Linh Dinh is a Philadelphia-based poet, author, and teacher. He currently runs State of the Union, a photo blog that documents the homeless in the United States and explores the relationship between the economy, advertising, society, and poverty. You can see a gallery of images selected for Jacket2 here.
Andrew Cox: Why did you start State of the Union?
Linh Dinh: In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. State of the Union, then, is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer. Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.
I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case. I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is two-thirds political essay and one-third poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.
Cox: Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?
Dinh: Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible. Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.
Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!
In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like [the US], for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak. Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo, or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.
A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for two and a half years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation, and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lusting after brand names, though few could afford them. None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems. There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise for the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores. Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.
Cox: When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?
Dinh: The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms. In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office. If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah, or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!
By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about. My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially, and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything. You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking, and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.
My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.
Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns, and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had. The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.
The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time. My site, State of the Union gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.
When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored, and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.
New York. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?
Dinh: I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for two and a half years as an adult. When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 1980s. Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.
“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.
Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily. I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, Montana, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.” My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.
Philadelphia. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?
Dinh: Tyrone, a forty-five-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking. In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.
If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.
Cox: Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?
Dinh: Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets. The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction. On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!
In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.
Cox: In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?
Dinh: Casinos are perfect emblems of our nonproductive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.
Camden. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?
Dinh: If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible. From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave ten dollars to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent. In Detroit, I also gave an old man ten bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring twenty-four large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.
When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.
Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cellphone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.
As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.
Cox: You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?
Dinh: Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.
There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.
In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!
Cox: The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in America. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?
Dinh: It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare. In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, seventy-six years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency. One time I went there and it was, like, five degrees out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe twenty-two years old, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.
That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing. The official unemployment rate of Camden is twenty-five percent, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.
American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved! In Hawaii, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.
To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”
Well, that depression is here!
Michael Lally in conversation with Burt Kimmelman
Michael Lally is the author of twenty-seven books, including two collections of poetry and prose from Black Sparrow Press — one an American Book Award winner for 2000, It’s Not Nostalgia — and the long poem March 18, 2001, jointly published by Libellum and Charta, with artwork by Alex Katz. He is also the author of Cant Be Wrong from Coffee House Press, which won the Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Award for “excellence in literature.” He has appeared in many films and TV shows and worked as a scriptwriter, or “doctor,” from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. Recently a CD of him reading poems set to music, Lost Angels, was released by Monomania Records and is available for downloading at iTunes. This interview took place in the first three months of 2011.
Burt Kimmelman: Your life — at least as early as your jazz piano playing and then when still very young the publication of your first book, South Orange Sonnets — has been marked by intense creativity and a lot of artistic achievement: poetry, acting and so on. And your work has been lauded often (including an American Book Award). You haven’t played music professionally in many years, and since your recent brain surgery you have stopped acting professionally, but you continue on as a poet/writer. Do you see your respective careers, particularly poet and actor, as having been discrete, or is this really “all Michael Lally all the time”? I wonder if this question is not germane to any critical approach to your poetic output that is, at least for this reader, voiced and maybe really has to belong to a persona, one Michael Lally.
Of course you’ve written a lot — not just verse — and there is variation in what you’ve published. So maybe you see yourself as having produced a number of poetries or, let’s say, works of writing (there is your printed prose as well, and lately your blogging). This is an interesting notion — since you’ve been involved (centrally, peripherally, or somewhere in between) in a number of poetry scenes in your lifetime. What do you think?
I heard Elinor Nauen give a talk a while ago (at the Telephone Bar in Manhattan, as part of the Pros’ Prose series she and Martha King curate) about the East Village in the sixties, and she mentioned a magazine she coedited back then, a feminist publication whose each monthly issue featured a naked male poet as its centerfold. The monthly issue when you were the feature showed you masturbating. Would you say that this incident is iconic of your literary work overall?
Michael Lally: Complicated question, Burt, and based on some misconceptions I think. My interest and motivation have always been complex, from my perspective. I’ve written fiction (some included in my two Black Sparrow books, It’s Not Nostalgia and It Takes One to Know One, though I declined to distinguish it from other writing in those collections, leaving it up to the reader to discern which was “real” and which “fiction,” since both were based on my experiences and observations); and I’ve written criticism (I was a book reviewer for The Village Voice and The Washington Post back in the 1970s and ’80s for instance) and political journalism (I was a regular columnist for various, mostly alternative, newspapers throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, and now write some political commentary on my blog, Lally’s Alley) and other kinds of writing that weren’t autobiographical in any obvious way. But I always took the admonishments of my early literary heroes having to do with writing about oneself seriously, as in Beckett’s “What doesn’t come to me from me has come to the wrong address.” And Dostoevsky’s “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure? Of himself.” And Whitman’s “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” etc. Or Thoreau’s “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well.”
My original motivation as a kid was to express some realities I didn’t see represented in any of the arts I had any knowledge of (all of which — up until my mid-twenties when I was already married and beginning a family — was based on my own searching and autodidact reading). But in the process, and pretty quickly, I became equally motivated by the idea of “making it new” (as Pound prescribed), at least for me, meaning technically, not just in the subject addressed or delineated, but in the approach, the uses of all the linguistic devices I could discover or invent.
There were periods when others could see that, when critics and fellow creators told me or wrote me or even wrote in reviews about how original my artistry was during whatever period struck them as that, but as often happens when someone makes an abrupt change (a famous and well-worn example is Dylan going electric) they’d feel betrayed or just lose interest when I moved on to new discoveries or experiments, or encounters to retell and reshape etc.
That kind of shape-shifting and heart-following and new-direction exploring I couldn’t survive without doing. (Another favorite quote of mine that’s emblematic of a core drive, and also contributed to it, is a bit of the lyrics Jon Hendricks wrote for a Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of Charlie Parker’s tune “Now’s The Time” — “If you be still and never move, you’re gonna dig yourself a well-intentioned rut and think you’ve found a groove.”)
I’ve often said “poetry saved my life” and I mean it. I was a driven man for most of my life, and still am to some extent, and part of that compulsiveness has been a kind of graphomania, where if I didn’t write on any particular day I would start to feel like a junkie withdrawing from his drug of choice, really really bad.
As for the photo of me in that Koff calendar, it wasn’t of me masturbating. But it was more posed than the others in it seemed to be. Though obviously everyone in it was posing for the camera, I just did it in a way that made it clear that this is a pose for a camera and I and the viewer are aware of that, rather than I’m pretending to be caught in the nude drinking a beer or whatever, as though I didn’t know the ladies from Koff were coming to photograph me in the nude today. (I asked if my lady of the time could take mine, since she was making her living then as a photographer — though she was actually a composer — but her takes were more like what ended up in that calendar from everyone else, so I had her teach me how to take the photo myself and got what I was looking for — and what Elinor was probably referring to was my telling her how in order to get the photo right I tried many tactics including at one point a little “fluffing” which I ended up accidentally getting on film because the camera went off too soon, though I didn’t use that shot — or the one that I had been doing that to set up — because it didn’t seem “posed” in the way I was going for.)
Part of all that was about “authenticity” — a label easily exploited and often misused I thought. The idea that Charles Bukowski, for instance, who worked for the Post Office, which granted can be, for some, a soul killing job (though I have family and friends who actually dug it back in those days) yet was for me the epitome of what I rejected from my childhood — the kind of safe and secure job my father wanted me to take, like my brother the cop etc. — so that I could pursue the life of an artist and live by my wits, that Bukowski was seen as an authentic artist of the rugged individual literary rebel loner type when he had a steady job and later made six figures a year from his books so he didn’t have to worry about jobs, the fact that he was taken as the gold standard for “authenticity” while the struggles of many others I knew — including mine to survive while raising children (mostly on my own) on my creative chops — could be seen by some as “selling out” (like my going into movies and TV as an actor at forty) originally bugged me and then amused me, the transparency of people’s desire to be conned but not want to have the con revealed.
I was into revealing that, my own, and fighting with every bit of my intellect and artistry to expose it and reveal as much as possible whatever “truths” I could at least approach if never quite reach.
Kimmelman: That’s a really funny story about the photo! Was that East Village scene a part of what you might consider your living authentically? And maybe in connection with how you were living: can you say more about the “realities” you “didn’t see represented,” as you say, when you were young, and how you responded to or with them artistically?
Was there a lack of “authenticity” you were missing, perhaps? I ask this especially given what you’ve said about Bukowski (the Bukowski industry maybe, in both poetry and film — I’m thinking here of the wonderful film Barfly, for example — two worlds you have been deeply involved in). Do you think too much was made of the need for “authenticity” in the sixties, looking back on that period now, one decade and more into the twenty-first century?
And maybe in this regard, looking back on Bukowski’s life, I wonder if one could plausibly argue that he nurtured what I’ll call a lived persona. What’s wrong with the “I” in poetry anyway? I guess actors are supposed to be extraverted and self-centered, while poets are supposed to be (should be?) introverted, and possibly altruistic (yes I know these are gross oversimplifications). If there is in fact a voice in your writing — indeed a consistent voice from one work to the next — particularly in your poems (as compared with, say, the purportedly selfless or subjectless, at times antilyrical, stance of Language writing — a movement you were at least tangentially involved with in its initial period), is that voice in fact a disguise or otherwise a subterfuge to protect the real or, to use your word, the authentic Michael Lally? Or are you disavowing the notion that there is a voice in your writing, authentic or otherwise?
Lally: By “living authentically” I just meant being honest about who and where I was in any given moment, rather than posturing or trying to create an illusion (I know guys who became cops or firemen etc. and still made music or did other more creative work, but they didn’t pretend to be anything other than what they were, that’s what I was after, not pretending I wasn’t ambitious or didn’t want as much respect and admiration for my work and efforts as I did, but also not pretending I was from anything other than I was or that I didn’t find a lot of literary theory and criticism totally boring and irrelevant in terms of how I experience(d) my own creativity and understood others’ (though I loved reading some of it when it stimulated my sense of language possibilities, one of my early favorite books being Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, of all things). My point about the calendar was not to imply that the poets in it, which included Bukowski (why did he become such a major topic of our conversation?!), weren’t aware they were posing, or were pretending they always hung around naked on their roofs or wherever the photos were taken, but that their poses didn’t reflect the kind of consciousness I wanted to convey of “hey, we both know I’m posing for an unnatural photo of me naked so I’m gonna make the ‘posing’ part of this transaction obvious.”
I used to say about my work that I felt it was my job to make the subtle obvious and the obvious subtle.
As for the “realities” I “didn’t see represented” when I was a kid, here are a few examples. My family seemed to represent the stereotypical “Irish” (i.e. Irish-American) family. My father’s Irish immigrant parents lived down the street — she had been a “scullery maid” and he was the first cop in our town. My father was a seventh-grade dropout self-made businessman (home repairs) and part of the Essex County [New Jersey] Democratic political “machine” on our local level. My older brothers were a priest, a teacher (music), and a cop. My two sisters married a cop and a teacher (machine shop). I was the poet/black sheep.
We lived in a very small house not only with my maternal (and “crippled” as they said then) grandmother, but later with a boarder, and Irish extended clan members, either local or from Ireland, needing a temporary haven.
The few movies and books and plays and songs I knew that addressed the world of my family, often used these stereotypes, but they never reflected my experience of who these people really were, how they actually behaved and what their lives were truly like, i.e. unique (as I felt everyone I knew was, despite the surface obviousness).
For instance, my Irish immigrant grandfather — who kept a goat for a while in his backyard and drank too much after he retired as a cop — was totally unlike the stereotypical loquacious Irishman happy drunk. He was more like a Beckett character (which didn’t exist yet, at least not in my life) than something from Going My Way (which nonetheless I loved, as did my family, because Bing Crosby epitomized the easy grace with which we felt our best did their best).
Or my brother the priest, rather than like Bing and his “Father O’Malley” (or Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces), my brother was inspired to become a Franciscan missionary to Japan after a stint in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War Two, feeling the spirits of the Kamikaze pilots had called to him, wanting him to save future generations of Japanese from thinking it was a good idea to kill yourself for an emperor (not seeing the irony of doing that by proselytizing for a religion that elevated martyrs to sainthood, though he quickly learned that few Japanese were interested in his “saving” them and so he settled into just being of service as best he could).
Where was that in any movie or book I knew of about the “Irish” or for that matter World War II?
And I could do that for everyone in my family and neighborhood, which was mostly “Irish” when I was little but by the time I left as a teenager included a wide variety of ethnicities, and always had a small contingent of African-Americans who’d been there long before the Irish came and who also on the surface seemed stereotypical but in reality were uniquely individual and unlike anything in literature or film or music I knew of as a boy and young man.
Michael Lally's South Orange Sonnets, front and back cover.
Initially my response to all that was to write as frankly and clearly as I could about life as I experienced it, the way the people I grew up around really behaved etc. But once I had done that to my satisfaction (of which The South Orange Sonnets was an early example) I then also wanted to convey how writing itself was uniquely gratifying and challenging and how it led me to desire not only to read a wider and wider variety of ways of writing but experience them in my own writing and discover my own new ways (which I thought I did, more than once, including writing that could have been classified as “Language Poetry” before that term and movement came about, and I know I wasn’t alone of course).
And I didn’t mean to use Bukowski as a symbol of the inauthenticity that disturbed me as a kid and later. Bukowski seemed to be true to his art and his intentions and did a pretty great job of it. (I wrote a very positive review of his latest Black Sparrow book for the Village Voice in the early eighties because they wouldn’t accept a review of the latest Larry Eigner Black Sparrow, claiming Eigner was too “obscure” and “unknown” — so they let me write a double review including the Eigner if the other was Bukowski.) But Barfly is a good example of what I meant. Any alcoholic knows that what was missing in that film were the times a drunk would piss or shit his pants or throw up all over himself and often others, and more aberrant behavior that the movie left out or glossed over. It romanticized drinking almost as unrealistically as the legends of other hard-drinking writers have, Fitzgerald et al.
As for too much being made of “authenticity” back in the sixties, I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but if it’s all the identity politics stuff, again it was the stereotypes that bugged me. I pointed out to college students when the Black Panthers, many of whom I knew and worked with, put them down for being in an ivory tower and needing Panther leadership and perspective in their politics, that it was college students for the most part, who were responsible for much of the antiwar activity and education of the general populace as well as for a lot of Civil Rights progress. Something I wouldn’t have known had I not been exposed to it personally.
My experience on the streets and going to college late on the G.I. Bill gave me a perspective that was pretty unusual and helped me see through attempts to pigeonhole and categorize any group or population and also made me want to expose the falseness of any generalities masquerading as analyses of “authenticity” back then, as well as ever since, and to expose my own faults and failings and phoniness when I recognize them.
I think “lived persona” is a pretty good term and that, yes, Bukowski did do that in many ways. As maybe I have too, trying on different identities (as others have pointed out, and me too [see “My Life 2”]) that I always felt, or came to feel, were part of the crowd inside me. As for “voice” (“voice” used to be considered very important when I was coming up in the poetry world) in my own writing, especially my poetry, I would never disavow it. As I said above, I was always, and still am, dedicated to getting as close to the truth in (and at) any given moment as is possible, at least for me. I made a deliberate choice when starting out as a kid to always write in a way that the kid I was and the people I came from could understand (I had the idea as a teenager that I could do for poetry what I thought Hemingway had done for prose, that clear, crisp, hardedged realistic perspective etc., at least the way I saw it then, but in fact if anyone did that it was Bukowski!).
Interestingly, after my brain operation a little over a year ago, I found myself unable at times to use the more simple, direct, conversational vocabulary I usually wrote and almost always spoke with as easily as before. Instead my brain would offer up alternative words when I couldn’t think of the one I would normally use, alternative words from the larger vocabulary in my mind from all my reading, and I’d find myself using terms I would never use and have always thought of as “phony” for me to use, like “pernicious” or “inelegant” or (actually I’m having a difficult time finding the best examples because they don’t come to me naturally, but rather unexpectedly, and often I look them up to make sure I’m using them correctly and I always am, which surprises me).
My point being, I now understand, post–brain op, that much of the way my brain (and I suspect all of ours) works is independent of so much I thought I had control over. Which in a way gets us back to where I started, with the compulsion to express myself through poetry and other creative ways we usually think of as some kind of “art” (which came from somewhere before my own consciousness formed because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have that compulsion) and then through doing that the compulsion to find new ways and avenues and approaches for it, which led to results that gave me new pleasures that in turn generated new compulsions to discover even newer ways (for me) to do that (sometimes serially writing about the same experience but from different approaches and in different forms etc.).
