Interviews - October 2013
Camille Roy with Michael Cross
Editorial note: Camille Roy writes plays, poetry, and fiction. She is often associated with New Narrative and teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. She is the author of several books, including Sherwood Forest (2011), The Rosy Medallions (1995), and Cold Heaven (1993). She also edited Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (2004) with Gail Scott, Mary Burger, and Robert Glück. Biting the Error was reissued in 2010. Michael Cross lives in Oakland, California, where he studies contemporary poetry. He is the author of In Felt Treeling (2008) and Haecceities (2010). He edits Compline and On: Contemporary Practice with Thom Donovan. He blogs as the Disinhibitor. This interview was conducted in April and May of 2011. — Katie L. Price
Michael Cross: I thought to start our conversation with a question that could prove arresting in its expansiveness (or, I suppose, deadening in its utter simplicity!): As a writer who moves so deftly between genres, how do you know when you’re writing a poem? I suppose you could take the long view (“what do we mean when we say ‘poetry’”) or the short view (“I use line breaks”), but I’m curious to know when you know that the writing you’re undertaking has become “poetry.” Do you set out to write “a poem” or does something happen along the way that suggests itself to you? I guess the question behind the question is whether these distinctions mean something to you aesthetically?
Camille Roy: What is a poem? How do I know when I’m writing one? Does it matter? Terrific questions. The word ‘poem’ once felt like a reprimand. I found it easier to write plays or stories — to enter those forms — with abandon and pleasure because they were less fundamentally puzzling.
What I discovered through playwriting was the creative tension of antagonisms — of provocation and response — that occurs so naturally in dialogue. And I observed how that tension generated performativity, at the level of the line. The friction of conflict can be very small — focused in sound, even in the syllables — and this easily extends into a poetry practice. Also dialogue brings to the fore the physicality of language as utterance and wit.
So poems are tiny performances. But they differ from playwriting in that it isn’t a struggle between characters that generates the language. What is being performed is the poem itself. There’s a quality of a chemistry experiment — one tries adding this or that, looking for what releases energy. Sometimes a poem arises after a moment of forgetfulness. It reminds me of a pan left on the stove. After a while the thin layer of oil is smoking. Heat rises into your eyes. There’s a shimmer. A heat haze. A transformation in the materials has occurred. The oil is watery, it smells of burn. A few more minutes and there could be a fire. A poem can change in subject, tone, stance, ferocity — mysteriously, yet with the authority of an act which we have witnessed.
As a poetic experimenter, I also like to mix in elements of narrative, characters, and history. I find it odd that fiction has a toolbox jammed with devices and interesting sensations (suspense, for example) that are supposed to be off limits to poets. Why do you suppose this is?
There are layers to what constructs a poem. What I’ve just written peels one back. But there are many more. This brings me to certain pop songs. The beat is a strut even as the song can convey desolate lamentations. Like a poem, such a song can slip through fiercely dark moments of compression and then spread out like breath. “Walking on troubled ground, where I don’t belong …” (“One Way Street”). It’s so hokey to compare poetry to song. “I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong” (“Streets of Laredo”). But it is a fact that certain songs resonated when I wrote this book. They felt old. Even decrepit. They were songs that stagger on through the decades, it’s just what they do. Memorials to people who usually disappear with little trace.
Here are two: “Streets of Laredo,” by Johnny Cash (a young Cash, haggard & skinny), and “One Way Street,” by Ann Peebles (silly pictures — close your eyes).
Cross: I’m interested in the language you use to describe your practice — words like “antagonisms,” “provocation,” “tension,” “friction,” “conflict,” “struggle”— a lexicon that draws to mind your claim in “Experimentalism” that writing ought to “break open (the mainstream) system” that nurtures a “well-modulated distance” between the subject and social conflict, presumably by bridging the gap between social reality (i.e. unrest writ large!) and the so-called “comfort” (however imagined) of the reader’s lived experience. I love your image of a writing “that grinds itself into what’s familiar yet unbearable,” and I wonder if that’s precisely what makes this writing “poetry” rather than “prose?” If both playwriting and prose investigate the “creative tensions of antagonism” between characters, could we say that poetry investigates a similar antagonism in language itself? That is, do you think it’s fair to say that your poetry is a kind of “drama” or “tiny performance” that investigates the fundamental conflict between form and content, a writing that “breaks open” the “well-modulated distance” between language (as a kind of “subject”) and the very real details of one’s lived experience?
Roy: This is a hard question and a provocative one. I’ll start by considering English as a historical artifact. Its huge vocabulary began with invasions. The collisions of languages (French, Norman, Latin, Germanic languages, Greek — not one comes close to dominating) also simplified grammar and eliminated gender. It gave us a ‘borrowing language.’
