To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jerome Rothenberg: New Books in Translation 2013-2015

[As we come into the fifteenth year of the new century, I would like to call attention to the publication, present & forthcoming, of a number of books of mine in the process of translation into a range of foreign languages.  This is of some special importance to me since I’ve been exploring over many years the possibilities as well as the limits of poetry as an international enterprise.  My own entry into poetry coincided with the awakening of a “new American poetry” in the 1950s & 60s, a series of discoveries & recoveries in which I shared, but which sometimes seemed to push back too strongly against the international or global in favor of the regional & local.   For many of us, even so, our full company of forerunners & contemporaries was both multicultural & multilingual, & translation, however ill equipped I may have been for its practice, was in all its forms the great bridging instrument at our disposal.  That my own work as a poet has also been carried over, increasingly, into other languages, often with my active collaboration, has brought me full circle in the process.  What follows, then, is a listing of translated books, already published or forthcoming, over the  two or three years since 2013.  That I now will have a dozen books, before & after 2013, in French & nearly the same number in Spanish, opens, for me at least, the possibility of talking across boundaries, however localized the original language of the poems & what Robert Duncan called “the place of first permission”  might be.  My gratitude to the translators is overwhelming.  (J.R.)]

Paraíso de Poetas, translation into Spanish by Heriberto Yépez & Laura Jáuregui, reprint and expansion of Un Cruel Nirvana, Editorial Arte y Literatura, Cuba, 2013.

Pologne/1931 (“A Book of Writings” & “A Book of Testimony”), translation into French by Jean Portante & 
Zoë Skoulding, Editions Caracteres, Paris, 2013.

El Trabajo del sueño y otros poemas,  translation into Spanish by Mercedes Roffé, Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, 2013.

Mistici, hoti si nebuni (Mystics Thieves & Madmen), translation into Romanian by Chris Tanasescu, Casa de Editura Max Blecher, Bucharest, 2013.

An Oracle for Delphi, translation into Greek by Iossif Venturi, posted on              chive=&start_from=&ucat=168&show_cat=168, Athens, 2013.

Khurbn, translation into French by Rachel Ertel, Editions Caractères, Paris, 2014.

“Entrevista realizada em Marselha,” in Enzio Minarelli, Razões da Voz, Londrina: Eduel, Brazil, 2014.

“Cokboy,” translation into Spanish and Ladino by Javier Taboada, in Tierra Adentro, Conaculta, Mexico, November 2014.

“Wedding,” “Fish,” and “Beards,” translated into Hebrew by Zali Gurevich, in         Helicon: Anthological Journal of Contemporary Poetry, Israel, 2014.

 “Total Translation: Jerome Rothenberg ethnopoet” (a large dossier of poems and prose), translations into German by Norbert Lange & others, in Schreibheft: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Essen, No. 82, February 2014.

 “Um Extase em Tubo de Vidrio” and “Na direção do equador,” translated into       Portuguese by Adriandos Delima, in Rima & Via Posia Nova, on-line at      vidro-e.html, July 1, 2014.

 “15 Flower World Variations: a sequence of songs from the Yaqui Deer Dance,  with Cecilia Vicuña, in El Poema Animal/La Danza del Venado, Hueders Editorial, Chile, scheduled: 2015.

Shaking the Pumpkin, translation into French by Anne Talvaz, Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, scheduled: 2015.  [This will now bring into French, along with Techniciens du Sacré from 2008, my two first gatherings of ethnopoetics.]

A Seneca Journal, translation into French by Didier Pemerle, Jose Corti, Paris, scheduled: November 2015.

A Field on Mars: Poems 2000-2015, joint editions in English and French, Jusqu’à (To) Publishers, Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, scheduled: 2016.

50 Caprichos après Goya, translation into French by Jean Portante, in preparation.

Poema de Milagros (A Poem of Miracles) and Un Testigo Más (A Further Witness), translation into Spanish by Javier Taboada, in preparation.

Selected poems, translation into Farsi by Sahar Tavakoli, in preparation.

Monday, December 22, 2014

John Bloomberg-Rissman: In the House of the Hangman #1880

[note.  The allure in Bloomberg-Rissman’s work, which has drawn me to it from the start, is his use of appropriative & conceptual techniques toward the exploration of real if unanticipated meaning – the saying, in other words, of that which is crying to be said.  His title comes from Adorno (“In the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose, otherwise one might seem to harbor resentment”),  & his sources appear beneath the poem & include, in this instance, appropriations from Pierre Joris’s Rothenberg Variations, anther example of a work using appropriative techniques in its composition.  Part of a still larger work-in-progress, Zeitgest Spam, “Hangman,” in Bloomberg-Rissman’s description, is “written / composed /constructed in real time, daily, out of the materials presented by that day (whether via RSS feed, Facebook, books received in the mail, emails, tv, conversation, or anything else the day brings) over a period of 2012 days (yes, the ‘Mayan apocalypse’  inspired that).  It is intended to be ‘adequate to the world in which we live’.” What is presented here of course is the 1880th day of composition, an ongoing anthology or assemblage of the world in which we live. (J.R.)]

