Jerome Rothenberg at Kelly Writers House, April 29, 2008
Editorial note: Jerome Rothenberg (b. 1931) is the author of more than seventy books of poetry, including Poland/1931 (1974), A Seneca JournalKhurbn and Other Poems (1978), (1989), and most recently Concealments and Caprichos and Retrievals: Uncollected and New Poems, 1955–2010 (2011). Rothenberg is also known for championing “ethnopoetics” and curates an ethnopoetics section at UbuWeb and his own blog/magazine, Poems and Poetics. He has translated works by Paul Celan, Garcia Lorca, Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, and others and has edited several important anthologies, including Technicians of the Sacred (1968), A Big Jewish Book (1977, 1989), and Poems for the Millennium (1995, 1998, 2009). The following transcript has been adapted and edited for readability from a conversation that took place at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on April 29, 2008, among Rothenberg, Al Filreis, Bob Perelman, Steve Fredman, CAConrad, Thomas Devaney, Murat Nemet-Nejat, and others. Rothenberg was brought to Philadelphia as part of the Kelly Writers House Fellows program, directed and hosted by Al Filreis. This program and surrounding events are available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: Good morning. The first thing we need to do is once again thank Jerry and Diane Rothenberg for coming a long way to the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you. We had a fantastic day yesterday. It was a long day, and we had a lot of different conversations about Jerry’s work. For those of us who were involved … I’m sure I’m speaking for others, I know I am because I spoke with a lot a people. When I say that it was an enormous pleasure, I mean in the Rothenbergian sense of pleasure: the receptive, creative pleasure of art.
It was fun. We had a good time.
The format this morning is quite simple. It’s an interview/conversation. Jerry and I will talk for about half the time about all kinds of things informally, and at a certain point, I will turn it to you, the audience here in the room, but also to those viewing us by webcast.
So, thanks again, Jerry. I guess the first question I have is about your uncle. You’ve said in a poem and in a preface, and also in conversation that the only story that has come directly to you, or indirectly maybe, about the Holocaust and your family is the uncle who was hidden by partisans and who found out about his family killed, I think at Treblinka, and drank a bunch of vodka and blew his brains out. There were obviously others who were lost. When you got back, when you got to Treblinka, it wasn’t a roots visit, it was something that happened along the way because you were already in Germany. You decided to make the trip and you went to Treblinka but there you said that the poems you heard at Treblinka were the clearest messages you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry. Can you explain that a little more? And specifically, what do you mean “you heard the poems at Treblinka”?
Jerome Rothenberg: It wasn’t as if a voice was speaking to me.
Filreis: Glad we cleared that up. [Imitating] Jerry —
Rothenberg: But it was as if that was the experience plus more. I don’t know that I began to write those poems following the Treblinka visit, which was early in the trip or later — having passed some time in Krakow, in Silesia, we then travelled to Auschwitz. But the whole thing, from the moment that I set foot into Poland, I had a great sense of upset. You know, it triggered something. I think quite understandably.
Filreis: Right. But the clearest message you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry?
Rothenberg: The clearest message, yeah, in the sense that I think for many of us, maybe most of us, who became poets and who had lived either directly or vicariously through the experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust, that great, very intense and very brief period of destruction, only a few years, you know. I’ve always tried to get an accurate account of how many people were killed during that time from 1939 to 1945 — an extraordinary number of deaths, of burnings, of maimings.
I think I began to write poetry under the impact of that, as did others of my generation. I don’t think I can define very clearly what I mean. I understood then, for the first time, and was willing later to say that something of what had happened there was what brought me into poetry in the first place.
I had been meditating on or thinking about the statement, attributed and sometimes mistranslated from Adorno, about not writing poetry after Auschwitz. But that was wrong, because really what drove me into poetry, or what I feel retrospectively drove me into poetry, was precisely the consciousness of Holocaust. And not just what happened in the death camps, although that was an extremity, but you know, the other things, the further one got away from the war itself. And what happened at Hiroshima began to sink in first. I was a kid when we got news about that. I don’t think there was for me, at the age of fourteen, a real sense of the horror of Hiroshima, but it didn’t take long before I realized what we had done there. And then, of course, things like Dresden only came to light for us much later.
Filreis: And you don’t really disagree with what we imagine to be the impetus behind Adorno’s statement, which is that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric?
Rothenberg: Oh no, though he was limiting himself pretty much to lyric, lyric poetry, and would refine his statement later. And I also came to see that lyric could itself be a form of resistance.
Filreis: That is to say, you believe that the enormity of that situation robbed language of its capacity to express appropriately what had happened. The disagreement is what happens afterwards, because you believe strongly — and you’ve said this in Khurbn, you’ve said it at the end of The Burning Babe, I believe, and you’ve certainly said it in various statements — that poetry is all we have left. [“After Auschwitz, there is only poetry.”]
Rothenberg: Well, I think that the transformations that poetry makes possible were to me a more meaningful response than silence. Although silence can be very powerful, but who will know about it?
Filreis: Well, there are some artists who would argue differently about silence.
Rothenberg: Yes, but somebody has to get the word out.
Anyway, silence was not an option.
Filreis: Silence was not an option for you.
Rothenberg: Silence means withdrawing from the world.
Filreis: In the Elie Wiesel sense, that if you’re silent you’re helping the bad guys. Don’t be silent in that sense.
Rothenberg: Yes, but it’s not just the Elie Wiesel sense.
