(September 13, 2001 and January 8, 2002)
I told John from the outset I wanted this interview
to serve readers new to him and his poetry, as well as be of interest to
those already familiar with his work. The nature of a webzine means
this interview will be easily accessible to a large audience, whereas interviews
in print journals can be rather hard to obtain, as they often have limited
- Brad N. Haas, February 2002
FlashPoint Interview Part l
BH: I'm interested in your background, because a lot of people might not be familiar with it, even if they've read things in other journals where you have given interviews. Where are you from originally?
JT: I'm from the midwest. My father was a Methodist minister and he had a series of churches, all in Indiana, in more or less the northeastern part, close to the Ohio border. So I grew up in a series of small towns.
BH: But definitely the midwest...
JT: In Indiana.
BH: In Indiana. So when did you leave the midwest?
JT: Well, it took a while because I went to high school there, and after high school I went to Earlham College, a small Quaker related college in Richmond, Indiana. And after Earlham I went to the University of Chicago for a masters, and it was only then... let's see, that would have been ‘66, in 1966 I went to Syracuse for a Ph.D.
BH: And what did you do your Ph.D. in?
JT: In interdisciplinary studies. I had gone there on a fluke... Chicago didn't have an MFA, they just had an MA, and you did everything a regular academic English student would do. You did all those requirements, and then you took in addition to that a seminar each term, and that constituted the writing program... Dick Stern, the novelist, was head - still is - head of their program. I was in his office one day, complaining as usual. He had a large office, and it was very dark, and out of the corner came this voice that said, ‘Well, I'm going to Syracuse. Why don't you come study with me there?' And the voice belonged to Don Justice, who was a friend of Dick Stern's from their Iowa days. And that's what I did. When I arrived there I found out they didn't give a Ph.D. in creative writing. I looked around, and they did have a very interesting degree program in what they called the humanities interdisciplinary program. So I did it in creative writing, twentieth century art and music, that combination. I almost wrote a dissertation on Mozart's The Magic Flute. I was going to write on something like the pastoral tradition connected with The Magic Flute. That was about when I figured out that the pastoral tradition was the Western Tradition, that the thing looked very large. So I spoke with my advisor, Abraham Veinus, a very brilliant art historian and musicologist, and said, ‘I just don't feel like doing this,' and he said, ‘Well you've got to do something you can do quick. Why don't you write on Steinbeck?' And I said, ‘I don't think so.' And he said, ‘Well, you decide, you write on something quick, that you can do quickly, and just do it.' So I thought a bit, and that's how I ended up writing a dissertation on Zukofsky. I had been reading him for some time, thinking about his work for some time. It took about a year, while I was teaching at the same time. That's how that came about. And of course as all interdisciplinary people find out, there are no jobs, there are no interdisciplinary jobs, because the academy remains essentially an Anglo-German nineteenth century institution, and departments are for real. While they talk a lot about wanting interdisciplinary skills, you're hired by a specific department. So that's always the issue and always the problem.
BH: I think that's true - I've experienced some of that myself. You talked about where you went to school, and then how you came to writing the dissertation on Zukofsky; how did you get from being someone from the midwest to someone who's reading Zukofsky?
JT: Well, let me back up a little bit, and I'll answer that as part of something else you asked me. When I was at Earlham, I had known early on, at least from high school, that I wanted to be a writer. At high school I thought it was fiction, and when I began college I thought it was fiction. I was very much into the French nouveau roman people, Robbe-Grillet and others, and as I worked in that direction I became more and more impatient with the furniture moving aspects of fiction, the manipulations of plot, development of character, and I simply became more and more interested in language in itself, handling language directly, not having a ‘he said', a ‘she said', a narrator, and so forth. At Earlham I was a combination literature and philosophy major. I liked the idea of poetry as a direct expression of thought, that you didn't have to cage your thought somehow indirectly through characters. So, it was an evolutionary process. My knowledge of poetry before that would be no more than anyone else's, very slight. And, as always, there's a little event that went with that, that might have been happen stance, but it made a difference at the time. One of the professors at Earlham, a very archetypal Quaker lady, said to me one day, just came up to me and said, ‘You look unhappy. I think you might like this,' and handed me a gift. It was wrapped up, it was a present. She gave me Pound's ABC of Reading, and it was the perfect book at the perfect time, because here was this evangelical character who was being evangelical about literature, and specifically poetry, and I thought it was just great. I liked the tone of it, and I was overwhelmed by Pound's erudition. It had a major impact on me, and years later I often used it and its progression, which is Zukofsky's Test of Poetry, in my classes. I've often used Test of Poetry as a textbook, especially that middle section where he has the comments. I wouldn't hesitate to use that in a standard introduction to poetry class. I'd use it also with a creative writing class to get started. And while there weren't really any writers at Earlham, it turned out to be a blessing for me, because I was just free to read whomever attracted me. I set about reading everyone, especially everyone on the contemporary scene. I think what has probably been most important for me, at any rate, is the first person you read in terms of what Olson calls a ‘saturation job,' where you read everything they've done, and you read it over an extended period of time. So another person who was very important to me, and continues to be important, almost like a ghost, is Stevens. At Earlham, if you were a literature major, you had to write a senior thesis, and this is a very serious thing; if you didn't pass you didn't graduate. You had to start a year in advance. It had a whole separate grade, and I decided to do mine on Stevens. Of course at first I did not have the faintest clue what this stuff meant. I was reading it, and reading it, and getting more and more nervous all the time - you know, what does this mean? what does this mean? - and I remember coming upon his collection of essays, The Necessary Angel, and that opened the poetry up tremendously. It was at the same time that I found Bronk's book, The World, The Worldless, which I still consider one of the greatest single books of twentieth century American poetry, just a fabulous, fabulous book. If you've seen my essay on Bronk, you'll know I have certain things to say about his connections with Stevens, which I think are there, and are important for him. But it was just a time of reading everybody, and gradually I found the people I liked or was more attracted to, especially the Black Mountain people. I remember first reading Olson's Call Me Ishmael, which just blew me away. Every paper I wrote that term - it didn't matter what the class was - it all looked like this mad, Olson-like collage thing. I would get these comments from my professors, something like, ‘I don't know what this is, but it's fairly interesting,' because there would be a page which would just be - or maybe more than a page - that would just be one quotation after another. And of course I'd have lots of passages which were ALL CAPS, and exclamation marks, things like that, and gradually... let's see, at the end of my junior year I won a fellowship, a scholarship to study writing at the Aspen Writers' Workshop, in Colorado. That's where I met Toby Olson, who continues to be one of my very best friends, also Bobby Byrd... I met Paul Blackburn there for the first time; Creeley came by during one of his cross country trips. And it was at that point, when I saw the possibility of live community with other writers, that I started my own magazine. The magazine Maps was actually started while I was a student at Earlham, and that was kind of a mad affair. I held readings on campus to support my own magazine, and charged people admission. [laughs] Started there, continued while I was at Chicago and Syracuse, and then at Shippensburg. Along the way I became aware of Origin, and I wrote to Cid Corman. I'm not exactly sure when our correspondence started. It was Cid who got me started reading Zukofsky, his insistence that I needed to read Zukofsky. Those were some of the ways how I was in the midwest, but I was aware of what other writers were doing, and of course I had the general impression - which may be a midwestern experience - that the real action was somewhere else. One part of that, too, was discovering Jim Lowell's Asphodel Bookshop in Cleveland, which was the most fabulous place, because he had all the stuff I'd been hearing about. He had complete back issues of Origin, he had all the Jargon Press books. That's where I found Ted Enslin's New Sharon's Prospect, which was the start of our correspondence which continues to this day. I'd comment in general that the time made a big difference. Looking back, there's never been anything like the sixties. All this was happening, and it wasn't just happening in poetry. There were just so many things happening. The Grove Press books - it seemed like Barney Rossett was bringing out two and three new books a week. You would go to the local college bookstore, and there would be a new Genet play, there would be a new Samuel Beckett novel - it seemed endless, and just tremendously exciting. All kinds of things were going on with music, especially jazz, with Miles Davis, with Coltrane, with Ornette Coleman. These things were just pouring out, and everything seemed possible. And of course at the time there was a tremendous tension between, say, the Black Mountain poets and those more or less in line with the academy. And there were many people who felt tremendously drawn towards someone like Bob Creeley or Ashbery on one hand, and a John Berryman on the other. There would be endless debates about this - or it might be Robert Lowell, for example. I can remember thinking very clearly while I was at Earlham that I would go with the ‘outlaws.' They seemed to have the more interesting work. It was so convincing, it was so fresh, it was so new, it was so powerful, that it could not be denied, that these were the people who were going to reign supreme in the time to come. Now, what's ironic is that the ‘outlaws' have stayed the ‘outlaws.' [laughs] So does that answer your question of how...
