Jerome Rothenberg, with Javier Taboada
From 'UN LIBRO DE LAS VOCES' (forthcoming)
[The following are the opening pages of Un Libro de las Voces (A Book of Voices), scheduled for publication early next year by Mangos de Hacha in Mexico, D.F. and the Universidad de Nueva Léon in Monterrey. The book consists of an extended interview of me by Javier Taboada reinforced by an interspersed selection of poems and other writings, the whole of it translated into Spanish by Taboada. Along the way I would point our that Taboada is also my present coeditor / coauthor of an assemblage of North and South American poetry and poetics “from origins to present,” under contract with the University of California Press. That work, of course, continues unimpeded, even as we speak. (j.r.)]
Poetry translation has been an essential element of your work. In Writing Through: Translations & Variations you speak of the difference between translation and composition. Has your approach to translation changed over the years? Do you view translation as a different mode of composition?
I view translation as a particular kind of composition (not always but certainly) where the intention is to match a poem in one language with a fully present poem in another. To do that I have to employ my full resources as a poet, while remaining faithful to my sense of the other’s meanings and, as far as feasible, their rhythms and my equivalents to those. Since, however, there are two languages and poetic cultures involved here, there are certain changes that inevitably come into play, sometimes quite minor but in other instances moving us from simple translation into what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation.” To push this still further and to lend it some legitimacy, I tried in Writing Through to show the many ways in which the words and voices of others could enter into my own poetry and form the basis for new compositions at a nearer or further remove from theirs. At an extreme I played with the idea that all poetic composition was a form of translation, embedding the works and words of the many poets who came before or side by side with us. I felt, as I was compiling that collection, that our originality — my originality, to be more precise — was not threatened by such broad-based influence from others but was truly enhanced by it.
You say that you came to think that “all poetic composition was a form of translation” … could you develop the idea.
The point of reference, which I wouldn’t want to belabor too much, is where we feel ourselves to be working within a tradition or lineage or as a singular part of a larger company of poets, past and present. That calls already for a great deal of transference and absorption, naturalizing the writings of predecessor poets and significant contemporaries, both foreign and domestic, into my own tongue, as an act, to my thinking, of translation and closely related forms of appropriation, what I’ve tried to cover elsewhere with a word like “othering.” Alongside more autonomous procedures of observation and imagination, this has been crucial to me and puts me in conflict with Harold Bloom’s well-known thesis of an “anxiety of influence” common to all poets of any stature or status. For myself I incline more toward Robert Duncan’s self-identification as a “derivative poet,” welcoming and encouraging influences from every and all directions. Interacting with Duncan, who became a close friend after our initial meeting in 1959, I found his critique of “originality” a liberating force that would welcome other voices into my own poetry and those assemblages like Technicians of the Sacred that were my clearest equivalents to what Duncan spoke of elsewhere as a “grand collage.” Along with that I attempted, at first with The Lorca Variations in 1990, to create a more specific linkage to the works and words of others, and I realized that this was also an aspect of translation and realized too that there was an undercurrent of translation in almost everything we do as poets — the translation of all actions and things and thoughts and feelings into language, along with the turning of one language into another or moving from idiolect to idiolect within the same language.
Do you think, like William Carlos Williams, that poetry should employ the same speech patterns used in daily life? And should the poet also appropriate modes of speech from other times and traditions?
All of the above, Javier, with the proviso that the default language for today’s poetry — at least where I come from — is that drawn from ordinary speech, and yet, if you listen closely, you’ll realize that, as it’s fine-tuned by the poet, it comes to the ear and mind as something extra-ordinary. Further, from my own experience, there are times when I deliberately turn to something other than the speech patterns of everyday life. The most obvious occasions involve the use of the obsolete second-person pronoun (thou-thee-thine) in English, as in this mock-address to the female aspect of God (Shekhina) in Jewish mystical tradition:
O Esther K. thou my semitic beauty thou easter excellence
thou poor forsaken witness yet plyest thy trade in peace!
Thou warmest a towel for the Governor.
Thou wearest a rose gown.
(A man, once come on business, learneth to stay & bathe with thee.)