For instance in the late 1970s a selection of a decade’s worth of love poems was published called Just let Me Do It, in which every poem was formally different than every other one, no small feat I thought, and yet when Marjorie Perloff, a literary critic who’d written positively about my poem “My Life” in a review in The Washington Post of an anthology I edited, None of the Above, told me she admired an early book of mine, Rocky Dies Yellow (that also had a wide variety of approaches to writing a poem, including some I thought were uniquely my own), and asked to review the next one, which turned out to be Just Let Me Do It, she then told me she couldn’t write a review because she felt the poems in the collection were too formless, questioning if I made any deliberate formal choices at all (even asking if my line breaks were deliberate?!) I felt, not for the first time, misunderstood, as if because of the ways I chose to live my life and my commitment when writing about it to stick mostly with that simpler vocabulary — and because of my distrust of using a voice I felt would be inauthentic etc. — whatever “technical” skills I had were being overlooked and I was being cast again as the “diamond-in-the-rough” who had a few lucky moves but then reverted to type, rather than the evolving original I saw myself as.
Kimmelman: I’m glad you like the notion of a “lived persona” and I do take cognizance of the fact that we are, arguably, all of us, many selves — a concept possibly more accepted today than in the days when you were first coming into prominence in the world of poetry and when (including identity politics), I dare say, authenticity became more important in people’s minds than it had been previously. Doug Lang has written about your work, associating it with the Beat movement — and wasn’t that movement in part at least a bid for the real, the authentic, in the Eisenhower postwar television-foisted era that sought to define itself in a myth of the perfect society? I don’t want to pursue this notion of the lived persona much further but, since I’m bringing up Lang’s commentary, let me acknowledge in passing that both he and Terrence Winch, who has also written knowingly of your work, have spoken of the “self-mythologizing” in it (of course one of them could have unconsciously absorbed the phrase from the other, but still, Lang also calls you “a performer” and perhaps dangles the possibility out there that yours is a self-performance). Frankly, I like the idea of a “crowd of voices” within you, of points of view or whatever. And I think it might be more useful to pay attention to Lang’s comment that you developed an “anti-literary version of American speech” and that, as you have put it, you “felt it was [your] job to make the subtle obvious and the obvious subtle,” and, too, you had no use for or patience with the academy, the “literary.” To be candid, while I see how you hold forth (on paper and in person when you read your work), how you declaim in a way that might be reminiscent of, say, a Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg, I think your poems at times strike me as of a language Williams might have written had he been alive in your adult life, or perhaps a Paul Blackburn (though his work is visually wrought in a way you seem not to be interested in); that is, your work is plain spoken and direct. It is also sincere though it sidesteps sentimentality, I think, for example in a poem like “Forbidden Fruit”:
all the forbidden fruit I ever
dreamt of — or was taught to
resist and fear — ripens and
blossoms under the palms of my
hands as they uncover and explore
you — and in the most secret
corners of my heart as it discovers
and adores you — the forbidden fruit
of forgiveness — the forbidden fruit
of finally feeling the happiness
you were afraid you didn’t deserve —
the forbidden fruit of my life’s labor
— the just payment I have avoided
since my father taught me how —
the forbidden fruit of the secret
language of our survivors’ souls as
they unfold each others secret
ballots — the ones where we voted
for our first secret desires to come
true — there’s so much more
I want to say to you — but for
the first time in my life I’m at
a loss for words — because
(I understand at last)
I don’t need them
to be heard by you.
There’s a tenderness here that one will not find in the Beats or in Williams, Blackburn, the Black Mountain poets (with Creeley or Oppenheimer as possible exceptions — but I don’t think they were so very, let’s say, heartfelt, ever). But what I find also remarkable is how unabashed your world of feeling is. Would it be wrong to think that in the blue-collar life you grew up in such open sentiment was suppressed? I like what Hirsh Sawhney has written about you: “Lally’s poetic vision is […] permeated by a spiritual optimism.” Indeed, you are not a poète maudit. Do you agree?
Anyway, beyond the few you have mentioned already, who are the poets and writers — and, while we’re at it, the actors — you have admired, and how do you see them figuring in your oeuvre?
Left to right: Michael Lally reading at Folio Books in Washington, DC, circa 1977, with Doug Lang and Terence Winch.
Lally: I appreciate both Lang’s and Winch’s takes on my “self-mythologizing” and playing with personas. A more recent and equally original take on that is Jerome Sala’s post on my poetry from his Espresso Bongo blog.
I like your take as well, especially your using the term “heartfelt” instead of “sentimental,” which I’m sometimes accused of being. And you’re correct that the kinds of feelings I write about were mostly suppressed in the clan and neighborhood I grew up in, except at funerals and sometimes when more than “a drop” had been taken.
I wasn’t as expressive of my feelings through most of my boyhood and young adulthood either, though more than those I came from, especially when it came to romance. As my good friend, the late poet Etheridge Knight once said of my work, even my “political poems are love poems.”
But the real breakthrough for me occurred after feminism and the “gay movement” convinced me that, as the feminists said then, “the personal IS political.” I was already partly there but these movements inspired me to go even further. The difference is obvious if you read my South Orange Sonnets — written before that influence — and My Life, written as the influence of those movements on my work was peaking.
And just an aside about your reference to Paul Blackburn and his use of space on the page. I did write more under the influence of “projective verse” or “open field verse” — as it was also known — before the changes that feminism and the so-called “gay revolution” inspired in me and my work, which led in part to my wanting to convey more of a sense of urgency and unrelenting rapid-fire persistence in “getting the truth” (as I saw and experienced it) “out.”
All of which occurred when I was living in DC from late 1969 to early ’75. I’d been writing and rewriting The South Orange Sonnets in different forms since 1960 when I was eighteen (they became sonnets after I read Peter Schjeldahl’s Paris Sonnets and thought, in my typical fashion, because I had never been out of the country at that point, that “Paris” seemed a little elitist so I’d write about the place where I grew up as far from what I thought Paris was at the time as I could get), but they coalesced into their final version shortly after I arrived in DC, with helpful input from fellow Iowa Writers Workshop and Midwest poet Robert Slater.
Mass Transit magazine cover, 1973, with Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Terence Winch, Ed Cox, Ed Zhanizer, Peter Inman, Tim Dlugos, and others.
One of the first things I did in DC was look for poets and readings. But everything I found was either too formal — readings at the Library of Congress where several times I stood up in the audience to raise questions or objections, which made a lot of folks uncomfortable — or salons in professors’ and others’ homes. So I organized some readings for benefits and then started a weekly open reading called Mass Transit — in the Community Bookstore I helped run — that attracted a lot of independent souls and poets just beginning to express themselves, including the not-yet-actress, let alone movie star, Karen Allen, the not yet rock’n’roll musician/singer/songwriter John Doe, who wouldn’t take that name until years later in Los Angeles, who was mainly a friend of Terence Winch’s, the poet and Irish musician/songwriter who became my best friend, and many others, like my wife at that time, Lee Lally, and Ed Cox, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Tina Darragh, Beth Joselow, Tim Dlugos, Peter Inman, Lynne Dreyer, etc.
Out of those readings, a few of us started a poetry publishing collective, Some Of Us Press, which became known as SOUP, putting out a poetry “chapbook” every month by a local poet, including the first books of several of the poets mentioned above as well as poets tangentially connected to the readings, e.g. Bruce Andrews and Simon Schuchat. Many of the books sold out their small runs, giving us the money to publish the next one. Some were reprinted a few times (like The South Orange Sonnets, the first one we published, which went on to win me a 92nd St. Y “Discovery Award” for 1972, though by the time I did the acceptance reading there my life and poetry had changed directions once again and Harvey Shapiro, the judge who introduced me and picked my S.O. Sonnets to win this honor, seemed almost reluctant and saddened by my new direction).
Washington Post, article 1973 on Some of Us Press.
The best thing about being part of this self-created community that I helped generate, were the friendships and interactions, like Terry Winch not just becoming my best friend but giving me very helpful input after reading a long poem I was working on, saying, “I think the poem begins in the last few lines” which became the beginning of what turned into “My Life” — a poem that marked in some ways the end of my time in DC.
But to answer your main question(s): I already mentioned Bing Crosby, but in my boyhood it was him and (early) Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (when he still had a trio and played piano as well as sang), who introduced me to great lyric writing through their renditions of what became known as “the American songbook” that we used to just call the standards.
As others have pointed out, Bing was cool and Frank was hot but what they introduced into popular vocalizing in both cases was being conversational. Rather than tone and pitch and elocution as the markers for great vocalizing, a sense of intimacy and truth became equally if not more important. I got that as a boy, and was also moved by the sophisticated use of rhyme and rhythm and vocabulary in the great songwriters they interpreted.
Johnny Mercer was the first lyricist whose use of language I fell in love with as a tiny kid in the song “You Got to Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive” — a philosophy that may have influenced what you quote Hirsh Sawhney calling my “spiritual optimism” (something, by the way, many critics obviously have a difficult time with in general, as shown in their championing of Burroughs over Kerouac, or Eliot over Williams, etc.).
I also may have been influenced by the romanticism in most of those great standards. But it was when I hit puberty, just as rock’n’roll began, that I saw a way for me to use what the great lyricists were teaching me, and that was in Chuck Berry’s closer-to-home lyrics, beginning with “Maybelline” (the title of my MFA thesis, a collection of poetry, at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop was “Sittin’ Down at a Rhythm Review” — a line from Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” I thought described a lot about my time there and a radical gesture in 1969 when the workshop still didn’t teach the New York Poets, let alone the Beats et al., and Chuck Berry and the other rock’n’roll and R&B innovators of the previous decade were mostly, if not entirely, forgotten or ignored). In the first poetry anthology where my work appeared — in 1969, Campfires of the Resistance — I mentioned the influence of Berry in my contributor’s note.
Not long after I first discovered Berry’s lyrics, I got into jazz — playing it and listening to it almost exclusively — and that’s where I encountered Jon Hendricks’s lyrics, taking the rhythmic and melodic inventiveness of jazz improvisation and applying it to my own poetry.
The first poets to influence and inspire me were Saint John of the Cross, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, followed almost immediately by E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, and then Diane di Prima, Ray Bremser and Bob Kaufman.
St. John I discovered in a paperback version of his Dark Night of the Soul I found on a book rack in the vestibule of my family’s parish church. I was a print junkie from the start and in the fifties when paperbacks were everywhere I devoured them until I began to find the writers and poets whose work seemed to speak directly to me and my inner life, St. John being the first.
Dickinson’s use of dashes, ignoring of conventional punctuation in order to get the rhythm of her thoughts down quicker, the way I read it, and the freedom and directness and clarity of her expressing her philosophy impressed me. The first Whitman I read was a paperback version of his prose masterpiece Specimen Days, a book I continue to reread and still find uniquely inspiring in its plainspoken articulation of personal experience (often in the context of historical events). But I quickly discovered Leaves of Grass as well and have been rereading the various editions of that collection continuously ever since.
Cummings mostly liberated me from a sense of shame for my sensuality and desire to express that through writing. I picked up on Eliot’s rhythms, which I found so musically proficient that it overwhelmed my natural chip-on-the-shoulder negative reaction to his otherwise conservative voice and posture. Williams was like my first “home boy” poet, reinforcing my own belief that the local was not just important but imperative in making any literature not only as “true” as possible but as relevant.
Diane di Prima gave me permission to speak from my family and neighborhood background while still being true to who I was becoming in the moment, and not to pull any punches (her Thirteen Nightmares I had almost memorized and used to quote on air at one of my early jobs as a disc jockey when I was still a teenager, and may have been the reason I got fired!). Bremser introduced me to how my naturally speedy nature could translate into poetry and Kaufman confirmed my belief in the power of jazz rhythms to propel my imagination into new forms of expression.
The other great influences were William Saroyan’s fiction; his autobiographical nonfiction when midway through his career replaced the fiction; and his plays. Here was a fellow autodidact (as I saw myself at the time), the relatively poor son of immigrants growing up in that kind of insular immigrant community and mentality, yet rather than being intimidated or critical of those outside that community, instead identifying with every kind of human (and creature), believing he could see himself in it all and having an unshakable faith that what he had to say about that was important and necessary … I could go on, but will just say I felt Saroyan was expressing some of the same feelings and thoughts I was trying to express in my own writing back then.
Kerouac had a similar effect. I identified with his ethnic and cultural minority background, transcended like Saroyan and me by a love of writing and books and a sense that there was a perspective that hadn’t been represented in the world of literature yet that we were born to accomplish (perhaps a little arrogant on all our parts and obviously more so on mine since I didn’t fulfill that anywhere near on the level they did). But I was also drawn to their peculiar mysticism (especially Kerouac’s Catholic influenced version, closer to mine) and their refusal to accept their intellect as in any way less than those who would criticize them for seeming too “raw” or “sentimental” or accuse them of somehow not really knowing or controlling what they were doing, like they were spewing rather than crafting their prose (they also both wrote poetry but Saroyan’s was pretty weak while Kerouac’s was much more unique and ultimately very influential).
As has been proven posthumously for Kerouac, he did indeed craft his prose and make deliberate choices in his attempts to get closer to realizing his personal ideal of what great writing should accomplish in his time, but while he was alive there were few critics or literary figures who took the time to discern this, most of them dismissing his work as too unpolished to be comparable to “great literature” etc. (The famous putdown by Truman Capote is a prime example of that, where he said something about how Kerouac wasn’t a writer, he was a typist — I can’t remember it exactly because I never liked it and because it was wrong.)
There were a few other early influences, like the probably obvious James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, especially the opening pages, had a major impact on my sense of what could be done with language when I read it at eighteen, and that was followed quickly by Samuel Beckett.
Then there were the perhaps more unexpected, Gertrude Stein and Henry James being two examples. I read everything of James’s I could get my hands on in my late teens and early twenties, and read him entirely differently than any scholars I read on him. I found him pretty humorous in many instances and I loved what I saw as the musical (more like Charles Ives than jazz) elements of his prose, the ways he built sentences and paragraphs with extended riffs that forced you to carry several strands of what seemed like contrary ideas until they came back together to reach a temporary conclusion that would then drive on to another accumulation of phrases into complex sentences and what initially seem like run on paragraphs, only to tie that series up pretty neatly once more and so on.
Stein, of course, as she did for many, introduced the idea of intellect being a source of playfulness and of skill being dependent on that rather than the other way around, if that makes sense.
The last big influences on my early development as a writer and poet were Vladimir Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara. The latter’s conversational use of The Romantics’ hyperbole and his combining of what was then considered “high” and “low” culture and his willingness to write what seemed like personal, almost epistolary, monologue-poems and then switch to pseudosurreal imagistic lyricism gave me permission to allow more of my “experimental” side to flourish. I had already been hit by Mayakovky’s Cloud in Trousers — an epic poem in length and intent written more as a mixture of lyricism and personal conversation (even if at times declamatory). I saw Mayakovsky’s influence on O’Hara immediately, so was not surprised to discover that he was one of O’Hara’s favorites too.
There are lots more, but that’s probably too much already. (And as for actors, the ones that impacted me the most and whose artistry I studied and felt most satisfied by were Bogie and Cagney, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Simone Signoret and Vanessa Redgrave. There’s plenty more whose work I love and admire — Veronica Lake was another early favorite — but those were the main influences on my idea of what acting could achieve, although, as in my writing, my eventual goal was, and is, to express the self-consciousness and self-questioning as well as the self-aggrandizing and yes self-mythologizing that I believe goes on in most if not all humans as well as the usual realistic aspects of being alive and expressing what that’s like in the moment, even if it’s just the thrill of writing something no one else might ever understand or appreciate or see the uniqueness of.
Kimmelman: Yes, what I particularly like about Jerome Sala’s discussion of you is how nuanced he is — taking us, hopefully, closer to the actual in your work. And his quoting of Bakhtin — “there always arises an unrealized surplus of humanness” — says a lot as it sponsors the commentary’s distinctions (e.g., “the self as discovered and the self as made,” “the ‘self’ isn’t so much a particular identity, as the act of trying them [i.e., multiple possible selves] on,” and “Lally’s acknowledgment of the malleability of the ‘self’ is the source, not only of the wit in his work, but the poignancy as well”). These distinctions lead Sala to calling you “the sophisticated (if at times unacknowledged) literary godfather of all sorts of poets” — which maybe takes us back to Marjorie Perloff’s complaint about your deliberately multiformal book Just Let Me Do It — and, was her distrust of the line breaks in this book provoked at heart by a poetics (which I would want to return to in depth later), or if not a poetics then a stance toward writing we might find illuminated in your remark about Kerouac who you insist “did indeed craft his prose and make deliberate choices,” though too many or most people, in your view, see his work as “too unpolished to be comparable to ‘great literature’”?
