Students interview three poets
I am a professor in global liberal studies at New York University, a new four-year BA program that, wanting to be known for its teaching, indulges its faculty in their pedagogical experiments. In spring 2012 I put together a seminar with the loud title Poetry and Globalization. The one thing my seminar was emphatically not about was poems about globalization. Rather, I meant to study the encroachment of modern Western poetics into societies where poetry depends on technologies other than print, and performs other functions than it does in the West. In other words, it was about the relativity of values, about the way values are deformed in translation, about the roles of performance and of social context. The professor — namely me — having grown up between two poetry systems, the Russian and the American ones, has experienced firsthand the localness of poetic forms, observing how poets of one system, no matter their education, could never really leave its values, could never fully alienate themselves into a position that was not, from some other position, blinkered and provincial. Poetic values, I thought, are never universal, even though each bearer of local values will consider all or some of them, unconsciously, to be universal. Hence, values need to be taught with the help of anthropology, or to be more precise, ethnography.
So we studied not only foreign poetic systems, such as Bosnian oral epic as recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the Chinese transition to vernacular poetry, and Turkish modernism in its political and linguistic context, but also anthropological writings on poetry, like those by Clifford Geertz. We went to readings downtown — events as disparate as the (very raucous) American Sign Language Poetry Slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, the cool sessions of avant-garde writing at the Poetry Project, and even those held by professional creative writing people at NYU itself. Several poets and translators kindly visited us in the classroom; the Spanish-language poet and performance artist Ernesto Estrella Cózar even declaimed with such gusto that the class next door complained. In April we organized a colloquium with six poets and publishers from different countries. Open to all, the event proved not boring, and ended with a huge and edifying argument over translation strategies between Dmitry Kuzmin (Russia) and Murat Nemet-Nejat (USA).
Early in the process of planning for the seminar I gutted the traditional idea of a seminar paper. I wanted a project that would be more versatile, that would prepare students to write for magazines as much as academic institutions, but that would also let them experience poetry in its natural habitat. I put each student in contact with a different New York–based poet of my acquaintance. The choice of poet was dictated by what I knew of the student’s interests. The student was supposed to interview the poet, with the covert aim of figuring out what values inform her poetry, and eventually to learn to read the poet’s work through the lens of the poet’s values. Three out of four assignments that students carried out — and that we workshopped in class — came out of their interviews. Here are several such interviews in their transcribed, excerpted, and edited form. — Eugene Ostashevsky
Students (below, left to right): Francesca Federico, Maria Khimulya, Catalina Cantolla Gallardo.
Francesca Federico interviewed Marcella Durand, an important practitioner of ecopoetics, a type of new “nature” writing that attends to the environment of a subject treated as an observer. Durand’s books of poetry include Area (Belladonna) and Traffic and Weather (Futurepoem). Francesca writes that Durand works “in a deliberately fractured way, creating ‘stanzas’ that build and bend to reveal their own architectural form.Traffic and Weather is one poem in sixty pages, and follows some person — Durand’s narrator — as he or she experiences life in a city from sunrise to dusk. Her narrator loses itself in its environment at several points, both physically and emotionally, for it is the city itself that plays the most active role in the book. The intimacy of the light hitting a building, and the ephemeral wind stirring hanging ropes are just two examples of how Durand creates an otherworldly atmosphere within the city’s concrete boundaries … The intentional shifts between what is experienced and what is emotionally felt, as well as the scientific way of seeing the world results in an extremely multifaceted work … The effect on the reader is profound; Marcella seems to have encapsulated in sixty pages, in one poem, the very essence of what living in a city is, its confusions and its splendor.” Francesca Federico is a junior in global liberal studies at NYU, studying operatic vocal performance. She is spending her junior year in Paris, working for an artistic management agency that represents contemporary classical artists in London and Paris.
Francesca Federico: I’m wondering how you came to be a poet, because what you write about isn’t really typical of other poets. And it seems you have a lot of influences from astronomy, and architecture, and that kind of thing. Have you been involved in those fields?
Marcella Durand: When I went to college I was originally going to be a geologist [laughs], and I was always interested in science but I was terrible at math. And then I got completely seduced into poetry. I had a great professor, who was totally passionate about poetry, and we didn’t work the same aesthetically at all, but his passion for it got me interested in it. And then, when I was living in France, I was living with musicians, and I didn’t have a job. So they would get up at eight in the morning, and start practicing like crazy, and I decided to start trying to write. They were putting being an artist into their schedules, so that’s where I saw how serious people were about being creative. And I wasn’t worried about having a job or anything, I was really just isolated in the suburbs of Paris.
Federico: Would you say that the French language itself influences your English poetry?
Durand: Oh, definitely. It’s a much more lucid language, more precise. It’s really helped me see how French is more, denotative? They have an exact word for everything, and English is much more connotative. So it’s helped me be a little more cognizant of what I’m using in connotation, and when something isn’t precise. And I have this sense of otherness.
Federico: Do you feel that way about any other languages? Or is French the one?
Durand: French is the one. A lot of the French writers are the ones I feel most inspired by, rather than English or American ones for the most part. The person I’ve been chewing on and translating for the longest time is Michèle Métail, who is a contemporary French woman poet. I just love her work, but it’s very difficult to translate. It took me five years to translate one page.
Durand: Yeah, because it’s written according to a constraint. It’s a poetic geological history of Marseille, and it’s written in twenty-four lines per page and it’s forty-eight characters per line. With no punctuation!
Federico: Oh my God!
Durand: It’s so fabulous, but you know, English is much more concise. So I’m writing it twenty lines a page, trying to pump it out.
Federico: Your book Traffic and Weather seems like one big narrative. It doesn’t really have delineations of when each poem ends. How did you decide to do that?
Durand: It is one big narrative. I had a space with a wall (at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) where I could post the poem as I was writing it. So each day I would go back to the beginning of the poem. I tried to have a circular, diurnal structure so that the poem would almost begin in early morning and end at sunset. There is this kind of rough “day” passing, and through the day you’re seeing light move across the skyscrapers.
Federico: When you write your poems about different places, do you have a specific place in mind, or can they be loosely interpreted as being any place?
Durand: I’d rather that they be loosely interpreted. I know it’s a contradiction, being that I write very specifically. I wanted to see how specific I could get with Traffic and Weather, how closely I could get to the physical details of a place. But at the same time I didn’t want it to be “New York City, 123rd and Broadway.” I wanted it to exist universally as well, as though it were any place’s details.
Federico: Traffic and Weather changes so rapidly from one kind of, I don’t know, outline? And you have really big spaces between words sometimes.
Durand: My work is so dense that I did want to give a lot of aired space to the poem, to make it easier for people, not so dense. I just wanted to leave a lot of space and air.
Federico: But you don’t do it by ending a line and just beginning another line. You put it in one big rectangle and then, selectively take out spaces?
Durand: It was just where I felt the line needed a breather. Or if it was shifting geographically.
Federico: So do you ever view the lines as a visual entity? As, perhaps, a piece of architecture? Because I felt like that sometimes, like the foundation of a building that you would see rising up.
Durand: Oh absolutely. I hated having narrative forms, so I did break into the verse as much as I could. But some parts were just so clearly narrative.
Maria Khimulya: You say that that there is poetry that’s interested in knowing, and poetry that’s interested in not knowing, and that right now you are interested in the poetry of not knowing, of the process as opposed to the product. How does this apply to your already published works, like Calendar, for example?
Genya Turovskaya: Calendar was the first longer piece that I had published. I was in my twenties at the time. It was the first time I had set out to write a series of poems as opposed to a poem. I wasn’t sure when I began what I wanted to do, but did know that I wanted to do something broader than a single poem. I wanted to explore my experience of immigration, which happened when I was very young, at a time when I couldn’t mentally process the scope of what was happening to me. Because I was so young, immigration was not a personal choice that I had made, but one that was made for me. It was partially traumatic, and partially world-expanding. As I got older, I started to understand how big of an impact immigration had on me — developmentally, emotionally, and as a writer — and how that always, whether foregrounded or not, is the subject of my work. It was always about dislocation, displacement, being adrift, being at sea. The Tides, which came out in 2007, touches on that too. The subjects that I found myself gravitating towards again and again were outer space, being at sea, being between worlds — emotionally, culturally, and linguistically.
Khimulya: How did Russian influence your poetry? Do you think that translating Russian poets influenced your poetry?
Turovskaya: My English is better than my Russian. English is my primary language now. I didn’t speak Russian very actively — only at home, with my family — until I became an adult. I had to rediscover the Russian language for myself. That said, I think that I — in my body, in my rhythms, in my tones — carry these roots. Russian was my first language; it is the first language that I experienced poetry in. So I think of it as an influence I am not always consciously aware of. I don’t feel like a fully American poet, because I was born elsewhere, started my life in a different language. Also, as a translator, I think that whether you want to or not, you absorb the poets that you translate. You have to allow that poet’s voice to pass through you, your mind, your body. You may not be able to specifically say what the influence is, but you are certainly changed by the experience.
Khimulya: Can we talk a little bit about Dear Jenny? If I understand correctly, the speaker is male?
Turovskaya: I think that we are gender-complex, and that we all have feminine and masculine parts of ourselves. I have always been interested in this aspect of myself, as a woman, my masculinity. I was also trying to imagine what some of the people whom I have encountered in my life would have said if they could speak honestly. That was a starting point. But also, “Jenny” is the name that I was called for a brief period. Well, not so brief: in high school. “Jenny” was an Americanized version of my own name. I think that the Jenny poems were a way for me to reenter my American self and my American life. I was reorienting my location back to the US after having spent quite a few years on and off going to and from Russia. I had spent a month in Montana, and another month in New Mexico, and some time in Colorado and Utah. The poems were a part of the process of my locating myself in that American experience. Much of the landscape in the poems is an American landscape. The first poem starts in the American West, in the mountains, and the last poem ends in Grand Central station, which is one of my favorite places in New York City, a point of arrival, of coming home. Also, I started writing those poems before I went to the NYU School of Social Work and got my training to be a psychotherapist, and they end after I completed the program and started working in the field, so these poems are also concerned with the mind, what the mind is, with empathy, intimacy, waking and dreaming states and the spaces between them, and with thoughts and feelings and emotional states that may be considered unspeakable, unsayable.
Khimulya: Do you think that the letter form helps you in that?
Turovskaya: It is a very immediate, intimate form. It is also, in a way, conversational. That direct address was very important to me. It can be read as one part of the self addressing another part of the self, or as a recognition of an otherness within myself. But I wanted these poems, as personal as they are, to be able to connect to whoever reads them, so it is not so simple as that.
Catalina Cantolla Gallardo: Do you place more value on your original work than on your translations?
Elizabeth Zuba: I don’t. But again, I am working hard not to. There is still the Romantic notion of authenticity — how important authenticity and individualism and authorship are to what we value. I’m actually, I think, more comfortable and confident about my work as a translator than my work as a writer. But I think the public values authenticity, and values my writing more than my translations. It is really entrenched as a fundamental tenet of the US, which was founded on the Enlightenment, on individualism.
Gallardo: And it appears in all of the “intellectual property” issues we’re having.
Zuba: Yeah, it comes from the romantic ideal that started with the Enlightenment, but it’s primary to the way Americans think and understand everything. But I have to say I don’t see it that way. I think my writing and all arts are incredibly valuable in a really big nebulous way, in a long-trajectory way. But I think that translation is immediately valuable to how we understand ourselves and other cultures, other ways of thinking, how we interact.
Gallardo: If you could sum up your writing in a couple of sentences, what would they be?
Zuba: That is a hard question. [Long pause.] I think my writing comes from a place of circumventing, from a place of estranging myself out of socialized or cultured consciousness. I try to be aware of all of the other nodes of thought, or axes of sensibility that I’m experiencing that are not currently defined — given a space, or given a language in our everyday thinking and talking and experience.
Gallardo: Would you say that in writing you put a lot of value into awareness of your thoughts, feelings? You seem to be very aware of the way you write.
Zuba: But I don’t think I’m aware of the way I write or the things I write. What I try to be very aware of is the way I live and the things that I experience.
Gallardo: And that experience translates —
Zuba: Yeah, that translates into how I’m writing. A place from where I’m writing is to try really hard to dwell on whatever my expected processes, or relationships, or experiences, or sensibilities may be, and to be more aware of a direct, more receptive dialogue or communication between them. That acts more in a quantum-like way than it does in a space-and-time way. Does that make sense?
Gallardo: Kind of.
Zuba: I think that what makes it hard is there is no vocabulary for what I’m writing — which is why I’m writing it — so it makes it hard to articulate. But that said, I think that I come from a place where I am very aware of the fact that every word has so much more multiplicity and simultaneity. I also have a physics background, so I come from a place where every particle has multiplicity and simultaneity. So this desk here, while it may look like a desk, is in fact moving all over the place. It’s not only moving all over the place, it’s moving in all these other potential dimensions and that’s all very silly unless you study solid state physics, in which case it makes a lot of sense. So I think that is where I’m coming from when I’m writing, and it’s probably evident in my writing there’s a fundamental rift between the way we see the world and what’s actually happening. So I think that would be my answer. I think there’s lots of stuff going on all at once. And relationships are really important. Because the reason this table looks like a table is because of its relationship with its physical surroundings. So I think what we tend to do in our partisan, typical language and culture is to say, “This is what it is because I can see it and that’s what it is and I’m naming it.” And so I’m definitely not a namer. I think I’m more … I don’t have this Adamic poetry that names things. I think I’m definitely trying to un-name things.