There is a friction between specific words that derive from these bastard origins. Our tasty swears, for example, are mostly Anglo-Saxon. Different social classes enter English with different positions relative to this past — so words that sound ‘educated’ are often Latinate. This is the stuff of history, delivered into our brains and mouths, without our conscious knowledge or consent. As a poet I feel English has overlapping vocabularies that reflect its multiple origins. (And there is weird social segregation between them.) Within a poem I can swap words in and out from these different ‘registers’ and create an energy which is ordinarily compressed (avoided) by the conventions of (polite or academic or poetic) discourse.
While a product of history, these energies are also pertinent and contemporary. They sink into English — and stay. That is our force field. It’s pleasurable, uncertain, and possesses surprising torque. These processes began centuries ago and continue to buzz. Working with this opens my writing to the currents of the moment and the street.
How does this relate to your question, regarding language as a ‘subject’ which is in conflict with experience? To work with the surprise, the antagonism, the historical depths, the unknown within the familiar which is inherent in English opens up the range of experience I can represent. Language is not without history. It is dynamic, porous, dirty, clear, viscous, and windy.
The buck and bite of a line has an auditory trace, even when read silently on the page. What is curious about English, given its bastard origins, is that the auditory trace has swagger, class, intellectual authority — a complex presence — depending on what conflicts are brought to bear in the composition of the sentence. In other words, these antagonisms are inherent in the words themselves. This is by no means a problem. Our language is giving itself to us even when it is most resistant.
I didn’t tie this specifically to poetry (versus fiction or playwriting). But I think the line-focused construction of a poem really allows these aspects to emerge and be explored.
Cross: I just reread Sherwood Forest’s first epigraph in light of your response, a beautiful stanza from the great poet Will Alexander:
Revolt is its bread, its exclusive respiration, its soil.
From this evolves its sinews, its glinting explorational fiber.
This being the mode of its disruptive English,
Its anti-memorials, its slow motion lightning …
Which brought to mind the following stanza from Jack Spicer’s A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud:
After he had been born in the postoffice he began to
practice his mouth with a new language. He could not imagine
persons to listen to the new language. He had not invented
These lines perfectly capture (for me, at least!) the work of poetry: how when we use words to make meaning (or resist meaning, for that matter!) we are in some ways reinventing language (and with it, politics). As a result, we also “imagine” persons into existence to read it (that is, we teach our readers how to read — how to approach).
I was thinking the other day about interesting correspondences between your work and Spicer’s: the repurposing of figures from popular culture (in your case, figures like Dorothy and Little Red), the curious use of proper names for affect, something of an “anti-lyrical” tone in the muted, calculated music. Further, I often think of Spicer as something of a reverse-allegorist: rather than represent a “truth” or convention in a symbolic figure, he invents these figures — the mirror, the diamond, the grail — without an easily identifiable corresponding truth, and then lets them loose on the poem. He disconnects these figures from their symbolic grammar so they can teach us what they still can mean (or how they can mean) in the context of the poem and its corresponding politics (but they’re never fully disconnected, right, so they carry along this baggage).
Your writing leaves me with the similar sense that there’s something desperately important just out of reach, that if I could somehow get the pieces in the right order, a figure would emerge (suspense!). Take for instance your poem “Ideology” (which I’d like to quote in full to get some language from Sherwood Forest into the air):
Every virtue has its contemptible literature.
1989. I was looking for an instruction. I walked with silent multitudes towards the sobering event, where I found Amy, at the podium, grasping every straw and shaking her hairy head in terror.
Like pillows in chaos.
Amy’s clever speech inserted itself into the fields of young cervix. As each point arrived, tiny holes among us bridged the gap between futile and fertility.
Humbly I placed my feet a few inches further apart. Although I’m shallow I couldn’t swallow. Yet, at the proper point, as marked by the separated passages of text, I did go inside. The herd was waiting for me there — big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love. They married me with their lips. I named myself Amy, then made my own series of stirring announcements.
Walking. Walking out. Walking in. The Amy crowd just stood around, waiting for me. But I was waiting too, which is why I couldn’t arrive. I was looking for something pointy yet blank, that wore a pout the way I wore the names of my friends. I needed to get into the interior, so I could look for this thing: call it cervix. It seemed I waited forever. Finally I was told it had popped and disappeared, a sort of dispirited ghost.
That’s when you rolled up, Dick. What a welcome distraction in our dusty rest stop, with ironic scenery, a Plymouth in our Valiant field. But you were so terribly sleepy. In fact, you were dead! Yours was a belief system that attached sweetness to events.
(Which should have meant something to me. Punched, somehow.)
We gathered in the cloakroom, laying you in the center, in piles like rope. It turned out there were many ways to take off the outer coverings, and the kneecaps followed. O Dick, everything liquefied after the first dark and sparkling moments.
Now I want to make a poem of it, this time with caricature. Dick, you be the big jaw, and I’ll be minnows, pushed out between your ivory teeth, while Amy holds us in her thick romantic fur.