BH: Yeah, that's really good. I'm interested in going back and revisiting Maps a bit. I think I've only seen the Zukofsky issue...
JT: Okay, I can show you others.
BH: I know you did the Zukofsky issue, and I know you did an Olson issue. How many issues did you do total, and what was the general idea of what you were trying to put together.
JT: Well first it started out as just a regular magazine, small magazine, collecting people whose work I knew or thought was important. I remember Ken Irby was in the very first issue. I think Clayton Eshleman was in the first issue or two. With the second issue it started becoming thematic. The sculptor David Smith had recently died; I liked his work a lot and thought it ought to be, his death, passing, ought to be commemorated. So I asked people if - a variety of poets - if they wouldn't write poems that in some way addressed his work. The issue wasn't exactly limited to that, but that was the approach. And a number did - Charles Tomlinson, for example, sent me a poem directly connected with Smith's work, and there were some others. Then came the Coltrane issue, and it was the same situation. Coltrane died, and it seemed to me something ought to be done to commemorate his passing and the value of his work. I wrote to Bob Thiele, who was his producer at ABC Impulse!, and I simply asked him to send me as many albums as he could by Coltrane, because I was going to send them to individual poets to write poems in response. To my amazement he sent me something like twenty-five albums, and I mailed them out to poets all over the world. They responded, and that's how I met - or came into contact - with Brad Graves, the sculptor. Mike Heller, who had a poem about Coltrane, wrote to me that he had a friend who was a sculptor, who had done a piece that was based on Coltrane, and would I like to use a photo of the piece as part of the issue. So one way or another I got into contact with Brad. He sent me a photo, and our correspondence and friendship just developed from that. I think, incidentally, that's the impulse for a magazine. A magazine is the community. I'm not sure whether an in situ literal writing community can exist - that is, a number of people who live in a certain geographic locale, and who see one another on some sort of regular basis. If it exists, I'm not sure I want to be part of. The notion of a writing community as a magazine seems to me to be much more attractive. That a magazine establishes possibility of community, if only for an issue, of bringing certain people together, seems to me exciting. I think that's what motivates a lot of people - motivated them originally, when those great small magazines were coming out in the late fifties and early sixties, and it probably motivates people right now to still do it.
BH: From when to when was Maps published?
JT: Well, it would be something roughly like... I don't think the first issue came out until ‘66, and then it's somewhere in the mid seventies that the last one, which was on Duncan, came out. There would have been more, but it became increasingly hard to get grant funding. It was all done through an organization called CCLM - Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, which I think was a sub-division of the NEA. And I had decided that I wanted to do a magazine in a particular physical way that frankly was expensive. It seems unbelievable now, but I think the last two, maybe the last three were done letterpress on whatever it was called - Curtis Rag paper - and they were bound, they were actually bound, and sold at a reasonable price - I think it was three or five dollars a piece. The problem with a small magazine is it's typically one person who's doing the work, and in fact that's necessary. Good magazines always boil down to individual people. Origin is Origin because of Cid Corman. It's that one editor, that one editor's taste, and ability to violate his or her own taste, that makes a distinctive magazine. But you simply get tired, and the wonder is, for example, that Cid was able to continue with Origin as long as he did - almost a heroic act, and I think we should recognize, too, all that Clayton has done with Sulfur, earlier Caterpillar, and one that's still going - many people think it's corporate, but it's not - and that is Brad Morrow's Conjunctions, which is a very admirable magazine, and is really - while it has institutional support - all due to his energy.
BH: That's very true. Maybe we can move on. I know that you - because of your connections at that time - knew a number of these poets, and that you had contact with them. I know that you had some contact with Zukofsky...
JT: Mostly correspondence... I sent him a copy of my dissertation. I can't remember how long it was - reasonably long, I guess about three hundred pages. And within the week I got one of his famous postcards, mustard yellow on one side, and it has printed on it ‘AN ERA / ANY TIME / OF YEAR', and his sum total response to my dissertation was - after thanking me for having sent it to him - he said something like, ‘you have read me with reasonable accuracy.' [laughs] So that was it.
BH: At the time did you take that as an accolade, or do you look at that statement now as more of an accolade, or do you see that as a dismissal?
JT: I'm not sure. [laughs] You tell me.
BH: I remember one of my professors, Dr. Harry Leonard at Newbold College - he was the great history teacher there thirty years. I received back one of my papers from him, and I had been given a relatively good mark, something like a B++ - it was right on the margin - and he said ‘this is pretty good, HOWEVER...' Then there was about a half a page of comments explaining why it wasn't an ‘A.' I went to him and said, ‘why did you put all this negative stuff? Every once in a while you could say that something is good, you know, you could tell me what I did right.' He said, ‘well, you don't need to fix those things.'
JT: That's right.
BH: So that's why I wondered how you felt about that comment by Zukofsky; I don't know, maybe it is more of an accolade than one might think.
JT: [laughs] Perhaps.
BH: Did you ever meet Olson?
JT: No. One of the great pleasures is, of course, eventually meeting the people you admire. Meeting Bob Creeley was a big thing for me. It wasn't, as I recall, the first time I met him, certainly, but Bob invited me to read at Buffalo, and it was there that I read ‘The Rothko Chapel Poem' for the first time. It was meaningful to be introduced by Bob. It was... a meaningful experience. And similarly, it was great to meet Duncan eventually; he was always positive about my work, often for reasons that were unclear to me. [laughs] That was meaningful. But Olson was the only one, I would say, of that group in general, whom I didn't meet. And it was really, you would have to say, was my own fault. The reason was that mostly I was extremely wary of meeting him. He seemed like such a powerful presence, and it seemed that you either agreed to become a disciple, or you walked away as an opponent. You had that choice in meeting him, and I just didn't feel I was ready to make that decision. I have always regretted not having him read in the early days at Shippensburg, while he was still alive. I did have just a little bit of correspondence with him. I remember asking him about what was his ‘sense of time.' Somehow I've lost that letter, but I can still remember he wrote it on the back of United States Department of Agriculture bulletins, okay, and something like five single-spaced typed pages, all on that one question, on his ‘sense of time', and it had all this business of how it goes through Catullus, and this thinker, and that philosopher, and so forth. So I remember that letter, but I should also tell you how the Olson issue of Maps came about. I was at a party where there were several academics. Being a young academic at the time myself, I was busy lecturing this history professor how and why he should include literature in his history courses. Olson's name must have come up. As I was doing this, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me, ‘Did I hear you mention the name Charles Olson?' That turned out to be George Butterick, who taught at a small college eight miles from here in Chambersburg, Wilson College. We became good friends. We were almost exactly the same age - George's birthday was two days from mine, we both had young children, and he had, of course, an encyclopedic knowledge of Olson, and so with his help that was how that issue got put together. He was the one who found, for example, wonderful photographs of Olson that are in that issue; who solicited some of the people to write on Olson. He had access to previously unpublished work by Olson that we put out for the first time; and it made for, I think, an important publication.