An interview with Ron Padgett
Editorial note: Ron Padgett is an American poet, editor, translator, and educator. He edited The White Dove Review with Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard from 1958 to 1960, directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1978 to 1980, and then took a position as publications director at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, where he edited and wrote books about teaching imaginative writing to children. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Great Balls of Fire (1969), The Big Something (1990), and How Long (2011). He has also translated Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories by Guillaume Apollinaire, and Flash Cards by Yu Jian. His Collected Poems is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013. Yasmine Shamma is currently a lecturer in English at Oxford University, where she teaches courses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. Her work has appeared in PN Review, Essays in Criticism, and Jacket. She is currently writing a book on second-generation New York School poetry. This interview was conducted and recorded on April 11, 2011, in Di Robertis pastry shop in New York City. Yasmine Shamma subsequently transcribed the interview. — Katie L. Price
Yasmine Shamma: Diving into An Anthology of New York Poets, I was rereading the introduction, and noting that it was written in 1970 —
Ron Padgett: I was a child when I wrote that with David Shapiro, who was even more of a child.
Shamma: But you did say something that people have been saying ever since then: that the term “The New York School” isn’t helpful, and that it doesn’t do as a generalization or an abstraction. I was wondering if you still feel that way.
Padgett: Yes, but I’m tired of telling people that. They keep using the term, and by now there have been a lot of disclaimers. When John Ashbery gets asked, he says pretty much the same thing. Other people do too. I don’t have much use for the term. I’m not a critic or an essayist, so I don’t need to use it.
Shamma: Do you think that there are definitive characteristics of the people who wrote in New York in the 1970s and ’80s?
Padgett: You’ll have to tell me which poets. Otherwise I won’t know what I’m generalizing about.
Shamma: Ted Berrigan, Edwin Denby —
Padgett: You couldn’t find two people more …
Shamma: I know! Okay, James Schuyler, etc. Basically I’m thinking of the post-Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch wave.
Padgett: Except Edwin [Denby] was a pre-O’Hara wave, really. Are you trying to point to people who came after Frank?
Shamma: I guess I’m trying to point to the group of people published in C, the magazine edited by Berrigan.
Padgett: Even there you’ll find quite a variety of people, from F. T. Prince to Harry Fainlight. Ted’s editorial policy was stated on the copyright page, something like: “C will print anything the editor likes,” which is a pretty good editorial statement. And Ted liked a lot of different things.
Shamma: I guess I’m talking about people who were illustrated by Joe Brainard?
Padgett: When you look at this anthology, you find people as diverse as Clark Coolidge and Edwin Denby, Tom Veitch, Ed Sanders. That’s why we didn’t call it a school — just An Anthology of New York Poets. It included people whose work we liked, sort of like Ted’s policy. We knew or had met everyone in the book, except Clark Coolidge. Most of the poets in that book … well, let’s just talk about John, Jimmy, Frank, and Kenneth. All four of them were (and John is still alive, of course) very smart people, very well read, sophisticated in their thinking, witty, and they had pretty high standards. They were interested in different kinds of art — dance, visual art, music — and three of the four were gay. They were all white males, and three of those four were Harvard graduates.
Shamma: Very different, I guess, from the subsequent sort of group — I mean, I know you went to Columbia.
Padgett: Yes, how awful!
Shamma: Well, in the introduction to Kenneth Koch’s Selected, you mention being taught by Kenneth, and that he taught you how to be witty?
Padgett: He didn’t teach me how to be witty; he gave me permission to be witty.
Shamma: I guess that feeling of permission gets passed on through the generations as a marker?
Padgett: As many things do.
Shamma: It seems that most of the subsequent poets were somewhat more self-taught —
Padgett: I don’t know about that. Ted Berrigan had a Masters degree in English; Tom Veitch did a year or so at Columbia; Tom Clark had an MA in Poetry from Michigan, won the Hopwood award, and also did graduate work at Cambridge and the University of Essex in England; David Shapiro got a PhD … I could go on and on. There aren’t many self-educated people in the anthology. Whether you’re educated by yourself or by somebody else, or a combination — I don’t really make a distinction. But going to Harvard confers a kind of distinction on you. It was the first and is the oldest university in the United States; it has a great reputation, the largest endowment. So being a “Harvard man” has a kind of ring to it, like being a “Princeton man.” Whereas if you graduated from Podunk University, you go out into professional life with one strike against you. Of course, all the people in the anthology were in poetry, so higher education credentials didn’t make all that much difference. To me, none.
Shamma: Right. Well, I guess the reason that I’m trying to make a distinction about education is because immediately, it’s clear — in your case, reading this kind of poetry — how everyday, or conversational the poetry is.
Padgett: The so-called second-generation New York School had more of the conversational element in it. Back in those days, John’s poetry didn’t have a lot of it. Frank’s did though, and there was a kind of conversational poetry that came from Williams through Frank, and people like Ted and me and others picked up on that. Another distinction between the earlier guys and us was that they were of a generation that liked alcohol. My generation wasn’t that much into drinking. We were more into smoking pot or whatever else people did.
Shamma: Why do you think that was?
Padgett: For me, smoking pot was a lot more fun than drinking. Heavy drinking made me feel awful. I’ve been drunk twice in my life, and I hated it both times.
Shamma: That might be a record for poets!
Padgett: I had a lot of fun smoking pot. Pot had become much more available. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, it was virtually impossible to find.
Shamma: And then you come to New York City in the sixties —
Padgett: It was easier in New York. Especially after I came back from living in France, after 1966. Everybody was smoking dope like crazy.
Shamma: So was Great Balls of Fire written in France?
Padgett: The earliest poem in that book was written in 1963 in New York, when I was a junior at Columbia. The book came out in 1969. I guess the latest poem in the book was written around 1967. So some of them were written in France, yes.
Shamma: And did you see a change in your work after going to Paris?
Padgett: I guess it did change, but I’ve never thought about it much. In Paris I was reading a lot of poetry in French, and I was speaking French, and immersed in French, so I had the resonance of that language in my head. It kind of got confused with English. In fact, by the end of my stay in France I was so used to speaking French that sometimes I would try to say something in English and all of a sudden I couldn’t quite remember how to do it. It was a strange experience.
Shamma: Yes, I can imagine how that happens.
Padgett: Anyway, I’m not good at analyzing my own work.
Shamma: Have you read any analyses of your work?
Shamma: Have you found them to be true?
Padgett: Every once in awhile somebody writes something that strikes me as smart and true and perceptive.
Shamma: Are there any critics of the New York School that you think are particularly on to it?
Padgett: There are a number of people who have written things about the so-called New York School that have been intelligent and apt, but I don’t think anyone’s ever told me anything that I didn’t already know.
Shamma: It’s all been pretty obvious?
Padgett: To me, yes. But some poets are much harder to write about than others. Some are elusive. It’s hard to get in prose descriptions exactly of what’s going on. Others are easy. My work is hard to write about.
Shamma: Yes, it is.
Padgett: And that’s neither here nor there. But a couple of people have, in recent years, written some things that have struck me as pretty sharp. For a long time, all anybody could say about my work was, “Oh, he writes a lot of different kinds of poems, and he’s funny.” The first thing is true, and the second is only occasionally true.
Shamma: Yes, I was actually going to say that I don’t think that second thing is true.
Padgett: I remember some critic taking me to task by saying, “Padgett’s very funny and jokey, but why doesn’t he write about something serious, like death?” It was such a wrong-headed way of seeing things, and also inaccurate. So I sent the guy a list of the poems I had written about death and published in my books, but I never heard from him.
Shamma: I can’t believe you didn’t hear from him!
Padgett: Well, anybody who’s stupid enough to say the first thing is stupid enough not to answer. I wasn’t arguing with him; I was giving him empirical evidence: here are the books you claim I’m being funny in, look at all the poems that are about death.
Shamma: This is me going out on a limb, but I find that you and some of your peers write with such — maybe this is me being naive — but you write with such honesty that it becomes really difficult to talk about anything, because it’s just there. It’s this sort of half-showing that you don’t expect. I mean, I don’t see how you could come to this kind of page and be closed as a reader. And so, turning to criticism and academic stuff, it becomes really difficult to say anything seemingly worth saying.
Padgett: I see what you’re saying, I think. Two things come to mind. One is that, in the work of a number of poets of my age and before, openness was a characteristic that I admired, and I still do. It doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good poem just because you’re open. You could be spilling your guts or confessing to something horrible that I might rather not know about. But on the other hand, without openness toward oneself, I think it can be difficult for poets to figure out what to do next in a poem, and to figure out who they are even. The other thing I wanted to say was that, in fact, I have a poem called “The Coat Hanger,” in which I talk about this very subject. It’s in a new book of mine.
Shamma: Is that the one that’s being published right now, in April?
Padgett: Yes, and I think I might read that poem tomorrow night at The Poetry Project. Anyway, if you check the poem you’ll see some of the things I say there, and the people I quote. What’s the other thing I wanted to say?
Shamma: About openness?
Padgett: Oh dear, at a certain age, the brain cells crust over. The other thing I was going to say was more interesting than that, to me anyway. What did you say before that?
Shamma: Well, I was going to say, in terms of Frank O’Hara mainly, as a poet who says he wants his poems to be “open” and his face to be “shaven” —
Padgett: Yes, “You can’t plan on the heart, but the better part of it, my poetry, is open,” that’s what I quote in “The Coat Hanger.” And you said something about the difficulty of writing about that kind of poetry.
Shamma: Yes, the incredible difficulty.
Padgett: It’s particularly difficult to write about the obvious. Let’s just say somebody writes a poem that says, “I’m in love!” What are you going to say, as a critic?
Shamma: You say, “look at how you spread those words out in one of your poems and talk about” —
Padgett: I do?
Shamma: Yes, I have [it] here with me, actually …
Padgett: Oh, you’re talking about the poem in Crazy Compositions.
Shamma: Yes: “I Love // each word increases squared”
Padgett: Isn’t there a “you” anywhere in there? I think there’s supposed to be a “you,” unless your edition has a misprint. In poems that have that kind of directness, a critic can talk about or write about them not from a thematic point of view, but from a stylistic or structural or kinetic point of view: How does a poem work? And why does it work, if it does? What’s the machinery involved here? (I use the word “machinery” metaphorically). To me, that’s the nuts and bolts point of view. There are two kinds of criticism I like: one is nuts and bolts, the other is gossip. I think they’re both illuminating: one from an empirical, workmanlike view, and the other one from a superficial point of view, which can be illuminating — like Joe LeSueuer’s book on O’Hara. Do you know it?
Shamma: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Padget: There’s a lot of gossip in there, and it’s actually quite illuminating.
Shamma: Well, even your book on Ted Berrigan is just so fun and beautiful to read, especially sitting in the middle of an academic library. You get to that kind of book and think, “This is wonderful, this is exactly what I want to read.”
Padgett: It’s like looking at a family snapshot album.
Shamma: Right. I saw some actual albums in Emory’s collection of Berrigan and Brainard’s correspondence, which make you feel like you’re learning more from touching artifacts than from reading criticism.
Padgett: To me those are wonderful. There’s a terrific archive of Joe Brainard’s in San Diego. And my archive is up at the Beinecke at Yale — fifty years of papers.
Shamma: Well, in all of the so-called archives, there are a lot of papers. It’s overwhelming. On top of the sort of honesty and “my heart your heart” [a line from Berrigan] mode of the poetry is the sheer number of pages of poetry written. Koch’s collected is what, 754 pages?
Padgett: That’s his collected shorter poems. There are the longer ones as well. Kenneth was prolific. He loved to write and he liked to write long works and he worked almost every day. He loved the act of writing. And then there were all his plays and his fiction. He didn’t publish everything, either. If you look at his archive in the Berg collection in the New York Public Library, you’ll see some of the material he never published.
Ron Padgett reading in Paris, 2003.
Shamma: Looking through Berrigan’s collection, you can see this deliberation over form and the nuts and bolts of it all that isn’t immediately present on the printed page, which to me seems to validate a study of form.
Padgett: Yes. Kenneth himself wrote some formal poems. In his poem called “The Railway Stationery,” each stanza is actually a sonnet. But you don’t notice it at first. Kenneth also wrote sestinas and catalogue poems, and experimented with some other forms. Frank did a lot of that too. Ashbery too. Jimmy less, I think. But what’s really interesting is finding the form that’s particular to each free verse work. When I say “nuts and bolts” I don’t mean ABABCC, I’m talking about how a really shapely, well-made poem in free verse works. That’s truly interesting. The strict forms, the fixed forms, are interesting for a different reason, to me. How do you put yourself in a straitjacket and still dance as gracefully as if you’re not in a straitjacket? That’s a tough challenge, and it’s fun.