Filreis: I know that, I threw that in to get a rise out of you.
Rothenberg: You generally assume that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. This is stated in many different ways. As a poet, I began more and more to talk about the response to that midcentury Holocaust, holocausts, and to so much that followed, the response being through the transformed language of poetry, and of course other responses also.
Filreis: What’s so great about Triptych, to me, one of the things that’s great about it is it brings three books together: Poland/1931, Khurbn, which is the book we’re talking about now that is a more or less direct response to the Holocaust, somewhat belatedly, and The Burning Babe, which is — I don’t want to say the word “about” since we’re talking about Stein later, aboutness is not appropriate — but if it’s about anything, it’s about a millennialist. It’s millennialism, there’s 9/11 in it, there’s the bringing together of Dresden and Auschwitz and New York and all kinds of things. And one of the things that’s so remarkable about Triptych is what it allows you to say about this whole portion of your career, your writing, that you started to use archaic and primitive materials, living with the Seneca and so forth. And somewhere along the line you realized, well, you know, the Jewish stuff is cognate to that, those are some of my archaic materials. I think I want to do some of that. And the first instance of that here is Poland/1931, which you’ve said in a number of ways is not about the Holocaust. You didn’t say it is an avoidance of the Holocaust, but I read it as a kind of swerve around the Holocaust to do other things. Then Khurbn, which partly results from your visit to Poland and to the camps.
I tried to ask you this yesterday and I didn’t do so well, or you just evaded it somehow —
Rothenberg: Very likely.
Filreis: I guess I want to ask — since I brought up Wiesel — a kind of Jewish identity question. That is to say, I think it’s possible to read Poland/1931 as avoiding the Holocaust in a way that Khurbn definitely does not. You kind of got to this belatedly —
Rothenberg: It may avoid the Holocaust, but it certainly doesn’t evade the Jewish identity matter.
Filreis: You’re absolutely right, but you seem to be in Khurbn, you seem to be ready to fully embrace the connection between your interests and exploration of the archaic materials, your status as a poet, the Poland/1931 material without the Holocaust, and then the Holocaust added to it because it makes all those connections for you. And I still didn’t ask the question well
Are you avoiding your Jewish identity?
Rothenberg: No, no. I mean, the one thing I do try to avoid is —
Filreis: To be pinned down?
Rothenberg: To be pinned down.
Filreis: I can tell that.
Rothenberg: I mean the career is … the writing is much more extensive than the Jewish identity matter.
Filreis: Absolutely, of course.
Rothenberg: At a certain point, I come to write Poland/1931, you know, but I’ve been writing twenty, twenty-five years before that. It’s not my subject from the very beginning. Although I’m willing to accept that the Jewish is in me, with me, you know. I’m not in a state of denial about that, though sometimes it can be a difficult thing to carry along with you.
Filreis: Sure, sure.
Rothenberg: Part of the identity question is a sense of being under the gun. Even vicariously experiencing the Holocaust as a kid in the Bronx, one knew that here we were, potential victims. There were photographs. I didn’t know any of the people who remained in Poland, but there were photographs of children my age who disappeared, who were killed, who were murdered.
Filreis: Just to take this, I’m imagining — forgive me all sophomores out there — I’m imagining the sophomoric question: looking at the whole arc of the career — again, forgive me — and that person says, you know, this is really cool, this Seneca material, this is really great, and he writes — meaning you — in the preface to Shaking the Pumpkin or something, you know, very boldly, we must cross over into different ethnicities, different ethnopoetries. So it’s okay for me, in America, a white Jewish American poet, to cross over into the Seneca. I’m going to do that. I know there’s some risks involved, but I’m going to do that and we really need to do that. And you said it at a time when there was a lot of separatism going on, and some people might say, you know, Jerry, you have no business going there, but you did that.
And again, back to this sophomore who might say he made that bold crossing, but he had the Jewish materials right there, and he didn’t do that until Poland/1931, how come?
Rothenberg: Because I can make the bold crossing precisely because I did have the Jewish materials. And there was a kind of recognition between me and various American Indian and African American poets: that it was easier to make the crossover with an assertion of an identity that I would also —
Filreis: Interesting, interesting. More Jewish questions, sorry.
Rothenberg: No, go ahead.
Filreis: I’ve been haunted by your Jewish dream. This is a dream, it’s the beginning of the prose that opens A Big Jewish Book. And I wondered if you would be so kind as to read the opening passage, which would be in here. I’ll give you the page number.
Rothenberg: If you give me the page number I will do that.
Filreis: One eighteen. I wondered if you would read that, and maybe I’ll ask a question. I am haunted by this dream.
Rothenberg: I was too. Sometimes I make up dreams, but this was a real dream. A classy dream.
Filreis: Maybe read up to there.
Rothenberg: Okay. As far as that? Sure.
Filreis: Do you mind?
Rothenberg: Yeah. Though it’s really at the beginning, the dream.
Filreis: The beginning is the good stuff.
Rothenberg: Freud and the Interpretation of Dreams as a series of little prose poems.
Filreis: Yeah, he does. I was thinking of that.
Rothenberg: Dream descriptions. And one of them he labels a beautiful dream.
Filreis: We’re going to do a little psychoanalysis after you read this.