Thou eatest tripe & poppy seeds.
Thou sharest half thy bounty with the rich.
But at other times I feel a need for that usage, as a proper form of address to a forgotten Jewish Poland and to my role as what I jokingly called “the last Yiddish poet,” writing only in English:
o poland thy beer is ever made of rotting bread
thy silks are linens merely thy tradesmen
dance at weddings where fanatic grooms
still dream of bridesmaids still are screaming
past their red moustaches poland
When another poet later translated this into normative Yiddish, it restored the second-person form of address (as it would also in Spanish), as an example of a kind of counter-translation.
You have said that you recall hearing songs at your local synagogue as a child, and listening to African American preachers on the radio. Did you sense, back then, that there was something unique about that experience? Do you feel that these were defining experiences in your future as a poet?
I can’t truly recall what I felt back then, but I know that what I heard helped to shape my sense that there were vehicles for poetry beyond what I was already reading on the printed page. Growing up when and where I did, it was also possible to come on other forms of sung and chanted language, and my predisposition was to attend to whatever I came across from a range of recorded and live performances that were then becoming available. Years later David Antin and I would play around with Rudyard Kipling’s equally playful lines, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, / And every single one of them is right.” This was bringing us into a concern for both “high” and “low” forms of expression, with a desire to break down the barriers between them and to let each emerge as singular and unique. Only much later did I realize that my own sense of originality came not from exclusion, as I thought at first, but from the inclusion in any new poetics of as much of the poetic past and present as was open and meaningful to me.
This bringing together of both “high” and “low” forms of expression is a central aspect of your anthologies. Fifty years after the work you started in Technicians, do you see a new poetic dialogue happening between the wide-range poetries/poetics and the mainstream? How can we build upon this foundation?
There are a number of intersections between different channels of poetry, and I’ve thought increasingly of bringing more and more of these together. That would of course include the mainstream or canonical as well, though careful not to lose or weaken our sense of the transformative and transgressive in the process. Where this came into full play for me was in yet another gathering, the third volume of Poems for the Millennium, where Jeffrey Robinson and I looked back at the nineteenth century, to construct a new picture of Romanticism and post-romanticism on an international scale. Here of course we included, or even foregrounded, the works of canonical and easily recognized figures but attempted to see them anew as experimental and disruptive, qualities that had been obscured in the passage from their time to ours. What emerged for us was a continuum of poetry and poetics (Romanticism linked to Modernism, and “inside” to “outside”) replete with changes and new discoveries, where we were free to explore the fuller range of each poet’s works (the “classics” included): Hoelderlin’s palimpsests along with his finished poems, Coleridge’s fragments from the Gutch notebooks, Goethe’s “theory of color” as vision and science, Poe’s book-length “prose poem” Eureka on the thin borderline between poetry and physics. And alongside these and others we placed works by outsided and non-literary figures, and we constructed additional sections such as “A Book of Origins,” “Some Outsider Poets” and “Some Orientalisms.” Also, with an ultimate omnipoetics in mind, I moved the work forward in a later addition to the Millennium series: Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present. Having taken it this far, my hope is that other instalments will develop what we’ve started here.
It’s interesting, for example, what happened (among others) with Dante, don’t you think? Once banished from his homeland, now he is seen as a part of the “canon” …
Banishment of course is one extreme that many “canonical” writers have faced somewhere along their journey, and many canonized writers pass through a time of rejection or neglect before belated recognition. This is one of the themes in Barbaric Vast & Wild, my gathering of “outside and subterranean poetry,” and it brings me back also to Gertrude Stein’s account of the passage from “outlaw” to “classic” in typical Stein fashion: “The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic.” Here Stein, being Stein, is likely not thinking of political extremes like banishment or imprisonment or assassination, but the history of poetry is replete with those as well: a danger and terror that continues into the present.
