[The following is a recent interview by Karl Jirgens in Rampike magazine (
KJ: You are among the forerunners investigating ethnopoetics with others who shared interests in anthropology and linguistics including David Antin, Stanley Diamond, Dell Hymes, Gary Snyder, Nathaniel Tarn (E. Michael Mendelson) and Dennis Tedlock. You have pursued literary expression from around the world. You have translated roughly a dozen books of poetry. Much of the international poetic expression that you have considered includes significant performative aspects that arise from verbal expression in the form of chant, song, or spoken expression that provides proverbs, riddles, curses, laments, praises, prayers, prophecies, public announcements, and stories. It has been said by anthropologists such as Dennis Tedlock that practitioners of ethnopoetics treat the relationship between performance and text as their primary field. Have you discovered any exciting clues to what might be called a “unified field” theory of performative poetics?
JR: Coming out of the 1950s I was like others brought into the possibilities of poetry as a largely performative art – not only that but with a sense of orality or performance as a defining factor even while the written or visual forms of poetry were also being reconsidered. There was with this a resultant fusion of poetry and other arts under the rubric of performance – intermedia, happenings, conceptual art, fluxus, poetry & jazz combinations, different forms of poets’ theater, the whole panoply in short of what was possible in bringing the range of our arts together. What was given to me to see and to articulate was a reinvigorated ethnopoetics that sought forms of poetry related to our own experimental modes in cultures that had been largely overlooked in previous assessments. It was a matter here of what we could know and learn from traditional ritual and verbal practices – anywhere or everywhere – with underlying forms of mythopoesis as developed ways of being and acting in the world. All of that lay behind the opening maxim of Technicians of the Sacred, “primitive means complex,” with performance a principal key to that complexity. In doing that we were able to bring a wide range of performative practices together or, as Robert Duncan phrased it, to bring all things into their comparisons. What I articulated – or tried to – I always felt was shared with others.
KJ: In Technicians of the Sacred you covered a range of poetic expression from Africa,
JR: I’m enough of an ongoing avantgardist to prize the unanticipated above all else, and early along I found that coming at me from all directions. The oral and sometimes the written or visual traditions of indigenous peoples offered analogies to what was experimental in our own time – also to what was long accepted, I might add – and sometimes surprised us with forms of languaging for which there was no quick or easy comparison. An immediate example – really a wide range of examples – would be the use of non-semantic vocalizations: from untranslatable vocables and glossolalia in religious practice to forms of scat singing – whether called that or not – on a secular level. I was drawn to these – like Khlebnikov (zaum) and Schwitters (ur sonata) before me – as full blown instances of traditional sound poetries, but also as targets for what I came to call and to put into practice as “total translation.” Gestural poetry (both aboriginal and as a part of contemporary deaf [signing] culture) led into largely unexplored areas, as did the transfer of language into other than vocal modes (whistles, yodels, drums, etc.). Aleatory (chance) practices and oulipo-like procedures showed up in Yoruba and Chinese oracle bone castings or in forms of Hebrew numerology (gematria) – resembling but different and markedly more developed than our own still tentative experiments. And there were notable instances of what could be read as visual or concrete poetry, to say nothing of the countless dream works and visions that linked to the most surreal-obsessed workings of the last century or two. The excitement of first coming on these works and then assembling or collaging them into books like Technicians was more than enough for a lifetime.
KJ: The first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium cover a range of innovative and often radical literary expressions featuring international poetry presented in a way that de-centres and re-historicizes more conventional views of Twentieth Century poetics. The third volume of Poems for the Millenium covers poetry, manifestos, prose-poetry, verbal and visual innovations, as well as writing from beyond
offering ethnopoetic perspectives that extend outside of traditional western
canonical perspectives. I think that by
now, readers will have understood that in Volume Three, you were interested in
showing how the Romantics inspired innovative modernist and avant-garde writing
that followed. Could you say a little bit about your editorial philosophy and
methodology in seeking out codes of writing from the Romantic period that you
felt led to radical innovation?
JR: What we had to overcome was our own prejudice against fixed forms in order to see anew the challenges to form and content that were set in motion by the romantics and a number of others who had preceded them. As a matter of nomenclature Jeffrey Robinson and I began to talk between us about “experimental romanticism,” although I’m not sure that that phrase came into the actual writing. With that as our target, experiment and transformation appeared both in aspects of romantic writing that were largely subterranean and, even more surprisingly, at the heart and core of the romantic project. An aspect of this, from my side at least, was that the romantics and those we called the postromantics began to feel like contemporaries, less magisterial figures and more like fellow poets with whom we could enter into a free and easy discourse. In large part, if this doesn’t sound too arcane or academic, we rode on Jeffrey Robinson’s recovery of the “fancy,” salvaging it from Coleridge’s otherwise brilliant and long-lived dichotomy of fancy and imagination. The two terms – fancy and imagination – have otherwise been historically synonymous, whereas Coleridge made imagination not just the shaping spirit but a binding spirit that reconciled and thereby froze deep conflicts of image and idea, in relation to which “the fancy” might now be viewed as a liberatory force – for play and invention – the field par excellence of the experimental and visionary. I would then think of imagination qua fancy less in Coleridge’s sense as reconciliation and closure than in Keats’s and Rimbaud’s as uncertainty and openness. This seems clear in Keats’s definition of “negative capability” followed immediately by his criticism of Coleridge: “Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.” Or Whitman in an equally famous passage: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” That being said, I would as well speak of imagination as of fancy, the good-of-it being, always, in the meanings, not the nomenclature, and in any case, an inheritance from the Romantics with whom it all started.
KJ: Your latest book Retrievals covers a lengthy range of your writing from 1955 to 2010. The book features baroque sonnets, Gnostic hymns, parables, plays, elegies, plays of language, songs, “Ikons and Alter Pieces,” and even an unfinished “Steinian opera.” In your afterword to the book you confirm that this collection is an assemblage of unpublished writings tracing back roughly half a century and with the help of Mark Weiss, drawn largely from the archives at the University of California, San Diego. When I listened to you read from this book at the
JR: Two points then: first, my pursuit of a kind of transcultural or global poetics: a poetry rooted in its place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omnipoetics. And secondly my progress from deep image to ethnopoetics to a kind of poetry of witness or testimony – not as others would have it or define it but as I would. I could say a lot about both of these points – and will or have elsewhere – but suffice it that a book like this gives me a retrospective view, maybe more than a comparable selection of poems previously picked for publication. My next project – or one of them – will be a large reader or sampler of my own work, dating from the 1950s to the present and including poetics and performance as well as poems as such. The editor or co-editor for this is the Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez, who recently edited and translated a large book of my prose writings, Ojo del Testimonio, for Editorial Aldus in