Clayton Eshleman: From an interview by Irakli Qolbaia, the first and last questions

[What follows are two sections from a longer interview conducted by the Georgian poet and translator Irakli Qolbaia, in which Eshleman takes on two key words in his work — “origin” and “penetralia” — and ties them to his own emergence and development as a poet and major searcher for the origins of poetry and the imagination. The full interview was originally published in Jerrold Shiroma’s important online magazine Seedings (Duration Press) and can be found here and here on the internet. (J.R.)]


Irakli Qolbaia: Your poem, “Short Story,” begins with “Begin with this: the world has no origin”, and yet, there seems to be, in your poetry, a constant quest for origin — personal origins, origins of imagination/of poetry. There is even a Blakean “character,” Origin, in your early poem of the same title (referring to Cid Corman and his “origin”?). Could you talk about that sense of origin in your poetry, and more specifically, about your origins as a poet?


Clayton Eshleman: My relationship to origins has been multifaceted. I think my first

engagement was hearing at sixteen years old on a 45 RPM record the bebop pianist Bud Powell play his improvisation on the standard tune “Tea for Two.” I listened to Powell’s version again and again trying to grasp the difference between the standard and what Powell was doing to and with it. Somehow an idea vaguely made its way through: you don’t have to play someone else’s melody — you can improvise (how?), make up your own melody line! WOW — really? You mean I don’t have to repeat my parents? I don’t have to “play their melody” for the rest of my life? Later I realized that Powell had taken a trivial song and transformed it into an imaginative structure. While reading the Sunday newspaper comics on the living room floor was probably my first encounter, as a boy, with imagination, Powell was my first experience, as an adolescent, with the force of artistic presence and certainly the key figure involved in my becoming a poet when I was twenty-three years old.


Soon after starting to try to write poetry at Indiana University in 1958 I found Cid Corman’s poetry journal called Origin in the library. I began a correspondence with Cid and when I was living in Kyoto, Japan, in 1962, I went to the coffee shop where Cid, also living in Kyoto at the time, could be found every evening. For a couple of years I watched him edit Origin and learned a lot about translating poetry from him. Corman was the first American translator of the great German poet Paul Celan and, while in Kyoto, as my poetic apprenticeship project, I decided to translate Cesar Vallejo’s Poemas humanos into English. 


During this period I worked on Vallejo most afternoons downtown in another Kyoto coffee shop called Yorunomado (the word means “night window” in English). In the only poem I completed to any real satisfaction while living in Japan, I envisioned myself as a kind of angel-less Jacob wrestling with a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away. I lose the struggle and find myself on a seppuku (or suicide) platform in medieval Japan, being commanded by Vallejo (now playing the role of an overlord) to disembowel myself. I do so, imaginatively speaking, cutting the ties to my “given” life and releasing a daemon I named Yorunomado who until that point (my vision told me) had been chained to an altar in my solar plexus. Thus at this point the fruits of my struggle with Vallejo were not a successful literary translation but an imaginative advance in which a third figure emerged from my intercourse with the text. Thus death and regeneration = seppuku and the birth of Yorunomado, or a breakthrough into what might be called sacramental existence.


While Bud Powell and Yorunomado (via Vallejo) provided brief, if essential, adventures with origin, the crucial event after leaving Japan in 1964 was my 1974 discovery of Upper Paleolithic, or Cro-Magnon, cave art in southwestern France. My wife Caryl and I had, at the suggestion of a friend, rented an apartment in a farm house in the Dordogne countryside and after visiting some of these Ice Age caves I was completely caught up in the deep past. This grand transpersonal realm (without a remaining history or language) was about as far away from my background as could be, and I revisited and researched the painted caves throughout the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, becoming the first poet anywhere to do what the poet Charles Olson called “a saturation job” on the origins of art as we know it today. To follow poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits read bedrock — a genuine back wall — but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My growing awareness of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pretradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making. Wesleyan University Press published my book, a study composed of both poetry and prose, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, in 2003.


. . . . . . .


IQ: We have touched upon the early stage (the apprenticeship/coming to terms with Indiana past) of your work, as well as what could be viewed as your maturity or gaining the fully formed singular voice as a poet (saturation job/involvement with the sacramental existence) that has culminated in Juniper Fuse (around two decades in making), which I would consider a work in many ways central not only in your body of work but, more generally, in the poetry of our time. There is yet another stage that you have been pursuing since and that you have elsewhere called “summational.” As a reader, I first sensed it intensely in a poem called “The Tjurunga,” where the lifelong work and involvement of the poet comes together as a constellation. From the few poems that have been available, your new book, Penetralia, struck me as central to this summational stage. Could you talk about this? Further, sensing that the word “penetralia,” as related to your work, could be important in many ways, could you explain what it means for you/in the context of the book?


CE: I often open my 1955 Webster’s New International Dictionary and read a few pages at random. Doing so, one day a few years ago, I came across the word “penetralia” which was defined as: “The innermost or most private parts of thing or place, especially of a temple or palace.” A second definition followed: “Hidden things of secrets; privacy; sanctuary; as the sacred penetralia of the home.” Since I like words and phrases for book titles that to my knowledge have not been used by others as titles for poetry collections, I decided, then in my late seventies, that “penetralia” would be an appropriate and unique title for what might be my last collection of poetry, one that often ruminated on end matters, or summational engagements. There are, of course, a number of poems in this collection that do not directly do this, but the tone of the writing, along with the end shadowings, justify such a title.


You mention a poem, “The Tjurunga,” published in Anticline (Black Widow Press, 2010)

that I mentioned was one of the two “soulend” supports, along with the 1964 “Book of

Yorunomado,” holding the rest of my poetry in place. In this later poem I propose a kind of complex mobile (invoking the poet Robert Duncan’s rereading of the mysterious Aranda ritual object) made up of the authors, mythological figures and acts, whose shifting combinations undermined and reoriented my life during my poetic apprenticeship in Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1960s. At a remove of some forty-five years I saw these forces as a kind of GPS (global positioning system) constantly “recalculating” as they closed and opened door after door. Thinking back to Vallejo pointing at my gut (in “The Book of Yorunomado”) and indicating that I was to commit seppuku I was struck by the following quotation from James Hillman’s Animal Presences: “The theological message of the Siva-Ganesha, father-son pattern can be summarized in this way: submit that you may be saved, be destroyed that you may be made whole. The sacrificial violence is not the tragic conclusion but the necessary beginning of a passage into a new order … the God who breaks you makes you; destruction and creativity ultimately spring from the same source.”