Then, getting off, daddy-o, finally getting off. Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked? It must be the beyond, where you are. (Where I wanted to go.) Infested abstract landscapes have Dick written all over them.
Pure dream of momentum, soaring from the hard kick towards the value of an image, as panorama foams while I’m asleep.
Dick, wake up please. I’m really ready for you to wake up.
Cross: Do you consider Spicer an influence? Who else lies dormant behind the lines?
Roy: Jack Spicer, of course. There’s something of the wizard in Spicer. The force of his sources, e.g. baseball, are released outside the confinement of anyone’s understanding. They have the autonomy of ghosts, a separate existence, which feels both grounded and uncanny. How accurate this is! After all, words and culture are mostly hand-me-downs. Gifts from the dead.
There are some brass Spicer plaques set into the sidewalk along the Embarcadero:
They dream they dream of dreams about themselves.
The subsequent lines are absent from the sidewalk but have a strong resonance:
Splash them with twilight like a wet bat.
Unbind the dreamers.
Be like God.
Whizzing along on my bike I carry this poem along. Close by is a pier we ride out on. We stop at the Ferlinghetti poem that is etched into the pier railings and look back at the city.
The light of San Francisco / is a sea light / an island light
And then another scrim / when the new night fog / floats in
And in that vale of light / the city drifts / anchorless upon the ocean.
This brings up the local as the relation of the poem. The resistance of a poem invites close reading, which is a kind of intimacy. A poem is a communal object.
And here’s a great thing about poetry in the city. It haunts the footfalls in the neighborhood. Just after we moved to Potrero Hill an anonymous local printer decided our neighborhood telephone poles needed plain white posters that showcased the poems of Lorine Niedecker. They appeared over a series of weeks or months, I don’t remember. They were dazzling, like finding blue beach glass. Finally I ripped one off for my room (which is still on my wall: “In Leonardo’s light / we questioned / the sun does not love / My hat …”). This was my son’s first experience of poetry and he puzzled over it for quite a while. What better example! I am drawn to her work by the intensity and precision of its attention, its oblique clarity, and also the way her line breaks fall and float. It’s a visual music, and it parallels the poem generating itself.
Poetry allows the body to ripple in language. As the line tumbles down the page, we enter the poem as a ragged and lyrical street. So of course Frank O’Hara is an influence, and later generations of the New York School. I remember the first time I heard Eileen Myles (probably around’86) and I left the reading elated, feeling that doors had been blasted open. Doors to the outside, to the spoken, to the world as it is lived. I recognized (still do) my outsider lesbian life in her work.
My first years in San Francisco coincided with an interesting period. On the one hand, there was New Narrative. And on the other, the so-called ‘Language Wars.’ There was a ferocity in the discourse which presumed and demanded a clear boundary between narrative (with its supposed ‘linearity’ — more on that later) and poetics.
But boundaries are rules waiting to be broken. And the locations where there is crossover and porousness are the most interesting. One example of that was a poet favored by Bob [Glück] and Bruce [Boone]. At that time Bob and Bruce had such a close intellectual connection that occasionally they seemed to occupy the same moment. So they could separately talk about a writer with the identical tone and even facial expression. I recall the look of sudden, almost secretive, appreciation that would seize them when they discussed the work of Bob Perelman. Which made me curious. What I found: history lives itself through us. We’re carried by time’s monster, culture. In Perelman’s work there is a kind of tenderness for this.
Other influences … there are many. But first I must mention Carla Harryman and Kathy Acker. Their work defamiliarizes my relation to the statement. Sentences with the energy of escapees …
Then again, perhaps ‘influence’ isn’t the right word. Writing that is lively and provokes genuine interest should be noted as such by kindred spirits, and passed along. Here is the beginning of such a list for me:
Gail Scott, Renee Gladman, Bob Perelman, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mary Burger, Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker, Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, Carla Harryman, Fernando Pessoa, Celine, CAConrad, Tisa Bryant, Rachel Levitsky, Jen Hofer, Alice Notley, Ariana Reines, Kathleen Fraser, George Oppen, Violette LeDuc, Leslie Scalapino, Lawrence Braithewaite, Dennis Cooper, Heriberto Yepez, Sam D’Allesandro, Mike Amnasan, Blanchot, Marcel Cohen, Can Xue, John Wieners, Bhanu Kapil, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Pam Lu, K. Silem Mohammad, Stephanie Young, Rob Halpern, Taylor Brady, Laura Moriarty, Selah Saterstrom. More recently: Tim Etchells, Amina Cain, Vanessa Place, Shanxing Wang.
