The split impulse
Michael Gottlieb on essaying the memoir
Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay was published in 2010 by Faux/Other press. It includes a memoir, “The Empire City,” which explores the early days of Language poetry, Gottlieb’s development as a writer, and New York City in the 1970s. An accompanying essay, “Jobs of the Poets” (first published in Jacket in 2008) is structured as a series of questions and responses exploring the nature of poets’ day jobs and how these jobs relate to their poetic work. I sat down with Gottlieb in his Chelsea studio apartment in June 2010 to discuss the book. — Drew Gardner
Drew Gardner: You talk about the essay section of Memoir and Essay as though it were a letter to a younger poet, but I sense that it may be addressed to a slightly broader contingent. It’s bringing up uncomfortable questions, questions that poets might have set scripts for, and it seems you want to question how we think about who we are as writers and what our relationship to society is.
Michael Gottlieb: Maybe it’s an oversimplification to try to neatly box it up for a target audience, but why do we keep writing? Are we writing because it makes us feel good or are we writing for some other reason? Does, can, should [this] weigh even heavier on people as they’ve been doing the same thing year after year? Why am I still doing this? When it comes to assumptions, and … stock answers?
Gardner: Let’s say, defensive ways of thinking about your relationship to society?
Gottlieb: Yeah, what kind of job you have. I think that the figure — this stock figure, say the poet — is thinking about issues of roles and responsibilities, this individual in the broader context of the society or the community. The poet is almost a proxy for any citizen, any individual. Why are we doing what we do, no matter what it is that we do; what do I do with my life no matter what I do with it, no matter what it is that —
Gardner: Right, an equally interesting set of questions regarding what you were going to do to become an IT professional for instance, or a plumber, or a middle manager, which is what you do with your time.
Gottlieb: In response to your question, I’m going to go cut some bread.
Gardner: I’ve seen some responses that have suggested that the essay is considered unflinching or — some people have said — depressing? Maybe asking some uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, the memoir is more about the excitement of young writers and about enthusiasm, so is there something I was wondering about in the bifurcation in these two approaches …
Gottlieb [cutting bread]: No one has said that to me. No one has said that to my face. I hope that it’s honest; I think it ends up on a note that is encouraging.
Gardner: I also mean unflinching in a refreshing way. Like, “Oh, people aren’t normally that unflinching, that’s refreshing.”
Gottlieb: Well I hope so and I hope that — and I can’t see — unless someone reads it — and I don’t know if anyone does — and says holy shit that’s me and I’ve been fooling myself or lying to myself for the last thirty years and I didn’t realize it until I read this essay. I don’t know if anyone is going to have that reaction. I don’t see why anyone should be depressed by it.
Gardner: Well, I noticed one poet who did have that reaction, and that was the other side of it. One person feels that it is exciting to hear this unflinching account, and another poet says, why is this guy talking about stuff that makes me depressed?
Gottlieb: Well, why is he depressed? Let’s find that out.
Gardner: Yes. I guess the question is confronting negativity? I noticed that when you read you read with a sad affect, even when it’s funny.
Gottlieb: Well, you should have been around for the first twenty years [laughs]. Before I had a reason, back when I was funny for the first time. When I read at BPC [Bowery Poetry Club], read all those funny poems, that wasn’t sad; that was funny. When I read the memoir.
Gardner: The affect was sad in the reading. But it was also funny.
Gottlieb: I’m sorry — what’s the question here?
Gardner: I’m pointing to the sad performance affect and also to the fact that the memoir is also enthusiastic and excited — I’m interested in the dichotomy.
Gottlieb: My wish/belief is that the essay leaves people — can, should, hopefully does leave people — with the sense that this is an important, this is a useful, this is a vital way to live your life and thing to do with your life. Once you strip away all the illusion and narcissism, if that can happen, and if I’m seeing that right and who knows if I am. And I hope that people are not depressed when they finish reading it. I hope they say, you know, what, this is the way I want to — not, I want to live my life like him or he’s asking the right questions but, this is something that I want to do and now I know — and — anyway … now I’m verging into the prescriptive, which makes me depressed …
Gardner: When did you decide to write a memoir and why?
Gottlieb: It was a good number of years ago. After I wrote New York, 1993? New York, as Douglas [Rothschild] graciously alluded to in his remarkably restrained introduction at the book party at the Zinc bar the other day, has not only pieces of New York City in it, it has in it a wide variety of different kinds of diction and expression.
Gardner: Right, it’s part memoir.