Rothenberg [reads]: There was a dream that came before the book, and I might as well tell it. I was in a house identified by someone as the House of Jews, where there were many friends gathered, maybe everyone I knew. Whether they were Jews or not was unimportant: I was, and because I was, I had to lead them through it. But we were halted at the entrance to a room, not a room really, more like a great black hole in space. I was frightened and exhilarated, both at once, but like the others I held back before that darkness. The question came to be the room’s name, as if to give the room a name would open it. I knew that, and I strained my eyes and body to get near the room, where I could feel, as though a voice was whispering to me, creation going on inside it. And I said that it was called Creation.
I now recognize that dream as central to my life, an event and mystery that has dogged me from the start. I know that there are other mysteries — for others, or for myself at other times, more central — and that they may or may not be the same. But Creation — poesis writ large — appeared to me first in that house, for I was aware then, and even more so now, that there are Jewish mysteries that one confronts in a place no less dangerous or real than that abyss of the Aztecs:
… a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place: it is dark, it is light …
and with a sense, too, that this space must be bridged, this door opened as well — the door made just for you, says the guardian in Kafka’s story. Yet Kafka, like so many of us, poses the other question also: “What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself …”
I think that’s probably the best place to end.
Filreis: That’s where you want to stop? Alright, so can I do the interpretation?
Rothenberg: Sure. Sure, doctor.
Filreis: How long have you been feeling this way, Jerry?
This, to me, is the creation moment. This is where your Jewish self as a poet is created, here. The dream is the dream of the darkness that gives way to the Jewish poet. And in the paragraph you didn’t read, that comes afterwards, you talk about Poland/1931, which is the book where you basically declare this is of interest to you and you treat those materials as you’ve been treating all the other archaic, primitive materials.
Rothenberg: Should I read that other paragraph?
Filreis: Yeah, I’d love it.
Filreis: I always get my way here.
Rothenberg: It was just so nice to end on Kafka.
Filreis: That Kafka stuff is great. And you dragged Kafka into this too.
Rothenberg [reads]: For myself it had suddenly seemed possible — this was in 1966 or ’67 and I was finishing Technicians of the Sacred — to break into that other place, “my own … a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.” From that point on, it opened up in stages. Images, once general and without particular names, now had identified themselves. I let my mind — and the words of others, for I had learned as well to collage and assemble — work out its vision of “fantastic life,” as Robert Duncan had called it for all poetry: an image in this instance of some supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville I could set in motion. With those poems (Poland/1931) I made a small entry, American and eastern European; yet something had dropped away, so that it was now possible to “be in common with myself,” to experience the mystery of naming, like the thrill and terror of my Jewish dream.
Filreis: So to continue the interpretation: there you have the names that are inchoate, you couldn’t name them, but now the naming — you do the Genesis thing. So now you are doing the godly thing of naming. This is the beginning. Fair enough?
Rothenberg: That’s fair enough, though Adam not God is the real namer. A little —
Filreis: A little what? A little reductive?
Rothenberg: A little overblown. This is all overblown.
Filreis: Diane, does this resonate with you?
I’ll send you the bill later.
Look, I have a million other questions, but this is probably a good time —
Rothenberg: You know, but it was suddenly possible, and partly I’m responding to so much that’s going on, to the time of Black being beautiful and the American Indian movements, but more than that. I mean, in the ethnopoetics, I’m finding sources of poetry, not as a question there of any kind of identity —
Filreis: Yes, sorry about that.
Rothenberg: Sources of poetry. But beginning to think that there are the Jewish sources. And what if I begin to work from within that? The one thing is that I can work from within that in the way I would never, say, in writing Seneca Journal, you know, pose as an Indian. I would never in Technicians of the Sacred do that kind of costuming, play acting. You know, except, I could do it as a joke, but not in any serious way.
Filreis: So the surrealist vaudeville was made possible by this move?
Rothenberg: The Yiddish surrealist vaudeville, by the way, is a designation David Meltzer gave me.
Filreis: It’s an apt name for that book.
Rothenberg: I really should have credited him. I’m not clever enough to come up with that —
Filreis: So Triptych was made possible by this particular move?
Rothenberg: Yeah, but Triptych happened in stages.
Filreis: Yes, of course.
Rothenberg: The notion of bringing that together. You know, of course, a bigger book was possible. The writing around the Jewish dream, writing the Jewish poem, extends, you know. A Big Jewish Book is 650–700 pages of working through this in the manner of Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. So that’s part of it. A smaller series of poems called Fourteen Stations, which works off traditional Jewish numerology to —
Filreis: And Gematria, maybe even out of that?
Rothenberg: Gematria is something like a 250 page book of short poems constructed in the manner of traditional Jewish numerology. You know, this is sort of my Jewish Oulipo.
Filreis: There is a Jewish Oulipo.
So look, I want to open this up to the floor. And I open it up to the floor.
Rothenberg: And feel free to ask about Dada —
Filreis: Yeah, feel free to get away from the Jewish question.
Rothenberg: But you don’t have to.
Filreis: CAConrad is right here. In orange. Good morning.
Conrad: Okay. I know you’ve covered this a little bit already, and you covered it last night a little bit too, but on the back of your spell book, Gris-Gris, you mention that you began writing Poland/1931 when you were taking on the assembling of Technicians of the Sacred. And was there something specific about that anthology that led you … that opened the door to Poland/1931?