And while some might say that my comparison of violence in Chile and Chicago is hyperbolic or inaccurate, to understand the discussion more broadly, one need only look at the numbers of people tortured and abused by the Chicago police, the numbers of people killed on the streets each year, the literally hundreds of thousands of poor children left to struggle in impoverished public schools that lack the most basic of resources. I know there are differences, believe me. But I’m sick of comparisons, of playing the which apocalypse is worse game. All the brutal neoliberal policy labs are murder zones. And someone tortured or killed by the Chicago Police is someone just as dead or tortured as someone tortured or killed by the Pinochet regime. Chile and Chicago: we drink each other’s shit. We are each other’s shit. We shit each other’s blood. We kill and die by our dollars. Who will write our obituary? I could go on about Noel’s great book and at some point I will, but what I want to think about for the moment is his use of the phrase “Documentary Death Poetics” in reference to the poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri. The Reverend Pedro Pietri, dressed in black cloaks, embodying what Noel calls a punk aesthetic and a punk spirit articulated through his poems and performances, a Nuyorican anti-poet, anti-genius for whom art and life were inseparable. Noel talks about one of Pietri’s interventions, Platonic Fucking for the 90s, which “features Pietri carrying a cross and handing out condoms through the streets,” an act that Pietri characterizes as “another way for a poem to save a life.” Which leads to the question: what are other ways that poems can save lives? In other words, how do poems fill the infected holes in our body? How do poems make the blood swell and swirl. I digress. I want to think about his “Puerto Rican Obituary,” and to talk about it as a poem that is unflinchingly vomiting out the death culture subsuming working class Nuyoricans and Latinos in the 60s and 70s. A poem shitting out, in ways that are totally unkitsch, in ways that are totally straight-forward, in ways that ask us to reconcile with language as a force that is not abstracting, that is not masking, that is articulating in clear, angry language a stance towards labor, towards labor that leads to death, towards poverty that leads to death, towards immigration that leads to death, towards death that leads to humanity, towards death that leads back to death, towards money that makes us die, towards capital that obliterates the bodies it employs in order to maintain the illusion of its rationality. But who the fuck I am talking to now. Here are the words of Pietri:

They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans
All died waiting dreaming and hating

Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the ten commandments
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latino souls

And I want to tell you about Valerie Martinez’s 2010 book length poem Each and Her. In it, Martinez documents with facts, names, and narratives the deaths of hundreds of young Mexican girls and women along the U.S-Mexico border. Many of these women worked in the maquiladoras; they were murdered, tortured, raped and mutilated. Here is one section:

the number of girls and women
working in the post-NAFTA
maquiladora industry


while they can’t be hired legally
at the age of 16, it is common for these girl-women
to get false documents
start work at 12, 13, 14

And here is another, naming some of them and listing the dates they died, died, which is a euphemism for were murdered, of course:

Jessica Lizalde Leon (3.14.93)
Lorenza Isela Gonzalez (4.25.94)
Erica Garcia Morena (7.16.95)
Sonia Ivette Ramirez (8.10.96)
Juana Iñiguez Mares (10.23.97)
Perla Patricia Sáenz Diaz (2.19.98)
Bertha Luz Briones Palacios (8.2.99)
Amparo Guzman (4.2.00)
Gloría Rivas Martinez (10.28.01)
Lourdes Ivette Lucero Campos (1.19.02)
Miriam Soledad Sáenz Acosta (3.28.03)

To name the names of the dead and to write them as poetry is not to aestheticize them; but rather it’s to force the reader to witness the dead; to carry their names in their mouths, to feel their names on their tongues, to understand their names as carrying meaning and life and rhythm and energy. It is to prevent the dead from disappearing permanently. It is to make us confront them as text, which is as close as most of us can get, and to ask us to consider what it means for our bodies to live knowing that these other bodies have been slaughtered, knowing that our own bodies are complicit in their slaughter, knowing that our own lives are, if we care enough to think about it, intricately connected with their deaths. This poetry function goes back beyond Achilles … Below are the names of the 6 people killed and the 43 you already know about.

6 Murdered in Iguala
Julio César Mondragón Fontes
Daniel Solís Gallardo
Julio César Ramírez Nava
David Josue García Evangelista
Víctor Manuel Lugo Ortiz

43 Disappeared
Blanca Montiel Sánchez
Abel García Hernández
Abelardo Vázquez Periten
Adán Abrajan de la Cruz
Alexander Mora Venancio
Antonio Santana Maestro
Benjamín Ascencio Bautista
Bernardo Flores Alcaraz
Carlos Iván Ramírez Villarreal
Carlos Lorenzo Hernández Muñoz
César Manuel González Hernández
Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre
Christian Tomas Colón Garnica
Cutberto Ortíz Ramos
Dorian González Parral
Emiliano Alen Gaspar de la Cruz
Everardo Rodríguez Bello
Felipe Arnulfo Rosas
Giovanni Galindes Guerrero
Israel Caballero Sánchez
Israel Jacinto Lugardo
Jesús Jovany Rodríguez Tlatempa
Jonas Trujillo González
Jorge Álvarez Nava
Jorge Aníbal Cruz Mendoza
Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño
Jorge Luis González Parral
José Ángel Campos Cantor
José Ángel Navarrete González
José Eduardo Bartolo Tlatempa
José Luís Luna Torres
Joshvani Guerrero de la Cruz
Julio César López Patolzin
Leonel Castro Abarca
Luis Ángel Abarca Carrillo
Luis Ángel Francisco Arzola
Magdaleno Rubén Lauro Villegas
Marcial Pablo Baranda
Marco Antonio Gómez Molina
Martín Getsemany Sánchez García
Mauricio Ortega Valerio
Miguel Ángel Hernández Martínez
Miguel Ángel Mendoza Zacarías
Saúl Bruno García

I owe tons of the above to Daniel Borzutsky, and his “In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Inferno”: magnifique. And it’s just such perfect Hangman material. For which I can only offer 10,000 bows, 10,000 bows. And now, a brief


When A in the A-gauge glass
becomes level with white line,
make more A as follows:
1. Place WET B in glass bamer.
2. Empty one pack of A into
the wet B.
3. Draw off two full measures
of hot boiling C and pour
them over the dry A in the B
(using circular motion).
4. Draw off one FULL measure
of A and repour it into B.
5. Close B between pours.
6. Never make more of A if the A
in A-gauge glass is above
white line.