But in passing let me quibble with two points made in Sala’s appreciation. One is his accounting for your “humor” (when he discusses your poem “My Life 2,” published in your book It’s Not Nostalgia). He says it “comes from the doubling of self-deflation.” Is this remark meant, in part, as a kind of defense, in your behalf, against a charge of narcissism? If so I think it might be misplaced — insofar as, at least in my reading of your work, one key strength in it is the persona, implied or foregrounded, who seems to exist outside the poem as well as in it; and so, maybe, it would be more accurate to speak of an obsession with selfhood in the Lally poem (but I don’t mean to imply that the work is solipsistic — rather, a persona is in the scene the poem adumbrates but the world is interesting in the scene and the reader sees the persona within this world, the poem’s world). There’s a difference here, surely.
Anyway, my other quibble is more important. I’m coming to feel that the poignancy in your poetry comes not from your “acknowledgement of the malleability of the ‘self’” (as per Sala) so much as from something I think you’ve revealed in what you’ve just said about Saroyan, and it is what I meant to get at, I guess, when I said of the poem of yours I’ve quoted that it was “heartfelt.” You say that Saroyan had “an unshakeable faith.” Maybe it is this that is ultimately compelling in your poem; and maybe this is what I get when I read Williams who, now that I think about it, really did have a faith in the world (a faith that, arguably, was not necessarily shared by his Modernist peers). Does this make sense to you?
There’s another point about self/selves, voice, conversation, etc., which Sala touches upon. And the word conversation is quite germane to it. So, here’s yet another quibble: I think you missed what I actually had in mind when I mentioned Blackburn’s visuality. His poetry reflects the concerns of a speaker who sees the world visually — yes, of course his language was arranged on the page in startling, groundbreaking ways that were decidedly spatial. But what I meant was that Blackburn existed on the visual plane, in a spatial dimension (thus, while his language showed a concern for sound, what he was really interested in was how the world looked and how people’s relationships were, perhaps determined by, but in any case capable of, being understood or savored in visual terms). You, on the other hand, are concerned with matters on the temporal plane. And this leads to a sort of musically contained poem. Of course your music is understated as it fits into your efforts to make your poems look a bit unkempt, à la Kerouac, or otherwise look and sound talky, even when they have been carefully wrought.
Now, is this not emblematic of what good conversation is like, a bit rambling but incisive too?
I think it is no accident that you pay homage to, among your contemporaries or near-contemporaries, di Prima, Bremser and Kauffman. Who can be surprised at this, after what you have said about the musicians who have played an important role in your life, in influencing your writing? Kauffman confirms the truth and beauty of jazz for you, what you came to intuit when still quite young, a kid. As for Bremser, I remember fondly a reading of his many years ago; it was like scat singing except he was speaking, in actual words, but it was pure music, really.
As for di Prima — you mention Thirteen Nightmares; I believe that became part of her volume titled Dinners and Nightmares, and that volume contained what I think was her first chapbook publication, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, an astonishingly fresh and beautiful collection (including the undeniable series of poems she titled “Poems for Brett” and “Songs For Babio”). The economy of language in her work then was amazing, and the poems (songs?) had a supple, sinewy lyricality and syncopation to them. And what was her language like? It was hipster-spoken, jazz-inflected, inner, intimate thoughts, intimate thoughts brought into the social realm. I like what Sala says when he speaks of what is finally to be found in your poems: sheer “attitude.” di Prima had that in those tender and tough, jazzy early poems. I guess that chapbook came out at about the same time that she was editing Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). No I don’t think that she consciously had the music or personality of Charlie “Bird” Parker in mind when she titled that chapbook, but she was on the scene — no?
And like Sala also says about you: your “powerful style, mixing talk, a jazzy rhythm and pre-hip-hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude, seemed predictive, in retrospect, of the performance styles to come after [your] own work began.” I’m reminded here of a poem by Michael Stephens (who has a similar background to your own — Irish-American, blue-collar Brooklyn and later Long Island), written at the time he and I went to hear di Prima, young and redolent, read her work at St. Mark’s Church (about 1966). She read beautifully, and then apologized for having to leave abruptly, since she had four unattended kids at home waiting for her. Remembering that evening, I am struck by the parallel — you deciding not to stop being a struggling artist because you were raising two children by yourself. What were those days like for you?
Anyway, Stephens’s piece was called “Tough Kid with a Poem” and it was jazzy in its talk. You may remember that you and he (and I) had breakfast together a few years ago (when he was in the States from London briefly, where he’s been living these days). You two talked about Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of the amazing novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (eventually made into what I think was a fine film), set in what was then a very tough Red Hook, Brooklyn, and I wonder if you would agree that at heart that book is jazzy, not least of all as regards the rhythms of its narration. Of course you and Stephens were both friends with “Cubby” (one of my regrets was that I never met him). And my sense is that he was important for both of you, your respective writing.
Left to right: poet/filmmaker Joel Lipman, actor/poet MIchael Harris, Hubert Selby, Jr., Lally, and Eve Brandstein, circa 1988.
I guess this observation allows me to ask if your musical and poetic forbears inform your prose too, not just the work that may be multi- or cross-generic, but that which one clearly assumes is prose. Is there musical talk in your prose too, in your view, an understatedly musical talk? Or do you perhaps not accept my description of your work as I’ve explained it here? And do you see your music, and for that matter jazz, as inextricably involved in what I’ll call your “tough” upbringing? di Prima too had a Catholic blue collar Brooklyn childhood (if memory serves me right). I won’t comment on Etheridge Knight’s background, or Bremser’s or Kauffman’s, though I think this is relevant to what I’m saying. I don’t know how to describe the politics here (thinking of what the sixties feminists said of how “the personal is political”), but maybe there is a socioeconomic dynamic in play.
One more thing: Is the musical a way to maintain faith in the world?
Lally: It occurs to me when you add at the end your last question — “One more thing: Is the musical a way to maintain faith in the world?” — that my answer is: the musical is a way to maintain faith in the word! (as well as “the world”). My earliest influences were all music or related to music, as I pointed out previously. But while I mostly mentioned lyricists, it was also instrumentalists. I played piano from as early as I can remember (and added other instruments later, trumpet, sax, bass, etc.), starting lessons at four. I quit for a while in my early teens out of rebelliousness, mostly toward the formal lessons kind of learning, but picked piano back up again in my late teens and played a little professionally through my mid-twenties, when I quit again because I felt I needed to focus on my writing, particularly my poetry, and that dealing with other musicians, and club owners and managers, and lining up gigs etc. was all taking away from my already busy life at the time (I was attending the University of Iowa Writers Workshop on the G.I. Bill and working on a BA and MFA at the same time — first time the school let anyone do that, I was told — as well as working a few part-time jobs to supplement the help from the G.I. Bill and support my growing family (we had our first child while there and our second shortly after leaving). So I gave up playing music to concentrate what energy I had left on my writing.
But my writing had always been informed by music, including the verbal kind I found in my neighborhood, which began with the “toasting” I learned from African-American friends, a proto-rap form of boastful rhyming similar to “the dozens” which I also learned from Irish-American friends who had their own versions of rhyming couplet put downs etc. as well as from the story telling and joke telling of my Irish relatives. There was a rhythm and melody to these verbal expressions that delighted me as a kid and that I always wanted to capture for “the record” as I saw part of my goal as an “artist” being right from the beginning.
And that fits into your quibble about Paul Blackburn’s work, which I think you’re right about. His was more a spatial component and mine temporal, as you say, especially in the musical sense, i.e. rhythm. Early on, my work was often taken as having been written by a “black” poet as opposed to a “white” one, and I think that had a lot to do with the rhythm, as well as subject matter. I was even invited to an awards ceremony in DC around 1969 when I moved there from Iowa City with my family to take a teaching gig (the only one I ever had, for four years, matriculating along with the other students as it were). I showed up at a cocktail pre-awards party for the nominees for the prize and startled my hostess and those who were giving the award because they had assumed I was “Negro” as they stutteringly explained that the award was not meant to be given to a “white” poet, so it was given to someone else who fit their category.
Around that time I was affected by an experience teaching Frank O’Hara’s poetry that opened my heart in a way it hadn’t been before to not just the artistry of O’Hara’s work — which I’d always been drawn to but also had a lot of arguments with (mostly because I found his urbane wit and eclectic but often rarified references “elitist” and probably felt threatened in some ways by that) — but also to his humanity. I literally “fell in love” with him through poems I’d been very familiar with but saw in new ways when explaining why they were great to a classroom full of undergraduate women; the poems were “The Day Lady Died,” “A Step Away from Them” and “Steps.”
I had always loved O’Hara’s ability to approach a poem from whatever angel (I meant “angle” but maybe “angel” is truer to reality) aroused his interest and inspired him at the moment, from conversational to formal to “experimental” (so many of his poems predict the whole “Language” movement in my perspective) but I felt almost like the anti-O’Hara up until that moment, arguing from my side that putting French terms and obscure poets’ and artists’ names in poems was somehow condescending to the kid I had been and the people and place I came from and knew. But that day in the classroom, in breaking down the elements in those three poems that made them “work,” I actually teared up, not just from the sentiment (and sentimental) perspective of “love” and “art” (whether or not, in the terms of those days, “high” or “low”), making it possible to transcend “life” (i.e. setbacks, struggles, disappointments, failures and ultimately loss and death), and choked up, surprising my students and myself. I went home that evening and reread all the O’Hara I owned at the time, which was every book of his published up to that point, and had this epiphany realizing, at least for myself, that what I had taken as “elitism” was actually a “modern” extension and reimagined expression of the kind of universal democratic inclusiveness I so admired and identified with in Whitman’s work since I was in my teens.
I later articulated this perception of O’Hara’s work in a long poem called “In The Mood” (a half decade later, 1977) in response to a critic’s misreading of O’Hara’s influence on me (a lot of people saw that influence after that O’Hara epiphany, and at least one interpreted my experimenting with bisexuality in the early seventies as a direct result of it, and there’s a lot to that). It wasn’t long after that O’Hara epiphany that I read in a series at the Smithsonian that included John Ashbery as well, and I had a change of heart about his work too. I had seen his poetry up to that moment as brilliantly original in terms of structure and language juxtapositions (Ted Berrigan had passed on his famous dictum to me only a few years before: “No ideas but in juxtapositions”) but too cold and calculated(!) for my taste. But at the Smithsonian reading, Ashbery read that Popeye sestina “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” and it being the first time I’d heard him read, I suddenly got the rhythmic use of language and the juxtaposition of poetic strategies that allowed him to get away with the line about Popeye scratching his balls, in front of all these well dressed and well behaved Smithsonian/DC matrons and patrons and I cracked up, actually had to keep myself from falling to the floor laughing, which I could see Ashbery appreciate, though his nasal monotone didn’t alter an iota. Later he came up to me to introduce himself, which was pretty gracious of him, and we became friends.
Some in the “Black Arts” movement who had considered me one of them, in whatever ways a “white” poet could be, were disappointed by my new appreciation for “The New York School” poets, or what they saw as their influence on me — even though I’d been reading and digging, on some level, my usual autodidact eclectic mix of poetry since my teens. And when I began writing out of the sexual experimenting that I indulged in during that period (the early seventies) I ended up getting criticized or just dropped. And more of that followed me after I moved to Manhattan at the start of 1975 and it eventually became clear that I was really a pretty “straight” “white” “male” poet, at a time when all three categories were becoming suspect unless coupled with a clearly Marxist and/or “Language” (as it began to develop among many of my fellow poets and friends in the late seventies) and/or “punk” stance (but only according to a certain elitist, as I again saw it, group who seemed to dismiss or else bristle at my self-identifying as a “punk poet” for years before the term even became current — I used it e.g. in that long autobiographical 1974 poem “My Life” that had an impact on some younger poets at the time, some contemporaries too). Having been a political activist for most of my life, not just a theorist, and having used many approaches to “the poem,” including ones that would later be seen as “language-centered” and still carrying with me, in my heart and in my writing, including the prose, those musical influences of my youth (including the rhythms and language of di Prima, Bremser and Kaufman), and now having also incorporated some of the strategies of “The New York School” — I absorbed all that into the same goal of trying to get as close to “the truth” of my reality as I could without over-sentimentalizing it, but also without scrubbing all sentiment from it, if you see what I mean. But I think in many ways it all just became too much of a complicated mix for some who like to be able to categorize and/or identify with a clear and simple message or approach or technique or stance etc. and I was just confusing them too much, or letting their agenda for me down. When that became clear to me, I moved on once more, this time to Hollywood to explore another arena that had influenced me hugely as a kid and that I always wanted to experience from the inside.
I think I got away from your questions, but that’s my response anyway.
Kimmelman: So, showing up in Los Angeles, how did you get comfortable in the poetry world there eventually, a New Jersey/New York transplant who eventually gets published by a press like Black Sparrow? And when you finally returned to the East Coast, did you merge easily into the stream, pick up the heartbeat, of the poetry being written and read there?
“No ideas but in juxtapositions”! I love what I take to be Berrigan’s insouciance and filial irreverence in echoing, of course, Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” Do we see here a link in your mind between O’Hara (and I’ll throw in Berrigan) and the “language-centered” writers who emerged about when you were composing your poem “In the Mood” (I would think this case would be easier to make if you were to cite Ashbery or someone like Clark Coolidge as forerunners of the Language folk, whereas I see Berrigan as finally more in sync with a contemporary like Bernadette Mayer)?
Anyway, let’s talk about “In the Mood.”
I would not be surprised to learn from you that to understand what your return east was like, and to get more insight into your move west, we ought to discuss this informative poem. So allow me to make some observations about it and, what I think is appropriate, some observations about the three poems by O’Hara you’ve mentioned — who figures centrally in your poem — which you cite as being really important to you in your life and I presume to “In the Mood.” Your poem is both an ars poetica and what I’ll call an ars biographia (in my saying this please don’t feel like we have to loop back to what we’ve said about your, let’s call it, poetics of the self — except maybe to touch on it as it connects with O’Hara’s work).
The first similarity that jumps out at me is that both O’Hara’s work and yours are talky. Once again the music of the speaking voice — in conversation, in dramatic monologue, in intimate inner thought, or whatever — is a key to both poetries, it seems to me. And your poem might be written out as prose but your line breaks, once the reader gets past the setup opening line, the enjambments, are striking:
It was in 1964 that I first read Frank O’Hara.
The book was Lunch Poems and it was sitting on
the kitchen table of the first intellectual I
was friends with. He was a graduate student in
a state college in Cheney, Washington, and I
was an Airman Basic (lowest rank due to court
martial) stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base
outside Spokane, Washington. The first poem
I read in the book was “The Day Lady Died” [etc.].
Actually, I hear a bit of the talk-chant of the opening of Howl here, but I guess we could start to find a lot of poems written at the time (maybe by someone like Joel Oppenheimer) that strive for this aesthetic. Still, it’s interesting what you do with the speaking voice here, your own singular creation. The line breaks provide a tautness in your narrative, and then the reader starts to get a rhythm to the story the poem is telling, and yes in a way to the persona, speaking in the first person — and the way your poem begins, the “I” prominent in the way O’Hara’s is, within a dynamic of a larger setting though, so you seem to be wanting to echo or reprise O’Hara’s voice and concerns. Here, for comparison, are some gorgeous lines from O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them” (one of the three poems you said were seminal):
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
The cityscape here, the poet as looker, arguably, are captured in what seems impromptu, casual, unworked, full-of-loose-ends verse (not unlike Kerouac?).
I love the way your poem goes on and on — also, perhaps, O’Haraesque, in that sense. And I love this truly insightful, and pissed-off, passage of yours, your paean to O’Hara (also, I must add in passing, this is a nice example of the importance of the breath, as Olson laid down in his ars poetica “Projective Verse”):
[…] one day I realized how much of what I was
reading and often admiring going on around me
in the poetry world was a kind of picking of
scabs and flashing the open sores and wounds
as badges and credentials and how O’Hara
totally sidestepped that contemporary tendency
by tone and choice of vocabulary that cut
through the hopelessness of so much poetry
and replaced it with the joy of writing the
poem. What a simple but wonderful revelation.
The joy of writing it down — that was
what it suddenly seemed to be about in
a way that made me think of all I had heard
the painters of his time were trying to do,
get across the action of the creating
rather than the product that was so finished
it showed no signs of the activity, the energy
and spirit of the actual work that went into it.
O’Hara’s poems were little excursions into
the act of writing poems with the kind of
mindset that keeps us trying sex with strangers
again and again, the hope that this time
is gonna be great, give us much pleasure
and satisfy a lot of frustration and totally
annul the boring horrible deadening, killing
in fact, effects of living.
Yet, unlike in the typical O’Hara poem, your poem has the sense that the speaker is really heading somewhere with what he’s talking about. Would you agree? But maybe the diatribe is there in his poems, if we look for it?
Also in this passage I love how you get a doubling effect, a kind of poem within a poem. Are we seeing you working here in a cross-generic way, writing both a poem and an essay, and not just biographical but also literary-critical, an essay-poem (was this new in the later seventies, preceding the Language people’s work, for example Charles Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption? — in any case I can see it leading to the recent genre-transgressing of someone like Eileen Tabios, Stephen Paul Miller, or perhaps Kristin Prevallet).
