Jerome Rothenberg

'Bringing the Past into the Present,' fragment of a dialogue with David Antin

[The following, a Spanish translation of which will appear shortly in El Libro de Las Voces, my latest book from Mexico, was an attempt by me and David Antin to start a public correspondence focused on the many years of our friendship and ongoing discourse, from New York in the 1950s to California from the 1970s until David’s death in 2016. There are additional fragments, still to be assembled, but this was to have been the beginning, as we had it, and a small indication of how our mutual concern with contingency and the passage of time fed the works we both pursued over those shared decades. (j.r.)]


Dear David —

It just occurred to me that when we were last with Steve Clay — the bunch of us together here — the suggestion came up that you and I might enter into an email dialogue that could form a kind of end piece for the selected prose that I’m scheduled to do for him by sometime next year. This isn’t likely to be anything like the size and range of what you and Charles did, but it presents a curious possibility, in our case, of bringing the past into the present.




How do we start talking about the past — if we start talking about the past at all? And how do we do it without ignoring the present, which both of us agree has been the place, the time, in which we chose to work and live? We’re aware also that the present is constantly becoming the past, so that my initial question, once posited, is already an add-on to a past that keeps growing in memory and yet is gone — just like that — never to be again. And there’s the future also, another shadowy domain of the imagination, not memory this time but projection, looming up and likewise disappearing. So the present, when we talk about it as our place of choice, isn’t this point, this now — already gone — but a portion of the past that we privilege as being our time, the present time that lasts, I would suppose, as long as we do.


I have lately found myself thinking a lot about time. When we talked about writing to each other back in California, the plan seemed to be that we would recollect what has been a shared past for more than fifty years. That has been more than a lifetime for a number of the people whom we knew but, for myself, I find it difficult to put a term like a half century to when we first met. I may be the only person left who remembers you with a head of dark hair — not even Ellie, not even Diane or Marcia, can go back that far. That must have been in 1949 or 1950, a party for Henry Leffert’s students before the summer break at City College. You were a terrific talker even then but a talker, unlike others, with whom I felt totally at ease. We started our conversations that June and have continued them up to the present, rarely in writing, although our poems at a certain point had what seemed to me then like a reciprocal relationship.


Time implies change, I suppose, and I was trying to be aware of that during the ten days I spent in New York earlier this month. We were staying down in SoHo — at Emily Harvey’s gallery — and it was clear to me that there had never been a neighborhood with such a name when we first knew the city. I was still living in the Bronx then, and you were up around Columbia, on Tieman Place, but probably only a year or two away from Brooklyn. As young poets or writers, since both of us had come to that already, the city as such was largely Manhattan, and the area of choice was likely the Village, with some possibilities up toward Columbia or drifting into Harlem. It was an artists’ city even then, and cheap to live in for the next twenty-five years or so, but the neighborhoods were limited and not marked off or differentiated (with the exceptions noted) by clusterings of artists and of venues for showings and performances.


By contrast Manhattan is now marked by numerous clusters — the results of gentrification and economic dispersals, and a little staggering when you come right down to it. It makes me think of Pound’s term “radiant clusters” although that applies to something else entirely — more like his vortex which would be New York, say, and then the various little vortices like Greenwich Village, the east Village, SoHo, NoHo, Chelsea, the West Side, and up into Harlem and over into Brooklyn and Queens where all the younger poets seem to go and across the river into Hoboken, and God knows what else. (Many more galleries and museums than in the 1940s — and poetry readings and performances, which back then were almost nonexistent.) It reminds me too of what we used to read about Yanomamo villages in South America — how the populations would expand and the villages would send off shoots to form still other villages — and on and on. So New York ends up with these multiple artists’ villages, which must have something to do with the production or overproduction of artists and poets in the hundreds of MFA programs and such that have grown up since the 1950s. For me this is the “present” in New York and it feels different from the “past” that I remember, though the connections are also very clear.


I don’t know that this makes a better condition for what we do, or that what we do is better because of it, and I know that one can argue the reverse (and that you’re likely to do so). But for a stranger from another time — another world — it’s a remarkable circumstance to have (somehow) wandered into.




(…) I’m also aware of how much some of us are dependent on collaboration — or “discourse” to use a favorite old word of yours — while others aren’t. I find that San Diego answers to my needs when I’m there — now more than ever, when the internet keeps us in quick contact with the rest of the world. At the same time I haven’t lost a sense of New York as “my city,” although it’s clearly a different place from when we were growing up there. So is San Diego, I would think, from when you first got to it or when we followed you there a few years after. San Diego is also Mexico for me, in a way that it wasn’t back in 1971 or in 1975 when we took up permanent residence. I don’t feel particularly nostalgic for either place — for New York or San Diego as they were — but I get excited about the differences from then to now. And when I get to New York these days, the great pleasure is in the discovery of more and more differences — the overlay of the new city where the old city used to be. My big hope at this point is to continue, for as long as I can, to move between those places, with Paris, from which I’m writing at the moment, as an extra bonus. Beyond that there’s the rest of the world — other places that attract me and that change my writing when I’m there — but not enough world and time for that to happen.






dear jerry —


In any event I think your and my sense of the opportunity offered by contingency is more interesting as an opening. I know that for me it was a sheer accident of returning to New York City in 1963 and living in a small house we sublet from an art-collecting dentist in a corner of the Bronx not far from the Whitestone Bridge and the Museum of the American Indian was a piece of unprecedented good luck. The neighborhood was Irish and Italian and the local library must have had an intellectual Catholic buying its books, because that’s where I discovered Simone Weil’s journals and the insurance manual that got me started on “definitions for mendy,” which was haunted by Weil’s meditations on the violence of the universe.


Still, I’m not sure how I came to construct a poem out of a set of definitions and questions addressed to them, but the rightness of my choice seemed confirmed for me by the ‘Aztec Definitions’ I encountered a little bit later, when you and I started working on the first issue of Some/thing sometime in 1964. For me the poetical impulse that produced the Aztec pieces was the struggle to question experience, to formulate and reformulate meditatively what a cave was … a mountain was … or more explosively what a mushroom was — “round like a severed head.” The Aztec work confirmed for me the notion of a poetry as an act of the mind concentrating, trying to find its way. So that took me back to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which came to inhabit “the black plague” and got me to rereading the mad definitions of his Tractatus — Die Welt is alles was der Fall ist — (und warum auch nicht was noch nicht der Fall ist, und auch was der Fall war, und auch was ist im Stande der Fall zu sein).


So it was from the Bronx library, to my mendy poem, to the ‘Aztec Definitions’ to rethinking Wittgenstein in a chain of contingent relations. Starting with a return to a city and one of its local, parochial libraries. But readiness is all (…)