An interview with Jerome Rothenberg
Jerome Rothenberg is an internationally known poet and the author of over eighty books of poetry and ten breakthrough anthologies of experimental and traditional poetries including Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, A Big Jewish Book, and Poems for the Millennium in three volumes. He was a founding figure of ethnopoetics as a combination of poetic practice and theory, and he has been a longtime practitioner and theorist of poetry performance.
Rothenberg was also the editor/publisher of Hawk's Well Press in the early 1960s and of four poetry magazines since then, including some/thing (with David Antin) and Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics ("a first magazine of the world's tribal poetries," with Dennis Tedlock). In 1968 he received a Wenner-Gren Foundation award for the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, and he has also done extensive translations from a wide range of European poets (Lorca, Gomringer, Schwitters, Picasso, and Nezval, among others). His thirteenth book of poems from New Directions, Triptych, appeared in 2007, and a selection of his essays and interviews, Poetics & Polemics, appeared early last year in the University of Alabama Press’s Modern & Contemporary Poetics series. Three new books of poems are scheduled for 2010 and 2011, and his new internet magazine is viewable at poemsandpoetics.blogspot.com
As Charles Bernstein once put it, Jerome Rothenberg never met a modernist poet he didn’t like. His devotion to the art, and to those who practice it, has been both generous and fiercely tenacious, as a poet first, but also as translator, editor, publisher, teacher, and anthologist. There are over a hundred books.
I have known Jerry and his wife Diane for almost forty years, but our friendship really blossomed after I moved to San Diego. I remember the first time I sat at their table for one of Diane’s extraordinary dinners. To my right was an entire wall of Diane’s international cookbook collection, at once a kitchen aide and a scholar’s library—Diane is an anthropologist by profession as well as an anthropologist of the kitchen. In front of me was a wall of ethnography and anthropology. The book that stood out—at eye level and directly facing where I sat—was Love Songs of the Ancient Letts; hot stuff, Jerry said.
Cuisine is as good a metaphor as any for those two voracious intellects, and for what Jerry has laid out on the world’s table. “If humans can eat it, it’s worth a try” seems to be the inclusive decision, flowing from a deep and inclusive humanism, and also from a grounding in sensory life, and there’s no reason, he seems to say, that we need let political, cultural and linguistic boundaries keep us from savoring all the world’s imaginative production and especially its poetry.
Jerry doesn’t like to talk about himself, though opinions and ideas flow easily from him, and he and I have engaged them over the years, sometimes with considerable heat. I have taken the opportunity this interview provides to follow up on some of what we’ve discussed.
MW: This is going to be a non-linear interview, which should suit both of us fine, so let's start where we start, for instance, when we met, which had to be in 1972 or 73, when you read in my series at the West End Bar, across the street from Columbia University in New York. Let me set the stage. The backbone and raison d'être of the series, which ran weekly for three years, was a group of poets a half generation older than me, Armand Schwerner, George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Nathaniel Tarn, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Kelly, Toby Olson, more distantly Clayton Eshleman, a few others who've skipped my mind (lovely phrase) for the moment, most of them New Yorkers, your coterie which had become mine as well, that had centered, I think, around Paul Blackburn. Paul was dead just two years. Accidents of travel, his and mine, made it that I'd never known him, but his presence was palpable, not only in the still heady grief of his friends, but in the New York reading scene, which was largely his invention.
So let's start with that moment in time, that group (and any others you care to add), and Paul.
JR : . It’s a little hard at this point to make memories agree, but let’s take 1972 and 1973 as starters, and I’ll see what I can do.
The names you mention are largely those who had been a core group for me from some ten or twelve years before. Oppenheimer wasn’t one of those – for me at least, although I knew him – and a couple of others were: David Antin to whom I was closest and Diane Wakoski, who appeared around 1961 or 1962 and whose first book, Coins and Coffins, I published at that time through Hawk’s Well Press. Jackson Mac Low was also very close by the early seventies, and through him (and also through Wakoski, I believe) I had made contact with a number of the Fluxus people then resident in New York. I had also published Technicians of the Sacred in 1968 and had begun to spend time at the Seneca Reservation around Salamanca, New York that same year, moving there for a two-year stretch in 1972. Antin and I were publishing some/thing in the late sixties, and Alcheringa ethnopoetics, which I edited with Dennis Tedlock, was launched by us in 1970.