If the balloons popped the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far above the correct floor.

Think of, imagine, devise, a pulse, any you choose, of any design.

Wrap a live microphone with a very large
sheet of paper. Make a large bundle.
Keep the microphone live for another five minutes.

The piano bench is tilted on its base and brought to rest against a part of the piano.


            The world becomes the world goes on

the wind crickets
knew you
a spider grew out of
air moon          blood
granite movement flowers
like daytime stone with grass words
to sing lights and numbers
a hard summons
ice hooks
meat hooks
a living place
skin window
just feathers across
what a high hairy frailty chaos
“why” is        
a large thumb

all sang/wept               underscored by the words of the Goblin Page, “lost, lost, lost” and “found, found, found.” Need I add “the ghosts / whip up with furiousness? Above their holes / they dance and taunt – I planted those beans myself and the tomatoes I ordered the seeds / off the internet and planted them and – ‘We are making some fine universe’, my five-year-old said. ‘Out of what we have. With will.’” “At night, we watch TV together.” “O sorry-ass fish. O melancholy amoeba. / O despondent mold.” Yesterday I consulted a dictionary wanting to know the height of the atmosphere. The column of air that we support weighs no less than seventeen tons. Not far from the word atmosphere, I stopped on Atlixco, a town in Mexico, in the state of Pueblo, at the foot of Popocatepetl. I suddenly imagined myself in the middle of a little town that I thought similar to those of southern Andalusia. In some oblivion, forgotten by the rest of the world, does it persist in itself? Now it persists, the little girls, the poor women, and perhaps in a cluttered room, a sobbing boy, sweating … O world today everywhere twisted with sobs, naively vomiting blood (like someone with TB): on the plains of Poland? I dreamt of summer tanagers last night, and little hippos one foot high in a lake perched in a crater bowl in the mountains where an octopus watched over them. 3 biopsies later, I’m thinking, on the sidelines, about the specific idiomatic practice of given practitioners, as (say) vibraphonist Walt Dickerson of Philadelphia, whose peculiar touch and tone, the velocity and ‘bounce’ he’d get hammering on the bars, he credited in part to his soaking the heads of his mallets in a special solution before approaching the instrument. The animist, though, feels herself to be part of a whispering, bending, whistling, barking universe – meanwhile, back in Manchester, Dr. Drew-Baker was studying laver, nori’s Welsh equivalent. In 1949, she published a paper in Nature outlining her discovery that a tiny algae known as Conchocelis was actually a baby nori or laver, rather than an entirely separate species, as had previously been thought. After reading her research, Japanese scientists quickly developed methods to artificially seed these tiny spores onto strings, and they rebuilt the entire nori industry along the lines under which it still operates today. Although she’s almost unknown in the U.K., Dr. Drew-Baker is known as the “Mother of the Sea” in Japan, and a special “Drew” festival is still held in her honor in Osaka every April 14. This action marked the culmination of a monumental effort that officially began with the Committee’s decision to initiate the Study in March 2009, but which had its roots in an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of CIA detainee interrogations that began in December 2007. The full Committee Study, which totals more than 6,700 pages, remains classified but is now an official Senate report. The full report has been provided to the White House, the CIA, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the hopes that it will prevent future coercive interrogation practices and inform the management of other covert action programs. In other words, no more pureed hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisin enemas! All these things happened before 2 pm and after 8 pm. I lay on the wooden benches outside the hot springs, next to the two Korean women who had a similar style of 5 minutes of intense bathing in the hottest pool at the back of the cave then 30 minutes of deep rest. Outside, the crispy ice above the creek melted and froze in the same moment. Walt Whitman took the waters in these caves. Melissa Buzzeo wrote a part of WHAT BEGAN US in these caves. Christine Wertheim ate french fries with extra salt before bathing here. I wish there was a bitter chocolate drink made from beer foam, like a tonic. That I might enjoy. I could eat it from a spoon, from a saucer. The animals were [are] different; some grey and bright bighorn sheep tumbled down a path next to my car. I could see into their twelve eyes. In ways that have concentrated over time, like an environmental toxin. Pink and silver. Will I die in Paris on a Thursday evening when it is raining? No. Or not again.