Rothenberg: Well, in the sense that Technicians of the Sacred is my discovery of the power of traditional sources. And I go ranging through that particularly into those areas which had been misnamed primitive, because they are truly areas of tremendous development of poetry and vision and so on. Once I was into the sources, not as a roots question, except that, you know, if you want human roots, right? That is also the search for human origins. Where does this practice — that some of us think is so important and others think is absolutely besides the point — where does it come from? So it’s a search for origins of speech, of language, of poetry, of art, by seeing the vast array of forms they’ve taken.
I remember at that point that some of us were trying to push this back into, you know, other animal presences. Is there an art practiced by primates? Can you teach apes to speak? What’s the extent of language? When does language begin? Is the creation of language a basic poetic act? At some point there must have been geniuses among the non-languaged primates who created language —
Filreis: And as you said, there is no such thing as a primitive language in your opinion.
Filreis: Or any time.
Rothenberg: No no no. At some point very far back it had to have started.
Filreis: I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as an unformed or unfinished language, you’ve said.
Rothenberg: In a certain sense all languages are unfinished. It was too easy to categorize certain cultures as being primitive when, in fact, in various areas there was a deep development over centuries and millennia. Languages everywhere are complex and can be fitted to almost any task. Certain languages do basic mental operations better than our language. So we have to monkey around with our language to get it to do things that, say, a language like Hopi is able to do [snaps] like that. But there are things that we do, you know, that … we would probably have to manipulate Hopi in various ways.
Filreis: You once said that primitive means complex.
Rothenberg: Well, most of those languages that have been tracked and have been labeled as primitive were not primitive at all, but very complex languages. The ceremonial poetry, the ritual poetry, the shamanistic poetry that was a part of those cultures was, if you looked at it in the right way, complex: often very complex in meaning, certainly complex in performance, corresponding to our own search for a total work of art. The good ol’ German gesamtkunstwerk. That existed there. We were not dealing with some kind of primitive blah blah blah, you know, unformed words. Languages keep forming in the world through pidgins and creoles, then becoming separate languages. But even there, that’s often a complicated linguistic base to start with.
Filreis: Thank you for the question, CA I believe we have a call coming in on the phone.
Filreis: Who is it?
Caller: Steve Fredman.
Rothenberg: Hello Steve!
Steve Fredman: Hi guys.
Filreis: We can hear you quite well. You want to ask your question?
Fredman: Sure. When you mentioned “fantastic life” from Robert Duncan in the preface to A Big Jewish Book, I was thinking about the fact that Duncan’s fantastic life is soon to be before us in print. And I was thinking about, Jerry, how much over the years I’ve heard you mention in different ways your fondness for Robert Duncan and indebtedness to him in different ways. I wondered if you could just talk about that a little bit. This will take us off in some ways the Jewish subject, and maybe even off the primitive subject to some extent. I was thinking about the ways in which Duncan seemed to open up different possibilities of writing and poetics for you over the years, and I wondered if you could maybe sketch out a trajectory of your relations to him as a writer yourself over a period of time.
Rothenberg: I could write a book to talk about Duncan. There was, to begin with, a very friendly response at a point when I still thought of myself as being isolated from other poets, or working within a small group of poets in New York. Duncan responded very quickly to what I was doing with that eagerness to enter into communication. There was never a big correspondence between us, that is, letter writing. I mean he was a maniacal letter writer, and I was, at least before the Internet and email, a very sparse letter writer.
At the time when City Lights was publishing my first book, and actually my first anthology, called New Young German Poets, Diane and I went out to San Francisco and at the City Lights bookstore, during a photo op, met Robert and spent time with him and Jess. Immediately, because so immersed in poetry and ideas as he was, immediately he began to lead me towards certain things. Let me point out, I think it was from him that I first got the recently published Gershom Scholem book on major trends in Jewish mysticism, but in exchange I gave him Paul Celan.
Duncan was a little suspicious of Paul Celan —
Rothenberg: Yeah, because he had picked up, he thought, a certain — you know, this is kind of internal in lefty movements of that period — but he picked up maybe something a little commie about Paul Celan.
Filreis: A little what?
Rothenberg: A little commie.
Filreis: A little commie, and Robert Duncan didn’t want that.
Rothenberg: You know, Robert was having problems with the Stalinist part of the left. It was sort of a silly reading of the phrase from the Spanish Civil War, No pasaran!, going into a Celan poem.
Shortly after, Robert came to visit us in New York. So most of the contact was really direct rather than letter writing.
He was, for me, one of those with whom every conversation could be valuable, and maybe because we didn’t see each other that often. There are others with whom I’ve worked and shared ideas over the course of time like David Antin who goes back with me and with Diane for over fifty years. And David is also a great producer of ideas and insights. David and I have known each other over that whole time, sometimes almost on a day to day basis, so there’s a lot of small talk between me and David. But with Robert, it was invariably more than that.
Filreis: Steve, are you still there?
Filreis: Can you say briefly what you think the Rothenberg-Duncan connection is?
Fredman: Well, I’ve always been struck by your invocation of the phrase “symposium of the whole” that is almost a talismanic phrase in your work it seems.
Rothenberg: It’s a title of a book. And, of course, it comes from Robert.
Fredman: And that’s certainly one of the things I was thinking about: the whole notion of culture as assemblage, and of the grand collage, the poetry of all poetries, that seems to be something that’s very much central to your work as well.