Gottlieb: There are pieces of memoir in it, there are chunks of dialogue, monologue, list, lyric. I was exploring pulling in amalgams of different kinds of expression, including several long sections of conventionally constructed prose memoir, pieces of it. That was a direction I’d been going in, of pulling heterogeneity into the poems, and New York. The River Road comes after it, and is the fullest expression of that approach; New York has two poems, and The River Road has a third, and the three of them also run together, and included in them are pieces and hunks of memoir. After the second of those two books came out, I can look back and see now how my thinking evolved, or what I was interested in doing evolved, and the memoir impulse that was embedded in those two books split out and became an interest unto itself. And in the next poems, where my interest went in terms of poetry, went away from that heterogeneous amalgam, bricolage, compositional approach into something else that we see in the next books which is more — I don’t know what it was — lyric.
Gardner: So you were already doing bricolaged memoir in the previous work. Nonetheless, you still had to make the decision to do a traditional memoir.
Gottlieb: At some point there I decided — was it an efflorescence of narcissism in some other way that incited it? — my life is interesting enough. I could, and I’m going to, write a memoir about it.
Gardner: I would guess there was a stigma against this among some of your peers, especially when you started, that you had to overcome? Seems not to be the case any more, but your book was started well before the publication of The Grand Piano or anything like that, right?
Gottlieb: The first memoir I wrote is not this one, and it’s not about this period or these writers or this writing; it’s about my childhood and adolescence.
Gardner: Why is that not part of this book?
Gottlieb: The publishers didn’t want to include it. It wouldn’t have an appeal to the target audience.
Gardner: I see.
Gottlieb: That’s okay. But let me finish responding to your original question: by the time I wrote the second memoir, I had already had a structure and a format.
Gardner: Had anyone read it?
Gottlieb: Yes, lots of people had read it. And I had an agent and I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. I was not unused to people not getting or liking what I was doing. Before I wrote the first memoir I had written parts of a couple of novels that people really didn’t like.
Gardner: And how would you characterize that response of really not liking it?
Gottlieb: I read parts of one, I remember, at the Ear Inn. And it was a comic novel and people laughed; a lot of people laughed, I thought, hard. A couple people came up to me and said, that was really funny but what the fuck are you doing?
Gardner: People meaning poets about your age?
Gottlieb: Yeah. But that was then. And fiction is one thing. And now only one person has raised a comment that the relatively conventional structure in this is not in keeping with the nature of our projects as poets.
Gardner: Okay. So, what do you think about that idea?
Gottlieb: I don’t have a lot of sympathy for it. Because I don’t remember and I’d never seen either then, twenty, thirty years ago, or more recently, a distinction being drawn when it comes to critical writing about this work. There is no requirement, no demand, and I don’t think even any gentle impulse to impel people to write critically about this kind of writing, or Flarf or conceptualism necessarily, in a way when it comes to critical writing that is in keeping or constant with the writing itself. And I don’t think there should be or needs to be. Also, there is critical writing that is not standard critical writing that plays an important role in our —
Gardner: — this is more about the way in which the permission comes for the style of writing.
Gottlieb: Right. So I’m not sure that it’s necessary to give memoir — even with critical writing — to give it that permission. However, I would say it’s not poetry. Whatever it is, it’s not poetry. And I’m comfortable saying that when it comes to poetry, to agree to — what, draw certain kinds of distinctions and say this kind of writing I’m not interested in, and this kind I am. I think it was part and parcel of, it was in and among, these poems that had street and advertising names and language that cops would utter on the street, stories about old New York and the buildings, and it fit in and it was just yet another element in something larger.
Gardner: Right. But you’re saying there was not some large psychological barrier that needed to be cut through in the group psychology of your peers in order to start this project. It seemed natural to you.
Gottlieb: Yeah. Yeah, it was very natural [laughs].
Gardner: The wink is telling me that you’re not giving me the whole story.
Gardner: So, one of the things I’m interested in is that writers mostly work in groups, so even if they’re people who are relative hermits they’re still writing letters to each other, writing emails to each other — writers work in groups, it’s a matter of degree. But sometimes you have to push against that. How does one do that, when is it appropriate to do that, how does that process work, since as primates we live in groups, we survive in groups, we’ve evolved in groups. This is why I’m interested in the question of the barrier you may have to push through to get over what is essentially an anthropological taboo against a behavior to do what you want to do. Even though you may have been, you may think of yourself as being, empowered by the rules of that group, in another way you also have to diverge.
Gottlieb: That’s a great question. But I have to say I never thought of it in those contexts, in the context that I was violating the code of behavior. And maybe because getting to it was an organic process that I started to describe, maybe because I felt marginalized already enough that I was unaware of the kind of strictures that otherwise I might.
Gardner: So since you didn’t feel yourself to be at the center of the group, it might be a different process. An advantage to feeling marginalized?