BH: There's one other poet I wanted to bring up, and it seems appropriate because I'm looking at the wall behind you, and you have these nice broadsides...
JT: [laughs] Right.
BH: ...one by yourself and one by George Oppen. I believe there is a poem about you going to his house. What do you think of George Oppen? What does he mean to you as a poet and as a person? Because I see, at least from my reading of him, that George Oppen the ‘man' is very much tied into George Oppen the ‘poet,' and how he views the world reacts to it.
JT: George and Mary - because you tended to meet them both when you met them - were very impressive people. They were older, but I don't think you thought about that too much. The people who were attracted to them were, of course, in their twenties essentially. And what was impressive was they were interested in you. Essentially they were the hippest grandparents you'd ever met, and I think that was a crucial thing. They were interested in you, and so the conversation had an immediacy that it wouldn't have otherwise. But in some ways our friendship began through Zukofsky, because after I had worked very intensely on Zukofsky - I suppose it's a natural enough reaction - I became tired of it. The work seemed to me just too cold, and I really hadn't known George's work that well. When I turned to it I found an equal precision, but let's just say a more humane warmth to it - which is probably not all that fair or accurate - but I was immediately and immensely attracted to it. What I especially liked in the work was it seemed to me that in fact - going back to my student days when I was studying both literature and philosophy - that his work represented what I, in fact, myself had most wanted to do, what I most wanted poetry to do, or most expected out of poetry. Here was poetry in the sense of skilled, intrepid use of language, but here was also intrepid thought, and you could feel the motion of the thought in the work, you could feel the propulsion of it, and I found it tremendously exciting poem to poem, book to book. Propulsion isn't perhaps the best word, just movement, and of course there's a peculiar rhythm to the movement in George's work - it's sort of ‘crabwise,' or like a mountain climber. When you're doing rock climbing, you make one move and counter-lever yourself to make the next move. There has to be a torsion to make that possible, and that sense of torque in the poetry was very exciting and remains exciting to me.
BH: I have always found it ironic that George Oppen is included in the Norton Anthology, and Zukofsky still hasn't found his way in. Does that say something about the accessibility as well as the quality of what Oppen was able to do?
JT: I haven't seen that edition. It used to be the other way around. In fact, if George is now in the Norton, it's for the first time, because I did an essay specifically on this. He has been in none of the major anthologies, none of them, and it's unfathomable, it's just unfathomable. I don't know how one can explain it.
BH: I'm not sure when it was, but I think that it was at least three or four years ago. When I started teaching American Lit I, which is a bit out of my specialty, I started looking at the Norton Anthology of American Literature volumes one and two...
BH: ...and I noticed that they had new additions, of which Oppen was one, as well as Lorine Niedecker, which I thought was an interesting choice, as the other ‘Objectivists' still weren't in. I also noticed that Basil Bunting, who I think would be easily anthologized compared to the poets who wrote much larger works, was not in the Norton Anthology of British Literature. Oppen and Niedecker made it in out of that whole generation of poets.
JT: The real issue in the Norton world is whether you are making it into the Norton Anthology of Poetry, because that's the one that's most frequently used. But anthologies constitute a big subject, and in some ways the subject of the moment. There are many aspects of this. I talked about the excitement of the sixties; well, obviously, Don Allen's The New American Poetry was a big part of that. We've had claims of that sort for other volumes, but to my sense there's been nothing since that's been that exciting. Certainly the 20th century poetry anthologies put out by Jerry Rothenberg and Pierre Joris are very exciting, and very encompassing, enormous numbers of people, some of whom - including myself - are not often anthologized. But I think that is the issue, the anthology is the issue, and the question of who decides what goes in.
BH: I know that later I have some questions about the current poetry situation, and also criticism...
BH: ...and I should have had some questions about anthologies, because that seems to be a growing area of interest, how reputations are made, how a career is seen in retrospect based on whether or not someone is in a particular anthology. I know that Cid Corman in the interview he did for FlashPoint claimed that Donald Allen had said ‘we want you to be in,' but that he told Allen, ‘I don't want to be remembered for five or six little poems that I wrote around 1960...'
BH: ...which is a very interesting retrospective statement. I mean, if Cid had been in, his situation now would probably be very different, as far as his overall reputation.
JT: Yeah. All you can say is you would like vital work to be represented, because there are complicated cases. Donald Allen's anthology is obviously major, and most of the people in that anthology went on to do major things. But take a person like Barbara Guest. She's in that anthology. To my sense, she still does not have the audience she deserves, and I don't think you will find her in the Norton...
BH: No, I don't think so.
JT: ...of any description. Now there's a person who's been actively writing and publishing for decades, and she's not represented at all.
BH: And do you think in the case of something like The New American Poetry that maybe it's the cultural attitude towards poetry since the 1960s, that for a lot of people in the The New American Poetry, any recognition they do have is probably from that publication? Maybe the quality of their subsequent work is immaterial due to the change in the audience for poetry since that time.
JT: That's possible. In Barbara Guest's case,
though, I think you have to recognize that here's someone who's continued
writing; that it wasn't as though she wrote three very good poems
in the sixties, and then didn't write any other good ones, or interesting
work thereafter. It's undeniable that the atmosphere was very different
in the sixties. But from the writer's point of view, I don't
think you have an alternative - if poetry is your matrix - but to continue
writing. You're going to be affected, one way or another, by response,
what is given in a response or a review - or its lack; and Zukofsky, for
example, was certainly affected by this. Anyone who met him in his
later years would tell you he was a very bitter man, and his bitterness
had to do with lack of recognition. He would spend a great deal of
time telling you all about that. But I think that if you're going
to be a poet you can't sit around waiting for the audience to clap.
Writers are people who continue to write. I think that's the definition
that's fundamental. What would Lorine Niedecker have done if she
had been waiting for applause? It would have never happened.
Also, obviously you can be captured by your audience... [section
BH: [How do you teach poetry?]
JT: Let's assume I'm teaching a writing class. If I'm teaching a poetry writing class, this is how I would typically do it: we'd start out, we'd have somebody's history of twentieth century poetry, maybe even detailed down to twentieth century American poetry, and we'd just read that on a regular basis, talk about it, because I typically find students don't know their literary history, even the standard things - say, about the Imagists - and so forth. Then at the same time, at the beginning of the course, we'd work right through all the inherited forms, and these are done on an exercise basis, where the notion is, you know, write a couplet, let's not be too worried about how fantastic it is, sort of just write a couplet. And we work all the way through them, up to some of the more complicated French forms - villanelle, for example. At about that point, we're not quite half way through a semester or a term. I meet with each student individually, and we just talk about what are their own tastes, what are their own backgrounds in terms of their personalities, their reading, and so forth. And based on that - and some of my input - the student is assigned a ‘mentor poet,' contemporary, if possible. And what's going on here is a modeling within an academic framework of a writer's actual education, which is obviously not limited to a semester. The general notion of apprenticeship is the idea. So I'll have them start out doing literal imitations of poems by poets they've chosen. They have to be able to reproduce what that poet does, right down to number of lines, similar subject matter, similar language, all of that. They'll do a few of those, and then they'll start weaning themselves away from the direct connection, but little by little, and eventually they are writing poems which typically are concerned primarily with the ideas of their poets. They're in a conversation with their poets. Often they're arguing with the poet. And that's about where the semester ends. They're at the point of writing their own poetry - you might say they're at the threshold - and in a sense they're on the threshold, or maybe over it, or just starting it. That's about all I think you can do in a semester, especially with undergraduates. In fact, I think much the same process happens with graduate students as well. It can be specialized, it can be more streamlined. And of course what you tell them, and what you want to emphasize is: you've worked with one person. Now if writing is the real thing for you, if this is what you want to do, if you want to be serious about it, you go on to other writers, and the writers you go on to are those who are typically linked with the one you started with. It could be someone that writer simply mentioned as important to his or to her work. So you want to check out that writer who's not even from the twentieth century, your own time, could be a seventeenth century English poet, for example. Or a person will say, well, a French poet was extremely important to me, so you'll make contact with that poet - who in turn, of course - that poet is going to lead you to other poets, and so it goes. Eventually you cover the whole neighborhood, and of course not everyone is equally important to you. One of the points of Zukofsky's Test is that good poetry is written in all times, and to really know what poetry is doing, and what you can do with it, you've got to know all of it. It doesn't mean you like all of it, but you know, have some acquaintance with all of it. And in a sense, all of it is contemporary. Is that...?