All of that plus other openings in multiple directions had by 1972 greatly expanded my field of discourse. I had met Robert Duncan on my first trip to San Francisco in 1959, Robert Creeley at about the same time and in an active correspondence, and Denise Levertov too with whom there was a lot of interchange in New York throughout the 1960s. Gary Snyder opened up to me about the time of Technicians, as did Michael McClure, and others among the inner circle of Beat poets (Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso principally) whom I had gotten to know even earlier, though never as closely. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, if he’s to be counted with those, was my publisher for New Young German Poets back in ’59.) Among older poets, I saw a good deal of Louis Zukofsky in the late sixties but wouldn’t really get close to George Oppen until George and Mary had moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco. And it was Kenneth Rexroth, another elder, who was largely responsible for my going to New Directions as well as making the connection for publication of Revolution of the Word.
Otherwise what you say about the American poets who were closest to me is quite accurate, although I don’t think I would have us centering around Paul Blackburn except in the matter of poetry readings, for which he was the principal organizer, and the linkages he generously made to some of the Black Mountain and Beat poets among others. He was a great unifying figure in that sense and a marvelous poet and companion, and his early death was a first blow to whatever lingering sense of invulnerability we may have carried over from childhood.
MW: You were already an active translator, and it's well-known that your stance for a long time has been international. Were you in touch at that point with any of the poets beyond the US?
JR: My first book, remember, was New Young German Poets with Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, which was my own immediate opening to the outside world & was published by a press that was not only a bastion of the “new American poetry” but a conduit also for contemporary & near contemporary poetry on an international or global scale. For myself I was after all the son of European parents – to put it that way – and was coming into poetry in a New York City multilingual/multicultural context. I remember in fact an early conversation with Donald Allen, who edited the great anthology of that name (“The New AMERICAN Poetry”) and who pegged me then as belonging to something he called “the international school of poetry.” I was uncomfortable with that to start with and then I got to like it. I also realized very early along that most of us, as “new American poets,” were part of a continuity with the European inventors of a truly experimental modernism, even while we were in conflict with a conservative English language version (British and/or genteel American) that wasn’t modernism as I knew & wanted it.
But it wasn’t only that what we knew of poetry went beyond American borders – the older poetry I mean that we inherited & that was shaping our own work – but that it became possible soon enough to connect directly with contemporaries in Europe & elsewhere. When I was assembling New Young German Poets and for some years after, I was in close touch with Hans Magnus Enzensberger & several others, including Paul Celan whom I met in 1967, before he emerged for many of us as the great poet of postwar & postholocaust Europe. I was also introduced by Paul Blackburn to Octavio Paz & Julio Cortázar, and on my own in 1960 I met Homero Aridjis in Mexico, who has remained a good friend up to the present. In France, which was to become very important to me, I was led into Paris by poets such as Jean-Pierre Faye and Jacques Roubaud, who were among the translators of my first French book, Poèmes pour le jeu du silence, which they would publish a few years later under Faye’s Collectif Change imprint. I was also a contributor and advisor to Faye’s Change International and to Henri Deluy’s Action Poétique, but that was only a part of it, and poetry for me was really coming in from all directions. I had books by then in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, and Mexico, along with close ties in England through Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press and various London activities led by Eric Mottram and Bob Cobbing. There were also close connections to concrete and sound poets like Emmett Williams and Ian Hamilton Finlay (I had also by then translated Eugen Gomringer into English), and the proliferation of European poetry festivals included some devoted to sound poetry and extreme forms of performance, in which (to my considerable surprise) I often found myself included. The network anyway had brought me from the confines of the United States into places where I could imagine myself, as Donald Allen had put it, a member of an international school of poets, not just in theory but in practice. With no fixed home to speak of, I found myself very much at home, wherever home was – as much there, let’s say, as here.
