Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany,” a program hosted at the Kelly Writers House in April 2014. The conversation was transcribed by Tracie Morris. Listen to the audio program here. — Julia Bloch
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening’s Clocktower Radio’s program of readings and conversations with writers presented in collaboration with PennSound. Today’s show comes to you live from the Kelly Writers House of the University of Pennsylvania as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany” to honor Delany’s contribution to Temple-Penn Poetics. And as such is being taped before, what has every appearance of being, a live audience … though, I’m not one-hundred percent sure. [Audience laughs.]
My guest is Chip Delany. Delany is a towering figure in contemporary science fiction, fantasy, fiction, memoir, social commentary, and literary theory and criticism. He has been teaching at Temple University’s creative writing program since 2001, coming to Temple after a short stint in the Buffalo Poetics program. My name is Charles Bernstein. Chip, welcome to Close Listening.
Samuel R. Delany: Hi there, Charles.
Bernstein: As poets we’re celebrating you here today and as was just mentioned in the toasts, you don’t write poetry — but I wonder if you could talk about the relation of genre to your work. It’s one of the most basic questions but you work, probably, in more different genres than any writer I can think about [Delany laughs] and have a deep commitment to their specificity. In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, of course, you talk in the most illuminating way about understanding science fiction, or speculative fiction, as a genre that circulates in a way that I found comparable to the way I think poetry circulates. But what is your commitment to the specific genres? Both the differences and the possibilities of each and the relationship of the ensemble in what you’re written?
Delany: Well one thing I’ve thought about genres for a long time is that we probably put too much faith in their ability to solve various problems for us. Probably one of the questions I’m asked most frequently about genres, and I’m glad to say that you did not ask the most frequently asked question, you get points for that, Charles —
Bernstein: Oh. I’m disappointed. [Delany laughs.]
Delany: — is “Do you feel that as a person who works in a marginal genre, and who is a marginal person, because you’re Black” —
Bernstein: The reason I didn’t ask that question is that that’s news to me. [Audience laughs.]
Delany: Ah ha. “You know, you’re Black and you’re gay, do you think that working in a marginal genre makes it easier to write about those people?” To which the answer is, absolutely not. Genres don’t do the work for you. As Raymond Chandler says in one of his most popular essays in “The Simple Art of Murder,” at the beginning of his collection of the same name, “there are no vital art forms.” That is to say, there are no significant genres. There are different genres, yes. But they are not significant because they exist. He says there are no significant art forms, there’s only art, and precious little of that. And I think he was right. Which is to say, you get a good writer, or a writer who’s interested in dealing with marginal peoples and marginal situations working in whatever genre that he chooses, be it poetry, drama, science fiction, comic books — it doesn’t really matter — if they are decent workers, and they also are committed, and they have a vision that they want to put forward, then you will get good art about these things. And if they don’t have this, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, you’re going to come up with very ordinary stuff. And that’s the way I think it works.
Earlier, Tracie was talking about various and sundry people who were not here this afternoon. How many of you recognize the name K. Leslie Steiner? Is there anybody who does?
Bernstein: Three people in the audience raise their hand.
Delany: So we have four, a few people who recognize K. Leslie Steiner’s name. K. Leslie Steiner is a critic, and she was also invited this evening, and she couldn’t make it. So she sent a bunch of questions to me that she thought she was going to ask herself. Charles is doing a very good job of replacing K. Leslie Steiner on the program here. However —
Bernstein: I am K. Leslie Steiner. [Delany laughs.] Surprise!
Delany: Yes. I believe that. At any rate, one of things she mentioned, which is kind of interesting in terms of one of the things that was said earlier, she said: “At one point in the WisCon journals, which was a little book that was published from the feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, [in issue] number three, they asked you to write an essay on power. And at the very beginning of that essay, you started off by saying you believed that the most important political problem in the world today is the treatment of women. You know, you said that, and why did you say that? It seems like an odd thing for a gay, Black, science-fiction writer to say.” And the answer is — you can find it in the main paragraph of the essay — is simply that the oppression of women is the model for all other oppressions in the world. It is the model for the oppression of Black people, it is the model for the oppression of children, it is the model for the oppression of workers by their bosses, whenever there is a power differential, people learn how to do that because of the way women are oppressed in this society. I believe that down to the bottom of my heart. There was another thing … Ms. Steiner’s second question, which she sent me and that was, and again, it relates to something that we were talking about earlier, “In an essay that you wrote back in 1974, back when you were a single gay parent living in London, taking care of your daughter at one, you wrote about this. It’s included in the revised edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, it was published in Khatru’s “Symposium on Women and Science Fiction” in 1976, you wrote that one day you went into a commune in the north of England and there on the back wall was a banner and it said, ‘Mother Is a Job’ and you seemed to find that kind of life-changing.” Well it did. It did. It was one of the things … that was for me, the moment where maternity and paternity were both degenderized. And, you know, I had this baby strapped to my belly and, you know “Mother Is a Job.” And I thought, “Okay. That’s one of the jobs I have to do.” And you know, you just went on living that way. It was a very very fortunate thing. So that was one of the ways that I dealt with one of the questions that Fred Moten, was talking about a little earlier. Both of those are very important.
Now, how do these relate to being a queer, Black science fiction writer? Well, one of the things is simply that in the same way that the model for all oppressions is the way women are marginalized, underpaid, you name it, this is the way homophobia is structured. It’s the same kind of thing. And I will be talking about that a little later when I do introduce my reading. Very, very quickly and I hope with a light touch because I think these things are better laughed at than taken too seriously.
Bernstein: So genre is famously related to race and to —
Delany: Right! It’s related to every category that is exploited and that is stuck in a power structure where you are not happy with how the power structure works. And every time the power structure changes something is gonna make somebody unhappy. So, what do you do? You think a lot. That’s how you start. And then you start to do something to change it in a way you want to do it, you want to change, and also a way that changes other parts of the power structure because if you don’t it’s going to turn around and bite you in the ass. And this kind of thinking is something that I think really needs to be encouraged, and it’s something that … I think there’s precious little art, there’s also precious little of this kind of, dare I call it, global or holistic or ecological thinking that goes on in the world. So one of the reasons, again, to just quickly — ha ha — one of the, to get around to answering my own question, because what does this have to do with being a gay, Black science-fiction writer is simply that I know a great deal — not a great deal — because nobody knows a great deal in the world we live in now, about anything. Let’s put it this way, I know more than I know about anything else, about being a gay man. I happen to know something about being a gay man with a child. I happen to know something about being a gay man who has been living fairly happily for the last twenty-five years with my partner. How did I learn these things? From living the last twenty-five years with my partner. These are how things work, the experiences that go into your life and these are what I try to mine, all the time, in my fiction. Somebody mentioned that Babel-17 is some sort of mining of the experience. Yeah! I was married to a poet. I was married to a poet, who, for a while, was an editor at a science-fiction publishing company where she got really tired of the treatment of the women characters. And who would she come home and complain about to? Me. [Audience and Bernstein laugh.]
And so I had to write something for her. The first few books that I wrote, the first six really, were basically … she was the audience, for those books and I wanted something that she could enjoy. And each one I didn’t, did not succeed perfectly from the very beginning. Each one was a learning experience and I had to do something more. And that’s — I’m very glad that I did, “the more” and finally at one point I decided oh, I’ll go do something else. And I did something else and I’ve been back and forth to it ever since.
And I haven’t changed — just because you go and do something for which you happen to have immediate data, doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten the main things you think are important. I still think the same things that Ms. Steiner asked me about in those first two questions. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned any of those ideas by writing about the situation of gay men, for instance. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned writing about the oppression of gay men by trying to write about gay men who are not oppressed. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
I don’t think, I don’t think the way to do everything is to talk about, you know, the very real ways in which we are victims. We don’t have to talk about only that. We can talk about ways we’re not as well. Because that highlights problems of making people victims so there’s, it’s a very complicated thing. I try to do it with a sense of how these things relate to the other things, this ecological thinking, this global … I try, and I fail all the time. Again, that failure is built into that. One of my definitions of success, which I’m very very fond of, I got it from the actress Ruth McClanahan who mentioned it on a television show, and she, she said, stole it from Winston Churchill. “Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.” [Laughter.] And that is what success is for me: going from failure to failure — with enthusiasm. And so everything is going to be a failure to some way, but I do the best I can. And I try to do it enthusiastically.
Bernstein: And you see that would be a great appeal to the young poet, whose life necessarily must be going from failure to failure with enthusiasm. [Delany laughs.] And this is something you address in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw very specifically that relates again to the question of genre where you say that writers who try to work in unmarked forms, that are appealing to everyone … fail in a different kind of way than what you’re talking about —
Bernstein: — fail conceptually. In that sense you restore the sense that poetry is a subgenre in the way that it’s not a major form, but it’s redeemed by being a form that’s more like science fiction. So skirting around the issue, which you’ve addressed here, that genre fiction is thought to be less significant than —
Bernstein: — fiction that doesn’t mark itself as genre. What do you think about the nature of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fantasy? Because imagination could be understood as being that greater thing and so what I’d say one of the things that I find very powerful about your work is that it resists the idea that poetry would be better off aligning itself with imagination and recognizes that what’s significant about the kind of poetry I want is its connection to fantasy.
Delany: Hmm. Okay. Do you remember how exactly he said, he actually said it, ’cause I assume it’s something from Biographical Literaria …
Bernstein: It is —
Delany: … but I don’t remember the actual …
Bernstein: For Coleridge, imagination is the higher form that goes beyond. Fantasy is feminized, seen [as “passive and mechanical,” as in] fairies or demonic dreams. … [It can’t be] totalizing and sublime.
Delany: I see. I think there’s room for … both. [Chuckles.] Again I don’t, I, I don’t usually think either of prose narrative or poetry in terms of fantasy versus imagination, the imaginative.
Bernstein: You could also just speak of it in terms of what your commitment is to fantasy. Not as a genre but as what it can potentiate, both for readers and for yourself as a writer.
Delany: My incursions into fantasy are restricted to one fairy tale that I’m very fond of, written very early in my career, called “Prismatica,” that I just got out in an anthology. That tale was anthologized by Neil Gaiman, who was mentioned a little earlier. And I reread about a third of it and thought, “Hey, not bad.” Which is nice, nice to have that response to something, and then the Nevèrÿon books have been mentioned by a number of people from this very area of the room, where we are. I would say, they are more fully imagined, certainly than, say, Prismatica. I don’t know.
Bernstein: Well, that’s hardly a “just” that series of books. It’s an immense body of work …
Delany: It’s pretty ah, four volumes, four volumes and a million pages [chuckles], no. Four volumes and a lot of pages. Again, could you give me a text that I might have read that you can then talk about —
Bernstein: Well you can talk about it in terms of sexual fantasy or other that may contribute to your work but that purportedly screen some readers out … if one wanted to have a general reach that would appeal to all humanity with a universal address —
Bernstein: — one of the things I’m asking about genre also came up today, especially in Terry Rowden’s talk: each of the kinds of work you do, might potentially appeal to different aspects either of ourselves or of even different bodies of readers. It doesn’t assume one elevated reader who appreciates the greatness of your imagination, but rather calls upon different aspects of ourselves, or indeed different communities, to respond to different things.
Delany: Well, one of the things, when you say “fantasy” that intrigues me, that affects, the first thing that I think of is a fairly seemingly non-problematic word masturbation fantasies, which I have been writing my own down, year after year after year after year. Poor Ken [Kenneth James] has had to put up with them, in the last half of all those hundreds and hundreds of notebooks. And as several of the critics of my most recent novel have said, reading someone else’s masturbation fantasies is hell. [Audience laughs.] And it is! [Laughs.] You know I think I said that in an essay a long time ago. I’m not surprised when one of the critics basically [is] quoting me back to myself and I kind of agree with them. There is however something that happens when — this is the way I would relate it to imagination: I think you can turn by subjecting the fantasy to a certain order of observation, of mentation, of imagination, where you have to bring in the term imagination, and to write it down, and to make it more realistic. And when that happens, um, you do something to it. Certainly it’s something I’ve written down, about, my essays. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that a fantasy that you do write down, before you write it down, it retains its sexual charge. And you can revisit the fantasy again and again over a couple of weeks, couple of months, even. And as soon as you write it down and you really try to realize it, you know, what they are actually wearing, what did this guy’s shoulder look like, then the next time you jerk off, the uh, the sexual charge is much greater. And then it’s over. Goes away entirely and you think of it again, and it doesn’t have any, for me. Rarely does it have any leftover sexual charge. For me this is interesting and I think this would interest Freud. It’s very similar to the completion of dreams, in the way that he talks about back in the Interpretation, you know back from 1900.
I think it has something to do with, dare I say it, realistic fiction. I think there’s something in the sketchiness in what we might call a fantasy, that you submitted to this kind of discipline, and it’s a discipline, that allows it to be … called up more. Scott McCloud, in a book called Understanding Comics, and I hope a bunch of you are familiar with that because much of it is a brilliant book and I think some of it is … crazy. But the part that is brilliant is really brilliant, and the part that is brilliant is whenever he talks about lines and when he talks about other things, he kind of goes off into cloud cuckoo land, but that’s my humble opinion.
At any rate, one of the things that he says is that a picture of a recognizable person, if you draw a picture where there’s a real likeness of a person, and there’s shading and what have you, we look at that and we see that as a picture of an “other.” When we look at a cartoon, you know just a circle of an eye and a nose, a little thing for the mouth, when we look at that, what we’re looking at is the inside of the mask of our own faces. So that when we look at the cartoon we see ourselves, when we look at the realistic picture we see the other. That all drawings, as long as they represent another face, we can — and you know he points out that we see faces everywhere. You open a beer can and you look at the top and there are two drops of beer on the side and it’s got that hole there and it’s a face. You know, you look at a socket with two prongs and the third prong, and it’s a face. We’re programmed to see faces all over the place. And some of them are schematic and some of them are more realistic. You look at the line that has collected on the shower curtain because you haven’t washed it in three months, and you’re sitting there and you see a very realistic face, complete with lots of little things, so you know, that’s an other. But then you look at the iconic one and that’s a fantasy face. And in the fantasy stuff, you see yourself. And I think that’s what’s going on in general between what I think of when I think of fantasy as opposed to something that is disciplined by an imaginative realization of it. So I think both of them have their places and both of them, you can do stuff with. You can do things with them and when you do things with them, they’re very interesting. I would not want to exclude either one from the republic [chuckles].
Bernstein: We’re listening to Chip Delany on PennSound’s Close Listening, ArtOnTheAir.org. You spoke earlier about how your own work is rooted in your own particular experiences. And yet, there’s another aspect of your work which would suggest something else. And so let me ask you in this way: What about the imagination of lives and practices that can’t be imagined, or at least first might not be seemed to be able to be imagined?