BH: Yeah, that helps. Do you feel any need to combat the writing of ‘bad' poetry? In other words, you have students, and you're somehow trying to get them from having a ‘young' voice to having a ‘mature' one. Do you try to direct them into any particular veins, or do you try and let them develop whatever they want to?
JT: Okay. The apprenticeship approach solves that problem for you. What a young writer typically doesn't have is a reference. Young writers don't know what they sound like, and the typical psychology is they think they're fabulously original, and they sound like third-rate Wordsworth or Whitman or Rimbaud, or whatever. Almost always they're repeating some vague, almost overheard notion of the past century - and it's not accidental, because if you listen to rock or pop music, that's what you hear. You're hearing nineteenth century poetry and attitudes recycled. When you're in an apprenticeship mode, right away you have a reference: you've got this other writer, this other writer's works. [section missing]
[End of Part I]
FlashPoint Interview Part ll
BH: Let's start with the composition procedures. It isn't fair to ask what poems mean, or things like that. But I think - especially since you've taught poetry for so many years, and how to make it - that it is important to delve into how you create some of your poems, because they're so different, in many ways, from a lot of contemporary poetry that's being written...
JT: [laughs] Thank you.
BH: ...that is a compliment. How do you approach the writing of a new poem, as an inspiration or as a discipline?
JT: It can be both, obviously, but to work with just those two terms I'd probably lean towards ‘discipline' at the beginning - and this is going to jump ahead a bit into one of your other questions, but it's connected - I see it as addressing form, and working with form, and that's the first consideration. And the way I think of that is as a grid. The task is to set it up; then once you're in it, to not so much get out of it, but as you're going along to go beyond it, to go off grid. ‘Grid' is obviously visual, as in many ways, for many people at least, the whole notion of ‘form' is visual. I'm interested. My beginnings tend to be visual, and I hope the ends are not. An example I would give you would be visual, again, say someone like Rothko, who would spend hours just looking at the canvas making preliminary marks indicating his dimensions on the canvas. Okay, now this is very strict, and when you look at things like the paintings in the Rothko Chapel at Houston, he worked on this for a very long time. These are huge paintings, and they vary in the way they are set up, just by inches and fractions of inches, all of which is highly deliberate. The point is what you get in the end are these big, floating blocks that have a life of their own, and you're not thinking ‘grid' at all. But what made those blocks possible is the grid, or grid-like considerations, we'll say. To put it another way, I want the end of the poem to have resonance - literally sound that lingers, whether that is a sound as mood, a sound as a cadence, a rhythm. I want the sense that when you come to the end of the poem, whether you're listening to me read it aloud or you're reading it, that the poem exceeds the last line, the last period, the last page, that there might be a sort of hovering quality.
BH: When you were talking about the ‘grid', it reminded me of something from the written interview you did for the Harrisburg Review. You were talking about ‘the room' as a kind of limit, but then it was also about escaping that limit...
BH: Is that a similar metaphor, or is that a completely separate idea?
JT: No, it's similar, and you can make it literal, take it back to the literal in the sense that - well, I've talked ‘grid' in a general way. I compose in terms off the page, and so the goal becomes, eventually, to get off the page. But you don't get of the page unless you start with it, unless you start with the grid, with the form you've set up to begin with. There's a famous remark by Stravinsky in his Six Lectures he gave at Harvard in which he says, ‘don't give me freedom; give me these certain number of keys, with certain octaves, certain intervals, and so forth, and out of that I can make something. I can't make something out of freedom.' That's the sort of thing that's involved. If we're thinking visually again, there's the example of almost literal grids with the painter Agnes Martin, a wonderful painter who literally paints grids, but varies them in quite subtle and interesting ways.
BH: You mentioned that you used the ‘page' for composition. Is that saying you work on paper in a generic sense, or are you saying that your unit of composition is a ‘page' - I think on the first visit I asked something about whether you think of a poem as a page at a time, or whether you think of a poem as a series of ‘things', or whether you think of it as a ‘book', or does it depend on the particular poem? Or is the page usually the unit you work with even if it's part of a sequence?
JT: ‘Page' is the unit of composition, but obviously you can have shorter or longer compositions. You can go on longer, but the page is the basic unit.
BH: I noticed that there's a deliberate and quite nice look to your poems on the page...
BH: ...they have blocks, and they're arranged on the page. They ‘hang,' almost like paintings, in a certain space. In other words, there's a visual element. Some of the poems in Standing Wave, ‘Star Dust' and ‘Alternate Take,' for example, have similar blocks of text, which are placed lower and lower on the page through the poem. This placement is essential to the ‘meaning' of the poem. So if you're working on something this size [holds up a sheet of 8 1/2" by 11" paper], how do you work with the printer, the publisher, whatever, that says ‘this is the format' [i.e. small book]? How do you take what's on your page, and translate it so that you get the same effect in the book that you had in your manuscript?
JT: Well, usually it's not in the writer's hands. I've benefitted from the care of many editors. One would be Brad Morrow with Conjunctions, who is very careful. The one I'd mention in particular is the late Leland Hickman who had a magazine in California called Temblor. He was a printer himself, and used his own money to do this magazine called Temblor, and that was where ‘The Rothko Chapel Poem' first appeared. It's an exceedingly demanding poem in terms of its design, and the design is crucial to the poem, to its working. I always felt that Lee gave my poem, or gave my work - because he did more than just that poem - the best presentation it had ever received. And I think he did that for many other poets as well. He presented everybody in the most attractive way their particular work required or demanded. It's interesting, his basic size was 8 1/2" by 11", so there was - in terms of at least conventional page dimensions, in regards to what we will call typewriter page size - the least discrepancy. And he would vary type to go with particular poems - that's quite unusual. You asked me, in what you sent me before, whether it bothered me if lines were broken, and if the spacing in a printed version of a poem differed from the spacing of my poem, that is the spacing between lines, and the answer is yes, it bothers me a lot, because everything's set up as carefully as I can make it. To me this is the most basic of violations. If it didn't matter how the lines went, then why bother? I'll tell you a funny story. When I did the first issue of my own magazine, Maps, I thought I would go the ‘Arts & Crafts' way, I would go with a local, almost country printer who would do letter press work. I quickly found out I couldn't afford letter press, and this man had never done poetry. When I got the galleys back, he had set the entire contents of the magazine as one justified newspaper column - it looked like the the median strip of a highway going down these galley proof pages. [laughs] And there was a radical case... [laughs] ...of line mattering. At one point when I did the Duncan issue of Maps, Robert and I had a misunderstanding about this. He believed very strongly in this. It was not simply a matter of staying close to your typescript. He wanted his handwritten versions of his poems reproduced as such, and at the time I was just befuddled by this; it was impractical, it was too expensive. Not handwritten, I'm sorry. I don't think it was handwritten, but he wanted it exactly as per his typescript. There could be no variation whatsoever. I went ahead and had them set - in letter press, incidentally - close to his typescript, in other words no lines were violated, no spacing was violated, but it was not, of course, identical to his typescript. He then wrote a very famous preface for the issue which I was publishing, which pointed out what ‘criminal' activity I was involved in. It was a less than pleasant experience, which we later just put behind us.
