Jake Marmer interviews David Antin & Jerome Rothenberg

On December 23, 2015, in San Diego, Jake Marmer interviewed David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg. Today the recording of the interview has been added to the Marmer, Antin, and Rothenberg author pages at PennSound. Here is a direct link to it: MP3 (1:35:55). Here is Jake Marmer's introduction to the interview:

Imagining a Poetry That We Might Find: Conversation with Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin

“We were… desiring poetry, imagining a poetry that we might find – for which there was no strong evidence available,” says David Antin, reflecting on his college days, as he and Jerome Rothenberg sit with me in David’s dining room, in San Diego, around a tape recorder and a big French press. Desiring and imagining poetry – how different that is from merely writing, or reading, or even experimenting! Imagining and desiring: might that help shed some light on the incredible array of original, personal, deeply compelling poetic forms these titans of American poetry have invented, restored, and modified? As Antin points out in this interview: “I found a way to regard the poem itself as creating its own genre… We were looking for ways to overrun the tradition.”

To overrun the tradition, however, is also to extend back into the ancient past and retrieve, to recognize that which may not have been thought of as poetry. That impulse, as Jerome put it, “came out of the feeling that certain things were missing for us… Why is this not poetry? Why can it not be poetry, even great poetry? What keeps us from seeing it in those terms?... When I plunged into Technicians of the Sacred it was with desire for things to come with me and surprise me – and they did.” Note, this isn’t merely about finding new poetry, but more poignantly, recognizing within ourselves, that which prevents us from experiencing certain discourses as poetic. Is it a political barrier? Philosophical? Ritualistic? What’s at stake, as Rothenberg put it in the preface to Technicians of the Sacred, is “a life lived at the level of poetry.”

What does it mean to extend back into the past, and compose ritualistically, hearing the remote echo of “tribal and subterranean” poets? Rothenberg on the writing process: “there’re both moments of… joy/happiness and it can also get a little scary. I connect that as a kind of a ritual, a kind of activity – largely internalized.”

Rothenberg and Antin have been friends for nearly sixty-five years, and for the past decades have been living within a short drive from one another. It is clear that this friendship has been formative for both poets. I wanted to experience what the discourse between the two of them might be like. I also wanted to understand the source of mutual concern, given how vastly different – one might be compelled to say, incompatible – their poetry is.

Rothenberg leans towards imagery, music, pithy colloquialism, and lyricism; Antin is dedicated to the improvised, conversational model. Rothenberg employs vaudeville and shamanism; Antin riffs on linguistics, critique, and science – though his bawdy anecdotes are well loved and are a treat one can count on during nearly every performance. In the early 1970’s, at a performance Antin and Rothenberg gave in San Francisco, David told a story about a woman named Candy who encountered a marine with peculiar tattoos in places one would least expect to find them, challenging listeners to rethink and reassess what mythology is, and where it can be found. At that performance, Jerome Rothenberg recited his poem ‘Cokboy’ (“vat am I doink here”), and Antin followed with an improvised set “What Am I Doing Here?”

In David’s words: “I took Jerry’s ‘Cokboy’ as a challenge of contemporary sensibility or the urgency of it, pitted against desire for a truly lyrical discourse. It was a hopeless but passionate embrace of two discrepant things. … In a certain sense what I was producing was an homage to Jerry for Technicians of the Sacred and all of the great anthologies he merged, which were not anthologies but assemblage poems with dissemblage poems. I knew I was doing that and then I was kidding around and taking it seriously… then seriously kidding around.

“Jerome has an inherently lyrical sensibility in his left hand [JR: and yet we remain friends!] and in his right hand he held hundreds of years of Jewish cynical thinking. The two came to a meeting place. They collided.”

Myth is written all over that story, as is the Jewish cynical thinking, which, needless to say, is an area of David’s provenance, as well. Towards the end of the interview he dropped this one: “I could take the act of resolving the plumbing of a house as a possible piece of poetry… I’ve become victimized by my belief in the freedom of art to be what it wants to be.”

Over the course of the interview much is covered: Emily Dickinson’s untamable barbaric impulses and responses to organized religion, Thoreau’s performance art, Whitman’s previously untrodden territories, and Dennis Tedlock’s transcriptions; dynamics of talk-poems, past work and current work, mythology; there was critique of the term imagination; talk of ego, productive lies, death, and Harold Bloom; riffing and performance of John Cage’s lines; there’s even a description of happiest moment of David Antin’s life.

Recalling their early recognition of spoken discourse as fundamentally poetic, Rothenberg points out: “One would normally think that talking – what do we talk? We talk prose – in that poetry vs. prose distinction… No, we’re more likely to talk poetry. Prose is on the page… When we’re talking, as we’re doing now, voice stop and starts. There’re all sorts of things to map if you’re transcribing, and then if you’re also translating you carry that over into translation… I’m not talking prose, there’s poetry going on here.” Something familiar echoed in these lines, as I was listening to the recording at home, weeks later. Jacob, the Hebrew Bible’s trickster, waking up from a vision says: “There was LORD in this place, and I did not know it.”

This recording, needless to say, is an example of “poetry going on here.” It is also an exploration of the common ground of the two poets, who, as Antin put it, have been “dissimilar in detail but similar in impulse and outcome.”