Shamma: I don’t know if he’s in a straitjacket, but it kind of happens in O’Hara’s “Aus einem April,” with how that first stanza begins.
Padgett: Yes, it’s the one that begins “We dust the walls.”
Shamma: Yes, and then you end up in what looks like a quatrain, but when you get close to that second formal-looking stanza it’s talking about moving outside and being “turbulent and green.”
Padgett: In that poem, he wasn’t exactly using a form, though in some sense he was, insofar as it’s actually based on a poem by Rilke. The first line of Rilke’s poem is, “Wieder duftet der Wald,” which literally translates to “Again the forest is fragrant,” or something like that. Frank just did a homophonic translation: “We dust the walls.” I haven’t studied it in years, but as I recall, he sort of followed Rilke’s arrangement. It’s something like following a sonnet or a villanelle arrangement.
Shamma: Are you also familiar with “Nocturne”?
Padgett: Frank’s? Yes.
Shamma: Well, I love how he constructs this really narrow poem, and talks about how the buildings are too narrow: in the summer “too hot,” and “at night I freeze.” These are the sorts of poems that I’m interested in — the kind that recreate buildings. The poem complains, “[i]t’s the architect’s fault” while architecting, in turn, an exact replica. And it’s in all of Berrigan’s references to rooms in his The Sonnets.
Padgett: “Is there room in the room that you room in?”
Shamma: Yes, and “Bring me red demented rooms.”
Padgett: That’s a line of mine that he stole.
Shamma: Was it? No! I love that line. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while.
Padgett: Well, then I have just given you a little secret.
Shamma: Where did it come from?
Padgett: A poem I wrote in 1961. I never published it.
Shamma: Why not?
Padgett: It wasn’t good.
Shamma: So can I ask what the “dementedness” of the room was?
Padgett: I have no idea.
Shamma: Well, I love how the line sounds like what it’s asking for.
Padgett: I’m trying to remember the rest of that poem. I wrote it in the fall of 1961. I was here in New York. I was a student either finishing my first year at Columbia or starting my second. Starting my second year, Ted and I shared an apartment. Maybe it was then that I wrote that. It was right around then. Ted, as you know, appropriated a lot of lines, from Dick Gallup and others.
Shamma: Did you?
Padgett: Less than Ted, but I did some collaged poems and centos.
Shamma: Did you see yourself or your poems registering the city?
Padgett: Yes, the poems did, because I was here and aware of the fact that I was here, but with some exceptions. I didn’t set out to write poems about New York, or poems that reflected New York. I wasn’t Walt Whitman writing “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or Vladimir Mayakovsky writing “Brooklyn Bridge” or Hart Crane writing “The Bridge” or Edwin Denby writing poems about the streets of New York — alas. But the fact that I was here had a big influence, of course. It was more of a general, osmotic seeping of New York into my work — things just got in there because I was here, things such as actual places and people, but also energy. The energy of New York was huge. I had come from Tulsa, which actually wasn’t as bad as I say it was, but the energy level was lower there. Of course it was calmer, too, and slower, and in some ways quite pleasant. But it didn’t have the street energy of New York. It had car energy. You could go out and drive a car around fast, you could get in a car and drive straight to Texas, and then turn right around and come back.
Shamma: And enjoy the mobility of being American?
Padgett: You could drive around the whole night — drive around and stop in diners with your friends, have coffee, and talk like crazy. Sort of On the Road behavior.
Shamma: Do you think that when you’re in a place that has an explicit energy, like New York, that you don’t have to create as much energy from yourself? That you can just kind of bounce off of it? Like being in Tulsa, perhaps, might force someone with the propensity to be energized —
Padgett: There was a certain amount of general inertia in Tulsa — artistic too. And one had to sort of push against the inertia. Fortunately, I was young there. I left when I had just turned eighteen. So I was a young, testosterone-driven male, bursting with energy. And then when I came to New York, it was like jumping into a swiftly flowing river. You have to generate more energy just to stay afloat, and if you do, you’re really zooming along. Does that make sense to you?
Shamma: Yes, it makes complete sense to me. I lived here in New York before I moved to Oxford, which has a completely opposite energy level.
Padgett: Yes, I once visited Oxford. It was quiet. But as you know, it’s not just the place you’re living in — it’s the place that’s living in you. If you’re involved in studies, or any type of pursuit that’s intellectual or interior, you can be anywhere, because a lot of your life goes on inside your head, or your spirit. So I wouldn’t knock it so much.
Shamma: Yes, it makes you calm down.
Padgett: It’s great to be calm. Especially here in New York, where everything’s telling you not to be calm. But to get back to your comment about rooms: Jimmy Schuyler is wonderful for the purposes of your work. His poetry’s very sedentary. He’s almost always sitting in a room — giving you the impression he’s sitting in a room, if not giving you the actual information — often looking out a window. He spatially locates himself. Sometimes he’s outdoors, like in Maine, but a lot of his great work takes place with him sitting in a room and looking around. Of course Frank’s work is also quite good that way, although Frank often doesn’t give the impression of being in a room. His conversational poetry happens more on the street. But poems like “Radio” tell you that he’s in a room, listening to the radio.
Shamma: And there does seem to be a frustration whenever he mentions being inside, like in the lines, “Am I a door,” and “The crack in the ceiling spreads” in “Anxiety.” You get the sense that he never wants to be pin-down-able within domestic spaces.
Padgett: Well, he lived in New York in some really dumpy apartments, until his last place.
Shamma: And when he lived in that last apartment, he didn’t write much poetry, did he?
Padgett: No, he didn’t.
Shamma: Why do you think that is?
Padgett: That’s a question that a lot of people have asked.
Shamma: It’s interesting that the crummier apartments gave space for creating poetry.
Padgett: I’m not sure he wanted to spend a lot of time in those places. He liked being out. He liked going to artist’s studios and to bars and to parties, and to openings and art galleries, and friend’s places, and the Hamptons.
Shamma: He seemed to enjoy the mobility that the city offers.
Padgett: He didn’t want to be cooped up. But his last place, a loft, was nice. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very spacious, and I thought it was a terrific place. There was a big view out the window of Grace Church across the street, which he never wrote about. His building’s been torn down, by the way. It’s been replaced by some modern thing. His apartment on Forty-Ninth Street was also replaced. Apparently that was a really awful place, though you could look out the side of the back and see the UN Headquarters.
Shamma: Yes, I read about that one. It was the one with the cockroaches and the beer bottles everywhere.
Padgett: Frank was not a great housekeeper. Jimmy was even worse. But you know, in John Ashbery’s poetry, you’re never really sure where you are, except in the poem “The Instruction Manual.” It’s the only one I can think of where you know where you are.
Shamma: I’m actually not writing about him for that very reason. Even though I know that he is of the same generation, I feel like his poetry is inherently very different.
Padgett: It is. And Kenneth’s too. It’s largely free of specific occasions. Much of it is very artful, often located in the imagination. Frank wrote some very occasional poetry, and by “occasional” I mean not just about birthdays and funerals.
Padgett: Yes, time-based, with specific people and specific places. Now, whether or not it’s an accurate reflection of those occasions — in terms of details — that’s neither here nor there really. But it has that feeling — Jimmy’s too — of sitting in a room. You feel he really did that. But with Kenneth’s poems, you have no idea where he wrote them.
Shamma: Except for maybe “One Train.”
Padgett: Yes, and that’s an account of a real trip. But even there, it’s written in reflection, later, not on the spot.
Shamma: Right, like “The Art of Love” would be a complete trip. You have no idea where that was written.
Padgett: Right, that’s like when Ovid wrote his: where was he?
Shamma: But Kenneth did move a lot, right?
Padgett: He got around. He spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and he travelled to China twice, and to Africa, and Greece, and all over Western Europe especially. Mexico, and Guatamala, Antarctica — he got around. He lived in New York City, but also had a house in the Hamptons. He liked the excitement of travel; fresh, beautiful vistas; interesting cuisines; art and opera; and exotic beautiful girls. He was an appreciator of life. He didn’t like the idea of sitting in the same room all of the time. Edwin, though, really can give you a sense of being in a room, especially in his poem “Elegy: The Streets” — you can see him in that room, hearing the sounds of Twenty-First Street outside.
Shamma: And a few of your poems mention street intersections and rooms.
Padgett: There’s a poem of mine called “Poema del City” — there’s actually two of them: “Poema Del City I” and “Poema Del City II.” Two is a very straightforward account of being in my apartment, in the front room, at night, with a bathrobe or housecoat on. I’ve written a number like that.
Shamma: I was thinking of “Poem for Joan Inglis.”
Padgett: That one is a complete fantasy.
Shamma: Is it?
Padgett: A total fantasy. Totally fabricated.
Shamma: I don’t know what to do when I hear things like that. So it’s a fabricated landscape of a room — it’s a fabricated space?
Padgett: Yes. My prose poem called “My Room” — do you know that one?
Shamma: Yes I do.
Padgett: That one’s very much about being in a real room. Actually, the new book that I just put out has a poem that talks about sitting in a room in the house that my wife and I have in Vermont. And my grandson, who was just a very little baby at the time, is asleep in the next room. The poem is about the experience of sitting in the room and thinking of my grandson on the other side of the wall.
Shamma: I have to ask the really simple question about the word “stanza” meaning room, and the material metaphors you all use — like your sense of “the machine,” and Ted Berrigan’s sense of words being “bricks.” He even says at one point that he thought of his stanzas “being rooms.” You get the sense of a construction being built.
Padgett: Right, building a house.
Shamma: Yes. Does the shape of a room come into play in shaping the actual stanzas written out of rooms?
Padgett: Not consciously, no. I mean, it’s okay to work that way, but I don’t seem to be interested in doing that. I’m sure I’m influenced by the room I’m in, just like you’re influenced by what you had for breakfast. Like in Vermont, the room that I’ve written a lot of poems in is what I call my study. It’s a fairly small room with a pitched roof, and it’s kind of cozy. It’s just my room — the only one I’ve ever had like that, in my adult life. That cozy space is conducive to a certain kind of privacy that fosters rumination, or a kind of dreamy poetic state. You’re safe, it’s quiet, you’re alone, and it’s very pleasant to be in that room. So it helps me.
Kenneth wrote in his living room. As a professor at Columbia, he had a very nice large apartment, with a big open area with French doors. He had a table there, facing a wall, but not facing a window. That’s another thing you might want to think about: Jimmy looks out the window when he writes, and he’s able to do it. But a lot of other writers, I’ve heard, think it’s murder to have a window right in front of you.
Shamma: I’ve seen pictures of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan’s desks, and Berrigan’s was sideways against a wall.
Padgett: The brick wall?
Shamma: Yes, and O’Hara’s was facing a wall.
Padgett: Ted, just after he wrote The Sonnets and had just started C magazine, had a desk that faced a wall, and on his right was an exposed brick wall. I’ve often set up my desk so I don’t look out the window. But in Vermont, I can look to my left and out a window. Otherwise, straight ahead of me is just wooden pine boards. But I still spend a lot of time looking out that window.
Shamma: I wonder if your poems are accordingly different — your Vermont poems.
Padgett: I don’t know. But here in New York I’ve had my desk facing a wall since I moved into the apartment, in 1967. Apollinaire, too — his study was cramped. He was a bulky guy, cramped into his garret’s narrow space, with his writing table facing a wall. The window was to his left, high above eye level.
Shamma: It’s interesting, formally, to consider how the wall informs poems. Looking at, or being aware of the dimensions of the room can inform the dimensions of a poem. But also the turning away from the other space in the room, and writing a very personal poem, talking to a “you” but looking at a wall — it’s a strange kind of energy. I’m not really sure what to do with it.
Padgett: An interesting question is: What happens to the eyes of the writer as he or she is writing? Do they look at the wall? In Hollywood movies they do. I’m not sure I do. Usually I’m looking down at the page, and there’s a “room” there on that page, or at least a floorplan. Or if it’s a computer screen, it’s a window. And I’m looking through that window. That’d be another interesting approach: to see the computer screen as a window.
Shamma: Yes, I was looking at your essay on computer writing and what kind of art it might produce.
Padgett: That’s a really old piece.
Shamma: Yes, and it has a footnote about how funny it is that this innovative computer-based writing didn’t actually end up happening.
Padgett: That was a concept that my son and I came up with when he was a kid. I thought there was going to be a brand new kind of writing. It never happened. It’s interesting though that it didn’t happen.
Shamma: I was thinking about it in terms of graphic design, and wondering if that has become a new kind of writing — less manipulation of words, and more with what the screen in general allows.
Padgett: I predicted a writing that would be a synthesis of visual art and music and everything. That’s an avant-garde idea from way back, and its realization was deemed imminent. Then it just didn’t happen, because computer companies made it impossible for the average person to program. The Mac and the PC were the death of that possibility. If you go back to earlier programs, written in BASIC — even the Atari 800, built mainly for games — you could actually program an Atari, and it was fun.