BH: I think there's an interview with both George and Mary Oppen where they talk about the way Discrete Series was printed in the Collected Poems. They were saying it was not how is was supposed to be, and it was always difficult to know where poems ended because there was no sort of demarcation. Mary blurted out, ‘James Laughlin was just too cheap to print one poem per page.'
JT: Could well be.
BH: Obviously it was saving space; I think it boils down to about fourteen pages in the Collected Poems. That's another example of a way the printing can affect how the reader approaches the poems, as it is difficult to read Discrete Series when it is all scrunched together. Fortunately it was reprinted by the Asphodel Bookshop, in Cleveland...
BH: ...in the correct format. So there has been a reprint that allows you to see it the way it was intended... I'm wondering whether you see the poem as something that's captured, or as something that's being discovered in the writing, or is it a combination?
JT: It's an interesting question, and I'll answer it by talking about Oppen. First, there's a certain contradiction in his practice, or in his thinking, about this. Mostly when you look at his poems it's very clear - and they emphasize this, in fact - they're put together, they're constructed, they almost crawl from one point to another. You feel the torsion of the thought, you feel the torsion of the process. Yet on the other hand he often talks about his own sense - really a Platonic sense - that the poem exists before the writing. ‘The poem enters the room.' For myself, I think it's discovery. If we go on George's definition of a poem as a process of thought, then it's what you find as you go along.
BH: We talked about whether it was inspiration or discipline; what then starts the poem? In other words, if we say that it tends to be a discipline, what is the impetus for the poem?
JT: As incitement? As motivation?
BH: Well, yeah, but trying to come to terms with the idea that it is a discipline, but it's also a discovery. So a discipline at first might appear to be, ‘I'm going to sit down and write a sonnet...'
BH: ...so then you know what your end goal is...
BH: ...so that's the discipline. You know you have this task, and you're going to perform it - in some ways it's crafting, it's doing the job. On the other hand, it's a process of discovery. So then how does that interplay between discipline and discovery take place?
JT: Well, I don't see them as contradictory. The question always is whether you've done - to use your word - more than a ‘task.' In the language I've been using, did you get off the ‘grid.' As Olson pointed out in the ‘Projective Verse' essay, the problem with the writers of sonnets has been that they didn't write a poem, they wrote a sonnet. There's a difference. The form, I think, challenges your thought, it challenges your - literally - putting together of words. In other words, it forces you to be more or less dissatisfied with the very first thing that comes along. It makes you rethink that, and perhaps rethink it a great deal. And you can do that thinking in your head, or you can do that thinking on the page in the process of the poem. In my case it's usually the process of the poem on the page, not presenting just the result of the process, which might be a very small poem. [laughs] Indeed, an epigram.[laughs]
BH: This reminds me of the sonnet by Sidney which starts, 'Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show...' On the surface it seems to be a love sonnet. But when you read the poem, it's actually about him trying to write a love poem. So topic is how he is going to abandon the formal strategies - ‘fool, look to thy heart and write' - but in the end he goes back, and the product is a sonnet about writing, not about love. But the poem allows love to come through, as well as all the rational skills that were needed to make the fine twistings and turnings of the sonnet form. He is able to do two things at the same time. He escapes writing a ‘mere sonnet' by writing something that goes beyond. In lesser hands it would have turned out to be a simple adoration poem. That's an example for me of - using your terminology - somebody taking the sonnet as the ‘grid,' and stepping beyond that grid, which I think was more possible in his time than it is now, with something like a sonnet.
JT: Well, quite possibly, but in jazz you see it quite clearly with the whole notion of improvisation. There are levels of this, all of which are interesting enough in themselves, although I think some are more valuable than others. You take someone like Keith Jarrett, who to my ear is essentially someone who plays ‘elaborations' - often endless [laughs], or very long elaborations. Close to that, but not quite the same, would be ‘variation,' and a famous example, not in jazz, would be Beethoven's ‘Diabelli Variations,' where he takes a very mundane little waltz tune and just runs it through, everything you can do with it. And then back to jazz, someone like Coltrane with ‘My Favorite Things,' again another little waltz tune, and its very interesting. In the first version, they play it almost straight; it's about maybe four minutes. By the time their done with it - years later, it's the same group - it's up to forty-five minutes. You know where you started, but you're ending up with something that is completely off grid, a new thing. I would call that - for lack of a better term - ‘transformation.' Of course a lot of people would probably be tempted to say ‘transcendence.'
BH: Probably depended on the particular performance.
JT: Yes, and you get things like, with Coltrane, Ascension and Meditations, which are wild because they have the sense of beginning at the point of transformation, not just building up to it. They started as transformation, and they keep on going. When I was a student at the University of Chicago, a friend and I listened to Ascension, and we were speechless. He had been professionally trained in music, I had been listening to Coltrane for a long time, and we were speechless.
BH: That's an interesting example. I think it's really clear between ‘My Favorite Things' and Ascension. It takes ‘My Favorite Things' in 1961, and what he's doing there, to get to the point where he can do something like Ascension in 1965. I like how you said that it leads to that point, but once you reached there, then you can use that as a starting point, in a sense, to go even a bit further. I think Coltrane's whole career in the sixties showed that kind of progression, some people would say for better or worse...
JT: Better. [laughs]
CP: And you could say A Love Supreme - another brilliant piece of music - is the transition piece between that. He's beginning to find his way into Ascension.
BH: Absolutely. [To JT:] Could you take us into another area - that's a nice segue, because of the transcendence idea, kind of leaving the grid... Your work seems somewhat abstracted. Maybe that has to do with leaving the grid. It seems to be making what I would call a ‘poetry of possibilities' rather than ‘limitations,' that abstraction allows for more to happen, rather than saying, ‘I'm going to define limits with my writing,' which is what most traditional writers would try to do. It's like, ‘here is what I am trying to get across to you. Here are the boundaries.' But your poetry acts in the exact opposite way, which would seem a metaphor for what Coltrane does as well, which is, you start here and you push out, and that allows for a lot to happen, and surprising even to Coltrane on some nights.
JT: You hope so. Obviously it doesn't always happen, and sometimes you don't even necessarily want it to happen. When Coltrane has those albums - the one's where he plays just ballads, another one with just blues - it's obvious that he's trying more or less to do just a good job with those ballads. I mean, one of them is - what is it? - ‘Too Young to Go Steady.' Now, he doesn't kill it, he doesn't say, ‘this is the stupidest tune I've ever encountered, I'm going to just submarine this thing.' He just in a sense honors it. I think often of Monk's playing of Duke Ellington. When you listen to him playing those tunes, they're different. They do not sound like Duke. They're recognizably the tunes, but he does a lot with them in very quiet ways. So there are obviously times when you want to honor the tune. When Monk plays his favorite tune, which was a hymn tune, ‘This is My Story, This is My Song,' he plays it very straight. There are just very subtle shadings that he adds to it. They're almost more in terms of silences. There's a great deal of respect for the original tune. He does not mess around with it a lot. So that leads you to a sort of, we'll call it a ‘quiet moment,' not a bravura performance. Then I think there are other moments when you consciously, deliberately want to push this thing as far as you can, see how far you can go with it. And you're very conscious that you're going places you don't already know. There's an old interview with Robert Creeley in which he says, ‘if I write what you know, it bores you; if I write what I know, it bores me; I write what I don't know.' To me that makes perfect sense. Otherwise it's a passive reproduction: ‘here are my poems, these are a few of my better thoughts.' In other words, the poem is a passive reproduction of something you already thought, as opposed to the finding of the thought during the process of composition itself.