Many if not most of these writers are sloppy at the border of poetry/narrative. I like that sloppiness. But it also moves this overly long answer to my final point. And that concerns narrative — first, what is it? I find that the quickest easiest answer — it is the act of telling, as in a story, characterized by linearity — is a misrepresentation. I find it more satisfying to contemplate narrative as the act of not telling. Suspense (for example) is always based in not telling. It is not telling that creates the background against which the foreground (the telling) is a flourish. Not telling creates a sort of ‘negative space’ which has a tantalizing quality and an inverted radiance which comes from the reader’s imagination. There is a Japanese word that gets to the heart of this: ma (hat tip Nona Caspers.) From Wikipedia:
In Japanese, ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision.
“Ma” is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements (italics added).
I like this concept of ‘negative space’ because one can use it freely in a poem and have access to certain qualities of narrative (mystery, fear, fascination, suspense, even the complexities of the historical record, among many others) which are often not associated with poetry. It is suited to the succinct and the difficult in writing. I use this technique a lot in Sherwood Forest. It is the art of the incomplete. You can find another example of this technique in M. NourbeSe Philip’s book Zong!. Robin Tremblay-McGaw has a good discussion of that work here.
Cross: I’m interested in how you frame resistance as a kind of intimacy — that “not telling” builds a suspense that ravenously swallows the overdetermination of the foreground (perhaps through the very invitation to occupy negativity in the first place?). I got to thinking about the relationship between suspense and the utterly alive absence resonating in the reader’s imaginary, so I reread your “crime” poems in Sherwood Forest, especially “Crime Story,” where you write,
feelings have a structure, which is not sentiment. Certain emotions are structurally sadomasochistic — for example, suspense. Even now, writing this, I feel that pained warp, as though someone whipped my brain tissues … Last time we had sex my beloved made me sit still, which got me so hot I could hardly stand it. It was one of those times I felt ravaged by love.
This stanza rhymes with my favorite poem in the book, “My Play,” which also opens the collection:
You are dead, imagine it.
So I should speak as one possessed,
grim & miraculous. Your word startles
the process: killer.
… The unborn occupy the dead, like some relationships.
Still, the appalling, almost feverish discomfort we cause each other —
this is our science story, which I place
in the safe deposit box of your butch heart.
Our audience arrives as voyeurs with a wish, a natural desire
to be transformed into masochists. Not because they want to be
overwhelmed by suffering; quite the contrary. They seek an actual
possibility, not an actualized one.
Yet they suffer from the fact that the body is effeminate (that the asshole
This isn’t shit, it’s poetry.
Shit enters into it only as an image.
… My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins to grin.
But it has a bad smell, this play: the aroma of nothing happens.
Then I become aware of the theatrical quality of sex shows, porn, politics.
“The show” is everywhere. Theater is a quality
not a place.
… I want to write Eileen but I’m feeling guilty, I’m too high.
I fold my muscles into wads and sleep soundlessly.
I can’t remember my dreams, they crumble, a soft cake.
A picnic with Carla. She brings rosemary bread and surprising pistachios.
She reads to me about utopias.
So touched and happy I float right up into the sky.
I wonder if suspense is “structurally sadomasochistic” precisely because it opens that window to what you’re calling “actual possibility” — the sometimes-difficult struggle to resist actualization for potentiality — to literally em-body (put into body) uncertainty and doubt and struggle? Which is beautifully consonant with the figure of the lover waiting for permission to climax. Can you connect the dots between the suffering of masochism and the erotics of possibility?
Roy: In relation to time, every person is a masochist. Carried forward, we tumble over the event horizon and out of sight — or we would, but it just so happens (whew!) we have our eyes with us.
Appear or disappear?
I watch as it rounds the corner.
This is the only body I’ll have.
This is where I have some sympathy with the notion that narrative possesses ‘linearity’ and that quality is somehow gruesome. I agree! It is gruesome and that’s why it’s enjoyable. It recapitulates how we are in thrall to time.
Writing, the arduous back and forth of it, the uncertainty and reworking, creates a reader experience which is revealed over time and in sequence. Whether the story ends, or the writing just stops, the writer knows the future of the reader, especially in terms of desire. This is the root of an erotics which is as inherent as the erotics of porn. It’s structural. Writing can bring into being states of yearning, desire, suspense — as the products of a relation between reader and writer. Even focus is the product of this relation. I play with these states (and with my fantasy reader) in a way that has parallels with S&M play — but not in scripted scenes. As anarchic play. I feel the freedom in this is contagious.
It’s also an existence test. A potent source of doubt is whether the other is actually there. What sort of relation is it, that transpires without contact? Since my reader may not exist, my audience may be empty space, lucid and mute. Pure potential. But it doesn’t matter. Writing is acting within that space, testing it in a spirit of doubt.
Bob Glück has described the early (‘heroic’) phase of Language Poetry as “an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity) of the ways language generates meaning.” (He notes that “the same could be said of other experimental work, especially the minimalisms.” Examination by subtraction: this has always troubled me. Such deeply engaged dismissals have inadvertent consequences.