 [Note: Sources: And while some … Saúl Bruno García: Daniel Borzutsky, Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Valerie Martinez, Each and Her, quoted in Borzutzky’s “In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Inferno”, at Harriet, 8 Dec 014; When A … white line: Cornelius Cardew, “Making A”, in Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (eds. John Lely and James Saunders); If the balloons … correct floor: JD Bransford and MK Johnson, “Considerations of Some Problems of Comprehension”, in Lely and Saunders; Think of, imagine … any design: Christian Wolff, “Looking North”, in Lely and Saunders; wrap a live … five minutes: Takehisa Kosugi, Micro 1”, in Lely and Saunders; The piano bench … part of the piano: George Brecht, “Incidental Music”, in Lely and Saunders; earth … world goes on: John Wieners, “from A BOOK OF PROPHECIES”, quoted in Mark So, “The world becomes the world goes on”, in Lely and Saunders; the wind crickets … , found, found”: JBR, variation on Pierre Joris, “The Rothenberg Variations”, in Joris’ Barzakh (Joris: “The poems are composed following a detournée +7 method: each poem is fbased on word material (each 7th word) of the first 15 poems in JR’s first and latest books.” Joris created 15 variations; I simply took bits from each one, in order, adding only an “a”, a set of quotation marks, and a bit by David Hill Radcliffe at the end re: Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (from Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830) which echoed in my head because of Joris’ single word “found”. A little homage to PJ and JR); Need I add: JBR; “the ghosts … despondent mold”: Sandra Simonds, “In Reverse Chronological Order, the World Is Formed”, “Come Back!”, “Lincoln Logs”, “Ode to Marriage”, “Young Woman, Prehistoric Mammals Are Not Dinosaurs”, in The Sonnets; Yesterday I consulted … plains of Poland?: Georges Bataille, Guilty (tr. Stuart Kendall); I dreamt of summer … watched over them: Tom Marshall, email rec’d 9 Dec 014 approx 8:48 AM PST; 3 biopsies later: JBR; I’m thinking, on the sidelines … approaching the instrument: Steve Dickison, “Written 1976–2013 by P. Inman”, at Galatea Resurrects 23; The animist … barking universe –: Angela Roothaan, “Anim(al)ism”, —angelaroothaan, 6 Dec 014; meanwhile, back in Manchester … Osaka every April 14: Nicola Twilley, “Gastropod: Kale of the Sea”, at Edible Geography, 9 Dec 014; This action … covert action programs: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program: Executive Summary, at; In other words … enemas!: JBR (I can not make this shit up); All these things … Or not again: Bhanu Kapil, “What can I say?”, at Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?, 7 Dec 014]

9 December 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

For Milos Sovak in memoriam: Vitezslav Nezval’s “The Heart of the Musical Clock” (1924), a collaborative translation

On January 26, 2009, nearly six years ago, Milos Sovak died after a long illness.  Our friendship had lasted over thirty years & gave me the opportunity to work with him on a series of translations, the most important a book of selected poems from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval & scattered poems from the late Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov.  Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, & occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to Mazan & the chateau & theater of the Marquis de Sade.  Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech & the designer, typographer, & publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California.  He was a good friend to many poets & artists, & most remarkably an important medical researcher & the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields.  The felicities in what follows are largely of his doing.                        

Someday to have gone that far
to slip the white glove off
your eye fixed on that one spot on the ring
reality in motion colors sounds & smells
the clock in motion too but different
but different too from science
& from buying a new tie & looking all around you
but different too from thinking hard about it


In the end the upholsterer will have to be invited
at dusk the gardener lights the lights in the asparagus
& in the rosy raspberries a caterpillar’s sleeping


Oh that fantastic doll in her green furs
There was that Japanese picture you once gave me
I lost it somewhere in a crush of people
there isn’t any need to go that far for it
have you observed the laces on the bosoms of your lady friends?
that’s what poetry is all about

A bird landed in the roses & broke its wing
once we could all learn something from these birds
but the bird landed in the bushes broke its wing & now says nothing
listening to the music of the wingless flugelhorn

Oh you pink watermills
a star fell in the clock & now it spins around!
let’s go & wind up all those stars
whenever somebody betrays you
then it’s time to fly in closer
Creole women back  in Buenos Aires shining on the promenade
up there in the airplane
& in the pocket mirror

A butterfly has settled in a box
it was the butterflies pinned down we most regretted
but you were pinning words down with a dagger

I pressed the letter to my heart
& died

In the calendar it says the month of May
oh all you sixteen year old boys & twenty-seven year old women
in the calendar it says the month of May
& you there with a head & hands & legs
So I would change into a kiss a word a smell
would dissipate & vanish
like a dandelion

                                                         The windmill of the seasons

A summer night of violets & fireworks out in the little garden

 Spring serenades you on a sugary guitar With autumn there are
                                                                                           [walks & walkers
a nickelodeon plunks on all morning            an English park complete
                                                                                           [with fountain

                      In winter best  of all (oh yes) to be a fan held by a lady

                                                   Windmill of love & the four corners
                                                   On the night stand Poudre Inconnu 

In the Chinese silk a charm                 The red handkerchief conceals a
as of the almond tree                                                      [dreadful dagger

                       Southlands of love the Oranges the mouths the lemons

[collage with words by Teige] 

What is the most beautiful thing inside the coffee house?
The red white flowers on the terrace across the way


Some magazines look like the map of Oceania
what will my magazine named Siren look like?

the glances

Love is running along a line of lemon fizzes
the sparkling acrobatics of these eyes
oh you my sweetest bonbons
where does this fun & games express train run to?
from eye to eye into your green arcadia
the snow is interlaced with pink adornments
& maybe best of all a super ice cream
oh stay asleep my little vermin

oh you my cardinal stay fast asleep

an event

First we thought it was a secret sign
it could have been a MENU
only it was a calendar
above it there a burnt-out bulb was hanging
until an absolutely white man sauntered by
a woman with her face completely white
oh yes it only was a calendar
I don’t remember the moon any more
ostensibly it didn’t shine
ostensibly it was the new moon

Those incredibly small wives are our real heroes
relentlessly they call you on the phone
oh in your heart the bell plays games with you forever
each one of them gets on & screams HELLO!
lays the receiver down
& keeps you on hold until you die


                                GLOBE - light
                                GLOBE - bearer
                                GLOBE - worm
                                GLOBE - star
                                GLOBE - gloom
                                GLOBE - trotter

Someday to have gone that far
to cast aside your weary civilization
so all realities will glow in ultraviolet
but 17 poems will still be something different
& different too from what you first intended
from thinking hard & long to write a poem


