensions; it is molded, bent, and manipulated out of other sounds. It is shaped by sound deflected off itself.
Speaking specifically about “Spine,” your collaboration with Rodrigo Toscano based on what he calls a “body movement poem,” even when there are words, the voices which speak have been multiplied and refract themselves. For me, the recurrent sounds serve as an agrammatical sort of punctuation of this space and time. In light of what we’ve been discussing so far, I’m hoping that you can discuss the role of multiple sonic threads and perhaps specifically the role of deflection in the soundscapes you create.
Liebowitz: I’m glad you’ve brought up this issue of framing, because it’s something I struggle with constantly. For me it’s a question of how and where a sound work is listened to, and how the sounds frame one another, in the work. This issue of framing was absolutely central to “Spine.” We knew we didn’t want the performers speaking the text, so the question became about environment, about how to sonify the space encompassing the performers and about their body movements within, and in response to the sound space. This is how the deflections came in. We realized that by letting the sounds interact with the text and interrupt it at a grammatical level, the margins or the space surrounding the text could then be sounded and it could do its own thing. So deflection was a discovery that was harnessed and put to work.
What I’ll also say is that these sound spaces are highly constructed. I tend to think of them more as sound structures than as soundscapes. Soundscape reminds me of landscape and the pastoral. I aim for structures that are highly volatile. I’m not trying to represent an environment; I’m trying to create one that directly interacts with a listener.
For me, it’s really a property-driven thing with the sounds themselves: how the physical and psychoacoustic properties of sound shape a space. Like we were speaking about earlier with the 3D audio: how you can get disoriented in it. Properties like deflection and diffraction accomplish this nicely, and if a listener gets lost, I think they are indeed having a direct experience with the space and the sounds within the structure. There have been many times, when I’m listening and putting pieces together, that I’ve felt sick, like I’ve hallucinated. These sensations are the result of working with the physical properties of sounds in relation to one another. To me these structures create a space of pure abstraction that isn’t necessarily expressive, because it’s lacking melody, and which isn’t trying to convey anything to you. Instead it allows you to have your own, individual experience, which hasn’t been scripted beforehand. The abstract quality of that space, its possibilities: this is my main interest.
Wilky: I definitely feel surrounded by those shapes and structures you mention while I’m listening. I think it’s the deflection you talk about that makes me feel as if I’m in that space. Speaking of it as a volatile space seems really apt. I feel as if I’m in complete darkness with arcs and other nameless armatures surrounding me and emerging from the dark. And, in a way, that it feels like a space comes back to the way that sound causes a bodily reaction. I think we could segue from this role of the body to the role of the body in my next question, which is for angela.
In stark contrast to Josh’s work, in which sounds are often manipulated and warped to the point where their source can’t be identified, in your performance-based work, angela, I hear a sounding out of the limits of the body in terms of its capacity for breath, elasticity, and sound-making. Could you talk a little bit about your use of the body, and perhaps about your body in particular, as a sonic instrument?
rawlings: When I was first getting into sound-oriented work, I think my first exposure was when I saw Steve McCaffery perform work by Claude Gauvreau at a small festival for Automatistes writing and happenings. The sound poetry he was performing just blew my mind — I had never seen anything like that. After that I sought out studies with him in order to learn more about what this crazy thing was. The further I researched sound poetry, certainly sound poetry performance within Canada, the more I was struck by how few female practitioners or examples of female voices there were. It was something I was really craving.
I’ve always been someone who likes to sing along loudly to whatever is on the radio or to whatever I’m listening to in my bedroom. When I was a teenager, Tori Amos and Björk were the favorites. So I got really excited about hearing the limits of what can happen with female voice, but really disappointed that I didn’t find access to this when I was starting to look into these things around 1999 or 2000. This eventually led me to get very curious: what can I be producing sonically and very much from a replication place at first; what sounds do I hear that other people are producing that I can attempt to embody and use to discover new ways of working with my body. It’s like what you were saying, Afton, about your experience with Farsi and sound placement within our vocal folds or the mouth. I was mostly wanting the experience of, first and foremost, a replication of what I’m hearing that’s really exciting. This could be like hearing throat singing, maybe. For example, I’m getting really curious about how far down within the throat these hugh sounds are coming from. And then, can I learn how to do this as well just to feel how this is within the body. To experience ways of sounding with my body that I haven’t had access to. Or maybe haven’t been considered the polite or socially acceptable kinds of sounds to make, or for a female body to make. But then also, maybe, like Diamanda Galás — she’s been very opening for me as a listener. How can I also play with some of the more screechy or extreme sounds; how can I do these things in a way that is not vocally damaging or shredding, that is safe for my vocal folds but that also starts to explore the limits of what I’m capable of producing; how can I really start to learn my own body and push my limits of permissible sounds-making, not only in private, but also in semipublic environments, so that I start to identify or call attention to my embarrassments or discomforts with the kinds of social constructs that exist around the sounds that bodies make, or maybe bodies identifying as female make. This has been maybe a bit of a constant itch within my practice that I’ve been with the last few years particularly getting into with the improvised work.