Using the terms of Walter Benjamin, I wonder whether such an examination ends up privileging information over experience. From his essay “The Storyteller”: “The art of storytelling is coming to an end … One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value … by now almost nothing happens which benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.” The way Benjamin constructs the dichotomy of information versus storytelling implicates time. “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time.”
A poem as a tiny performance: that means it is in time: held, compressed, wiggly. The relational elements (reader/writer) and the traces of narrative preserve and concentrate its release. This approach is steadfast with the curiosity that acknowledges the gesture may not be recognized, but does it anyway? It reminds me of this opera singer, describing her technique: the actual sound is a little point about eighteen inches in front of your nose, and you sing into the little hole.
Cross: You mentioned earlier that “Poetry allows the body to ripple.” I’ve been thinking about this statement in light of our conversation about embodying the potential of uncertainty, especially as some of the most memorable images in Sherwood Forest are figures of a super tangible and totally mutable body. Take a look at the following lines from across the book:
“My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins its grin.”
“big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love.”
“Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked?”
“A girl is a small idol nested in the body. Gnarled & coiling her teeth —”
“I feel fleshy & full of intelligence”
“Her thudded leg splits open”
“When your arms crunched my ribs, / holes open up in my psyche / & and I was spongy & clear …”
“Buried muscles in chalk. Big toe in a bottle, buried again.”
“Lungs bleated while the aroma seeped from my nipples”
“My tongue is wagging in my stomach & it wants to be scooped out”
“Grains begin in the dark pads of flesh”
“White teeth rattle in my ironic mouth.”
Etc., etc., etc.
Spinoza’s been in the air again among poets, especially his famous dictum that no-one has yet determined what a body can do. I wonder if you can provisionally address this statement by telling us what a body can do in your writing? Does it play a figurative or allegorical role, or is it all warm and breathing tissue?
Roy: When I first saw those lines from Sherwood I felt abashed. Such a concentrated dose of the unseemly rascal. So much fur, exposed in public. But isn’t that the point! A body: everyone has one. It’s the democracy of existing — a democracy that recalls Spinoza, in his political dimensions.
I write as an occupier of an unknown history which composes me as I write. This seems to me to also be a Spinozist orientation — in that these relations compose me, they are not other than me. To put it another way: writing is evidence that we don’t know what writing can do.
It struck me the other day that the one thing I possess and use frequently that comes from my ancestors is language. It — language — is intimate with my dead in a way that I will never be. And it is displaced with respect to time, grooved with words and usages that are familiar yet antique, while also bearing everywhere ‘stickers’ of the new. This assemblage contains and contextualizes all my writing. The language which I somehow possess reminds me of a 2005 Miyazaki anime, Howl’s Moving Castle, and in particular the castle of the title. This castle ambles through fields and mountains on chicken legs. It’s a handcrafted critter, part animal yet also an artifact. It has an unspecific but vigorous haunted quality and its oddly shaped doors and windows open onto different times and places.
Language as a moving castle — I like that. But the disarming sweetness of the anime castle doesn’t represent the relation language has to death.
There is a little shiver when the body surfaces in writing. This interests me: what is this reaction, what causes it, what use is it, what lies there? There is an instant where body and imagination fuse and a sensation is transmitted from the abstraction of words on the page. Is it recognition? The feeling response can slip from fear to pleasure to horror as if no distance separated those states at all.
Language, received from the dead, has an uncanny aspect. This causes the linguistic body to ripple with horror as well as pleasure. There is a wonderful idea relating to the uncanny that comes from robotics: the hypothesis of the uncanny valley. It states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The moment of revulsion, where the robot is recognized as nonhuman, is called the uncanny valley.
A word that trespasses on the body leaves a trace of disgust. Words rustle the body. Once they have become intimate, they are recognized as alien: language as robot.
And yet language is the most intimate of our possessions. I remember holding my mother’s head as she became paralyzed. Her left eye filled slowly with a tear. She died over the hours of that day and afterwards her body lay on the bed for the night. A corpse is a monument, shining in negative space. But she was gone: language was gone.
To inquire further into the little shiver: what use is it? There is a politics in patience and pleasure seeking, through the moments of revulsion. Dread liquefies as humor. Juice from the squeezed heart never did anyone any harm. Plus there is the freedom to seek information from the repressed. This disorders the world — in the direction of democracy (here comes Spinoza again!).
Under capitalism we resonate with hysterical throbs of emotion used to ‘personalize’ our relations — to banks, magazines, clothes, movie stars, the commodity world. What is filtered out is dread, revulsion, our abject trajectory towards death. Also what is filtered out is tenderness. In my writing I hope that the complex space that is opened for the reader has a tender aftermath:
I love the cloud around speech / we call the body …
House of sensation.
Built crud wrapper.
Thanks for this opportunity Michael. I’ve enjoyed it.
