Robin Blaser in conversation with Leonard Schwartz

Robin Blaser (left) and Leonard Schwartz (right).

Note: This interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone from a radio interview originally conducted on November 24, 2003, on Cross-Cultural Poetics, KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia, Washington. In this episode of Cross-Cultural Poetics (Episode #8: The Inferno), Canadian poet Robin Blaser discusses Dante’s Inferno in relation to the American-made “inferno” in Iraq. The original audio recording of the interview can be found here. — Michael Nardone

Leonard Schwartz:
Welcome to Cross-Cultural Poetics. Today’s guest, on the phone from Vancouver, British Columbia, is Robin Blaser. Robin Blaser was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1925. A key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the ’50s and early ’60s, he moved to Canada in ’66, where he joined the faculty at Simon Fraser University and is now a professor emeritus. In June 1995, for Blaser’s seventieth birthday, a conference was held in Vancouver to pay tribute to his contribution to poetry in Canada. The conference was named “Recovery of the Public World,” a phrase borrowed from Hannah Arendt, and was attended by poets from around the world. The 1993 publication of The Holy Forest, available from Talonbooks, stands as his master work. This year, Blaser’s essay on poetics in the age of Bush, “The Irreparable,” was published by Nomados Press in Vancouver.

Welcome, Robin.

Robin Blaser: Thank you.

Schwartz: Well, where shall we start? You have written so many great poems over the years, and your poetry remains so violent, so relevant. You have a poem, an early poem, entitled “Image Nation 13,” which is subtitled “Telephone,” and I thought that might be appropriate given the fact that we’re stuck on one here.

Blaser: Okay. I can go for that. “Image Nation 13: Telephone.”

[Reads “Image Nation 13: Telephone.”]

Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Robin Blaser read “Image Nation 13,” an early poem.Could you say a little bit about the poem, or, really, about the whole “Image Nation” series?

Blaser: Well, the whole “Image Nation” series runs and continues to run and, I suppose, will in my long life, as I quote from Gertrude Stein. [Laughs.]“My long life,” that’s Susan B. Anthony actually in her play, but it’s a wonderful line. The image nations work that way in that they come because they center upon image and move through. They are like threads of image that fold and fold and refold and refold. I like writing them when I can because they lead me to the unexpected, and I’m very much involved in the poetics of, well, we were there and we were here, now we’re where, because it’s particularly under our present political situation, the where is a big one, and it puts the lyric voice under incredible stress. The beauty of the lyric voice, the stress it has to get to be as good as Dante in order to hold on to what that lyric voice must say. Well, the image nations are my effort for the lyric voice to hold on to the biggest world I could get my mitts on, okay.

Schwartz: I understand “image nation” as a phrase, or as a neologism, suggests a deep connection between the poetic and the political for you. Is that correct?

Blaser: Very much so. The lyrical could no longer be simply personal.

Schwartz: This also connects up to, I think, your writing on your friend, the great American poet Jack Spicer, who certainly suggested the idea of a serial poem, right, a poem that, well, strings itself out — not strings itself out, that’s so pejorative — but, rather, continuously suggests its next possibility over an extended period of time.

Blaser: Yeah.

Schwartz: Would that be accurate to describe “Image Nation” as part of an extended serial poem?

Blaser: Very much so, yes. The serial is a very interesting complex for a form, too, so that form is always alive, rather than form being a shape, the box that you stuck the thing in. It loves constant movement and life of form because if form is anything at all, it’s the life of the language.

Schwartz: “Image Nation” then leads us to your new book, or your new essay, “The Irreparable.”

Blaser: Oh, yes.

Schwartz: There’s a passage from that I’d like to read back to you, if I might, and then ask you to comment on it. You say: “Now, let us consider this current, world-wide war with its stunned vocabulary of sorrow (September 11) mixed with appetites for vengeance, oil, and money, and try to find the soldier who’s been sent there. First off, we run into a manipulation of language that is meant to shape a herd, an amalgamated voice, answered from the other side by a violent refusal to be subordinated. Whiffs of god on both sides of this ‘manifest destiny’ to found the good. The shepherds are many in this intermeddling tradition — Hebrew, Christian, Muslim — a clangour of splendours. The herds are obedient, especially since the media have been instructed not to show the mutual brutality and barbarism.” Could you comment on that?

Blaser: Yes. I think one thing I would like to pick up immediately is the following line: “Then the appropriation of this war and its leaders to God, verified predominantly in English, needs to be reminded that the words god and good are not etymologically related. So, what of the one who stands and sleeps alongside things, even you and me? Inside all of this? This war with its eyes out.” And further on in the paragraph: “Words become tears.”