The sense of talk in O’Hara’s poems — intimate talk, and casual, though a lot is hanging on it, possibly everything — is wonderful, and I often get that in your poems too. Now, there’s something else I find that is curious. Of the three O’Hara poems you have pointed out, two are elegies, and arguably the third, “Steps,” contains certain elements that might allow us to group it with the other two as being elegiac (for instance when the O’Hara persona asks, “where’s Lana Turner / she’s out eating / and Garbo’s backstage at the Met / everyone’s taking their coat off / so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers”). Maybe even when the poem was first written these lines were, if not elegiac then at least nostalgic. Yet is there not an essentially elegiac strain in all of O’Hara’s work, I would say, a memorializing that invites nostalgia though that sidesteps sentimentalism. Do you agree? And would you say the same for some of your work (I recall, fondly, your very moving albeit quiet prose account of visiting your aging brother in Japan, whom you’ve mentioned earlier, a probing tribute), and might you say this is true particularly for “In the Mood”? We are asked to, and we do, live in the moment in an O’Hara poem. And do we not sense the ephemerality of the world and become, thereby, urgent about living in it while we can? Is that also some of what your poem is meant to do?
Are you being elegiacal, deep down (or merely wanting to invoke the idea of the elegiacal), when you write this: “[…] suddenly I caught myself / starting to cry and I never cried back then, / in fact except for a short interlude of about / a year of weepiness I never cry period, except / over old movies and musicals and it was that / heartstring O’Hara had suddenly plucked in me / through his poetry that sang so naturally [etc.].” Or maybe this passage is not really elegiacal but rather is just sincere and direct, and moving for that. But I do sense, in any case, that in this poem, and in other poems of yours, you are interested in being — as happens in an O’Hara poem — very much in the present, the vibrant now.
What I sense you want in your poems is what O’Hara is in fact espousing when his persona in “Steps” opines, having mentioned the Pittsburgh Pirates who had been winning baseball games of late, that “[…] in a sense we’re all winning / we’re alive[.]” O’Hara’s speaker lives in the moment, indeed in the exhilaration of it. Here’s how this poem daringly ends, its final stanza:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much[.]
The final line is so fleeting. The line is also sincere and heartfelt — getting back to the poem of yours I quoted earlier. And this is true of “In the Mood” where you speak of O’Hara’s “generosity and non-exclusiveness” that you then say “is rare.” You also remark, further on, that “sincerity / is supposed to be too costly,” and you deftly speak of
about the glory of life despite the futility of
Okay, so, can we think of this set of lines as being the hallmark of your work?
Lally: What it was like to move to Los Angeles (with my second wife who I’d just married and my two kids from my first marriage I’d been raising on my own up ’til then in Manhattan) and into an entirely new set of scenes, the local poetry scene(s), the Hollywood scene, the whole West Coast Southern California bunch of scenes (surfing, health food, car culture, etc.). It was difficult.
There were very few readings going on in LA in 1982 when I arrived. I knew something about the Venice Beach Beat scene from the fifties and beyond (and eventually became friends with some of the originals, like Frank T. Rios, a displaced New Yorker since the fifties I think and street poet — and “the man in black” before a lot of others who held that mantle) and Beyond Baroque, where I gave one of my first readings in LA and knew Dennis Cooper (who published the magazine Little Caesar and under that logo a collection of my poetry the year I moved to LA called Hollywood Magic) and Jack Skelley (who published the poetry magazine Barney).
My second wife, Penelope Milford, had some cachet in Hollywood. She’d been nominated for an Oscar a few years before, so we were instantly a part of that scene, and the publication party for Hollywood Magic included a lot of friends and acquaintances who happened to be movie actors, or “stars” in some cases, as well as others in the film and music “biz” (I had starred in a couple of horrible horror movies in New York before moving and got some attention). So there was some sniping and carping about my “going Hollywood” (even some criticism to that effect in some poetry newsletters and rags) even from former fans of my work as I discovered when a new Hollywood friend, a comedian at the time and later a filmmaker, told me about a visit he made to a bookstore in Detroit where they had several of my books, and even a picture of me on the wall, and when he took down one of my books from the shelf a young man asked him if he was a fan of my work and my new friend said he hadn’t read any of my books yet, then asked if the young man was a fan, and he said, “I used to be, before he sold out to Hollywood.”
My actual first poetry reading in LA was in West Hollywood at an independent bookstore called George Sand. A friend of Penny’s was a producer on Entertainment Tonight and a fan of my poetry, so she came with a crew to cover it but ended up being called away for some “breaking show biz news” before the reading happened. Yet just hearing of their presence pissed off some poets and poetry fans who weren’t even there, though the bookstore sold out every copy of the seven titles of mine they had special ordered extra copies of for the readings. (I read with Lewis MacAdams, who I’d first met through Ted Berrigan in the sixties because Ted thought our poetry had some things in common, though Lewis didn’t agree).
After the reading a diminutive Frenchman who owned an outdoor avant-garde theater in Hollywood came up to me with effusive praise and asked if I would create a show for his theater out of the book I’d been reading from, Hollywood Magic. Which I did, using a jazz musician friend, Buddy Arnold, and two thirds of a juggling/magic new wave vaudeville act, The Mums — Albie Selznick and Nathan Stein — and my wife and another actor/writer, Winston Jones.
The words of the show all came from poems from Hollywood Magic, but the scenes came from my movie memories and personal life. There was lots of extreme language and imagery which got the show moved to an indoor theater in Santa Monica after the Frenchman got nervous about his neighbors because my poetry not only used a lot of profanity and got pretty sexually graphic, but also included a lot of street language, like the n-word among other offensive terms, and he began to get threats and since the theater was outdoors wanted me to cut a lot of the offensive language which I wouldn’t do, so we moved to The Odyssey where a Wallace Shawn play was running and were given the time slot after it and I incorporated the stage set from Shawn’s show covered with white tarps into mine, like having magician Albie Selznick cut his way out of one of the tarps each night with a switch blade etc. or my wife appear beneath a tarp I slowly removed revealing her lying on a bed in skimpy lingerie while the two Mums juggled dildos over the bed and my wife, ending with them catching the dildos aiming in the right direction between their thighs.
All this activity led to some local media attention that seemed to draw the ire of some local poets who had been there long before I arrived and maybe hadn’t gotten as much attention. By 1986 my marriage had failed and acting jobs had dwindled in part because of my refusal to be tactful and act in my own best interest, or what I saw as standing up for my rights as a creator and not playing the Hollywood “game” etc. (I had work for a few years as a scriptwriter and “doctor” but also had to take gigs driving a limo and as a night guard in a hospital etc.). But I organized several benefits for various causes at which I had poets as well as movie and music stars read poetry, so was asked to start a weekly poetry reading series in a club in East LA, called Helena’s, by Helena, the part owner, an ex-belly dancer friend of Jack Nicholson’s — she played the angry dyke in the back seat of the car in Five Easy Pieces — who introduced me to another ex-New Yorker, Eve Brandstein, a poet/scriptwriter, who became my partner in the venture we eventually called “Poetry in Motion.”
The format I’d come up with decades before for poetry benefits as well as weekly series I’ve run is to have a lot of poets read briefly, a mix of styles and approaches, giving an audience the chance to find something they dig that hopefully will turn them on to poetry if they weren’t turned on to it before. I wasn’t aiming for poetry fans, but for a more general audience who might not realize how many kinds of poetry there are, including ones that might inspire or at least engage them.
For Helena’s, we let people we knew from the movie and TV and music communities in LA read poetry if they’d written it themselves and it was good enough. Sometimes I’d help some folks edit their work or do some rewriting, something I’d done both for friends and professionally over the years. But because some of these people were well known — even considered “celebrities” — some local poets I’d ask to read in the series turned me down, objecting to the venue (a hangout for the sort of alt-Hollywood crowd, like Nicholson, or later a club called Largo where we moved when Helena’s closed and Largo opened and the owner wanted the crowds and the attention we got), saying it was too upscale or “Hollywood” or not wanting to share the podium with people they considered not “real” poets, which just made me push that aspect even more, seeing another form of prejudice I hadn’t realized existed, against actors in general and “stars” in particular as beneath the cultural credential requirements of the poetry scene (this was before actors like Viggo Mortensen and James Franco et al. became accepted as poets and performance artists as well as movie stars).
But it was still so successful, standing room only crowds lined up at the door to get in and all kinds of local and national and even international media came to cover it. Unfortunately a lot of the coverage was snide, for which the reporters who covered us would apologize, saying they ended up being won over by the poetry, being moved or enlightened or entertained etc. by the work but their editors would insist on the “celebrity” angle and get nasty, as in one article about it in, I think Newsweek, that had the headline “Whitman Wannabes” (highlighting the “brat pack” connection because one of the poets, and a good one, was Ally Sheedy), and a bit in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section that singled me out as a “Hollywood poet hustler,” as I remember it.
There were no coffee houses in Los Angeles when I arrived that hosted poetry readings. The only venue for alternative poetry that I encountered was Beyond Baroque. There weren’t many anywhere else in the country as far as I know then either (around that time the Los Angeles Times decided they weren’t even going to review poetry books anymore). But after we started “Poetry in Motion” they began popping up everywhere, in LA and across the country (and in movies), and I believe it was due at least in part if not entirely to the publicity we got (and not all snide, the New York Times article was an Arts section front page spread with several photos that continued further back in the section and was very positive and appreciative — though the photo labeled “Michael Lally” was actually of a regular participant, and my closest friend in LA, Hubert Selby Jr.!).
Part of the reason I started doing the poetry benefits and then the weekly series was because I wanted people in the Hollywood community that I was part of to see what I really did because I wasn’t publishing much in those years. But by the time I left LA in 1999 and moved back East to New Jersey, a collection of newer poems had come out, Cant Be Wrong (Coffee House Press) — which won an award — and the first of two extensive collections mixing poetry and prose was published by Black Sparrow Press It’s Not Nostalgia which won another award.
Nonetheless, back East I found that some folks in the poetry scene(s) had either forgotten or dismissed (for the “Hollywood” thing) my work or just didn’t dig it anymore, maybe finding it a bit TOO “talky” as you mention, since I’d written a lot of my newer work during the years of the weekly “Poetry in Motion” readings. I’d write a new poem for every week’s reading, and my partner Eve and I would pick a theme for the evening (which a lot of poets also objected to, though it’s in the tradition of “occasional poems” for which O’Hara was famous and many of his best poems were written, including in its own way “The Day Lady Died”).
One of the best experiences after I moved back East was taking part in a reading on the eve of our invasion of Iraq, March 18, 2003, which became the title of the poem I wrote for that reading and the book that was later made of that poem. It was organized by Vincent Katz at the Paula Cooper gallery in Manhattan and featured Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, Ann Lauterbach and me.
I wrote March 18, 2003 [at right, cover by Alex Katz] in an old collage cut-up formula I’d been using on occasion since the 1960s. The office I had in the house I was living in at the time with my third wife and our young son was still full of unpacked boxes of unpublished poems, so I would write some lines and when stuck reach into a box and pull out a page and transcribe some lines from that page into the poem, etc.
Most of the historical factual stuff was written from memory, some from previous unpublished poems, and that was juxtaposed with personal and family history and lines containing lyric images, something I have always used sparsely. I was still writing it only hours before the reading and was convinced it came across as too politically strident.
I was talking to my wife about it as she was getting dressed for the reading and in response to her questioning about why I thought it was too strident I said: “I don’t have any answers, just questions,” and instantly saw the solution. I changed every period in the poem to a question mark and went and read the poem with the opening lines: “I don’t have any answers, / just some questions:” and got the best response I’d had to a reading since I read My Life for a Saint Mark’s Poetry Project benefit (post-fire in I think 1978) at CBGB’s and was off the stage and back in my seat before the audience erupted.
Both times I wasn’t sure if people got it, until the applause. I don’t think in either instance, or in any of my readings or writings it’s the “nostalgia” people respond to in my work, because to me it’s not nostalgia, it’s the particular history — personal and familial and cultural and political etc. — that lives in me, and each of us, that if we get accurately and in language that does its job — no matter how familiar or not it might be — with originality, of no matter what degree, people will “get it” and be inspired to go find some more whether in or outside of themselves.
I so appreciate your appreciation of my line breaks because that has always been the most important factor in the rhythms I try to create that either duplicate or originate the musical rhythms of the music I dug and dig and played (and still occasionally do though with a much more limited technique and ability) and wanted to use to express myself but never felt I did as well as I feel I have in my writing, especially the poetry.
Robert Slater and Michael Lally circa 1972.
And I guess to try and answer some of the questions about purpose and seeing more of a point to my poems that I’m driving toward than, say, O’Hara (though I think the lines you quote from him and me display the connection I believe our work has in that spirit of romantic indulgence despite the realities), it would be an attempt to share the exuberance and delight I discovered (and continue to) in writing that makes itself its own unique reward, an affirmation of purpose, of meaning, no matter how momentarily, to the music that fills my heart pretty regularly despite the setbacks and failures and disappointments and decline. I mean for decades now just picking up an O’Hara book and opening it and reading several lines brings a smile to my face, the same thing generally happens with many of my favorite writers, including friends like Terence Winch and Ted Berrigan, or John Ashbery and Ray DiPalma, Geoffrey Young and Joe Brainard, Merrill Gilfillan and Maureen Owen, Robert Slater and Tim Dlugos, Elaine Equi and Simon Pettet, Jerome Sala and David Trinidad, Doug Lang and Dale Herd, James Schuyler and so many more, including you Burt, and thankfully for me, if no one else, lines in my own poems, like those you quote, or these last few of the long poem My Life:
[…] I’ve learned to love
or at least appreciate a lot of things
I used to despise or ignore, I’ve had
trouble getting it up and trouble
keeping it down, I’m tired of a lot
of things but curious about more, I’m
tired of this but that’s history now.
Kimmelman: Well, I’m struck by two things you’ve just said and I wonder how they fit together for you.
First you speak of “the particular history — personal and familial and cultural and political etc. — that lives in me, and each of us,” and so you are honoring the real, history, and saying something, I guess about how and maybe why you write; and I think you are espousing a faith in language and life story both, when you continue by expressing the hope that writers “get [that history] accurately and in language that does its job — no matter how familiar or not it might be — with originality […].”
And then you say this, I think tellingly, declaring to us a lot about who and what Michael Lally has been and is: You express the belief that the respective work of both O’Hara and yourself “has in [it] that spirit of romantic indulgence despite the realities [… an] exuberance and delight I discovered (and continue to) in writing that [has] made it its own unique reward[.]”
Okay, so, let me ask you one final question, considering all the achievements of your life and the variousness of your experiences overall, and, most importantly, it seems to me, the enormous energy and commitment you’ve always devoted to your writing as well as to the people in your life — writers, readers, actors, of course your family, and so on.
Lally (right) with Peter Coyote on Deadwood, his final acting role, 2004.
The question is:
In your mind, is the heart of what it means to be a romantic the paying heed to the facts of a life, facts that, I guess, come to sustain a narrative that makes their meaning come into being; or, is being a romantic going on some quest that need not acknowledge or dwell in history, but is rather simply a project of the imagination (thus I think of, say, O’Hara versus Ashbery)? Of course, I may here be positing a false dichotomy.
Your final thoughts?
Lally: That final question’s a doozy, as they used to say. I think what I was trying to acknowledge is the value, for me, of what I might call “the romance of language” which would therefore posit no dichotomy as you describe it, because it doesn’t for me. At least not in the sense of O’Hara versus Ashbery. I find that sense of the “romantic” in the poetry, and prose for that matter, of both of them.
If I were to pit various writings against each other as examples of what I mean and don’t mean, the obvious ones I’ve already mentioned (I think) would be, say, Kerouac vs. Burroughs. Kerouac’s love of language as a valid (and romantic in the root sense of that word as well as its connotations and denotations) reason for writing, as well as his inherent need to record (and set that record straight) his personal experience of the history he was living through, for me, continues to inspire and delight and engage and even enlighten. Whereas Burroughs’s writing, for the most part, seems to me a more or less cold attempt to use language to further an ideology, no matter how personal, that has as at least one of its tenets an anti-romantic (and I’d say misogynistic) perspective rationalized as more “realistic” (even in the context of the sci-fi elements of Burroughs’s writing) though in reality, as I see it, it’s actually almost pure fantasy (as well as pure paranoia and cynicism, in many instances).
It’s all, in the end, a matter of personal taste and preference, obviously (though not so obvious to those academics and critics whose writing insists their perspective is the valid or correct or even only one). And my use of “romantic” might be seen by others as misuse.