Wilky: I’m so glad you’ve brought up the role of female bodies in sound poetry. The female body is so often the subject of art, and yet there’s discomfort when she starts making abnormal sounds. To wrap things up, I’d like to get back to the idea of collaboration, which is one of many ways in which writing, music, and performance practices differ. Often, writing for the page is considered a solitary activity or an activity done by one person. In music there may be several stages which include writing, rehearsing, and performing of a score. Similarly, as in the case of jazz, there may be study of music theory and rehearsal prior to an improvisational performance. In addition, musical performances are rarely solos; they often involve multiple instruments (groups, bands, quartets, orchestras, choirs, etc.) and sometimes are conducted. Performance art and theater art also span the range between solo and group endeavors.
This question is open to both of you. Do you see performance and music traditions, which more often involve dialogue, collaboration, and groups of performers, affecting your praxis? Do they offer modes and practices that you see as being useful to writing? Are there overlooked practices outside of these traditions?
Liebowitz: It seems like there’s still this cultural suspicion that collaboration somehow results in a less dignified project. As if even in the twenty-first century, we prefer to close our eyes and think works are made, and have always been made, by the lone artist standing on some cliff somewhere and waving up pieces together from out of the ocean. In my experience, involving people from other disciplines and with a different set of expertise not only fires me up and leads to more ideas, but because everyone involved is then accountable, there’s a sense of trust and intimacy that develops, which makes you feel more comfortable experimenting, and also pushes you to make the best work you can. Some projects for me are solitary for sure, but when I start a work, it’s more often than not because I’m curious about something. So finding out is going to involve dialogue with someone else, planning, going to the studio, more dialogue, then going back to the studio. It’s a process, a laboratory approach.
rawlings: I really think that there’s a big overlap within many of these kinds of practices. It’s called one thing in one medium and another name in another medium, but they’re still similar somehow. For example, we have editors and dramaturges and they’re playing the same type of role, just in a different way in a different medium. I sense that there’s quite a bit of crossover, but then also borrowing, and maybe this is why I’ve had a tendency at times to consider my own practice interdisciplinary or drawn in this way. Even when I was working on Wide Slumber and I worked for a publishing house for five years, I really sensed — and maybe it was using, erroneously, this word collaborative — but I really sensed that there was a serious, collaborative gesture at play within the publishing industry or the ways in which we’re treating works. Yes, I or the author may be sitting and writing something, but that author is showing the work to somebody else who is giving feedback. There are substantive edits that come in, there’s a proofreader involved … there are all these people who are shaping how the work is coming along. There’s the design of the book, the people who are doing the physical print; everybody is having their hands on this somehow. The onus tends to fall on the author, who has to carry this thing around like a tattoo for the rest of her life, but there have been so many eyes and hands and minds in the process that this notion that it’s just this solo slog doesn’t hold great water. Maybe it’s, and I’m back again with this word, interdependence, or I’m just wanting to liken what is happening within literary publishing to what I sense is happening within music production or theater production as places where people are working together to make a thing or to share a thing, rather than it being this activity produced in a tall, lonely tower.
Wilky: What you say about the collaborative gestures happening within the publishing industry makes me think of the way that individual books will respond to one another whether it’s direct, noticeable, or not. This too is a sort of dialogue or conversation. I would just like to say again how fantastic this has been and ask if there’s anything either of you would like to add before we close out this interview.
rawlings: I feel like I really just want to sit in a dark room with Josh’s swooping sound space zooming at me from different directions. I’m really excited about the architecture of this image that’s in my head from the two of you discussing it. And the movement as well. It’s the way you’re designing and responding somehow to the physicality and the movement of that physicality of the sounds. I can feel it and I want to be in it and listen.
Liebowitz: Thank you so much, angela. It’s funny, in the same way I was thinking earlier today about the body and how you were mentioning, what are the limits of your body and the sound inside your body. The body is such a natural resonator that I really think that some of that bending of sounds can come from inside the body. But then I wonder if it would only be perceptible if you made the sounds. Or would someone else be able to hear it?
rawlings: Interesting. And could you just slip a contact mic into your colon and then …
Wilky: I feel like someone has done this.
rawlings: What about a vaginal contact mic? I wonder if anyone’s done that.
Liebowitz: Marina Abramović? But then she hasn’t done as much sound work.
Wilky: Not necessarily recorded sound work, but there is that performance “Ahh” where she and Ulay scream into each other’s mouths until they run of breath or until their vocal cords collapse. Talk about stretching the body to its limits …
This has been incredible, angela and Josh. Thank you both so much.