Gottlieb: Well, maybe coming at it from another angle I felt, I feel that it’s appropriate in the same way that as I described in the memoir Alan [Davies] and I were the only people who really used to listen to rock and roll, and go out, and go to clubs. In the same way that I say that’s the case when it comes to music for us back then. I was just using that as a launching pad into another rhetorical figure. I think, I’m not sure, but it very well may be, that I read more fiction than most of my friends, and read lots, and still read lots, and I know certain friends, certain peers, in the same way that they can’t hear or stand the radio playing rock and roll because it hurts their ears, can’t read fiction — they just can’t stand it. I am wondering if my comfort with that, or the fact of how much I read back then and over the years, contributed to my ability to write a prose work. So maybe if — and this is a big if — this turns out to be a narrative about that time and these people that has some value, it’s because I could write it. Am I saying that in a way that makes sense?
Gardner: I think of Ted Greenwald being into crime genre fiction. I know Greenwald reads a lot of crime fiction, and there’s something about the language of his poetry that I think reflects that. He gets pleasure from that work, there’s a certain rhythm to that work, there’s an approach to the types of information in it that you just naturally dig and that’s going be reflected in your own work — you’re not going be able to help it, actually. So this question of permission may be more like something were you can’t get out of it.
Gottlieb: Ted has written a memoir. This beautiful, wonderful, lyric, just stunning, gorgeous recollection, and the part that I’ve read takes place in his childhood in Queens, and it’s just amazing.
Gardner: I assume this is a manuscript that he’s floated among his associates?
Gottlieb: Yeah. It’s written in this amazingly lyrical manner, not like mine, which is pretty standard prose. His is set up like prose, but I’m not going to do it justice. It might be described as living somewhere in between standard prose and a kind of lyric poetry that we would associate with him.
Gardner: Well, prose-poem memoir is certainly something you get in Lyn Hejinian, right? Certainly you could say there’s a precedent in doing memoir in Language poetry in that sense.
Gottlieb: Right. And then there’s The Grand Piano.
Gardner: Right. So I’m curious about the extent of your reading of that, your involvement in it, your take on it. For Language poetry memoir right now, there’s just that and you and Rae Armantrout’s True? The Grand Piano might have an interesting relationship to your work. Yours is a much more straightforward thing, but I’m just wondering how much of that you have in mind when you approach your own work, how they approach it as a group and you’re approaching it as an individual. And also this sort of West Coast/East Coast Biggie Smalls/Tupac thing [laughter] that is implied by the recent New Yorker article on Armantrout, where the journalist says that Language poetry was primarily a West Coast phenomenon. That may just be a slipup on Chiasson’s part?
Gottlieb: Actually, I asked him about that. To paraphrase his response, he said that in his original text there was a much more balanced East Coast/West Coast assessment of the origins, but that the magazine’s fact checkers went to a prominent Language poet who corrected this and insisted on it being changed to its current wording.
Gardner: I see. Clearly it’s not anyone’s general take that it was only a West Coast phenomenon. I’ve never heard that.
Gottlieb: I don’t think so! My sense at the time was that there was a general assessment that there were two simultaneously competing and cooperating nexuses.
Gardner: I want to get back at some point to that idea — “simultaneously competing and cooperating” — because I think it’s important for what you’re doing in the book, in regard to the people you’re talking about there, so don’t let me forget that if too many glasses of wine go by?
Gottlieb: Why don’t we talk about that for a while, because what I think I heard in your “raising your hand”-ness was maybe as a rhetorical figure, applicable not just to New York versus San Francisco, which I’m happy to talk about, but also to the social dimension of our project, period — now, then, and in general. The fact is, when I try to describe what my experience, my take, my knowledge of what the poetry world is like, to someone who’s outside it and who may be a writer but not part of this world, I always lead with the branding message that this is a highly communitarian activity, much more than other kinds of production and other kinds of writing. A novelist can work in isolation and have a relationship in most senses with very few of his peers and directly only interact after a certain point in his career with people in a vertical sense. But having said that, what does “communitarian” mean? People show up for each other, they read each other, they publish each other, they live in a world that has each other as their immediate readers, audience, supporters, publishers, but that doesn’t speak to the competitive dimension.
Gardner: What I see is that you have competition and cooperation simultaneously in some combination and this is important in terms of the kind of art that winds up as a result of these communities.
Gottlieb: I guess I would frame it a little differently. I don’t know whether it is important to have it to generate the results that you describe. The question is, how do you not have it, how can there be …
Gardner: I think it’s not just about art. Competition and cooperation is the way people live in groups, and they would do that even if they weren’t artists, so it’s just a reflection of how human beings live.
Gottlieb: Is it?