Your anthologies have tried to preserve and present voices that, generally, are not considered within the canon. I would like to address Barbaric Vast & Wild. There, you gather Coptic incantations, Greek sacred choirs, an epic of the American Sign Language, twitter poems, visual and hallucinatory poetry, glossolalia, a sermon of an African American preacher-poet, microscripts, private and semiprivate correspondence, Krazy Kat cartoons, etc., which reveal poetry as (to put it in your words) “the outside/outsider art par excellence.” Do you think poetry should keep on pushing every boundary — artistic, human — to reach what Blake called “The Palace of Wisdom”?
I don’t know that we ever reach there nor that we should expect to, even if we think of our lives as a striving in that direction. So, I’ve thought of poetry as a way always to move ahead and always without an end in sight, “palace of wisdom” or otherwise. And I’ve been possessed by an ambition to open poetry up to any and all of its possibilities, but in particular to those language acts that have been ignored, occulted, or suppressed. It’s in this way that I’ve come to speak of what some of us were doing or exploring as an omnipoetics. For me that began with Technicians of the Sacred and with the launching through Technicians of what I began to speak of then as an ethnopoetics. Here the immediate opening was to language works or poetry from places and times that had been too easily spoken of as “primitive” or “simplistic” or otherwise unformed and lacking.
By contrast, then, the key terms for me were “complex” and “universal/global,” and along with that I began approaching poetry not so much as a question of form or technique but as what Tristan Tzara — our great Dada predecessor — spoke of as “a way of being, a state-of-mind, of spirit.” Or not to get too far away from the work itself — an act of language over all — I began to use the Greek word poesis rather than poetry as such, to name an active, open process, since poetry seemed to suggest — qua literature — a sense of closure that left too much out of the total picture or scheme.
So, to get it said: I would take poesis and assert it as perhaps the oldest way we have for exploring mind, usually with ourselves as the experimental subject, related to objective/scientific explorations of psyche but without the need for closure or generalization, rather delighting in its particulars, one after the other, from poem to poem and poet to poet. For which the essential tool of course is language, from dialect to idiolect and back again.
Would it be fair to say that this was the original source for the development of your notion of “othering.” Could you tell us more about the importance of letting other voices resonate in your own poems?
“Othering” is the word I use for something quite similar to De Campos’s “transcreation,” but I’ve tried also to let it represent a range of other moves I’ve made in the course of my life as a poet. For me, anyway, the voices in the poem are not only those of poets I admire but of those also who have no public voices of their own and for whom what I write can sometimes serve as a conduit. In writing about this before, I’ve often used as a point of departure the following lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself, in which he lets that singular “self” include an entire world of voices:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.
This has clearly been important for me in the series of big books — anthologies or assemblages — that I’ve composed, beginning with Technicians of the Sacred and concluding with Barbaric Vast & Wild (“outside and subterranean poetry”). But maybe I feel it most sharply in Khurbn, the book-length series of poems memorializing the Jewish holocaust of the last century, as a follow-up to my earlier book, Poland/1931. Here it was important to me to let the dead speak, either through voices that I imagined or created, or, more importantly, through the testimonies of survivors or in the words that many of the murdered scrawled on gas-chamber walls or left behind on scraps of paper buried in the mud. If much of my poetry moves toward a kind of experimental formalism, this sense of witnessing and testimony is what those formalist procedures allow me to make happen. (At least I hope they do.)
Can you speak of the transition from your first exposure to poetry to your discovery of the experimental breakthroughs of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, Jackson Mac Low, Fluxus, John Cage and other defining modern figures?