Rothenberg: Well, that was part of what was, well … in Duncan I found a poet — what was he, ten or twelve years older than me? — who was writing a certain kind of poetry that was attractive, but also opening up a world that integrated contemporary twentieth-century poetry from other places. In a way, Olson never meant that much to me in terms of the mixing of old and new. Olson was, let me say, too much of an Americanist. Gary Snyder was also too much of an Americanist, although I valued them both. Gary turned toward the East, toward Asia, you know, but I had one foot still in Europe. If there was a conflict with Europe, it was a conflict with England, and that stranglehold that British poetry had on our own poetry. But we were drawing so much from France, from the European continent. I saw what we were doing as a continuation both of certain streams in American poetry, but also that we had taken over something from France, or brought it over here. We hadn’t taken it away from them, although I think to some degree they had given up on it. But it was passed along, you know, as Kennedy said, “through this generation of Americans, a torch has been passed” —
Filreis: Passing the torch. That’s a good imitation.
Rothenberg: And Robert intensified that sense for me.
Filreis: Well thank you, Steve, for the question. Take care.
Fredman: Thanks for the answer.
Filreis: Bob Perelman has a question.
Bob Perelman: This is just a footnote actually to the Duncan question. I was thinking last night when you were reading The Burning Babe, there’s the Duncan suite, the Southwell suite about the Burning Babe. Which is the chicken, which is the egg? I think they’re contemporaneous, right?
Rothenberg: No, no. Duncan certainly came before. The Southwell suite was before my version. Not necessarily before Poland/1931.
Filreis: The Burning Babe is recent.
Perelman: I see.
Filreis: Thank you, Bob.
Tom Devaney has a question. Good morning, Tom.
Thomas Devaney: Good morning, Al and Jerry.
Filreis: Tom, you said that the poems last night washed over you. You were very moved.
Devaney: That’s true.
Filreis: Can you say more about that?
Devaney: That’s true. Well, about that, I guess a comment: Philip Whalen has a poem where he quotes Allen Ginsberg saying something about Thelonius Monk, and he says, “O yeah, he has the music going on all of the time. You can see it when he is walking around.” And I think that about your poetry. And that’s one of the things that’s just so pleasurable about it whatever the content: that music.
So, the question I have, which is unrelated to that comment —
Just whenever I am listening to you talk about poetry, you keep talking about your travels and the places you’ve been. But then, in your poems, they seem to be just populated with people more than places. So, it’s both. But when I hear you talk, you’re always travelling, and then in the poems there’s so many people. I don’t know if there’s something there. That’s a comment-observation-question.
Rothenberg: I can often misinterpret myself when I talk about myself, but it seems to me I came to writing out of travel fairly late along. In the same way that I came to, very deliberately, write the Jewish poem. Poland/1931 is about place. I don’t think it’s just about people. I think place comes into it. The Bialo forest, the names of towns. I think the town names come in much more in the second part of Triptych, in Khurbn.
I thought for a long time that I really couldn’t write out of travels. I enjoyed travelling. I enjoyed meeting people on the travels. All of that was fine.
Filreis: So doesn’t the Tsukiji fish market poem count as —
Rothenberg: No, no. That comes later.
I think — although talking on the spot I might be forgetting something — I think, for me, in 1997, we spent four months in Paris, and I was translating Picasso poems and there’s a whole series of poems that came out of being there. You know, a few years earlier, that Tsukiji market poem in Japan, and the poems coming out of other Japanese visits. Early, maybe even earlier, a visit to Greece touched off a series of poems called “An Oracle for Delphi” and the Khurbn poems were also out of travel. But it’s from the 90s on that travel, the places I’ve been, begin to come into the poetry.
Filreis: Several reviewers of your book A Paradise of Poets said — and they were positive reviews, generally — that there was something about the poems, many written in Paris or about Paris, and Japan, there was something about voluntary, temporary exile that created in you, seemed to create in you, a sense of elegy: a sense of being displaced, or lost. Certainly “Paris,” in the three Paris elegies, is a poem about all the gone people, all the ghosts, and the cemeteries. Even the Tsukiji market poem, which is about all the dead bodies of the fish and the earthquakes … is there a connection between travelling and being away from home, and that feeling that’s happened to you recently, that elegiac feeling?
Rothenberg: Only that, as I’ve said, the elegiac feeling probably goes back to —
Rothenberg: Yeah, probably goes back to birth, Al.
Filreis: I’m right about something.
Rothenberg: The first glimmerings of death.
Rothenberg: And it kicks in.
Filreis: Why not?
Rothenberg: Let’s say at the time, writing the Paris elegies … of course I’ve reached a certain age and friends have reached a certain age, and the dying begins to accelerate. So that’s coincident with our ability to travel more and more and more.
I don’t think that it’s the travelling that kicks that off.
Although I believe that younger people probably, if they are writing about things, bring a lot of death into their poetry.
Filreis: And you don’t have to be old to go to Paris if you’re in the modernist tradition and see that Apollinaire is memorialized there. In other words, it’s a series of markings of gone modernism. And of course Vienna Blood, which is a wonderful book, I take it to be partly about the way in which World War II, Nazism, didn’t just get rid of the Jews. It was anti-modernism, it sort of cleared the field of a certain modernist intellectual, and Vienna Blood misses that. You know, you’re really missing that there.
We have a question from someone by email. Erin?
Erin Gautsche: This is a question from Robert Sward.
Filreis: Robert Sward, the poet. Hello Robert.
Gautsche [reads]: Paul Blackburn was a dear and valued friend. I knew him in New York in the 1960s, and it was Paul who introduced me and other writers to Julio Cortazar, Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, and Provencal poetry. He was passionate about their work. To what extent did Paul Blackburn influence you and your work with ethnopoetics?