NOTE. Nezval (1900-1958) was, with Velimir Holan, one of the two great early poets of Czech experimental modernism. Like other innovators then & now, he worked through a prolific sweep of modes & genres: open & closed forms of verse; novels drawn from his childhood & more surreal, chance-oriented prose works; avant-garde theater collaborations; numerous translations of his modern counterparts & predecessors (Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Neruda, Lorca, Eluard, et al.); & forays as composer, painter, journalist, photographer, & (from 1945 to 1951) director of the film section of the Information & Culture Ministry in Prague. His commitment to Communism came early (1924), & his politics before & after made him a prominent member of that network of tolerated avant-gardists/poet-heroes that included Neruda, Brecht, Picasso, Hikmet, Eluard, & Tzara, among others (with some of whom he shared pro-forma hymns to Stalin in the early postwar years). As with many of them also, a Surrealist connection was clearly in evidence but should in no sense diminish the originality of his own practice & its contribution to ours.

The poem presented here is from a longer selection,
Antilyrik & Other Poems, translated by myself & Milos Sovak & published by Green Integer Books in 2001. (J.R.)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chronicle: Interview with a Seneca Songman, Richard Johnny John (Part Three)

Richard Johnny John, with Jerome Rothenberg & Ian Tyson, Three Songs from Shaking the Pumpkin

[Continued from previous blogger & Jacket2 postings.  The Kinzua Dam construction referred to by Johnny John was a federal & state project that drove many of the Allegany Senecas from their traditional homes, to be “compensated” by new buildings but with losses still keenly felt when we lived there.  Widespread protests in the 1950s had failed to halt the dam’s construction. (J.R.)]



Mostly these new songs that we make up are for entertainment – like those gatherings we have,  just to pass the time away, most of it. But there are a few, especially those that have got words in them, that are more serious.  Like ever since they've started this Kinzua Dam, I guess everybody has tried to make up songs about it and how it was going to affect the Indian and everything, wondering where we were going to go after the Kinzua Dam really got up to where it's supposed to be, up to where our old houses used to be, where the water's all covered over now. Well, my brother Art's got one song that's got quite a bit to say about that, and I've got one that's a little more, I wouldn't say more criticizing the white people as Art's is, but maybe I've got a little more meaning to it, I guess I would say.
            I don't know if I can remember just how that song did come to be. I guess one night, it was down at the longhouse at the Singing Society, we had the singing there at the longhouse one evening, and while we were singing at the middle of the council house there - we had the singers' benches out and quite a few of us sitting there and singing - pretty soon Harry Watt come up to me. I was sitting at the end of the bench, and he says could you make up a song  that would say something like what was going to happen after the Kinzua Dam was in, and have a word or two saying just let the Indians go back to heaven or something like that. It took me quite a while before I finally did come up with one, and it has something about the Kinzua Dam and about the Indians going back to heaven on account of the white people taking our land away from us and putting water there where we used to live. What I'm going to do is give you the idea of these two songs that's been made up between my brother and me, and show you the older, original song I used in making up mine. My brother made up the first song, and after Harry heard this one, I think that's where he got the idea that he wanted to have something with more meaning to it. Anyway, this is the way Art's song goes : 

they're going to do us dirt
they're going to do us dirt
when they come & build a dam
at allegany
we won't know where to go
we won't know where to go
when they come & build a dam
at allegany 

Now, the way I made up mine, I got it from an old melody. This Canadian got married to one of the girls on our reservation, and he used to sing this at our singing gatherings and practice sessions, and this is the way it goes: 

now ain't that something!
say the singers
of all them pretty girls
not one was dancing
yahweyho yahweyho yahweyho
heyhono noheyo
of all them pretty girls
not one was dancing 

Well, afterwards Harry asked me to make up the Kinzua song, and here's the way I finally made it out: 

now ain't that something!
say the singers
the dirt we're being done
by our white brothers
the way we see it is
let's all get up & go
back to the sky let's
get on back! 

