Jerome Rothenberg, with Javier Taboada


[While it’s been slowed down by the current pandemic, I’m awaiting the publication later this year of El Libro de las Voces (The Book of Voices): Poemas y Poéticas from Mangos de Hacha in Mexico, DF, and the Universidad de Nueva Léon in Monterrey. The book (in Spanish) 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. Another portion of the interview appeared previously in Poems and Poetics, but the segment shown here in English translation may be of some special interest for the discussion between us of the early and already dangerous years of the Trump era, about which more could obviously be said at present.


I would add, too, that since writing this interview, Taboada has joined me as coauthor of the new assemblage of North and South American poetry (“from origins to present”), to be published as early as next year by University of California Press. (j.r.)]




I would like to link one of your poems, Twentieth Century Unlimited, with the outcome of the presidential elections in the United States:


As the twentieth century fades out

the nineteenth begins


it is as if nothing happened

though those who lived it thought

that everything was happening

enough to name a world for & a time

to hold it in your hand

unlimited the last delusion

like the perfect mask of death


Do you think that the ‘last delusion’ has already been unmasked?


The poem goes back to the 1990s when the Cold War was coming to an end and with it — for better or worse — many of the twentieth-century dreams of human perfectibility and unlimited progress that we had taken too easily for granted. That was the “last delusion” I was talking about then, but the still-darker thrust of the poem was the sense, already forming, of a retrogression to precisely the conditions that those dreams and delusions were aiming to address. We were moving, in other words, into a new century and millennium, but what was emerging already was a return to the conditions of the century before: “nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, ethnic and religious violence, growing extremes of wealth and poverty” in the description Jeffrey Robinson and I provided for the preface to the third volume of Poems for the Millennium. To which we added: “All reemerge today with a virulence that calls up their earlier nineteenth-century versions and all the physical and mental struggles against them, struggles in which poetry and poets took a sometimes central part.”


This wasn’t prophecy (though it might have been) but my sense of history speaking and unfolding for us in the here and now. And it has only intensified over the last two decades: the farce that history has now become in Trump’s time, but not without the threat of tragedy as well. To speak more specifically, what’s marking the present century — whether it resembles the nineteenth or not — are two distinct emergences: the rise of ISIS-like religious movements over the last two decades (and not only Muslim) and the rise of the nationalism and jingoism that Trump is bringing to us in the United States, and others like him elsewhere. Not to equate the two too easily; both are threats to a fact-based sense of reality on the one hand and to an open life of the imagination on the other, and my own push, like that of most poets I know, is to bring the two together: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as Marianne Moore once had it.


So, yes, I think the mask has already fallen off, and we again have to take account of the actual present that confronts and threatens us. For this poetry would be my own immediate answer, as it has always been, but there are other answers as well — and maybe, in the short run, better. Under any circumstances, the threats of violence and closure are what we have to stand against — wherever found and however answered.


Is this what you meant when in A Further Witness you wrote: the age of the assassins / once deferred / comes back / full blast? Where do you think all this will lead?


At my age I’m suddenly feeling closed off from a future that I’m not likely to see, but I can try to answer the question as if I’ll be a part of it. With that in mind I can reconstruct fairly easily what I was getting at in A Further Witness: the sense of terrorism (also a tactic with nineteenth-century roots) as a notable and distressing fact of our new and present reality. By assassination, then, I mean murder as a public and political act, not only aimed at rulers and leaders but, very much so, at the world-at-large. I could have also said the age of the murderers but I think that “age of the assassins” carries an echo of something from Rimbaud (Voici le temps des Assassins); at least that was the way I used it here. And there was also the other word that kept coming into the poetry — cruelty — as a signal of what we had to fear in the world that we knew from before and that kept coming back no matter how much we tried to defer it. As much as I feared and hated it, whether active or passive, I knew it was something that had to be right there, at the core of what I thought and wrote as a poet. It is for this reason that I used it several times as a book title, A Cruel Nirvana, in English, French, and Spanish and in a poem of that name, which ends with these lines:


It is summer

but the trees

are dead.

They vanish with

our fallen friends.

The eye in torment

brings them down

each mind a little world

a cruel nirvana.


That would put it even at the heart of religious or spiritual attempts to escape it — the cruelty of the escape from cruelty — but its most hideous effects are in the public world and in the murders and tortures that serve as instruments of policy or, worse yet, of belief. So the idea, much needed today, is not to exclude it but to bring it into the body of the poem, as a sign of both the terror and the pity that the poem calls forth.