Delany: Well, you try and you decide, can they or can’t they. And if you can, then we’re back at Wittgenstein’s proposition seven … [Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.] —
Bernstein: But you have certainly, in your work overall, pushed the borders of what one might imagine, one could imagine, by imagining it and letting other people including themselves, experience it. And much of it isn’t related, at least ostensibly, to your immediate experience because part of the project, the process that you’re involved in consists of pushing beyond that so that the readers anyway can experience things that are other than what they might have.
Delany: Yeah, but I think every fiction writer worth his or her salt, does that. I don’t think that’s — again I don’t think that it’s a function of a given genre. I mean Melville does it. I’m just reading —
Bernstein: I’m not asking you in terms of genre in this case but rather the desire to include things which are outside even your own ability to accept them, because they engage situations or possibilities that many of us, certainly me, I can’t speak for you … many things in your works force me to think about things that normally I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge or recognize. I constantly come upon the very narrow limits of what’s either in my fantasy or my imagination.
Delany: I say the same things about your poems, Charles. Right back at ya. [Bernstein chuckles.] There are lots and lots of things in your poetry … “Ooh, I’ve got to kind of move my head over here.” I think any writer who is at all interesting, and I include you in that group! [Chuckles.] I certainly do, I think makes that happen. I think that’s because we all —
Bernstein: In that sense we all, we share that. But I think a lot of writers don’t do that.
Delany: That is true and those are the writers I’m not terribly interested in. I think there are a lot of writers who do that for some people but don’t do it for others. You want to get the work to the people who will get something out of it. That’s a whole … that’s another curricular question or a heuristic problem that you’ve got to grapple with rather than a general abstract …
Bernstein: Lots of writers, including myself, suffer from various kinds of disabilities with respect to writing such as dyslexia.
Delany: — so do I. I’m, you know, hopelessly dyslexic.
Bernstein: And I’m interested in you talking about that both as an experience — because one aspect of it is just to imagine the amount of material that you’ve produced, that you were talking about earlier. Just stuff, textual stuff. Thousands of pages. And the difference between your doing that, someone who has disfluency, as we say it versus fluency. At least in that area. And also how dyslexia relates to issues that you write about and think about.
Delany: Well, again, there were lots of writers who are dyslexic.
Bernstein: Many, many that I know.
Delany: And historically there were. Flaubert was one of the most famous dyslexic writers. His family used to — his nickname in the family was the “idiot de la famille,” the idiot. Sartre, borrowed for the title of his great three-volume biography.
One of the things that dyslexic writers learn to do very quickly is to rewrite, because they have to. Because if they don’t rewrite, nobody can understand what it was they put down on the paper. And that was my problem all throughout — and before people even knew what dyslexia was, here I was a very bright Black kid from Harlem, who if you gave him a non-reading test, his IQ, my IQ, was off the fucking charts [Bernstein chuckles], if I may speak bluntly, was over 160, you know, but I couldn’t spell the word “paper” three times correctly in a row. Not only that, I would do it right once then do it two times wrong and the two times wrong would be entirely different from each other. And, you know, two pages apart.
And people would say, “What’s going on?” And they assumed it was some kind of horrible carelessness. This was very cruel. I would occasionally write … sometimes I would start on the left side of the page and sometimes it would start on the right, and it would come out like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mirror writing. And I had no control over it, up until the time I was like in my second year in high school. One of the most painful things I can remember was Mrs. Levy in my sophomore year at high school, you know —
Bernstein: This would’ve been in the Bronx High School of Science.
Delany: Uh huh —
Bernstein: — where we both went to high school.
Delany: — Bronx High School of Science! And standing at the head of the class and her saying, Mrs. Levy, “Mr. Delany. Is this some kind of joke?” [Bernstein chuckles] — and I was mortified. And she handed me back the paper and just rolling her eyes to heaven. I ran into the bathroom and I stuffed it down in the thing. I didn’t cry, but I stood there breathing incredibly heavy, I was just mortified. I didn’t know what the fuck to do — excuse me. And you know, this is the way, you know — and one of the reasons I was so broken up by it is because I had already been sent to psychiatrists to find out what was the reason for his attention-getting behavior. I wasn’t trying to get anybody’s attention, you know, the wiring is all screwed up. There was nothing I could do about it. It was not until I was about twenty or twenty-one, and I had published a couple of novels, that I finally, that again, Marilyn, my wife at the time, found an article on dyslexia. It was the first time either one of us had heard the word. It was not something, knowledge, that was rampant in the ’50s. And it described this condition. It was me. And we both said, “Oh!” And she said, “Chip. That’s you! That’s just what you do.” And it’s interesting that my daughter, who is now a doctor, has inherited it. And when I watched her grow up, she had the same, identical symptoms of it. It manifests itself the same ways, and I thought, you know, “Yeah, there it is.” And it was like watching me grow up again, and in one way it was good ’cause I could tell her “Hey, don’t worry, relax. You’ll find ways to get around it. One of the best ways to get around it, is to become very good friends with someone who doesn’t have it. [Bernstein and Delany laugh] — who is willing to look at what you write and say: “From here to here is totally incomprehensible, try writing it again so I know what you’re saying.” And slowly but surely you do get musical habits.” If you hear — I can’t remember anything I think, but I can remember what I say. So you know when I put the coffee in, in the morning, I take the coffee out and I count out loud: one … two … three. If I don’t count, I have no idea how many scoops I put in. You know, and that’s how you do it.
Yeats did not know how to read until he was sixteen. His father used to read to him, constantly. Another dyslexic writer. I mean it’s a real problem and you figure out what to do. When Yeats says something like, “The problem of what’s difficult has made me an old man,” that’s what he was talking about. He was talking about, just the ordinary act of putting it down on paper, difficult. One of the things it does, as I said, it encourages you to rewrite and you get into the habit of rewriting because you can’t do anything else, and it also means, believe it or … People like to say, of all genre writers, that because they’re genre writers they’re very prolific. I am not a prolific writer. I’m just not. If you actually — it’s very funny: I’ve just been made “a grandmaster of science fiction.” Whee. [Some audience members clap.]
Delany: — but one of the things. Now everybody’s saying, for a grandmaster he sure hasn’t written very much. He’s written like fourteen novels. You know Philip [K. Dick], you know Arthur C. Clarke, has written about sixty-five. And it’s true but you know I don’t write a lot. And I certainly don’t write a lot for a genre writer, I never have. And I doubt very much that I ever will. And especially now, on my side of seventy-two. So you know, that’s the way that really works.
Bernstein: [whispering] It’s almost time.
Delany: And you know when people say you’re so prolific, I smile and I nod and I think, well obviously they haven’t looked at my bibliography or at least they haven’t compared it to anybody else’s in the field. And I’ve been doing this for fifty years. Up until the first thirty-seven, I was doing it eight hours a day, every day. And that’s … it still averages out, especially if you take … okay the first five were written in two years. And I did nothing else except write and screw. That’s all I did. Hour after hour, day after day after day, and I had a nervous breakdown. That was overwork. [Laughs. Bernstein laughs. Audience also laughs]. That was overwork and it really was. Anyway, so there you go. I mean that’s …
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Samuel R. Delany on Close Listening. The program was recorded on April 11, 2014 at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of PennSound in collaboration with Clocktower Radio. For more information on this show visit our website: writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. This is your earth-bound host, Charles Bernstein, ushering you beyond the babel and into the cosmos of Close — close — close — close Listening — listening — listening — listening.
Delany: Thank you Charles. Thank you, Charles. Thank you Charles. [Audience claps.]
An interview with Andy Fitch
Note: This interview between Zach Savich and Andy Fitch centers around Fitch’s Sixty Morning Talks, published in 2014 by Ugly Duckling Presse, a volume of sixty transcribed interviews with poets who released books in 2012.
Zach Savich: Reading Sixty Morning Talks from start to finish, I became very aware of the date of each interview. I started to think of the book not only as a collection of exchanges but as a chronicle of several months in 2012, a kind of memoir or travelogue, in the sense that Dante’s Commedia would be a travelogue even if you removed everything except the dialogue. In one nine-day period in June, for example, you conducted eleven interviews, with poets including Daniel Tiffany, Vanessa Place, Forrest Gander, John Kinsella, Dorothea Lasky — and these are substantial conversations; they suggest both significant preparation and your talent at following talk where it leads. How did you prepare for this project? Did you begin it with central lines of inquiry in mind? I’m wondering because the book offers hints of narrative, or cumulative investigation (“I’ve interviewed [Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, and Thom Donovan],” you tell Brandon Brown, “and you come up in each of their books”), but these continuities don’t result from repetitive questioning or by focusing only on poets with narrow affinities, and they aren’t emphasized by an introduction or other critical framing. Perhaps some of these connections were particularly unexpected?
Andy Fitch: Thanks, Zach. I have much admiration for your work both as a poet and as a reader of the contemporary. As we start this conversation, I only regret that you did not appear in the Sixty Talks book. To begin with your broadest question, regarding whether I had central lines of inquiry in mind: I would say not really (unless the deliberate lack of such central inquiry counts as its own agenda, with its own politics).
This particular project served as my antidote to doctoral work, though I don’t mean to disparage my graduate program. After finishing oral exams, then a dissertation, I just assumed I never would read again. It didn’t seem to happen anymore. And the need to streamline my dissertation’s argument, to make it focused and timely, always felt fraudulent. I couldn’t understand any longer what critics do, or how they could speak convincingly of wider trends within contemporary poetics, or within a grouping of poets, or often even within a single book. To be honest, unless criticism gets written in lucid and compact prose, I zone out almost instantly, due to reductive formulations that have little to do with my reading experience.
So critical writing seemed to have moved off limits for me, like reading.
But before too long, that neglect or fear of critical writing had built up its own allure. I wanted to go back and try this form that felt so hard. I read Craig Dworkin’s article “Seja Marjinal,” which calls for an “ever more local, focused, specialized, and ad hoc” mode of criticism, and I always look up to Craig. So I decided on the sixty talks approach (in an instant, alas, while eating breakfast — somewhat copying Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has assembled many similar interview collections with artists). Miraculously, Anna Moschovakis at Ugly Duckling accepted the project before I had written it, saving me from the need to persuade potential interviewees that such a whacky book would appear in print one day. I started asking around somewhat randomly (but grounded in my own social circles, my own artistic biases, sure) about who had new books coming soon. I asked some favorite publishers to point me to authors. I had a sabbatical approaching, so time to read for once, though I had to haul a bunch of manuscripts to Buenos Aires. I found the world’s greatest transcriber, Maia Spotts, without whom this project’s completion would have remained impossible. Then just before the interviews started, my wife and I spontaneously bought our first house. So I think I had to interview somebody a couple hours after the closing. Then a few days later we left to teach a study-abroad course in Japan. For many of the early interviews, I would eat breakfast with my students, then head back to my room in our boarding house, as if to shower or something, then sneak in an interview via Skype (I didn’t want the students to complain I had neglected them). Then when the talk had finished, instead of decompressing, I would walk straight down to our den and lecture on Japanese history, about which I had read my first textbook the week before. It was total inner chaos, which allowed me to keep functioning and talking to whomever came next, but also left me quite dependent on the interviewees to pull us along. So endless thanks to them. Then by that nine-day stretch you mentioned, things had settled down a bit. My wife and I had made it to Australia, for a real vacation, and so for example I would have visited Wilson’s Promontory outside Melbourne during the day, learning about how wombats live, then would talk to Forrest and John later that night (it was always “morning” somewhere).
Anyway, I hope you can tell that I appreciate your reading the book straight through, and your comparisons to travelogues and memoirs-by-conversation. This lengthy response of mine has sought to demonstrate that, through the trappings of vague autobiographical narrative, I hoped to short-circuit the need for any dominant argument about contemporary poetics to emerge, but without the overall momentum dragging. I wanted to create focused intellectual space where poets I respect could speak at length for themselves, but wanted to maintain some sort of “plot” progress, since interview collections certainly can drag if they get too diffuse or too repetitive. So the book came about between those constrictions. I also had this dream about what Vasari had done, without my ever having looked at him.
And you make another good point: no introduction to the interviews — again, that inevitably would have excluded or seemed insensitive to certain contributors’ accomplishments. I harbor adolescent desires for all cultural gatekeepers (most have bad or superficial tastes, in poetry as much as elsewhere) to disappear, and don’t wish to become one myself. I still get excited when the Smiths sing “Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ.” So, instead of an introduction, an erasure-based afterword by the poet Amaranth Borsuk. This afterword rearranges forms of interrogation, offering no fixed answers. Amaranth comes first in the interviews, and so I liked having her bookend the collection. Amaranth and I now have a collaborative book just out, so one project bleeds into the next, into a new idiom. As for Rob, Dana, Thom, Brandon: it excited me to see all of these smart poets rethinking New Narrative work. Typically, I’m out of it. I only discovered this development through reading. Throughout Sixty Morning Talks, I tried to turn ignorance, laziness, and/or denseness into virtues. Everything felt fresh.
Savich: This “antidotal” approach helps complex ideas feel accessible — I can imagine teaching Sixty Morning Talks as an introduction to contemporary poetics, for students who don’t already care about poetics — and it can lead to delightful exchanges, perhaps reflecting the ways in which you absorbed, and also turned yourself loose from, your doctoral training; one shouts “Hang the DJ” from caring excessively about music, after all. This, as you suggest, feels fresh, far from reductive — “I’m just formulating the Boyesque on the spot,” you say to Nick Twemlow. I could list many such moments, which show inspired thinking about what, elsewhere, might be treated as dry concepts, diligently rehearsed (“You can find rocket fuel in lettuce, also,” Hoa Nguyen reminds us).
And yet, were I to teach this book to undergraduates, I suspect they would note the frequent references to philosophers, critics, theorists, and other artists, the ways in which current talk about poetry can be highly referential, framing poetry as a creative parallel to critical scholarship. As soon as I say that, I remember rangier instances (Brandon Shimoda reporting a recent dream, for instance). Perhaps, then, an undercurrent in the book is contemporary poetry’s relationship to critical ideas. Several poets in the collection, such as Brian Kim Stefans, note their interest in taking on concepts from the academy for divergent ends, while others, such as Vanessa Place, present poetic action as a critical incursion. How did these interviews change your thinking about poetry’s enchantment with and anxiety about and reorientation of critical sources and discourse? Or would you encourage my hypothetical undergraduates to conclude something else from these interviews, to focus on another aspect of how these poets talk about poetry?
Fitch: Brian in his interview presents a good model for, as you say, poaching from academic domains (here early Anglo-Saxon poetries) in pursuit of unsuspected pleasures. More generally, part of what most interested me about interviewees’ engagement with critical precedents was that their smart resulting hybrid projects appeared to have such little purchase in contemporary critical debates. Scholars seem much more concerned about tending to timely conversations within their professional fields, rather than acknowledging the interloping endeavors of poets. So, to start with, your students should know that anything poets touch becomes permanently tainted as poetry/poetics, and that poets should feel encouraged to absorb any idiom or disciplinary approach they come across, with little fear of losing their poetic side. I found Lisa Robertson’s book Nilling totally amazing, for example, profound and poised line-by-line, continually exhausting and refreshing, and if I ever get named college president, I personally will hand a copy to each freshman, cancel the first week of classes, clear space for an impromptu reading period. But I sense that my more strictly scholarly friends would take a glance and say: “I hear she’s great, but who thinks about Hannah Arendt today?” (or they will say that five years from now).
