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

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cream City Interview, Part Three: Ego & Death

Chad Faries and Brent Gohde, interviewers

CF: Let’s talk about your poems a bit. I understand you are working on a series of poems in the first person [later published by New Directions as A Book of Witness]. Why, after being inundated with it in American poetry for over fifty years, have you chosen this?

JR: I know what you mean about being inundated, but where I’m located there has also been a calling into question of the first person voice – the “I” in poetry. What’s Olson’s term for it that we used to cite so often – “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego”? And yet there’s another sense in which that voice has been one of our great resources in poetry, something that turns up everywhere in our deepest past and present. I mean here a first person that isn’t restricted to the usual confessional attitude but an instrument rather by which the poet opens up to voices other than his own. There can be something very powerful and very mysterious in the way we use that “I.” It is the instrument – in language – for all acts of witnessing, and it is something that poets have used to bring up voices other than their own. I am thinking here of someone like the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina (and her echo in the work of our own Anne Waldman), who throws up a barrage of “I” assertions, when it’s really the voices of the gods, the “saint children” of her pantheon who she feels speaking through her. “Language belongs to the saint children,” she says. “They speak and I have the power to translate.”

So there are some things here that are of great concern to me. There is a question of inventing and reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which I can speak as “I.” And there is a question that has been central to my work and that of others, the question of how the poet can be a conduit for other voices – “long dumb voices,” as Whitman had it at the work’s beginnings, or voices made up or gathered as the poem proceeds. So here and there I also bring in statements by other poets – very lightly sometimes but as a way of playing down the merely ego side of “I.” And I let the voices that I make up shift and move around. I want to do that, to keep it in suspense. “I am I because my little dog knows me,” Gertrude Stein writes in a poem she calls “Identity.” I have written a hundred of these poems now, and I hope that they’re both of-this-time and still connected to the oldest ways in which the poem makes itself.

CF: In your new work I sense a certain verve that I haven’t felt since “Poland.” There’s this energy that I’m speaking of, or an immediacy maybe, coming from an inquiry into death. What I mean by that is something like Gary Snyder’s assertion that “all poets must know the edge of death.” I say that while thinking of the lines from the Tsukiji Market poem [in A Paradise of Poets], when you are speaking about the preparations and slaughter of the fish at the Tokyo fish market: “the cry of food & sex so strong / there is no wrapper can contain it / but it fills the air / & from my mouth it issues like the dead / the voices of our fathers calling / plowed back in the earth / without regrets / reminding us how gorgeous death is.” And there seemed to be a lot of ruminating on similar themes.

JR: Death is one of those things we think about ... one of those things we come to ... maybe increasingly for those who live to an older age. The thought doesn’t go away, but one thinks more and has over and over again the experience of people dying, people whom we know and love, whom we grew up with. Earlier on, there is always the consideration of one’s own death. One remembers the first experience with death. For myself it was the death of a kid I knew at the age of twelve or thirteen, but maybe also the death of others whom I didn’t know, caught up in war or holocaust. For each of us, from that time on, we know it’s in the works. And later on there are the deaths of others. A number of those who were with me earlier – poets and others – began to vanish, to die. The death of Paul Blackburn, which goes back thirty years now, was an important instance or moment for me. I guess he was in his early forties when he died, a little older than me but still a contemporary. It stood out for us then, but later on – and not surprisingly – the deaths began to multiply. So it came into the poems of course, as something to ponder. In the next to last book – Seedings – the title poem is a meditation on death, and the central figure in that, although a number of other poets are also named, is Robert Duncan. It begins with a dream I had not long after Duncan’s death, a dream in which he appears while I’m giving a poetry reading. I’m trying to read the poem, “Cokboy,” but I don’t have the text in front of me and can’t remember the words. So I start to make up a poem called “Seedings,” and the poem itself is what follows. (The dream was like that, though the actual poem didn’t come in the dream but was written down later. The dream wasn’t the poem but a directive to make the poem.) So it got me into considering death in relation to Duncan and George Oppen and then back to Blackburn and to a number of others, named or not, and to those in my family who had died before that. And I knew of course that that was only the beginning. The deaths began to increase – poets and others. That was when I began to think of “a paradise of poets” as my version of an after-life (in which I naturally did not believe). Hannah Weiner and Kathy Acker died before the poems in the next book were finished, and I think they became something like ghosts in “Autobiography” (one of the poems in A Paradise of Poets). Ginsberg had died before that, which got a lot of people thinking about death, and a number of others who were even closer to me. And around the time that Paradise of Poets was being published, I knew that Armand Schwerner was dying. He was a very close friend, one of the very closest, and the idea of “a paradise of poets” was something that we batted back and forth – not very certain we believed in it, but even so ... I wanted to give him the dedication as a kind of farewell, and he knew about it, certainly, although he didn’t live to see it in the book.

So, yes, I think a certain urgency comes through in the writing, where previously the moment of inevitability was more like something in the distant future. Your contemporaries begin to show their age, and you begin to notice that some people noticeably younger than you aren’t young people any more. Like the aforementioned Language Poets. I remember the Language Poets as all guys in their twenties. Now they’re men and women in their fifties. That’s a turnaround and some of them will soon cross over to their sixties. Of course it’s no surprise. I mean we knew that if we stuck around long enough, that that was going to happen! And about the “energy” in the work, there was always this concern that the energy would somehow leave the poetry. So we keep pressuring ourselves to keep it moving and thankful when we find it does – although at some point, sometime, the mind and body could give out. And we can’t deny we’re losing time. It’s what Armand – being funny once with something Levertov had written – called the “really real.” Reality. So the question, maybe, is: does the energy of these poems come out of the death feeling itself – the brush with death? Is it the wingèd chariot drawing near ... brushing up against you?

[Originally published in The Cream City Review, volume 25, numbers 1 & 2, Milwaukee, Summer 2001. Other installments turn up elsewhere in Poems & Poetics.]

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