Gardner: I think so. One of the things I’m leading to here is that competition may sometimes get a bad rap, especially among one’s peers, where it can manifest in unhealthy, annoying ways.
Gottlieb: Well, first of all competition smacks of the market.
Gardner: Not always. Because I think there are different kinds of competition. There’s an artistic kind of competition where you may be trying to outdo each other in a good way. In other words, you’re pushing each other. That’s something I’ve seen in the Flarfists who are deeply collaborative, but also actually quite competitive, but they’ve accepted that competition is a natural part of it; we’re openly competitive with each other.
Gottlieb: Are you?
Gardner: Yes, but often in a good way. We delight in each other’s outdoings.
Gottlieb: So how come you all aren’t happier with how things are unfolding?
Gardner: Well … you bring up the topic of happiness.
Gardner: Which is an interesting question, and my mind goes back to the William Carlos Williams autobiography, where he’s established himself in his house in Paterson. He’s married, his first kid is on the way, and a young woman he knows from the neighborhood comes by as he’s out front working in the garden, and she just says, “Happy?” as a challenge. What he says is, actually yes I was happy, because I had set up my life according to the demands of my personality. In a way happiness is neither here nor there in terms of artists. No one’s happy with the way they relate to their peers, as far as I can tell. Or to their relation to their society. Or to their level of achievement. Do you know a single writer who’s happy with any of that? If happiness is the topic we’re discussing. This is a broad topic, right?
Gottlieb: Are you seizing on the word “happiness” to deflect our attention to the other part of the question?
Gardner: Competition? Okay, here’s another side of it: the other side of the Williams side of happiness is this thing from John Zorn — he’s your generation. I heard an interview with Zorn at Miller Theater where he was asked about happiness, and he said, “Happiness is for yuppies.” What this is supposed to mean, I think, is that from the point of view of an artist, you don’t take into consideration the question of happiness. That, or he just has the kind of personality where happiness would be the same thing as complacency. It’s not something you have unless you’re not a serious artist — that’s the polar opposite of the Williams take on it.
Then again, there’s a moment when Williams is looking at the bushes in the moonlight outside his front door when he’s returning home and thinks, why does this make me more happy than my family does? So it’s a complicated question.
Gottlieb: I think about [Williams] more and more as the years go by. I have a Collected Poems sitting on a chair in my living room. I just read a biography of his last summer.
Gardner: I notice that this place is very minimal and white and neat. You have the patterned African tapestry over the bed, you have the interior decorating here that might reflect some of your early artistic background in minimalism? I’m seeing a little Agnes Martin here? You were originally an art student painter at Bennington and the staff there was Abstract Expressionist?
Gottlieb [points to drawing on wall]: This is Agnes Martin’s last drawing. The day she died.
Gardner: Okay, so if you want to I’d like to talk about earlier background, where you came from, the biography that’s probably in the first part of the memoir. One of the earliest things in there is discussing yourself as a college student and in your formative days having training basically as an abstract painter.
Gottlieb: That was lyrical … that was, in the mid-1970s — what came to be called Lyrical Abstractionist. The people that were dominant at Bennington were Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski. They weren’t teaching right then but were dominating the thinking.
Gardner: So they might look sideways at you for using patterns.
Gottlieb: Yes, minimalism was not cool, even pattern painting was not.
Gardner: I’m interested in the relationship between Minimalist pattern and your poetry. There’s a moment in the memoir — Elizabeth Fodaski points to this passage in her piece on it — something about deciding to go from abstraction to a grid. The grid shows you that there’s an underlying pattern to the universe, there’s a pattern in nature, reality and life that I see when I look at this thing.
Gottlieb: Maybe I have been looking at all of them — Sol Lewitt, Judd, everybody, Agnes Martin — wrong for forty years, but it seems clear to me from even then when I had to talk about what I was thinking, that that work was [about] more than rejection and process, procedure, and repetition, and creating surface. I think I responded to it from the beginning when I walked down Mercer Street and you could see Donald Judd in his building on the corner of Mercer as he was putting [the works] out through the glass in the first-floor window. They were about something, they had resonance, they were connected to, they were speaking about — and I end up repeating what I said in the memoir about Agnes Martin: fundamental organization principles of the universe, of reality, of the way we looked and saw, they had immediate emotional connections, responses, to them, they were not about negating those responses, for me. I put that Agnes Martin section in. I think it ends up in there because looking at that work and the other work like it was having an impact that I was seeing all the time … getting me to where I ended up when I started writing poetry that Alan Davies got interested in, that got me published.
Gardner: Some Language poetry might be seen by some people as just being surface and negation. Someone else might have a completely other reaction to it, the way you’re having a reaction to this painting.