And for many other poets whose critically minded books I read for Sixty Morning Talks, I could anticipate something similar. Yet rather than disparage contemporary criticism here, which isn’t my intention, I should just answer your thoughtful question by saying that creative/critical binaries deny, among many other possibilities, the attractive third-way potential for poets to write of/from poetic criticism in an untimely fashion — one of my favorite genres. And I know I’ve now reinforced reductive binaries by using categorically terms such as “poet” and “critic,” but that’s the best I can offer after a long afternoon hike in the sun.
Vanessa’s Boycott book remains subtle and surprising and insightful throughout. I love Boycott and assigned it in class last year. Personally, though, I again think of it and of Vanessa’s work and public presence in general as virtuosic poetic performance, rather than as a reshaping of critical discourse. Yes, conceptualist poetry has received much critical attention in recent years (as it should — since it has produced many of the most compelling books), but I think conceptualist panache perhaps disarmed many critics, who soon will return to more driving political preoccupations.
If I haven’t yet really encouraged your hypothetical undergrads to feel one way or the other, then could I assign them, for next class, to read all of Roland Barthes and Avital Ronnel and In the American Grain and My Emily Dickinson and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, The Grand Piano and “Poetry and Grammar”?
Savich: OK, assigned. Along with many of the untimely interlopers mentioned throughout the book. Lisa Robertson, for example, mentions that one piece in Nilling opens with “a citation [she] found in Louis Mumford, from the Greek rhetorician Eubulus.” So maybe I’m wrong to emphasize poetry’s relationship to criticism — its ability to produce a third-way text — rather than, more basically, to the process of reading; Robertson’s interview didn’t cause me to research Eubulus, but to think about coincidence, conversation, the conversion of ideas across time. Dan Beachy-Quick, speaking of his essay collection Wonderful Investigations, makes a related suggestion, saying that he hopes the book provides “the experience of needing knowledge, or moving toward knowledge, a knowledge that these essays realize they can’t really offer.” Your interviews offer a similar experience, if only because readers are unlikely to have read every title under discussion. If we extend your role as curricular director for one moment, are there featured books that it might be particularly interesting for one to read after reading the interview?
Fitch: Sorry to offer such a meek response here, especially given my enthusiasm for all sixty interviewees, but I have thoroughly repressed any sense of which books I prefer, or feel ought to be foregrounded, so I’ll have to struggle to offer some selections. Could I suggest some broader trends I found intriguing, and perhaps point to a representative interviewee or two? Younger poets responding to New Narrative we’ve already covered. Poets probing the future of the book, such as Amaranth Borsuk and Tan Lin, might fit well here. Publisher-poets rethinking publication strategies come to mind, Shanna Compton and Matvei Yankelevich among them. Poets pursuing relational practices of production (and their critique), like Thom Donovan and Bhanu Kapil, could offer interest context. Mónica de la Torre provides smart parallels to any number of contemporary art forms, as does Catherine Taylor to nonfiction. I’m just truncating my celebratory list, leaving out some of my favorite poets and people, so that this doesn’t drag on.
Savich: The book (as I flip back through it) invites such a list to keep shifting, which fits the critical vision sketched above, its principled fluidity. There’s a related, perhaps more formally derived, fluidity that results from the book’s conversational mode; the interviews remain directed, yet they are closer to oral histories than to the kind of interviews that simply trigger talking points or promote an author. You mentioned Obrist, whose work I’ve only heard of. What did you learn from his volumes? Were there other models that helped guide your technique as an interviewer? David Antin comes up several times in the book, so I’m tempted to connect this collection to a poetics of “talk” more broadly.
Fitch: Others before me have praised Obrist’s stamina as an interviewer. He engages artists from any number of cultural and historical contexts, involved in a wide variety of aesthetic and critical practices (a much more diverse array than you find in poetry), yet always seems to offer at least one question indicating that he could have gone so much further in depth if he could expect the reader to follow him. He demonstrates a great intimacy even amid his admirably heterogeneous and expansive scope. I don’t think anybody really understands if this comes from copious preparation, or persistent art-world gossip, or uncanny impromptu readings of his interviewees’ affective presence, but it helps to possess that sort of mystique as an interviewer, so that you don’t have to make yourself felt in some more obvious or obnoxious manner.
Aside from Obrist, and more specific to poetry, I long have listened to and admired and assigned segments from Charles Bernstein’s and Leonard Schwartz’s respective radio programs. Charles characteristically plays the wisecracker while landing one disarming insight after another, keeping it fresh and engaging regardless of whether he talks to an old friend or a figure with ostensibly opposite intellectual and/or aesthetic values. Leonard takes serious risks as a questioner, really putting himself out there, so that you never can predict whether even the syntax, let alone an answerable question, will arrive — and then it does, with great eloquence. Leonard raises the stakes and thereby ensures that a constructive, highly distinctive form of poetic/philosophical inquiry takes place, one that only could come through conversation.
And I could list a ton of terrific interviewers who have remapped, reimagined, reinvented what interviews can be (here Stephanie Anderson, Rosebud Ben-Oni, J’Lyn Chapman, H. L. Hix, Cindy King, Krystal Languell, Jonathan Stalling, Tony Trigilio, and Jeffrey Williams, for instance, come to mind). I have considered it an honor to work with these individuals, and with The Conversant’s many unnamed yet equally exceptional contributors. But I was poorly informed when I started Sixty Morning Talks. I thought of Charles and Leonard, how they had achieved a productive, fluid rapport with their interviewees. I thought that, if I needed (and I did need) to differentiate my own form of investigation from theirs, and if they had to concern themselves constantly with keeping the audio conversation crisp, lively, good-natured, then I should, by contrast, pile on the convoluted questions, apologize profusely for my vagueness but keep pushing forwards, give respondents time to reflect and experimentally formulate, and then clean it all up later. So that might provide a David Antin connection — to his lovely concept of vernacular thinking.
Savich: And perhaps to The Volta overall, which I, at least, tend to read as though I’m constructing a conversation between an interview at The Conversant, poems and poetics statements elsewhere on the site, and so forth. In a related way, my experience of new poetry is increasingly embedded in — and probably inseparable from — conversations and chatter on social media, its vernacular. You have other books both published and forthcoming that seem to have varied relationships to conversation — as metaphor, principle, practice. It’s common to think of artistic enterprise that way, as exchange and response. What feels most fruitful or promising to you now, two years after you conducted the interviews in Sixty Morning Talks, about projects designed around overt conversational models, especially those that might deviate from the conventions of an interview like this one?
Fitch: Alas, I again only can speak personally, since I probably miss billions of compelling poetic developments every day. I have bad vision that makes social media pretty difficult, and can’t read even Conversant or Volta pieces unless I print them (though I experience joyous appreciation and admiration each month when I see a new Volta main page posted by Joshua Marie Wilkinson or Afton Wilky). But in terms of conversational or dialogic models that now appeal to me, I feel increasingly drawn to the negotiations involved in cross-gender collaboration. I consider myself quite fortunate to be working on projects with Amaranth Borsuk and with Danielle Pafunda — two of my favorite poets. Also, since starting The Conversant, I’ve become just as interested in curating conversations as in conducting them, and in thinking through how to track, clarify, stimulate broader forms of innovation and inquiry by creating space for authors I admire. At Essay Press, which my publishing comrade Cristiana Baik and I now edit, we soon will launch a series of three-talk chapbooks examining what creative nonfiction (my official field, according at least to professional job descriptions) stands to learn from the vibrant small-press poetic culture cultivated in the last forty years. We’ll have poet-publishers interview each other, people who curate reading series doing the same, oral histories of localized artistic communities. But I still like old-fashioned, straightforward interviews too, if that’s what this is (really it just seems like you asking smart, generous questions). I have a bad back along with the bad eyes, and during my daily stretches I always listen to Charlie Rose and the Political Gabfest and such. I dislike participating in chit-chat, but never get bored reading or hearing other people’s discussions. Needless to say, Andy Warhol remains my artistic and intellectual hero. Or like Roland Barthes, I confess — profess — lifelong devotion to the informal, unprofessional, semi-domestic mother tongue. Or all of these dialogic projects just provide desperate compensation for the one essential conversation I’ll never have, with my dog, asking her what else she wants.
An interview with Stuart Ross
Note: It has been many years since he stood on Yonge Street in Toronto wearing a “Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books” sign (he sold 7,000 of his books this way in the ’80s), but Stuart Ross (b. 1959) continues to be an active and influential presence in the Canadian small press.
Through his work as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, performer, editor, organizer, and publisher, Ross has been an advocate for small press writers and publishers since his late teens. Ross is a prolific writer. Several of Ross’s own books and chapbooks, including Dead Cars in Managua (poetry, 2008), Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (short stories, 2009), Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (novel, 2012), and You Exist. Details Follow. (poetry, 2013), have received or been shortlisted for awards. His most recent book is Our Days in Vaudeville, a compendium of collaborative poems written by Ross and twenty-nine other writers. Ross lives in Cobourg, Ontario, a small town on the shore of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto.
In July 2014, we discussed surrealism, collaboration as a significant part of his practice, the relationship of his poetics to both Canadian and American traditions, popular culture, mentors, teaching, humor, the small press, improvisation, “nutso” imagery, and his current projects. — Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin: Let’s begin by addressing the surrealist elephant in the room. We’ll leave the sewing machine and the umbrella for another time. Discussions of your work often invoke notions of surrealism, and in fact you edited an important anthology of Canadian poetry that engages with surrealism: Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (Mercury Press). How do you see your work in relation to “realism,” language, the “real” world, and surrealism?
Stuart Ross: I don’t much concern myself with issues of what is real and what is surreal. I don’t set out to write surrealism, or to include surreal elements in my work. When I write, I simply don’t bother obeying laws of reality, and I have no problem if one of my characters, or some object, transforms into something else or flies, or sizzles, or otherwise does the “impossible.” My reading covers a real range: Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite writers because I like the closet of terror and paranoia she thrusts me into, and she’s as real as it gets, but I also love Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary and B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain. They’re real too, but they’re not real by being realistic. The “real” world: I don’t think there’s any such thing — or there’s nothing that’s not part of the real world. Language: it’s the thing I write in.
Barwin: But to follow up on your relation to the “real world”: I wonder about how you consider the relation of language to the construction of self, to the experience of being human (or the experience of flying and sizzling)? Much of your language, that “thing [you] write in,” plays with what seemingly bears some relation to a situation outside the language (if such a thing can exist). Your poems often play with the notion that language is a trickster that may appear to construct something that corresponds to the world, but also constructs a parallel world that, based on the experience and expectations of reading, may delight, deceive, beguile, or surprise.
The event takes place.
Sounds are heard.
You exist. Not yet.
(“The Event,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you imagine the process of reading, of moving through, a text of yours? How do you think about how a reader experiences your unfolding textworld?
Ross: I think more in terms of the discovery of self than the construction of self. That said, I don’t see my writing as a way to discover myself, but instead as a way to explore my interests, to amuse myself, to connect in some way to people outside of myself (however few those people will be), and hopefully provide some amusement for them, or get them to think in ways they find interesting. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying regarding language as a trickster, but when I’m writing I do like that you can immediately contradict yourself, or skew expectations, or provide another perspective on reality (as in “You exist. Not yet.”).
I like the question about how the reader might experience my work; it’s something I don’t think much about. I mean, how would I know how an individual reader would read my poems or stories? I don’t know their lives, their experiences, what they’re bringing to the act of reading. But I hope that they might look at my poems, especially, the way they’d look at a painting by Bosch. That they’d keep noticing new and weird things. That it might make them laugh at times and unsettle them at other times. I imagine they read the first word, and then the second, and then they keep going, and every so often something strikes them, and maybe they back up a bit or skip down to the bottom of the page. They might attempt to inflict meaning where I don’t intend any, because some people are oriented that way. That’s great! I love reading student papers on my work, and I love reading really in-depth explorations of my writing by creative and thoughtful thinkers like Alex Porco and Lance La Rocque, rare as such explorations are in my case. Throw whatever you got at me! It’s just nice to know someone is considering your work in whatever way.
Barwin: Can you speak about the energy of certain words? Sizzle. Poodle. Potato. (I think you might be the poet laureate of the word thing.) And what about tonal shifts, juxtaposition, and personification?
When we met, the sky had taken a cigarette break, and the clouds, caught
off-guard, were flailing, panicked.
(“When We Met,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
The ground had a hunch.
Furniture made no sense.
(“You Exist. Details Follow.” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
have you heard of time?
It’s a thing that matters,
like that other thing,
but less …
(“You Exist. Details Follow,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Ross: The word thing is something I love, and I try not to overuse it. On a side note, when I was working with David W. McFadden on his volume of selected poems a few years back, he made a lot of revisions to early poems. He often got rid of the word love and sometimes replaced it with the word thing. But while my interest is mostly in image-based poetry, and I use abstractions sparingly, there’s something big and beautiful about thing — as if you’re talking about something very specific but you actually don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re often bewildered by what is confronting us, and we wonder if what we are seeing is what we think we are seeing. Thing fits that situation nicely.
As for words with energy, like sizzle, potato, and poodle, or moon, canoe, and baboon, or gizmo, spelunk, and Parker Posey, they’re a lot of fun, but again, you’ve got to watch for oversaturation. You don’t want to show off. Poems aren’t about your own cleverness. But these effective, unusual, quirky-sounding words are crucial to my own poetry. They’re like characters in my poems.
Tonal shifts: it’d be boring if the tone of a poem didn’t change. Juxtaposition: again, used sparingly, it can be the heart of a poem, the poem’s energy. Personification: doors are people too, and hammers and broken clocks. One of my favorite novels when I was a teenager was Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit. It was filled with pieces of furniture and sheets of paper that spoke. I think it’s Hoban’s masterpiece. I see no reason to limit inanimate objects. That said, I’m also interested in stories where the main characters are inanimate objects that don’t think or speak or have any personified qualities. I’ve written two of those, and I’m working on another.
Barwin: Robert Bly writes about poems “leaping” from the conscious to the unconscious. In your work, I imagine not only a leap around the brain but also a leap around the culture. Your poems, in their incorporation of “non(traditionally)poetic” words and tones, popular culture (Parker Posey), and the forgotten material of the contemporary world (e.g., an elastic band, the inside of a shoe, a half-eaten hamburger), as well as larger themes of loss, family history, and more general existential themes, also do a lot of leaping — or perhaps, in some cases, it could be considered “synthesizing.” Also, much of your work uses a deliberately simple tone and sentence structure, often self-consciously so, which is played against more profound issues.