Shamma: Yes, it’s all become very consumer, end-product based.
Padgett: The technocrats took it over and did some sexy, attractive things, but made it so that nobody could program the more advanced computers except advanced programmers.
Shamma: I saw an interesting advertisement for the iPad, pitching that it was smaller, thinner and lighter to get out of the way, so that you can have more life.
Padgett: It’s to get you further hooked on it. Try to withdraw from it and see what happens to your life. My hard drive crashed a couple of weeks ago. I was without a computer for a few days, and I found myself yearning for it. Like drug withdrawal. And I realized: Ah! They have you hooked. You have to upgrade all the time, and if you don’t, you suffer. It’s like taking more and more heroin. They have you psychologically addicted.
But to get back to the room idea: Take the physical structure and components of the room and see what poems, or parts of the poem, relate to parts of the room. Like the poem as “window” — Apollinaire has a poem called “The Windows.” The ceiling — what does the ceiling, the feeling of the ceiling, and the presence of a ceiling do to someone writing in a room? If you’re writing in a room with a high ceiling or a low one, or a tin ceiling — like this one here at Di Robertis — what does that do to you? And also the dimensions and proportions of the room — what do they do to one’s feelings and thinking? Also the walls — what are they made of? What do they look like? And the floors! Floors are more important than ceilings. Why is that? Why do I think that?
Shamma: Well, because of stability.
Padgett: Yes, but also I look at floors. I don’t look at ceilings. And I don’t walk on them, not very much!
Shamma: You don’t need a ceiling as much as you need a floor?
Padgett: No, you don’t. If you don’t have a floor, you’re in trouble. But then there are certain kinds of floors, and the way you feel walking across them. Walking across the beautiful marble inlaid floors in the Siena Duomo is different from walking across the spruce-board floors of my house in Vermont. What does that do to the feeling about being where you are? Our responses can be somewhat subtle and even subliminal, but they’re interesting to think about. Then there are the shutters and blinds and curtains —
Shamma: See, these are domestic details. I’ve been looking at layouts and floor plans: like railway apartments and the lack of space they present, and how that lack of space comes into a poem. Or like your “Crazy Compositions,” or [Berrigan’s] “Tambourine Life” that are super spread out. Or even Berrigan’s “Train Ride” — these are long poems that came to be written out of smaller spaces. I’m not sure about where your spread-out poems were written.
Padgett: The three poems you mentioned — in Crazy Compositions — were written in Vermont after spending nine months in New York City. I wrote them in a couple of days. I put them together — I constructed them, I actually hand-wrote part of them — a few days after getting to Vermont, where the space felt incredibly open. I put them together up there, but it wasn’t only because I was in Vermont and could be in the great outdoors. It was because I felt an urge to write that kind of poem. Maybe it was just coincidental that I did it right after getting to Vermont. I could’ve done it here in New York. Ted wrote those kinds of poems here: “February Air,” and a poem called “Bean Spasms,” and “Tambourine Life.”
Shamma: Of his longer, strangely laid out poems, the one that I’ve considered is “Train Ride.” I like how, in that poem, the compartments of the train feel mapped onto the page.
Padgett: “Train Ride” is episodic. If you walk through the compartments of a train as it’s moving along, there are different stories going on in each car. For some reason, I think of a line from The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play: “infinite riches in a little room.” The idea that you can have so much in a little space —
Shamma: Yes, it sounds much like John Donne’s line: “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.”
Padgett: But Train Ride was written in response to a prose work by Joe Brainard.
Shamma: Wasn’t it written in response to a porn magazine?
Padgett: No. Joe wrote a work also called “Train Ride,” an account of taking the train from New York City to the Hamptons. He gave it to Ted, and Ted wrote a response — a sort of conversation with Joe. So in a sense, there were two people in that compartment while Ted was writing.
Shamma: Yes, the “you” of that poem is very specific.
Padgett: It’s dedicated to Joe.
Shamma: Yes, and the poem ends with lines that say “Thank you for being with me on this train.”
Padgett: A very nice work of Ted’s, and a nice edition. Ted got Joe to do the cover image, and it worked out well.
Shamma: Do you miss those kinds of productions? Those kinds of tactile publications?
Padgett: Actually, there weren’t that many. Most of the underground book productions in the early sixties were rather rough and ready, mimeograph editions, like The Sonnets in 1964 and my first book, In Advance of the Broken Arm.
Shamma: Great Balls of Fire wasn’t your first book?
Padgett: No, it was my first book book (1969), that is, with a big publisher. In Advance of the Broken Arm was published in 1965. We didn’t get into better production values until later. Come to think of it, the 1967 Grove Press edition of The Sonnets was not a great production: saddle-stapled, with minimal attention to design. Train Ride was published eleven years later, and it was a nicely designed and printed book. I like good production values, but I don’t like fussy ones, where the book exists just to give a book designer a chance to show off.
Shamma: Well something I liked about looking at the original publication of The Sonnets (rather than looking at them in the recently published Collected Poems), was that there is one sonnet per page, smack in the middle of each page. So you really get the sense of these block compositions, shaped by the page. When you see them trailing one after another, they don’t come at you the same way.
Padgett: No, they don’t. Ted liked the space around them. He was extremely conscious of the way poems look on the page.
Shamma: Are you?
Padgett: Yes, I think it’s important, but you can’t always control it. For instance, when you compose something and go to print it out, it’s coming out on what is usually a letter-sized piece of paper. And if it’s published by a print magazine, they have different fonts and different trim sizes. You can’t control it much. And it’s just as bad online.
Shamma: What about collaborations?
Padgett: What about them?
Shamma: How does the composition play out there? Like your collaborations with George Schneeman?
Padgett: There it’s super-important.
Shamma: How are those created? I’m thinking about the poem with the block illustrations and then the narrative commentary/poetry underneath the blocks and cartoons.
Padgett: George and I worked in a lot of different ways. In terms of the materials, we had collaborative drawings and collages, canvases, mixed media pieces, silkscreens, ceramics, etc.
Shamma: Where did you get the feeling that that was possible?
Padgett: I think I was inspired by the working relationships of the Dada and Surrealist painters and poets, and the fact that Francis Picabia was both a poet and a painter. But the first collaboration I ever saw in person was Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers’s series of lithographs, called Stones. I’d already seen some poem-paintings by Kenneth Patchen in his books. Also, Joe Brainard and I had done a collaboration in high school, before I knew about the history of collaboration.
Shamma: He was with you in kindergarten, right?
Padgett: Maybe kindergarten, but I don’t remember. I have a picture of him and me in first grade together.
Anyway, George and I used not only different media, but also different working methods. Sometimes when we were working we were living hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other, so we’d mail things back and forth. He was in Italy once and I was in Vermont and we collaborated on a series of colored pencil drawings. It’s called “The Story of Ezra Pound,” and it’s a wonderful piece, but it’s never been published. So don’t go looking for it.
Shamma: Why hasn’t it been published?
Padgett: I don’t know. It would take a fine production, because it’s in colored pencil — very subtle, and only seven pages long. But it’s really terrific. Both George and I were surprised by how it came out. Often, we worked directly in the same room, on the same surface at the same time. In fact, in later years, that’s how we did most of our work together.
Shamma: Together in a room?
Padgett: Yes. For example, at one point we were doing charcoal and egg tempera works on large pieces of paper, five or six works at the same time, moving around the room, back and forth.
Shamma: Which works are those? Are they published?
Padgett: They’ve been exhibited. In fact, one just came back from a museum. But they’re large — they’re hard to publish.
Shamma: So they are spatial pieces?
Padgett: One is almost as wide and tall as that wall over there: a pretty good size. The Center for Book Arts did a show last spring of poets and painters. The show then traveled down to the Museum of Printing History in Houston. Anyway, George and I worked directly, simultaneously, sometimes at the same time on the same piece of paper. There was a lot of variety in our work overall.
Shamma: There’s no poetic persona there, though, right? It’s not an “I” to a “you.” I was thinking about this because a lot of collaboration throughout all of this “New York School” poetry challenges the energy of individual encounters. When it’s two artists to one audience, I don’t know if it’s a fractured voice that emerges, or a less understandable one, but I find that the collaborative poems are a lot more difficult to read.
Padgett: They can be more fractured, but they also tend to be more light-hearted, more “fun,” because we had a good time writing them.
Shamma: Do you think that there is an absence of persona in a lot of the poetry that was written around St. Mark’s Church?
Padgett: You mean in collaborative poems?
Shamma: In even the single-authored poems, is the “I” the poet?
Padgett: I think it’s dubious to assume the “I” in a poem is the poet. Most poets know that they’re performing. Johnny Carson doing The Tonight Show is not exactly Johnny Carson. You see what I’m saying? And certainly the collaborative pieces are showing the persona of each poet, or artist — but then in the process, a third persona gets treated, their shared persona.
Shamma: So it’s a dangerous trap to fall into — thinking anything more of the “I.”
Padgett: Yes. But of course there are a lot of people who, when they write poetry, think that when they say “I” they mean themselves exclusively.
Shamma: Ted Berrigan says that.
Padgett: He says what?
Shamma: He says that the “‘I’ is not ‘Prufrock’ in my poems, it’s Ted Berrigan” (Talking in Tranquility).
Padgett: Obviously Prufrock is not Eliot. I would bet that there’s always some percentage of the “I” that is not the poet, but is the “I” of the poem. Making art is not the same as talking to your psychoanalyst.
Shamma: Like your poem “Little Dutch Diary.”
Padgett: That’s not a poem; it’s a diary.
Shamma: So that “I” is you.
Padgett: Pretty much.
Shamma: And that can happen because of the title?
Padgett: Yes, it’s a diary of a real trip. And I was trying to just write down what happened. But even there, I’m aware that I’m writing. I’m not writing a diary just to keep a diary. I’m a writer. Did I know that I was going to publish it? No. Was I aware to some degree that it might turn out to be a work that I would publish? Yes. When you’re a writer and you’ve published a lot, you are always aware of the possibility of publication. But I try my best to forget that.
Shamma: Were you teaching alongside all this writing?
Padgett: Some of it.
Shamma: So after you left Columbia University, you taught?
Padgett: As soon as I graduated Columbia with a BA, I swore I would never set foot in a classroom again as long as I lived. Kenneth Koch wanted me to go to graduate school and get a degree so I could teach at Columbia. And I told him I appreciated it, but I just didn’t want to do that. He was nice about it. He even helped me get a Fulbright a year later. But on the Fulbright, I didn’t even go to classes.
So I got out of college in 1964, and in ’64–’65 I was around New York. My wife was working in an office, and I had gotten a grant of $1,500, which was enough to live on for a year. We were living in an apartment on West Eighty-Eighth Street, and the rent was ninety dollars a month. Then my wife and I went to Paris for 1965–66, and when we came back to America she was pregnant, so we went to Tulsa to have the baby. We had no money, no apartment, no jobs.
Shamma: So that’s why you went to Tulsa?
Padgett: Yes. Kenneth got me an emergency grant of $500 to have the baby. We got the poverty rate at the hospital clinic. Having the baby cost one hundred dollars.
Shamma: What do you mean, “the baby cost one hundred dollars?”
Padgett: I had to pay the hospital one hundred dollars. They wouldn’t let us leave with the baby if I didn’t pay. Then we moved back here to New York with what was left of that grant. I got a number of freelance jobs: proofreading, writing jacket copy, and doing some readings. Our apartment was only fifty-three dollars a month, and generally it was very cheap to live in those days, if you didn’t mind scrimping a bit. Then I started teaching poetry writing to children because Kenneth Koch tricked me into doing it. I did that on and off for about nine years — a lot of it here in New York, but also around the country. So yes, I found myself back in the classroom, especially the elementary school classroom.
Shamma: I read Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children, and you get the sense of joy in teaching kids that age.
Padgett: He and I were doing it simultaneously at certain points at the same school, and he was really a great mentor. After nine years, I did begin to burn out. I also taught a writing workshop at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.
Shamma: And you ran it?
Padgett: Later, I was the director of the Poetry Project for two and a half years. I also did some teacher training workshops all over the country. And then the next teaching was at Columbia — the undergraduate level. I taught a course called “Imaginative Writing,” subbing for Kenneth. He was going on sabbatical and he wanted the course to continue, so Columbia hired me to teach that course for a number of years. Then Brooklyn College invited me to teach for a year — actually two semesters spread over two years — in their MFA poetry program. But that’s been about it.
Shamma: Has teaching influenced your writing?
Padgett: I think that teaching little kids probably did. I don’t think teaching at the university level influenced my writing at all, but I enjoyed it.
Shamma: Do you think the poverty of those earlier years influenced your writing? I was thinking about Ron Silliman’s blog posts, where he talks about third- and fourth-generation New York Schools. I look at the schools he outlines and think that they can’t be the same schools, because the economics of the scene changed so much.