Gottlieb: Exactly. I try to articulate that in the memoir. Letting go of that attempt to force meaning, narrative, on the poem, originally by means of chance operations, was hugely liberating, didn’t mean giving up on the project that poetry could — that this kind of poetry could have the same kind of impact, do the same kind of thing as any other kind of poetry, it just didn’t need to do it the same way any more.
Gardner: Right. And some people might see it as a moment of irony that this takes place in a memoir where you’re embracing a straightforward narrative, telling the story of letting go of the restrictions of narrative to find liberation.
Gottlieb: I think that’s neither here nor there. It’s like saying, you know what, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, you’re about to turn the world upside down, but you know what? You’re wearing a tie with a starched collar. God, isn’t it ironic that you’re dressed in such a bourgeois manner when you’re about to do XYZ. I don’t think it particularly matters. Now, that’s not to say that, for people in the ’60s and ’70s, for some people, how they dressed was part and parcel and key to how they lived their lives and their politics. But not for Lenin!
Gardner: There’s an interesting detail in the memoir regarding how one dresses, about Picasso dressing in an actual extravagant bullfighter outfit for a costume party, decisions about how you present yourself to the world. This is in a part of the memoir about Charles Bernstein, regarding conflict with contemporaries, since we’re discussing simultaneous competition and cooperation. There’s a vignette about Bernstein, who’s an important figure in your writing world and a close associate of yours and who recently had some success in reaching a broader audience. I took this scene to be a description about two different personalities — conflicting personalities in the same scene. It’s a moment where there’s tension and you’re being rather critical of him. You were uncomfortable with who he was declaring himself to be, that’s this kind of social conflict — two forces who are in a way dependent on each and intertwined creatively but are not going to reconcile their personalities. You didn’t shrink away from dealing with things that might piss off your friends.
Gottlieb: Well, I hope it didn’t, because of how long ago it was, because of how young I was, and because that kind of — and we’ll now come back to the trope we laid out earlier — competition and cooperation can’t be removed from this kind of activity. And I think it’s important to look at what people have done. Let me take one step back. While the machine was off, we talked about what might come next in terms of this project, and it’s my intention, if this sells enough and I can publish the first one, to keep writing more in these lines and also to write more along the lines of the essay that appears in this book as well, and I’m well down the road to publishing the next part of this essay. But I lay out in that section what seemed then to be two ways of thinking about how to move ahead, and how one is to comport oneself. The fact is, that was more than thirty years ago, and look at what Charles has done with his life. The fact is that he’s someone who has helped tons of people and made things happen, and built amazing things, at Buffalo, and helped people have decent lives as poets. I mean we can talk about the academic life and the impact academization has had on poetry, but he has made it possible for lots of people we know, our friends, not to have to have crappy lives. Now, we can talk about the shades, the interstices, the implications of all that, but he’s really done a lot in our world, and there aren’t a lot of people who’ve done more, to build the world that we live in now.
Gardner: I thought it was a very novelistic scene. In that I’m interested in unpacking conflict, and one of the things I think is strong about the memoir is that it doesn’t shy away from the parts where there is psychological friction between compatriots.
Gottlieb: Right. And there are other people where that kind of conflict was what the memoir was all about. Nick Piombino cited a Henry James quotation: how important it is to be kind. Which I don’t disagree with. I don’t think that by citing conflict I’m necessarily being unkind. I think, going back to the conflict versus cooperation theme, that quite possibly it’s a useful subject for all of us to spend some time on, because I don’t see any way for it to go away. It’s a fact. The only alternative is some kind of totalitarian, top-down, writer’s-union kind of regime that we could see in the Soviet Union, which would — what other kind of social/organizational constructs can we conceive of? While the financial dimensions of our world remain constant, as long as they do, I’m not sure what other way we can see poets organizing themselves and consequently this kind of friction being a byproduct. Or a product!
Gardner: I’m not suggesting that the friction is something that one should moralistically object to. The thing I liked about the scene is that you remembered it, you had made a point that yeah this is a memoir, this is the shit that I remember because it has to do with how memory works and how you tell stories to other people about what’s happened to you and what you’ve done and this is why it’s interesting and it’s important. You couldn’t possibly include this type of friction stuff thinking this would be stress-free, but you include it because it’s part of how you actually relate to others.
Gottlieb: I think I imply or suggest that there’s an inflection point in the development of our world. Or it embodied a transition, from a kind of a New York School — the St. Marks School, alternative lifestyle poetry scene — to one that had at its heart an academic opportunity career path. And it wasn’t clear, at least to me, for a long time that that was even a possibility. It never was one that I was interested in even when it did become one.
Gardner: This is a topic you develop at length in the essay.