Hi there, inventory of my life.
(“Inventory Sonnet,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
How do you see the role of this juxtaposition or integration of registers, this creation of a characteristic multilevel style of tonal and image? And maybe this would be a good time to also ask about the role of humor in your work. I like what Victor Coleman said about that: “the message in the chuckle is a punch in the gut.”
… a better poet than me
would insert a really good sediment
metaphor right here. (Or, more poignantly,
(“Sediment,” in I Cut My Finger)
Ross: The simple tone, as you call it, is the tone I feel most comfortable with. My high-school English teacher once wrote on one of my stories something like “Why are all your characters such blockheads?” Or “so dense”? I can’t quite recall. It felt like an attack, because I identify with these characters. We people, we think we’re so smart, but we’re really not all that smart. So I like those who embrace simplicity. It’s a state that many of us yearn for. Simplicity is a good place to start from to learn profound things. I don’t understand your question, but I hope I have answered it here. I also don’t follow how Parker Posey and the “simple tone” lead to the issue of humor — ask away!
Barwin: Why humor? Sometimes the surprise or incongruous appearance of minor pop-culture figures is humorous. Parker Posey. Montgomery Clift. David Carradine. Or the way the character speaks — often “simple” or earnestly, using non-standard English syntax — is funny in itself while at the same time evoking pathos, empathy or self-recognition. I see these “simple” characters as Beckettian figures. One feels great empathy for their existential or emotional situation and great solidarity with their struggles to express themselves. And one feels a kind of dramatic irony in knowing that they haven’t quite been able to find the right words, but yet, paradoxically, their inability and the language that results is somehow much more telling.
Did I be happy correctly? Do the smile go on my face right? … Am
people in general liking me?
(from “Happy” in Hey, Crumbling Balcony!)
One also feels somewhat the way one feels with Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. The simple language, or the naive yet inventive way of expressing things (“The year is invented.” “The water is solid.”), carries the weight of profound insight, a kind of Zen-like wisdom and presence. This, to me, is also humorous or, at least, piquant and droll.
My father and I build a tent
by the water. The water is solid.
We wait. The year is invented.
He teaches me what it can do.
(“The Tent,” in You Exist. Details Follow.)
Do you see this existential humor in some of your work and in the speakers you create, often a kind of everyperson Busterkeatoning through the language?
Ross: Montgomery Clift is a major pop culture figure! Or a major artist, depending on how you look at it.
But to your question, I don’t see this stuff as humorous, though I know a lot of people do. I’ve become used to people laughing during my readings when I’m reading something I see as poignant. I don’t hold it against them. I’m glad they’re responding. I see beauty in the simplicity of these characters and the kind of language you’ve pinpointed. I feel relief using such language, because it liberates me from having to sound “poetic” like A. F. Moritz or Ken Babstock; for me, this kind of language is more my experience of life, so I embrace it. Again, it comes from a yearning for naïveté, innocence, childhood. Just about everyone in my family has died, so of course I yearn for my childhood. Maybe most people do, unless they had horrible, unspeakable childhoods.
I love your comparison to Chauncey Gardiner. Being There was huge for me when I was a teenager; I’ve never thought of it as an influence, but it must have been. It’s interesting that no other Kosinski character has that “innocence” that Chance had. His other characters are burdened with “knowing” and “intellect” and “conscience.” And then it all implodes in The Hermit of 69th Street, a widely hated book that Kosinski continued to revise even after publication, until he killed himself. That’s his most fascinating work after Being There, The Painted Bird, Steps, and The Devil Tree. The poet David UU had a copy on his “current reading” shelf when he took his own life in 1994.
As for Buster Keaton, he’s also someone whose work I have loved for many years. One of my favorite films of his is Alan Schneider’s Film, from the script by Samuel Beckett. But now when I think of Keaton, I see he had a similar “innocence” in so many of his works. And part of this innocence is self-doubt and self-consciousness. Who of us hasn’t thought, “Am people in general liking me?”
And I think of most of my “characters” or narrators as being everypersons. Everypersons facing existential crises or decisions they are unequipped to handle. Perhaps this is why these characters become fixated on the “thingness” of things. A frozen lake is solid water. A year is something whose invention you must await. Then someone has to teach you what you can do within this thing you’ve maybe never heard of before — this year.
Stuart Ross performing as part of Donkey Lopez (photograph by Laurie Siblock).
Barwin: On the back of your book of reflections about writing and culture, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005), the reviewer George Murray is quoted as saying: “If Stuart Ross was living and working in the United States, and writing the exact same poetry he does now, he would be rich and famous. Well, famous, at least.”
If you do ever become rich, I’m expecting you to buy me a beer … made of solid gold … but do you agree with him about the difference between the US and Canada in terms of poetry, its reception, and the consideration of different styles? How do you conceive of being a writer in Canada?
Ross: George wrote that in his 2003 Globe & Mail review of Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New & Selected. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that line! I’m not sure if I would have been rich and famous if I’d been writing in the US back then, but there would have been a lot more sympathy for my writing. There’s been a shift over the past decade or so away from such strictly nationalistic reading, where poets here barely read the Americans. I’d been reading the Americans since I was a little kid, and as I got older, I was especially blown away by Ron Padgett, Campbell McGrath, James Tate, Bill Knott, Larry Fagin, and a lot more. I loved how crazy these poets’ works were: it was different from what was happening in Canada. Now there’s more cross-border reading — at least in a southerly direction, especially with a new generation of American poets who have some audience here: Lisa Jarnot, Matthew Zapruder, Dara Wier, Mary Ruefle, and others. There’s been a good influence on Canadian poetry. Though I do see the formalist movement increasing here, too. Time for a mud-wrestling match.
As to how I conceive of being a writer in Canada — it’s not something I think about much. I try to write, and find poetry I like to read (which is a very small fraction of the available pages), find a way of paying my bills. We’re lucky here in some ways — because of the existence of various municipal, provincial, and federal arts-granting bodies — but I think the academy has too much clout here. It seems to me in the US you can be taken more seriously for writing more nutso stuff. Or is the grass just greener there?
Barwin: The range of your writing — through your many, many books — has expanded from an interest in (to use your term) “nutso” imagery, structured within a “nutso” narrative to include some other modalities: explorations of more abstract structures (many of your more recent poems include more parataxis, some based on list structures) and some engaged more generally with an increasingly abstract consideration of language. However, at the same time, you have poems that more directly refer to human experiences (for example, grief or loss). Are you now a “deep nutso” or an “avant-nutso” poet? How do you think about the development of your work, from that sixteen-year-old suburban Toronto poet who published The Thing in Exile way back in 1976 to the mature small-town Cobourg poet?
Ross: On my way to look up “modalities” and “parataxis” in the dictionary, I decided to hail some parataxis and let them fight it out over who gets my fare. And I don’t know what you mean by an “increasingly abstract consideration of language.” You have a PhD. I’m just a word schlepper.
Also, do you think I’m a small-town Cobourg poet? I think of myself as a poet who happens to live in a small town. Just as I used to be a teenage poet who lived in suburban Toronto. I don’t believe my poetry was suburban then, or small-town now. A lot of my interests are the same along the whole trajectory from 1976 to 2014. It all comes out of my panic about figuring out how to live in this world, how to arrange events and images so I’m more comfortable. Questioning things — such as the very idea of “good poetry” — because I’m not drawn to formalist verse and I can’t put things in order like the writers of formalist verse do. Given this context, I would say all my poetry refers directly to human experiences, centos and list poems included. It is all emotionally autobiographical, and some more factually autobiographical. Just about every poem is a kind of self-portrait. We choose words and phrases and images and juxtapositions, and all of this says a bit about who we are.
Grief, however, has become increasingly present in my poetry. After the death of my mother in 1995, my brother Owen in 2000, and my father in 2001, the idea of facing the world parentless and practically familyless, of losing friends to death, like John Lavery, Robin Wood, Barbara Caruso, Crad Kilodney, Richard Truhlar, to name a few, and losing other friends to … well, I’m not entirely sure in some cases; the deeper understanding of just how absurd our existence on this wobbly sphere is. It all manufactures grief. But I’ve been strongly influenced by Nelson Ball and by David W. McFadden, and I do try to find joy, too, wherever I can.
As to “nutso,” it’s just nutso. Back in my twenties, I used the phrase “demento primitivo” to describe my poetry. Sometimes I use the word stupid to describe some of my poetry, sometimes goofy. But I still take it seriously.
While your back was turned just now, I looked up modalities and parataxis. They’re good words, and yes, parataxically speaking, I have moved in many of my poems in recent years toward shorter, simpler sentences. In fact, I’ve been writing poems over the past year or so that contain two full sentences in each line. It creates interesting effects and tensions. It contradicts the idea of the line as a breath. It creates two gasps instead.
Barwin: I don’t see you as a “suburban” or a “small-town” poet, but I do see how place and the culture of place appear in some of your writing. The zeitgeist and the spirit of place affect the work, if only because as “self-portraits” the poems often enact the process of thinking, and your context affects you, not to mention providing specific imagery. (I think of the work of David W. McFadden and Ron Padgett in this regard, too.) Does that make sense to you?
Ross: It makes a certain sense to me. But place is just one element, if you’re talking about one’s context. If I am a small-town poet, I am also a Jewish poet, a prematurely white-haired poet, a socialist poet, a youngest-child-of-three poet, a chess-playing poet, an orphaned poet, a nonacademic poet, a poet born in the last scrap of the 1950s on John Glenn’s and Nelson Mandela’s birthday, a poet who dislikes most poetry, and a poet doomed to obscurity. I wouldn’t want any one of these things alone to define me.
Barwin: I want to ask you about collaboration, which has been a significant part of your work. I think these collaborations relate to this idea of poems enacting the process of thinking, or, at least, enacting the process of creation and/or the occasion when they were written.
You’ve written collaborative novels (indeed, we wrote one together, The Mud Game, almost twenty years ago), as well as many collaborative poems. In fact, your latest book, Our Days in Vaudeville, is a collection of poems each written by you and one of twenty-nine different collaborators. What is your experience of collaboration (I mean, other than the fact that collaborating with me was the best experience of your life)? What is it like working with different writers? What does the process bring to the writing of both the collaborative work and to your own solo works? How is a book written with twenty-nine collaborators different? Does it affect how one reads it?
Ross: I’m glad to talk about collaboration, because I believe in it deeply, and I’ve collaborated in many different ways throughout my sorry career as an artist. My first collaborations were with Mark Laba, my oldest friend. We wrote stories together and worked on sound poetry together for about a decade and did a collaborative serialized novel called The Pig Sleeps (it was published in the early 1990s, but we’re currently revising it for an e-book reissue). I was intrigued early on by collaborative works: in my late teens I came across the novels Antlers in the Treetops by Ron Padgett and Tom Veitch, A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and Lucky Daryl by Bill Knott and James Tate. (Knott was furious with me a year or two ago for mentioning that book, but I really love it). Later on I gravitated toward poetry collaborations by jwcurry and Mark Laba, and by Brian Dedora and bpNichol, among others.
Of course, I collaborated with you on several poems, a clutch of sound poems, and a short novel. And I’ve worked with a lot of musicians collaboratively — beginning in the early 1990s when a band called the Angry Shoppers lost their singer and guitarist and brought me in as a replacement, adapting my poems to their tunes and vice versa. (You can find clips of that ensemble here.) I have become increasingly fascinated by collaboration. Around 2008, I published, through my Proper Tales Press imprint, a book of Ron Padgett collaborating with Allen Ginsberg, Larry Fagin, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and others: If I Were You. And then a few years later I decided to start compiling a book of my own modeled after that. I collaborated with a few dozen poets and eventually published a book with collaborations with twenty-nine of them, Our Days in Vaudeville. I was hoping it would be the first of many such volumes, but so far the book has been met with almost unanimous silence. Strange, because my books are generally widely reviewed.
On a basic level, I’m excited about collaboration because it allows me to take part in texts I could never create on my own. I can work with writers who fascinate me, often writers whose work is very different from mine. I like that each collaboration begins with negotiation, whether it’s just the idea of taking turns and deciding who goes first, or actually coming up with a form or a constraint to work within. I like the idea of the collaborators, after this initial negotiation, not discussing the collaboration while it’s in progress, because it enforces a more equitable creation of the work — you don’t get to influence what’s happening in the piece beyond your actual writing of the text.
As to what collaboration brings to my solo work, I have no idea. At least, I’m not conscious of it. But collaborating gives me new experiences and exposure to different ways of writing, and I’m sure it ultimately influences my solo work in some way.
There haven’t been many books of collaborative poetry, and those that are out there are rarely taken seriously. Look how little collaborative work appears in literary journals. I’m not sure how people read these books and how it is different from how they read books by single authors. I know that, for me, I became giddy reading Knott/Tate and Padgett/Veitch, for example, because suddenly anything was possible, even beyond the anything-is-possibleness of those individual writers. Some people talk about collaborative writing as being about “play,” but I think all writing is at least partly about “play.” Some see collaborative poems as carnival freaks, and I’m certainly not disputing that with the title and cover of my new book, but carnival freaks are worth taking seriously.
Barwin: You’ve been active since the late ’70s in the micro and small press world. You’ve been called an “activist,” a “guerrilla,” and a “racketeer” (e.g., Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer). You’ve sold your books on the streets of Toronto, organized (with Nicholas Power) the influential Meet the Presses book fair (which became, for a time, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and has now become Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market). Through your Proper Tales Press, you’ve published a great diversity of writing — in chapbooks, books, leaflets, and other ephemera — of new writers (e.g., Nicholas Papaxanthos, Sarah Burgoyne), legendary figures (e.g., Bill Knott), mid-career writers (e.g., Alice Burdick), as well as your own work. You’ve also edited small press literary journals (e.g., Dwarf Puppets on Parade), created Mondo Hunkamooga, a journal about small press, and have run online poetry periodicals. In addition, you have your own imprint (“a stuart ross book”) at Mansfield Press, a small press out of Toronto, and you’ve been a literary editor for This Magazine.
So, a simple question: What has been the role of the small press (and by this, I include micropress) in your writing and in the writing world in general?
Ross: Before I get to your “simple question,” I just want to correct one thing. The monthly Meet the Presses event over 1985 didn’t “become” the Toronto Small Press Book Fair (in 1987). The MtP evenings at a local community center featured six to ten small-press publishers selling their wares, plus readings, talks, films. The Toronto Small Press Book Fair came about because the huge Toronto Book Fair collapsed, and Nick and I were approached to create something new to fill the gap. So we invented the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, the first of its kind in Canada. I was involved in organizing that event, which was a completely open, non-curated fair, for its first three years. When a rift formed in the Toronto small press community about twenty years later — when the then-organizers of the fair threatened me with a lawsuit after I constructively criticized, on my blog, the job they were doing — about a dozen small-press publishers and writers and former organizers of the fair came together to create an alternative event, under the umbrella of a collective called, again, Meet the Presses (both Nick and I were part of this group). We distinguished ourselves from the deteriorating Small Press Book Fair by making a smaller, strictly curated event called the Indie Literary Market. The idea was to gather the best of the area small presses into one room and create the highest-quality one-day bookstore we could imagine. The first couple of Indie Literary Markets took place while the Toronto Small Press Fair was still gasping its last, disease-ridden breaths. The Market still happens annually, and there are other Meet the Presses events as well.
