Jerome Rothenberg in conversation with Irakli Qolbaia, on the origins of Ethnopoetics, deep image, gematria, and other early matters

Reading at Morden Tower, Newcastle, circa 1967, with Tony Harrison (left).
Reading at Morden Tower, Newcastle, circa 1967, with Tony Harrison (left).

[This conversation was carried on between Tbilisi, Georgia, and Encinitas, California in late 2017.  Other work by Irakli Qolbaia can be found here and here on Poems and Poetics.]


Irakli Qolbaia: At the first page of the new and expanded Technicians of the Sacred, one can read Diane Wakoski saying: “I will always like best those poets like Ginsberg and Rothenberg who write about serious, passionate, often doleful concerns” [goes on]. Which is lovely but made me wonder, could one not say with equal justice: “… poets like Rothenberg, in whom even doleful and serious should be married to playful, even joyful — the act of creation itself”?  What would you make of this? I know how doleful it can get: you are one of the most important poets who came to the age of poetic creation after the World War II and whose reality was underscored by the Holocaust (or rather Khurbn) and Hiroshima, and what’s more, you especially decided to take these as some of your prime concerns. You, along with some others, seem to have decided to (quoting Olson) “put your hand down to these dead.” Meaning, witnessing and experiencing the world, in the fullest sense of these words, as one of the responsibilities of the poem.


Jerome Rothenberg: It’s my memory that Wakoski was commenting here on Poland/1931 and possibly a somewhat later work like A Seneca Journal, and that she went on to specify what she meant as “a poetry which has historical and archetypal themes, which can be described as representing a culture and which tries to present, through a prescribed set of imagery and stylized vocabulary, a whole mode of perception.” And all of that could fairly be said to be an aspect of what I was pursuing then, and maybe in different ways later, including very much the big anthologies and assemblages like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. Yet “doleful” alone, or even when augmented by “serious” and “passionate,” would seem to pin me down, to limit me or Ginsberg or any other poet to a portion of our writing, something Wakoski recognized as well when she expanded the range of her description. And I can think of another aspect of my work (several aspects in fact) with which this necessarily elides — the more experimental and playful, even the more rhythmic and performative, if it comes to that.


In saying that of course I don’t at all deny “the doleful,” or the responsibility — to call it that, as you do — to let the poem witness, by every means possible, the horrors we grew up with and that continue to confront us into the present. I feel that as an underlying presence in whatever I do as a poet, even as I search for new means and procedures, including those in which I can bring other voices and presences into the poem. Maybe an antidote too to self-indulgent self-expression, by making the poem into a conduit for the hapless dead and others rather than an instrument of self-expression: a gathering of other voices, other times.


IQ: So, I am inquiring, I guess, [about] this double nature of your poetry, of “serious/doleful” and “playful/humorous.” I know such has always been the part of the thing, but I think more about you more than Allen in the sense that in your work I see that sense of joyfulness and playfulness on the level of creation, very fundamentally, that is, in the procedures themselves, as if the joy and playfulness were at the core of the poetic activity. I am reminded also of the Jesus Christ words you love to quote: “if thou wouldst understand that which is me, know this: all that I have said I have uttered playfully — and I was by no means ashamed of it” (Acts of St. John).


JR: I think there are two — at least two — impulses at work here: an ironic and skeptical view of the world-at-large and an element of play that seems present to me in all poetry as a highly developed form of language art. It’s with these in mind, it seems to me, that Plato drives the poets from his authoritarian republic, with an awareness perhaps of the sources of poetry in the transgressive narratives and comic performances of sacred clowns and tricksters, but touching on Athenian tragedy and comedy as well. In place of those what remains of poetry, as Plato would have it, are “hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.” For myself, by contrast, I find the calling-into-question of gods and men a sign of social and spiritual health deeply imbedded in the human psyche — not all that poetry can give us, but lacking which, poetry becomes a largely empty vessel. I would also point out that the quote from Jesus is apocryphal, even heretical, and reflects the relevance of outsider or outsided texts, one of the areas of greatest interest to me in the mapping or remapping of poetry and poetics over new/old areas of space and time.