I think the passage is taking homage, and it was written before the present circumstance of this outrageous war in Iraq, illegal and brutal and covered with a manipulated language that means we have a responsibility, a responsibility to know what’s going on, not to be fooled by the language, not to be passive in front of the word president. The president is only a presider, and he is supposed to preside over responsibility. What we need to do is watch carefully the prostitution of the intellect to messianic ideological ends. Very urgent, according to the recent essay I read by Mark Lilla. So, does that answer what I’m doing with that?

Schwartz: It begins to, that’s certain. It’s such a hard-hitting and important essay, “The Irreparable.” We see so little in terms of, well, a language that moves beyond the level of the bullhorn and the slogan in terms of countering the Bush Administration’s rhetorical strategies. My own view is that anything that is a bullhorn and a slogan mimetically reproduces what we’re up against, and that’s not what we want. So, what excites me about “The Irreparable” is the challenge you take on of investigating the under-thought in language, even what you just said about the etymology of the word “president.”

Blaser: I’m very concerned in “The Irreparable” because I think we’re inside a condition of the irreparable, and later on in the essay from which you just quoted, I put, “Therein, a record of the wreckage of the Transcendental — Absolutism — God — Ideology — dangerous drivers of these Powers along the aporia of Heaven.” — Aporia, for your readers, means an abyss, an abyss of heaven. — “Can it be that we are all forced to walk the aporia of spreading miasmata?” Miasmas are spreading all around us in the current absolute horror of the Iraq invasion and the total destruction between Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon of the Middle East, which then spreads all the way back into Afghanistan and so on and so on. We just watch it, and the words for it are not being given with honesty and directness, and all the media has been controlled in some way or another. To watch CNN on these subjects, you don’t even see the mutual brutality of the entire condition of things. There is no love here at all. No love of life, which is of course our fundamental responsibility. To ourselves, and to others. 

Schwartz: I wanted to ask you a couple of things there as well. You’ve always been concerned about the ways in which language is a nexus for both poetry and power. We’ve discussed “Image Nation,” we’ve discussed “The Irreparable.” What are you working on now?

Blaser: What am I working on now?

Schwartz: Yes.

Blaser: New poems. I have quite a few now that are gathering, so there will be another book of poems soon. I don’t write every day or enormously. I am not a professional poet. I am a poet when I am stricken by language in some way or another, or a condition of mind and heart that means I have to speak out. So I don’t have that business of, you know, one a day or one a month or whatever. So sometimes it can be a slow business, and I have been very much taken with right now the problem of the where. I mean, as I said earlier, we’ve been there, we’ve been here and now we’re where, and we don’t know where we are. And then I begin drawing to, in my poetics, a move to include my companionships, and right now I’m very busy with the great Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, because these people become companions of the destruction of experience in which we are caught when our language is as dishonest as it presently is across North America.

Schwartz: But I gather then that it’s possible to continue, or even there’s a greater imperative to continue, when language itself is in such peril.

Blaser: The public language in peril, yes. Well, I mean, you just don’t have the right to sit and sob. And it doesn’t work to attack the people, but you can attack the use of language. You can insist upon an honesty of discourse. You can insist that things be taken up that are the real needs and necessities instead of these dreams of whatever it is they have over there — Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, and those who join them. I was very pleased when Canada did not join in the Iraq invasion, for example.

Schwartz: Can I ask you a question about that? I’ve always meant to ask you this: how is it that you were born in Colorado and are now a Canadian citizen? 

Blaser: I have co-citizenship. I have dual citizenship in the United States and in Canada, by birth in Denver and my many years there, and then in Canada, I was asked here by the new university, then, Simon Fraser University here, and I came for a year. They asked me to stay two, and then they asked me to stay on, and they were generous and they gave me a great deal of freedom in what I could do and what I could teach, marvellous courses, and so I spent twenty years at the university. Now I’ve been up here over thirty years, and it does not seem to me that it’s quite right to live in a country and not participate in its political and social life, so I took out my Canadian citizenship alongside the dualism of the dual American citizenship. I have both.

Schwartz: That’s interesting.

Blaser: And I honor both, too. But I was very, very struck by a remark that I read recently by Mark Lilla, which I quote right now because I had written it down in case it was useful: “You may love America, yes, but you must hate cruelty, despise liars and value liberty.” And I add to that: This is justice and simple decency, which I call responsibility.

Schwartz: I have the sense of responsibility in language, which, in terms of reading or in terms of a philosophical source, from Emmanuel Levinas who suggests that language always implies an other, and therefore that as soon as one speaks, one implies another and therefore there is a responsibility, therefore there is an ethics to the very existence or being of language. Does that in any way correspond to your sense of what it is?

Blaser: Absolutely. I’ve read that Levinas. I’m very much on the Levinas and read him carefully because, yes, it speaks exactly and directly to me. What is sacred life? Now our condition is such that we have to ask such questions and we have to think of it, and then inside all that is that wonderful little word love, and that was very directly implied by what Levinas was saying. And that love is something that is in the very nature of language and the very nature of our relationship to it, and that the public space does not account for this is irreparable at the moment.