Rothenberg: It’s a good question. Paul certainly influenced me as a presence and a very close friend. Again, he was very encouraging, responsive to the ethnopoetics work. I don’t think that he influenced me in getting into the ethnopoetics, but there was a lot that we shared. He taught me a lot about the sound of my own voice listening to him. He was an extraordinary interpreter in readings of his own poetry. Again, he was writing very much in the American grain, probably more than me. But at the same time, Europe was part of his consciousness, particularly France, Spain, Toulouse. He was a translator. We’ve hardly spoken about translation, but we had a bond as translators. Along the same lines, he did the greatest translations of Troubadour poetry, far surpassing Pound as a translator from the Provencal.
So a magnificent poet. Really somewhat, because he died young, in danger of becoming a lost poet.
Filreis: Why do you think that is?
Rothenberg: Well, because Paul shied away from speaking much about the nature of the work that he and others were doing. He was not a commentator in the way that, say, Creeley, was. Creeley could talk a mean streak about poetry. Paul didn’t. That was not his style.
In my mind, Paul is very much the equal of Creeley as a poet. But Creeley lived on until eighty, or almost eighty.
Filreis: And he really was capable of being programmatic.
Rothenberg: They were born the same year. Paul, were he alive, would be eighty-two years old now. Diane shakes her head — a little hard, a little hard to believe. So in my memory, he’s a young man; he dies in his forties.
Filreis: Well, that’s another reason why we’re not reading him.
Rothenberg: He died, and the death of a poet can have effects. Paul was a presence because he was a presence. He was there. He brought his poetry from place to place. So, there is the possibility that in the series that we are doing, Pierre Joris and I, are doing for the University of California Press, Poets for the Millennium, that one of the next volumes that we’ll bring out in that — it’s little books of individual poets — will be a Paul Blackburn volume.
Filreis: Oh, really?
Rothenberg: Yeah. That’s in the works. We’re negotiating towards that.
Filreis: Thank you for the question, Robert. Lee Ann Brown has a question? You look like you have a question.
Lee Ann Brown: I just basically wanted to hear more about the confluence of the surrealist and the dada with the more ethnomusicological poetry you brought to the forefront, because to me that is one of the best things —
Filreis: You mean the convergence of those two modes?
Brown: Saying how avant-garde that is, you said looking at it in the right way, that ethnomusicological work … and what is that right way to look at it? And just talk more about those radicalities of those two different kinds of strands.
Rothenberg: Well, the dadas and surrealists, like other poets and artists early in the twentieth century, were very much in the process of discovering the human roots of poetry and art. So the first considerations of so-called primitive art as something more than primitive come from those early modernist movements.
Filreis: Certainly on the painting side, but not quite as much on the poetry side?
Rothenberg: On the painting side, or on the sculptural side, because Picasso could lift up the small statue or the mask or whatever it was when he makes the statement about this being as beautiful as, or more beautiful than, the Venus de Milo. The poetry presented the usual language barrier. But that was coming out also: among others Tristan Tzara compiled an anthology — I think never published it in his lifetime, now it’s ready for publication [translated by Pierre Joris] — around 1920 —
Rothenberg: Of poems from Africa and Oceania. Blaise Cendrars did an African anthology. Benjamin Peret, a surrealist poet, a pre-Columbian one. Michel Leiris was both a poet-writer and an anthropologist. So there are a lot of predecessors there. It’s part of what I was saying about — which I became very aware of travelling just now in France with the French translation of Technicians of the Sacred — how much of the impetus for that kind of thing comes, in fact, from France, with the work carrying on, if you want to talk in those terms, in a French tradition.
Somebody, I think it was Donald Allen, very early in my time as a poet — you know, I had not appeared in the first edition of New American Poetry — but I met Donald Allen around that time, and of course he was pushing an American agenda with the New American poetry, and he said, “You, of course, are an international poet.”
Rothenberg: So I said, of course: What the —? An international poet? What does he mean by that?
But over the years, I’ve thought that’s very insightful. Yes, I am an international poet. And proud of it.
Filreis: For those who have not explored the connection that Lee Ann’s question asks about, between the primitive poetics and archaic materials, and dada, for instance, this book, Prefaces, which collects many of Jerry’s prefaces and other critical pieces, prose pieces, hits this point five or six times brilliantly. And so, if you want to explore that point, this is the book to use.
Filreis: Do we have another question? I know that we have one coming from email.
Gautsche: This is from Doctor Gorsky [reads]. What is the current nature of American avant poetics? Can you suggest some poets and/or mediums that represent significant newness?
Filreis: That’s a big question.
Rothenberg: That is a big question.
Filreis: Do you want to take a small slice at it? And don’t mention any poets in the room.
Filreis: Sorry, Bob.
Rothenberg: Sorry, Bob.
Filreis: You can mention any poet you want.
Rothenberg: Let me say I want to avoid specifics on this caught on the spot. But let me make a comment about my relationship to such a question. One of the factors of having too many years in the world of poetry is that you begin to lose track. I find that after your generation, Bob, which is not that much different from mine, but different enough —
Filreis: There you go, Bob.
Rothenberg: It becomes more and more difficult for me to —
Perelman: They all write alike.
Rothenberg: They all write alike because they all don’t write alike. It becomes difficult, particularly when a question is asked to single out a few people. If you single out a few people, that becomes a difficult thing.