Gottlieb: Right. And I think the relationship between the essay and the memoir is part of that. Now, was it good for Language poetry that that developed? It was good for people. It was good for people that they could have a dental plan, a retirement plan. Was it good for the poetry? I’m not necessarily the person to ask. I don’t know.
Gardner: I guess the other thing I should ask about is, since we’ve addressed the question of competition a little bit, collaboration is the other side of it. One of the big figures in the book is Alan Davies, and this seems like an important part of how the book is structured. He’s an important figure in the book.
Gottlieb: I have a number of friends and also family who are in the trade press world in one way or another, who whenever the topic of sales or print runs comes up — and this has been going on for decades — express ritual incredulity and utterances of … is “scorn” the right word … ? — at the volumes and dimensions of the world that we live in, the independent small press environment. What I never bothered to say to them but always say to myself or anyone who otherwise asks, is that I consider myself to have had an incredibly lucky life publishing as a poet, even if compared to some peers it’s not as extensive as people of my age might want, because as soon as I started writing, essentially I started getting published. And as soon as I started publishing in magazines, I started getting books. And essentially everything I’ve written ever since has gotten published, and coming back to your question, in a large part that’s because of Alan. And whereas with other friends and peers I’ve felt and not necessarily shrunk from a healthy degree of competition with what they were doing or their kind of writing, I never felt that, nor do, with him.
It’s partly because what we’re interested in has to a certain extent evolved or moved apart over the years, but also because he’s someone I never think of in any way except as someone who gets, supports, and wants to see the best of me.
Gardner: If you stop and look at a writer’s whole life, the power of, early on, having just one person believe in you enough to publish you is considerable. That small-scale gesture turns out to be large in the long run in terms of what people wind up doing in poetry.
Gottlieb: I agree and I’d go further. Circling back to another dimension and my own response to friends and others in the larger publishing world, many people have said that even the most commercially successful writers rarely have an audience that they are interested in, that they have any consciousness of, whose opinion means something to them, who they are writing for in a direct way, that is any larger than fifty or a hundred people. Even someone who sells millions of copies. They are only writing for a hundred people in a direct way. In an indirect way we are all writing for someone we may never see, who may not be alive now, who’s dead or isn’t born yet.
So as I mentioned I wrote fiction for a while and there was another memoir that I wrote before this one, and for those I had ambitions that they could reach large audiences and get published by trade publishers, and they didn’t. I had agents, and the agents couldn’t sell them. I had an agent at William Morris for the whole time, and then another agent after that. By the time I came to write this memoir, all I wanted to do was to get this down, and I didn’t and I don’t have the same kinds of ambitions that I may have had twenty or thirty years ago. I think this is an important story. I think a lot of people in our world, however we define that world, want to know about this time and these people. And it may in fact, now that I’m done with it, be that people are reacting to it — there may be people beyond this world who find it of interest. If that happens, that’s great, but I sat down to do this because it’s part of this project that I’ve been engaged in for a while, which is about me working out things, and the next one and the one after that which are the ones that I’m thinking about now are about me continuing to try to work things out. How many other people are going to want to follow on, we’ll see.
Gardner: What would be next?
Gottlieb: There are two that I’ve carved out mentally that will come next. One is the next chronological chunk of my life, which would start when I leave New York which is more or less when the memoir ends, and will have as its focus being away from New York. I’m not sure how much of it will be about writing, so I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but it also will focus on these three huge things that when I look back on a twenty-year period my life circled around. One was family and one of my children getting sick, and the second was my business that I had that boomed and then went bust, and the third was getting sick. So that’s the next one to write. The next one to publish would be the first one, but that would be the next one to write and then after that I may or will be hopefully old enough that it would be appropriate to write about the following topic that a couple of people, Barry [Watten], suggested, to focus on a topic that to a large extent is missing from “The Empire City,” which is sex.
Gardner: It seems like an intentional decision to leave out that topic. But obviously it’s an important part of life, it’s certainly a part of the way in which you remember your own history. There’s an adjacent thing, and it’s is something that Liz points out in her review of the book, there’s not a lot about women in this book in general, it is mostly about groups of young men.
Gottlieb: To a certain extent those are allied topics and in some sense they’re separate topics. There is as little focus on relationships and what we’ll call sex, period, consciously, because I wanted to drive attention to what the book has its focus on, poetry and the people and to the extent it’s about me becoming a poet and me and the city or the city and poetry. I had the realization that this whole other topic was such a big dimension that the book would have had to be twice as big and it would have diffused the focus in a way that I didn’t want to diffuse it, or I didn’t have time to bring it all in.