Padgett: It’s not economically feasible to be a poet in New York these days, unless you have a trust fund or you’re willing to share a place in Bushwick with three other people. When I was the director of the Poetry Project, in 1979 and ’80, I wrote a letter to one of our city officials to complain about the fact that this neighborhood that we’re in now, where the Poetry Project started — a lot of poets lived here — was getting gentrified. It was starting to be called “The East Village.”
Shamma: What was it called before?
Padgett: The Lower East Side.
Shamma: So adding the “village” to it was a way of gentrifying it?
Padgett: Yes. The “village” was really the West Village (Greenwich Village), a neighborhood that formally had been full of artists and writers. But the Lower East Side had old-world ghetto associations. The real estate agents cleverly changed the name, and suddenly the rents went up.
Shamma: Like Häagan-Daaz?
Padgett: Exactly. I’d like to find out who their consultant was on that, because it was a smart person. But it ruined the neighborhood for people looking for cheap rent. So I wrote a letter to the city officials, saying that a lot of the young poets who want to come to New York are now not able to, or they’re forced to live in Brooklyn, which at the time was considered like living on Mars.
Shamma: I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids right now, and she mentions that sense of it being far away.
Padgett: Almost no one wanted to live in Brooklyn. It seemed so distant, and so dead.
Shamma: So it was forcing this kind of exodus?
Padgett: Yes, it was a kind of forced exodus. I got a response from the city official saying that this kind of exodus was going to be wonderful because it was going to revive and energize the outer boroughs. I thought, “That’s an interesting idea, let’s just send everybody to Siberia.” The outer boroughs were not Siberia of course; I exaggerated. But it turns out that Williamsburg has been energized, and Greenpoint and some other places. But it took thirty-five years. Hello!
Shamma: It has happened quite slowly.
Padgett: It was no fun for people who were forced to leave Manhattan, or who just gave up and went back to Wichita, or who never came at all. I feel sorry for them, because when I came here it was so much cheaper to live. Of course, you had to put up with a lot. This neighborhood was occasionally not that pleasant to be in: muggings, burglaries, drug addiction, shootings, and just general ratty-ness. That part was not so much fun.
Shamma: But you wonder how that seeps into the poetry, or how it colors it. How does that kind of disconnect between your generation and later generations emerge? When I read what they are calling fourth-generation New York School poetry against second-generation New York School poetry, there’s a real difference. The newer poetry seems a lot more formed.
Padgett: It seems to me that a lot of younger poets are more overtly intellectual. They’re coming from university situations, and they’re smart. But sometimes it’s not working in their favor.
Shamma: What kind of poetry are you reading now?
Padgett: I’m not on any jag right now, but I am going to take part in a group reading for Tim Dlugos, which is happening next month, so I had to decide which poem I was supposed to read. He was a very interesting poet who died some years ago. He was part of this community. So I was reading his work this morning. Every once in awhile I’ll go on a reading jag — in summer especially. A couple of summers ago — four or five ago — I reread all of Andrew Marvell, the English poems, that is.
Shamma: Is that while you were writing “How to Be Perfect”?
Padgett: No. I wrote “How to Be Perfect” in 1988.
Shamma: Oh really?
Padgett: The title poem, yes. The book with that title came out much later. But the poem was written in ’88.
Shamma: I love that poem. It’s a lot like O’Hara’s “Lines from a Fortune Cookie.”
Padgett: It was fun to write. So I’ll go on reading jags like that, picking some poet and reading him or her intensely over a period of months. One summer it was George Herbert. I also get books in the mail, especially from younger poets, so I try to at least glance at them to see what’s up. There are friends of mine who won’t stop writing, so I have to read all of their new books, which fortunately are usually pretty good.
Shamma: Do you see your poetry changing?
Padgett: I hope so. My publisher, Coffee House Press, said they wanted to publish my collected poems. So I went back over all my work and thought: What would this book really look like? Yes, the work certainly changes, but I was taken aback by how similar some of the pieces are. I rediscovered a poem that I wrote many years ago that’s amazingly like a poem I wrote two years ago.
Shamma: Consistency of character maybe?
Padgett: Well, I don’t know. I can’t claim to have any character at all. I was really surprised that this poem existed. It was almost like I had predicted what I was going to be writing later.
Shamma: It sounds like something that needed to come out.
Padgett: It wasn’t so much what I was saying — it was the mode. It was a poem in which I was having a conversation with something very big and diffuse. The first one was about having a conversation with the city of Tulsa. The second one was about having a conversation with a cloud. So it was like Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which may have been the unconscious connection behind my two poems.
Shamma: Yes, and the sun says, “always embrace things, people earth / sky stars, as I do, freely and with / the appropriate sense of space.”
Padgett: Isn’t it beautiful?
Shamma: Yes, that line to me is the connection between all of this kind of poetry.
Padgett: “Guarding it from mess and message” [Berrigan]. I may have misquoted that, but there’s a similarity there — a fine line between being too open and too closed.
Shamma: He really seems to straddle that line. On that line, can I ask you how you thought beatnik poetry might have gotten interwoven into your work?
Padgett: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first book I ever read that really excited me about poetry. I was about fifteen, and I was astounded by it. For me, it came at the right time.
Shamma: I have to ask you if you’ve seen the recent movie.
Padgett: I have not seen the movie. I would hope to some day. I heard that the actor is a very nice guy.
Shamma: Well, the reason I ask is that they animated the poem.
Padgett: Usually movies about writers don’t work very well. Some of them really stink. But there have been a couple of okay ones. Certainly movies about the Beat Generation have tended to be awful. But Ginsberg was the big inspiration for me. I had just discovered Whitman, but he of course was dead. I couldn’t believe that this guy Ginsberg was alive and writing like that. And then, of course, there was Gregory Corso. That all led quickly to discovering LeRoi Jones, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O’Hara, and others. Early on, in high school, I wrote blatant imitations of free-wheeling beatnik poems; jazz poems too. I’d listen to Miles Davis and write poems inspired by his music. Anyway, the Beats were a big turn-on for me. They opened a door.
Shamma: They may have made it possible to think that just being exciting was enough.
Padgett: They were filled with excitement about the universe, like a mystic or an adolescent. And I thought Corso’s poems were quite funny — witty in a strange way.
Padgett: “Marriage” came a little later. I was thinking about Gasoline, his first book. But yes, I loved “Marriage.” I thought it was terrific and very funny.
Shamma: And simultaneously tender.
Padgett: Yes, in an odd way. Allen’s diction opened me enough to be receptive to Frank O’Hara, and even to Kenneth Koch a little bit — although that came slightly later — because I had a sense of humor, but I didn’t know that I could use it in poetry. When I was in high school, most of my poems were very serious, Black Mountainesque. I got opened up further, though, when I came to New York and started studying with Kenneth, and reading the great books of the Western world in his class. Seeing him talk about them made me realize that wit was something that was quite wonderful to have in your writing. Not the only thing to have, of course, and I don’t mean jokes or humor. I owed a great debt to Allen, and to Ferlinghetti. In high school I read Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind, and I was quite inspired by them. I’ve never given Ferlinghetti enough credit, but I’ve always known I owed Allen a lot, not only for his poetry.
Shamma: From what I’ve read, he was a very motivating spirit.
Padgett: I wrote him a letter when I was in high school and said, “I’m starting a little magazine, would you send me some poems?” And he sent me his poem “My Sad Self,” dedicated to Frank O’Hara. He was so nice. I told him I was going to go to Mexico, and he said, “Yes, go to Mexico! Dig the streets! Dig the whores!”
Shamma: Did you dig it?
Padgett: Well, no, I did not dig the whores of Mexico City. I was sixteen, terrified of even the idea of talking to a prostitute! But the general “dig the streets” idea, yes.
Shamma: But you did go to Mexico then.
Padgett: Yes, several times. And he was wonderful when I told him I was coming to New York to go to Columbia. He said, “Call me when you get here.” Virtually the only people I knew in New York were Allen Ginsberg, Joel Oppenheimer, LeRoi Jones, Fielding Dawson, and Paul Blackburn.
Shamma: Not a bad crowd you had!
Padgett: All these people — I was pen pals with them. So I called Allen when I got here. I was up at Columbia and he said, “Come down and visit!” So I got on the subway and came down. I went to East Second Street and knocked on his door, and he was very kind to me. He lent me some books; he gave me advice. He was very nice to me my entire life. His singing was a little bit hard to take, but I never stopped admiring him. I was very aware of what a generous spirit he was, both with his time and with helping people. He lived around the corner from my apartment, so I used to see him at the fruit stand at night. We worked on different things together here and there. We weren’t close and continuous friends, but I knew I could always call on him. We even wrote two poems together, one of which wasn’t too bad. But I really admired him. Do I like all his poems? No. I don’t like all of anybody’s anything, but the good ones are really good. The people who characterize him as more of a media figure — I don’t know about that.
Shamma: They’re just jealous.
Padgett: Absolutely. Anyway, I owe him a lot. Kerouac’s On the Road, too, was a huge turn-on for me, and not just because of the lifestyle it describes. His writing has tremendous energy, and at his best he was a very good stylist — Dr. Sax, “Old Angel Midnight,” and “October in the Railroad Earth” are all wonderful. The poems in his Mexico City Blues: I could “dig” them but I never quite got into them the way other people did. The Dharma Bums: I loved that book. But Kerouac got mad at me because after I printed a poem of his in my little magazine, he sent me more poems. I printed some but rejected others, so he got mad at me, after which I was afraid to meet him.
Shamma: How did you start that magazine?
Padgett: I’d seen LeRoi Jones’s magazine Yugen and thought, “This is not that complicated.” So I went to a printer in Tulsa and found out it wasn’t that expensive, either. Then I and my buddy Dick Gallup (who lived across the street and was one year older than me) along with Joe Brainard (who was our art editor), we just wrote to writers we liked, asking them for work — to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and even e. e. cummings. It was amazing how many replied. We were only sixteen or seventeen years old.
Shamma: Did they know that?
Padgett: Yes, we told them up front — I think it was our only selling point. It hooked them into reading our letters. The other day I was in the library at Harvard, where I saw two of the correspondences I had with cummings. God was I arrogant! I was shocked by my teenage arrogance. Boy oh boy.
Shamma: And you spent the rest of your life being “never so arrogant again.”
Padgett: You could call it chutzpah if you wanted, but I’m not Jewish, so it doesn’t work very well. Let’s say I was bold.
Shamma: Are you working on anything right now, is that why you were looking at the e. e. cummings papers?
Padgett: Ashbery and I were doing an evening on Frank O’Hara at Harvard, so I thought I might as well go see these documents. It was shocking, but it was fun.
Shamma: Well, this has been fun. Thank you.
Editorial note: Brian Kim Stefans is arras.net and the author of seven books of poetry and criticism, including Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (2003), What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (2008), and Before Starting Over: Selected Writing and Interviews, 1994–2005. Fred Wah is a poet and critic. In 2011 he was appointed the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. His books include Faking It: Poets and Hybridity, Critical Writing, 1984–1999 (2000), Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. (1975), Music at the Heart of Thinking, and The False Laws of Narrative: The Poetry of Fred Wah (2009). What follows is a transcript of the discussion portion of Philly Talks 7, which originally took place on November 2, 1998. As with all Philly Talks, a PDF was circulated before the discussion. You can find the PDF here. The program was curated by Louis Cabri, and Aaron Levy acted as recording engineer and producer. Michael Nardone transcribed the program and the original recording is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Fred Wah: Something we mentioned in the talks that came up: Brian said he felt being — at least I keep using the term — “racialized,” and that’s kind of a leveling, [but he mentioned] when he felt, as a young writer, that writing was going to give him that freedom. There was a freedom, a freedom from what? That was, for me, from a much older generation. I felt that same sense of looking for a freedom from the imposition of the major, the dominant, the hegemonist language around me. So, in my poetry, in my writing, I’ve always enjoyed the freedom in poetry to do anything you want, to go into the language and do that. But then, it’s led to an awareness, linguistically, of a kind of minute — almost, as Louis [Cabri] calls it, sublinguistic, in the Peter Inman sense of let’s get under the language — thingness of language. So, there’s a connection, I think, between “sloup” and “William Carlo” theater [the name Stefans’s mother used to refer to the William Carlos Center for the Performing Arts in Rutherford, NJ.] and the oompf and the syllabylization. The particles of language start to break down because we want to be free to do that.
Brian Kim Stefans: One thing that comes to mind the way you’re talking about it … in Roy Miki’s afterword to the collected poems of Roy Kiyooka — well, Roy Kiyooka is a tremendous poet and I think Americans should probably read him — but he talks about Kiyooka not writing in English, but inglish, which obviously is a double for the lower case first-person pronoun. Also inglish not so much being a subset of the larger English, but that language, that terrain that’s obviously more fluid. One thing that Kiyooka talks about is when Miki was young he was put into a concentration camp in Canada, and he talks about (for Kiyooka) the opaque reality of the state, the state moving in on your family and shuffling you off. I think English with a capital E becomes not the tool of the state, but an extension of that state. So, the use of inglish is a way of finding those fusions. This feeds right into another thing, which is Jeff Derksen and the fissures. Obviously it ties right in to this whole idea of totalities. I brought it up only because of the very concrete example of someone like Kiyooka at the age of six being thrown into these camps.