And as for the “personal history” angle used in my writing and in so much that I love (like William Saroyan or Walt Whitman or Jean Rhys or Joanne Kyger, etc.), it doesn’t need to “tell a story” in the traditional sense of an arc with beginning and middle and end, but more in Charles Olson’s sense of dropping the “h” and seeing it as “I”-story, or the story of the “I” that Rimbaud famously said was “other” [“Je est un autre”]. The “romantic” in that kind of writing is in the expressly romantic relationship with language. It’s language after all that the writers I love have fallen for that makes them write. Yes to tell their story in many cases, to set the record straight, to get it down, the history they experience and witness that seems so precious and unrecorded before them or distorted before them (and before me) but also to share through that writing their deep involvement with the pleasures of writing itself, until, in some cases, that relationship becomes primary and the “personal story” part seems not just secondary or even further removed, but sometimes almost nonexistent (à la Ashbery, though for me his poems almost always come across as extremely personal and even narrative despite what he might say).
This is true for some of my writing too (like many poems of mine that were published in early “Language poetry” mags, which I was writing before that category was created, as were many others) as well as for most of those I love, and is what connects what otherwise might seem like two separate kinds of writing (this is most evident in O’Hara’s work, where some pieces are pure personal narrative and others pure language abstraction, or so it would initially seem). The connection being the “I” — no matter how apparent or not — that is making that choice and always for the love of language itself.
Anyway, that’s my thoughts on that, which hopefully make some sense.
Kimmelman: I guess, after all is said and done, Michael, for me you are an incurable romantic. And that’s not a bad thing at all, as is evident in your writing.
It has been an honor and great pleasure to have been able to have this conversation with you. Thank you.
Lally: Ah Burt, my pleasure entirely.
I’m totally grateful for the opportunity and challenge to think about these things and try to articulate my ideas and feelings about them. I would just add that I am indeed a romantic on many levels, but also a true realist, I believe, because I understand and accept that there is so much in life and the world that I cannot control and that has often affected me in ways most people would consider pretty negatively if not tragically. I don’t think I’ve misread or misrepresented the difficulties and disappointments and frustrations and failures of my life and the world and times I’ve lived in and through; I’ve just made a choice (and sometimes not a choice but have been compelled by my nature) to keep my heart open through it all as best I can and to follow where it’s led me, and continues to lead me. (Why do I feel the need to end with: Amen!?)
June 8, 2010, to September 16, 2010
The following is part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The second half of this interview will also appear in Jacket2.
A previous interview, conducted in fall 2008, appears in Hambone 19, available through Small Press Distribution.
Ted Pearson was born in 1948 in Palo Alto, California. He began studying music in 1960 (voice, then woodwinds and composition) and started writing poetry in 1964. He subsequently attended Vandercook College of Music, Foothill College, and San Francisco State University. Since leaving the Bay Area in 1988, he has lived in Ithaca, Buffalo, and Detroit. He now lives in Southern California, where he is adjunct faculty in English at the University of Redlands.
Pearson has published sixteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including Evidence: 1975–1989 (Gaz, 1989), Planetary Gear (Roof Books, 1991), Songs Aside: 1992–2002 (Past Tents Press, 2003), and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). He is also a coauthor of The Grand Piano (Mode A, 2006–2010), a ten-volume experiment in collective autobiography by writers associated with the San Francisco Language Poets. He has coedited several books and journals, including markszine.net, and his essays have been widely published, notably in Poetics Journal.
Luke Harley: In “Etude 8” of The Grand Piano, we learn that you were listening to serial music at a very young age. And in “Etude 3” you’re in Geneva, sketching the project that would become An Intermittent Music. At that point, you’d been writing for a decade, but serial composition had been on your radar since the late sixties, when you were barely twenty. How did serial music lead to serial poetry? What was it about serial poetry that captured your attention early on and has remained central to your writing?
Ted Pearson: When I was nine, I came across some early recordings of Cowell, Varèse, and Ives. Not long after, a local record-shop owner introduced me to works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The music was technically beyond my grasp, but I found it aesthetically compelling. It gave audible form, austere yet replete, to a soundscape that was strangely familiar, even on first hearing. In time, I came to understand how serial music foregrounds its constructedness as art — and how, by rejecting tonality as an organizing principle, it democratizes its elements, which retain their independence and refer only to each other, yet contribute equally to the composition, for which the tone row or series provides the underlying basis of its coherence.
Serial poetry offers similar possibilities. It accommodates diverse combinatory logics, enables production of extended works that cohere without recourse to a central narrative, accords equal weight to its discrete elements, and allows for the decentering of the writing subject. It also allows for a constructivist approach to writing, distinct from the expressivist mode that is widely considered synonymous with poetry. I knew early on that I wanted to retain the lyric’s technical resources, but not the hierarchy of poetic elements imposed by the “well-made poem” on one hand and by lyric subjectivity on the other. That hierarchy, not unlike the one imposed by functional tonality on music, is based on restrictive if highly centralized notions of coherence.
Harley: Although serial poetry is often considered a postmodern genre, its origins (in practice, if not in name) are clearly modernist. Did its emergence, almost a century ago, mark a rift in modern poetry that corresponds to the rift in modern music resulting from the appearance of serial and post-tonal music?
Pearson: I think modernism itself is rifted by the aesthetic contradiction that defines it. Even as it affirms the singularity of Art, it questions the very distinctions — among the arts and between the practices of art and life — that underwrite its singularity. It is further rifted by its practitioners’ diverse and often contentious aesthetics, Williams’s fierce response to The Waste Land, for example. While I doubt his response directly corresponds to serialism’s break with tonality, I remain intrigued by the historical proximity of Spring and All (1923) and Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano (1924), the first piece to fully employ his method of twelve-tone composition.
By the sixties, the antipodal poetics of Eliot and Williams were manifest in two anthologies: the arrière-garde collection New Poets of England and America (1957) and the avant-garde New American Poets (1960), as well as between the covers of A Controversy of Poets (1965). Abetted by the rise of the small press movement and the waning influence of the New Critics, access to neglected and out-of-print texts — as well as to current experimental writing — began to improve in those years. This has resulted in a less monolithic and more complexly historicized map of modernism and the literary avant-garde. One reading of that map might lead from the innovative texts of Stein and Williams, to those of the Objectivists in their several incarnations, to the radical proceduralism of Cage and Mac Low (among others), to the poetics of the first and second generations of New Americans, to language-centered writing and beyond.
Other readings of that map will feature very different landmarks and destinations. Every poet invents her own antecedents and has her own itinerary of influential texts. The proliferation of alternative canons has enabled the recovery of many “lost” and previously excluded works, but I think the critique of canonicity per se is of even greater significance — it reminds us that “the map is not the territory.” But to return to your example of post-tonal music: even as serialism heralded a break with the Common Era of music, tonality never went away, and it periodically reasserts its dominant position in music. The poetics of presence is similarly resurgent of late, presumably under the banner of accessibility and in reaction to post-avant writing.
Harley: To what extent did your schooling contribute to your interest in experimental writing? What role, if any, did creative writing workshops play in your development?
Pearson: My schooling fostered my love of reading, but modernist (much less experimental) texts were absent from my high-school curriculum. The emphasis there, and to some extent in college, was on canonical literature — chiefly British and American “classics” — and my teachers’ approach to those texts reflected both their humanist values and their training in New Criticism. One did learn close reading, for which I’m grateful, but explorations outside the canon were largely extracurricular. That said, there were courses (in linguistics, Russian formalism, critical theory, and surrealism) that were very helpful — as was the opportunity to share enthusiasms and reading lists with fellow students.
There were no creative writing classes on offer at my high school or at the music school I attended, and in those years my focus was on music. But when I did “convert,” I chose to major in English, not creative writing. In part, that choice reflected my interest in literary theory and my desire for breadth as a reader. It also reflected my knowledge of myself as a student unsuited to workshop culture — a knowledge confirmed by the one poetry workshop I remember taking.
I wanted to develop an approach to serial writing based on lyric technique, not lyric subjectivity, whereas the workshop emphasized an artisanal mastery of craft in the service of self-expression. Exemplary of the latter was its insistence on “finding one’s voice” — a bromide which assumes that poetry must issue, and be read as issuing, from an ostensibly unified subject, one whose words are taken to be those of a more than grammatical person. In that scheme, language is seen as transparent: words are windows on their referents, and writers indissociable from their texts. But, as George Oppen observes, “Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the ‘heartlessness’ of words.”
Harley: In a literary context, if I take your meaning, you see the notion of linguistic transparency as related to the privileged role accorded expressivity and author-centered writing?
Pearson: There’s inevitably tension, sometimes productive, in the relation between pathos and logos — which is at once complementary and contradictory — that leads us to distinguish between works that foreground the emotive function of language (the set toward the speaker) and works that foreground the aesthetic function (the set toward the message). Where the former instantiates and gives primacy to the illusion of authorial presence, the latter focuses on relations between the elements of language as such. What drew me to poetry was not its obvious capacity for self-expression, but rather how it reveals the subject to be constituted in and by language. I would never discount the role of pre-linguistic experience in subject formation — nor that of nonlinguistic experience thereafter — but those experiences, in a literary context, are always mediated by language.
I’m especially drawn to those moments in a text when language seems to “speak” for itself, in effect producing a counter-discourse that exceeds and complicates the writing subject’s relation to what is said. “Theoretical expressivity” is an index of what can be expressed in language; it’s the domain of all possible utterances, not of a single speaker. The gap between enunciation and statement — and the manifest nonidentity of writer and text — have obvious implications for subjectivity. As does the poetic function, which queers any notion of stable meaning and reveals the univocal subject as a fiction that masks its multiplicity.
The othering performed by the poetic function sparked my interest in subjectivation — the process by which language produces subjects that are nonidentical to themselves, to each other, and to itself. I wanted to explore such relations in my work and that work’s relation to the world, but my early efforts (mostly fragments and epigrams) resisted integration into the extended structures I was drawn to. Serial poetry, when I came to it, seemed to model what I was after.
Harley: When and where did you find those models?
Pearson: I chanced upon a copy of Spicer’s Language in 1967. It was the strangest poetry I had ever read, but I kept returning to its difficulties. Then, in A Controversy of Poets I found several more serial poems by Spicer — as well as by Ashbery, Creeley, Mac Low, and Zukofsky. Further examples over the next few years included Spring and All, Weiners’s Hotel Wentley Poems, Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Zukofsky’s Anew, Oppen’s Discrete Series and Of Being Numerous, Creeley’s Pieces, and Mac Low’s Pronouns and Stanzas for Iris Lezak. I had much to learn from these disparate modes of serialism, but I was hooked.
Harley: Were there life experiences you can point to — before you started writing poetry, and aside from music (which you discuss at length in Hambone 19 and in The Grand Piano) — that influenced your decision to become a poet?
Pearson: “Experience,” according to Aldous Huxley, “is not what happens to you [but] what you do with what happens to you.” When possible, what I do with what happens is write, but that wasn’t always the case. I was fifteen when I wrote my first poem, and I have no idea why, on that particular day, it occurred to me to write one. For several years prior to writing that poem, I had been subject to a recurring dream in which I appeared to be writing something — but I didn’t associate that fleeting image with a conscious desire to be a writer. For all I knew, I was dreaming of doing homework, or perhaps writing music.
A recurring dream
in which I write, “and one day
failed to awaken.”
My dream accounts for the first part of the poem, and the allusion to Master Chuang for the rest. Chuang dreamt he was a butterfly; woke, or dreamt that he woke, as himself, and then wondered which was dreaming which, the butterfly or the man. The poem’s brevity reflects my early attraction to haiku and epigrams, as does its fragmentary structure. And the quote (imported from a text long-since forgotten) suggests a bent toward the use of citation. In my dream I never saw the words I was writing, so they had to come from elsewhere.
Dreams aside — and excepting my involvement with music — if there were experiences that led me to writing, the first was learning to read. One response to art is the desire to make art. And where writing is the art in question, a passion for reading is essential. At six, I became an insatiable reader of whatever I could get my hands on, but I especially loved reading poetry. Not only did its sounds and rhythms seem integral to its meaning, but it also paradoxically required so few words to provoke almost endless trains of thought.
Also early on, I discovered my love of solitude, perhaps as a consequence of being an only child. Of course, that could have gone the other way. Some only children regret not having siblings, but I never felt the lack. While I often enjoyed the company of others, I preferred to be on my own, whether reading or listening to music at home, or being out in the world, frequently enough doing nothing at all — what Baudelaire calls being “a cloud monger” and Keats calls “creative indolence.”
My cloud mongering was typically accompanied by the sense that there was “something” beyond my purview and a concomitant desire to find it. The former points to a sense of lack — of which Heidegger writes that “beyond what is … there is still something else that happens” — and the latter locates that something else beyond one’s present perception of the sensible. As a child, I couldn’t account for such things. The ability to do so came later, and piecemeal.
I remember being struck by an entry in Kafka’s Diaries that begins: “Hatred of active introspection …” And by Nietzsche saying “we must not study ourselves while having an experience.” Experimental jazz counseled, “when in doubt, go out.” And Spicer’s notion of “the outside” — which I would later associate with “extimacy,” the coinage by which Lacan points to the subject as ex-centric to itself — made immediate intuitive sense. Consciousness, then, was an intending regard for anything, including language, that I saw as external to my labile sense of self.
My experience of words was that they came from without as sound or text and returned as speech or writing. Words existed independently of me, or so it seemed, and their meanings, however clear or obscure, were as much their own as anyone’s. But whatever experiences might appear, in retrospect, to have led me to begin writing poems, it was in fact only after having written that I wanted to write again. It was the iterative desire to work with language — and the pleasure I found in doing such work — that “decided me” to be a poet.
Harley: Could you briefly sketch your early years in poetry [1964–1974], before you started work on An Intermittent Music?
Pearson: I wrote infrequently for the first five years since I was still immersed in music. Gradually, but with growing insistence, what had begun as a private pleasure came to demand ever more attention. By the end of 1968, that fraught year of wonders, I was committed to writing poetry. So I cut back on my involvement in music, changed my college major to literature, and transferred to San Francisco State, arriving in the midst of what was then the longest student strike in US history.
Not for nothing, but the next six years of writing were an extended trial by error, throughout which any potential I might have had far exceeded any actual result. Academic life was agreeable until it wasn’t, but most of what I learned about writing was learned outside the classroom: poring over the little magazines and small-press volumes of poetry, attending readings and salons, and meeting other poets — elders and peers whose conversation and friendship sustained me.
By the fall of 1973, I’d been writing for almost a decade. But I’d become dissatisfied with my poetry and bored with school, so I gladly accepted my father’s offer to accompany him to Europe, a brief and much-needed break during which I decided it was time to start over. Of course, any notion of starting over is an obvious if useful fiction. In fact, one carries on, belated as ever, from wherever one presumes to be — at best with a stronger sense of resolve. When I returned to San Francisco, I took a job driving buses, quit grad school, and spent the next year culling and revising what remained of my early poems — which I then put away and began work on what became An Intermittent Music. Thirty-five years later, here we are.
Harley: Until recently, your manuscript was called The Tune’s Image, which had been its working title for decades. You've now changed it to An Intermittent Music — a significant change because it suggests, quite intriguingly, that music, rather than being a template for your poetry, has been something quite different: something that has intermittently, almost cyclically, engaged your attention and then receded into the background. What were your reasons for changing the title? Why did you choose this word “intermittent”?
Pearson: The working title came from a poem by Zukofsky (#20 in Anew), in which “tune” (music) and “image” (text) appear, as if in counterpoint, to make a “song” of “nothing” but their differences. In my work, such differences tend to arise between assertive and apodictic propositions, and the tag from Zukofsky reminded me to keep those contraries active. Then, last fall, I got a note from Steve Emerson — who is among my oldest friends and most astute readers — in which he expressed reservations about retaining the original title. He argued convincingly that it could be misread as overstating Zukofsky’s influence on the work, and that it also limits the context in which the work, as it stands, might be read. The new title comes from a poem I wrote in 1965:
The skylark hovers
almost out of sight. To sing
a singular song.
Given a world
and these few words. Some
While music is a literary meme in my work, it has never been a template for that work. Having written both music and poetry, I have some sense of their differences. Poems are made of words, as Mallarmé insisted, and a word is a bundle of linguistic features that, unlike instrumental music, includes units of semantic meaning. In this case, “intermittent” points to the relation between the ’nuff-said (the text) and the not-said (the music of silence), as I put it in Hambone. It acknowledges that, however steadfast one’s practice, there are inevitably gaps in the work — on one hand, gaps in production that result from the exigencies of everyday life; on the other, the gaps or negative spaces that structure it, much as music is composed of its silences.