My first inklings of Dada were in my mid-teens, when I began to read about it as an art movement of the previous generation and was particularly struck, I remember, by the references to the poetry-without-words that the artists had been producing. The poets themselves, much less the poems, were near impossible for me to come by — whether with words or without — until Robert Motherwell’s book, The Dada Painters and Poets, was published in 1951. This came, you must remember, at a time when “official verse culture” in the United States had turned against the experimental modernists and avant-gardists of the generation before, which made Motherwell’s book even more of an eye-opener (a mind-opener to be exact) for many of us. The relation of Dada to Surrealism was also of interest, but a grittier and less oppressive version as it came to us. It was enough anyway to bring Tzara into our line of site, along with Picabia and Schwitters and Duchamp, among a cast of hundreds. Still, it would take nearly a decade for me to get a true grip on all of that, going as far as to plan, in 1960, a volume that would bring a full range of Dada poets into a single book — something that we didn’t have in English, and maybe not even now. I was, anyway, going to call it That Dada Strain (after a jazz standard of that name) and publish it through my own small press, Hawk’s Well; but sadly it didn’t happen and I saved the title for still another decade and a book of my own poems, addressed in part to those I called “the Dada fathers.” By then things had changed for me. I met and became close with Jackson Mac Low — I hope to our mutual advantage — and found the New York Fluxus people in easy range, largely I thought in the orbit of John Cage. So, by the mid-’60s there was a neo-Dada feeling in the air, along with the surviving modernisms and the postmodernisms that coalesced with thoughts and yearnings of my own. With all of these I felt something in common that I still find hard to define, but I came to realize that what I had done on my own in Technicians linked me to a range of poets and artists, at home and abroad, and that what I finally aimed to do was to treat each one as unique and simultaneously, within my own limits, to bring them all together.
[And I would add here, as an afterthought, that in the first volume of Poems for the Millennium, Pierre Joris and I were able to bring Dada and its major participants into the picture we were projecting — for me the fulfillment of what I had attempted thirty years before.]
You have spoken before about the way in which singing/song opened new possibilities for you. Can you tell us something about that moment of “discovery” and the work that emerged for you in its wake?
In some languages (Hebrew and Japanese, for example) the same word is used for both song and poetry, and while English, like Spanish, favors two distinct words, the use of “song” to mean “poem” (as in Whitman’s Song of Myself) is certainly common enough. So that is something we inherit from our literature as such, even if it causes us to forget still other sources for poetry, like speaking and talking and writing. For myself, as I began to explore the possibilities of poetry as language art, with an eye and ear in search of origins, I found the range of oral poetries — of poetries in particular in cultures without writing — to be an area that needed further exploration. I pursued this through some of what had already been transcribed by others, but I also turned to transcriptions and translations of my own. What followed and took me by surprise was that I was able to push what I began calling “total translation” to include not only non-semantic sounds (mislabelled “non-sense”) but, as a final step, to translate the indigenous music of the original songs into a music of my own. The key work for me came in the early 1970s with the translation of a series of Navajo Indian horse-blessing songs, where I translated and thereby transformed or “transcreated” (to use Haroldo de Campos’s word) all sounds I was aware of in the Navajo versions. But the greater surprise — for me at least — was when I began to perform and re-oralize those translations and several others: an experience of poetry at a level I had never known before.
What about performance? That original energy that unlocks the corporal, sonic, visionary suppressed by tradition or other intermediaries … how do you conceive this process?
The “search for the primitive,” as Stanley Diamond had it, brought us back to the oral and performative aspects of poetry, which had been developing independently. And in our practice as well — though Kelly, say, spoke of it more then than I did — rhythm and sound were absolutely essential, and lineation in its various forms was clearly an issue. Still, some of that remains mysterious to me, particularly how what you seem to be talking about emerges for me in the act of performing, when something arises, with or without premeditation, and leaves me with a sense of wonder, even more so than deep image, I suppose. This anyway was the other great power of poetry to which I called attention, certainly in Technicians of the Sacred but in theoretical writings and in my own performance practice as well. I would stress, though, that this wasn’t only a matter of spontaneity but of a degree of premeditation and planning, in particular when I was working with others — musicians and actors foremost — which called for considerable work and attention “to get it right.” Like much else in my life as a poet, performance was largely self-taught, learning from a lineage of poets and artists who had come before me but also from the practice of those who were my contemporaries and compadres for the work at hand: musicians like Charlie Morrow and Bertram Turetzky; theatrical artists like The Living Theater and its offshoots; Klaus Schoening who commissioned and produced two radio sound-plays of mine for WestdeutscherRundfunk in Cologne. For that matter composition — poem-making — can also be premeditated, and in later years in particular I’ve often been involved with procedural operations alongside more spontaneous and improvisational forms of writing and performing. In the end our fullness as sentient beings is dependent on both.