BH: If your poems are purposefully intended to encourage response and interpretation from the reader, and you do not offer up ‘this is what I meant in that poem,' are there wrong ways to read your poems, to your mind...
BH: ...that's always the problem when you leave interpretation to the readers; to an extent, you're still hoping they're going to get something of what you were trying to make. So where does ‘authorial intent' come into the writing, as well as the interpretation, by you or others, of your work?
JT: Well, if we go back to form, the poems are set up in certain ways. One of the reasons they're set up the way they are, is that they make it very difficult for the reader simply to scan them visually and make any sense of them. A lot of the poems, especially the longer ones, if you attempt to read them that way, my guess would be you'll be abruptly lost. So what that forces you to do is to read them aloud - or at least to move your lips - while you're moving through them. It forces you to enter into - we'll call it a ‘sound field' - with the poem. Once you do that - and another thing that contributes to that, of course, is that I don't use internal punctuation, and let's face it, punctuation exists in prose to help you along, to tell you when to stop, to pause, this and that. If you take all of that out, the poem becomes immediately confusing to the eye. If you're going to spend any time - much less sympathy - with my poems, you're going to have to resort to your mouth. Once you do that, I think you will find that they are indeed ordered, that the syntax is not incidental, not accidental. Once you do that, you will discover there are only certain ways - not necessarily just one way - but there are only certain ways the poems can actually be read, can be literally voiced. So, I suppose I am interested in anybody's reading, whether we're understanding reading as performance or reading as interpretation. The only thing I would see as possibly wrong is not to acknowledge their existence as sound, as what I would call ‘sound structures' or ‘sound constructions,' and the further recognition that they're more than sound. While they are sound structures or constructions, those structures or constructions have meaning. I would accept a number of readings of that meaning, but the point, of course, is that there is meaning, and that it's found rather than reproduced.
BH: A ‘spiritual' sensibility runs through your poetry. It certainly doesn't push itself in any way on the reader, but it certainly is there. Is that intentional? What kind of impetus is there for you to put that into your poetry?
JT: Well, just to quibble a bit with your wording, it isn't put in, and I'll place it in the context of my writing. Obviously, some of the people I have learned a great deal from are Zukofsky and Olson, among many others, and there's one book, for example - Dodeka - which essentially attempts to merge the two of them, I call them ‘Mr. Inside' and ‘Mr. Outside.' Zukofsky is obviously ‘Mr. Inside.' In Zukofsky you have this almost furiously conscious inward working with the language, the construction of the language, and with Olson you have this outward-reaching, almost oratorio type motion with tremendous energy. When I came to the long poem ‘The Pyramid is a Pure Crystal' I was anxious, especially with Zukofsky, to push certain things just as far as I could take them. When I got there, I wasn't very satisfied with the result. It forced me to think about what did I really have in terms of my own material, say my own vocabulary - not so much what I knew, as a body of knowledge - but just, what did I have. And, as you know, at least part of my background is as a clergyman's son, someone who grew up in the context of professional church life. It's an interesting thing... all during my grade school and high school years I always assumed that was something I was just putting up with, it's what your dad does, your dad's business. As a reader I was accustomed to considering myself somewhere else. What I found in trying to come to terms with myself, we'll say, was of course that whole experience was part of my life, or simply part of a vocabulary that was available to me. I had to do something with that, see what I could do with that. Now, usually it's a resisting, but obviously the poems don't try to make you feel better, they're not New Age poems, they're not poems that are going to be read at a weekend inner-wellness retreat. People might say they probably would produce the opposite effect! But I felt this compulsion with what I had, what was in a sense my life. Out of that comes a connection with certain other people, who have been important to my thought: Kirkegaard would be one, lots of painters, lots of musicians. Melville is another... I would say it's simply a reality, or as I've said a vocabulary, which I first had to acknowledge as a vocabulary that indeed I had. Then the question became what to do with it, and usually, as I said before, it's resisting. Now it's taken me longer, oddly enough, to acknowledge the reality of the world outside my window. I recently wrote a preface for a volume of his WPA writings that Wesleyan University Press is going to publish as part of a series they're doing of Zukofsky's critical writings. As part of working on that preface I looked at a number of William Carlos Williams essays. They weren't exactly things I didn't know, but they were things I really hadn't paid close attention to. These are of course his essays In the American Grain, a number of his early essays from the late twenties into the thirties in his collected essays, in which he is talking about the necessity of basing an American art on the local as immediate. You can turn those two terms around, you can say ‘basing an American art on the immediate as local.' It's taken me a long time to come to terms with that. In some ways it probably has something to do with being, early on, a reader. When you're a reader, you go somewhere else. One of the pleasures of reading is going many places, not just one place else, but many places and feeling free to do that. It's taken me longer to come to terms with what's outside my window, the physical reality of it, the history that's connected with that reality, and that's what I've been working on most recently.
BH: Very quickly, I was interested in ‘The Rhythm and Blues Singer.' You've already told us a little bit about James Carr...
BH: ... but the theme of the poem seems to fall along the lines of ‘audio' versus ‘visual.' I've been thinking more and more about your poetry as having an axis, the visual and concrete versus the audio, both as subject matter - you'll study physical objects or music as a starting point - and also in the making of your poems you have the concrete, visual elements, which are transferred into audio. There is a nice balance there between those things. I saw this poem as an investigation of those two poles. On the one hand you have Carr, an illiterate singer...
BH: ...so that's the audio, but then you have the other characters, mentions of Bartleby, and Isabel, and Pierre, which all seem to be the Melvillian side of things, which are imbedded in the concrete word. Is that more or less the basic referent?
JT: Not only Melvillian... Melville! The reason they're there is the relation of those characters to language, especially as this develops in Melville's thought. Bartleby is the famous case of someone clearly aware of the so called ‘prison house' of language. He's the scrivener, the copyist who's made, as it were, hostage to language. It's almost as though it's overwhelming him, and he is trying, of course, through the dead letter office, and so forth, to short circuit it. It's no accident that he ends up in the New York City tombs, and he's defeated by language. Melville looks at this again and again. You get it in Moby Dick. The reason why Ishmael is the only survivor is not fluke, not chance of the plot, it's because Ishmael is the only conscious language user as a player, as a fabulator, a person who understands you make these - almost literally - fabulous linguistic constructions, and you abandon them, or you deconstruct them, move on and make others; and that one's relation to the world. The creation of meaning is just such a fabulation, a continuing process of fabulation. Otherwise, like Ahab, you are subject to a construction that will always come into conflict with the reality of the external universe, if not spiritual reality. And of course Ahab decides to go down in that conflict, to shake his fist at that conflict, while Ishmael floats free of it. You have to decide. In a way it's not saying that one is better than the other. Do you want to go on existing or not? Ahab decides that he doesn't care, that the opposition is more important than existence itself. When you get to Bartleby, he is trying to get away from language as scripted, literally scripted language, the language that supports the whole legal system, the whole culture, and that of course defines him in the process. By the time you get to Pierre, which is Melville's last novel, you've got two characters - Pierre and Isabel - who are both poor readers. What Melville does in that book is study what happens to you when you're a poor reader, and what happens is death. They both mis-read, and they mis-read to their deaths. They are self-willed victims of language. It is not as though they are simply ignorant of language, but they're poor readers and inadequate writers as well. So I'm playing with the opposition of oral versus script, and the point that Carr died. He died as a person diagnosed with some sort of dementia, he was illiterate, he was victimized in his society, in his culture; he was not a ‘success,' almost an abject failure. But the poem ends in claiming a certain victory for Carr, which is the victory of the song, the idea that song is that which floats free from the text, and cannot be captured by the text.