Harley: Speaking of music, among contemporary American writers your engagement with music is more pronounced than most. Certainly you hold court, in my opinion, with poets such as Clark Coolidge and Nathaniel Mackey, who not only write about music — and incorporate some of its elements into their work — but who also think deeply about how music relates to language. When we read your poetry and essays, it appears that you are of a similar philosophical bent: that an overarching preoccupation of your poetry is in fact music, and music-language relations. Has it always been a goal of your poetry — as you potentially imply by quoting Hélène Cixous in the epigraph to your poem “Dark Matter” — to achieve a verse that is “less language than music, less syntax than songs of words”?
Pearson: I’m delighted you would link me to Clark and Nate, whose works I much admire. As well, I think of Bruce Andrews and Kit Robinson, whose works are also deeply informed by their longstanding engagement with music. But I must say that music certainly isn’t my overarching preoccupation. If it were, I’d still be writing music. In my view, what language and music share are syntax, not lexis; rhythm, not cadence; temporality, not telos; structure, not form. And the salient analogies between them are neither mimetic nor expressive, but rather procedural and constructive. “Musicality” may be a feature of my work, but it would be reductive to suggest it as the work’s central theme or raison d'être.
“Dark Matter” is a case in point. Since musical references occur in only two percent of its lines, they can’t account for its totality. In context, the poem’s epigraph should be read in relation to its title. My figural use of dark matter is based on its literal meaning: undetectable matter whose existence is inferred from its effects on visible matter. Its as yet hypothetical existence accounts for quantitative discrepancies between a theoretically calculable totality and the actually calculable fraction of that totality. Cixous’s phrase suggests what I see as an analogous phenomenon in poetry: the elusive poetic function, whose existence we can only infer from its effects on language, syntax, and meaning.
Harley: Speaking of epigraphs, I should note for our readers that An Intermittent Music is rife with them. Its main epigraph is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23: “O! learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belong to love’s fine wit.” And then each of its eighteen books is introduced by a further epigraph. What should we make of these citations?
Pearson: Citation plays a central role in literary production. I use citations and allusions to invoke various texts with which the poems are in dialogue. As Kristeva argues, “the notion of intertextuality replaces the notion of intersubjectivity.” Textual meaning is always mediated by codes that we discern in other texts and bring to our work as writers and readers.
The initial epigraph points to a poetics of reading. It directs us to the basic elements of words (phonemes, graphemes, and morphemes) and to the senses they combine to address: sound (“to hear”), sight (“with eyes”), and intellect (“love’s fine wit”). In other words, those literary modes that Pound referred to as melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. The epigraph also emphasizes silence as the unsaid that refuses glibness and paraphrase; as the unsayable that signifies, but not verbally; and as the practice of silent reading that foregrounds the literary character of the work. As well, it puts forward an ethics of reading: that what is written by love be read with love. In textual matters, this implies a disinterested commitment to the workings of language, not least to its poetic and libidinal economies.
Each of the subsequent epigraphs is at once specific to the book it introduces and sequentially linked to the other epigraphs. Together, they comprise the argument of the work — a defeasible argument that, by definition, cannot produce a complete or final demonstration of its claims. The work, being done, is never done. As I noted in “Etude 10” of The Grand Piano: “For the reader, the text delimits a site where the work of making meaning takes place. For the writer, it also reveals a remainder that reminds her of work that is yet to be done.”
Harley: Versions of the books in An Intermittent Music have appeared at intervals, beginning with The Grit in 1976. At a glance, it could be seen as a “collected books,” à la Spicer, but you present it as a single work. Has that always been your intention?
Pearson: Yes. I imagined it from the outset as “a work in four movements.” I didn’t know how many books it would require, or how long it would take to complete, or even if I could complete it. But I knew that, if it were completed, it would have four movements. Along the way, with enduring thanks to my publishers, the books appeared in print. In each instance, my immediate concern was to make the best book possible at the time, even as I knew it would be subject to further revision. My sense of the whole as a single work derives from the levels of integration I sought within and among its parts. It’s a work on analogy with an opus in music, which, as you know, can include subsets of related compositions. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, for example.
Harley: Why four movements in particular?
Pearson: That’s how the project presented itself, and since I knew it was to be a closed series, it seemed like a viable constraint. But I’ve always been partial to quartet form: string quartets, tetralogies, quatrains. In fact, my initial sketch of the work appeared less as an outline than an “exploded” view, as if each movement comprised one line of a macrocosmic quatrain. Conversely, in a “deploded” view, each movement is a palimpsest of that line. As it turned out, the movements also appear to parallel sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation, coda.
Harley: The levels of integration you mention reflect the part/whole relations that underlie the work’s coherence. And its scale, beyond the range of references and registers involved, seems linked to the role that duration plays in your work. Can you say more about these elements?
Pearson: The text is built of discrete units—the numbered poems of each book (qua series) — that are integrated into progressively larger, if no less discrete, units: poem < poems < book < books < movement < movements < work. These units index the various scales in which the work may be read. The movements are ordered chronologically, as are the books, but their respective poems are not.
Each book has its own logic, and the challenge in each case was to discover it and construct the series accordingly. With some books, the logic was clear at the outset, so only minor resequencing was needed. With others, it took years and much resequencing before I understood the book at hand. In referring to these serial poems as “books,” I’m echoing Spicer’s sense of the book as a coherent unit of composition. (It was Gerrit Lansing, many years ago now, who generously encouraged me to see the individual poems as poems, and not, as I had previously done, as stanzas.)
Duration indexes temporality — from the variable durations of vowels and caesurae at the level of the line, to the variable intervals within and between the larger units, to the total time of composition. Duration is also spatial, a matter of extension — which in philosophy is the property of taking up space; in mathematics, a structure that contains antecedent structures; and in semantics, a set to which a property is applied. The space-time of the work is mutually determined by the incremental development of discrete poems (at an average rate of one word per day) and their iterative development in serial form over a period of thirty-five years.
Harley: I’d like to look more closely at the four movements, beginning with topologies, which includes books 1 through 6 and was first composed between 1975 and 1980. What was the context from which these books emerged, and what do you see as their major concerns?
Pearson: I began topologies as the Vietnam War was entering its final months, and I completed it on the cusp of Reagan’s presidency. It was a period of prolonged economic stagflation, and neoliberalism was on the rise. From both progressive and classic liberal standpoints, hard-won advances toward social justice were threatened by reactionary forces. However buffered by the city’s reputed tolerance — often more apparent than real in light of its increasing Manhattanization, as it was called, and the resulting displacement of poor and working-class people — everyday life in San Francisco was not immune to the illiberal tenor of the times.
There was a growing political backlash against what were perceived as the “permissiveness” and “radicalism” of the sixties and early seventies, even as large class-fractions of various subcultures were being mainstreamed to exploit their consumerist potential. As well, there was a marshaling of public opinion to support the coming deregulation of capital and re-regulation of society, the latter abetted by conservatism’s call for a return to “family values” and “the American way of life.” While many of us actively continued to pursue economic and social justice, and to articulate new modes of cultural practice, I felt in myself and sensed in others a pervasive undercurrent of anomie.
In topologies, I wanted to explore that social disjunction — those feelings of anomie and alienation and their effects on interpersonal (hence, political) relations — on as intimate a scale as I could manage. In part, that choice of scale reflects concurrence with radical feminism’s claim that “the personal is political,” which, as argued (if often misconstrued) insists that many of our personal problems cannot be disarticulated from the systematically oppressive institutions we inhabit, not least those involved in prescribing gender roles and performances.
The intra-psychic and intersubjective tensions that the poems explore can be read in light of Lacan’s assertion: “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” — which does not say that sexual intercourse is impossible but that direct, unmediated relations between “masculine” and “feminine” sexual positions are impossible. The Symbolic Order — the Other of language — always already comes between them. As a consequence, heterosexual relations (a recurring topos in these poems) are normative, not “natural.” Anomie (in Weber’s sense) is a reaction against social norms and their enforcement via society’s regulatory controls. And agency is a function of resistant subjectivity, which, in its “extimate” relation to itself, both desires and retreats from change.
Harley: How should we understand your use of “topology”?
Pearson: In topological mapping, only essential information is retained, while unnecessary detail is omitted. Each book in the movement maps a particular mise-en-scène. This bears not only on its structural properties—for example, the constraints on lineation and vocabulary — but also on motival development. In topological maps, renderings of distance (on analogy, between subjects) and of direction (on analogy, as sexual difference) are subject to change, but the relation between their points on the map is maintained. Impossible relations are still relations. As well, topology refers to the study of the properties of objects that do not change, even as the object is deformed. If the sexual drive fixates on part-objects, sexual relations between whole persons are impossible. The whole person is deformed, that is, reduced to the part-object; hence, misrecognized.
Harley: Among the striking aspects of your poetry are its linguistic precision and economy, which are immediately evident in “The Grit,” the first book of topologies. Throughout that book (and much of the movement), you employ extremely short lines, brief if irregular stanza forms, and a very restricted, often monosyllabic vocabulary. From the opening “Somehow / it seems to destroy us” (#1), we encounter images of elemental rupture, elemental fracturing, such as “that rock / which sun splits / and sea turns / to sand” (#3). What was your aim in stripping away your language to its barest essentials? Why this preoccupation with erosion and decay?
Pearson: As I suggested in reference to sonata form, the first movement involves exposition, in structural as well as thematic terms. Its topological mapping of psychosocial terrain required deletion of inessential detail, even as that problematizes the notion of necessity. Interpersonal rupture and relational decay are figuratively analogous with the process of erosion, in which prolonged exposure to elemental forces results in an altered, if not depleted, landscape. The stripping away of language is intended to mirror this process, and to reveal how ideology (most often, in these poems, gender ideology) inflects even the barest essentials of ordinary language. In topologies, I wanted to parse such language, albeit attenuated, in situ. Unplugged, so to speak. As the poet John Thorpe generously remarked of these poems, “Imagine Webern writing for solo lute.”
Harley: In “Etude 4” of The Grand Piano, you say “grit” refers specifically to the grit on the window ledges of your Sunset District apartment, which faced the sea. You also deny that “grit” functions as a metaphor; rather it represented “everyday life.” If “grit” and such words as “rock,” “sun,” “sea,” and “windswept” are not metaphors, what are they? Another type of trope? Or would you deny them that status?
Pearson: Not at all. Far from denying that the grit is a trope, the etude acknowledges the source domain of that trope, which derives — as do most of the tropes I employ — from the particulars of my immediate environment. Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand” embodies the transformative if interdependent relations between the world and the work. Since grit is a product of physical erosion, in its target domain it becomes a trope for the erosion of intersubjective relations — which, again, was a process I saw at work in my own and others’ lives. Metaphor is a species of conceptual substitution, so of course the grit functions metaphorically. More precisely, however, it’s a synecdoche — my preferred subspecies of metaphor — which means “simultaneous understanding.”
Harley: “The Grit” takes its title from Creeley’s Words (“The grit / of things / a measure / resistant”), its epigraph from Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (“The isolated man is dead”), and its opening lines from Williams’s Spring and All (“Somehow / it seems to destroy us”). These sources introduce the first book, but also the entire movement. Where are they leading? What is this “it” that “seems to destroy us”?
Pearson: As I’ve said, “grit” denotes particulate matter, both a product of erosion and an abrasive agent. It also denotes perseverance or strong resolve. Implicit in these meanings, and common to them, is a dialectic of resistance and change, which are also conditions of subjectivity—“no / one ever / quite the same,” as Creeley’s poem ambiguously concludes. In Oppen’s poem, that “one” contrasts with “the many that we are.” The “isolated man” cannot be heard above the “dithyrambic” clamor that surrounds him. In a dithyramb, the choric (hence, collective) “voice” is one of extravagantly emotional speech or writing. Against which, in his espousal of clarity — and search for “that truthfulness / that illumines speech” — the “meditative man” is seen to fail. But his failure is not only personal (isolation as social death); it is also a collective failure. “And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.”
In a sense, “it” is a failure of language — a consequence of unreflective usage and of the refusal to acknowledge the social forces and ideological assumptions that mediate such usage, even as language mediates our relation to ourselves and others. This scenario is powerfully rendered in Williams’s poem “To Elsie,” in which — under the sign of modernity — we see power and privilege asymmetrically distributed among marked and unmarked subjects, primarily in terms of their gender and class positions and their ethnic and cultural identities. I wanted to establish the figure of one (and its negation as “no one”) — in league with Creeley’s and Oppen’s texts, and Williams’s “No one / to witness / and adjust” — as the basis for the subsequent pronomial transformations that populate the poems as personae.
Harley: “The Grit” initiates a concern with gender relations — flawed, in flux, or at odds, as may be — that preoccupies the first movement. You write of a couple, “at the edge / of a continent” (#1), who “rise as one / and stand apart / as if a couple / were nothing more / than any two / together” (#8). You describe a moment, “hardly an embrace,” in which the woman “neither yields / nor resists / seeming aware / that his smile / does not include her” (#10). And you conclude by depicting a woman who “turns away / her lithe back / to the sea” (#14) — a sensual but seemingly bittersweet image. Was your personal life intruding on the work?
Pearson: If it were, what difference would that make? In Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, would it matter to the film if he himself had never picked a pocket? (I mention Bresson advisedly because his approach to cinematography significantly influenced topologies.) Events in a poem are language events. Pronouns are words, not people. That words can refer to “real” events and people does not oblige them to do so. The question is not if one writes from experience, but rather what one makes of one’s experience (and what one counts as experience). If my work draws on details from my “personal” life — which of course it does — that life includes observed and imagined details that are no less part of my experience. While writing is a significant part of my life, it is only a part — and a contingent one at that. How, then, could a part be said to intrude on the whole that already includes it?
Apropos the final poem [#14] in “The Grit,” the affective quality of the last image must be understood in context. The poem begins with a man who “stands his ground” and is thereby “grown a part of it.” This alludes to Pound’s definition of “sincerity” as “a man standing by his word” (which he derived, perhaps inaccurately, from a Chinese ideogram). Sincerity, in that sense, is related to integrity as that which is pure, authentic, and self-consistent. And I wanted to suggest that such attributes can lead to stasis, to calcification, to the rigidity that I associate with “masculine” will in its extremity, as if it were a force of nature. It is that figure, of a man turned to stone, from which the woman “turns away.” And (implicit in the local geography) what she then faces is the city, a complex, motile, built environment. So she’s also rejecting, by turning back from the sea, the historical and oppressive association of “woman” with “nature.”
Harley: “Reaped Figures” [book 2] opens with an epigraph from Spicer’s After Lorca: “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.” Why does death inhabit most of the epigraphs in topologies? What is the role of “the dead” in book 2? Who are these “reaped figures”? Are they the “speakers” of these poems?
Pearson: The title comes from a line of Bunting’s: “We have planted ink and reaped figures,” which is a telling description of the writer’s lot. It also alludes to the book’s composition, which involved erasure of Bunting’s “sonatas” (exclusive of Briggflats). While rereading his work, certain isolated words and phrases kept appearing as poems within poems, so I started underscoring them to see what might result. In the end, I had reaped a series of fifteen poems, which seemed neither his nor mine. That made me think of After Lorca and Spicer’s notion of dictation (albeit not as he defines it). Death inhabits topologies because forms of relational and social death pervade it, recalling my intention to trace through its books the demise of the “one” — “that meditative man” — I mentioned earlier. In effect, I’m trying to tease out the distinction between a resistant subjectivity (that I would value) and the Romantic figure of the isolato (that I find problematic).
The speaker(s) of these poems include a limited third-person narrator — conceived as a voice-over in the manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped — and a figure of ambiguous gender who may or may not also be the narrator speaking in the first person. I made an effort to script the latter’s statements in such a way that they might reasonably be attributed to a “person” of either gender — with the figure of Tiresias at the back of my mind. I sought this blending to contrast with the masculine-feminine binary presented in the “The Grit.” As well, there is a temporal contrast between the books: where “The Grit” takes place over one afternoon at the beach, “Reaped Figures” suggests a retrospective look at a long (and increasingly isolated) life.
Harley: “Southern Exposure” [book 3] begins with a rather cryptic epigraph from the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran: “for him everything is possible, except life.” The poems in this book feature significantly longer lines and a more expansive vocabulary than we find in the rest of the movement. How are these features related to the title? To whom does the epigraph refer? Is there an element of self-portraiture involved in these poems?
Pearson: The window above my desk faced south. Abstracted from its literal context, it provided a frame, a lens, an orientation — a site of imagination. The shape of the window frame suggested a page, and its subdivision into panes suggested a series of poems. Where the first two books sift and order “shards” of experience and memory, the larger and more intact “frame” of the window seemed to call for longer lines. As well, since the peninsula, where I grew up, is nominally south of the city where I was living, the window’s orientation took on a retrospective cast. Cioran’s phrase, as I recall, refers to his sense of “the poet” as one whose work derives its power “from everything he has not undertaken” — as one who cannot escape himself and live as others in the “real” world. In effect, he’s describing the poète maudit, a Romantic (not to say anti-modernist) conception of what a poet is and does. When I was young, I found that image both seductive and troubling — and in time came to reject it — but I wanted to recall and explore that ambivalence in the context of “Southern Exposure,” which is a kind of serial portrait (or “Bildungslyrik”) of the poet as isolato. Bresson is once again a tacit influence here — specifically, Four Nights of a Dreamer.