Let me come back to that, but to speak to Liz’s comment which she’s not alone in noting, I hope. I tried, in what I did write, not to in any way diminish the contribution or the presence of the women that were there then. And I think, I hope, I’m right that I can only express it that way. I think that to the extent that it is a boys’ story, it’s because then, there, in New York, that’s what it was in terms of the people there. And that speaks to just the way it was then, right or wrong, or maybe all wrong, but that then changed. Getting ready for the next reading which is going to be in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks, I’m planning on reading the section about Hannah [Weiner] kicking me out of the table at Phoebe’s. But to come back to the first topic, it is such a big topic that it’s my intention and I hope I’m old enough so that I feel more comfortable in writing about it — that’s my own hangup perhaps — that I’ll be able to do that topic justice. I’ve been writing Barry back and forth about this, as late as this afternoon, that the natural end point for that part of the narrative is that cancer, that’s sort of an explanation that draws a line under that part of it. I’m not ready to write about that yet. And I didn’t want to. The things in the memoir now are the things I wanted to get there now, and I didn’t have enough time or energy because I was sick when I was writing it, to bring it in more.
That’s the midterm plan that may take me up for maybe about ten, twelve years. And then I think maybe I’ll have one more about being an old man. In the same way that I’m writing this essay now — and this essay is about two-thirds of the way done, it’s in this notebook — “Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet.” I’m up to section twenty-three, I’ll get to section twenty-four and start editing, and then I’ll be done! And then I figure maybe after that I’ll have one more essay about what it’s like to be a really old fucking poet.
In racing they have this term. They don’t talk about speed; they talk about pace. How much pace does your car have. And in my job all we think about all the time is how we think about things. My job consists of thinking about how we organize people, how we think about what they’re thinking, how we get them to all align.
Gardner: I’m glad you brought up this topic, because the questions of possible similarities and differences in how you approach your work life and how you approach your creative life, poetry life, is something that I’m interested in. Clearly they’re bifurcated in the way your essay and your memoir are bifurcated, in the sense that they put you in different spaces, they put you among people you wouldn’t normally interact with, but they don’t put you outside the realm of the way you solve problems with your personality. So in some ways they may really not be that different.
Gottlieb: Wait — let me go back — do we solve problems with our personality?
Gardner: More like create them and then solve them. I’m pretty sure we do. If you consider your intelligence and your approach to life part of your personality. Your poems are a product of your personality regardless of your procedures and your philosophy about it, as far as I can tell; some people might disagree with me. You solve problems in the creative world, you go to work, you solve problems in the work world, and so this question of bifurcation, kind of returning to it a little bit, focusing a little on what might be similar? If you brought up the question of actual shit that you’re doing at work, I am interested in this and this is not something that you bring up in the “Jobs of the Poets” essay. You do address the question of conflict, problems in self-definition, in being a working person and being a poet, but you don’t necessarily say what actually happens when I’m at work, solving problems and dealing with people, improvising, creating and diverging from structures — all the shit that you do at work, which may actually be in some ways disturbingly close to things that you’re doing with your poetry, just more constrained.
Gottlieb: Well, I don’t know if it’s more constrained, because poets feel terribly constrained about what they can do, what they will do, what they should do, what they’re allowed to do. And the constraints within which one works in work are not necessarily tighter or more binding than those. But I’m very lucky: I have a job where people pay me money to think hard along a lot of the same ways I find myself thinking as a poet, to step back and think about the way big things are organized and look carefully at them. The way systems, processes, parts of organizations do business, and think about them in a holistic way. I’m being asked to look at things from the outside. And interact with other people, to listen to them, listen closely, to communicate, which means listening and talking both, and to be compelling, hopefully, communicate to get groups of people to move in certain directions, and all of those are activities which one could say are similar to or aligned with what a poet does.
Gardner: What else might have happened to you is a question sometimes asked by poets. There’s an interview with Olson where he says, yeah, I could have been one of these business guys, I could have focused my mind around money and put myself in that system. You’re good at certain things, you develop expertise based on your proclivities. Vanessa Place and I were talking recently about the difference between virtuosity and mastery. Mastery is something that’s imposed upon you; virtuosity is something you develop on your own. You can’t even stop yourself from developing it if you have talent. They’re both actually constraining in a way, but occupy different places in how you relate to your society as a writer, and certainly as a worker.
Gottlieb: I would suggest to you that both of them are from another perspective equally delimiting. In the business world, people eventually gain subject matter expertise.
Gardner: Interviewer winces!
Gottlieb: You’re an expert in your subject matter. And then there’s a level beyond that where you’re a thought leader in your subject matter.
Gardner: Defined by the influence you have among your peers.
Gottlieb: Yes. And a thought leader has influence in a global or national way. But subject matter expertise at a certain level in organizations is a given. It’s like a baseline.