BH: Would you say that is the ‘discovery' in this particular poem?
BH: That certainly makes sense.
JT: Good. [laughs]
BH: I think we can move on to ‘poets and society' - this is a question I avoided, or at least forgot to ask, because the first part of the interview was on September 13... I'm sympathetic to the way David Jones ponders the role of the poet in society. Even back then, he was wondering whether it was possible to make poems the way he was trying to make them, whether he was effective or not. But what realistically, in your mind, is the role of a poet in a society where things like the September 11th attacks happen? In other words, where do poets fit in, and how can they fit in?
JT: Well... a long story. Obviously they don't fit in, and haven't fitted in for centuries. We're talking now the disjunction of oral into print and eye oriented cultures. It's a big jump from any sort of tribal shaman definition of the poet - consider that in Homeric terms if you like - to anything we know in the English tradition, say, after Chaucer. Later on, once print happens, the poet becomes marginalized. Before print the poet is the skilled singer of tales, but is responsible for a number of other things: the history of the group, possibly the naming of new children, the conducting of ceremonies of the group, or at least being part of them. Over time you get all that split into the professions. As the professions grow, and print/eye culture grows and develops, the poet is more and more an honorary, vague memory. So I feel that the poet's responsibility is, as Eliot said, to state a vision. If that vision coincides with public need, at a particular moment, so much the better. But I don't think its necessary, and in fact that occurrence - you might say coincidence - is rare. There are to my knowledge no great WWII poems, and especially poems written close to the event. You take someone like Oppen, sure, there are meaningful poems, strong poems, if you like, striking or memorable poems dealing with WWII, but they're many years later, and part of other things. What about the Korean War? Wasn't that important? Didn't people actually die then? Of course they did; but it just so happens that didn't coincide with what poets were doing at that moment. It doesn't make the war unimportant, and it doesn't make poets irresponsible that that should be the case. And I think you need to make further distinctions: you can have a so-called poetry of ‘current affairs' - although I think this is more European in its history - in which the writer responds to an event of the moment, at the moment, and the writer's work is quickly disseminated. It's made part of an on-going discussion/reaction, perhaps even social/political action in a broad political way.
CP: But in the same sense how would you parse, say, the Vietnam War, or the term I like to use is the Invasion of Southeast Asia...
JT: With regard to Vietnam I'd point out a few things. There were poets who responded directly to it at the time, or at least close to the time, and there were many readings all across the country against the war. One of the things I found most striking was Robert Creeley's participation in those readings. And it's important to remember that Creeley, along with Paul Blackburn, was a WWII veteran. None of Creeley's poems were anti-war poems per se. They were his regular poems. His point was that if your work stood for those things you believed in, it didn't need a special occasion. He was reading, he was taking part in the readings against the war, but he was reading what you might say was his regular work. Obviously there were poets such as Denise Levertov and Robert Bly, in particular, who chose to focus on the war itself. In Levertov's case I think the poetry is extremely weak. It's a poetry seeking to be ‘right.' It's a moralistic poetry, it's shrill, and I think it has little future as poetry. Duncan has many Vietnam related poems, but notice they come later in terms of publication, if not public performance. There's my own poem ‘Peace on Earth' which gets written some years after the war itself. It wasn't a case that I thought, ‘that's a good subject,' or, ‘someone should do that,' should tell the story of the war, because I was not a direct participant in the war. Rather it was a response to the pressure of those times, at least the pressure as I felt it, which was inescapable. If you were alive and conscious at that moment, you could not avoid thinking about the situation, it was inescapable, and the poem was an effort to try to deal with that. That's how it came about. I don't know if that helps at all...
CP: Yeah, it does.
BH: When you mentioned there aren't any great WWII poems, the one that comes to my head is Randall Jarrell's ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner'...
BH: ...which as short as it is leaves you with the fact of the war, without being preachy in any way, it just gives you that image...
JT: I agree.
BH: ...but it is short, it's not an epic...
JT: But that poem could have been written at any time on any war. You could have written the poem of the front-mounted Hussar...
CP: The same could be said of James Dickey and Reed Whittemore's stuff...
BH: Compared to WWI, which just happened to be in a generation when poetry was still fairly public, at least the Georgian style poetry.
JT: But I would avoid that, in a way. I would say you had WWI, and you had certain individuals who had skills and sensibility and consciousness, all of which they could bring to bear on this moment. And I think David Jones is a very special case. Pound is much more typical. He doesn't have all that much really to say about the war when you look at his total output, it doesn't really happen that contemporaneously to the events, and it's at a distance. He's just remarking in a way that one might have said about any war: ‘Isn't it terrible that all these young men have gone to their doom for the sake of an old bitch gone in the teeth, this debauched civilization,' a few dozen books and broken statues - all that business. On the other hand, Pound is very much a part of the ‘few dozen books / broken statues' conception of culture. What is he always telling us? He's telling us, ‘You'd better read that. If you haven't read that, you're an idiot, and you've got to look at this, and you've got to listen to that,' and so forth. I think we ought to then think about the amazing events that led, one might say, to Pound's participation in WWII, where you get the ‘Pisan Cantos,' you get ‘Rock Drill,' and then that's another story; suddenly that's not a war poem.
CP: I just quickly would want to add, there's also, with WWI, there's a sense in Owen and Rosenberg and Jones and Sassoon that this is a new kind of war, this transforms warfare in a unique way, and that's in a sense - if not the central subject matter - at least the unique circumstances that drive the poetry - trench warfare, and gas, and the whole hundred yards. In the Vietnam war you have a kind of humanist... there's enough lapse in that war, it build's so gradually - at least in the American consciousness - that a kind of humanism interjects itself into the act of war. So that's the unique circumstance that informs - I'm being very general here... Now oddly enough out of WWII, the two circumstances that have developed into huge bodies of poetry are of course the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, and you have a huge poetic literature around those. The Korean War has no unique circumstance to address like those two, unless you want to consider the right wing formalist schools that were very popular in magazines at the time, like James Jesus Angleton was a poet, and what's his face, Whittaker Chambers was a poet. I was reading the other day in game theory, and it's shocking how a number of these game theorists who got their start in WWII, and later on began as poets. And of course Robert Conquest, and people like that were being published in journals out of the ivy league at that time, and so the Cold War would be sort of the theme that drives the Korean War body of poetry. So they all have major themes, but none of them, other than WWI, produced an Iliad, and that would be Jones...
JT: That's right. Obviously I don't mean to overlook something like the Holocaust. But thinking in terms of the ‘big war' picture, it seems to me that David Jones is unique, and truly unique in the sense that Homer is coming long after the event - he's not a participant, he's long after the event. In fact, I think the scholarship suggests that he's essentially a codifier of extant stories, he pulls all this stuff together, gives it shape, and that would suggest that Jones is really unique.
BH: The thing leveled against Jones with In Parenthesis is that he's not really a WWI poet. He's writing a poem which uses WWI as its background material, and it's contactual material, which is very important for Jones - the known and loved. He starts writing it in 1928, which is well after the experience. So he's not writing it as it's happening and reacting to it; he's using his experience as the material that's ‘outside his window,' so to speak. It's one of the biggest experiences of his life. I mean, this is a guy who spent a lot of time in rooms. This was his big trip, and it had a profound influence on him. WWI was the most important physical event of his life - that, and the trip he took to Jerusalem in 1934, which became the material he plundered for his later poems.