Harley: “The Blue Table” [book 4] returns to a more clipped lineation and a more restrained vocabulary. It also recalls, in contrast with “Southern Exposure,” the gender binary of “The Grit,” opening with an image of containment, both physical and emotional, “of ritual prisons / of provocation / cells from which / the body of / love cries out / for a shape / to contain its dreams” (#1). How do you see the relationship between form and content? And how is that mirrored in book 4?
Pearson: I prefer to think of “form and content” in terms of statement (in linguistics, a meaningful grouping of words) and structure (a systemic pattern of interrelated components). And note that I’m reversing polarity here, such that the “form” of any specific statement is a function (not an extension) of the “content” of its structure. The relatively expansive lineation of “Southern Exposure” (which reflects the “world” outside the “window”) contracts, as you’ve noted, to a more restrictive architecture (a “table” in a “room”) — and its use of free indirect discourse yields to the split subjectivity of an implicitly first-person “speaker,” as keyed by the epigraph from Beckett: “He speaks of himself as of another.”
In the opening poem, words such as country, prisons, cells, and body are structures that define (hence, constrain and condition) their “contents.” The dream of freedom from confinement (be it social, carceral, or biological) derives from the experience of its lack, so it’s a fundamentally utopian postulate and, in a sense, amorphous. It lacks cognizable “shape,” for which it “cries out.”
Harley: In “Ellipsis” [book 5], “what goes / by the name of / love is banishment” (#2). This echoes the later poems in book 4, in which you refer to “love / that terrible word” (#7) and describe “the blue table” in your apartment as “a figure / drawing attention / from the difficult / events in the room / in which it stands” (#9). Why banishment? In what sense is love a terrible word? What made this table an object of significance, something that could draw attention? William Gass has called blue “the color consciousness becomes when caressed.” What importance do you ascribe to blueness?
Pearson: The problem with taking lines or phrases out of context is that they lose the specificity on which their textual significance depends. Of course, they can signify otherwise, but only and dubiously as “universal” statements on topics of putative interest. Apropos #2 of “Ellipsis”: banishment is the act of forcing someone to abandon their dwelling place, which, in the intimate scale of these poems, could be taken to refer to being abandoned (emotionally or physically) by another, which in effect is to be banished from a relationship. In context, this is done in “the name of / love” — a rubric under which many “terrible” things are done, conversely including acts that actually necessitate banishment.
As for the table, I’m not a Symbolist. The table in the room was blue. So is the table in the book, but they’re not the same table. Nor is the room the same room. Once again, the quotidian source domains of specific tropes are being linked to, and distinguished from, their target domains. The significance of the table in the room is not germane, though that of the “table” in the “room” is educible: in context, there’s a table at which two people might have sat together, talked together, broken bread together — a site, if you will, of domestic life, for which, in the poem, it becomes a “figure.” As does the “room” (which in Italian is called a stanza). In a sense, the table is a third party to the “events in the room” — at once a distraction from discord and a reminder that previously, as Wyatt wrote, life “hath been otherwise / Twenty times better.”
In the abstract, “blueness” has no particular significance, except perhaps in reference to a portion of the visible spectrum of light. In context, for me at least, it tacitly invokes “the blues” (a mode of motz al son which I deeply value). With respect to Gass, I rather doubt that Robert Johnson’s consciousness felt “caressed” when he contemplated the hellhound on his trail. “The blue table / is not absolute” because its figurative meaning is context-dependent (as is the figure of the “hellhound”). Art doesn’t imitate or transcend life; it renders life’s contingencies articulate, and its specificity makes different ways of seeing and conceiving of those contingencies available to consciousness.
Harley: “Refractions” [book 6] takes its epigraph from Creeley: “days we die / are particular.” The minimalist aesthetic of the entire movement becomes even more noticeable here: the lines are shorter than ever, the vocabulary even more restricted. But the effect, to me, seems Webernesque in the way that each word chosen acquires the same representational importance as every other. You seem to achieve the “secret stillness” in patterns that Alex Ross attributes to Webern, and to share a similar preoccupation with intricate design. What determined the structure of this book? And how does its structure relate to “love,” a word that recurs, as both noun and verb, insistently throughout the book?
Pearson: “Refractions” begins: “In designs love / dawn the phase / the mind addressed / blossoms.” Because its meaning and usage vary so widely, there is no generally accepted definition of “design” — and I would say the same about “love.” Embedded in my use of “design” is a pun on Dasein, by which Heidegger designates a fundamental ontological problem: “Dasein is that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.” It has been suggested that Heidegger came to this by way of Master Chuang’s philosophy. (Cf. my earlier reference to Master Chuang’s dream.)
The structure of the book derived from contemplating a glass brick, which I kept on my desk. I had recently entered into a new relationship, and my partner gave me the brick as a keepsake before leaving on an extended trip to Mexico. Such bricks are architectural elements (prisms made of compressed glass). They are translucent — they refract light — but are not transparent. The brick’s prismatic “cells” form a grid, which suggested a serial mode. The individual poems in the series are variations on (refractions of) its “theme” — encrypted in the Dasein pun as “Being” in love.
Harley: Before turning to the second movement, I note that topologies doesn’t show much evidence of the techniques I associate with Language writing. Certainly, your language is exacting in its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and the poems often focus on relations between the word and the world, but syntactic logic throughout topologies is much less paratactic than it is in your later work. Instead, you employ a hypotaxis-under-pressure, which is seemingly at odds with, for example, the poetics of the New Sentence. And in “Etude 3” of The Grand Piano, you acknowledge that the poems in topologies ran the risk of being dismissed as neo-Objectivist. As you see it, would such a reception have been warranted? What led you to adopt a more disjunctive syntax after completing the first movement of this work?
Pearson: As Roman Jakobson observed: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” And as Barrett Watten notes in his concluding essay for Grand Piano 10, “the history of [Language writing’s] emergence took place as an unresolved set of motives that made the literary what each of us confidently produced, in differing but related ways, circa 1980: writing, the work itself, language existing materially on the page” [emphasis added]. As well, context and chronology matter. The passage you cite from “Etude 3” specifically refers to my wondering how my work might be received at The Grand Piano when I first read there in June 1977. At that point, I had completed versions of the first five books in topologies and was working on the last. I’d been reading “language-centered writing” with great interest and growing enthusiasm for several years by then — primarily via Big Sky and This, as well as early books from Barrett, Lyn Hejinian, and Kit — and was well aware of the predilection for prose forms, parataxis, and various defamiliarizing strategies, as well as the motivations behind such usages, with which I largely concurred.
Ted Pearson with coauthors of The Grand Piano.
At the same time, however, I felt such techniques were unsuited to the poems in topologies — in part because of its expository role in the larger work-in-progress, and in part because I felt (and continue to feel) that placing “hypotaxis under pressure” is an equally viable, if less overt way of foregrounding language’s material existence on the page. As well, I quite understood my peers’ impatience with the various mystifications that had long since accrued to the notion of “the poetic line” — and their sense of the liberatory potential of the sentence. But as a writer, I wasn’t then drawn to prose (nor, on the evidence, was Rae Armantrout). And a careful reading of my use of lines and stanzas in topologies would reveal that they are not based on standard metrical schema, nor do they simulate colloquial speech, nor are they “measured” by breath. Rather, they reflect attention to phonotactics and grammatical phrasing, and they are based on recurring numerical patterns, such that each poem represents a mathematical set.
Lastly, as John Cage asserted, “One does not make just any experiment, but does what must be done.” Appropriating otherwise motivated writing strategies, without regard for their aptness to the work at hand, can only result in the charade of radicality, not in its actualization. I trusted that my work would make its case and find its readers over time, so I deferred use of the techniques you mention until such use was necessary. That came in 1980, when I began work on the second movement: contingencies.
Editorial note: Bruce Andrews (b. 1948) is the author of more than thirty books of poetry including Edge (1973), I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992), Lip Service (2001), and Swoon Noir (2007). He is also the author of numerous essays on poetry and coeditor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Andrews teaches political science at Fordham University. The following has been adapted from a LINEbreak conversation recorded in Andrews’s New York apartment in 1995 and transcribed by Michael Nardone. LINEbreak is produced and directed by Martin Spinelli for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. The program is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: poetry as politics with Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews’ books of poetry include Give Em Enough Rope, Ex Why Zee, and from Sun and Moon Press, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism).
Bruce, I know the first couple of times I tried to recite that title of yours I would add “please,” which I think is kind of funny: please shut up. But you don’t put please in your writing a whole lot. In fact, that book is fairly confrontational for many people.
Bruce Andrews: I think the word please is confrontational, and, in fact, I do use that word pretty often. It’s like promises, exhortations, seductions — a kind of omnipresent discourse that we get publicly and privately. If you think of please as a shy, timid, step-and-fetch-it approach to people that avoids confrontation, then I don’t tend to use it in that way.
Bernstein: Right, that’s what I was thinking of it as being, especially with the “please shut up.” But then what interests you in a poetry of confrontation? A poetry that sometimes seems to have anger in it, a poetry that has some of the violence that is often removed from a more genteel practice of poetry which talks about love or quiet, lyric feelings? You don’t seem to have much of that kind of sentiment in your work.
Andrews: When you talk about poetry as politics, as in your introductory remarks, I think about politics as power — as sustaining relations of power, challenging relations of power. Then the genteel practices that you referred to seem more and more evasive, because they’re not really able to confront the way power operates. If power operates on us in insidious ways that we’re not even aware of, or if power operates in blunt, coercive ways that we ought to be more aware of, then how do you get to that? How do you implicate that in writing? Doing things other people are likely to think of because it’s so contrastive with what we normally think of in our suburbanized mode as poetry, when people think of that as confrontational, then maybe that means some teeny jackpot has been hit.
Bernstein: That was, to some degree, a shift in your work. The work that you did in the early seventies, for example, was collected as Love Songs. It has a very different texture and feeling than the work that you are doing now, although it is by no means conventional in the way that some of the work you were talking about just now —
Andrews: Well, Love Songs was one long piece that I did in the second half of 1973 as a Christmas present for my then wife. Actually, the other collection of my work from the seventies with a title that would follow your argument here is called Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened. But, in that period, mostly in the seventies, I was also more interested in isolating syllables, words, individual sounds, in an atomized and discreet way. When I started to move in the late seventies/early eighties to a more phrase-based work, that opened up the possibilities of speech a little differently — longer constructions, other kinds of materials coming in. Then I had a format in which I could think about social issues and the social content of discourse. That coincided with the quite horrific changes in this society and the politics of the Reagan years. So, those two things coming into play at the same time and opening up a different kind of format made this possible. And getting royally pissed off at this right-wing nightmare, which was the last right-wing nightmare that was perpetrated on our body politic, brought things up, ratcheted them up a little bit in terms of social temperature.
Bernstein: One way that your work overall, but especially the work since the Reagan years, defies normal generic categorizations as poetry is the range of kinds of language and sources that you use. Not that no other writing has ever used that, not even that no other poetry has used some of it, but still, the almost encyclopedic scope of the social reference in your work seems to break down conceptions of poems. Not just the lyric poem, but other types of poetry.
Andrews: Think of how poignant that sounds, even as you read back the transcript. Just the idea that somehow having a desire for an encyclopedic range of possibility and reference and content and social bits of matter in your work — it would automatically seem odd that it would be poetry. Somehow, what we think of as poetry or literary writing is supposed to accept the fact that it can operate happily with such a shrunken range of reference. Meanwhile, everybody in the world is confronted with this increasingly exploding range of reference that they embody in their own personal lives. I mean, if you are walking down the street — admittedly, I’ve lived in an urban area for twenty years — mass-culture, television, whatever your range of information is: you’re being bombarded with this stuff all the time. And to somehow think that poetry is a place where you can’t, unlike all these other areas in your personal life, have this come to life, seems so sad.
Bernstein: Can you read a section from Shut Up?
Andrews: Sure. This is a piece from I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, or Social Romanticism. It’s called “Gestalt Me Out.”
[Andrews reads selection.]
Bernstein: Bruce, can you say something about how you compose? Your method of composing a work like that or that work in particular?
Andrews: Well, my methods have changed over the years, and this work was written in the mid-1980s. By that point I had pretty much adopted the method that I’ve been working with since, which is to generate large amounts of material on very small pieces of paper — one two, three, four, five words at a time in clusters, short fragments of phrases or prephrases — and then compose the work sometimes much later, after I had written the raw material into works based on a whole series of other decisions I’d make later. It’s more like editing film footage; the editing process becomes the composing process. Or that’s what gets focused on, more than some kind of point-of-inspiration moment that I actually wrote the words in.
Bernstein: Do you think poetry is a place that can change political values? A medium that can change political values?
Andrews: There is a lot of posturing that goes on around that issue. People making theoretical claims about writing that nobody reads as having tremendous revolutionary implications, and then other people scoffing at the very possibility or even the desire to have poetry or writing have any kind of social and political implications. I think it works on the writer, and it works on the reader, probably more as a kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes that were getting formed — that need more support. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of mobilizing large numbers of people. The only easy way you can mobilize large numbers of people is by keeping them just the way they are. But if you are trying to reinforce some attempt at change, then it is going to be modest, and it’s going to take place in the actual experience of the work, and that’s obviously very limited.
Bernstein: Do reading values then become important? The way in which you read your own work? The way in which other people can read your work?
Andrews: I think of my own work as a giant reading project. The writing is a way of recasting and reconsidering what reading could be. And I think that a lot of my feelings about other writing in the past, for instance, comes out of thoughts and reactions to its readability, to its accessibility to a different way of configuring it in my own reading. What I’ve tried to do in my own work, to keep myself happy and geared up about it, has been to try to embody in it as much as I can the kind of reading possibilities that I want when I look at other people’s work. In that sense, reading has always been central.
Bernstein: And what are the kind of reading possibilities that you are interested in, both in your own work and other people’s work, especially as they may be different from the reading of, say, the genteel lyric, the bogie poem that I invoked —
Andrews: Bogie did you say?
Bernstein: Or the dummy poem that I invoked at the beginning of the show?
Andrews: I think a lot of what I experience in this genteel writing that you mentioned earlier is the cage of genre with its own built-in institutional trappings. As somebody that comes to all of this writing possibility not as an eager creative writing workshop graduate, English major, English grad student, or English professor person, those genre constraints and genre mobilizations never really fascinated me all that much. Given the absence of that kind of training, I never was really easily able to understand why other people were so fascinated by it or were so willing to take it as an absolute limit. Things that I read, sometimes maybe more varied, sometimes maybe more distractedly, sometimes as an elaborate interweaving of different things happening at the same time, or happening one after the other, or in layers or extended concentric circles of possibility, all that stuff doesn’t seem to have much to do with what I think of poetry as a genre. One thing I’ve tried to do, and one thing I’m interested in doing, is opening up the possibilities of writing in language that are disrespectful of genre boundaries and constraints.
Bernstein: Do you think of that activity, then, as poetry? Do you think of yourself as writing poems?
Andrews: That’s an interesting question. I do now. I guess when I started, I started writing in the 1969-1970 period, I thought of it as a kind of literary writing or experimental work in writing, more than I thought of it as poetry. Now I think of poetry as an institutional designation, so as soon as I began publishing and getting in touch with other writers, it was clear that any future for anything I did or anything they were doing was going to be under the category of poetry as defined by other people. Over the years, I’ve just accepted that.
I remember, for instance, when the term language poetry started getting thrown around. My original nervousness about the term stemmed mostly from the “p” word rather than the “I” word. You know that I thought of it as language writing, a term that I wasn’t all that displeased with, because it suggested almost a new genre or a new subgenre possibility that hadn’t yet been defined. It would be a type of writing that had a certain way of foregrounding the way meaning was produced and operated on in a social world, rather than language poetry, which then implies that language is the adjective referring to a subcategory of what we already think of as poetry.
Bernstein: So, you think the shift of categorization from something like language-centered or language-oriented writing to capital L, capital P, Language Poetry is a recuperation by literature of something that was questioning the poetic status of the work?
Andrews: Yes, but more pointedly, it was a recuperation or an appropriation by institutions, by an already-existing institutional network out there in the social world that organizes the social world that we all have to deal with. There’s no point in being rabidly sentimental about all that and trying to act as if you could do your own disappearing act, trying to act as though none of that mattered, or that you could avoid it all, triumph over it heroically or whatever. No, it was a revealing change, I would say. Maybe recuperation might be too loaded a word. It was something that alerted me and a lot of other people, I think, to the role of institutions in organizing our future.
