An Introduction to the Alcheringa Archive


As a discipline ethnopoetics differs radically from general poetics, negates the Empire, asserts that everything is marginal, and that consequently there are no margins.

                                                               —Michel Benamou

In 1968, I was living around the corner from Moe’s Books in Berkeley. That was where I found Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania (Doubleday), along with the first double issue of George Quasha’s magazine, Stony Brook. They were new arrivals, displayed face up and sharing the same space with Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of  Don Juan (first published in 1968 by the University of California Press) and John J. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (available as a Bison Book paperback since 1961). This was a time when many stores, from City Lights in North Beach (which is still there) to the Eighth Street Bookshop in the Village (long gone), had begun devoting entire sections to titles dealing with the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

When Technicians and Stony Brook appeared, I had been working on the problem of how to translate the stories Andrew Peynetsa and Walter Sanchez had told me in Shiwi’ma, the language spoken at the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico. Spoken narratives, whatever the language, had always been transformed into prose for the printed page, but what I was hearing on my tape recordings struck me as something more like projective verse. I used line breaks to indicate pauses, changes of type size to indicate changes in loudness, and parenthetical stage directions to indicate tones of voice and gestures. I showed my translations and read them aloud to various people in Berkeley, and I got an enthusiastic response in a gathering that included Josephine Miles and Robert Grenier. But no one was able to suggest a likely place of publication. When the opening came, it came from the opposite coast.

The first issue of Stony Brook carried an excerpt from Technicians (pp. 205-223), and the masthead (inside back cover) listed Rothenberg as an advisory editor specializing in “ethnopoetics.” I later learned that he had coined this term when Quasha urged him to find a name for what he was doing. Anthropologists had long been using such terms as ethnobotany and ethnozoology and would later add others, notably ethnomedicine and ethnomathematics. In practice, studies carried out under such rubrics are devoted to the ways in which ethnic others organize their knowledge, but in theory, there is no botany, zoology, medicine, or mathematics that is not embedded in ethnicity. In the same way, there is no poetics that is not an ethnopoetics.It seemed obvious to me that Stony Brook would be the right place to begin publishing my work, so I sent a scripted translation of Andrew Peynetsa’s “The Boy and the Deer” to Rothenberg. At that time he was living on West 163rd Street in New York City, a few blocks from what was then the Museum of the American Indian (now located in the Battery). His response was speedy, positive, and enormously encouraging. The Ethnopoetics section in Stony Brook 3-4 (pp. 288-327) was already full, but he added an announcement (on his first page) that my work would appear in 5-6.

In the spring of 1970, when it was apparent that there would never be a Stony Brook 5-6, Rothenberg and I decided to start our own magazine, Alcheringa / Ethnopoetics. In effect it was a successor to two magazines, the other one being some / thing, co-edited by Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin and published in four issues (the last one double) running from 1965 to 1968. The Neolithic labyrinth that served as Alcheringa’s logo until 1977 was inherited from some / thing. The logo for the remaining issues was a Mayan glyph in the form of a cupped hand, standing for the day named Chij or Kej, “Deer,” the day when shamans do their work.

The source of the word alcheringa is Arunta, an aboriginal language of Australia. Sometimes translated as “the dreamtime,” it refers to a mythic world that existed at the beginning of time and continues to exist in our own time as a parallel world, revealing itself whenever we dream and whenever someone speaks or sings a myth. At present it serves as the name of an Australasian journal of paleontology, a gallery of Pacific tribal art in British Columbia, and an annual cultural festival sponsored by the Institute of Technology in Guwahati, India, not far from Bhutan.

In the summer of 1970, Rothenberg and I assembled and published the first issue of Alcheringa in Santa Fe and launched it with a reading at St. John’s College. For the remaining four issues of the old series (1971–73), the place of publication was New York City. The eight issues of the new series (1975–80) were published under the sponsorship of Boston University. Circulation reached 2,000, a large figure for a small magazine. The end came for Alcheringa, and for the innovative Classics journal Arion as well, when the university’s conservative president withdrew funding without notice and shifted his support to Partisan Review, which had left its radical past far behind by then.