So, in this one I'd just say the original idea was from that Canadian song and that it took me quite a long while, maybe three, four weeks before I could really get it to where I wanted it. I started off with the first introductory part, the first few words there, then I couldn't put the rest of it together. I'd get just so far and then I'd get stuck. If I just started off and tried to sing it, it didn't sound right to me, so I had an awful time before I could get it straight: the melody change in the second part and the way I wanted to word it.
            In non-word songs you can get that quicker than you would the word songs. Like the word songs do have quite a lot of meaning into them : like that one there, it's just more or less to remind us what has happened to us.  My idea of it was to save the song as long as we can, and maybe in a few years some of the younger generation will learn it, and like everybody else they ask questions about the song. But the songs without words are just more or less for amusement, I guess. To make up non-word songs like that, just change one sound to another and combine and rearrange them some other different ways, and try to make a new song out of them.  There's no limit to the number of sounds that you use: you can use as many as you can. The whole idea of it is to try to combine and rearrange different sounds and see how many you can make up that way. There may be some odd sound that maybe you heard it by somebody saying something at one time or another, and you can try to get that certain sound into a song.  Like you're just talking with somebody, and maybe he'd say some odd little thing like "hey yar" or something like that, and maybe say " I don't know," and then You say "No hey yoh see." That's how you change it. Maybe he's talking along, and maybe he'll say quite a few such words as that: then after you've talked with him, you sit around and think of what he has said and pretty soon you can almost get a song out of it. It's not every song that's made up that way, but mostly when you combine sounds and melody, you have to think what sounds should go into the melody you're trying to follow. You have to follow a pattern. You can almost make up the words as you go along just as it comes to your mind, I guess, and then try to pull them together and make a good song out of it.  Maybe sometimes it does come out all right and sounds pretty good, and sometimes it's just the opposite. You get the melody in and then you can't get the sounds together to make it sound right. You can say it gets kind of muddled up there for a while and then takes quite a while to get it straightened out.
            Some of the sounds that we use are more or less fixed. Like most of the woman's dance songs start out before the introductory part with "heya" and "yo-oh-ho" or something like that. (Some of the other dance songs, they just start out without having them sounds with it.) Then I think most of the songs, even the different dances, use a lot of the "0" in them: "ho," "yo" and "0" I guess are the most popular in all these different dance songs. I believe in all these different dances they hav'e got a lot of that in there. Like  going into the middle of the song, you use a lot of that.
            Like I say, you have to follow a pattern. There are even some sounds we have that you may say rhyme or repeat themselves. Like the sounds in the introductory part. You use the whole introductory, and then in the middle and end parts you rhyme it back or repeat it. A lot of woman's dance songs are made up that way. The oldtimers used to try to make it that way, but now there's so many different songs and sounds that you hear, we've kind of worked away from it a little bit, like us combining three, four different songs at once, so in that way you can't very well rhyme with the first part. Anyway, it's all according to how the song is started out. If you can get the beginning part, the introductory, from there you can go on to try to combine other sounds with it. Then you have to get the pitch of the song to it. I guess all composers have the same trouble as we do, even some of these great composers, the modern-day composers of English songs. Sometimes they have the words there, they have the lyrics there, and still they don't, they won't, they can't be satisfied with how it's going to sound like in the melody part. Maybe the sound is there and you want to use it, and still in your melody that you're trying to think of at the same time, it won't fit in. Or maybe the sound that you're thinking of is too long to go into the melody, and then sometimes maybe it's too short: then you have to add on a few other sounds to go
with it and then fit that into the melody. Sometimes I come to see it that the sound and melody kind of contradict each other, and that sometimes gets real complicated that way; It's not, as you would say, that it makes a song better. It just takes a little more thinking to that: sometimes it turns out to be a big joke after a while.
            With these social dances at the longhouse, we're there just to have a lot of fun anyway, while with the sacred dances we're thinking more serious of what is going on. You think that these sacred songs will help the person, whoever is sponsoring them, whatever the doings are; and I guess, to my opinion, it has helped a lot of people - the sacred dances, that is. But even there, the attitude all depends on how the person sponsoring the doings is feeling. Like if the speaker tells us that the person who is sponsoring the doings is feeling all right, well, he notifies us right away that we can have a little fun.  That's why we get into all these comical acts that we put on when we're dancing these pumpkin songs, for instance, just to have the sponsor have a little fun with us. Sometimes that does happen: sometimes he clowns more than the rest of the group does, so that's a good indication that the song does help him quite a bit.
            All of this has been brought down from the time the Gaiwiio came on the earth. They had been dancing all these songs before, and now the Prophet of the Senecas had tried to stop it at that time; but later on this little girl got sick, and they tried to get the Prophet to tell her fortune. It took him a long time before he consented to tell the fortune of this little girl, and that's what he found: it was a song that was bothering this little girl! It was one of those society songs - you know, like the Dark Dance and the Quivering and Changing-a-Rib and the Death Chant - and, well, at that time the Four Beings had told him that people should cut out all the dance songs that were on this earth. But later on the Beings came back again, and they told him that if it couldn't be stopped, then it was to continue. Before the Gaiwiio came on earth, you know, they used to have hard drinks at all these doings; but after they had come back, they told him that if the dancing or the songs couldn't be stopped that one time, that they could have the berry juice, like what we use now in the Dark Dance ceremony. And they told him at that time that there was just going to be just that once, but after they did have this once for this little girl, everybody else started to get sick about something, so from then on, they started to do all these different songs and dances that they had before the Gaiwiyo came to earth. Nowadays, with most of the dances that we do, we think this is the way it should have been done years ago. but I know- we have lost quite a bit from what the oldtimers used to do and what they believed in. Today it's just, / guess, to keep it up as far as we can go with it.
            The sacred songs, like I've said before, are already in a set group : their letting has never changed. A long time ago people were traveling in the woods -there was a lot of traveling in the woods then - and they kind of heard these songs in a way. Like the Dark Dance there: this one night, this young lad was sleeping out: pretty soon he heard all these voices, and he didn't know where they were coming from . So he kind of crept around in the dark, and pretty soon he found a little group. There was a little group there, all in a cave, and it was awful dark, and they were singing these songs. That's why they call it the Dark Dance.
            Then later on, as the story goes, this other little boy was picked up and was taken way up on the high ledges of these mountains, and when these birds brought him up there (he didn't know what they were at the time), but when the birds took him up on this high cliff (they had a nest there), well, as they landed he seen these little birds kind of fluttering around, going through all different motions, and one of the young birds was kind of squawking away and making it into a song like. Well, the little boy stayed there maybe ten or twelve days with these birds, and he kept feeding them; and one night, one evening where you can still see late in the afternoon, the older birds got together and they were doing this Eagle Dance, and they were Singing these songs, and that's how he happened to learn the Eagle Dance songs. Up till today, the way they dance is the imitation of the Eagle going after a piece of meat on the ground: that's why you can see them go down something like a bird pecking at a piece of meat. And that's how the Eagle Dance come to be.
            But that way of getting songs and dances, I guess that's way past our stage. I guess we're too civilized nowadays, cause at that time, see, they practically lived right with the animals and out in the woods all the time.  They didn't have no automobiles or airplanes flying around or anything of that sort, and they were so close to nature, I guess that's how they probably got to get some of these songs together. A lot of stories, different stories, has been told of how these songs originated, and all of it starts with them coming from the different animals that were roaming the big forest at that time. And in the mountains and places like that, along the rivers, you can hear all these different kind of songs that was made up. Then as it came along, these persons that had heard these songs had started handing them down to the younger generation, up till today. Like me learning these songs: I learnt that from me going to all these different dances when I was a young lad, just a young kid at that time, just a little boy. Well, I started dancing the Eagle Dance when I was just about eight or nine years old. So now you can see how we carry our religion and traditions and all that. Most of us that had lived right along where the longhouse is, still believe in this religion, and we try to keep up the traditions as our older folks had done years before, and I think that's just the way it's been handed down all down through the years, from generation to generation, as far as I know of.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ariel Resnikoff, with Jerome Rothenberg: From an Interview