MW : So we have something of a map of your world from roughly 1959 thru the early seventies, and it's an extraordinary range of poets. While it's certainly true, as you say, that "most of us, as 'new American poets,' were part of a continuity with the European inventors of a truly experimental modernism," I think it's fair to say that the range of material you've actively incorporated is exceptional even in that group. There's so much to pick up on, and we will, but for a start I'd like you to expand on "I was after all the son of European parents…and was coming into poetry in a New York City multilingual/multicultural context." I'll interject myself here for a moment. In my part of Brooklyn the three most common languages were English, Yiddish and Italian, the older generation was always from somewhere else, and the Irish were the only folks with a long history of English behind them. For the rest, English literacy was a cherished achievement, and our house, at least, was filled with books – novels, yiddishkeit, classics, and even some modern poetry – The Untermeyer anthology, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg. That time and place – I'm talking about the early 40s, before television--seems as impossibly remote to even those in their 40s as the Middle Ages. Your New York is maybe 15 years older still. Do you want to talk about the neighborhood? Were your parents native English speakers? Did they read poetry? What books were in the house? Were there seeds of the development you’ve described present?
I suppose I'm asking indirectly how you chose to become a poet, if you experienced it as a choice, and the corollary, how that fit into the expectations of parents and community.
I think I've just invited you to write a bildungsroman. Have at it.
JR: It’s only recently that I’ve begun to consider that my parents were not only Jewish – which they were – but European, different in that sense from those other parents of other childhood friends, Jews too but born and raised in America. It was in the intimacy of that older European world that we still kissed in greeting and confessed openly to feelings of ennui and dis-ease. Nor did I realize that the foods that we thought of as typically Jewish were shared with a range of eastern European cultures, however modified they were by the demands of dietary laws that were largely in the domain of my mother’s mother, who came to live with us from Poland in the year before my birth. My father’s favorite food was boiled beef served with horseradish, which I took as a sign of dietary indifference, rather than a Polish-Jewish version of pot au feu or Italian bollito misto. At breakfast my grandmother made do, I thought, with bread or a sweet roll, a far cry from the eggs and meat or the cold and hot cereals of the surrounding outside world (myself included). I grew up thinking of that as weirdly Jewish and never associated it with the breakfasts of that other Europe until much later.
The greater Jewish presence for me was in the language, something I find almost impossible to reconstruct at this distance. My first language was Yiddish – a monolingual speaker to the age of three or four, and that was probably the duende, in Federico García Lorca’s terms, the force of language that I later came to struggle with or through. (Or possibly – Lorca again – my angel.) I have that much in common with Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff and others who shared that kind of ancestry. In my case the ambience was a mix of secular – through my parents – and religious – through my grandmother – with a curious calm and understanding on both sides. My father’s father, whose name I was given, was a hasidic follower of the Radzymin rebbe, but my father had left that well behind him and would rarely set foot in our local synagogue, not out of contempt (he said) but out of respect for that which he no longer shared. My mother – more uncomplicatedly secular – had written poetry as a girl, though I can’t remember that she ever showed it to us. My father’s brother Archie (Aaron) had continued with it even later, and once, when he read a poem to us about his long-dead mother (he was then well into his nineties), couldn’t keep from weeping.
So books and poetry (however defined) were a value for them – Yiddish dominant, although my mother also read novels in English and both of them read English newspapers and magazines as well as Yiddish ones, the latter acting as conduits for recent poetry and fiction. A shelf of books held Yiddish classics, and my father, no longer a believer, continued to read the Bible and various commentaries thereon in both Yiddish and Hebrew. There was also some familiarity with nineteenth-century European fiction – Russian in particular – which they either knew by reputation or had read earlier, I assume, in Yiddish translation. With all of that, there was some real encouragement to my growing interest in poetry and some indulgence for my earliest attempts at writing, though after it got really serious (not as a hobby but as a way of life), a time of great anxiety set in – never to be resolved.
My parents both died while I was still in my twenties, but by then I had already begun to explore the range of deep cultures that would culminate over the decade that followed in Technicians of the Sacred and the creation of an ethnopoetics as a primary preoccupation. That included, by the late 1950s, my first explorations of “ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen,” a later formulation that went beyond what my parents and others were in any way at ease with. In the last two years of their lives I came to them to share my readings of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray, though it was clear that talk of the hasidim raised bad memories of my grandfather’s hasidic circle and that Singer’s mystical and sexual themes were viewed with over-all disapproval. We did read parts of Satan in Goray together – my mother helping me out with Singer’s Yiddish – but death brought an early end to our conversation.