Filreis: Bob wants to say something.
Perelman: At first, I should say for the record that that was a joke, what I said before.
Filreis: Which one, that they are all writing alike? P E R E L M A N. He said it here: you guys all write alike.
Perelman: No, but a serious question, and this maybe goes back to the Jewish stuff: a polemical moment in your career that really stands out is your essay against Bloom, where you pull no punches. The question there is his absolutist sense of poetic hierarchy: that there are good poets, and then there’s the rest, and we can discard them.
Filreis: And also the agonistic relationship among poets.
Perelman: Right, right.
So, in some sense, I can imagine that the avant-garde, for you — with your sense of international poetry, world poetry, tribal poetry — that poetry is a universal human attribute that is useful at all points and all times. That in a way, the whole notion of the avant-garde, of the chosen ones who are ahead of all the benighted —
Perelman: Lessers who are stuck in the old ways — that would be actually a rather antithetical concept to your larger poetic project. But on the other hand, of course, I think both of our poetic upbringings are through, loosely termed, an avant-garde scene. So, it’s a funny kind of tension, is it not?
Rothenberg: No, it is. It is a funny kind of tension because part of the avant-garde project, as I understand it, was the democratization of art. But there’s a tension because you’re setting yourself apart as the chosen, visionary company. Avant-gardes are always self-proclaimed. You have to proclaim yourself an avant-garde. And yet, on the masthead of The Surrealist Revolution, the surrealist magazine, there’s a quote from Lautréamont: “Poetry is made by all, not by one.” Poetry is made by all, not by one.
You know, usually one doesn’t think of an avant-garde of one. Avant-garde seems to presuppose a collective enterprise.
Filreis: Stein. He’s holding up Stein’s book there.
More on that later.
Rothenberg: He’s holding up Gertrude Stein’s book Portraits and Prayers. But even Stein is working with Picasso and others. Holding up the book Portraits and Prayers, most of them are portraits of other poets and artists: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne. She’s obviously seeing herself as part of that company. But there is a possible conflict between the self-proclaimed group of avant-gardists and the desire towards the democratization.
Filreis: We have to start to close. Thanks, thanks for the question by email, and also Bob for really interestingly refining the question.
Alright, let’s go ahead and take that question.
I have two more questions, but we’ll take this if it’s someone in the visionary company, and if not, we won’t.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Yes, go ahead and bring it on.
Filreis: Hi. Who are you?
Murat Nemat-Nejat: I am Murat Nemet-Nejat.
Filreis: Ah, Murat!
Rothenberg: Oh, hi Murat.
Filreis: Are you in New York?
Nemet-Nejat: I am in New York.
Filreis: You should be in Philly.
Rothenberg: That sounds like W. C. Fields.
Filreis: Anyway, welcome. Do you have a question for Jerry?
Filreis: Great. Go ahead.
Nemet-Nejat: Hello, Jerry. This is Murat Nemet-Nejat. I have a question related to what Lee Ann was asking really. I wanted to ask, in your view, is there a tension between the religious spirit and the secular spirit in this whole poetic experiment, both in the avant-garde and the ethnopoetics? For example, you know, the religious, the traditional poetry has a very strong oracular element. And also, when you talk about your own experiences at Treblinka, you talk about the word “hearing” — hearing a poem, hearing the poems. But in your reaction to the first question, you said it wasn’t really hearing; it was not something like this.
And my question is, is it possible really to have, to write this kind of poetry that you are interested in from a purely nonreligious —
Nemet-Nejat: Secular voice?
Filreis: Thank you, it’s a great question. I’ve been wanting to ask that.
Rothenberg: I think it’s a great question because, for me, it’s the central question of much of what I’ve done. That is, how can one keep a poetic tradition alive in a secular world? And I certainly don’t want to go into a religious world. I’m a secularist. I want to have nothing in a personal way to do with establishments of religion, but I recognize the sources of poetry resting on a religious basis. That’s where they come from. That’s the varieties of religious experience so closely connected even with forms of poetry that don’t have visionary things coming into your head but writing processes. So, I have no answer to that. I’m saying: that’s the question. For me, that’s a very, very central question. And I think books like Technicians of the Sacred and much of what we do are really playing with that question.
Filreis: But because you raise the question, you often will say in an introduction or even in a preface to a poem you are about to read — for instance, “A Paradise of Poets,” the poem — you say I am not thinking of this in any religious sense at all. You have to keep saying that for us to understand what you mean because your work does lead us to a consideration of the sacred in a religious sense.
Rothenberg: Yeah, I think all I was saying, by the way, in response to that question about the poems I first began to hear —
Filreis: At Treblinka.
Rothenberg: At Treblinka. That I don’t want to suggest that I’ve gone into a trance at Treblinka and poems are being dictated to me as perhaps to —
Filreis: Jack Spicer.
Rothenberg: Jack Spicer or to Maria Tsvetaeva. That’s not it, but that puts me into a certain condition of poetry different from other more programmatic ways of writing poetry: a little bit of that Jewish Oulipo.
Filreis: Murat, thank you for asking the question. Thank you for calling.
The sun, just this moment, came out here in Philly, so I hope it does the same in New York. Thank you.
Nemet-Nejat: Thank you very much.
I have two more questions, Jerry. My favorite piece of prose — just a hilarious thing you said that the students and I talked to you about yesterday — you were asked by someone, well, how do we do poetry in the classroom, and you said it’s like the way they taught us sex in the old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk. And if I had taken college English seriously, I would have become an accountant.