Eleanor Antin: collage, Poland/1931, after Jerome Rothenberg

[The full interview, conducted by Ariel Resnikoff over a period of several months, is scheduled to appear shortly in The Wolf magazine, number 31, edited by James Byrne & Sandeep Parmar, along with my own "variations" on the poetry of Mikhl Likht. (J.R.)]
Ariel Resnikoff: In the summer of 2013 you and I connected, via Merle Bachman, over a shared interest in the “incomprehensible” poetics of the Yiddish American modernist poet, Mikhl Likht. I had just finished my MA thesis at the University of Oxford, where I had been told I was crazy to write on the relationship between Zukofsky's English verse and Likht’s Yiddish. You, however, believed in my research and even began advising Stephen Ross’s and my translation to English of Likht’s Yiddish long poem, Protsesiyes (Processions). Moreover, you suggested that there was something highly potent in Likht’s poetic legacy that figured into your own work as a poet-critic-translator-anthologist. How did you originally discover Mikhl Likht? Why is his poetics important to you?

Jerome Rothenberg: I invented Mikhl Likht long before I ever heard of him.  That is to say, when I was composing Poland/1931 &, later, A Big Jewish Book, I imagined a poet writing in Yiddish who brought that language & poetry into the world of truly experimental & avant-garde writing. (I hadn't as yet found anyone like that in real life.) At times too I imagined myself as that poet, having a tenuous grip on Yiddish as a first language but still enough to hear & understand in dreams. The discovery of Likht came, not surprisingly, from Merle Bachman’s Yiddishland, & my first reaction was to think that she had somehow invented him & the excerpt she presented there from his Processions.  Once I got over that & got in touch with her, I continued to be intrigued not only by the work itself but what felt to me like a close & probably not an accidental resemblance to Zukofsky’s A & Pound’s Cantos. The scope of his work became even clearer when I heard from you and Stephen about your big translation project and the material you found tying him directly to Zukofsky.  That Processions preceded A & even the more projective & experimental sections of the Cantos made it still more exciting, & its presence alongside those expanded the idea – for me at least – not only of what constituted Yiddish poetry but what constituted American poetry as well.  With each new installment of Processions, the excitement gets still stronger. 

AR: I recall you telling me once that Louis Zukofsky’s personality as a poet was completely removed from the world of New York Yiddish culture. Yet it is clear in reading his work that he was deeply concerned with the Yiddish language and literature of his childhood. How do you read Zukofsky’s relationship to Yiddish? How important do you think it is to his poetic project as a whole? Did it surprise you to learn that he was in contact with Likht? 

JR: What seems curious to me here is that in the years that I knew Louie – as a considerably younger friend – there was no signaling from him about any special interest in either Jewish or Yiddish matters.  And yet I’m aware, increasingly, that his work has many more such references and sources than were clear to me when I was spending time with him.  For Pound of course Louie served as a kind of courier to the Jewish world, something that comes out painfully – embarrassingly I mean to say – in their ongoing correspondence.  Still, given that we both came out of a Yiddish-speaking childhood, it seems strange to me that it didn’t show up in talking to him, or maybe it did and maybe I’ve chosen to forget it.  I’ve written about this before but thinking about it now, I realize that the time when I was seeing a lot of Louie and Celia was in the early sixties, before I had made my own move into Poland/1931 and “the world of Jewish, mystics, thieves and madmen.”  And I think that at that time both of us were playing down, rather than playing up, our jewishness – an escape from the cruddy side of all of that, if I can say so, and for him, far more than for me, the sense of being in an outsidered generation, which he would express to me in different ways, the Jewish least among them. 
            With all of this he was an extraordinary poet – the most American of Jewish poets, someone called him, and the most Jewish of American poets. In many ways he was the equal of his master (Pound, I mean) and in some ways (dare I say it?) his superior.  (This isn’t, though, a question of assessing one poet as against another.)  I believe anyway that some part of Louie’s despair – or, better put, his desperation – was not so much the neglect so often mentioned in discussions of his work and life, but the feeling of victimization – of being a Jew at a time of widespread and still institutionalized anti-semitism.  Far more than me he must have run the gamut of pre-World War Two institutionalized anti-semitism – a quota Jew at Columbia and a poet hoping to be heard (and failing) in a world where he could think of Pound, say, as perhaps the least anti-semitic of his poet elders.  With Pound, then, he was in close touch with one whom he knew to be a great poet and through whom he could address the “enemy” in familial and open terms – “sonny” to Pound’s “pappa.”  He could also play the enemy himself (under the name of “shagetz” rather than “goy”), could label himself an anti-semite (as he sometimes did, at Pound’s behest), and by so doing, keep the conversation going.
            When I first read Merle’s translations of Likht, I was struck by their similarity to Louie’s most complex work, but it didn’t occur to me that he and Louie might have known each other.  Now that this is becoming clear it seems to me that Likht can be placed alongside Louie and the others as an American “Objectivist,” while writing, in his own kind of isolation, in that other language. 