Schwartz: We met once, we met — we’ve only met once — years ago, not that long ago, it just seems so long ago because it was a much happier time in a number of ways, at a poetry festival in Coimbra, Portugal.

Blaser: Oh yes, I recall that meeting. I enjoyed very much being in Coimbra.

Schwartz: It was at a reading in Roman catacombs that had been recently uncovered underneath the city, and you read a poem then, which remains one of my highlights in poetry to have been present for, which seems to me even more true or even more important now. I wonder if you could read it for us?

Blaser: You mean “As If By Chance”?

Schwartz: “As If By Chance.” [Laughs.

Blaser: Well, alright. Let’s do it. “As If By Chance.”

[Reads “As If By Chance.”

Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Robin Blaser read his extraordinary poem “As If By Chance.”Sounded just as great the second time as the first, even without the catacombs.[Blaser laughs.]So, thank you for that. Privation and privies, as well. The private world and the world of privies. Could you say a little bit about how that poem comes about?

Blaser: Well, thanks for pointing out that, privy and privacy, because privacy can be something that can become a privy. The poem came about, as the title indicates, as if by chance. And trying to think through all those things that can be claimed, taken over, and so on, so what I did was, in that style, try to redefine in each time against the grain of anything that will make them simpler, less subtle, less profound to our nature; [I tried] to put them back where they belong. And that’s the way I started working at the poem.

Schwartz: Extraordinary. Who were you reading at the time?

Blaser: Well, I was reading Castoriadis. He’s a philosopher, French philosopher, now dead. And a very, very good one, and I quote him there at the very end and last sentences of the poem. That was the main source of reading there. The rest of it is just me meandering through the world that I like to live in, a world of talking and reading and listening, the very way in which we become honest people rather than dishonest people, poetically or otherwise.

Schwartz: I thought I heard Dante walking with you as you were reading that.

Blaser: Ah, you hit my, that comes so early in my life, I can’t even. It was Depression time, of course, when I was born, and there wasn’t much left but a few books, and one of them was the volume of Doré’s Dante, with those extraordinary illustrations of the text, especially the Inferno, which haunted me, and that face, that magnificent face, Doré’s imagination of what Dante looked like is in those books, if you have them. They’re wonderful. The books seemed to be about half my size, and I’m not reading yet. It’s before I’m four. I begin to read at four, but before that I was looking at these pictures. Dante has never left me since that time. And so, I’ve done everything I could to read him in the original, to think of him, to outline it and to be fascinated by the way in which the lyric voice there is constantly at stake in relation to every other kind of discourse. And Dante is the first poet in the Western tradition who could write and include the range of discourse so that the lyric voice was not always simply the impression of the I, but the I among things in the world, in meaning. Well, I worship Dante. I mean, he’s with me all the time. Yes! [Laughs.] He didn’t leave me from my childhood, from haunting me in picture books. 

Schwartz: He certainly led you to some very intriguing and arresting worlds. Dante is sometimes a passive observer, I think, in the Inferno. Sometimes there’s nothing you can be but a passive observer, but he’s more than that as well, as are your poems, which seem to be so actively involved, and not so much manipulating their object as speaking to the object and changing it through a kind of process of language. Does that sound accurate to you?

Blaser: Yes. I would like that. Put that in print, will you?[Laughs.]

Schwartz: I just might, I just might have to or be compelled to. When you write, do you feel yourself to be the source? Do you feel the source coming from the outside? We spoke of the poem, or you spoke of the poem, as a lyric. At the same time, you are often associated with, with your essay on Jack Spicer, the poetry of the outside, and of course with Spicer. The poem comes from Mars, as he puts it. It comes from some place other than himself. Where do you situate your own work in that discussion?

Blaser: I share that with Spicer, with a different vocabulary, that I absolutely do not think that it is just mine. The first experience of that is the experience of language as being a grand otherness, and then of course the magic of finding your way in language, and it takes a lifetime to do that, really. You’re never, you’re never, at least I’m never, sure of myself in language. It’s always a kind of otherness that I am able to enter, if I’m careful. I suppose I’m always very aware of language as one of the stunning pleasures of civilization. Well, I started out with those phrases — “there,” “here,” “where” — and those are the words of lives and languages, whole languages, and one should gain as many languages as one can, because they speak back and forth to one another. And the great pleasure of going through a dictionary and finding all at once what the word comes from, it’s one of my constant pleasures. The conversation with language that makes me think what I’m always doing is that I’m in conversation in some way with this vast range of life that is language itself.

Schwartz: Robin, that’s so inspiring, frankly. I’ve always found it inspiring to both read you and speak with you. We’ll have to have you come back and converse more very, very soon. Thanks so much for being here.

Blaser: I’m delighted. Thank you.

Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Cross-Cultural Poetics.