In Conversation with Philip Rowland

     The following interview took place at Cid Corman's house in Kyoto, in the afternoon and early evening of 19 September 2000. I am grateful to Cid and his wife, Shizumi, for their kind hospitality.

Basic publication details of works mentioned are given parenthetically in the text where necessary. These books and many others by Cid Corman are available through Bob and Susan Arnold at Longhouse Publishers and Booksellers. Visit for full details or contact them at (or 1604 River Rd., Guilford, VT 05301). OF, Corman's largest work, was published by The Lapis Press in Volumes I and II (1990), and Origin Press (Corman's own publishing imprint) in Volume III (1998).

ROWLAND: Speaking of Of, I'd like to ask you about the fourth and fifth volumes. I've seen only the first three...

CORMAN: Well, the final two are the same size exactly, so all the volumes are the same: There are 750 poems in each volume, and it's one book, it's not a Selected or Collected Poems, it's a single book and there's nothing like it in the history of mankind -- very simply. For me, it's the new Bible: literally it's to get rid of the old one and begin to put people together. That is, it deals with all cultures all over the world, it tells my life (in passing); it relates to people everywhere and it's written in a way that even a child can enjoy. I write what I call direct poetry: if you have to ask somebody to explain the poem then I've failed. That's the reason it cannot be used in schools. The teacher has nothing to say, so it balks whatever the teacher wants to do, because it doesn't work the way other poems that you have to explain... Explication, the text: it's standard procedure at schools, especially universities --

ROWLAND: An industry, yes --

CORMAN: Yeah, it's a business in itself, and of course most of the poets in America and elsewhere write for the academy and most of them are teachers themselves. I don't carp at that because I know how difficult it is to survive, as a poet. I'm the perfect example of somebody who's lived all his life without anything -- on the goodwill of friends, mainly.

ROWLAND: You yourself had some experience of teaching, didn't you.

CORMAN: Yes, but I always made a point of doing part-time teaching. That's the reason I have no pension -- to make sure that I had time. When I first came here I was teaching as a full-time teacher at Kyoto Jyoshidai. The salary then was 14,000 yen a month. Of course you could live on that then. Today, of course, you need at least twenty times that to be able to get by. And I cannot be hired here, because if they tried to hire me they would have to pay me the maximum salary and they don't want to lay out over 500,000 a month, that's what they would have to pay me. So nobody will hire me.

ROWLAND: So when did you stop teaching?

CORMAN: Well, I stopped teaching -- what? -- about 15 to 17 years ago. I taught when I first came back from the States -- in, what was it? 1980 or so -- early '80s. I came back from the States to live here again -- in this house. This house was being kept for us by friends, who were sub-tenant, and we were back there for four years, and trying to get something going there, but it didn't work. And then, through friends I had teaching jobs at Kansai University, where I met Peter Makin -- happily -- and at Kansai Gakuin, in Nishinomiya, where a friend of mine was teaching at the time -- dead now, a young man, who fell off a cliff in the Rocky Mountains -- and I taught for, what? two years, I think. So it's probably around seventeen/eighteen years. Of course, at this point, at age 76, nobody's going to rush to hire me. I would need some unusual notoriety, obviously, to make any university want to hire me at this point, because they would have to pay quite a sum.
     When I first came here I volunteered to read, gratis, at Kyoto University. I went to the head of the literary department there, who had studied at Harvard and so on -- I knew of him through my mentor, who was Chinese, a teacher who taught in his later years at Harvard. He was probably the most brilliant scholar in Chinese history; he knew every dialect of Chinese, he knew Japanese, he knew all the European languages, he'd read all the Greek and Latin classics, and he knew them, inside out. My younger brother used to call him on the phone -- in Boston -- and he became almost a member of my family. My younger brother was his dentist, and they became quite good friends after I left the States. Achilles Fang, he wrote the introduction to Pound's translations of the Odes -- you can find at Harvard University Press. And it's just unbelievable ...
     A memory of mine: I met a fellow student, classmate of his in Hong Kong when I was on my way here who was the head of adult education in Hong Kong then -- he's probably dead now -- Achilles is dead now -- and he told me that he was the most brilliant student in the University of Peking history, and I can believe it; he was, unbelievable. You could give him any subject, and he would give you a bibliography, telling you the dates of the first editions. He would give you eight titles -- on opium trade, he'd give you the list, with the authors' names, publisher, date. And he was a very offbeat character. He said he was a pedant, and he was, but a brilliant one - you just had to believe.... He was studying the history of Persia near the end of his life ....