Gardner: Is there a baseline for poetry?
Gottlieb: I don’t wanna talk about poetry yet. Let me think about that. And after that then people are expected to be able to perform beyond and outside of their areas of subject matter expertise (SME).
Gardner: How do you make a social definition of when you excel, right?
Gottlieb: No. You can perform, whatever that means, in ways that are independent of the subject matter that you’re an expert in, and deliver.
Gardner: That seems like something that might be desirable in a writer.
Gottlieb: Yeah. So in my business world I left my subject matter two years ago. They hired me to do something that I was a SME in. So I did that for a couple of years and they said you can do that, now do this. And it was sort of related to my SME area but not completely. So I did that, they said okay, that was good, now do this for us. And that had nothing to do with my SME work.
Gardner: Right. So that’s a big system using you for its own purposes, seeing that you can adapt.
Gottlieb: That’s one way of looking at it.
Gardner: Let’s say that’s a personality trait: adaptation. How does that relate to what you do with your writing work?
Gottlieb: Because the skills they are calling on are, I think, exactly the same ones that we were talking about as crossing from poetry into business. Being able to see things, systems, people, organizations as a whole and or in detail, make sense of them, take them apart, and separately, being able to communicate or interact in a compelling and decisive way with others. I’m not saying that I’m that good at that, but that’s what —
Gardner: It certainly relates to how, if you think of yourself as a writer, what is your relationship to your society as a writer, what are your responsibilities, responses? You’re responding to things because they’re based on who thinks you’re supposed to do what, and in terms of what you do as a writer, and what your proclivities and tendencies are.
Gottlieb: Okay. So I talk about that in the essay, right? Why do we do this? Do we do it for ourselves? Do we do it for other people? Do we do it to make ourselves feel better? Even though it makes us feel great to do this, is that reason enough to do this? Even though doing this makes us feel more alive than anything else we ever do, is that reason enough to do this?
Gardner: Embedded in that question is, are some of those emotions and thoughts illusory? Which are illusory and how do you puzzle that out? Those are not normally questions that poets in the world that you and I inhabit ask in public. That’s one of the things I think is unique about the essay.
Gottlieb: I draw a line there, and lots of people don’t like where I drew it, and that’s okay, but I draw it saying that I don’t think there is any value in doing this just because it makes us feel good. It doesn’t matter how it makes us feel, even though it makes us feel better than anything else we do can make us feel. It has value only to the extent that is has impact on others. And that’s why I like the word, and I come back to this word in the rest of my life: I use the word “responsibility” all the time. There’s no reason to do this unless we’re doing it for other people. To have some, I’m not sure which or what kind of impact, but have impact on other people. Otherwise it’s just art therapy.
Gardner: To shift topics a little, the impact of environment on you as a developing poet is a big part of “The Empire City.” New York City of the 1970s is almost like the central character.
Gottlieb: There are really three dimensions to the memoir: there’s how Language poetry came together: people, events, interactions. Second, there’s what it was like to become a poet and the process of interacting and starting to get published. The third part that memoir deals with is New York in the ’70s.
This was this amazing, magnificent wreck that was sinking slowly beneath the waves and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on the deck as the water was getting higher and higher to the portholes, and there was an amazing romance in that. The undeniable sensation that this thing was going. This amazing edifice, this incredible construct was in inevitable decline and there was no doubt that it was going downhill fast. We were on board that and at the same time able to be amazed by how incredibly monumental even in its decrepitude it was, how gorgeous at the same time as how dangerous it was.
It was a different city. It was a foreign country. It was going to hell in front of us, but it was amazingly gorgeous while it was doing that. And we lived in these depopulated precincts that were empty at night, that had once been filled with thousands of people shopping and hotels and going to restaurants and gambling halls. Those kinds of things are there now again, thirty years later.
New York was at the bottom of a 100-year trough whose high point was somewhere around World War I, maybe in the 1920s, and it had been going downhill ever since, from the Depression; maybe a rise around World War II and then an accelerating decline through the ’50s and the rise of the suburbs in the ’60s and the ’70s. By the ’70s it was at the bottom of a trough that it hadn’t been in for at least 100 years. On the one hand it enabled us to live in a way that poets can’t now. On the other hand we were living at the edge of a vast precipice and we saw everything tumbling away beneath us.
Gardner: Did that affect you negatively at all?
Gottlieb: No, it was wonderful.
Gardner: I do think this is an important part of the memoir, the nature of New York City, the character of it, the reality of the way in which artists, not just you but a lot of different artists and poets who were adjacent to you, were feeding off of the same economic and cultural realities.
Gottlieb: I think it’s important too. I think it’s, in terms of going back to another topic, it’s going to be the reason many people want to read this book.