Now, the role of small press in my writing: publishing, for me, quickly became a practice inseparable from my writing. Writing, publication, performance, and audience happened almost simultaneously as soon as I began publishing, at age nineteen or twenty. Also, I was influenced by the processes and products of other small presses and mags of the era: Crad Kilodney’s Charnel House, Opal Louis Nations’ Strange Faeces, Lesley McAllister’s Identity series, Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press, and Jack Skelley’s Barney: The Stone-Age Magazine, and of course that insane era of Coach House Press when bpNichol, Victor Coleman, and David Young were there. I later discovered Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry and Poco Loco, Ron Padgett’s White Dove, and many more. And then there were all the other amazing presses that burbled to life, including Beverley Daurio’s The Mercury Press, Daniel Jones’s Streetcar Editions, and on and on.
As to the role of the small press “in the writing world in general,” that’s a pretty huge question and has been dealt with a million times. The main nugget to take away is that small press is the breeding ground of invention. While a ton of bad shit gets published in the small press (as in the big), it’s where the most exciting things can happen, where the most exciting writers find homes. Sometimes these crazily inventive writers pop up in the big presses like Kathy Acker and Donald Barthelme and B. S. Johnson, but most of the activity, the sacrifice, and test-tubing goes on in the very fertile underground.
Barwin: We’ve spoken mostly about your poetry, but you are also a prolific fiction writer, and you’ve done work in sound poetry. Recent books include the short story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand, 2009) and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW, 2011). And the improvisational sound trio you’re part of, Donkey Lopez, has just released a CD entitled Juan Lonely Night. How do you see the relationship between your fiction and your poetry? And how does your sound work — I guess it could be categorized as a kind of “sound poetry” — relate to your other writing? While we’re at it, perhaps you can talk about the place of performance and improvisation in your work, too.
Ross: The primary relationship between my poetry and fiction is that I wrote both of them. And there have been times when I have published the exact same piece as poetry and as fiction, so there is definitely a blur. And when I was having trouble finishing my novel, Larry Fagin suggested to me that I just think of it as a poem; that really helped me barrel through to the end.
I don’t feel my sound work relates much to my other writing, except in that I am its creator. The improvisational work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez (the other members are musicians Steven Lederman and Ray Dillard) is mostly unrelated to my writing, except that I often use elements of my writing in it — I riff off of lines from my poems, and once or twice I’ve used a poem in its entirety — but mainly I see my role in Donkey Lopez as one of three instrumentalists (I play voice).
The sound poetry I did with you and with Mark Laba, and occasionally with jwcurry, was more closely related to writing. But even there it’s blurry: last year in Ottawa John and I did an improvisational piece that was almost devoid of words.
As for improvisation in my work: all of my fiction and poetry is improvisational but exists primarily for the page. I do readings because it’s a good “workshopping” experience, I like doing them, and they help me grow an audience and sell books. I have occasionally done works meant to be performed, such as “The Ape Play,” a puppet show I’ve done a few versions of with ape toys as my actors. The sound poetry, obviously, exists for performance, as does the sound work I’m doing with Donkey Lopez.
Barwin: You are a mentor for many writers. You coach, advise, edit, and teach writing to both adults and kids. At the same time, you are a big supporter and promoter of experienced writers and have enthused about their work and their influence on your own writing. I’m interested in your thoughts about community and the role of the writer as colleague, mentor, and apprentice.
Ross: All those things are optional. They come to some writers more naturally than to others. They aren’t conditions of being a writer. Obviously, I like community. I have organized a ton of readings, workshops, talks, fairs, etc., and for the last six or seven years I have sent out a free weekly email listing of literary events in Toronto (to about 1,200 subscribers currently) called Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv. But some writers are solitary. They don’t have colleagues.
I apprenticed the poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo for a year or two when I was a teenager. I helped him piece together his anthologies, and he critiqued my poetry in exchange. When I was a teenager I also learned from older writers like Victor Coleman and Sam F. Johnson and David Young and Robert Fones. So perhaps that’s why mentoring comes naturally to me. I began teaching workshops with elementary school students when I was in high school myself.
I am not one of those writers who goes on endlessly about themselves when they talk to other writers (except in interviews like this). Those blowhards are tedious, and they are many. I’m more interested in talking with other writers about their work. I think the deep interest in others is what makes me a good teacher, and what made me a good writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, and what makes me a good editor. But writers don’t have to be collegial, or mentor anyone, or apprentice anyone. I thrive on that stuff, so I do it.
Barwin: I know it’s hard to generalize, but what approach do you take in your workshops and individual mentoring — I mean, other than helping the students create jaw-rending heart-dropping works of impossible brilliance?
Ross: What I want to do in my workshops — and my mentoring — is to expand the possibilities for writers I’m working with: introduce them to new writers and works and ideas and writing strategies, shake them out of their habits and assumptions and complacencies. I want to introduce them to new experiences, help to expand their palettes, dare them to do something in their writing that they are resistant to or uncomfortable with. I like when they write something and say, “Holy shit, did I write that? It doesn’t sound like me. Can I put my name on that?” But I always encourage, and I am always positive. I admit, when I was writer in residence at Queen’s, I told a great young writer, Nick Papaxanthos, that something he’d written was “an insult to poetry.” I figured he could take it. And at the group reading at the end of my session there, he read that poem and introduced it as “Here’s a poem that Stuart called an insult to poetry.”
Barwin: And you eventually published a cool little chapbook of his, Teeth, Untucked (Proper Tales Press, 2011), so I guess both of you saw it as part of a more complex ongoing mentorship based on respect and not platitudes.
Finally, can you speak about your current and future projects? What kind of things are you dreaming up? Where might you imagine your writing going in the future — I mean, assuming there’s not a zombie poodle apocalypse?
Ross: I am currently working on ten different book projects (a story collection, two poetry books, a memoir, a book of essays, a poetry translation, a collaborative book-length poem, three novels). Some of these remain dormant for a few months at a time, or even a few years, but they will all be completed, unless I croak first. I’m trying not to add many more projects, because I’m fifty-five in a few days, and even if I publish one book a year, I’ll be sixty-five by the time I’ve caught up with these. It’s a race against time. And given that I edit about twenty books a year, and do teaching and one-on-one coaching, I don’t have much time for my own writing. Luckily, I’m fast and I think I’m good.
I am entering my literary decline (from not such a great height) reputation-wise, and I have neither the burden of fame nor agents nor audience expectation. There’s a freedom in that. Besides, I don’t want a complacent audience, however tiny that audience. With each book, or each writing project, I try to do something I’ve never done before, to push myself into a new discomfort zone. When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a psychological suspense novel à la Patricia Highsmith. I know now that that will never happen, and that’s freeing, too.
'To understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual'
Note: This — as far as I know — is the last scholarly interview with Amiri Baraka before his saddening passing on January 9, 2014. Baraka here tackles subjects such as radical politics and aesthetics, Marxism and class struggle (in music), vanguardism, Black Arts poetry performance and activism, language writing, the modernist epic mode, and responses to “Somebody Blew Up America” as well as anti-colonial and United Front politics. The interview was part of my research trip to New York City in fall 2010, working on critical theory and the interdisciplinary uses of poetics under the auspices of Bruce Andrews at Fordham University. Achieng Warambo and Ulrich Geister — with whom I stayed in the remarkably segregated town of Teaneck, New Jersey — had helped me to finally get a hold of and visit Amiri and his wife, Amina, at their beautiful home in Newark. Although Amiri had originally given me “one hour,” we all spent the rest of that sweet afternoon together, drinking strong coffee, eating strawberries (!), and talking radical politics, while Coltrane, Sanders, Shepp, et al. were taking turns and blowing choruses throughout. — Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: It is a real pleasure, and a privilege, to get to sit down and talk with the poet icon and renowned playwright, novelist, Marxist critic, jazz scholar, community organizer, and political activist Amiri Baraka. Many thanks, Amiri, for inviting me and for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate that wildly. So let’s jump right in: For some fifty years now, you have been instrumental in illustrating the vicissitudes of poetry in contemporary culture as you helped rejuvenate political art in America and expand the postwar idea of the poem. Through a dialectical process — which William Harris has written about so well — you have forged a poetry that synthesizes modernist aesthetics and populist politics, employing African American traditions and avant-garde techniques to (anti-colonial) revolutionary ends. Do you think that is a fitting description of your aesthetico-political development?
Amiri Baraka: Yeah, I think, in a very general sense Billy Joe Harris — he’s close to my work, he’s studied it, he’s not only edited it, but he’s studied it — so he has his own understanding of what it is. I think he’s more accurate than most people. And, I think, the reason is that he sees the intent of it, whether he agrees with it or not. He sees the intent of what I’m trying to do. What I’ve been doing really raised people’s consciousness, in a sense, at the same time as presenting that, you know, as art, as an aesthetic kind of choice. So, that’s what it is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: How would you describe your artistic and political agenda today?
Baraka: Well, to a big extent it’s the same except, you know, what’s — and I say this myself — what we need now is analysis, we’re very much in need of analysis. I just got through writing a piece about, you know, these people who are attacking Obama from the Left. So, in the piece these two people say “why are you different from the Tea Party?” And so this analysis of the political trend, political direction in the country or society, I have to be able to also translate that into poetry, transform that into poetry, as well as just flat analysis. At least that’s my feeling, you know, because lots of times people will resist, people will resist, you know, just plain kind of narrative about … they’re just opposed to you becoming too, you know, teacher-like, preacher-like, you have to somehow involve that in a more convincing, more poetic kind of feeling to it.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Yes, and I can see that in the aesthetic forms that you’ve been coming up with the last half-century.
Baraka: Yeah, you have to do that because people will resist being instructed, unfortunately.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I wonder if you think of your art as praxis in the Marxian sense of “critical-practical, sensuous human activity directed towards revolutionary change?”
Baraka: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I, that is my, you know, my clearly held intention, whether that succeeds all the time is another question. And, you know, for many, many years I’ve had to hear people — the critical establishment — telling me that I was a better poet when I was, well, before I became a Marxist. That has never influenced me, though. I mean, you know. Isn’t that sort of thing to be expected in this country? What is it that you liked about that other poetry? That’s the question, you know. What is it, what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: White liberal critics mostly lamented what they saw as “waste of talent.”
Baraka: Right. Well, one guy said that the poetry was better when it resembled T. S. Eliot. I mean, you have to put up with that, you know. Criticism is active class struggle, that’s what it is, you know, it’s “class warfare,” that’s what Mao said. So that if you’re in the midst of this society, you gonna get criticized about that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have always worked towards and contributed significantly to re-politicize poetry in the US at a time of neo-conservative backlash — a backlash that would hibernate the Carter years, experience its peak in the Reagan-Bush era, and return forcefully with the Bush II administration — always turning attention to “the ugliest ugly” that “is the social ugly.” Today, the dominant ideology of liberal pluralism seems to entail a form of repressive tolerance that shuts radical critique down and excludes Marxism from the political arena to maintain its liberal guise. What do you think about that?
Baraka: Well, you know, even liberalism now is a bad word, I mean, not to mention socialism. You know, I mean liberalism is — I mean we pushed so far to the right that liberal is sort of like another name for communist, you know, in this country. But the interesting thing is that they made such bogeys, such boogey people out of communism, and they accuse everybody of communism, like even Obama, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s ridiculous.
Baraka: Yeah, I mean, but that shows you not only don’t they know what it is, you see what I mean, but if they’re communist, then the actual communists … you know, then you’re actually over there, somewhere, free to cohort, because they don’t need to know what you are, I mean, they’re calling … oh God. I mean, the idea of them calling — well, they’re calling us fascist, too, at the same time. See, and that would be stupid, I mean it is stupid, but it would just be laughable if it was anywhere else. That can get over here because they have no idea — they know it’s bad — but they don’t know the difference between, say, fascism and socialism. They don’t know the difference. They don’t know the difference, you know. And so to be questioned about that by people is to expose their ignorance in the main, you know, and that’s what is happening now with the “Obama is a socialist.” The stuff that he’s been accused of trying to do is stuff that Europe was doing since the Second World War. You know, I mean, if you talk about socialized medicine, you need to get a hold of Europe, you know what I mean. But somehow it’s a terrible thing for us, and these people need it so badly, you know, it’s just, it’s extraordinary how they can do that, you know. But one thing of the backwardness is what Bush did, is he allowed the FCC to permit corporations to not only holding print media but electronic media. So you have a guy like Murdoch who was, like Australian, I mean, Jesus! — Channel 9, Channel 5, Wall Street Journal, you know, the Daily Mirror, Twentieth Century Fox — so you got this kind of stream of attack.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, we have Berlusconi in Europe.
Baraka: You got what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Silvio Berlusconi, in Italy. That strikes me as a rather similar situation, though maybe on a different scale, right?
Baraka: Yeah, but you know, when you talk to intellectuals in Italy, they’re all “Hey, Berlusconi?! How come people voted for him?!” Right when he got elected, I was in Italy at that time, you know. There is a backward person right there. In terms of his interests, how he manages to pull that off. But this is a very tense period in American life, very tense. And what will happen is — it’s gonna be important for the world. I mean, if they keep going, if they just start a war, I mean, not those two wars they’re involved in, but another big war — the whole Iran thing. Iran is not Iraq, you know what I mean. If you can’t beat Iraq you need to leave Iran alone. But that whole … the push between trying to make progress, as pitiful as it is, and being held back at the time, it makes a very tense, very tense kind of situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1970s, you harshly criticized the political naïveté of the New American Poetry, Abstract Expressionism, and neo-avant-gardes like Fluxus. Now, my impression is that while dissecting what you considered the political failure of the New Left in the face of global capitalism and geopolitical wars, dominant modes of artistic expression were brought under similar scrutiny. You criticized much modernist and experimental poetry for being ideologically flawed — an instance of petty-bourgeois bohemianism and expressivism necessarily to be co-opted by the mainstream ideology of American individualism.