5. Benedict Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order (1677), Some Texts from Early Modern Philosophy.
An interview with Lisa Jarnot
Lisa Jarnot’s magisterial work on the life and times of Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is an important and much-needed text. Apart from being the only full-length biography of the poet, it is a rich and dense document of literary and cultural criticism, which places Duncan within larger social and historical contexts. As literary biographies go, it merits comparison with some of the best: Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, and Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf come to mind. The Ambassador from Venus will become essential reading for those who want to understand Duncan as both a person and as a poet. I recently met with Lisa to discuss the biography, Duncan’s life, and poetry in general, and what she plans on doing next, now that the fifteen-year odyssey of researching and writing is over. — George Fragopoulos
George Fragopoulos: Long before you started working on the biography, you were interested in Robert Duncan’s work. Can you say something about your early relationship to his poetry and work?
Lisa Jarnot: I worked at the Poetry Collection — the rare book archive at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, when I was an undergraduate and a work-study student in 1987. That was also the year Duncan’s papers arrived. Duncan had sold his materials to pay for his healthcare costs due to his kidney failure, and his papers arrived in waves. I read all eighty-one notebooks and made an index of what was on the pages. It was unusual work for an undergraduate, but it was due, I think, to the fact that the curator of the archive at the time did not want a graduate student to do it. He didn’t want to have someone working on that material with professional aspirations, so he let me do it.
So I knew Duncan’s work inside out and was totally fascinated with it. As a fledgling poet, I was already interested in Allen Ginsberg’s work, but here was Duncan — a poet who was very different from Ginsberg. I mean, Ginsberg was this crazy, far-out, Beatnik poet, and Duncan was this genteel, domestic, middleclass poet. The contrast was huge, and the poetics held a big contrast as well. Ginsberg had that huge, sloppy Whitmanesque line that was filled with all these pop-culture references and Duncan had all these references to nature. I read Roots and Branches and thought Duncan was a nature poet or something; I couldn’t really make much sense of it. I actually thought at first it was kind of stupid. [Laughs.] It’s not his strongest book. But Robert Creeley was also at Buffalo and was teaching a graduate seminar on Duncan and Olson and Ashbery that he let me sit in on. He was covering most of Duncan and Groundwork. The fact that Creeley was [teaching] Duncan and thought he was great made me want to know why. At first I wasn’t convinced, but everyday I would go to campus and sit and read Duncan’s notebooks. I was saturated in it.
Fragopoulos: Your biography really makes great use of the archival records. For example, you bring to light the fact that Duncan spent a good portion of his early twenties working on a novel, “Toward the Shaman.” What remains of that in the archive? Did he come close to finishing it?
Jarnot: That’s in the archival material out in Berkeley and I would have seen that stuff later, around 1989 or 1990. There are six notebooks, from about 1939 to 1942, that contain all that he worked on for the novel. He sold those early — I’m not sure why — and all the rest of the stuff he held on to until he made the sale to Buffalo.
[The novel] would have read like Anaïs Nin’s diaries [had he finished it]. It was lots of fragmented stuff, really juvenilia. It was self-analysis, more or less, the kind of work he would have done had he been in analysis. It’s not really that interesting.
Fragopoulos: You also quote extensively from his letters, but we really only have his correspondence with Denise Levertov in its entirety in publication. I’ve always wondered what his correspondence with Creeley is like, for example.
Jarnot: The interesting correspondence is the one with Jess. There is a real hashing out of poetics there. The correspondence with Creeley was less interesting to me; there is a lot of business being discussed there, because Creeley had university positions and was able to arrange gigs for Duncan. But with Jess, it’s different. When Duncan is on the road and is about to give a talk or lecture, he’s writing to Jess about what he’s thinking about. Those are pretty intense letters.
Fragopoulos: Speaking of Jess Collins, Duncan’s longtime partner, your biography at times is almost as much about him as it is about Duncan. Jess was an interesting artist and an emotionally complex person in his own way. You didn’t get a chance to meet Duncan, but you did meet Jess. What was he like?
Jarnot: I met Jess in August of ’88 and we had lunch together. I moved out to San Francisco in ’89. I would see Jess every now and then, and we would have lunch or dinner together. He was very shy and didn’t let too many people into the house. I think he let me in for a couple of reasons. One, I was a girl. Two, I was also shy. I was non-threatening in a number of ways. My shyness didn’t make for a deep relationship. We mostly talked about the lemon tree in the back yard, and about cooking. I asked him a ton of questions about Duncan and Duncan’s friends, which in retrospect, probably wasn’t that interesting to him. But I saw what that household was like. On the occasions I was there, Jess let me look around. And when I started the biography, he let me photograph the house and all of the bookshelves. It was a great education. The first time I was there, he cooked me chicken livers, and I was horrified by it, but it was great. We went through their record albums and listened to a Stravinsky recording. And I was so shy and had to pee and I couldn’t even ask to use the bathroom. I had to leave before the recording was over! [Laughs.]