And right now we hear that “torture absolutely works,” and words like “immigration ban,” “mass deportations,” “walls,” and so on. During the Republican debate (January 14, 2016), Trump said that all his immigration and foreign policy ideas were not motivated by fear. “It’s not fear and terror, it’s reality” (he said).


For many of us the emergence of Trump as a successful political figure brought to mind Marx’s quip that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy and the second time as farce.” To this Trump gave himself fully, as if playing a role out of Chaplin’s Great Dictator or Jarry’s Ubu, still short of where the farce might lead or what tragedy it might rekindle in its aftermath. So Trump as clown brought images to mind of Mussolini or Khadafy — with chin thrust forward and with arms and legs akimbo — and sometimes, too, the still-more-evil figure of Hitler, whose rants like Trump’s we also took as farce and later came to know as tragedy.


In the process, anyway, language now as then is under siege, and the results, for all the differences, are hard to estimate. In my own work the following excerpt from a longer poem, written a few days ago, starts from Marx’s quote on farce and tragedy, and it ends with a few choice words just added from your previous question:



“The President of Desolation”


or as Karl Marx once had it

“history repeats itself

                the first time as tragedy

                                                         the second time as farce”

& for the third time


not farce but madness

from the start

the roots of tragedy


in the barely human

ready to bring us down


to which he leads us

in a dream

almost as deadly

as a tunnel

the mind winds through

seeing the sky ahead


but kept from it

by stumbling

tumbling where the face

of someone like

a swollen clown

steps forth


whose fat cheeks grow

enormous while his body

shrinks until he stands

before us like a tiny

naked man who neither

thinks nor dreams


when in the morning sun

his face escapes him

in the empty mirror

he must ask the sky

to bring it back to him

hapless to find his way


the rage inside him

slides into his mouth

from which he vomits

words & empty sounds

his name the only

meme he knows


he is the cockeyed boss

the president of desolation

chin thrust forward

arms akimbo

legs astride

the world his crucible


a body without shape

that shrinks

& drives his mind out

through his eyes

whose teeth still clatter

syllables cut free


with this the world

will end & time

return to endless space

not to be counted

past what the fabled

start was


fear & terror

& the reality

to come


One of your lifetime projects deals with the secularization of the mystical imagery/languages to drive them “from religion to poetry, and from poetry to the ‘disbelievers’ (this last term taken from Huelsenbeck). But you have also explored languages and images of science, technology, politics. … Do you think one of the threats of the language (and thus poiesis) is a re-installation of a “sacred” or “antisecular” apparatus based on absolute truths or dogma?


When I began to look into the sources and possibilities of poetry, I was soon fascinated by how much the language and visions of certain mystical writers — some of them poets and some of them not — resembled for me the furthest reaches of Surrealism or aspects of the full-blown Romanticism that preceded it. That was in a line, I believe, with the poetry or near-poetry of shamanism, which was a principal theme I was pursuing in Technicians of the Sacred.


Yet even here it was not only the seemingly oneiric images that attracted me but the various methods of composition and performance that were bringing the dreamlike experiences into language. In these I found a strong resemblance to such avant-garde forms as sound poetry, collage, chance operations, visual poetry, and the use of personal accoutrements like masks and costumes in performance, etc. If my search in Technicians focused on low-technology cultures, I found their “techniques of the sacred” (Eliade) even more attractive when set alongside the science and technology at the apex of the secular. I tried in fact, in my own small way, to break down the barrier between the two — and even more, while doing that, “to liberate the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power…” (Huelsenbeck again.)


Our use of the term “experimental” is in that case significant, as well: a thorny but useful relationship, evident in Blake’s appeal for “the comforter, or Desire” to absorb him, “that Reason may have Ideas to build on,” or Whitman still-more directly in Leaves of Grass:Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!” In our poetry — the poetry of the “disbelievers,” though not limited to those — the variety, and often the clash, of images and symbols seemed to me a bulwark against the kind of dogmatism you cite here. In that sense we were neither mystics nor shamans, though some among us may have thought otherwise. And some of this worked for me, too, at another point in my writing, when I turned for a while to Jewish traditions and formats — past and present — in what I described as “a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen,” attracted as much as anything by the chance to bring those outsided and subterranean realities to surface in what for me was a place irrefutably “close to home.”