Baraka: Well, that was the problem. That is the problem, still. That people think because they can do weird things that somehow it’s important. [Laughing.] But it’s not important, it’s just weird, you know. There was a guy — we were in Italy one time — this guy named Jackson Mac Low, well, he read this poem that consisted of numbers — “eighty-five, eight hundred and fifty, eight thousand five hundred” — you know, it was a poem that consisted of numbers, and so one of the Italians hit him in the head with a piece of watermelon [imitates the sound], right in the face. And I said, “Gee, it’s pretty rough out here,” and he said, “That’s what happens when you bring too many people into a poetry reading.” I mean, he had not understood at all. There was this “unwashed mass” reacting to his highly sophisticated … but that’s stupid, I mean, why do I wanna hear you read numbers, I mean, whatever your theory in that is, it’s still a guy reading numbers, so what is it?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The theory makes the artwork then, but people don’t have access to that theory, or conceptual frame, or procedural method that generates the writing, and why should they care? Bruce Andrews, who’s also a poet I’m writing about, calls that “procedural (even aleatory) fetishism.”
Baraka: Calls what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Aleatory fetishism. People like Mac Low and especially later epigones who were working in the “tradition” of John Cage, mostly. But much of what they did was, in some ways, a fetishization of certain “chance” or generativist procedures.
Baraka: That’s what it is. The problem with that is … thirty years ago poetry was important, you know, it was important. I mean, people actually … I even got locked up a couple of times. It was actually important in the sense that it did get in the social motion in society, people were infected by it. Back in the 1960s, when you had all kind of revolutionary [inaudible] people wanted to be poets, there was poets everywhere. But what’s happened with the years since then, you know the rock up, rock down, then you have — they’ve tried to reinvest poetry with academia, they’ve tried to make it academic again, you know. They’ve tried to make it — to marginalize it, as a human kind of — I mean, it becomes purely the interest of a small group. And that’s what it is. And somehow — but see, what it is, that’s like capitalism really. Few people have money, most have not. So, the art becomes “a few people understand it, most don’t,” you know. It’s an absolute reflection of the society itself. So that’s what they’ve done, and they so made it academic again it’s become less interesting, except for the rappers. And then they had the slam poets, but that was misplaced to the extent that it then became about only performance, not content.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Right, and it’s also a form of competition. I mean, it’s like a friendly, “let’s be fair” kind of voluntary competition, but it’s still competition.
Baraka: Yeah, still like capitalism. It’s — you’re “grand.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: One thing we don’t need more of.
Baraka: I think the slam thing has sort of worn off a little bit, but the academic thing is what has spread. And I was the poet laureate here for a hot minute. The question was that you can be poet laureate, but you can’t say anything about the real world. I mean, to talk about the real world, you know, that’s a dangerous idea. That’s … who said that? That’s Sartre. Sartre said, “If you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I don’t know what it is, that’s art. But if you say ‘something’s wrong’ and I do know what it is, that’s social protest.” It’s still true. You can’t be literal, or exact, or direct. You have to talk around things, you know, talk around things. That’s why people don’t like it, because it doesn’t say anything directly they can understand, you know. And so you try to do that — say something people can understand but at the same time, you know — as Mao said — to be artistically powerful and politically revolutionary.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I believe you once called Mao “China’s greatest poet.” People were shocked.
Baraka: [Laughing.] It’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, since you’re mentioning Sartre … I’d be particularly interested, especially as a “German academic,” you know, in how you would situate writers like DeBois, or Hughes, or Césaire, too, in the context of the rather Eurocentric so-called “Brecht-Lukács” debate that involved all those important European Marxists — Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, and Sartre, too — in a passionate argument about politics and aesthetics.
Baraka: I mean, you know, in that sense, you have to remember how you yourself … what’s the social context of your intellectual development. No matter how my intellectual development was shaped, I was still a black man in America. And that’s — fundamentally, that’s the ground you stand on, that’s the air you breathe. Everything you see comes into that. So even if I don’t say “I am a black man in America” every time I write a poem, that’s still who’s writing it, and that’s the perception, based on my experience, you know. What DuBois says in, say, The Souls of Black Folk, and I’m reading a book, I’m reading this book here […], another fine book. When he says, in the beginning of that work, “How does it feel to be a problem?” See, that doesn’t resonate with anybody like it resonates with black people in the US. How does it feel to be “a problem?” It don’t feel good. But that’s the question. So the debate like Brecht-Lukács, people like that, becomes more of an academic understanding for me. The things that actually are “organic,” you know, that understand you — whether you understand it or not — that’s the question. And those are the writers, finally, that you have to seek, you know, writers that understand you. You can study all kinds of people, but when you read someone who understands your trials and tribulations, you see, no matter how they finally wanna put it, those are the ones that you go back to again and again.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m very much interested in a collection of essays of yours, in a book called Daggers and Javelins, which testifies to your vigorous attempt, in the late 70s, to identify an African American revolutionary tradition that could parallel anti-colonial struggles in the so-called Third World. Could you comment a bit on how the kind of Marxist analysis you were applying to African American literature, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, differed from what academic Marxists like Frederic Jameson, on the one hand, and a “liberal” Black Studies scholar like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the other, were doing?
Baraka: Well, Jameson was different, to a certain extent. I mean, he understands class struggle, classes, and there’s another (European) guy named Brown — Poetry and Socialism? ... I mean, they at least understand classes and class struggle, so you can relate to that in a very literal way. But Gates is just a reactionary. That’s what he is. I mean, colored though he may be, he’s reactionary, and he’s still a reactionary. He upholds the most backward tendencies in the university system. I was fired from Rutgers because in the speech that I gave to them, which was supposed to determine whether I was gonna become a professor, I just told them in this speech that the last, you know, that the university is the last bastion of colonialism, because they teach you not really American but English literature, and there’s been no English literature for a hundred years, you know. German philosophy, French drama, but what do we learn about the Western hemisphere? That’s my question, you know. What do we learn about American poetry, or Canadian poetry, or Mexican poetry, or Puerto Rican poetry, or Brazilian literature? And they didn’t take that kindly, they thought that was kind of a way out. But that’s the truth, you know … college students … the idea that you would be teaching English literature in the twenty-first century in the United States is bizarre. [Laughs.] I mean, you should teach it, but it shouldn’t dominate the curriculum, which is the trouble. You know, a friend of mine said — we were arguing about Milton — you know, I said “Why are they teaching Milton?” and he said “Well, they should teach Milton, Milton’s a great writer.” I said “But they shouldn’t teach him in the exclusion of this, this, this, this, this, and this.” You know, I don’t even like Milton, but still to me the question of inclusion is crucial.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In academia, unabashedly Marxist theorists and scholars are commonly charged with economic reductionism and criticized for the insufficiency of their theoretical models of mediation between the base and superstructure to account for the (relative) autonomy of culture and politics. Do you think that is a straw man created by liberal academics to avoid having to deal with radical critique, not to mention revolutionary thinking?
Baraka: Yes. [Silently, then a little louder.] Well, I wrote a poem called “The Academic Cowards of Reaction.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh, sure. I’m very fond of that one.
Baraka: Oh, yeah? Well, that’s what that’s about. They cannot — the thing — they do not wanna see the relationship to real life. Everything is abstract and academic, you know. But to actually come down with the thing? I read this guy who was putting down a man who wrote about — was it Balzac’s or Gorki’s relationship to reality? — but he’d said that was an absurd idea cause there’s no such thing as reality. That’s what he had come up with. There’s nothing you can relate to since all it is literature. You know, the thing is a thing, it doesn’t relate to nothing real, it’s just itself, right? Your knowledge is absurd. Then what is it? “What is a sign?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I think what happened with French neo-structuralism and especially Derridean deconstruction as it gets absorbed in the American academy — and I’m thinking here of people like Bloom and de Man in particular — is they turn it on its head. I mean, it was a form of ideology critique which emerged in a specific historical context and from a very specific cultural milieu, and it does offer a critical method for analyzing ideologically functional discourses. But deconstruction in (Anglo-American) academia — at least that’s my impression — has become a means to refute socially contextualizing counterarguments — not to mention political economy — in order not to have to deal with them at all, which really is a cheap trick.
Baraka: But that’s what it is. This whole group called the “language poets,” that’s what their thing is.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You think so?
Baraka: They want to disconnect the doer, the writer, the author, you know. But who’s writing that stuff? You know, it’s incredible. We had an argument with them, and this one guy would say — I can’t think of his name right now — he said that, “well, the question is that Afro-Americans are oral, their work is oral.” The assumption then being “we,” i.e. him and his friends, are literary, as opposed to oral. You know, first of all, it’s racist. But to really think that … it’s a stupid idea. This is a bizarre thing because he’s talking about reality, and there’s no such thing as reality. I mean, that’s a wild idea. I mean, that theory is … that’s like the Britannica, you know, the Britannica Encyclopedia. You know, they have the hundred greatest writers in the world. There’s one woman — it was this Catholic woman in the Midwest, Willa Cather — and no blacks at all, although they mentioned DuBois. But essentially they would dismiss him because he wanted to talk about reality. It’s like you’re being locked up in some kind of room with nuts. It’s no reality … what is this?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, it is one thing to critically reflect that there is no direct, or immediate, access to the “thing-in-itself,” or to the “Real,” and another to bluntly ignore, or even deny, social realities … and yeah, I have sometimes literally been locked up in a room in the academy with nuts. [Laughing.] It happens.
Baraka: Yeah. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’ve got one more thing. Well, I actually have a couple of things. In a book called Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual, Jerry Gafio Watts writes that you utilized Cabral as sort of a “para-Gramscian” theorist of cultural hegemony in your CAP position papers. What do you think about that statement?
Baraka: I don’t think he’s read both of those people — that’s one thing. Either he’s read Gramsci, you know, and never read Cabral, which I think is probably the case. I don’t think he would read Cabral and not read Gramsci. They’re related, in a certain sense, but the difference is Cabral was a revolutionary leader. So, a lot of the things he said mattered to me, you know, and the books of his that I really admire — one book called The Weapon of Theory, and also Return to the Source — those to me are great books. Though the theory that he’s advancing in those books I don’t necessarily agree with, you know, because I thought he was influenced by the Soviet model to a certain extent. But so was Gramsci, to a certain extent. But I was always closer to Cabral, I think, because I actually read his works and met him and talked to him, and all of that. To me that was very important — to actually hear what he was saying, you know. As a matter of fact, that essay called “Return to the Source,” he delivered that in a program that I was attending.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Characteristic of the avant-garde as well as the engagé writer and cultural worker, your writing is characterized by a passionate longing for political change and social transformation. Your ideal of poetry seems to be that of the poem as an agent of social change that does not only prompt to action but performatively acts upon social realities. It appears to me that ever since the mid-60s you have strategically combined avant-garde techniques and political provocation in performance with the purpose of intervening into social power relations by creating or catalyzing a powerful counter-discourse and driving people to action. Would you agree?
Baraka: You’re talking about Ellison?
Büscher-Ulbrich: No —
Baraka: Who were you talking about?
Büscher-Ulbrich: I’m talking about you — the strategic combination of avant-garde performance and political provocation.
Baraka: Provocation in the sense that people will react to what you say. But I always thought that you should say exactly what you feel, regardless of the reaction, you know what I mean, regardless of the reaction. You say what you feel. Although obviously you can predict —
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, certainly not in the sense of “playing a role,” like being a —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But even if you’re just speaking your mind, you may just function as the agent provocateur, in some sense.
Baraka: See, if you’re in a certain context and you say certain things, you know what the reaction’s gonna be, that’s for sure. But it’s not because you just want them to react. You know that they will react, you see. And hopefully …
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s utterly important, I think, because then certain political reactions and discursive control mechanisms become very visible, or identifiable. To “hit the beehive,” basically. I mean, you’ve been doing that for a long time now, ‘hitting the beehive.’
Baraka: All the time. They sting.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh yes.
Baraka: No, but that’s like these poems, you know. You write a poem that says it’s a poem. But in 1967, this poem I wrote — “Black People” — this judge sentenced me to three years in prison. He reads the poem as a prescription for criminal anarchy. So, you wanna know, “Judge, do you think that people ran in my house, read the poem, then ran outside and start setting fires, is that what you believe?” [Laughing.] But to read that as part of my sentence, a poem as part of — that’s bizarre, you know. But that’s what you have to expect. And the same thing with this thing in — the poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It’s just a poem. You told me that poetry was something that was permitted. And they went even up to the Supreme Court to say “You don’t have any First Amendment rights.” So, you need a poem to actually put you outside of the normal understanding of American citizens, you know, “I don’t have First Amendment rights.” Well, there’s a poet, I can’t think of his name, who said “You have freedom of speech, as long as you don’t say anything.” [Laughing.] So, that’s it. Do you say something, oh boy, you gonna pay for that. But the tension there is if you know in your mind the reaction and that holds you from saying it, see, that’s cause you don’t want the weight of that, you know. I even could tell, you know, once that controversy came up about my poem … then certain people I wouldn’t hear from anymore. Like Gates, for instance, you know. He had invited me, saying “Why don’t you come here and read, give four speeches, and we gonna put ’em in a book?” So, after the stuff with the poem, he disappeared. And then, one time, I actually found his cell phone number. And I called him. And he says, “Hello buddy!” [Chuckles.] That’s what Nixon used to call his wife. [Laughter.] So, I said, “Skip, now, are you really distancing yourself from me based on that poem?” “Oh, no, buddy, I wouldn’t do that. I told them that if they didn’t let you come up here, I was gonna resign!” “Oh, Jesus, he’s all up into fantasy now,” you know. If you think he would resign because of me, you’re really … that’s a dope knot, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Partly because of that poem you’re still being bated as a notorious “anti-Semite” by mainstream media, despite your serious self-criticism and self-assessment of part of your own Black Nationalist thinking as “irrational” and “reactionary,” a theoretical and political “dead end” — not to mention the indictment of anti-Semitism the poem itself evinces. I’m afraid we don’t have time to enter into a big discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism, the troubled history of African-American and Jewish-American relations, leftist as opposed to reactionary, right-wing anti-Zionism, neo-cons and the ADL, people you don’t wanna have on your band wagon, and so forth, but is there anything you’d like to get on the record?
Baraka: That’s a very serious problem, you know. It’s a very sophisticated form of propaganda.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Is it true that you received death threats, even?
Baraka: Well, people were calling me up, threatening me with all kinds of stuff, like “There’s a hundred six-foot Jews waiting for you,” you know. [Laughing.] I mean, what kind of madness is that? Who would think of something dumb like that to say, you know what I’m saying? It’s like such childish shit. But, see … fools know no ethnicity.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Your poetry, at least since Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, exhibits a special concern to synthesize the popular with the advanced. Commenting on the Free Jazz avant-garde of the 1960s in Black Music, you write that “the music reinforces the most valuable memories of a people but at the same time creates new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience.” It appears to me that this is the aesthetic paradigm you were trying to connect with Lenin’s notion of a “working-class intelligentsia,” a vanguard of “advanced workers.” Is that the audience that you’re still trying to target with your poetry?
