Jerome Rothenberg, with Javier Taboada

From 'The Book of Voices,' 'I Heard the Voices of the Dead'

Cover of the Lithuanian edition of Khurbn by Algimantas Černiauskas
Cover of the Lithuanian edition of Khurbn by Algimantas Černiauskas

[The following continues an interview and conversation with Javier Taboada in El Libro de las Voces, just published in Mexico by Mangos de Hacha. The publication of course is in Spanish and includes a selection of poems and essays along with the extensive series of interviews. Still in my possession and unpublished is the entire book in English, from which the following excerpt is taken. (j.r.)]


Khurbn is one of your most brutal collections. You once mentioned that those poems are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry. In one of them, Dibbukim, you answer Adorno’s famous sentence on poetry after Auschwitz. You wrote: after auschwitz / there is only poetry / no hope / no other language left to heal / no language / & no faces / because no faces left. In the current state of things, do you still think so?


Of course I overstate the case here, though I think that there are reasons for doing so, not to let Adorno’s statement or the way it’s usually represented stand by itself. It was with Khurbn, anyway, that I felt possessed by the dead on a visit to Poland and Auschwitz, and poetry was the language, the only language, in which I could respond or bring it forth. There were so many dead, so many dibbuks killed before their time and entering the minds and thoughts of the survivors — an onslaught that needed then and now a language-of-resistance. Toward that end poetry had become over the last two centuries at least — but maybe always — the best vehicle I knew to trigger that resistance: an outside language, oppositional not just by what it said but by its very nature.


I think if that was true for me it was also true for other poets of my generation and for many poets who preceded us: a need to carry this forward and in so doing to change the means of poetry as well, to work toward new and unexpected forms, whether freshly invented or drawing from an otherwise neglected or occulted past. In doing this we recognized that we weren’t the first (although we often and rightly acted as if we were), nor would we, hopefully, be the last. In that sense, then, we could look back easily enough to those like Blake and Shelley or to the later “revolutions” of Dadas and Surrealists, or still closer to home, one like William Carlos Williams when he wrote: “Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas.” For him, for all of us in one way or another, the opposition was not only in the content but in the structure, the form, the language of the poem — both deep and surface.


That anyway was the arena in which I chose to work, while recognizing that there were other forms of resistance, perhaps more effective in the short run, but for me and others like me the choice was poetry, a place into which we felt ourselves driven. With Khurbn, more than any of my other writings, that much was true in every sense: “the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry.”


And in this sense there is a wide spectrum of testimonial poetry about the Holocaust, which has been developed by both nonprofessional’ voices and by poets as diverse as Celan or Reznikoff. But for Derrida, for example, there are negative aspects about testimony — in court — and its possibilities of falsification and perjury. What do you think of this in relation to poetry?


The problem in relation to poetry as such is that the work there — as in religion perhaps — is a mix of observed and imagined, fact and fiction, so that the measure of truth and untruth is hard to assess in isolation. The tilt for many of us as poets has been toward imagination and fancy, relentlessly amplifying and transforming the observed, the here and now, which we also desire, into the not-here and not-now, the realm of the hidden and awesome, which includes the pity and terror that we also need to make real. Falsification and perjury are in that sense part of our arsenal, where the intention is to make present the offshoots of a truth that the facts, while needed, only hint at — or as Picasso had it famously, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand.” On the other hand, poets like the American “Objectivists” (Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Oppen) theorized a poetics of fact, whose hallmark was what Zukofsky called “sincerity.” But hard to say how much consistency there was in doing that as poets.


Most of your work in the ’70s–’90s featured the “poet as an informant” (G. Snyder) whose aural narrative experiences (mytho-logia) reinvent the self and the reality of the world around (both for the narrator and the audience). But in the 2000s you developed it into the notion of witness: the poet-teller not as a figure of power or authority but a rebel/outsider who challenges the establishment or status quo via images and languages derived from his/her own relation to the seen, unseen, heard, unheard, etc. of the world. Could you go deeper into it?


The themes are all there but I think I would arrange them in a different order. To start with, the word “witness” is a little elusive or possibly ironic here, since what I’m doing (at least in A Book of Witness) is exploring a range of utterances with the first-person pronoun “I” (the pronoun of witness) given full play in short sentences or phrases borrowed from other poets alongside those of my own making (real and fictive both). I don’t know that this reinvents the self so much as it puts identity into question, which may or may not amount to the same thing. That however is one, very particularized use of “witness,” and very far from the usual one. But elsewhere I do more directly let myself be a witnessing voice or presence among the other voices that I channel in Khurbn (“the dibbiks killed before their time”), as we discussed it in the previous question. Here — let me be clear again — I mean nothing mystical or otherworldly by this, rather that holocaust or khurbn is the prima materia of the poem and that collage or appropriation is a means for giving entry to the dead, to allow their witnessing to be a part of my own as a witness to their acts of witness. 