JT: I think that tells you something useful, and that is to expect of the poem a kind of reporting is probably wrong-headed. Oppen refers to many times, and I mean numerous, when he's talking about the war and other events of his life, he refers to them rather dismissively as, ‘all this is reportage.' He's indicating and acknowledging that for a poem, that's not enough. You can report, you can be accurate in your report, ‘this is what happened to me; this is what I saw,' but - speaking completely illicitly for him, or simply for myself - you've got to take that somewhere else for that to have a sort of binding appeal. A report itself isn't enough. To put it another way, there can be more than a report.
BH: I think that Jones is the finest WWI poet, in that he writes about WWI, but also writing in a post ‘Waste Land' atmosphere. He is writing about society and western civilization based on his experience - he's not writing In Parenthesis as therapy to deal with WWI; he's able to take that material and - to him, a devout Roman Catholic - it turns into something spiritual, the whole Golden Bough thing being pulled into it...
BH: ...so he takes it well beyond reportage.
JT: I agree, and another case would be H.D. with Trilogy. Now she's in the war, not a combatant, but a person in London, the bombs are falling, and she's reporting that. She's also talking about personal experience at the time, making these combinations as she goes.
BH: Let's move on to the question of criticism. Mark Scroggins in a previous article for FlashPoint wrote about having a discussion with another academic, saying something like ‘I'd love to do work on Joyce or Pound, but who's got time to read the secondary material?' Is it absolutely necessary to know all of the secondary material in order to understand the primary material? My question for you would be, is there too much criticism being written? If yes, and not the type of criticism you find useful, how do you think the critic should approach the writing of criticism to try and make it useful?
JT: That's a wonderful, blunt question. I love it in its bluntness. I see all this as a part of, especially in the academy, a refusal to read, which may seem ironic, but my guess would be that it's a rare tenured bird who's read with any care beyond Ezra Pound in terms of recent poetry. What I find is gross ignorance. They simply have not read - and I almost come to believe cannot read - an Olson, a Duncan, an Oppen, a Zukofsky. These people whose work has been with us for many years now. The only way they can seemingly come at it is by categorization. They cannot come to the poem as a poem; it has to be the work of a feminist writer, a writer of a particular racial definition, political definition, whatever. There has to be an adjective put in front of the writer's name for the work to be dealt with. What that shows evidence of is inability or unwillingness to read, to come to terms with the poem as the poem presents itself in its own logic. What could combat that is to have more poets, more fiction writers writing in response to work, in the form of reviews, which was once obviously a kind of practice.
BH: Zukofsky in ‘An Objective' talks about a passage in "A"-6 where he has been thinking critically in poetic form, and then he says, ‘I've done this in prose as well.' He's trying to find a compromise. What he ends up with is Prepositions and Bottom: on Shakespeare. People don't really know where to put Bottom, because on one hand Zukofsky is trying to deal with the problem which that he sees criticism as merely poetically charged, not as the primary creative act. He wants to write something that is the creative act itself...
BH: Do you think what Zukofsky aimed for is possible and practical, and would that be more desirable than writing the poetically charged criticism that he talks about?
JT: Well, first of all, in a sense its being done, I mean that's almost an accurate description of what you find in Derrida and in much Post-Structuralist so-called criticism, which consciously or not seeks to demonstrate that the critical work is of at least as much interest in itself as the so-called primary text. I would be interested in something much more humble, simply acknowledgment of contemporary work, a describing of it, what is going on in this particular work. If the writer has some knowledge, where does it seem to come from; some valuations, perhaps. But the more abstract questions are almost completely irrelevant when you have The Washington Post carrying no reviews of poetry, The New York Times carrying very few, and I would say with regard to the Times totally misrepresentative of what goes on in the writing of poetry in this country.
BH: Do you sense - leaving aside the obvious neglecting of much good literature and poetry by the big publications - to come back to something you were saying earlier, do you think we are afraid as readers to be ‘istorins, as Olson would say, ‘to see for one's self.' In other words to look at what's there, and to respond to it and think about it, rather than always having to be correct in some way, having to back it up with this or that expert's testimony?
JT: Yes. I think this in some ways illustrates a fear of the poem, not a welcoming of the new at all, but a fear of the poem, either a resentment or a resistance to the poem, so that the commentator - by having placed a poem in a category - is always superior to the poem.
BH: For the last question I would like to quote from Mark Scroggins' book Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, which devotes a section to looking at you and Ronald Johnson in relation to the Zukofskian tradition. He writes, ‘It is true that these two poets [John Taggart and Ronald Johnson] have themselves steered clear of entangling alliances with groups or coteries, and this may in part account for their relative absence from critical studies and classroom syllabi - as opposed to, for instance, Charles Bernstein or Lyn Hejinian. But I cannot agree with Silliman that their chosen isolation has in any way impoverished their poetics, any more than the isolation of Zukofsky's later years mitigated the achievement of "A"-22 and -23 or 80 Flowers." Looking at this, Scroggins seems to suggest that neither you or Johnson actively adhered to the activities of any particular group or school of thought; in short that you were ‘outsiders', which places you in a very different position, politically and aesthetically. What do you feel are the pros and cons of such a stance? Looking back on your career, was the risk of isolation worth what you gained?
JT: As a young writer you can't imagine anything better than being around other people talking about poetry all the time. It seems like the most desirable state of affairs. And of course what you're seeking, consciously or not, is validation that you in fact are a poet. And it may be that that stage, that moment of validation, is necessary in anyone's existence as a writer. Thereafter, I think the need for constant literary society diminishes, especially as you read more, and not just your contemporaries, but read all over, because - at least in my experience - you find your true contemporaries are not simply those which exist in your own time/space-frame. It's interesting to note that when Oppen is in his foxhole experience during WWII - it's the ultimate existential moment - and he talks about the poetry that runs through his head. He names two especially. One you might expect, Charles Reznikoff, a close friend, someone he admired, someone to whom he felt deep sympathy; and Wyatt, obviously not a person of his own space/time. What's going on is that I think you make a crucial discovery that you come upon those people, who can be from all times, other cultures, who seem most intriguing to you, admirable, whom you would like to be like, perhaps. They become your society. That society obviously can consist of people who live right around the block, but it can also consist of people from other centuries, other cultures. What many people don't understand about the whole notion of ‘audience' is that for a writer that society is the writer's audience. The audience a writer faces in an actual auditorium is almost accidental. I don't think any writer wants to directly ignore or offend people who've come to a reading, but the poem in the act of composition is not directed towards those people in that auditorium. The poem in the act of composition, in so far as it has an audience, is directed toward that society. And it's a critical society. The question is often, the question that one feels often in composition, is ‘well, is this up to the standard of so-and-so, whom I especially admire?' When you're first starting you want to sound like somebody else. As you go on, you don't want to sound like someone else, or you deliberately want to use that sound and do something with it, extend it, or whatever. That's the truth of my situation. I think it's the truth of many writers' situations. Many people have commented about Emily Dickinson's isolation at Amherst, but it's obvious she's not isolated at all in terms of the essential audience she wants to be with. Part of that audience is Shakespeare, part of that audience is the King James Bible, and it doesn't necessarily mean this is a harmonious conversation. I think Susan Howe makes very good points in her book My Emily Dickinson on the notion of composition as a hunt, almost as a conflict, the poet as the hunter in a textual forest. I think too of Gertrude Stein's remark, what she wanted was to be alone with the English language, which obviously means she wasn't alone. Not to forget that obviously a telephone call, a letter, an unannounced visit can save you.
BH: I think that will do nicely. I think that's a good ending point.