I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet Duncan, because I feel it could have affected the biography. I had a neutrality. I always say that if I ever write another biography, it would be of Stan Brakhage; but I knew Brakhage, and think that would change my writing — I admired Stan so much. But I’m glad I met Jess. He was so emotionally complex. There was a part of him that was like an old Victorian aunt. He was almost prim, and he was very unanalyzed, unlike Duncan. Duncan knew his own psychology inside out. Jess was more shut down. In psychoanalytic terms, he had a huge split. He either loved people or hated them. You could ask him about Jack Spicer and he would say, “I hate Jack Spicer!” and, you know, Spicer had been dead for years. There was something entirely childlike about him.
Fragopoulos: Was he still creating art at that point in his life?
Jarnot: Yes, when I met him he was working on one of the Salvages, the one with the eagle in it, I forget now what it’s called — Torture the Eagle Until She Weeps? He was also working on jigsaw puzzles to add to collages. When I started the biography in 1997, he was doing okay, but it was the beginning of Alzheimer’s. When I saw him in 2000, his immediate functional memory was gone. He knew what happened in the 1950s, but couldn’t remember what he had bought at the grocery store.
Fragopoulos: So what made you want to write the biography?
Jarnot: I knew I wanted to do something with Duncan, and I knew I wanted it to be something substantial. I taught at the Naropa Institute in the summer of ’97 and Ed Sanders had given a lecture on book-length poems. At the time, Sanders was writing his long poem of the life of Allen Ginsberg, and his history of America in verse. He suggested I should write a biography of Duncan. Ed was really essential in helping me in many ways. He had developed research, organizing techniques that went back to the work he did on Charles Manson. My entire organizing system for the book was based on techniques that were drawn from him. For example, Ed had a way to cross reference files in three-ring binders so that nothing could get lost. I had index cards with subjects on them like “Duncan’s Mother,” or “George Herms,” whatever, and then boxes filled with these cards, and those cards were cross-referenced with files in the three-ring binders. It was a wonderful system. And I had about sixty of these binders. Ed’s idea was that you had to be able to find every piece of paper within thirty seconds. He also suggested things I would never have thought of — that I should look up Duncan’s FBI file or that I should write form letters to every university Duncan ever spoke at. I collected tons and tons of stuff.
Fragopoulos: Was there an FBI file?
Jarnot: If there was one, it was lost. I think there probably was one at some point. He was at the march on the Pentagon with Mitch Goodman and Dr. Spock, and he did speak out at anti-war demonstrations. I sent out a request and the FBI said they didn’t have anything. I wrote back saying, “you probably do,” and they reopened the search but still couldn’t find anything. I’m assuming he is cross-referenced somewhere — the same with his military records. I wrote to the army twice, but they said the records were destroyed in a fire. Duncan said he was dismissed from boot camp as a sexual psychopath, but the official record is gone.
Fragopoulos: For Sanders, the book-length poem form seems to have been influenced, in part, by Charles Olson. Can you say a little more about the Olsonian aspect that influenced Sanders, and whether this was something that you were also conscious of?
Jarnot: Yes, for Sanders the idea [for a book-length project] partly came down through Olson, but not so much for me. But Sanders and I were of like mind and it came down to a question of history. For me, it was about loving the history of the counterculture and being seventeen and learning about Alan Watts, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and the Beats. The ’60s were so formative to me and my life as a poet. So what interested me, in the course of writing the biography, was finding those intersections, finding those moments where Duncan rubbed up against the history, and San Francisco was interesting for those reasons.
That is the greatest thing about writing biography: all those little things that you find, all the discoveries you make. I went out to find the ashes of Duncan’s adoptive mother at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Then I talked to his cousin Gladys, his biological mother’s niece, and she told me about the plot where his biological mother is buried and it’s within a stone’s throw of where his adoptive mother is interred! It’s in an adjacent cemetery. And Duncan never knew this. Or you go someplace where no one wants to go; it’s a mausoleum, a dusty old place, a very strange pursuit. Or going to Bakersfield, for example, to meet Duncan’s adoptive sister, Barbara, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, to see the movie theatre he went to in 1936 … it’s still there.
Fragopoulos: How difficult was it for you, as someone who primarily writes poetry, to write a biography — something that is totally different in terms of genre and style?
Jarnot: It was really hard. I wrote many drafts. It took fifteen years. The first draft was written as verse, or at least broken up into stanzas. I wanted to be able to have the dramatic entrances into chapters and I had to learn how to do that. My favorite biography is the Richard Ellmann James Joyce, and what I liked about that book were the really short chapters, and I had to convince the publisher [University of California Press] to do that because they were worried about the length of the book. I wanted to have the shorter chapters, like little vignettes, and I wanted to have the quotes before each chapter. I like dramatic intros, like Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, which begins with the story of Lincoln’s grandfather being shot by the “red man” while working in his corn field, an epic movie opening. My original draft had the story of the [San Francisco] earthquake of 1906, but that eventually disappeared. I kept the story of the seemingly magical meeting of the Duncans and the Symmeses in Duncan’s Aunt’s Faye’s pharmacy; that was part of the original scaffolding. The first section was heavily written over and over again, but the section on New College was written early, and the chapter about the Zukofsky event altercation with Barrett Watten was as well, so I tried to keep as much of that as I could.