It’s in that sense the most serious thing a poem or a poet can do … and a connection too to the earliest sources of poetry, and to the poet like the native and the savage as an informant to his time and culture. And it may also mark the poet like those others as an endangered species. More than that, I think, since on my visit to Poland and the death camps I was wracked by a sense of desolation in which I could, if I were inclined that way, say that I heard the voices of the dead.


All this our poetry, as developed by others and myself, makes possible.


Back in the ’60s, in a letter to Robert Duncan you stated that in your process — to create the poem anew — you didn’t rely on any intermediary (tradition or secondhand treatment) of the information, data; that you needed to go deep into the prima materia (= source) and thus unleash or feel the power of the poem. Do you still do that? What has changed in your creative process?


Did I say that then? Very likely since I and Robert Kelly and others were talking at that time about what I had named “deep image” with an emphasis, I suppose, on what we were taking as the psychic, even spiritual, underpinnings for the work at hand. Looking back now I find it in one of the poem-manifestos I wrote for my magazine, Poems from the Floating World:


From deep within us it comes: the

wind that moves through the lost

branches, hurts us with a wet cry,

as if an ocean were caged in each skull:


There is a sea of connection that floats

between men: a place where speech

is touch and the welcoming hand

restores its silence: an ocean

warmed by dark suns.


The deep image rises from the shoreless

gulf: here the poet reaches down

among the lost branches, till a

moment of seeing: the poem.


Only then does the floating world sink again

into its darkness, leaving a white

shadow, and the joy of our having been

here, together.


Not long after that, however, I began to explore other resources for poetry, resources that I needed for the new works of poetry I was then undertaking. Deep Image, I think, had led me to a concern with Deep Cultures, the range of poetries that I was gathering for Technicians of the Sacred and the other assemblages that put forward the idea of an ethnnopoetics and “a reinterpretation of the poetic past from the point of view of the present.” For those projects research and data were truly needed — “secondhand” or not — where the prima materia was in the works we uncovered, not simply in the minds of those who did the uncovering. And even more so, when I began to explore “ancestral sources of my own” in a work like Poland/1931, I had an absolute need for “data” or what fellow poet Ed Sanders, proposing a new “investigative poetry,” called “data clusters,” that would give me the materials to compose an otherwise imagined Jewish Poland, or what David Meltzer called my “Jewish surrealist vaudeville.” For that to happen, then, deep image, however much I valued it, was no longer enough, and other ways, other means, began to open for me.


You have employed multiple methods and modes of composition throughout your work that help defamiliarize the poet with his own ingrained thought process and create permutations. How do you go about working on these methods? Do they impose themselves to you? Are they encoded in a preverbal state, as a sort of DNA at the core of each individual poem?


The methods and modes you mention are premeditated on my part, not imposed, and draw often enough from a store of possibilities that I’ve discovered in a wide range of sources — both contemporary and traditional — and have revised or modified toward my own uses. To cite a fairly easy example: in the course of preparing A Big Jewish Book as a gathering of “poems and other visions of the Jews from tribal times to the present,” I was struck by a form of mystical (kabbalistic) hermeneutics called gematria, the basis of which was a numbering system in which every letter of the Hebrew alphabet was a specific number (aleph = 1, beth = 2, gimmel = 3, etc.). That meant of course that every word or phrase in the Hebrew Bible was also a series or sum of numbers and that words or phrases of the same numerical value could be interpreted as having some relation, otherwise not evident, to each other. Using that system, for example, a follower of the heretical eighteenth-century messiah Shabtai Tsvi juxtaposed the Hebrew words for “messiah” and “serpent” to reveal a hidden relationship between Shabtai and the serpent/tempter in the Book of Genesis. For me, however, this presented itself in the form of a minimal poem — one word as title, the other as text:



                              A snake.


And others of this sort presented themselves immediately:



                              A mystery.





  the witness

                              A jewel.


Or, combining more words:


                           a vision (1)                                                  a vision (2)

Beat it                                                                God

with power.                                                       is crushed.


And finally, composing still larger structures:


gematria 519

“Around Midnight”


so he drove out

& was silent


& she took it

& when it rose



the song


at their door

around midnight


The result was a large book of gematria-generated poems and the further use of gematria in still larger works — a series, for example, called 14 Stations, in which I composed poems that drew their vocabulary from the Hebrew/Yiddish spellings of the names of fourteen Holocaust extermination camps, as in the following:


                          The First Station: Auschwitz-Birkenau


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


That all of the words were drawn from translations of words in the Bible only added to the power of what I was presenting as memorial and outrage — even more so when the results in the earlier gematria poems appeared to be transgressive.