Ariel Resnikoff, with Jerome Rothenberg: From an interview (continued), on Jews & experimental modernism, with notes toward a poetry of witness & an omnipoetics

Jerome Rothenberg, from a production circa 1984 of "That Dada Strain" by Luke Morrison & the Center for Theater Science & Research, San Diego & Lexington, NY

[The following is a continuation of an interview, the first part of which appeared in Poems and Poetics on December 10. 2014.  The full interview, conducted by Resnikoff over a period of several months, was published later in The Wolf  magazine, number 31, edited by James Byrne & Sandeep Parmar.] 


AR: I’m curious how the question of a Jewish entry into experimental modernism relates to your interest in the work and character of Tristan Tzara (born Samy Rosenstock, 1896-1963), and in Dada, more generally. “[Y]ou are dead” you write in the third section of Abulafia’s Circles, titled, “The Holy Words of Tristan Tzara”,


& dada life is growing

from your monocle

ignored      exalted

you lead me to my future

making poems together

flames & tongues we write…


Do you see Tzara’s work as functioning within a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art? Do you feel that your own work is in dialogue with his?


JR:  In a conversation the other day a question like this came up – about the presence of Jews in experimental modernism and in Dada more precisely – and it struck me in a flash that except for Tzara and for Janco as his Romanian-Jewish compatriot, none of the core Dadas I could think of were Jews.  I remembered too Hugo Ball’s curious remark about the two little “oriental” men (Tzara and Marcel Janco) who showed up at the Cabaret Voltaire before it opened and, twenty years later, the Nazi intertwining of Jews and entartete kunst, with Dada foremost.  Yet Tzara, as far as I know, never comes forward as a Jew, the ethnic mark as hidden as the ethnic name.  And I remember another incident as well, when I was showing Edouard Roditi A Big Jewish Book, Edouard, who had known Tzara in Paris, laughed at how a Jewish shagetz like Tzara would have responded to seeing himself included in a book like that  .

            Nor do I believe that there’s something specifically Jewish in Dada and other extreme avantgardisms, although I can find analogs in (largely) mystical judaism as in other deep cultures.  As for “a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art,” I can’t imagine that that would have meant anything to Tzara – to separate that in some way from experimental art over all.  The milieu in which he wrote was French and European with a strong interest in the remote and “primitive” (African and Oceanian), as it was then being called, or in ethnopoetics as we would later speak of it.  It’s curious too that the racist and anti-semitic connection the Nazis made between “degenerate art” (like Dada) and presumably Jewish conspiracies, would sometimes overstate the Jewish presence in the experimental and international avant-garde, with figures like Tzara cited as arch-conspirators – elders or juniors of Zion corrupting the Aryan West.  In other words precisely what we take and value as the rehabilitative and cleansing power of the historical avant-garde and the “great negative work of destruction” that Tzara proclaimed was what made it the target of Nazis and others who hated it to start with and found it to their advantage to assert a phony Jewish presence as its defining characteristic.

            In another sense Tzara’s late adolescent Dada fury, which I love and still draw from, was no more Jewish at its core than Rimbaud’s a generation or  two earlier.  The only difference of course was in the blood line – a matter of race (of racism, I almost said) pure and simple.


AR: Is it only a matter of race, then, that connects Tzara to Jacob Frank and Abraham Abulafia in Abulafia’s Circles? How did this dynamic trio come to be?


JR: Obviously Frank and Abulafia fit into a Jewish context in a different way from Tzara, so the comedy or irony in this involves putting him alongside the other two, which may in some sense be a question of blood line or race if one wants to see it that way.  More immediate for me is that Frank and Abulafia were both self-proclaimed messiahs while Tzara, when he came to Paris from Zurich, was awaited by Breton and the other Paris Dadas as a kind of latterday messiah – or as an “anti-messiah” and “prophet” in the account by Hans Richter, which rings truer though it comes to much the same thing.  The point anyway is that for the project I was then engaged in I needed Tzara to fill out the messianic trio and that his identification with Sammy Rosenstock allowed me to play off that absurdity as a part of my own “Jewish surrealist vaudeville.”  Probably too that would be closer to Richter’s phrasing than to Breton’s tongue-in-cheek remark, but enough to call up the “ghost of Abulafia no ghost” while having him proclaim:


            messiahs are passé
            there is no greater savior
            than this no eye
            so credible


with a sense after the fact that the apocalyptic hopes of his later stalinism have crashed against the reality that doomed Mandelstam and others (that too, if you want, in a kind of Jewish context).  And when the poem ends it’s with a sense of ruination and loss:


            like earth
            the brain
            the passage to other worlds
            passage to something sad
            lost dada
            an old horse rotting in the garden
            maneless waiting
            for the full moon
            someone leaps into the saddle
            rushes after you
            exuding light


Or as I end another poem from that time: “guess I got nothing left to say.”


AR:  In “A Re-Vision of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics,” Heriberto Yépez tells us that “[i]f after Deep Image came Ethnopoetics — with the former not so much going away as merging in the helix of his total project — after this Deep Ethnopoetics came a poetics of witness.” Tell me about this poetics of witness. In what ways do you see your work serving as testimony? I am especially interested in your most recent book, Eye of Witness, and in what Yépez calls your desire to construct an omnipoetics.


JR: To go back for a moment to the end of the previous answer: when I concluded “Cokboy” with the line about having nothing left to say, I didn’t realize at first how it resembled John Cage’s definition of poetry: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.”  In the poem of course I had invoked the reality of genocide – of both Indians and Jews – and after crying out four times “America disaster,” had turned from it in disgust, but the nothing there, I would like to think in reconsideration, is really poetry as I came to understand it.  That came back to me – the quality of poetry as both nothing & everything – when I write in Khurbn: “After Auschwitz there is only poetry.”  With this there is also an increased determination to let other voices come into the poetry, to take over the saying for me, so that I become a conduit for their speaking or witnessing.  It’s already there in Poland/1931 and in the anthologies; still more explicitly, even painfully, in Khurbn; & it’s picked up in a different way in the title of my first book in the new century,  A Book of Witness, or in my first poem for the millennium that starts: “Voices are dumb until / I speak for them.”  And later on: “I open up / my mouth & hear / a multitude / of voices.”  I think all of that is what Yépez has in mind when he credits me with “a poetics of witness,” as something toward which the earlier work had been heading.  And that leads me finally to think of an omnipoetics: an assemblage and poetics of everything, which is more than I can ever accomplish on my own but seems to me to be the great work that all of us, as poets, have had and still may have in common – a work, as Isidore Ducasse had it, that’s made by all, not one.  It’s a motif anyway that runs through Eye of Witness and that’s the foundation for the new assemblage – of “outside and subterranean poetry” – on which I’d been working for the last few years.


AR: Say more about “outside and subterranean poetry.” I know you and John Bloomberg-Rissman recently finished putting together the book. 


JR: The book, then, is a work with a theme or motif – “outside,” “subterranean” – in search of something like a definition.  That anyway is how it started, a sense I had of how much poetry lies outside of poetry as we commonly think of it and how much emerges otherwise from the conditions that Joyce described to us as those of  “silence, exile and cunning.”  Or going at it from a somewhat different direction, there was a fascination with what I described in the Jewish instance as a “world of … mystics, thieves and madmen” – only extended now as far and wide as we could take it.  So the experimental side of the project – the real experiment – was to see what we could find and what would happen if we brought together or juxtaposed a number of outside or subterranean works, however defined, from a wide range of times and places.  Or maybe another way to put it is that we started with the words “outside” and “subterranean” as they might apply to poetry and set out to track and map them with regard to actual poems and poets, but taking poetry not only as a learnèd practice but as the common inheritance of most of us who open up to language and the world around us.  And still the words “outside/outsider” and “subterranean” may have been excessively defined or misdefined before we came at them – like “primitive” and “archaic” in Technicians of the Sacred, where I found myself at the end of the process putting the older notions of “primitive” in doubt.  So as I asserted there that “primitive means complex,” I might assert here that “outside” and “outsider” reside at the very center or heart of the over-all poetry project.