Before that happened I had come to realize that Yiddish, as a language and a mode of thought, wasn’t the quaint and comic jargon it was often thought to be out on the street. When I was later reading Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep I was struck in particular by his device of having the immigrant voices speak in a kind of mocky English but with an almost Elizabethan eloquence when speaking or thinking in Yiddish. And I’m willing to believe that my own interest in and sympathy for endangered and scorned languages, wherever and whenever found, has something to do with that perception.
It also has something to do with why I became a poet: to take possession of that other language – English – in the fullest sense. Or as William Carlos Williams once put it, speaking of poetry and language to a group of us: “Smash it to hell! You have a right to it!” Which was only one of the things I meant to do.
MW: OK, the ending of your last answer almost begs me to ask you to pick it up from there. What were those other things you meant to do?
JR: By the end of the fifties and nearly a decade after Williams spoke with some of us at City College, there was an eruption of possibilities that we wouldn’t have thought possible before then. Some were in the way we chose to live – those of us who had the luxury to do so – with an inclination (we thought) toward simplicity and a rejection, as far as we could take it, of the material or consumer nexus of which we were otherwise a part. I won’t go into that here, but in those early years I found that and other political, social, and religious predilections crucial to my own poetic thought and practice.
About that practice, then. From where I was positioned I felt that we had left a situation in which experimental modernism was assumed to have run its course and had entered a new configuration that allowed us to seize and advance the experiments of an earlier time. I saw those experiments as a kind of resistance through language to a culture of repression and destruction that had brought us wars and genocides abroad and racial and economic injustice closer to home. The combination of all that with a radical reshaping and deconstruction (if I can use that word) of poetry as such brought me into a sympathetic relation to the various avant-gardes that had preceded us and to those that were again coming to life among us. The fusion of the experimental and the visionary would soon be a crucial part of that also (or so it then seemed) – whatever means or modes would free us from the smug and debased forms of language that had earlier kept us in thrall.
Of such means and modes the most obvious, in the United States at least, were those that centered on open verse and on still more radical formal gestures – “more radical,” I mean, than those easy-to-grasp forms of free verse that became the dominant American measure by the later 1960s. (I actually preferred the term "free verse," but never mind.) Such explorations coincided with my intentions as well, as they did with those of most of the poets whom I knew, and they were accompanied, almost always, by a play between high and low idioms, with a favoring of the demotic but – for the smart ones, I thought – a frequent willingness to circumvent it. From modernism as such – both in poetry and the visual arts – there was a rediscovery and extension of collage, both as appropriation and as radical juxtaposition (“radical coherency” in David Antin’s term). “Deep image,” which was what I named it then, was our much too modest version of it circa 1960 – a kind of neo-surrealism, as I can now confess it, and a way of yoking words and images together, to discover meaning or create it as a fiction like or through “[that] emotion of the mind which causes to see.“ (G. Oppen). And it may have coincided on the experiential side with certain visionary and meditative strategies, including but hardly limited to the vaunted psychedelic ones.
Once open to possibilities – the creations of others or my own creations – the strategies of composition came rapidly to our attention. It was a good time for experiment, and the presence of those others gave it something of a communal feeling – of an enterprise in common. From Mac Low and John Cage, then, came the idea of systematic chance, with a linkage, as I read them, to Dada and others from the generation before us, or pushing it back further to the Chinese I Ching and the Jewish Kabbala (among other sources) from the truly distant past and present. My use of gematria still later on was my ethnopoetic version of a quasi-aleatory process, drawing there from traditional Hebrew numerology (a system in which every letter of the alphabet was also a number and every word a sum of numbers), using it to find equivalences but transforming it in the process to a contemporary mode of composition. In the same way, with intermedia and other experiments with performance, I thought of myself both as a sharer with my contemporaries and as an explorer of forms of performance and ritual across the full ethnopoetic spectrum.
All of these made sense to me and all of them I hoped to fuse – though it would take some time to do it – through the magazines and anthologies, the autonomous publications I would soon get into. At the same time it was crucial not to lose the sense of resistance, of “total assault on the culture” (Ed Sanders), that had spurred us from the start. To dismantle what was dead or deadly and only then to start anew ...
