This is provocation
Tom Weatherly with Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie
Note: Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie conducted a series of interviews with numerous contemporary American poets during the early 1970s, published in various venues. The playful style of the interview with Weatherly is typical of these. (These interviews were collected for a book to be titled The Life of Poetry in 1973, but the book never appeared in print. Materials for the book, as well as numerous other items of correspondence, interview transcripts, and the like, are available at the Bockris-Wylie Papers in the Manuscript Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.) Between 1971 and 1973, Bockris ran the press Telegraph Books, which published Weatherly’s second collection, Thumbprint, in 1971. Bockris invited Wylie and Aram Saroyan to coedit. As Bockris notes: “The acquisitions editor for the most part was Wylie, who brought in all the books for my approval except for Back in Boston Again [by Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan], which came from Saroyan. I ran the press from Philadelphia, Andrew ran the book shop in New York. We visited each other back and forth regularly. Saroyan was more the distant eminence who lent us support with his name. He was among the most respected poets of those times.” As Saroyan puts it in Friends in the World: The Education of a Writer: “we wanted to do something specifically for our own generation along the lines of what [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti had done for the Beat Generation with his City Lights Books.” The press was edited from Philadelphia, and the books were distributed at Wylie’s bookstore on Jones Street in Greenwich Village. Along with Weatherly’s Thumbprint, the press published titles by Gerard Malanga, Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Ted Berrigan, Patti Smith (Seventh Heaven, her first collection), Brigid Polk, Bockris, Wylie, and Saroyan. Photographs taken by Victor Bockris on the occasion of Weatherly’s Telegraph Books reading in Philadelphia are also included in this feature. The following interview was originally published in The World: A New York City Literary Magazine no. 29 (April 1974): 43–46, and is reproduced here in slightly edited form. — David Grundy
Preface to interview (1)
I subjected myself to an interview by Bockris-Wylie just to prove that my Boy Scout training was not for naught; he came one afternoon last March and caught us, watching the visbox. I suggested that we escape to the local coffee shop so I could get breakfast. We did. One answers questions with the knowledge that (1) you will be misquoted, (2) your answers are tentative, (3) no one really cares what you say you believe, and (4) when you are stuck you rely on the intelligibility of your answers to get you over. So this disclaimer: the opinions you are about to read are those of a hungry man who hasn’t eaten breakfast.
It will probably be better for you to read my poems than to read this interview, as the poems are more truthful and much more interesting. But one must give the biographers and critics something to argue about, I suppose. There is this caution: we all have private persons and public images; there is no law which says that they must even be similar, so read this interview as entertainment or something less. And ignore any attempts by B-W to persuade you that the similarities between contemporary poets are much more than biological. Calm clam. — Tom Weatherly
Preface to interview (2)
We visited Tom Weatherly one cold March afternoon in his brownstone walkup on a quiet street in Brooklyn Heights. When we walked in, the television was on, and Tom, his girlfriend Susan Christoffersen, his sister, and the son of a friend, were spread out around the low-ceiling living room. Tom immediately got up, bending his 6'4" body to avoid a ceiling light, and suggested that we go round the corner for a bite to eat.
We hurried to the back room of the Plymouth coffee shop and sat down. Tom ordered two poached eggs on toast and a cheeseburger; we ordered coffee. The waiter, a thin, programmed, bespeckled little man, disagreeably informed us that there was a fifty-cent minimum on all orders. Tom pointed out that he had ordered enough to cover three minimum checks, but the waiter was adamant. Suddenly Tom got up and walked quickly out of the restaurant. Moments later, he reappeared with the bemused, corpulent owner of the establishment, who ordered the waiter to serve us whatever we wanted forthwith. The coffee was produced, and we sat down, pens in hands, to begin the interview. — Victor Bockris
Victor Bockris: Why do you want to stay alive?
Tom Weatherly: It is not my concern. Living is automatic; just do it as it lasts. Then there’s Susan — see her — and poems.
Bockris: Why do you write?
Weatherly: ’Cause I was called! It’s a religious calling. One morning — early one bright morning — I was — it was on a Tuesday — struck by a feeling and wrote a four-line song. I was eight; the teacher set it to music. I was addicted. Been tracks in my soul ever since.
Bockris: Do you think poetry can get bigger, so we can all make an easier living?
Weatherly: Are you kidding? Do honest preachers make a living? Do statesmen make a living? Did we elect Barry Goldwater?
Bockris: Statesmen? Sure.
Weatherly: No they don’t. Some politicians do.
Bockris: What are you politically?
Weatherly: A conservative Republican. That’s called provocation.
Bockris: You are black and …
Weatherly: Yes, “Conservative,” like George Schuyler. You can make a living off poetry. Some people do; Rod McKuen does. But poets shouldn’t be overly concerned about making money; that’s why they should be rich. Black poets have it worse than white poets, ’cause it limits them in their choice of women.
Weatherly: ’Cause poets are usually poor, and there are more white chicks than black who are willing to put up with being poor with an artist. When a black poet gets rich, then he can have a black old lady. Before that, he can’t afford it.
