[The full interview will appear as a foreword to David Antin’s How Long Is the Present: Selected Talk Poems, edited by Stephen Fredman & scheduled for publication by the
Q. 1 When you began delivering talk poems in the mid-1970s, they seemed quite confrontational. There was a remarkable resistance to the work even among so-called "avant-garde" poets on the West Coast, who seemed, as I recall, to take your questioning of the function and techniques of poetry as a direct affront. What specifically were you doing that was so provocative?
A. 1 I think I was born under the star of controversy. Back In the sixties my pop poems in Code of Flag Behavior provoked controversy because they were too “pop.” Definitions was too intellectual, Meditations was too hermetic. And in 1973 when I performed “what am i doing here” in front of the poetry audience of the
Q. 2 I’m thinking, in particular, of concerns like beauty, emotion, and poetic form, which were taken extremely seriously by the New American poets and their followers, but which you viewed as extraneous, or, using the ultimate intellectual put-down of that time, as “trivial.” What was the purpose of your assault on such aesthetic notions, and how did other poets react?
A. 2 Since at least the end of the eighteenth century a cluster of ideas has haunted discussions of poetry: that it’s a fundamentally emotionally expressive medium closely related to music; that its origins are mythical, primitive, ritualistic and grounded in our physical being; that these manifest themselves through the genre of song, which derives its strength from the exigencies of its form. This is a grandly imagined conception of poetry. It is in fact a myth. That holds together a community of poets. And is not true. Charles Olson is a powerful member of that community--he’s probably one of the most beautiful poets of the second half of the twentieth century and the Maximus Poems is Olson at his most brilliant. So, look at the Maximus Poems:
, Letter 19 (A Pastoral Letter Gloucester
to the care of souls,
He had smiled at us,
each time we were in town, inquired
how the baby was, had two cents
for the weather, wore (besides his automobile)
And a pink face.
It was yesterday
it all came out. The gambit
(as he crossed the street,
after us): “I don’t believe
I know your name.” Given.
How do you do,
how do you do. And then:
“Pardon me, but
do you belong to,
may I ask?”
And the whole street, the town, the cities, the nation
blinked in the afternoon sun, as the gun
was held at them. And I wavered
in the thought.
I sd, you may, sir.
He sd, what, sir.
I sd, none,
And the light was back.
There are brilliant phrase breaks in this poem but there is nothing in it that suggests song.
Gary Snyder is also a distinguished member of this poetical community. And back in 1975 in a discussion following my presentation of “Talking to Discover” at the first Ethnopoetics Conference in
For me poetry was and is the language art and within that arena I was trying to find a poetry of thinking, and I was criticized for an insufficiency of form. Back in 1973 Robert Kroetsch, the co-editor of Boundary 2 specifically objects to a lack of formal constraints in my talk poems, in somewhat the same way Robert Frost characterized free verse as trying to play tennis without a net. A few years later, I was scheduled to be on a panel for the MLA and on my way to the stage I bumped into Denise Levertov. We exchanged a few pleasantries and she asked me what I was there for. When I told her I was on the panel on contemporary poetry, she told me “But what you’re doing is not poetry at all.” A few years later Marjorie Perloff was giving a talk on a program with John Hollander and Harold Bloom at the Folger Library. Marjorie’s paper was on John Cage and me and she had barely begun when Bloom declared that we were not poets and stomped off the stage. I thought this was very funny because I thought all the furor was over. But then somewhat more recently Robert Pinsky, the Lugubrious Laureate, was so enraged at the Boston Review for publishing one of my talk poems that he tried to get the editor fired. I could easily multiply the number of these responses, but what’s the point?
Q.3 I agree with you that there is no “song” per se in the Olson poem. On the contrary, he is so adroit in representations of verbal dialogue and of his own internal thinking. Having listened to poets like you, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley, for instance, I have found you to be the most voluble people I have ever met, and I read the poetry as something like the precipitations from a vast solution of talk. Do you see yourself in a circle of American writers as talkers?
A.3 I’ve said it many times before--that talking is the closest I can come to thinking. So maybe what you’re calling our volubility is a readiness for utterance that draws on a vast reservoir of thinking fed by ongoing conversations with oneself. This said, it still strikes me as strange that the great virtue of Creeley’s poetry is its terseness and ellipticality. It’s as if the free flow of his thinking--his volubility–-is subjected to severe criticism before it is released into the brilliant fragments of his poetry. In this context it’s interesting to compare him to Kenneth Rexroth, another very different voluble poet, whose fluent talking seems to emerge unchecked into his poetry from what must have been a relaxed internal conversation. And yet, I’m not sure how this addresses the experience of discovering while working, while walking or writing, something completely, almost unintelligibly, new.
Q. 6 I want to switch gears now and ask you about something more oriented toward the present. In the era of the typewriter, it made perfect sense to say that sitting in a closet typing was no way to address living human beings. Is that still true in the age of social media, when so many people conduct their social interactions primarily via keyboard and screen? This interview, for example, is taking place not face-to-face but through the input/output devices of electronic media. What kind of “present” is it in which you and I are communicating?
A.6 I’ve never been impressed by McLuhan's media generalizations, but I have no doubt that technological changes in communications media affect us all, though probably in many ways that are not so easy to determine. When I was sixteen I decided I was going to be a poet. So I went out and bought a Roget’s Thesaurus, a Rhyming Dictionary and a rebuilt portable Remington typewriter. From Roget I learned that an abomination referred to an evil, a defilement, an abhorrence, a hate, a turpitude or just plain wrong. That an exiguity referred to a fewness, a littleness, that to rejoice is to jubilate, exult, delight, dance, skip, frisk, frolic, revel, lilt and chirp, and that to despair is to despond, fret, yearn, mope, languish, lament, grieve, ache and bleed. From the rhyming dictionary I learned how to write a sestina, though I never wrote one. And from the little Remington I learned to type thirty words a minute. So it was good for all my high school papers but I didn’t use it for everything I wrote. From some of my classes I had gotten in the habit of keeping a notebook for thinking through things I found interesting or had on my mind. I was a reasonably skilled draftsman and good at lettering. So most of what I was thinking was recorded in my fairly elegant lettering style printing. But a fair number of entries were in cursive and the difference between print and cursive meant something to me. I think the precision of print gave me a feeling of intellectual empowerment, while my entries in cursive had a more casual fluency that was not sufficient for my poems at that time. And then I discovered a third distinction. When I tried to compose a poem, I always worked on the Remington because the pressure I had to exert on the keys gave me a feeling of forcefulness I felt my poetry required. The typewriter also invited complex page design that encouraged many poets in the sixties to flee the left margin to create designed scores for the ever more popular oral performances of their poems. The availability of Xerox and mimeo machines allowed the creation of multiple copies and allowed the escape from those dreadful carbon papers and permitted the spread of cheaply produced magazines. With opaque projectors It also facilitated cut and paste procedural poetry. But we all know this and I only go through this litany of changes to illustrate how many subtle effects have been produced by interactions of different stages of technology. For example, we are making use of computer software to converse in a manner that I somewhere described as a combination of the eighteenth century and the twentieth. You propose that its possibilities seem very different from the face to face communication of the oral tradition. And you’re right. But so is snail mail, and the notebook in which we compose our own thoughts, and the tiny audio tape recorder and even smaller digital recorders that have replaced them. The visual effect of true face to face communication is I think less important than the belief that someone out there is really listening.