Bob Perelman: There’s a huge difference, though, in what you’ve both just said about language. Fred, your sense of the wholeness of language, the freedom it allows you, and thinking of Olson and breath and the sense of being released into the field of projective verse, and also that piece at the end of your reading, “Music at the Heart of Thinking …” — the last one you read, one to seven — where any little bit, the particles that are in the culture, allows us to intervene and domesticate the homogeneous aggregates and institutions around us. The thing that’s left out of the big imperial grid of this State is not salvation, that’s too strong, but freedom where you can critique it —
Stefans: Dialogic, in direction you mean?
Perelman: Well, what isn’t in the big culture is there, in part, as a recognition and desire of what we use as intervention. But there’s another side of it where … this is I guess the sloup-loose thing I keep coming up with, where in both your writings there’s a place where language and form aren’t just automatically recuperable into a kind of plenitude of fullness, but it’s just the site of real struggle. You know, Sloup probably makes a joke out of it, but it’s also like a wound.
Wah: Yes, that’s what I try to get at: the embarrassment. To immediately band-aid that wound, to immediately put something over that wound, is learning how to fake it — turning it into a self putdown, turning it into something that’s negotiable in a social context. But you’re right, the wound is there. It keeps getting addressed, but not in that sense of, as Brian says in our talk, whining, like “I’ve got a wound,” but also, there’s an agency in that act. That sense of … once again coming back to the notion of freedom, there’s a certain freedom, if you like, for me to come back to Sloup and narrate that story, and resituate it in my own biotext, if you like, and try to unpack it, work through that, which he didn’t have, which is okay historically. That’s how we operate historically. But it’s still freedom. There’s still a sense, at least for myself … and I was interested to hear Brian say this in our talk: that we both, despite our obvious generational difference, felt this immense freedom, or look for this freedom in poetry to move into language. It’s the only place in our, perhaps, not necessarily problematic or troubled linguistic history, but it’s the only place that we can move into and feel that freedom.
Stefans: I wanted to comment on just one thing that he said about the Sloup. Was it your grandfather’s story?
Wah: No, my father’s.
Stefans: Your father’s story. I thought it was interesting how it opened the fourth wall into some kind of image of Chinese guerrilla warfare. This is the swamp water with which we make soup —
Speaker: Yes, the passive aggressive way of making them drink that stuff.
Stefans: Yeah, I remember when I worked with my mother, or even when she worked in the restaurant, it was a clear divide: we had to create Korean dishes for the non-Koreans. There was this whole thing, and we weren’t disparaging them or anything, but there were all these manipulations we had to do back there. You couldn’t even call it cultural negotiation because the other side didn’t know it was happening. So they obviously weren’t negotiating. I wouldn’t necessarily call it warfare, but I think the way your father saved face was interesting. And I think that can happen on a literary level in a weird way. To go back to John Yau, I think he’s kind of an interesting character in the sense of the way he uses language. You know, Marjorie Perloff considers him a bitter man.
Stefans: Yeah, she reads the “Ghengis Khan” poems as being alienated, although I think there is a lot of negotiation there that relies on the one hand [on] the pleasure of the text, this whole writing, this surrealist writing or language writing, whatever, that relies on a certain kind of concrete synesthetic appreciation of a word, but on the other hand, there’s that element of the word the way John uses it that retracts as well. It says: I don’t want to have this word entirely. It’s not going to be your word. Do you know what I mean?
Perelman: No, say it again. Say it in a different way.
Stefans: Well, it will be hard because there are lots of different types of writing. I’m probably thinking of something very specific, like the Genghis Khan sequence or something like that, where he is using particular puns —
Perelman: Do you think of this as revealing for that restaurant scene? I’m going to use your terminology: here’s a Korean dish that I’m preparing, so to speak, and I’m showing it to you. But, in fact, I’m not going to give it to you. You can’t have it because you’re not Korean. Is that what you are saying? That you can’t have this word?
Stefans: No, because I don’t think John Yau is necessarily saying “I’m Chinese and you’re not.”
Perelman: That’s what I thought I heard you saying.
Stefans: No, it’s more like if you could imagine John preparing some Chinese dish, but not using the ingredients that a real Chinese person would use to make that dish, and then serving it to someone who wouldn’t know the difference. No, no, no, maybe that’s not it. It has something to do with artifice or a feigned —
Speaker: Faking it!
Stefans: It has something to do with giving someone certain kinds of sensations, but not letting them in on the context that maybe he himself has devolved.
Speaker: Brian, I wanted to ask you something. What you do with your poems? Thinking of the Genghis Khan poems, I think there’s a strategy that’s become more common among racial, fringe writers, in that we have a stigma with our usage of the language. No matter what kind of English we use, you can expect us to use broken English. It’s used as a kind of weapon now. Myung Mi Kim is an example. Since people expect us to use broken English, we’re going to use it very skillfully.
Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right.
Speaker: Not as an ignorant. It’s not a new strategy. It’s been around a while, with black writers, et cetera.
Wah: I agree. It’s there. It happens and goes on and on in a variety of ways.
Speaker: There’s a tremendous freedom in that.
Wah: Yes, there is. Actually, Mary Ellen Pratt talks about that very intelligently in … oh, I forget the essay, but it’s been looked at and brought up.
Speaker: It’s not a [indecipherable] game playing. There are all kinds of undertones and undercurrents.
Wah: And I also think that what’s interesting then is to start looking at the writing of writers who consider it a freedom to then read closely how they’re negotiating that freedom. It ends up being a very ambivalent position for a lot of writers, because that freedom can be the freedom to move into, if you like, mainstream, dominant, conventional structures because, to say, I can do that, or freedom to be in opposition and say, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to be against the dominant.
Stefans: Is that a freedom? A freedom to move into the mainstream? That’s a complex thing, because certainly when I first started writing poetry, my idea was that I’m just going to be the fucking best poet in the world, you know. I was reading my Pound, I was going to study my French, whatever, thinking that there was some central tradition, and I felt my goal was to be there in the central tradition. But at the same time rejecting the idea of writing for, well, I could name a handful of magazines, but do you see that as a freedom? I mean it is a freedom, from a different perspective, from further, distant perspective, do you see that as a freedom? Like the way you commented on Evelyn Lau, for instance.
Wah: Well, I think that, for example, just recently in English language writing, at least that I’m aware of, that the whole notion of choice, which is having the freedom to choose, is really very recent. It has a lot to do with choosing where you want to go within, perhaps, what’s given as literary convention, inherited literary structures, or social structures. For you to say in our talks here, “When I was starting as a young poet, I really enjoyed the freedom to be able to move,” I thought, that notion of freedom, that wasn’t even a word in my sense of growing up, or in my sense of starting to write. It started as an afterthought. I think for a lot of writers in “your generation” – I don’t want to make this a Ron Silliman/Jeff Derksen generational thing – but I did talk about Evelyn Lau and younger writers as yourself that I think choice is fairly central to how these writers act as writers, what they choose, how they choose to move as poets. What’s totally fascinating, I’m sure to Brian as well, in Asian American, and I’ll say “Asian American” to exclude the Canadian for the moment, but in Asian American writing, if you look at Walter Lew’s Premonitions, the range of writing in such an anthology is, I think, pretty stunning, structurally, stylistically, content-wise. The various attentions that are coming up [are] just astounding. That could not have happened thirty years ago. That would not have been possible thirty years ago, that range of attention.
Stefans: One thing that I would add to this idea of choice, I do think there is this particular quality to the Asian American circuit, or just being Asian American and perhaps hearing of the circuit, or just being an isolated Asian American poet, is that when you look in an anthology like Premonitions, you do see a wide range of writers. Some of them strike you as being terribly conventional, and some of them strike you as totally outlandish, but this issue of choice, I tend to read more of it into an anthology like Premonitions, even in mainstream poets who I might not be particularly interested in, I do read choice there. Whereas if I were to look at one of these mainstream magazines that I’m not going to name, I tend not to read choice or I tend to read less choice. In coming to New York from Bard College, where I wasn’t really dealing with issues of race or anything, and getting involved with Walter and reading all these poets, all of whom are reading each other, carefully actually — like Myung Mi Kim is reading Cathy Song, but in a similar instance I wouldn’t say that Susan Howe is reading Sharon Olds — but in a way there’s a kind of fluidity in the Asian American, and I don’t want to say Canadian because I can’t comment that much on Canadian poetry, but I think it points to a kind of way to remap or un-map the literary landscape that we kind of understand. And, of course, Asian American literature being traditionally a marginalized literature is going to be in that kind of camp where experimental literatures will reside, but, interestingly enough, you have this fluidity, you have an apparatus to read choice in Asian American, even mainstream, writing. And African American writing …
Wah: But we no longer have to talk about this, do we? Isn’t this over?
Stefans: Well, I do, and there are many reasons I bring this up. Do you mean the divide between so-called experimental writing? Or to go to the guy that sat in this chair, when you read Ron Silliman on MFA-workshop poetry, he calls it the McPoem. He’s basically precluding the idea that these poets actually have souls. I know you’re going to raise objections. My tendency is to think that you can’t really do that in Asian American literature. I do want to hear what you have to say, but does this make any sense?
Perelman: I don’t want to perpetuate Ron’s remarks about nothing new from the younger generation.
Stefans: No, no, I’m talking about the McPoem thing, which is different.
Perelman: Well, it just strikes me that maybe I’m wrong, sociologically or factually, but it seems that the Asian American writing or poetry community would still be small enough, and feel the need to emerge and be emergent, that you sort of can’t afford to completely separate from camps, and so you do read each other. Whereas it makes perfect sense when you say Sharon Olds — I don’t know this, but can certainly imagine it — not reading Carla Harryman or Susan Howe. It’s a much bigger scene, and that’s when there’s a sense of psychic triage or something, like, we can’t be those mainstream poets over there or else the poets over here —
Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean the vestiges of community poetry interests, you get more of that even in Asian American poets who do not feel invested in the community.
In coming to New York, I don’t particularly care for the APA writer’s workshop, but I am reading poetry from a total peripheral or outer orbit. But those are both recent phenomenon, the idea of an avant-garde that’s not being read by the mainstream at all or completely ignored, or mainstream as not being upset by the avant-garde. That’s a recent phenomenon, as is what I’m suggesting with Premonitions. It’s also a recent phenomenon, because earlier in Asian American literature, figures like John Yau or Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, not Bersenbrugge, but John Yau and Theresa Chow were very much excluded from dominant social-realist paradigms. But they weren’t artistic paradigms that were the problem. They were like scientific readings of literature. They weren’t the actual artists engaging in this kind of thing. So, I think it’s actually quite a recent phenomenon in Asian American literature.
Wah: But maybe, as you’re talking, if I could come in as a distant observer of Asian American writing, because Brian mentioned the Asian American writer’s workshop in New York, which we’re probably both on their list — I don’t know how many people are on their list, almost daily you get four or five events happening — you start to realize all of a sudden, and I think it’s quite astounding, although I don’t follow, because I’m not in New York and it’s mostly centered in New York, that as you say this is a large place you live in and there are a number of constituencies doing their thing. My sense right now is that the Asian American writer’s workshop is proceeding on its own, exclusive of any, if you like, whiteness or any other thing. It’s proceeding — on some proposition usually informed, unfortunately, by previous propositions of community — on its own. And I’m sure the Mestiza in south California is doing the same thing, the Cuban thing in Florida must be doing the same thing. There are all these different constituencies going off on their own, and this notion — that bothers you, you said — of this larger thing is, I think, a kind of questionable largeness. It’s so large that it’s dispersed.
Perelman: It’s not a thing anymore.
Wah: Yeah, it’s not. In fact, it’s very dispersed, and as a Canadian I’m starting to feel this too, that it’s hard to relate, in a sense, across aesthetic or poetic lines exclusively. I don’t know, it’s hard to determine where you are. There’s so much crossing and mixing, and one can move in and out of and not feel guilty about trespassing across certain borders.
Stefans: Fred, let me just mention this, there’s quite an interesting essay by Jeff Derksen, the poet who has been mentioned quite often tonight. And Fred, you were involved with the TISH school or group of poets in Vancouver, which would have been in the seventies?
Wah: No, 1959 to 1963.
Stefans: Yeah, that’s what I said. [Laughter.] And you weren’t read as a racialized writer —
Wah: I didn’t know I was a racialized writer.
Stefans: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Can you talk about that? Because I’m very interested in fluidity, social fluidity, not with the total annihilation of subjectivities, individual subjectivities, and that’s why I’m always looking at Canada and England and Brazil to find ways read American poetry without creating these narrow lines. And Asian American literature as well. In terms of Canadian literature, we never had a Fred Wah in American literature.
Wah: Oh, yes you did.
Stefans: Who was that?
Wah: It was Fred Wah.
Stefans: I mean in the United States.