Bockris: Some people seem to think that poetry could become a big thing, like rock …
Weatherly: That would be bad.
Weatherly: ’Cause the way things are going now, some people who can’t write are tempted to stay away from it, because it doesn’t make money.
Bockris: What is the happiest moment in your life?
Weatherly: Right now. Right now. ’Cause I’ve lived this far. The moment I’m living, no matter how I’m feeling, is the happiest moment in my life. And I’m living with a beautiful and intelligent woman — a poet.
Bockris: What is your worst dream? Or the worst thing that could happen to you?
Weatherly: Short of death, Susan could leave me. That’s the worst thing right now.
Bockris: Is that because a poet, unlike, say, an actor or a rock star, talks about things that very few are interested in, that very few people understand?
Weatherly: No, not that simple. Some in my generation feel that all important knowledge has been discovered, all good art has been created, so they just play games with old art, they don’t create anything new. Susan and I were at the State University at Purchase, and one professor there was vocally antiacademic, and he denied the value of defining anything in poetry. Maybe I should run for the state senate, and become the McCarthy of — I don’t mean Eugene or Charlie either — humanities. My committee would investigate and expose false poets: the standing committee on unpoetic practices in the State University system. The Transition Workshop at Cortland is a model of the way a workshop should be run; it avoids ideology too. The arts are the only fields in which some folk feel that you don’t have to know anything — just do your own belch. That’s one criticism I have of you, not that you don’t know anything, but that you’re ashamed of the knowledge you have and the skills you possess. Half of you is ashamed of going to Harvard …
Bockris: But darling? …
Weatherly: I read poems daily, and it’s obvious that many poets now don’t know what they’re doing. At least with Bockris-Wylie I can criticize for crimes other than incompetence.
Bockris: So you think we’re competent?
Weatherly: Yes, if you mean competent poets. You should know better, and do, but your experiments — though bizarre, sometimes of little value — are intelligent … show intelligence. But most of what you do is valuable to American poetry and the American language.
Bockris: Thank you. What do you think about poetry as a performing medium?
Weatherly: The whole history is about performers: jongleurs, minstrels, singing and rapping it out. It is performing; it predated theatre; it is theatre.
Bockris: Well, T. S. Eliot, for instance, was better known for his printed poems than for his performances. Do you think poets have forsaken performance for the printed page?
Weatherly: The poet has the responsibility to set down the dialogue, setting, action, his gestures, ’cause sometimes it is theatre by long distance through the printed word to the audience. The poet is the play, the director, and the performing troupe.
Bockris: Where do your poems come from?
Weatherly: My poems come from me. I am the muse and the amused.
Bockris: Do you write stoned a lot?
Weatherly: I write in all states: Alabama, New York, and Nirvana. There are even the Christian states.
Bockris: Do you write in the nude?
Weatherly: I was born naked, and my birth is given importance because I write nakedly. Writing naked is better, no euphemisms nor hiding of true feelings.
Bockris: What do you think humor is?
Weatherly: A gas which seeps out of a consensus of public opinion.
Bockris: When you started writing poems, did you go through the whole schooling, writing poems in each accepted form, to train yourself?
Weatherly: Yes. I read a lot of poems, then selected the best poets to serve an apprenticeship with (vicariously), and I called this group my “inner circle”; I set out to learn what they knew. A poet should subject himself or herself to rigor training, as a good physician does.
Bockris: When you first came to New York, the first poet of reputation you met was Joel Oppenheimer. Did he influence you or turn you on to things that influenced you?
Weatherly: He helped me by confirming my belief that I was truly called, that I had the … well, talent; I had read his poems and those of his friends and associates from the fifties before I met him. I tended to like those poets in that group who were traditionalist, even though they are usually thought of as rebels. His earlier poems are sort of Elizabethan, and I liked them. But I was really trained by Pound, Hughes, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Yeats, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Emily Dickinson, and the others I read and heard. H.D. is the most important. H.D. is the most important; she is the best poet to ever live in America. I have a question for you: why can’t we imprison bad poets? No, that’s my suppressed fascism leaking out.
Bockris: They already have been? You were a preacher earlier in your life. Do you think that influenced the way you read your poems, present your poems?
Weatherly: I don’t know … really everything I’ve done is an influence.
Bockris: How do you feel about the audience when you’re reading?
Weatherly: Why are they here? Is it snobbery? Or do they honestly desire to listen? Many times they don’t.
Bockris: Do you feel that a bad reaction from an audience is ever justified in relation to your work?
Weatherly: No. I was called. I worked hard and studied to give honor to my calling. I write valuable poems — a point easily defensible — and when an audience rejects them, they reject one of the natural processes.
Bockris: Why do you think poetry doesn’t have a larger audience?
Weatherly: Why do you think goodness, love, and beauty don’t have a larger following? Ask a philosopher — if he isn’t dead — that question?
Bockris: You don’t think the poets are themselves responsible?
Weatherly: Some are: some incompetent poets have large audiences; a few don’t.