MW: There's so much we could explore here, so many provocative ideas, and we can't cover everything. Let's home in on ethnopoetics. I think you've explained the sense of mission behind your investment in it, and from what you've said it seems to grow out of the act of translation, which you see as an essential part of your work, not just your output but your methodology, which in turn seems to grow out of your encounter with English as a second language. Did I get that right? But I don't want to create the impression that I think of ethnopoetics as in some way an untutored thing. Your interest in the Mexican indigenous poet and seer María Sabina, for instance, seems to be based in a solid study of anthropology, from which comes your understanding of the connection between poetry, shamanic practice, and performance. You and I have at times talked about your friendship with the great symbolic anthropologist and student of performance Victor Turner, and with Barbara Myerhoff, but you also became friend and collaborator, on the journal Alcheringa, of Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, and of course your wife Diane is an anthropologist and for a time the two of you lived in the midst of her fieldwork among the Seneca. I'm asserting or assuming a lot here. What I'm after is a better sense of the details of how this central part of your thought and process came about, what the process of education was.
JR: I’ve never seriously thought of English as my second language, though in some sense I suppose it was. More to the point than that, if I read my own life correctly, the presence of another language probably fed an interest in what came to be called subaltern cultures by anthropologists and others – all that in the shadow of the racism, chauvinism, and ethnocentrism that was a part (and a threatening part at that) of the world in which I grew to self-awareness. In those years, before anthropology was challenged (wrongly or rightly) as itself a product of eurocentric colonialism, it appeared to many of us as an antidote, a remedy, as far as it went, for the neglect and scorn of the oppressed by those, wherever found, who reigned as their oppressors.
More than that it brought to light the order and complexity of that which the arguably civilized world had consigned to the lowest ("primitive") orders of the human. And for me it brought up stores of poetry – largely oral works transcribed by outsiders, but showing modes of composition and performance that we had scarcely known before. Such texts – “myths and texts” in the nomenclature of those who first came on them – became manuals for me of a new ethnopoetics, a repository of forms of expression and thought long suppressed but rhyming with our present works and necessary now for our continued development as fully human creatures. I had no formal training here (no courses in anthropology, no advanced degrees) but gorged myself on books and conversations with many of those close to me – Armand Schwerner, Robert Kelly, David Antin -- who joined the early discourse around an ethnopoetics. After Technicians of the Sacred, or even while I was constructing it, I found myself in the company of still other poets – Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Nathaniel Tarn, Simon Ortiz – but also anthropologists and linguists: Stanley Diamond, Victor Turner, Dell Hymes, David McAllester, Barbara Myerhoff, Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, Jim Clifford, among the better known. I had no idea how far that enthusiasm might have spread -- not until much later.
The discourse and collaboration with Diane was much deeper and certainly more encompassing. but also more difficult to describe. No question that the interaction was continuous and defined a lifetime in a way I couldn't have imagined at the start. Her interests -- in an intellectual sense, I mean -- were hardly identical with mine -- a different orientation and emphasis over all -- but that made her my guide into areas I only knew at second hand. As she came into her own professional life I was able to travel with her, intellectually at first but physically as well -- a journey into new locations where we shared a vision of places and people that we hadn't known before. With the Senecas our extensive time there began when Gary Snyder introduced me to Stanley Diamond and Diamond sent us to "see for ourselves," as Charles Olson described his view of history derived, he said, from Herodotus and Greek historin. If that began with my own groping after myths & texts and ways to bring them into English, it was her works, as a social anthropologist and ethnohistorian, that kept us firmly grounded in a solid past and present.
It also fed my own poetry and my belief that the real way forward for ethnopoetics and so much else involved the dream -- still not fully realized -- of a meaningful and ongoing collaboration between poets & scholars. It was this that brought me from Snyder to Diamond and from there into further collaborations with Senecas like Richard Johnny John and Avery and Fidelia Jimerson, who were the true owners of those histories that would never be our own. Diane's work, while she kept it separate from ethnopoetics as such, is also quite extraordinary -- another special view of history (Olson again) that will someday come to light.
MW: We’ve come to my last question.