Wah: I know, literally. Fred Wah was in the United States. Fred Wah was in the United States from 1963 to 1967, and participated in a poetry community in Buffalo, a precursor to the present poetics program. And Paul Carroll seriously considered Fred Wah as a contributor to the American poetry anthology that he was editing out of the University of Chicago, but couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the citizenship, or I didn’t have the papers, et cetera. There were no Chinese, there were no Asian, and there were hardly any black poets present in 1964 in the so-called avant-garde of American poetry. It just wasn’t possible. Amiri Baraka was unusual. Who was there? There were no Asians. Asianicity wasn’t even a part of it. There were no Asians. There was nothing from Asia.
Stefans: Are you talking about in the States?
Wah: I’m talking about in the world.
Stefans: What about Kiyooka? Where was Roy Kiyooka then?
Wah: He was living in Canada, but he wasn’t considered a serious poet. He was a painter.
Perelman: So, it’s there, but that’s not in the States.
Wah: I mean, that ground wasn’t there. All I’m trying to say is that the ground, the ground has shifted totally into something else. I don’t know what interests we have historically —
Perelman: Somebody like Melvin Tolson, who was a fantastic poet, but completely marginalized. At least after he got very experimental, like in Harlem Gallery. It came out sort of right at the same time as Black Arts. It’s still not in print.
Stefans: He was writing in Texas. He moved to Texas for a good while. That’s where he did his weirder stuff. He did the whole Harlem Gallery, which was more or less narrative.
Perelman: He did Harlem Gallery, or the Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which is a little more Spoon River-y but Harlem, but then there’s something called Harlem Gallery, which is this modernist masterpiece that out-Eliots Eliot without all the problems of Eliot. It’s a very specific, isolated thing.
Wah: My view from the distance is, to go back to that, right now in 1998, being Canadian, being up in Canada now after thirty years being away from the States …
Stefans: Welcome back.
Wah: … and looking at what’s there, looking at what I’m interested in, in terms of poetics, I still find it interesting that there’s an absence of Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nate Mackey, from certain configurations of, let’s say, formerly innovative American poetry.
Perelman: You mean, they don’t exist in Canada? They’re not read?
Wah: No, I’m saying they’re not represented in the United States. In publications in the United States, they’re not that represented in the collective of anthologies, magazines, and so forth. There seems to be, to me, from a distance, there still seems to be a fairly, if you like, segregated culture. This is from a distance. Of course, I still experience that in Canada, the sense of segregation culturally. See, I wasn’t always an Asian writer, to go back to Brian’s point. In 1960, there wasn’t the possibility of being an Asian writer. There was no such thing as an Asian Canadian poet. All I could be was a Canadian poet. And to be a Canadian poet you had to do certain things, and you had to go through certain hoops. There was no address to race, at least in Canada. So, it didn’t even come up. And I don’t think it came up even in the States until the seventies. It would be interesting to track that, but I don’t think it’s been that available to us. And now, I’m saying, in 1998, when I say “Haven’t we all been through this?” it’s in the sense that we do have other things to talk about. It’s an unsettled, and perhaps unsettling — but not that unsettling because we’re both very privileged people, culturally and socially. We’re not just racialized people, we’re writers. We do write poetry.
Stefans: It’s interesting where all of that stops and starts. It’s good to go through a certain quick, thumbnail sketch of this. Actually, when I mentioned freedom in writing, if we could go back to this, this whole idea of freedom, I was reading Pound in high school. I wasn’t necessarily implying that with Pound made me feel that I could just type one hundred pages of poetry. It’s quite the opposite. Pound made you feel like you could write three words of poetry without having to hear the Greek, or everything. And then I go through college without necessarily thinking of myself as a racialized writer, although I’m sure it’s all there underneath. But, I don’t know, would you like to move this to, to what?
Wah: To totally change it. Why don’t we talk about a word that comes up in our discussion that I’m interested in, and that’s process procedure. Brian says in his discussion at a certain point, to remind you or if you haven’t read it, Brian is responding to a note of mine, and my sense of the musical body and Olson’s propioception, which I came out of and is in my roots in poetry, and “the ‘musical body’ finds, through language, a whole series of platforms or levels to work on that are way beyond New American poetics, but also liberated” — there’s that freedom again — “in a sense, from the procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries.” I was really curious of that, that “procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries,” because I haven’t called myself this, but certain critics have labelled, if you like, the kind of poetics, the kind of talk-based poetics that I was brought up on, was this notion of process. They call that Black Mountain stuff that I was doing in the sixties process poetics. Now I’m not quite sure I understand what they mean, or what you mean by procedural. So, I thought that might be kind of useful to get into: process procedural.
Stefans: A lot of the work I’m doing work that involves computer programs, systems, and elegant solutions to textual problems, that are what I consider processes: editing processes, compositional processes that are not bodily. And actually, you didn’t quote that quick definition of process, I tend to divorce it from the caprices of the bodily organism in the process of writing. Whereas your idea of process, and what people say about you and process, is centered exactly around that, which is like the pro ...
Stefans: Proprioceptive creature composing a poem. I’m like the cyborgian creature, maybe attached to the computer through the wrist, but I’m not necessarily composing a poem. That’s what I meant, and when I link it to Language poets, I’m thinking of the Fibonacci sequence, Andrew’s hundred poems of three hundred words each, four words in a line. And also certain philosophical underlinings and social critical underlinings for a certain poetic production that I wouldn’t say predetermines a poem, but provides maps towards a poem’s creation that certainly I think one of the whole ideas of projective verse was that the poem was a field that you walk out into. The whole Creeley, as I said to my friend John, you’re kind of creating the poem as you navigate the language and the moment. And then, what I was saying about your poem was that your poetry seemed to be informed by the possibility of my idea of process. You know, I just realize[d] that poem, “Nose Hill 1,” is three words per line. That was obviously something you sat down to do?
Wah: Intentionally, you mean?
Wah: I better look and see and make sure. I think so.
Stefans: The only swerve is this “w/ as ex hill” —
Perelman: Very crudely, the sort of binary is like between procedural stuff prior to Cage versus process a la Pollock, where the line opened-up self generates the intelligence and that not foreseen artistic decision making, as opposed to a Cagean, let’s not have an ego inform this, or body inform the poem, and let the world speak through whatever system you’ve fallen through to have a kind of more pure information of the world speaking, rather than the heroic self speaking.
Stefans: Now that we’ve brought up, well, I don’t know if we want to go back to this, but the whole idea of a racialized language, but this Cagean poetics actually I think is quite interesting in terms of our sense of a racialized language because this idea that you can use these different kinds of language, this interstitial language. I think J. Ismail is a key player in this. She’s a wonderful Canadian poet I don’t anything about, but she’s kind of Joycean in a way. I mean, I’ve read bits and pieces of her, but she’s quite elusive. A Cagean poetics gives you a way to recuperate forms of language. I go back to that “mixie-grill” and it’s kind of like a slur. If I was walking down the street and somebody said “mixie-grill” to me, it’s a slur, right? But I have to find a way to use that language. It’s a quite rich language anyway. Oddly enough, a Cagean poetics gives you a way to at least take the language back and shape it the way you want.
Perelman: You know, mixie-grill, this is a terrible, terrible [indecipherable] but it never occurs in Cage.
Stefans: What do you mean?
Perelman: Mixie-grill, something like that, that comes out of a specific scene of social conflict.
Stefans: Well, why is it social conflict? He’s taking the language of his life, the poetry of his life or whatever, his trip to the park with Merce Cunningham, whatever happens to come up in life, and what I’m saying is that by denying his self, or denying the context of the self, I’m able to use the language that before, because of its context and because of its pointedness, I’d have to deny. I could actually take it back. I’m not saying that I just let it spill out in the same way that Cage might, but at least I have it there. You know, you spend most of your life as an Asian American hoping that nobody says anything to you. At least, for me. I’m not going to speak for everybody, but I was raised in an Irish, Polish, Italian, Roman Catholic suburb. I was the only Korean kid, and everybody used to shout all kinds of shit at me. You know, I got a lot of language. What am I going to do with that language? What am I going to do with those moments? I block them out or I pretend I’m not there. The interesting thing, like I said, with a Cagean poetics is that it allows you to, I don’t want to get psychological, but to use those moments in a more distanced way, I guess. And then to put your own spin on them. Does that make any sense?
Perelman: It make sense. It’s just that Cage himself doesn’t do that.
Stefans: Well, Cage himself, yeah.
Perelman: But yeah, okay, but also a Cagean —
Wah: He puts it in his recipe. He put that language in his recipe, right? In his recipes for food.
Perelman: They’re pretty elegant those recipes.
Wah: I know, but the language that gets used in them is at least particular to this food that he’s trying to serve. That kind of particularity, is that what you’re talking of?
Perelman: It’s the tone of threat in what you’re saying, mixie-grill, you know, that language can come at you.
Wah: Oh, I see. It’s that Cage wouldn’t have anything to do with threats.
Wah: There wouldn’t be any threat. That’s what I’m saying.
Perelman: I think that’s what I’m saying. It’s more like plenitude: writing through, I guess I’m mixing Cage and Mac Low, but writing through Joyce, writing through, taking this thing, seeing what the computer does. You know, your computer program can spit out all kinds of stuff, but what if in a computer vocabulary, it was all like “nigger,” “bitch,” “I’ll kill you,” et cetera. Then, that’s a whole different thing.
Stefans: Absolutely. I’m not saying it’s pure Cage, and I think one of the main figures here is Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews uses a Cagean technique on the language of his life, whether it’s the social essays that he’s reading, or the stuff he sees on the streets. And in many ways, he runs it through a Cagean mill. He’s a rapid editor. He obviously puts an edge on it, but Bruce — Bruce Andrews, I call him Bruce because I know him — obviously benefited from Cage, and Mac Low too, but this way of taking language, the material of language, and of using it, as I say, process-urally to kind of, to first of all, deny the self. Clearly there is a self in Bruce Andrews, but at least the project is to create an image of the self as body, which he is trying to distort. I’m getting lost, but you see the leap from Cage to Andrews, right? Andrews has a very different psychology from Cage, obviously, but I think the basic fundamental procedure is still there. And that’s what I’m saying: I could recuperate language through that, the slur.
Speaker: Or examining your own race without it being necessarily your own, or something that you can see, that’s out there, the language of it.
Speaker: It’s a new view to look at it from outside.
Stefans: Yes, the idea of a social discourse, not so much a discourse on race that’s carried out in school, but a racialized or racially informed language, or a racist language I guess is what it comes down to. To actually look at the racist language and say “Look, what wonderful words.” It’s like a Cagean thing. I couldn’t do that if I were ten years old, I couldn’t say look at this racist language, which I can make poetry out of.
Speaker: Or you could talk about your suffering, or the pain. This makes you want to get away from that. It might trouble your ability to look at it somewhat objectively.
Perelman: Do you really say “this is a wonderful word” though?
Stefans: No, I don’t say that. I’m joking.
Perelman: But it’s a really far-reaching political vista about that joke. It’s a really complicated joke, and, I think, kind of an impossible joke.
Stefans: Well, to put it this way, when I was a kid, when I was in high school, I could say I was raised in a white suburb, and I go to Jersey City and all of a sudden I’m in school with students who are Chinese, Koreans, Philipinos, blacks. It’s very mixed. And I had this one Philipino friend of mine, and he had a little notebook, and it had the word “bastard” here [pointing]. He was Philipino and a good friend of mine, and he had the words “chinky bastard,” and then he would flip it up, and it would say “flip bastard.” And then he would flip it up again, and it would have all of these various things. Actually, it was never black, because Asian kids don’t joke about black culture.
Perelman: That’s the same thing I’m saying about the joke.
Stefans: Yeah, when I say look at this wonderful language, I’m saying, I mean, obviously the language I heard, well, actually I can’t say this because interestingly enough I feel like black slurs are worse than Asian slurs because I found a way to kind of, I don’t want to say internalize racism, but I found a way to stomach it.
Perelman: Deflect it?
Stefans: Or laugh it off. Like I’m saying with the flip book, flip bastard, Chinese bastard. But I can’t do that with black slurs. There is a way that that hits me in a weird way. Not that it’s ever directed at me, but for some reason it strikes something that is just much more horrendous for some reason. Not for some reason, but for many reasons. Anyway, when I say look at that racist language, I was basically talking about the range of languages that were directed at me, not the entire vocabulary of racist slurs. I’m just talking about the stuff I used to hear that would freak me out in a bowling alley, and now I’m twenty-nine and I can use it for poetry. And if I could find it funny, then I think it’s possible at least that someone else can. It’s not a great or a grand humor.
Speaker: But is that humor that depends on your subject position?
Stefans: To find that humor?
Speaker: To hear it, and to find the humor in it.
Stefans: I would have to guess that it would be a particular social type that would find that humorous, and most likely that social would probably be a racialized minority. I’m sure that there are still non-racialized people, or white people, that could find it funny, but it would be quite hard, you know.
Speaker: Or it would mean something really different.
Stefans: Yes, it would mean something very different. I’d say you’re a weird fucking person if you think that’s funny.