Bockris: Why do you think poets in Russia like Yevtushenko and Voznesensky are so big, and there’s no comparison in the US?
Weatherly: ’Cause the Russian people have no other choices.
Bockris: Michael McClure thinks Yevtushenko and Voznesensky are like newspapers, and that the Russian people listen to them for the same reason that Americans read the newspapers: for their news content. Do you agree? And is that bad?
Weatherly: Sure it’s bad. They’re like tabloids with defective genes; they can’t bear offspring OR true witness.
Bockris: Do you like to travel?
Weatherly: Yep. See as much as possible. I’m the camera. Other folk carry cameras; I carry me. CLICK just snapped an image of you — auditory, visual, tactile, intellective, etc. Develop it immediately.
Bockris: Then you develop your pictures through the poem? The writing of a poem is your developing process?
Weatherly: Most of my poems are wallet-size.
Bockris: Do you want to be rich and famous?
Weatherly: Yes, for the first. For the second, substitute “glorious.”
Bockris: Do you receive as much from people as you give to people?
Weatherly: More. I know what to learn. That’s the first thing you have to learn: what to learn.
Bockris: Are you interested in the visual aspects of the poem on the page?
Weatherly: Poetry is an oral art, and visual layout is an aid to this. When a thing depends on some visual aspect which cannot be read aloud, it’s not a poem. It may be good, but it’s not a poem.
Bockris: So why do you have your poems printed in books?
Weatherly: So folk can read ’em. My notation is a guide to how they are to be read. A book is a long-distance poetry reading.
Bockris: What do you think is the strongest aspect of your personality?
Weatherly: My complete dedication to the holy orders of my art and craft.
Bockris: When you say you’re a poet, and people respond by saying that poetry’s dead, how do you feel?
Weatherly: I conjure up tortures for the members of my craft who have evoked this attitude by their incompetence.
Bockris: Who are they?
Weatherly: Some are Rod McKuen, the younger New York School with a few exceptions, Robert Creeley in his latter years who seems to feel that his reputation can survive the games he plays now, Joel Oppenheimer whose spirit is just now recovering from spirits and his self-editorial sense is lax; and all those folk who feel that you can be ignorant and just write. But the arch-felon is Anne Waldman who can’t dance. Some folk just aren’t called, and others dishonor it.
Bockris: Are you happy?
Weatherly: Yes, until I read the poems of many young poets. The poets during the beginning of this century were much better.
Bockris: Who are your favorite poets now, among your contemporaries?
Weatherly: Audre Lorde, Jay Wright, Al Young, Andrei Codrescu, Michael Harper, Diane Wakoski, Celestine Frost, Frank Dobbs, Williams Harris, Bockris-Wylie (if you understand that four-fifths were written in reaction to intelligence), Ted Berrigan (throw 90 percent of ’em away), Aram Saroyan (yet most of his experiments fail), Ron Edson, Jane Augustine, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Jonathan Kundra, Sam Abrams, Carmen Vigil, Lewis Warsh, Joanne Kyger, and some others.
Bockris: How do you feel about Imamu Amiri Baraka these days?
Weatherly: Who? Sounds like an antonym for heaven.
Bockris: LeRoi Jones?
Weatherly: He was one of the greatest poets in this century. He died a spiritual death recently, didn’t he?
Bockris: Would you like to read to large audiences?
Weatherly: Yes. Will you arrange a reading for me at Carnegie Hall? “An Evening with Natural Process.”
Bockris: What do you mean by “natural process”?
Weatherly: It’s natural, it’s process.
Bockris: Is that what makes things kinetic?
Weatherly: It’s the rule of the universe.
Bockris: Inanimate objects are natural process, too?
Weatherly: Yes; but there’s nothing inanimate, nothing inorganic.
Bockris: Do you plan for the future?
Weatherly: Yes, in case there is one.
Bockris: Have you ever thought of writing a novel?
Weatherly: I’m working on one now.
Bockris: What’s it called?
Weatherly: Purple Lady of the Gentian Violet.
Bockris: What is it about?
Weatherly: Me and my gonads.
Weatherly: Balls. Got lots.
Bockris: Do you like this interview?
Weatherly: Ample Maple.
Bockris: Do you think “The Electric Generation” is a good name for our generation of poets?
Bockris: Why not?
Weatherly: ’Cause I’m vegetable.
Bockris: What would you like to call our generation of poets?
Weatherly: “The Eclectic Guitar.”
Bockris: Do you feel that you’re part of a generation that has recognizable traits?
Weatherly: Yes, mainly a group that respects the past, with a desire to create new language; the new calling. In other words there are about twenty of us in America.
Bockris: Why do you think so many young poets are writing short poems now?
Weatherly: Imitating God.
Bockris: Well, if we’re imitating God, why did poets used to write longer poems?
Weatherly: God in his old age is more succinct.
Bockris: Is there anything that could turn you away from writing poetry?
Weatherly: Death, maybe.
1. For more details on the Cortland workshop, see Burt Kimmelman’s essay in this feature.