I was talking to our mutual friend George Economou this morning about poets who establish a way of working early and stick with it for decades after and others whose work goes through radical changes. It occurred to me that it may be a matter of one’s degree of anxiety about not writing. A poet with an established manner can churn it out pretty reliably if not doing so is painful, while a poet who’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what he knows how to do may have to learn to be comfortable with stretches of silence. And then there are poets like you, who write constantly but explore incessantly. You and I have been working on a rather large soon-to-appear collection of poems, from your earliest to very recent work, that have never been collected before. It serves as a kind of overview of where you’ve been. The variety is pretty astonishing, although the voice is always recognizable. You’ve also recently published Triptych, which combines two previously published cycles, Poland/1931 and Khurbn and a more recent one, The Burning Babe, together spanning the period from the late 60s to the early 2000s. Placed together, they become three parts of one poem, though clearly distinct in their manner, an evolving discussion of moral and historical themes. I think it’s fair to say, and your answers thus far confirm, that from the beginning your work has involved both a moral and a social commitment, and I’d be tempted to trace it to the non-mystical, humanistic tradition that your parents brought with them from Poland, though of course it’s by no means restricted to Jews. It’s led to an inclusive focus, on humankind and its ways in the world. But there’s also, I think, as in Blake, another profoundly moral and humanitarian poet, a spiritual focus throughout, discoverable most recently within the rich ambivalence of The Burning Babe.
Care to comment?
JR: From my parents and from many others, let me say, and not so much Jewish nor not-Jewish but some mix and combination of whatever had so moved me. I grew up with a creaky but persistent moral focus – if that’s what to call it – but without a fear of God in any sense to bring it home. There was, if anything, a suspicion of religion, but more than that: a puzzlement, sometimes rising to real anger, at a god in whom I otherwise had no belief – an anger therefore at the idea of god as it fed the worst of human impulses. Later in Baudelaire the following: ”God is the only being who, in order to rule, does not need even to exist.” And in Richard Huelsenbeck, at the heart of Dada, a contrast between the disbelievers in religion and the others, the misbelievers, as a kind of running confrontation, “moral” and “social” as well.
(This is complex, Mark, so let me expand a little.)
The street fed me in childhood as much as the home did – a conspiracy of age-mates who shared the disbelief and distancing – from early childhood and into my later bildungsroman existence – but also with a desire for good works that religion seemed both to foster and to tear apart. So it wasn’t that I was searching for religion and being thwarted, but that I was looking for poetry in a secular way (if that doesn’t amount to the same thing) and finding it not only among the poets who came before me but in mystical and magical traditions I hadn’t known before. In the course of that it became clear to me (exactly when I can’t say) that poetry like other forms of inspired language was one of those processes that both reflects and renews the world. If those practices existed within religion – often themselves in conflict with church and state – they seemed approachable to me outside of religion as such, an aspect in that sense of what Jeffrey Robinson likes to call “the mind in its freedom.”
That was the kickoff for me with ethnopoetics – in pursuit of the poetry without entangling myself in alternative religions or in traditional practices or systems of belief. Poetry was my practice, and that seemed enough for one lifetime. From the time of Technicians of the Sacred on, I used the idea of the sacred as a principal linking term between poetry and those related practices of mystical/magical language and vision. So, in a talk in Taiwan a few years ago, I distinguished between the sacred (as an active practice for restructuring our image of the world) and the transcendent, which was what the Catholic university there had provided for us as conference topic. The start of what I had to say there (including a passing reference to Blake) is probably the best answer I can give to you about my idea of the spiritual in poetry and art:
“The sacred rather than the transcendent, because the transcendent, however generously defined in the prospectus for the present conference, implies for me too great a denial of the here and now; and the source of poetry, as I understand it, is deeply rooted in the world around us: doesn’t deny it so much as brings it back to life. ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’ wrote William Blake, who was our first great poet of the here and now. It is in time that I engage myself, and it is to discover or create the sense of a life that can energize the common world we share. In that energizing – that first, deceptively simple, act of poesis – something strange happens, whether to the world at large or to our sense of it. Remaining here-and-now, the world begins to lure us with a feeling, an intuition, of what the poet Robert Kelly speaks of as the not-here/not-now. Poetry, like religion, has been filled with such extraordinary manifestations (‘coincidence, chance, odd happenings, large rocks, hailstorms, talking animals, two-headed cows,’ and so on), but for those of us for whom poetry in some sense takes religion’s place (albeit a religion without assurances), they aren’t bound or fixed but open-ended, different (we would like to think) each time we go at them.”