Baraka: Well, I always think that that’s the most dynamic sector of the class, you know. Working class in general is one thing, but the most advanced workers, the workers who understand some things, you know, they might go to work every day, but they still read books and — you know, that’s a dynamic class. And I remember growing up in this town, and I grew up down the street, that there were always people like that on the street. People who, you know, worked in factories, made cars, or worked for the post office, and who still were intellectuals. And that’s a specific kind of understanding of America, you know, to understand it as a worker and understand it as an intellectual. To combine that is — that’s what I was talking about. Those people who themselves will study, study, study, study, study. Who may have never gone to a college but study, study, study, study, study, study, you know. That’s very important.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Much of your poetry is marked, I think, by the endeavor to turn from a Western cultural background — that you have, a college education — to the alternative “cultural flows” of Africa and the Americas. Would you say that your work aspires to escape the reifying logic of late capitalism by calling attention to the oral/aural dimension, processuality, and corporeality of live performance?
Baraka: Well, to actually give poetry a life outside of literature, to give it a life in the real everyday world, you know. The whole Black Arts Movement, when we used to go out into the street everyday on these trucks, four trucks, every day.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Every day? It was not like one scheduled event each month —
Baraka: No, no, no, it was every day, every day. Summer of 1965. What was the inspiration for that was the murder of Malcolm X, because I lived in the Village, Greenwich Village. When Malcolm was murdered, a lot of black intellectuals went out of the Village and went to Harlem. And that’s what we thought we were doing, we were bringing the most advanced culture into the street, you know. Musicians that people thought were too avant-garde to be appreciated, we brought them into playgrounds and play streets, on the sidewalk. Theater in the street, playgrounds, parks, you know, we set up easels on the street, you know, paintings. So that people who would never go into a gallery would see that. And so that had a real effect at that time. That was, I thought, “high level propaganda.” As a matter of fact, right on the cover of one of my books that just was released, Digging (2009), there’s a picture of that. I mean, there’s a picture of us waiting to go out into the street. And you’ll see Sun Ra at the top of the steps, you know, and we were waiting to go hit the street. So, [laughs] that’s a funny picture, because somebody coming back, I had just gone to the liquor store, you know, and I have a big bag full of wine. That’s our energy producer — wine that comes from no grape. [Laughing.] But that was important to do that. I think that should be done regularly, but now they’ve grown weary of that kind of thing … the source that would fund that. That was funded by the government.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It was?
Baraka: Oh yeah, they didn’t know what they were funding. That was the first anti-poverty program, see, it was called “Operation Bootstraps.” They didn’t know what they were funding, I mean, they knew what was on the page … “we’re gonna bring culture to the people.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: And you did that.
Baraka: We did that. But they didn’t realize the content of that, and how intense that was gonna be.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that reminds me … Lorenzo Thomas has suggested that your work is best understood as that of a “neon griot,” a term which I think suits you and your work very well, thinking of how you base poems on forms of language approximating ritualized speech acts and how you have been able to fuse African American oral tradition with decidedly avant-garde techniques. Do you appreciate that term being applied to you?
Baraka: Well, you know, I liked Lorenzo, I thought his poetry was great, I really loved Lorenzo. And I love his theories. I think he was a very fine writer. I’m very sorry that he’s gone. My whole generation is dying left and right, you know, but Lorenzo was — he was a perceptive person, you know. How he died, I don’t know how these diseases — when you get these illnesses — suddenly he’s there and whoop! he’s gone. And recently we had about three or four people like that, dying, you know. People in their seventies are getting out of here left and right, bam bam. Well no, young people, too, fifties. I mean, in the last two years, man, so many people I loved have died, you know. I mean, artists that I really … Abbey Lincoln, her funeral is October 1. That’s gonna be madness — [we have to get over there very early] — that’s gonna be madness.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You have addressed central themes of Black history and culture from a genuinely Marxist perspective in poems like “Class Struggle in Music,” “Somebody Blew Up America,” of course, and your book-length epic poem Wise, Why’s, Y’s: The Griot’s Song Djeli Ya (1995). Can you talk a little bit about this modernist epic mode as well as your collaborative performances of those pieces?
Baraka: The pieces are meant to, again, to take history, which I learned from poets like Langston Hughes and Charles Olson and Ezra Pound, to take history and make it understandable artifact, you know. Something that you can recite and it would be actually history at the same time, you know, something that would stick in your mind. But that’s one function of poetry, the whole historiography. That’s important. How do you teach people history at the same time you’re trying to reach their poetic understanding, you know, their poetic appreciation, but understanding history, in a sense.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Not to be doomed to repeat it?
Baraka: That’s right. Or be cut down in the middle of your life by not understanding it, you know, it’s true.
Büscher-Ulbrich: When I was watching a taped performance of bits of Wise, Why’s, Y’s the other day, I felt like watching something right out of Brecht’s epic theater — a one-man play about the history of colonialism, capitalism, and racial oppression.
Baraka: Yeah. [Chuckles.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I loved that one. You performed using the microphone, I think, as a drum, because there was none.
Baraka: Right. We talked about improvisation. No drum, you have to use something, you know. But that whole thing, that was meant to be a history of the people themselves. I was very happy with that work, Wise, Why’s, Y’s, because it’d fulfill my intention, my intention was that. And it was something that I worked on, you know, you get this thing in your mind, you wanna do that, so those poems will come one day, two days later, the next day, next week, but they’ll keep coming and they’ll be part of that same thing. There were actually forty of them. Like forty days and forty nights. Yeah, I was very happy with that poem, and still am. I would still like to read that, the whole musical thing, with music and singers and stuff like that, one day. And like you say, that’s like theater, so it takes something to do that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It seems to me that some of the most remarkable poets that no one talks about these days, and some of whom never published a book of poetry, are jazz musicians. I’m thinking of Charlie Mingus, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, or Tom Waits. And your collaborations with the New York Art Quartet, with David Murray, Stephen McCall, and a host of others, are certainly prime examples of how New Black Music and modern poetry can be integrated in stunning avant-garde performance. I wonder how a self-consciously avant-garde and thoroughly politicized work like New Music, New Poetry, or more recently, 35th Reunion, would be received by your US-American audience?
Baraka: See, the musicians, even though they don’t say anything, they’re playing the horns and stuff like that, they understand what you’re talking about. That’s the most important thing, that the content of the poetry is not alien to them. They understand what you’re talking about. And though they might never say those things directly like that, unless they were asked, they don’t find that abstract, or obscure. It’s just mouthing. Now, one thing I’ve learned in doing poetry and music together many years is that many times the poet can actually induce the spirit of that poem into the musicians, they begin to — I can see that all the time — when I start, you know, they were playing when I started. It’s like they feel that, you know.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s non-verbal communication?
Baraka: That’s right, they feel it. And you can always tell that because the music becomes — not only is it in tune with what you’re doing but it becomes — a reflection of that, you see. It’s not just poetry and music. It becomes a mass. Because you actually summon them with what you’re saying, you’re calling them, you know, it’s not two different things. You’re demanding that they “get in it,” and they “get in it.” That’s a good feeling. I mean, when you’re doing poetry and music, what really works is great feeling, you know, the poetry just sails where the music sails … if you got people who are not skilled then it’s like work, see. It’s hard work then, you don’t wanna do that. But I have got a lot of readings coming up.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, I would love to be able to see and hear those.
Baraka: Oh yeah, we have a reading this Saturday, at a place called Skippers. And then there’s the Dodge Festival, October 7, 8, 9, 10, and then October 16, at Sistas’ Place. So that’s like a flurry of readings with music, which is good things in the fall, we’re opening up a new season. Plus I’ve got readings outside of town, two as usual, and I just came back from Norway about a week. I don’t know, but, being in Norway is … I’m really an American.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Like culture shock?
Baraka: Well, yes. [Laughing.] It’s a whole different thing. But that’s true, when I go away I always gonna come back, you know, right away. I mean, as backward as this place is, it’s still your home, you know, what can you do? It’s really got a deep addiction, you know. One should rather be abused here than anywhere else. [Laughing.]
Büscher-Ulbrich: I have two more questions. Do you think we can do that?
Baraka: Sure, go ahead.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Some of the practitioners of so-called “Language-centered writing” describe themselves as coming out of a Brechtian tradition of social modernism, seeking to adapt the Verfremdungseffekt from the dialectical theatre to late modernist or “post-avant” poetry, or politicized experimental writing. While some academics are all too eager to portray Brecht as a fashionable postmodernist avant la lettre, neo-Marxist language writers such as Bruce Andrews, or Ron Silliman for that matter, take the example of Brecht very seriously. What do you think about that approach?
Baraka: Well, you know, first of all what the language poets would have to explain to me is why their poetry is so dull. I wrote an essay in the Poetry Project Newsletter that said, “Why get poetry so boring again?” And they are one of the groups that, I think … I don’t know what it is. Because maybe they write about intellectual themes, rather than … life … and how it provokes you like it provokes you.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So, you are concerned about the poetry becoming kind of a superfluous attachment to the theory?
Baraka: Well, you know, that’s what you have to watch if you’re an ideologue, even a Marxist ideologue.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, they are Marxists, I believe. At least the group’s “hard core” is —
Baraka: Not really, I mean —
Büscher-Ulbrich: But in their critical-theoretical stance, at least —
Baraka: That’s the problem. That’s the problem, you know. Artistically powerful? No. Politically revolutionary? No. So then what makes it “Marxist?”
Büscher-Ulbrich: Okay. Well, one thing they did was they entered academia and they brought with them a lot of [Marxist] critical theory. And they’re teaching critical theory in academia. So I think that there might be an important social group there — those young academics. Because they all go out into the world and … they’re not exactly “working class,” but people have acted against their own class-interests before, historically speaking, and they might get to be some sort of “social engineers” and might enter into powerful positions, so they better be in contact with at least some critical theory and progressive ideas. Doesn’t that make them a counter-hegemonic force?
Baraka: Not really. They even think the kind of agent provocateur stuff that Ginsberg and them guys did, think of that as (what’s it called?) “a ridiculous ideology.” Well, if you don’t go out and stop those trains bringing nuclear waste, then what is your alternative to that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: The writing won’t do it.
Baraka: That’s what I’m saying.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I agree.
Baraka: You don’t have to do that, but I can understand that, you know, as an activist I can understand that. If you wanna stop that you gotta go stop it. And that’s all you can do, you know. But to say that that is ridiculous because the poet doing that is ridiculous, that’s absurd.
Büscher-Ulbrich: There’s an article by Kristin Prevallet talking about how you met Barrett Watten at an NPF conference on the poetry and poetics of the 1960s — “The Opening of the Field” — in Orono, back in 2000. You almost picked a fight?
Baraka: Yeah, right, right, right. No, it’s stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Because that’s my line on that, you know, academics that turn the struggles of real people into post-modern subjects in order to get tenure — what are you looking awry? I know you got tenure, you’re teaching, you got tenure, you got theories, but what are you doing in the world here, what’s … how can we see the dint of your, you know, the dint of your, like, theories in the world. Now, where is that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, my next question is related to that. The proliferation of poetry readings and performances, avant-garde or otherwise, writes Charles Bernstein in 1998, “has allowed a spinning out into the world of a new series of acoustic modalities, which have had an enormous impact in informing the reading of contemporary poetry.” Black Arts poets during the 1960s contributed largely to this transformation of the institution of poetry in the United States. Now, coming out of that movement and being one of the most dynamic poetry performers — at least since Mayakovsky — you seem to be taking the poems off the page, out of the realm of ideas, and into action. Is that the task of the revolutionary poet — to help transform ideas into action?
Baraka: Yeah. But, see, the point is you have to watch that because, like the criticism that Lenin made of social democrats, like Bernstein’s “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” But that’s not true. I mean, I don’t believe just in that. There has to be something you’re doing that for. You know what I mean, there has to be a goal, a particularity that you want to affect. That’s it, but that’s true. You want to take … the things that you say have to be important enough to do. Truth is in the act, finally, you know what I mean. You know, I mean, it’s boring if somebody is gonna tell you that there is this and this and this and this. Where is that theme? I read a little bit of that, I can’t read much of that, talking about the language poets. But why didn’t I read more? Cause it was boring. You know [laughing], that’s the only reason. I mean, I don’t wanna torture myself, right?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Now, that’s interesting [laughing]: “Boredom is counterrevolutionary. Always.” But that’s Guy Debord and the Situationists, who some language poets actually were very fond of and probably still are.
Baraka: And, you see, the other thing is that that stuff can be perfectly plausible — perfectly fit into the academic situation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It is not challenging the status quo, you mean … despite its critical-theoretical stance?
Baraka: Yeah, they could be there, or they could be, you know, comfortable with that, you know. The university could be comfortable with that. But when I got kicked out of Rutgers, man, they told me, you know, “You’re through.” They had put all my stuff — when I went in my office they had taken all my books and everybody else’s books, because I was in somebody else’s office, so they took all of that books and my books and put them into boxes. So I walked in the office, they got all my stuff in boxes, and I said “You at least gotta let me get the tests out of that box, you know, cause it’s the end of the semester.” [He] says “No, no, no, no. I’ll come to your house.”
Büscher-Ulbrich: They kicked you out like that?
Baraka: [Laughing.] They put the books in the box.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Unbelievable to me.
Baraka: And, I said, “Well, look, I’ve got the tests in the box.” They said, again, “No, no, no, I’ll come to your house.” And the guy drove from New Brunswick up here. I mean, he was a nice enough guy — he’s just acting [on behalf of the] head of the department — he actually had cried. Him and my wife were friends, and he actually wept about, you know, how they’ve taken me out. But he had to carry out, see. And I had three elections, you know, to get on the faculty you have to be elected by the faculty. So, the first election … I won (by eight or nine votes). So they said, “Since you are a full professor, you have to have another election, and only full professors can vote.” So they figured, “All right then” … I won that, too. But I won that by about three votes. So they said, “That’s too close.” And the third election they send out, and so I said, “Oh, I see … it’s over with.” And when I went back to my office, the books were in the box. Plus, the guy who was running that department, Richard Poirier (he wasn’t a chairman, he was running the department), he had written an essay before I even got to Rutgers, he’d written an essay saying why he would never teach my work. You can look at that essay in Partisan Review. He’d never teach my work or Richard Wright’s. And I come to the campus … I didn’t even know that essay existed, until I came to the campus and they showed me that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, thinking of German academia … it’s not exactly progressive, but it’s liberal, at least it’s liberal, although increasingly neo-liberal, of course. It’s certainly not a leftist —
Baraka: I understand.