Then, the other aspect of poetry’s playfulness, has to do with its ongoing attention to formal experimentation and constraint as a kind of lyrical game theory, an element of play in all poetry, as a matter of fancy as well as imagination (to use the old-fashioned Romanticist terms) — “in the procedures themselves,” as you say. For me, once freed from traditional rhymes and meters, the concern with procedures continues in multiple ways, often enough as a strategy to preclude too much expressionism and subjectivity in the process of composition. In that mode, for example, I turned some years ago to a traditional form of Jewish numerology — gematria — that played off the fact that all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were also numbers, so that all words were thereby sums of numbers. This allowed the pairing or equating of similarly numbered words and phrases, traditionally for the confirming of orthodoxies, but open for myself and those like me to surprising new turns and twists: “an entry” (as I wrote) “into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist and ‘post’modernist poetry experiments over the last century and a half.” So, the following, for example, somewhere between orthodoxy and transgression:


Without God


Without terror.



In the Shadow (1)                In the Shadow (2)


A womb                                 I am

he devours.                           nothing.



A Vision (1)                           A Vision (2)


Beat it                                     God

with power.                           is crushed.



A Curse


Your father

shall live.





or enough.


In the end, too, when I was commissioned later for a series of poems about the Jewish holocaust I turned again to gematria, playing off the Hebrew spellings of the World War II extermination camps and drawing from the biblical vocabulary that this provided me. Thus:


now the serpent:


I will bring back

their taskmasters

crazy & mad


will meet them

deep in the valley

& be subdued


separated in life

uncircumcised, needy

shoes stowed away


how naked they come

my fathers

my fathers


angry & trembling

the serpents

you have destroyed


their faces remembered

small in your eyes,

shut down, soiled


see a light

take shape in the pit,

someone killed


torn in pieces

a terror, a god,

go down deeper


It was my contention here, as with other such formal procedures, “that this small degree of objective chance would not so much mask feeling or meaning as allow it to emerge.”                   


All of which brings me, I suppose, to the final term in your question: the sense of “joy” or “joyfulness” as it enters into or emerges from the work at hand — an antidote perhaps to the doleful and serious side that you or Wakoski were calling to attention. It’s a quality — an experience really — that I sometimes find it hard to get at but that I think emerges in the willingness to endure and when the energy of the effort builds up and allows me to persist. And I think I feel it most — sometimes at least — in performance, even at the end of a serious and doleful work like Khurbn: a relief and a release, to have gotten it said: something very visceral after all the mind-work. And in other works of course the dolefulness may not even be present.


IQ: I find it, then, appropriate if we move now to the territory I could not help invoking. I mean the period and place around which you emerged as a poet. I recall Jacques Roubaud calling it ‘the explosion of poetry in America’ and that’s how many of us still feel, fascinated and overwhelmed by it, distanced as we may be, both geographically and temporally, from that initial explosion. So please, do give us your personal insight into that time, that moment of ‘big bang.’ Asking this, what I have in mind is that for many of us, the Don Allen anthology and your later assemblages and gatherings served as vital historical documents, and an invitation to enter and participate.


“There has been a break somewhere,” informs us, joyously, Williams, of his own time. What was the break you experienced? “Poetry is the only news,” wrote, I recall, Robert Kelly. What was the news you felt you were bringing?                                                                                              


And lastly, please tell us who were some people, present then, for you, as teachers and companions? I know of your closeness with David Antin, Robert Kelly and others, among the young poets of your age, from the early sixties on, but also of your fruitful exchanges, with the older poets, like Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. Was this an apprenticeship? And what were some of the things that you learned?


JR: The past, for some of us, doesn’t seem so far past, though we know it is. For me and many of us, the news by the late 1950s was both new and had a trace of the past about it — a conviction that an earlier experimental and transformational modernism, assigned to the ash-heap of history by an intervening generation, was still alive and ready for us to transform it further, as our own time demanded. Like today that time was marked by an upswing of authoritarianism from all directions — different from the second world war but coloring our lives in postwar America — to which the reaction on the literary side came first in a counterpoetics against those who would block the experimental and new. For all of us, I think, there was the accompanying excitement about the emergence of a “new American poetry,” but for some of us there was the recognition of a similar uprising throughout the world and a recognition that our key forerunners were not only Williams and Pound, for most of us, and Stein and Cummings for others, but also that we were drawing heavily as well from the near European past. Along with that of course we were beginning or continuing an exploration of ancient, sometimes occulted sources from throughout the world. So my own early explorations of ethnopoetics fit into that — a continuation also from poets like Tzara and Cendrars, the Surrealists, and many others. Also I would point out that Technicians of the Sacred, as a starter, came from and connected with what Kelly and I were calling “deep image,” but much more than that, as I sometimes tried to show. At the same time too, most of the poets I knew were moving headlong into performance — a new orality and a linkage also, too often ignored or too often exaggerated, with contemporary jazz and an emerging rock n roll.