AR: That “playing down” of jewishness you mention, is something that runs through the early work of many Jewish American poets. Why do you think this is? What led you to transition into “the world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madman” we find in Poland/1931? 

JR:  I can’t speak for the others of course, but I think that that was true for most of the Jewish poets I knew when I was first getting into poetry.  For myself, from what I can remember, there was a desire not to fall into an ethnic trap that seemed burdened with sentimentalities and a narrowing of the possibilities that were then opening up to us.  I suppose too that there was a lack of models among the poets who came before us or that whatever specifically ethnic poetry I knew (Jewish or otherwise) seemed embarrassingly soft to me.  And this was even more the case when a flood of Jewish-themed family poems began to appear in the 1960s, a debased form of poetry, I thought, for which I would later write Poland/1931 as a kind of antidote or critique, or what David Meltzer would call my “surrealist Jewish vaudeville.”  I felt also, before I got further into it, that anything I wrote was Jewish in itself because I wrote it, much like the In Zikh poets, who also didn’t want to be hemmed in by Jewish themes, though they of course were writing, unlike me, in a specifically Jewish language.  In the same way I shied away from holocaust as a theme, though that & the other horrors of the mid-century were underpinnings to much of what I was then writing.
            My breakthrough came in part – strangely, I think – from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who certainly played down her jewishness (as much as any poet I knew), but on rare occasions let it seep out.  (David Antin had suggested reading The Making of Americans as a shtetl or Jewish immigrant novel, but with the ethnic identity suppressed.)  I was also immersed at the time in the dark fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I had met on a couple of occasions, and the even darker poetry of Paul Celan, whom I met once and had been the first to translate into English.  And it was also a time when I was finishing Technicians of the Sacred & immersing myself in a range of deep cultures / deep poetries from throughout the world, to which I would add the Jewish as another such culture for which I felt privileged to speak.
            So I found myself thinking, among other things, of what a Jewish entry into the world of experimental modernism might look like and finding it – strangely, as I said before – in Stein.  It was just a few short lines in a longer serial poem, “Dates” in Bee Time Vine, but when I read it, I thought of it immediately as Getrude’s “jewish poem”: 

            Pass over
            Pass over

to which I added a final line – “pass water” – and then went back into the full Stein poem and substituted a darker Jewish vocabulary from Singer’s Satan in Goray by a kind of rhyming, word for word substitution, to make in the process a “jewish poem” of my own – the kind of multiphasic, irreverent and knotty “jewish poem” that I wanted and that really got me on the road to Poland/1931 and, still more expansively, A Big Jewish Book, or more narrowly, Khurbn and Gematria.  It also led me to ally with others, both Jews and non-Jews, who were also sharing in that exploration. 

AR: I’m curious how this question of a Jewish entry into experimental modernism relates to your interest in the work and character of Tristan Tzara (born Samy Rosenstock, 1896-1963), and in Dada, more generally. “[Y]ou are dead” you write in the third section of Abulafia’s Circles, titled, “The Holy Words of Tristan Tzara”, 

& dada life is growing
from your monocle
ignored      exalted
you lead me to my future
making poems together
flames & tongues we write… 

Do you see Tzara’s work as functioning within a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art? Do you feel that your own work is in dialogue with his?  

JR:  In a conversation the other day a question like this came up – about the presence of Jews in experimental modernism and in Dada more precisely – and it struck me in a flash that except for Tzara and for Janco as his Romanian-Jewish compatriot, none of the core Dadas I could think of were Jews.  I remembered too Hugo Ball’s curious remark about the two little “oriental” men (Tzara and Janco) who showed up at the Cabaret Voltaire before it opened and, twenty years later, the Nazi intertwining of Jews and entartete kunst, with Dada foremost.  Yet Tzara, as far as I know, never comes forward as a Jew, the ethnic mark as hidden as the ethnic name.  And I remember another incident as well, when I was showing Edouard Roditi A Big Jewish Book, Edouard, who had known Tzara in Paris, laughed at how a Jewish shagetz like Tzara would have responded to seeing himself included in a book like that.
            Nor do I believe that there’s something specifically Jewish in Dada and other extreme avantgardisms, although I can find analogs in (largely) mystical judaism as in other deep cultures.  As for “a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art,” I can’t imagine that that would have meant anything to Tzara – to separate that in some way from experimental art over all.  The milieu in which he wrote was French and European with a strong interest in the remote and “primitive” (African and Oceanian), as it was then being called, or in ethnopoetics as we would later speak of it.  It’s curious too that the racist and anti-semitic connection the Nazis made between “degenerate art” (like Dada) and presumably Jewish conspiracies, would sometimes overstate the Jewish presence in the experimental and international avant-garde, with figures like Tzara cited as arch-conspirators – elders or juniors of Zion corrupting the Aryan West.  In other words precisely what we take and value as the rehabilitative and cleansing power of the historical avant-garde and the “great negative work of destruction” that Tzara proclaimed was what made it the target of Nazis and others who hated it to start with and found it to their advantage to assert a phony Jewish presence as its defining characteristic.
            In another sense Tzara’s late adolescent Dada fury, which I love and still draw from, was no more Jewish at its core than Rimbaud’s a generation or  two earlier.  The only difference of course was in the blood line – a matter of race (of racism, I almost said) pure and simple.