In the first issue of Alcheringa, Rothenberg and I proclaimed our magazine to be “a place where tribal poetries can appear in English . . . . While its sources will be different from those of other poetry magazines, it will be aiming at the startling and revelatory presentation that has been common to our own avant-gardes” (o.s. 1: 1). We wished “to encourage poets to participate actively in the translation of tribal/oral poetry,” and “to encourage ethnologists and linguists . . . to present tribal poetries as values in themselves rather than as ethnographic data.” From the beginning, we included the work of contemporary poets who seemed to be “connected with the same source,” as Robert Kelly put it (o.s. 2: 71), along with ancient poetry, contemporary folk poetry, the poetry of past avant-gardes, and the poetic equivalent of outsider art. We also published two of David Antin’s talk pieces, including the earliest one (o.s. 4: 42–44, 1972; n.s. 1, n. 2: 8–52, 1975).

Among the poets who contributed work to Alcheringa—in addition to Rothenberg, Antin, and Kelly—were Gary Snyder, Anselm Hollo, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Diane DiPrima, Clayton Eshleman, Theodore Enslin, Barbara Einzig, George Quasha, Édouard Glissant, Edward (later Kamau) Brathwaite, Armand Schwerner, Simon Ortiz, Ian Tyson, Nathaniel Tarn, and bpNichol. Among the anthropologists, linguists, and folklorists (some of them poets as well) were Stanley Diamond, Dell Hymes, Michael Harner, Allan F. Burns, Richard Dauenhauer, Jeff Titon, William Ferris Jr., Peter Gold, Leanne Hinton, Jill Leslie Furst, Susan Stewart, Barbara Tedlock, and myself. Some contributors retranslated texts that had been previously published in ethnographic reports, discovering poetry in what had previously been treated as prose. Others departed from standard formats for presenting poetry, creating compositions resembling those of concrete poets, finding ways to deal with iconic writing systems, making use of calligraphy, and producing scripts or scores designed to be read aloud.

Most issues of Alcheringa included tear-out disc recordings. In the old series, Jerome Rothenberg sings two of his “total translations” of Navajo Horse Songs (o.s. 2), Jackson Mac Low and five other readers perform part of his “Stanzas for Iris Lezak” (o.s. 4), and Armand Schwerner reads two of his “Tablets” (o.s. 5). In the new series, Jaime de Angulo, in a 1949 broadcast recorded by KPFA, reads his translation of an Achomawi story from northern California (n.s. 1, n. 2); Anne Waldman, inspired by María Sabina, reads “Fast-Speaking Woman” (n.s. 1, n. 2); and Rachel Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s mother, tells the story of a life-changing epiphany (n.s. 4, n. 2). Voices speaking in languages other than English include those of Andrew Peynetsa, telling a newly-invented story in Zuni (o.s. 5); a family of three vocalists from Midwestern Nigeria, singing in Edo (n.s. 2, n. 1); Alonso Gonzales Mó, telling a story in Yucatec Maya (n.s. 3, n. 1); and Zahra Abdi Kareem, telling a story in Somali (n.s. 3, n. 2).

When Rothenberg and I were editing the seventh issue of the magazine, which appeared in 1975, we accepted a mini-anthology of works that would later be called “Language poetry” and (still later) “Langpo” (n.s. 1, n. 2: 104–120). It was compiled by Ron Silliman, who titled it “The Dwelling Place” and included the work of nine poets: Bruce Andrews, Barbara Baracks, Clark Coolidge, Lee DeJasu, Ray DiPalma, Robert Grenier, David Melnick, Barrett Watten, and himself. Silliman observed that their work was “called variously ‘language centered,’ ‘minimal,’ ‘non-referential formalism,’ ‘diminished referentiality,’ ‘structuralist’,” and that these terms referred not to “a group but a tendency in the work of many” (p. 104).

In the notes following his Alcheringa anthology (pp. 118–20), Silliman quoted Charles Bernstein as desiring “wordness” and Robert Grenier as seeking “the place where words are most themselves,” located “way in the back of the head.” By way of amplification, Silliman added that “neither the words nor the processes of the poem must point away from the poem itself.” He went on to quote Robert Creeley as saying, “Poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so,” thus installing Creeley in a seminal role. What was afoot was a move toward an intermediate zone where language would have fewer connections to the world, on the one hand, and fewer connections to standard grammar, on the other.