To keep on breaking down barriers (as you just said), months ago you announced that you were working on a new big book, an anthology of all the Americas (north and south, continental and insular, etc). Which ideas will you face or challenge about our own assumed identity/mind/poetics?


The principal thrust of the new anthology, which I began composing as a collaboration with Heriberto Yépez, starts with the discomfort many of us feel with the restrictive use of America as the name for one country and language among the many that make up the reality of the Americas as a more complex geographic and cultural whole.


For the two of us, one a poet from Mexico and the other from the United States, the idea of a still-larger America(s), made up of many independent parts, has been a topic of continuing shared interest. Since there is no such gathering at the present time, we find ourselves free to make a new beginning, an experiment through anthologizing, to explore what results might follow from a juxtaposition of poets and poetries covering all parts of the Americas and the range of languages within them: European languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, including creoles and pidgins, as well as a large number of Indigenous languages such as Mapuche, Quechua, Mayan, Mazatec, and Nahuatl. While our sense of “America” along these lines would extend and amplify the European metaphor of the Americas as a “new world,” we also recognize and embrace the reality of two thousand years or more of (Native) American indigenous poetry and writing. It is precisely such complexities and contradictions, even conflicts, that remain to be discovered and will engage us here. That such a book can be composed as a shared project, a manifesto against cultural and linguistic imperialisms (whether English or Spanish or other) is another objective that I would clearly have in mind.


Talking about “the tutelage of the advocates of power,” nowadays there’s a big debate related to the ethics of the artists and — with that in mind — to question the validity of their works (even repel their influence). For instance, Pound is labeled as “antisemitic” and “fascist,” Olson [by Yépez] as an “imperialist,” and so on. What do you think about all this? How do you reconcile it? Can the “symposium of the whole” exclude some authors for their political or ethical behavior?


When Ezra Pound died in 1972, I ran into Gary Snyder who was traveling through western New York, where I was then living. Gary had somehow been introduced to the great Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer earlier in his trip, and the question of Pound’s anti-Semitism and fascism came up in their conversation, much as it does in ours: to exclude him or not for his political or ethical behavior. And Singer, as Gary told it, replied with a question and answer of his own: Was Pound a truly good, even a great poet? In which case he should not be excluded — condemned for sure but as a poet not excluded or erased.


For myself the answer would be similar: Pound’s gift to us is in the poetry itself, even where it brings his dark or cruel side to light, and with it perhaps a sense of failure as he himself confesses toward the end of his life. For which I take a verse of his (below, in italics) and add to it, to finish his poem or to channel his dead voice through my own:


And I am not a demigod,

I cannot make it cohere.


Nor bring it, at a dare,

into my focus,

where the sunlight even now

turns ashen,


heavy with burnt matter,

stinking, where the century

has turned a corner,

like a swollen foetus


it has pulled me down,

old vanity

has pulled me down.


And then about Olson, whose northern “imperialism” (along with many others) was criticized rather harshly by Yépez in an earlier book: he will figure prominently and on-the-whole positively in the new anthology of the Americas now underway. Nor will we in any sense exclude Neruda, say, for his fulsome praise of Stalin, or Pound and others morally blind enough to act as apologists for other cruel and vile governments and ideologies. The test however will be in the poetry itself: the real work of the poet and the “poethical” morality therein, from which we turn away to our own loss and detriment.


Since you mentioned him earlier, Ed Sanders wrote: “The important lesson we can learn from Pound (…) is never to allow hatred (…) to arouse one, or to wire one up, to the point of insanity, or violence, or to the condoning of racism, or killing. Treason against gentleness… Do you think the poet has a responsibility other than writing good poems? Should this reflect directly onto his or her work?


I think of course that everyone has that kind of responsibility but that it doesn’t necessarily come into the body of the poem. Also, what Sanders is calling a “treason against gentleness” is something to be wary of in all aspects of our saying and thinking, a surrender to violence and anger that spills over and obliterates all the goods of the intellect that form the center of Ed’s own gentle pacifism and compassionate engagements. Even so, whether in our poems or in the circumstances of our everyday lives, things are more complicated than that, and a soft answer may not always turn away wrath. That seems self-evident, as does the wisdom of William Blake’s words, both for Sanders and for me, that “the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” So there is something here beyond gentleness — the black holes at the center of our poems and thoughts from which creation springs.