Büscher-Ulbrich: — environment, but, for instance, your work is appreciated. It’s taught, basically, in each and every American Studies department, all over Germany. In Hamburg, as I remember, a group of students even played a recording of “Somebody Blew Up America” on campus, over the loudspeakers, while preparing for a protest march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baraka: It’s funny … that’s very funny. I read that poem, at the last Dodge Festival I read that poem, and that’s why that happened, you know. The last two people that came — it was about a thousand people — the last two people — I was signing books, my wife and I were signing books — the last two people to come to me said “That’s a hateful poem.” Hateful, you know. What part is hateful? Anyway, the next day the Governor’s office called me and said “Apologize and resign,” which, you know, to me was stupid. But that’s, again, you know, “You said this in a poem!” It’s like I threw a bar, or something like that, you know, or shot somebody. If you don’t like the poem, say you don’t like it, or why. That’s all. But to go around with this hysteria about that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: One last thing I want to ask you about, because it has been on your mind now, I think, for decades and because it has been so thoroughly discredited by many contemporary Leftists: the notion of a “United Front.”
Baraka: Two people were always talking to me about United Front. One was Malcolm X. The other was Martin Luther King. Ironic that they had the same ultimate understanding, you know, when you would think that they would be miles apart. But not really … Malcolm, about a month before he was murdered, and I talked to him all night in the Waldorf Astoria with an African named Mohammed Babu, who became the minister of economics in Tanzania. He was one of the revolutionaries who helped form Tanzania. So I was trying to be militant, and he was telling me “Better you try to get in there” — in the NAACP — “and influence them,” rather than to be outside and be less effective. So, Dr. King, he came to my house — I was living on the other side of town — he showed up at my front door when he had just finished a march in Newark, and I thought, “Somebody pinch me,” you know. He’d come to talk about a United Front. A week later he was shot dead in Memphis …. See, the same people that elected Obama, the same coalition that elected Obama — and that’s the only coalition that has the material base to do it — have got to come back together to defend the little inch of progress we made … ’cause they gonna take it back. They gonna take it back.
Newark, New Jersey, September 23, 2010
1.This is a line from Baraka’s “Afro-American Lyric,” originally published in Poetry for the Advanced (chapbook, 1979) and reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York: Morrow, 1997), 322–27. For a videotaped reading of the poem at Naropa Institute of Disembodied Poetics in 1978, go here.
2. Bruce Andrews with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The contextualizing capacity of the writing itself,” Jacket2 (October 2012). Andrews introduces the notion in his “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” published in Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays on sound in poetry, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73–85.
7. Amilcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” (1966) and Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral (New York: African Information Service, 1973).
8. For a critical account of this, see Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, “The Poet/Poem as Agent Provocateur: Sounding the Performative Dimension of Amiri Baraka’s ‘Somebody Blew Up America,’” in States of the Art: Considering Poetry Today, ed. Klaus Martens und Ramin Djahazi (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2010), 86–101. An excerpt from the court transcript is quoted in Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 201–2. The original source is “State of New Jersey v. Everett Le Roi Jones, Charles McCray and Barry Wynn,” Essex County Court, Law Division: Criminal Indictment No. 2220-66, January 4, 1968, 17–18.
9. V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (vol. 4), 269. Both Hard Facts (1975) and Poetry for the Advanced (1979) are reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (New York, Morrow: 1977). For Baraka’s explicitly Marxist-Leninist notion of vanguardism, see his preface to Poetry for the Advanced. However, as I have suggested elsewhere: “In a remarkable collection of political essays and analysis, Daggers and Javelins […], the Marxist-Leninist Baraka finds himself aligned, as it were, with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a “minor literature.” Rather than being stuck with a vulgar-Marxist notion of “reflection” when pondering “the revolutionary tradition in African-American literature,” he conceives of it as “a projection of what [the people] struggle to become” (148).
11. Amiri Baraka, “Why Most Poetry Is So Boring, Again,” PPNL 209 (December 2006/January 2007): 14.
12. Kristin Prevallet, “The Exquisite Extremes of Poetry: Watten and Baraka on the Brink,” Jacket 12 (July 2000) and Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr, “Baraka / The Divide,” Jacket2 (January 4, 2014).
14. That is, the aphorism or pragmatic slogan of the German ‘revisionist’ Eduard Bernstein: “I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism.’ This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me. The movement is everything.” Bernstein: The Preconditions of Socialism, ed. Henry Tudor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), xxviii.
An interview with Grzegorz Wróblewski
Note: In early April 2014, Polish writer and painter Grzegorz Wróblewski gave readings from his book Kopenhaga (trans. Piotr Gwiazda, Zephyr Press, 2013) at Columbia University, Cambridge Public Library, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The following interview took place in Providence on April 7. It was transcribed and translated by Piotr Gwiazda.
Piotr Gwiazda: What is the relation of Kopenhaga to the rest of your oeuvre?
Grzegorz Wróblewski: Kopenhaga started to materialize in my head when I was still living in Poland. It is an urban text, a kind of theory of urban life. It is about human beings entangled in various aspects of modern civilization. So it gives you a good sense of my worldview. Of course it is mainly an objectivist record, so I don’t share my political opinions, et cetera. Nevertheless, it shows you what I care about, what I pay attention to. It’s an important text in my oeuvre.
Gwiazda: How long did it take you to write it?
Wróblewski: It took me many years to write Kopenhaga. I wrote most of it after I moved to Copenhagen in 1985. The book came out in Poland in 2000. As you know, our English version also includes some later additions. But the core part of Kopenhaga took me about fifteen years to finish. I wrote things down, kept an eye on the whole, tried to be selective. I wanted the text to be perfect. I wanted it to have formal integrity. I definitely didn’t want it to read like a diary or notebook.
Gwiazda: Would it be appropriate to call Kopenhaga a book of prose poems?
Wróblewski: Yes, because it’s partly poetry and partly prose. Some texts are closer to poetry, others to prose. I myself have used the term “essays” [szkice] to emphasize the mixture of these two elements. But there is no reason to worry about definitions. You can choose any definition you want, as long as you can defend it.
Gwiazda: What did you try to achieve in Kopenhaga?
Wróblewski: In Kopenhaga, I tried to capture the rhythm, the pulse of earthly life. Copenhagen was my testing ground. Although many parts refer to Copenhagen, I wanted to portray archetypal scenarios — the universal human condition. That was my goal, at least.
Gwiazda: Is it also a kind of autobiography?
Wróblewski: Yes, in part. Some passages seem real, but are in fact surreal; they are hallucinations with bits of reality in them. I put everything through the filter of subjectivity. The book gives you a sense of Copenhagen’s topography, the streets, the people. But you can’t read it as a personal transcript. Again, if I had wanted it to be an autobiography, I would have used the form of a journal. Kopenhaga aspires to be something else. It is a conceptual text, in which I explore various aesthetic and theoretical questions.
Gwiazda: Were you ever tempted to explore these questions through the genre of literary criticism?
Wróblewski: I already work in many genres. Besides poetry, I write experimental prose, plays, hybrid texts. I am also a visual artist. So I do many things in terms of genre. I believe that there is an element of criticism in my prose writings. That is where I express my opinions, where I comment on literary, artistic, and other issues. So I have no need to write criticism professionally; I was never tempted to do so. If people want to learn what I think about literature and art, they should simply read my work.
Gwiazda: Is this also true of your painting?
Wróblewski: Yes. But the situation here is slightly more complicated because of the presence of two elements: calligraphic art and acrylic painting. The combination of these elements amounts to my technique.
Gwiazda: Can you comment on the importance of Eastern philosophy in Kopenhaga?
Wróblewski: I’ve always been interested in Eastern philosophy. Buddhism more than Hinduism, especially Zen Buddhism. This is the nihilistic version of Buddhism, which offers no promises. We are all children of the world, mere particles in the universe. I’ve always liked how Zen Buddhism tries to reconcile us to the cosmic nothingness, how it prepares us for death through meditation. This has always been something close to me; I treasure books like Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. There is also a certain Japanese aesthetic in my poetry, though transposed onto European sphere of reference. I am fascinated by haiku and other traditionally Japanese forms.
Gwiazda: For whom do you write? For the Polish audience or a larger European or even world audience?
Wróblewski: You must remember that, above all, I am a Polish writer. Even though I live in Copenhagen, I write in Polish, so at least theoretically my first addressee is Polish. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, my book Nowa Kolonia first appeared in Denmark, in Danish translation, and only much later in Poland. You yourself know my poems that will first appear in their English versions. [Interviewer’s note: Wróblewski’s most recent poems are forthcoming in The Buenos Aires Review.] So the basic answer is this: I write for Polish readers, even though my situation is rather complicated, as I don’t live in Poland; I’m not there physically. Sometimes this leads to surprising developments. For example, my plays are never performed in Polish theaters. (My absence from the Polish stage is a topic for another conversation.)
Do I also write for other readers? It depends. My poems are often translated, not only into English but into other languages as well. So they reach readers in many places. Yet it would be overly optimistic of me to say that I write for a large audience. I hope to have more support from Polish cultural institutions in this regard. I’m convinced that my poetry would reach more people then.
Gwiazda: Would you say that your poetry translates easily?
Wróblewski: Because my poetry is lyrical at a very basic level, I believe it is not very easy to translate. It demands vigilance on the part of the translator. It also demands a particular kind of translator. Not everyone can do it.
Gwiazda: What about future readers? Do you ever think about them when you are writing?
Wróblewski: Well, the earth keeps turning, keeps changing. In poetry, it’s always just one generation at a time. The same goes for poetry criticism. You can consider yourself lucky if your work survives for a few generations. It’s hard to talk about the future. I have no idea whether anyone will read my work in five or ten years. I have my doubts, because I am a Polish writer and there are strange things going on in Poland these days in terms of critical reception, the kinds of poetry that gets official support, etc. I am lucky to have on my side the great poetry critic Anna Kaluża. So maybe I have a chance.
Gwiazda: Some poets imagine that they write for their predecessors. Do you?
Wróblewski: It’s always a form of conversation with the past. These are authors who showed you how to write, what to do. They broke new ground, changed the rules. They were precursors for many schools and kinds of contemporary poetry. You don’t write for them, because in most cases they no longer exist. But, in a sense, you believe that you carry on their work or at least offer an alternative to it. You can have a dialogue with them. You can imagine that, since they were not able to finish their projects, you continue their efforts in their name. It’s a complex matter. But this is not something to be obsessed about. I don’t think about it much.
Gwiazda: However, in Kopenhaga you seem to make such connections with at least two Polish poets.
Wróblewski: I mention Julian Tuwim, a great city poet, and Tadeusz Różewicz. Różewicz is also a great poet, but unfortunately he quickly lapsed into mannerism. He was original for ten or twenty years, then began to imitate himself, became monotonous. Yet I still respect him as a genuine innovator. [Interviewer’s note: Różewicz died on April 24, 2014.]
Gwiazda: Are there any other Polish poets that influenced you?
Wróblewski: If you look at the Polish poetic history, you will surely find poets with whom you feel you have something in common, even though you write differently. Every epoch has its great makers. The Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski can be as useful as the nineteenth-century Romantics. As for modern poetry, take Andrzej Bursa, active in the 1950s, who has been translated into English but is not as well known in the West as Zbigniew Herbert or Czesław Miłosz. In my view, he is more interesting than those two.
Gwiazda: Even though he wrote so little?
Wróblewski: Definitely. Whether you write ten or one thousand poems, what matters is what you write and how. Some of Bursa’s work is pure genius. I also like the work of Miron Białoszewski, especially his poems about Falenica (a Warsaw suburb) with their portrayals of existential boredom.
Gwiazda: It seems to me that generally you are more interested in poems than poets.
Wróblewski: Yes, because ultimately everything is transient, seasonal. I can think of no artists who had a strong phase for longer than five or ten years. In fact, we remember artists mainly for their individual creations. Since we happen to be in the United States, let’s talk about American poets. Take William Carlos Williams, one of the world’s most interesting but also uneven poets, the author of marvelous objectivist poems but also of many inconsequential and unnecessary ones. He was certainly a great artist — and a very important model for me. But he was also very uneven. I own his Collected Poems, but I can’t read many of his poems because I find them intellectually and formally uninteresting.
Gwiazda: Ultimately, then, do you write for yourself?
Wróblewski: In a sense, yes. It is always an opportunity for inner dialogue, a kind of artistic and personal challenge. I can’t imagine an artist — whether a writer, painter, or film director — who doesn’t create partly for his or her own satisfaction.
Of course, there are different ways of going about your work as a poet. You can imitate other poets or you can aspire to originality. So you master your individual style, try to avoid worn-out metaphors, but that in itself can be dangerous. Writers who want to be original at all costs end up producing banal contrivances. Sometimes being an imitator is more interesting artistically, because at least you don’t waste your time. And yet that also is a blind alley. I myself don’t write this kind of classicist poetry. I have always tried to be different formally. For example, when I was writing Nowa Kolonia, I faced all kinds of formal challenges that took me months to solve, because I needed to balance formal considerations with thematic ones. All poets face their own struggles.
Gwiazda: What is your take on contemporary politics in Poland and the rest of Europe?
Wróblewski: I’m not an optimist anymore. I was born in 1962, so I’ve had a lot of time to observe. I had hoped for big changes in Poland. Today I am completely astonished when I look at the state of political affairs in Poland. I see something similar in Denmark. The return of nationalistic sentiments, for example. It’s not a pretty situation.
Gwiazda: Do you consider your poetry political?
Wróblewski: Yes, definitely, since it is poetry about the world. I don’t live on a desert island, even though I sometimes feel isolated from other people. Because my poetry is also about the life of the mind, and the state of one’s mind is a political matter, my poetry is both very hermetic and very social. It comprises these two elements. One doesn’t negate the other. On the contrary, by being isolated, you can see certain things more clearly. Because you can see more clearly, your poems are stronger in the political sense.
Gwiazda: Do you therefore view yourself as a kind of intellectual or moral authority?
Wróblewski: No, because I ultimately don’t know who reads my work. Sometimes I feel like I’m just here for the ride: you know, the passenger syndrome. Ultimately I have no idea what my role is as a poet. When I give readings, I meet and talk with different people, but I don’t know what I represent to them. Besides, I’m not in a position to offer advice. Especially advice on how to survive. I really don’t have any.
Gwiazda: You said you don’t live on a desert island. So where do you live?
Wróblewski: In one sense, I live in Copenhagen. That is where my official address is since 1985. But I also live in a particular section of the city, Amager. This matters a lot. If I lived in another neighborhood, I would be a different writer. Location has a huge impact on the writer’s work.
But more generally, I live on planet Earth. Wherever I go, I see the same phenomena, the same absurdities. We are all humans, we exist to satisfy our physical and mental needs, often through illusions, self-deceptions, religions, other substitutes. It’s such a sad condition: going to work, earning money, watching TV, reading the newspaper, worrying about politics — nothing makes sense, to be honest. I think of the earth as a kind of insane asylum. You have to be an idiot to survive. If you are not an idiot, then the only choice is suicide. It’s the most obvious choice, intellectually.
Or maybe what makes sense is the possibility of human contact, a friendship, a meeting of the minds, perhaps through literature. Through literature you send signals to other people. Maybe someone in the universe who feels the same way as you do will receive them. This wouldn’t be a victory, but at least it would give you the strange satisfaction that you are not alone.