So, it was by the late 1950s or early 1960s that the poetry world, as I knew it, began rapidly expanding, and what had started with my own cadre of poets in New York — Antin, Kelly, Schwerner, Economou, Owens, and Wakoski — brought an equally close connection with Blackburn, Eshleman, and Mac Low, among many many others. Even more notably I began to make contact with poets outside of my zone of comfort: Duncan and Snyder on the West Coast, Creeley in New Mexico and later in Buffalo, Zukofsky and Oppen among older American poets, Hollo and Tarn in England and later in the US, Enzensberger in Germany, Roubaud and Jean-Pierre Faye in France, Fluxus poets and artists everywhere, and on and on. What can I say about that but that the times were right, then and in the years that followed, and led me to feel more and more a part of a far-flung company of poets. That was the “big bang” for me, at least the poetry part of it, because it stopped me from being too narrowly focused but opening to a whole range of possibilities for poetry and what a French friend, Michel Giroud, described to me later as “an avant-garde that cannot be defeated.”

The turmoil and changes in the larger world were also increasing, as they always do, and by the end of the decade we were all caught up in the dynamics of resistance.


IQ: Deep image, ethnopoetics, total translation, omnipoetics … These are only a few of the concepts/practices that you have contributed in modern poetry or poesis. All your books — whether the books of your own poems or your gatherings and anthologies — have contributed to these, and of course these have contributed to one another. I wish you’d talk just a bit about what some of these practices meant (as, for now, they may be vaguer for a Georgian reader). But especially I have been interested by the turn these workings and insights have recently taken: the poetry of Outside and Subterranean.

Such has involved all poetries that, without having necessarily been qualified as such, have, throughout the ages involved and invoked something in extremis, something “barbaric, vast and wild”; and, has involved the writings of the so-called “Primitive” people, of shamans, of the Jewish “mystics, thieves and madmen,” of the voices long suppressed, of those victimized by oppression, of the heretical, blasphemous, of the “mentally ill,” but this, it is worth noting, along with the people considered generally as poets, those who have uncontestably belonged to the “Paradise of Poets.” 

So can you tell us about this? Your personal “symposium of the whole,” now for so long in the making? And, further, what is still to be contributed in this area? How can future poets (or not) further extend this terrain?


JR: Now that I’ve reached an age when I can look back so far, I’m amazed at what a fifty- or sixty-year span looks like. For me, to pick up on the terms you mention, the involvement in the early 1960s with “deep image” now appears as an attempt to extend some of the concerns of our Surrealist predecessors and by doing that to revitalize simultaneously the imagism and objectivism of an earlier American avant-garde. A few years into that and prodded by conversations with Kelly and Duncan among others, I saw the depth in deep image as connected also to a deeper past, and that in turn would lead me, by research and translation, to what I came to call ethnopoetics. I had been fascinated from early on by translation and by writing in part or in whole through the work of others — the anthologies as one way to do that and translation as another. My contribution here was the idea of “total translation” (translating sound and event as well as meaning) but also still other forms of what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation” and I called “othering.” I also felt impelled to open the field further — as far as I could take it — to include previously excluded, even despised voices, “outside & subterranean,” where I felt the language of poetry speaking through them.  There was in that something like what Duncan had called “a symposium of the whole” and that I’ve recently been speaking of as an omnipoetics.


So, much of what I’m saying here is directed today against the renewed forms of racism and ethnicism that we see rising around us — a call now, as it was fifty years ago — to welcome the diversity of poetries and lives that our own writing and gathering can help to advance. This is a continuing process, as I see it, and not restricted at all to the smaller field of poetry. That field however is where I chose to test my powers and to help construct (who knows?) a kind of model for the world at large.