Now that’s an extreme statement and we are at a university, and the university is paying my salary and your honorarium. But other than that —
Rothenberg: Yeah, that’s my David Antin phase.
Filreis: So you’ve pulled a little away from that.
Rothenberg: I usually hold back from that.
Filreis: But to the extent that it’s true: so the English major in an English class, instead of moving towards poetry, is more likely to become an accountant. If that’s true, why is that?
Rothenberg: Well, I would have become an accountant.
Filreis: That’s what you’re saying. Oh, you really are good. You are so good.
And what about sex?
Rothenberg: What about sex?
Filreis: You would have become a monk. I mean the analogy is quite daring.
The way they teach sex makes you not want to do sex. The way they teach poetry makes you not want to do poetry.
Rothenberg: Well, it strips the passion. That’s a Paul Blackburn expression, by the way. If Robert Sward is still listening, that’s a —
Filreis: Thank you, Robert.
Rothenberg: “Stripped all passion from the sound of speech.”
Filreis: So, let’s not let the university strip passion from the sound of speech.
Rothenberg: That poetry is a passionate undertaking. It inevitably gets taught in classrooms, and there are ways to ameliorate that. I’m sure you’ve experimented —
Filreis: We’re trying. Having you helps.
Rothenberg: With classroom situations.
Filreis: Which brings me to my last question. You went to Celanversity. You visited Paul Celan in 1967. That was your first meeting with him. And in some ways, since the poem about Celan appears in a series called “The Notebooks,” in some ways it was … the poem is a kind of recording of that first encounter with him. I was very moved by the poem. I adore Celan’s, admire Celan’s poetry very, very much. And the poem records a kind of mistranslation. You are not speaking a common language, literally. You are having some trouble communicating.
Rothenberg: I can give a prose explanation.
Filreis: Would you? And would you also then read the poem?
Filreis: Thank you, as a way of concluding.
Rothenberg: I was put in the, I think, fortunate position of being perhaps the first person to translate, and publish in a book, translations of Paul Celan. And that was in that first book for City Lights: New Young German Poets. And an invitation that came to me from Ferlinghetti: did I know something — I didn’t — about new, young German poetry? And I didn’t.
Filreis: And you didn’t?
Rothenberg: But would I be interested in assembling a City Lights Pocket Poets Series version, and I was interested. Celan was one of the poets that I came to. So it was early translation of, maybe first translations of Celan, of Günter Grass, Enzesberger, of Helmut Heissenbüttel, of Ingeborg Bachmann, and so forth. It was a good, good thing to happen. And there was a little bit of correspondence with Celan in the process.
And then in 1967, we were travelling to England, to London and to Paris. Celan, of course, was living in Paris and teaching at the Ecole Normale. I guess I dropped him a note. There was some possibility, what was it, Unicorn Books here in the States had approached me about doing more translations from Celan, although I was a little frightened off at that point because his poetry was getting so difficult, so really Celan-ish. But I wanted to meet him.
He did not have the great reputation that he has now, so I didn’t have the sense that I was meeting an icon, that kind of figure. But he said sure, come over to the Ecole Normale. I did. We met in his office. Then we went around the corner to a cafe and spent maybe three hours together talking. What came out of the conversation was a little awkward because my spoken German is not so good, and his spoken English is not so good.
Filreis: And did you have Yiddish in common?
Rothenberg: Ah, but that was the question. Yeah, you know, we had this conversation and among other things, Jewishness came through.
Filreis: Full circle conversation we’re having.
Rothenberg: There were various people who had become interested in translating him. Were they Jewish enough? Or did they know enough Jewish things? A lot of suspicion of other German poets over the Jewish question. So that kept coming into it.
But it was a nice conversation. And at the end of it, as we were leaving the cafe, I asked him if he spoke Yiddish. And he said yes. Although, I’m sure he said it was not really a language he had until sometime during the war and the camps. So I said I thought it was rather curious that he had Yiddish, and I had Yiddish, but we were stumbling around in German and English.
Filreis: And then you had Yiddish. This is what moves me about the poem so much because mama loshen [mother tongue] is the thing that’s left. Both of you were sort of grappling with what’s left. It’s the Adorno question again. And both of you, in my opinion, the best of all, the two of you, you through Khurbn in particular, had been dealing straight on with this question of what is left in language after such disasters. That’s why I chose the poem to end with, and I hope you will read it.
Filreis: And this is an elegy. This is in his memory. Correct?
Rothenberg: Yes, this is.
Filreis: This is from The Notebooks.
Rothenberg: This is a letter to Paul Celan, in memory. Does the term mama loshen —
Filreis: Yes, mama loshen is in there.
Rothenberg: Yes, loshen is the Hebrew and Yiddish word for language. Mama loshen is the mother tongue.
Filreis: And mother is a big deal for Celan because he lost his mother.
Rothenberg: Hebrew, in that tradition, would be … they don’t call it the father language. They call it the holy language. Loshen Kadush: holy language.
A letter to Paul Celan, in memory, December ’75.
So after he is dead.
[Reads “A Letter to Paul Celan, in Memory, December 1975.”]
Filreis: Jerome Rothenberg.
Thank you, Jerome Rothenberg.
Thank you Jerry and Diane. Thank you Mark Lindsay, Jamie Lee Josselyn, and Ellie Kane. Thank you all for coming. Thank you for coming very, very much.