In all of this however there is also a sense of human pain and suffering – the human condition, as we used to call it – from which I don’t dare avert my gaze. If you want to see Blake as a guide in this, that makes perfect sense to me, though there are others (other poets and still others) who bring these things together. The span of those others – for me, for us – is now global, a condition of poetry and much else that has developed over the last two hundred years and more, even when set against the local and sectarian interests with which it finds itself in conflict but which may be its deeper resource and its hidden strength. Our experiments with language and with mind, it seems to me, are most meaningful when set against a background of the tragically, even heroically, human.
I don’t dare claim the heroic in my case, but some sense of the tragic dogs me even when I play it off against the comic and absurd. I think some of that balance informs much of what I’ve done – an amalgam too of what, a couple of centuries ago, was seen as a conflict between “imagination” and “fancy,” both of which are needed for our present workings (and maybe always were). In Poland/1931 – since you bring that up with the other parts of Triptych – I could be both “experimental” (as I understood it) and responsive to the totality of my experience as a sentient being. The work is serious but the voice it gives me is sometimes absurd and mocking (often and deliberately blasphemous):
saddlesore I came
a jew among
vot em i doink in dis strange place
mit deez pipple mit strange eyes
could be it’s trouble
could be could be
Still, with the second part of Triptych (“Khurbn” [a Yiddish/Hebrew word for Holocaust]), I felt I had to forego the comic, while my sense of measure and structure came from years of working with open or experimental forms:
IN THE DARK WORD KHURBN
all their lights went out
their words were silences
drifting along the horse roads
onto malkiner street
a disaster in the mother’s tongue
her words emptied
returning to a single word
the child word
spoken, redeyed on
the frozen pond
was how they spoke it
how I would take it from your voice
& cradle it
that ancient & dark word
those who spoke it in the old days
now held their tongues
The last section of Triptych (The Burning Babe) is again a play of tragic and humoristic approaches (I’m using Jean-Paul’s word here) – the absurdity in a Jewish or secular context of the Babe-as-God over against the terror and reality of the crematoria and atomic holocausts at Auschwitz and Hiroshima:
how many times will we
still muddle through
& fit as any fiddle
ride with you
lamb in pursuit of lamb
into a babe’s world
bright & brutal
raising a hand to strike
& watching how
your own hand
like worlds emerging
I think, anyway, that those same configurations hold for all my works – the poetry, the translations, the assemblages and anthologies, the performances –everything without exception. At least they do for me.
Completed February 27, 2010
A CHECKLIST OF JEROME ROTHENBERG’S LITERARY WORKS REFERRED TO IN THE INTERVIEW
Alcheringa ethnopoetics (magazine) co-edited with Dennis Tedlock, 1970-1980.
Hawk’s Well Press, New York, co-founded with David Antin, published books between 1958 and 1964.
Khurbn & Other Poems, New Directions, New York, 1989.
New Young German Poets, City Lights Books, 1959.
Poèmes pour le jeu du silence, Christian Bourgois Editeur and Collection Change Sauvage, Paris, 1978.
Poland/1931, New Directions, New York, 1974.
Revolution of the Word, originally published by Seabury-Continuum in 1974, now in print from Exact Change in Cambridge, MA
some/thing (magazine), co-edited with David Antin, 1965-1968.
Technicians of the Sacred, originally published by Doubleday-Anchor in 1968, now in print in an expanded version from the University of California Press.
Triptych, New Directions, New York, 2007.
Mark Weiss, poet, translator, editor, anthologist and publisher, is the author of six volumes of poetry, most recently As Landscape (Tucson: Chax Press, 2010), translator of three volumes of Mexican and Cuban poetry, notably Stet: Selected Poetry of José Kozer (New York: Junction Press, 2006), coeditor of the anthology Across the Line / Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California (San Diego: Junction Press, 2002) and of Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), and editor of the bilingual anthology The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). His translations have appeared in two collections coedited by Jerome Rothenberg, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems by Pablo Picasso (Exact Change), and Poems for the Millennium, volume 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).