Bernstein: A lot of poetry nowadays is looked at both by readers and by poets themselves in terms of group identification, or gender identification. Is that something that is significant for you as a writer?
Andrews: It is, mostly in ways that I am not conscious of since I do fall demographically in all the oppressor groups as a college-educated, middleclass, white, heterosexual male from the USA. So the emphasis of identity politics in empowering pre-existing notions of who a person is or how they are supposed to operate socially have always been troubling to me since my demographic slot, or niche, has never been one that I thought was worth celebrating. It seems largely to be an obstacle to the kinds of social change that I would be happy about. So, I’m not prominent in the men’s movement. I’m not prominent in the straight movement. I’m not prominent in the elite —
Bernstein: The white movement.
Andrews: Right, the white movement: another group I have failed to pay my dues to for a while. It’s more that I now notice with some … sadness is maybe not quite the right word, it’s a little strong … but with some little fret that people are willing to gravitate towards things that give them back what they already are in a compensatory way, and I’ve always been more trying to figure out how I get out of whatever box I’m in rather than to better decorate it.
Bernstein: One thing you’ve certainly been interested in as a writer is thinking about writing, thinking about the relation of writing to ideology, writing to politics, writing to social formation, social structure. And a project that we did together called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the late seventies consisted of poets, mostly poets, writing essays, but often in a nonconventional form. But you, in particular, in the many essays you’ve written, have resisted writing explanatory, expository prose. Why is that?
Andrews: Partly because I was excited and attracted by something else, another way of trying to figure out how to deal with the essay form or with discursive possibility, and maybe also because I never had the institutional nudge to move me in that direction since I wasn’t operating out of the protocols present in journalism or classroom discourse or in scholarly discourse in English departments.
Bernstein: But certainly the protocols present within the poetry communities of poets writing reviews and so on were equally generic and specific toward narrative and description, and you resisted those as well.
Andrews: Well, remember back then there was also a lot of activity going on, and conversation in a more constructivist vein, to try and come up with new ways of writing about work. And also in correspondence where people would try ideas out or would collage materials in different ways or would try to take different kinds of risks in those forms without even knowing they were doing it — but just because they were working in a realm where those genre-constraints of essay writing weren’t present. I guess there was a certain innocence attached to the project at the beginning where you thought, “Gee, maybe we could come up with a whole range of new ways to think about work or to get it into their awareness.”
Bernstein: I thought we did.
Andrews: Oh, I’m sorry?! …
[Andrews reads “Devo Habit.”]
Bernstein: Bruce Andrews reading “Devo Habit.” A collection of Bruce Andrews’s essays has just been published as Paradise and Method: Poetry and Praxis.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl dialogues with Cris Costa
Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (b. 1978) is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and translator. He often works with sound and visual poetry and regularly performs at festivals throughout Europe. Critics have compared his books in Icelandic to such dissimilar poets as Snorri Sturluson and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Norðdahl’s poems have been translated into a dozen languages, and his second novel, Eitur fyrir byrjendur (Poison for beginners), was published in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 2010. In 2008 Norðdahl received the Icelandic Translators Award for his translation of Jonathan Lethem’s tourettic novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In 2010 his poetry-animation Höpöhöpö Böks received an Honorable Mention at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival Berlin. Eiríkur is a founding member of the Nýhil poet cooperative.
Cris Costa lives in Vancouver and is a writer, independent scholar, and arts and cultural worker. Her areas of research include contemporary literature, semiotics, space, and urban social movements. She recently completed a poetry chapbook with Heavy Industries, and writes fiction.
This dialogue took place in 2010.
Cris Costa: Hi Eiríkur. I’d like to begin — and we could start just about anywhere — by diving right into the mechanics of your work. Your critical and creative writing, multimedia work, and performances are rich in what they offer readers and audiences, from form to aesthetics, from content to critique. The critiques that your work offers have dual character. They are often political and comment on the nature of literature itself (what is it, how it functions, who it’s for), and they also provide an implicit analysis of the function of language. What I thoroughly enjoy in your work, however, is its propensity for acknowledging these elements self-reflexively, that is, I see a layer of awareness of the potentials and limits of the exercise — and this comes through in both your creative and critical pieces. To be more specific, in your paper, “Mock Duck Mandarin,” you conclude by identifying a “common insanity” inherent in our collective human psyche, which comes out, which we seek to express (or hear), when we perform and listen to sound poetry. Elsewhere you explore the links between language and insanity, language and politics, language and ideology, or, on the other hand, ideology and insanity. You’ve said that you see sound poetry as an “escape from the cerebral toward the sublimely stupid,” with “a tendency to produce a group of pregnant afterthoughts.” Can you tell me more about how?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I think there’s a case to be made for “insanity” as an interpretative and investigative tool for writing and for reading. Insanity or sublime stupidity are no doubt unpleasant conditions — but they suggest a method for or attainable condition of outsidership, for thinking outside the logical, or more to the point, what is perceived as logical. I feel I’m a very normal person, but I wish to have entryways into the not-so-normal parts of life, the not-so-normal parts of thinking — perhaps to escape my own normal thinking, which like any normal thinking is a mode of being that is simultaneously delusional and dangerous. What interests me about poetry, as a reader and a practitioner, is this possibility of escape — and that is, by rampant generalization, what I believe must interest everybody else about poetry. I feel this escape might be achieved through the insane/inane and juvenile (if not fully childish) manners of poetry — a “cerebral” and “emotional” artform that continually tries to escape the grasp of the cerebral and the emotional, in order to defy its own definitions.
This is in a sense just basic deconstruction, I think, albeit a rather chaotic and haphazard deconstruction. Any action is a creative action of sorts; one is always left with something in particular (or nothing in particular) as the creative outcome or product of any action. Deconstructing a house leaves you with a field or a plot. Burning a book leaves you with ashes, and perhaps, as when German university students of Nazi orientation burned books in the ’30s, decades of counteraction, idioms, legislature and protective measures for the freedom of expression, and against book burnings.
I see poetry as the use of language to create a reaction, to affect people with linguistic tools (semantic, semiotic, epistemological, social and whatnot). I used to do it through transgression — or attempts at transgression — but I’ve moved away from that (anger) and towards joviality, maintaining a transgression that is left becoming a form of gaiety — like friends taking the piss instead of enemies spouting hatred across the great divide.
And so what we are left with when we turn language into a form of sublime stupidity, or what we are left with when we attempt to do so, is very often this kind of attempted reconstruction — which is what I mean by pregnant afterthoughts. For each deconstruction carries a reconstruction — and so each thought taken apart is put back together in a new way, if that makes any sense.
From Homer to the eddas to the koans to Symbolism to Imagism to the beatniks — not to mention Dada or Futurism, Schwitters or Stein — poetry has aimed to jolt by maneuvering outside normal thinking and within the realm of the intuitive while simultaneously formulating what we do in more sensible or cerebral terms. I wish to embrace not only the intuitive but also the downright silly, sublimely stupid — or in(s)ane — to further jolt and rejolt, start and restart, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, write, unwrite and rewrite.
Costa: How do you see this linked to current sociopolitical and economic systems? And, if this applies, do you see your work as a product of this system, as mimesis or response?
Norðdahl: I’m not sure if I do, at least not at a self-reflective level. To a certain extent, doing business in the poetry world is a negation of economic systems, meaning that poetry mostly functions outside the economic, having no monetary value. But this is only partly true because there are grants to be obtained, positions to be acquired, and even pocket money for producing the actual poetry. But mostly poets fight for cultural capital. I’m no exception and I’m not even sure how I could be. I try to be aware of the fact that I desire other people’s admiration — that this is one of the reasons I do what I do — but I’ve not reached a conclusion as to whether my greed for cultural capital is a dishonest desire or perfectly justifiable.
Many poets could have chosen a more lucrative profession, both in a traditional economic sense and in the cultural capital sense. I’m not sure I could have — I have no Plan B, no education and no training, save for being partly raised in a shrimp factory at the outskirts of the known universe. Outside of literature, that’s the only business I know, and that’s even less lucrative.
As for readers, whether I intend for my poetry to have a sociopolitical or economic effect on my readers, yes, I guess I do. Which effect exactly, or even vaguely, I’m not sure. In writing I try to avoid anything that doesn’t intuitively feel capable of undermining social, political or sociopolitical thought processes, which doesn’t in some way turn it’s own logic on its head — and in writing politically I try to avoid (as far as that is possible) moralism, social realism, confessionalism, sentimentalism, and dogmatism, which are the most common forms of ineffectual political poetry. At the same time, I maintain a kind of socialism and the idea that I want my poetry to have a political efficacy. But then I also try to avoid making too much sense. Maybe I define literature too much from the standpoint of what it shouldn’t be rather than what it should be. I dread maturity, and I get a knee-jerk reaction every time I’m prompted with “maturity” (usually characterized by abundant “modesty” and “humility”) but perhaps that just makes me immature. I think I might have an aversion to people (authors, or characters even) who speak with too much authority (pun!), who believe too strongly that they are right. It’s an air of nobility that irks.
Maybe it’s both mimesis and a response. Like answering someone in a sarcastic imitation — snorting.
Costa: Thanks. This makes me think of your piece “Kreppusonnettan (IMF! IMF! OMG! OMG!),” which is available online, both as a recorded performance and as media art. The media art version of this sonnet offers a quality of sarcasm — in fact, it’s farcical, insofar that it’s presented as a computer animated collage containing the face of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of Iceland’s nineteenth-century independence movement, superimposed on a voluptuous woman’s body, standing at the front of Iceland’s House of Parliament. But it calls upon our associations with the abbreviations of our computerized and commodified language(s) to produce a thoughtful poetic piece. This piece can, as you mention here and also in “Mock Duck Mandarin,” be read as someone “taking the piss.” On the other hand, it’s not — perhaps not entirely — and this comes out a lot more in the performance version of the sonnet. In the performance more attention is brought to the sounds of the abbreviations as they fall off a carefully intoned tongue. It’s funny, yes. Yet one can’t help but become conscious of the meaning we seek to produce, to project upon the sounds delivered from vocal cavities. Nonsense quickly becomes sense. The critique of the IMF not only becomes about the organization itself, the Icelandic government, or our propensity to watch the world economic crisis ravel and unravel through our abbreviated online existences. It’s also a critique concerning human cognition and our relationship to meaning and language. You discuss this through different angles in your critical work. Can you talk about how you are currently seeking to “destro[y] a language (of one’s own)” in your poetic practice. And, what does this have to do with vernaculars and accents in relation to poetry, but also at large?
Norðdahl: I’d like to start by giving a little context for the Crisis Sonnet. On October 6, 2008, the Icelandic economy collapsed, resulting in massive protesting which lead to the resignation of the right-wing government for elections and a left-wing government (which behaves exactly like a right-wing government, down to cutting childcare and increasing expenditures for NATO). Immediately after the collapse people started making all sorts of demands: one of them being that the IMF should be called in to take care of everything. When the poem was written, this demand was still on the agenda of maybe half of the protesters in Reykjavík — they were asking the government to invite the IMF to come and fix the economy. The other half of the protesters, the more seasoned lefties, were, of course, against it. The IMF eventually came and is currently working with the “left-wing” government.
On Austurvöllur square, where most of the protesting took place, stands a statue of Jón Sigurðsson. This square is also the scene for the media version of the poem. During the protests a group of (older, I think) feminists started dressing him up in a pink dress, symbolizing the desired change in government values (from strong “male” values to soft “female” values).
I didn’t intend for the crisis sonnet to be a sound poem. It’s written as a prologue to a book I’m working on, which is coming out in Icelandic next year, and hopefully English too, if I find a publisher for it. It’s called Fist or Words Bereft of Sense, and it deals with the crisis and collapse mostly through idiotic, playful language. I sent an early draft of the manuscript to a friend for comments and he said he didn’t like the prologue “although it’s probably great when you read it.” Until then I’d not even realized that it could be read, but following this suggestion it immediately took the form of a techno poem. I tend to relate the sounds of it to neon-colored cars that pass slowly with loud music booming from the inside, where all you get is the bass. Which I guess is also a metaphor for the IMF.
I’ve worked with malformed words in Icelandic quite a bit, using foreign accents to remake the sounds of words. The crisis sonnet does have some connection to that insofar as it changes abbreviations into unadulterated words, although that is common for abbreviations (think of acronyms such as NATO, UNESCO, AIDS, etc.). The first part of the sonnet drives on the punched and bowelled nasal “M” sound — the “M” you make with a thrust deep down in your belly. This sound doesn’t exist in normal words in any language I know. The same goes for the spitting in “FIT” in the last part or the singing of “LOL.”
The abbreviations are thus made into words containing malformed (adjusted) sounds that render them closer to music, or, at the very least, move them away from traditional pronunciation. They become words, but not really — they get the nonstop linearity of words, but are stripped of their normal sounds, while still remaining mostly recognizable.
In a way it’s a similar treatment as of the sacred meditative “om” in Hinduism and Buddhism, although without the prolongation. In fact IMF just might be the OM of a modern religion.
Costa: Nice comparison. You often cite the North American Language movement, Dada, and Futurism as points of reference and influence within your work. How do you position your work in the context of these past movements?
Norðdahl: I try to think of myself as pluralist when it comes to “schools” of poetry, which is awfully postmodern of me, I guess, but then that’s probably alright. I dislike some tendencies found in some schools of poetry, like the pornification of sentiment in confessionalism, and I usually find myself picking favorites on the far edges, towards the crazy. I have problems with LangPo — that it’s over intellectualized, for one — and with Futurism (its openly fascist tendencies). Dada was very dogmatic. In the transcontinental I would like to stand between Schwitters — I’m not a great fan of the Ur Sonata, though I find it “okay” — and Gertrude Stein. But I find a strong relation to these movements and an even greater relation to the conceptual movement and the Flarf movement, although I’m probably neither a conceptual poet nor a Flarf poet (while having many friends in both). Shall we say I’m in favor of a universal avant-garde siblingry? Is that too hippie? I like to pick from others what I like, and I would like for others to pick from me what they like — I like to see poetic project(s) as a communal effort, like one would see the history of thought in philosophy, something we are all doing together.
Costa: Do you perceive a difference in the reception of your work between North American and European audiences, and if so, do you think these differences are in anyway dependent on the movements we’ve been discussing?
Norðdahl: Geographically my hometown, Ísafjörður, belongs to the American continent: the continental divide runs right through Iceland. Culturally, of course, the country is some sort of Scandinavian country, although a far cry from lefty Sweden. The reception of my work is divided, but not into America versus Europe, but Iceland versus northern Europe. I have some connections to the U.S. through the Flarf collective, to Canada through derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, a.rawlings and a few other acquaintances, and I’ve visited New York and Toronto on poetry errands, but I saying I had “a reception” there would be stretching it a bit. I’ve had poems in 4–5 magazines and I’ve performed on the American continent a total of five times in three trips.
My work in Iceland and in Europe is different. I perform and preach in Europe, while my books are published in Iceland. I have three novels, six poetry books, two collections of translations and two edited books about poetry, not counting translations of nonfiction, fiction and theatre. All are in Icelandic. I have no book in English or any other language outside of Icelandic, although my second novel is coming in German and I’m hoping to have an essay collection in English and perhaps Finnish next year. So far the largest portion of my work outside of Iceland revolves around sound poetry, whereas the focus in Iceland tends to be on my novels.
Costa: In light of your recent and intriguing article, “Quiet, You Ignorant Booby!,” I think it’s only fitting to thank you for your thorough, thoughtful, and detailed responses thus far, and to conclude with the most important question ever asked to any poet — for posterity of course: What is the future of poetry? (We, on the American side of your continent, have been trying to figure this out for decades.)
Norðdahl: I think, for one, that all the obscure struggling poets are going to become canonized elders who, perhaps, not receiving the Nobel Prize will continually be mentioned in the same breath as the various Nobel Prize winners. Others will have Pulitzers, Griffins, and National Book Awards. Those left without such esteem will either get popular and rich, or else they will get comfortable university positions and relatively more attractive spouses (although, as a general rule, all poets get attractive spouses). Having attractive spouses will do wonders for the poetic libido, which in turn will do wonders for the poetry.
While fiction will still remain popular — despite this imminent and sudden rise in poetic quality, poetic respect and the resulting poetic popularity — it will never really feel the same for novelists. Fiction writers will applaud themselves for being marginalized and thus more important than ever, but even that won’t be true. And even if it were, it still would not provide any comfort. Bad fiction will stop selling completely and bad poetry will cease to exist. Then, through an intricate web of causes, effects, misinterpretations and random coincidences, good poetry will eventually — (spoiler alert!) — eradicate world hunger, war, fascism, and disease. This in turn will make everyone happy. For about fifteen minutes.