[In 2006, while helping to prepare a collection of my essays, Etnopoesia do Milênio, for Sergio Cohn’s Azougue Editorial in
Rio, I was asked to compose a chronology of my life as a poet, intended for inclusion in the book in a Portuguese translation. I had never indulged in anything resembling a real memoir, though poems & essays of mine are – like those of other poets – riddled with references to who I am & where I come from. The following, while it focuses on what might be called my life-in-poetry, is as close as I come to it in any systematic way. Looking at it from this distance I notice a few missing items & many missing persons, but the general trajectory of the piece seems clear enough for now. This is of course its first & only publication in English. (J.R.)]
Born 1931 in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrant parents who made their New World journey, from Poland to America, ten years before, I grew up in Brooklyn first and then the Bronx, at a time of depression, war, and holocaust. My education, from early years through university, was in the
When I returned to New York in 1955, there was already a group of poets waiting for me: David Antin, who had been with me at City College and through and with whom I met a number of others: Robert Kelly, Armand Schwerner, George Economou, and later Paul Blackburn, Jackson Mac Low, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski. Our interests – looking back at them – were centered on the reinvigoration of a full panoply of avant-garde strategies that had been disrupted by the “new criticism” and the mainstream poetics of the immediately preceding generation. My own first shibboleth was what I named “deep image” and saw as a kind of neo-surrealism with roots in a range of traditional and still neglected poetries and visionary practices that informed my subsequent move into the exploration of a genuine and, I thought, a necessary ethnopoetics. My approach to poetry, then and after, was deliberately intercultural and global, and in the process it led me to alliances with other poets and still other groupings of poets – Beats, Black Mountain, Concrete, Fluxus, Textsound – that I saw increasingly as part of a great collective effort “to bring back totality through poetry” (in the words of the Japanese poet Ooka Makoto).
By the end of the 1950s I began to publish and increasingly to perform my own poetry. My first book-length publication was an anthology of translations, New Young German Poets, that Lawrence Ferlinghetti had commissioned for City Lights Books in 1958. I had also, like many other poets of my generation, begun a press of my own, Hawk’s Well Press, which served as a vehicle for some of those closest to me at the time and for my own first book of poems, White Sun Black Sun (1960). My second small book, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi (1962), was with Trobar, a press and magazine published by Kelly and Economou; my third, Sightings (1964), was again with Hawk’s Well Press and printed in the same volume as Kelly’s Lunes; and my fourth, The Gorky Poems (1966), was published in a bilingual (English and Spanish) edition by El Corno Emplumado, which Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragón were publishing out of Mexico. A selection of poems, Between: Poems 1960-1963, was published in 1968 by Fulcrum Press in London; another selection, Poems 1964-1967, was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1968; and a larger selected poems, Poems for the Game of Silence, was published by Dial Press in 1971 and reprinted by New Directions in 1974.
During the 1960s I also began to assemble examples of tribal and oral poetry from Africa,
The work in ethnopoetics and on the attendant assemblages was a catalyst as well for my own poetry. I began to put a greater emphasis on performance, a part of that tied in with procedures for the translation and subsequent performance of oral and ritual poetry that I called “total translation.” At the same time I began to work collaboratively with musicians and composers – Charlie Morrow and Bertram Turetzky most notably, but on other occasions with Philip Corner, Pauline Oliveros, George Lewis, and the klezmer group calling itself The Klezmatics. There were also theatricalizations in the 1980s of Poland/1931 by the Living Theater and That Dada Strain by Luke Theodore Morrison's Center for Theater Science and Research, a Living Theater offshoot. I engaged in poetry readings throughout this time – twenty or more in an average year, both in the
For two years – 1972 to 1974 – I lived with my wife and our son Matthew at a Seneca Indian (Iroquois) reservation in western New York state, where I worked on the completion of the American Indian anthology, Shaking the Pumpkin, but also my own book of poems, A Seneca Journal (1978). At the same time I continued a very different but curiously related project – or so I thought – “to explore ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.” The immediate results were Poland/1931 (poems, 1974) and A Big Jewish Book (1977, later revised as Exiled in the Word). The principal publisher for my poetry by then was New Directions, and in the following two and a half decades they published a string of poetry books: Vienna Blood (1980), That Dada Strain (1983), New Selected Poems (1986), Khurbn and Other Poems (1989), The Lorca Variations (1993), Seedings and Other Poems (1996), A Paradise of Poets (1999), and A Book of Witness (2003), as well as a collection of essays, Pre-Faces (1981). Other books during that time came from a number of smaller publishers, as well as a range of books in translation – into many languages, but principally French and Spanish. At the same time I was actively engaged in translation from a number of languages – sometimes on my own, sometimes in collaboration with others – and in the 1990s and the first decade of this century I published books of translation from Lorca, Schwitters, Picasso, and Vitezslav Nezval, as well as a book of my selected translations, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (2004).
Present and future projects follow the same trajectory as those that came before. My big project at the moment (2006) is a third installment of Poems for the Millennium, this one in collaboration with Jeffrey Robinson – a radical reassemblage of nineteenth-century poetry, tracing a line of experimental romanticism and postromanticism as it underlies our present workings. My next book for New Directions, Triptych, will bring together Poland/1931 and Khurbn (poems deriving from the Holocaust) with a new series of poems, The Burning Babe, and another, nearly complete book of poems, still unnamed, will be ready for publication in 2009 or 2010. I find with all of this that the work has been cumulative, that it has permitted me to change while not losing track of, rather incorporating, most of what came before. I hope that someday this will be seen as a whole, the way I try to see it now, but that it has even come this far is more than I could have imagined.
ADDENDUM. In the several years since I wrote this chronology, the books mentioned in the final paragraph have come into print – plus several others: Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, in 2008; Triptych in 2007; Gematria Complete (Marick Press) in 2009; Concealments and Caprichos (Black Widow Press) in 2010; Retrievals: Uncollected and New Poems (Junction Press) in 2011; and a second book of essays, Poetics and Polemics (University of Alabama Press) in 2008. Among recent books translated into French was Techniciens du Sacré (Jose Corti, 2008), and recent books in Spanish include Siembras [Seedings complete] (Baile del Sol, 2010) & Ojo del Testimonio [prose writings] (Editorial Aldus, 2010). I also began this blog, Poems and Poetics, in 2008.