None of the poets who were anthologized or quoted by Silliman (except for himself) ever contributed to Alcheringa independently. Rothenberg and I had published poetry that was “language centered,” including language games; “minimal,” consisting of a few words that did not form a sentence; and “non-referential” in the extreme, consisting of syllables that did not constitute words in any language and whose organization was not grammatical. But this was not poetry originating in American English, the language to which Language poets were destined to confine nearly all their attention. As for structuralism, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss was discussed in a 1976 issue of Alcheringa (n.s. 2, n. 2), but what interested Nathaniel Tarn (pp. 27–28) and David Antin (p. 115) was the role of concrete phenomena in the construction of systems of representation. In actual practice, the structuralism of that time was closer to being in line with a radically different dictum from Creeley: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”

Among all the poets who have ever been categorized or anthologized under the Langpo rubric, the only ones other than Silliman who ever sent work to Alcheringa were Jackson Mac Low and Steve McCaffery. Before anyone associated them with Langpo, they were well-known under other auspices. Mac Low was a performance artist and practitioner of chance composition, and he was often mentioned together with John Cage. In 1972, Alcheringa published his calligraphic renditions of Hindu chants (o.s. 4: 47–48) and the recording of a performance piece cited earlier. McCaffery was a sound poet, and in 1973, he joined sound poet bpNichol in founding the Toronto Research Group. Both of them were also visual poets, and they shared in the multicultural aspirations of Alcheringa. In 1975, Alcheringa published bpNichol’s concrete rendition of a Montagnais song (n.s. 1, n. 2, inside back cover), followed in 1977 by McCaffery’s “Drum Language and the Sky Text” (n.s. 3, n.1: 79–84), an essay in which he interprets shamanic drumming as a language.

Post-structuralism was on the rise when Alcheringa ceased publication. What came to be called “critical theory” was constructed in opposition to major historical trends in thought at the very center of what Benamou called the Empire. Unlike structuralists, and unlike avant-garde poets and artists of the early twentieth century, critical theorists turned their backs on the world outside the center. Otherness became an inward, self-generated affair, housed deep inside the academy. In effect, critiques of “orientalism” and the anthropology of the colonial era served as an excuse for ignoring the questions raised by outside forms of otherness, and the critique of “essentialism” served the same purpose.

When Jacques Derrida argued for a reversal of priority between writing and speech, he used “writing” as a metaphor for mental structures of a linguistic kind, but for those who took him literally, the argument served as an excuse for supposing that oral literature could pose no problems that were not already familiar to students of written literature. Noam Chomsky claimed to be discovering the “deep grammar” underlying all languages, but all of his sample sentences were drawn from English. When Stephen Greenblatt and other humanists took the Columbian quincentennial as an occasion for reexamining the history of what was now called the “encounter” with the peoples of the Americas, they tended to focus their attention on European accounts rather than facing the greater challenge posed by indigenous accounts that date from the early colonial period. An interest in cultural others has returned to humanities departments under the rubric of Cultural Studies, but the favored others are close at hand, already living inside the metropolis. Whatever their places of origin might be, they write in metropolitan languages, and their surest path to a place in the curriculum lies in conforming to genres that are already familiar to humanists.

Since the last issue of Alcheringa appeared, Rothenberg’s books have included a revised and expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred (University of California Press, 1985); two volumes co-edited with Pierre Joris, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (University of California Press, 1995, 1998); and a collection of his own experimental translations, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (Wesleyan, 2004). My own books include a series of poems generated by Mayan divinatory techniques, Days from a Dream Almanac (University of Illinois Press, 1989), a revised edition of Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1996), and a revised edition of my translations of Zuni performances that includes three new stories, Finding the Center: The Art of the Zuni Storyteller (University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

Other poets, scholars, and poet-scholars have continued to publish transcriptions, translations, and interpretations of verbal arts in languages, dialects, genres, and writing systems other than the ones that dominate Western literature departments. Books devoted the indigenous poetry of North America include Larry Evers and Felipe Molina’s Yaqui Deer Songs / Maso Bwi­kam: A Native American Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 1987), Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer’s Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (University of Washington Press, 1987), Robert Bringhurst’s Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers (Douglas MacIntyre, 2002), Dell Hymes’s Now I Know Only This Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), and Ron Scollon’s This Is What They Say (Douglas MacIntyre, 2009), in which he translates stories written in Chipewyan by François Mandeville.

An Afro-Amerindian language spoken in Surinam is the source for Richard and Sally Price’s Two Evenings in Saramaka (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Indigenous traditions of the Amazon are the sources for Ellen B. Basso’s A Musical View of the Universe: Kalapalo Myth and Ritual Performances (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985); David M. Guss’s study of Yekuana poetry and art, To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rain Forest (University of California Press, 1989); and Anthony Seeger’s Why Suya Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People (University of Illinois Press, 2004).