I wanted it to read like Capote, like In Cold Blood, which is so hard to do. Writing modern biography is so maddening because the record is so dense; there is so much material. You can track what somebody is doing every minute. And today, with emails and the like, I don’t know how people do it. Duncan was an obsessive record keeper. He was always on the road, so there are a lot of records of his actions from the universities he was at, and all the letters he was sending and receiving. And in the ’80s he was keeping a daily calendar of what he and Jess were doing every day. His notebooks are different. There are a lot of reading lists and reading notes; he didn’t have diary entries so much. So there was too much info. I could have easily spent another ten years writing. I have a list of things I never looked at. My copy editor helped trim it down. But trying to combine interesting prose with historical data is really hard. In some ways, University of California Press wanted me to tell the readers why he was an important poet and get it over with, but I was obsessed with the details of what Duncan and Jess were eating for dinner. So I had problems with the readers hired by the press. The manuscript went through a couple committees. One reader on the first committee complained that there wasn’t enough literary criticism in it. But there was a historian in the second committee, and he said it was solid as a book with intersections into history. And I didn’t want it to be a work of literary criticism. I wanted people more to get a feel for the personal context of the poems.
Fragopoulos: What do you make of the current moment in Duncan studies? It seems like there is a renaissance of sorts going on, what with last year’s The H.D. Book finally seeing “official” publication, your biography, and all of these new projects coming out this year as well …
Jarnot: I’ve heard it described as the beginning of a “Duncan industry.” I hope it’s not; I mean, I don’t think of Duncan as a commodity. Duncan’s selected interviews have just come out [edited by Christopher Wagstaff]. The H.D. Book is in print. James Maynard is editing the prose and Peter Quartermain is finishing the early collected works. So a Duncan renaissance? Yes, hopefully. I hear people now saying that Duncan is a great American poet and he’s never been that before. He’s always been a more marginalized figure — a regional poet? a romantic poet? But Ginsberg is a great American poet. And so is Ashbery. So that’s what I would love to see: for people to read Duncan on that scale. And for Duncan to be read by people who are outside of the “avant” world, because he was certainly there in the ’60s and ’70s, in all kinds of unusual places, rubbing shoulders with writers in a more conservative tradition.
Fragopoulos: So what’s next for you?
Jarnot: I’m rereading Duncan and teaching his work, especially Groundwork Two. There is some really beautiful stuff there. And reading-wise it never ends. I mean, you reread someone like O’Hara — and I love O’Hara, he’s one of my favorite poets — but you go back to the poem and you say, “I know that line.” You go back to Duncan and you are like, “Hey, how did that happen?!” You are surprised by what you find there.
Fragopoulos: Can we call it a density or depth to the work …? I find that in much of Duncan’s work there is a kind of spatial poetics at work. The sequence “A Seventeenth Century Suite” in Groundwork: Before the War comes to mind.
Jarnot: Yes, it’s a hermetic architecture; “the work must have recesses.” And there it is. It just shows up. In Ground Work [he] is trying to position himself in that space of watching the war. Last week in class we were reading that poem about Southwell and the burning babe, and there is that scene where Duncan is saying, here is Southwell and he believes so much in his vision of Christ that he is willing to give up his life for it. And there is Duncan, watching the Vietnam War and asking himself, “Where am I and where am I as a poet”? And, at the same time, what is he going to do about his relationship with Denise Levertov? Who, at the time, is moving in a different direction. It’s a real soul-searching poem.
Here is the thing with Duncan: You look on the surface and it’s very iambic, it’s just trotting along, very hyper-romantic, but if you look below, take it line by line, there is this huge attempt to confront just about everything in the universe, really. By the end of the poem he manages to come to some sort of conclusion about the nature of reality. I mean you can see why this would have driven the Language Poets crazy, because he so much believes in the poet with a capital “P.”
Fragopoulos: And this brings us back to the household, to the domestic space he and Jess shared together, because what also comes across in your biography is this incredibly intense dedication that both Duncan and Jess had to their artistic lives and to that space they shared.
Jarnot: Yes, but there are also drawbacks to the world of the imagination. When reality creeps in, you’re kind of screwed. [Duncan and Jess] shored themselves up in a house that was an incredible, imaginative space, but when the roof was leaving there was no recourse; there was no magic spell for that, especially after Jess fell ill. They really lived in the world of the imagination. Like Brakhage said, they were upset about the moon landing, because that was the space of the imagination suddenly being colonized by the real. And in their house you really felt like a participant in the imaginary, in the “made place;” it was an amazing place to be.