Speaker: I want to ask a question to Fred Wah, and it’s about narrative. I’m interested in that we started to talk about life narratives, and you used the word “biotext.” And you wrote a novel, and it sounds like it is based on your life, the life of your father, and I’m curious if you could talk at all about freedom in relation to writing that narrative, your freedom, the freedom you had to look back on your story. I don’t know how that relates to language, and I’m not sure how to put all of this together.
Wah: No, I hear you. It’s very relative. It’s not a novel because the novel represents to me a tyranny of form that I’ve never been able to move through, not that I want to move through it, but it’s a tyranny I want to avoid. It’s prose, however. I was encouraged by a very good friend of mine to get into the prose as a poet — as a writer, to explore prose, and I appreciated that. I enjoyed writing it for that reason, but it strikes me more as prose, the sentence. Certain aspects of narrative that require character, that require voice, that require linking and a kind of resolution. So, I chose the anecdote as a form that I wanted to recuperate in a prose poem way. That’s why it’s not a novel. It always uses cadence. I mean, I didn’t read much of it, but mixie-grill, that’s not narrative. That’s a strategy in poetry, to land somewhere and I do that in most of the text. So, narrative is interrupted by a kind of reminder of other things. In this particular book, it’s a reminder of certain kinds of racialized reminders of language, as well as poetic, or generally poetic reminders. But narrative has been a problem. It’s a problem.
Stefans: Talking with Fred earlier about this book, which I was reading on the bus ride from New York, I find it a very beautiful book. Fred had sent me a group of his books, and it’s the one I didn’t want to read because it was narrative. I mean, I just didn’t want to read stories. It turned out to be quite Joycean. It doesn’t sound like Joyce, but, like you say, it hangs around the anecdote, and there are certain moments when the language becomes quite, not fluid, but it opens up, but you’re still in this narrative context. Then the carryover from each additional piece is quite comforting in the way that narrative is comforting, but it never becomes closed. It never becomes, “I’m stuck in this story.”
Do you have a question, Jena?
Jena Osman: I have a comment more about what you were saying about Cagean poetics. I understand what you are saying with that, but I think that what you are talking about is more a Mac Lowian poetics. You can say that Mac Low is in the tradition of Cage, but what Mac Low is using as a material is very different than what Cage was using. He would use culturally-loaded material, like newspaper articles about the Vietnam War.
Stefans: Well, that’s interesting, because Bob was saying the exact opposite, that he wasn’t using stuff that was so much culturally-loaded. He was saying mixie-grill would never be in Cage.
Osman: That’s why I’m saying it’s Mac Low who’s using the culturally-loaded material.
Stefans: Oh, okay, Mac Low.
Osman: Yes, Mac Low does, and Cage really seemed to avoid that. I think his Writing through the Cantos was really an example of that. That was the one mesostic piece of his that he actually printed in two different ways. In the second way, he really condensed it the second time that it was printed, and he had said that felt very uncomfortable about that piece. And my theory is that it’s because he couldn’t get away from the alogically-charged language, and that cultural signification is inherent in that piece. Whereas, with Mac Low, you really have a place where identity can manifest itself.
Louis Cabri: But you could also tie back Cage to a liberal platform, his version of anarchism, you can argue, and I guess I would, that it’s a kind of liberalism. Whereas with Mac Low, it’s a different brand of politics.
Stefans: Did I get to your question that you had asked? Was that addressed adequately? Or too offhandedly?
Speaker: No, it’s fine.
Stefans: I’m sorry. I’ve had like eighteen glasses of wine, so.
Cabri: Anyway, thanks very much.
An interview with Caroline Bergvall by Rozalie Hirs
This interview with Caroline Bergvall took place at our first meeting on 2 December 2010, Birkbeck College, Gordon Square, London. We low-fi recorded the interview in Audacity through the inbuilt microphones on a Mac. I edited the sound files in Protools (Amsterdam, March and November 2011).
The surprise of love is its most rigorous demand. Love as practice, writing, reading as practice, and the demands of that. To accept love, reading, writing, and what it demands of you. Transformative areas as practice. Changing the way you think about yourself, your body, language, culture. Where the work or a question raised by the work or maker has taken the work and the maker. Daring and courage. An existential dimension of the work.
Solid rock of text. Mass. Excepting the failure of habits, familiarities. Memory failures. Coming to recognize acquired values. In situ. First: erotic escalation at the center, telephone numbers at the side. Then: sexual experience as mass, dark matter. Unreadable signs. Graphic language. Graphic signs, rhythm, becoming visual structuring. Purely visual, an unreadable mass in itself. How sounds of the typewriter/computer keyboard turn into accidental sign structures, paragraphs. Visual stuttering, hesitations.
The way female sexuality is viewed in our culture. Cindy Sherman. Louise Bourgeois. Disintegration. The way women have handled violent sexuality. Survival modes, modes of resistance, copying strategies, tactics. Games. Surrealism. “Dolly” as participant, commentator. A crude character. Rawness. Throwaway, angry, disrespectful. No attempt at reflection. Hybrid beings, contemporary sexual hybrid identities. Imposed identities. Compounding. Misogyny. Disgust. Morbidity, dwelling in morbid bodily behaviors.
Examining the map. Connections between internal and external transport. Internal and external realities. Setting up a process with a strict set of rules, an experience. Shaping experience. How is experience formed? Performative premise of nonverbal actions. Creating a separate preparation of writing through sound, physical movement, structures. The inside and outside of experience. Spaces that are different from literary spaces. Experiences that cannot be expressed verbally.
Failure. Collapsing of a performance or a collaboration. Figures, figures of speech, reflecting on itself. Interest in the notion of failure. Collaborations failing on a human level, on an artistic level. Feedback loops, reflection, fractal structure. After failure, you find yourself somewhere else, unexpected.
Good and bad collaborations. Chance elements running through a collaboration. Cage and Cunningham as an example. (Not) knowing your collaborative partner.
Found objects. On the street, the bus. Take a book with you, take a line. Quoting as a practice. Intentionality. Displacement. Performative aspect of reading, finding.
Starting points: the comparative, the plus or the minus, simplistic identifiers, bestiary. Comparative ways of behaving, of judging, defining. Handling boundaries. The girl, not yet assimilated into the gendering of a woman. Chart of comparisons, setting up repetitions. Removing the human from the bestiary, removing the girl.
(Varied) repetition. The same and not the same. Metonymic processes. Translation — its cultural demands. The ideological aspects of a translation. What is the transposition of a text into another language? Methods for examining cultural traffic, cultural exchange. Set of variations. What happens if one changes a node? Questioning the ideology of translation. Being inside the respective epoque of a translation. Connection with ideology or cultural practice. Variation.
Amsterdam, 30 January 2012
I first discovered the poetry of John Wieners, seminal Boston poet and peripheral member of the Beat generation, during my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts. As I continued my relationship with his poetry, the idea further cemented in my mind of the solitary voice, becoming clear to me that the work Wieners has amounted through associations, with Charles Olson and the Black Mountain school, with Ezra Pound in Spoleto, Ginsberg in New York and among friends in Beacon Hill, is of significant and lasting artistic achievement. Throughout his career, Wieners’s writings have been overshadowed by the more mainstream success of his old friends, creating for us, the students of the Beats, a kind of “diamond in the rough” presence on the fringe of contemporary American Literature.
We met on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, January 1993, at the apartment of Jack Powers, a mutual friend and organizer of the Boston Stone Soup Poets Group, and took our places in the front reading room with a surplus of cigarettes, wine, notepads, and questions. We found Mr. Wieners to be comfortable, unrestrained, dressed simply in a sweatshirt, casual slacks, worn-down shoes, steadfast in mind and manner.
Steve Prygoda: Did you grow up in Boston?
John Wieners: I went to school in the South End, Boston College High, right off of the City Hospital.
Prygoda: Is it still in the same place?
Wieners: Well, no. It has moved to Dorchester. I went to Boston College in the fifties before I moved into the city as a grown-up. I was worked over a couple of times while I was still at school, coming down Commonwealth Avenue, so I’m not crazy about the place (BC).
Prygoda: What made you want to become a writer?
Wieners: Immortality, in the sense of living after one’s own time has run out. The paintings will endure; they’ve lasted for, oh, ten centuries. They bring the artist back to life; they hold the proper names of Asian into appearance.
Prygoda: It was at Black Mountain where you first began to develop your own voice and place within American poetry. Who was with you there?
Wieners: The most friendly sort that came out of that experience was Jerry Vanderwile. Do you know the name? He has since slipped from the world’s esteem. He was my sort of person.
Prygoda: How long were you associated with Charles Olson?
Wieners: For about fifteen years?
Prygoda: Did you stay with him while he lived in Gloucester?
Wieners: For suppers, breakfasts, overnight.
Prygoda: Was he doing his Maximus series then?
Wieners: Yes, he had many disciples.
Prygoda: Do you think that is harmful, the “cult of personality”?
Wieners: It is if the person has died, and become ill … that they have been hypnotized through a Danish theologian, that he wasn’t … whose work I am not too keen upon, I don’t know that he is actually aware that he wrote that book, that one anyways.
Prygoda: Do you think Olson was an important presence on the US poetry scene?
Wieners: Yes, I think he swayed thousands, the masses, to become attuned to themselves — sight, hearing, sound, lips, tongues, sort of thing. It comes down to the child, or elementary lessons.
John Wieners’s career as a poet began on the West Coast; a little-known 1957 publishing credit finds two of his early poems in the Chicago Review, an issue focused on the eclectic and vital “San Francisco Scene” including work by Kerouac, Ginsberg, McClure, and Ferlinghetti. A year later Wieners’s first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems was published — lean, personal modern verse bristling with nervous spontaneous energy and Keatsian eloquence. The young poet’s life was off and running.
Prygoda: Do you think the Beats, as they are called, were that big an influence on American writing?
Wieners: Not as big as ten centuries of classical painting. (Anyways) It was just a phrase, a title. I think we got it from the Russians … when they launched the satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s. I think that’s what really popularized the name Beatnik and then shortened by the press and others to just Beat.
Prygoda: When did you first meet Allen Ginsberg?
Wieners: Was it Finnegan’s Wake? A play very well done at the YMHA Auditorium. It was that evening, after the performance, we shared a taxicab over to one of the bars. I got to know him for a nightcap, to a hotel. I can’t remember where we stayed; the director had a car waiting, and he (Allen) made his leave.
Prygoda: If you were to contrast the differences in style between Ginsberg an Olson, in weaknesses and strengths …
Wieners: They were innovators, with style, with character. And Allen, his work will have relevance today and tomorrow.
Prygoda: And Ezra Pound …
Wieners: Ezra Pound was quite a foreboding figure. I met him during the same week we went to a play by Pinter, in Italy. He was in town for the action, to see the Swedish Ambassador, the Czechoslovak, the Russian. These were the men who intrigued him, as melodramatic figures. His world needs melodrama.
Prygoda: Why did you say he was foreboding?
Wieners: He was so small, I think, in his attitude toward reality, as if he had been blanched to an exceeded condition of intelligence. As I have thought of him frequently afterwards, shown in his makeup, do you believe poets should wear makeup? Well, I do worship him.
Wieners found little to do with the mighty forces of literary academia, and chose a life away from the scholarly advancement of his peers. Black Sparrow salvaged over thirty years of John Wieners’s poetry from the jaws of obscurity and published Selected Poems 1958–1984 in 1986. The poet settled into the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, content to live out the remaining years as a Boston poet, contributing sparingly to local literary causes while writing occasional verse, contemporania, thumbnail sketches of the oddities of life set to words, and a play is also currently in the works.
Prygoda: Last year you had a piece published in The Paris Review; am I correct? I’ve had a bit of trouble finding it …
Wieners: A few squibs about … I’m glad they take my stuff out of circulation. They realize that it is not to be discerned. You can’t look in on one’s neighbors.
Prygoda: Were you aware that The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) would create the amount of impact they did?
Wieners: [Long pause.] I don’t think they have. I certainly don’t want them to.
Wieners: Well, I used to take the trolley into Boston a lot, in the evenings, go downtown and have a couple of beers. I was so nervous ever to be seen by somebody and have them raise an eyebrow against me that I … shun … having notoriety attached to that area of income. It wasn’t that much but …
Prygoda: More a collection of private thoughts to be shared among friends?
Wieners: That’s what they claimed, yes; more to counteract a bankruptcy claim, period. It’s important to know, and thank you for inquiring about it. That was main purpose and reason.
Prygoda: Well, you got some many beautiful lines, I keep coming back to “I am engaged in taking from God his sound” from “To A Record Player.” Can you tell me about that one?
Wieners: Well, I was so hopped-up. I’ll have to have another beer to answer that!
The evening came to a close and we made our goodbyes, with a smattering of camera flashes and a book to be signed, another bar to visit and begin to unravel the past few ours of conversation with, in Allen Ginsberg’s own words, “one of the ten greatest American writers living today.”
Tenzone wishes to thank Jack Powers of the Boston Stone Soup Poets, who made the evening’s transactions possible.