Among recent works devoted to literature in the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica are Sam Colop’s critical text and subsequent Spanish translation of the K’iche’ Maya Popol Wuj, in which he reveals the full complexity of the original poetic forms (Cholsamaj, 1999 and 2008). Dana Leibsohn offers a multidimensional reading of a seventeenth-century Mexican manuscript that combines indigenous and alphabetic scripts in Script and Glyph: Pre-Hispanic History, Colonial Bookmaking, and the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (Dumbarton Oaks, 2009). Mayan alphabetic texts from colonial Yucatán are the subject of Timothy W. Knowlton’s Mayan Creation Myths: Words and Worlds of the Chilam Balam (University Press of Colorado, 2010). The most recent of my own books, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (University of California Press, 2010), begins with works written in the ancient Mayan script and continues with alphabetic works (University of California Press, 2010). Texts and translations of works by contemporary indigenous authors from all over Mesoamerica have been gathered by Carlos Montemayor and Donald Frischmann in three volumes titled Words of the True Peoples / Palabras de los Seres Verdaderos (University of Texas Press, 2004, 2005, 2007).

An alternative English is the language of Jeff Titon’s Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church (University of Texas Press, 1988). David Antin has published several collections of his talk pieces, the most recent being i never knew what time it was (University of California Press, 2005). Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch present transcriptions of their conversations on walks around Manhattan in Ten Walks / Two Talks (Ugly Duckling, 2010).

Yunte Huang brings ethnopoetics and the “wordness” of  Langpo together in Shi: A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry (Roof Books, 1997). Jonathan Stalling creates texts that simultaneously make sense in Chinese and English in Yíngēlìshī  吟歌丽诗 (Chanted Songs, Beautiful Poetry): Experiments in Sinophonic English (Counterpath, 2011).

Steven Feld, an ethnomusicologist working in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, brings all the arts together in Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (University of Pennsylvania Press, second edition 1990). Among his audio CDs is Voices of the Rainforest: A Day in the Life of the Kaluli People (Rykodisc, 1991), combining environmental sounds with those of people who sing while they work.

Swahili is the source for Johannes Fabian’s Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire (Uni­versity of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Isidore Okpewho translates and interprets Igbo epics in Once upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (Indiana University Press, 1998). In 2000, writers and speakers of scores of African languages held a conference in Eritrea and issued the Asmara Declaration (posted on culturalsurvival.org and many other websites), affirming the importance of translation while at the same time recognizing a central role for indigenous languages in “the decolonization of African minds.”

In New York City, Poet’s House, City Lore, and the Bowery Poetry Club sponsor the People’s Poetry Gathering, a spring festival that has so far taken place in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2006. The performances are in multiple languages (not limited to the metropolitan ones), in multiple genres and media (not limited to solo speakers), and in multiple venues (indoors and out). As in the pages and sound recordings of Alcheringa, traditional forms, innovative forms, and innovative reworkings of traditional forms all have places on the program.

Ancient texts, many of them in nonalphabetic scripts and some of them newly discovered, stand in need of translations that do more than recast them in familiar alphabetic forms. Ethnographic reports are filled with texts that have yet to be treated as poetry and retranslated as such, and many recordings made in the field have yet to receive the close listening required for transcriptions and translations that pay attention to sound. Nearby and far away, contemporary poets continue to speak, sing, and write in hundreds of languages that are neither colonial nor sanctioned by national governments.

NOTE: Distribution is always a problem for small magazines. We found that most bookstores were willing to take a few copies of an issue on consignment, but few of them paid us for the copies they sold. During the years of the old series, we had better luck with Bookpeople, an employee-owned and operated book wholesaler and distributor based Berkeley (now out of business). For the new series, distribution to libraries was outsourced to a subscription service, the problem being that there were threats to discontinue the magazine whenever it looked as though the second of the two numbers in a volume year might be delayed until the following year. The total circulation of the new series reached 2,000 and then hovered in that vicinity. Libraries that have all thirteen issues probably number no more than a score. So far as I know, the Firestone Library at Princeton is the only one that has taken the trouble to dub the disc recordings. In all the other libraries whose shelves I have checked, including the Widener at Harvard, many of the discs have been removed by readers.