ROWLAND: How close are the roles of editor and teacher -- for of course you've been both? [editor of Origin, the seminal magazine of poetry, from 1951; Origin Press from 1956]

CORMAN: For example, I'm the first person to organize poetry groups.... Before I left Boston, I had three groups going simultaneously -- of course no money involved, nor was there any for the radio show -- the first radio show in the history of modern poetry -- and it was only with modern poetry I dealt, usually work which was not yet in book form, out of magazines, the latest work that I found interesting. And I would present -- I.A. Richards fashion, without any author's name -- unidentified, unknown to the groups. Three groups met every week. They had to come, usually, and pick me up by car, because I didn't have any money for travel. I'm probably the only person you'll ever know that from the age of 21 to 30 never earned a penny.

ROWLAND: And you were living with your parents.

CORMAN: I was living with my parents. My brothers and sister had been married already -- off on their own: I was the only one left, and my mother gave me five dollars a week. That was enough usually to see one film. As I told my girlfriend at the time, I said, "Take your choice: a film or a meal, once a week -- otherwise you have to pay for yourself." Which was acceptable, she wasn't a rich girl, so she understood. I was a dependent then, so my father got it back on taxes, so actually I cost them nothing, and they liked, of course, having me there, even though I lived a very strange life, because I did all my work from midnight to morning, using the kitchen table, since my father got up at six o'clock in the morning -- he opened the factory where he worked.

ROWLAND: You mentioned that during the radio show you read poems without naming authors.

CORMAN: No no no, this is my groups. The point I wanted to make was that I'm ... Not workshops. All these groups you see today, they're poetry workshops. Never entered my mind to have a poetry workshop; and I've had groups in Europe and here, over the years, and, never a workshop.

ROWLAND: How more specifically did your poetry group meetings differ (from such workshops)?

CORMAN: Because we talked about other people's poetry. Nobody was contributing poetry, from the group, although they could if they wanted to, but I would tell them frankly, they would have to maybe face abuse, and frank response, because I wouldn't tell the group who the author was. In fact, one of my groups, early groups... I used the public library system because I used to work in the library, so people knew me. Different parts of the city I used. In the poorest part of the city I had a group (it led to certain famous connections); it was a very mixed group, with teenagers and people in their 70s and 80s, so nice mixtures -- that's the way I prefer such things, actually. But I would introduce ... One of the kids, youngsters (his name was Christian, as I recall) wanted me to use one of his poems. I told him, "It's dangerous." He said, "It doesn't matter." So I used it anonymously: I made copies, passed them around -- there must have been about ten or twelve people around the round table of the library -- in the West End at that time. (It's now the government center area of Boston; it's all changed. It was the poorest part of Boston, actually where my parents first met, the other side of where Robert Lowell lived. He never went into that area, he always talks about the "other" side, of Beacon Hill, but he never went to the poor part. That's what's significantly missing in his work -- is that sense of earth, the real people.)
     But at any rate, everybody commented on the poem: they shredded it, they had no idea what the hell he was talking about. At the very end I asked him to, please, give his interpretation of the poem, and he started to give his reading of the poem, what he was doing, and they all started to roar with laughter -- they couldn't believe that he could read that into the thing! That was the most embarrassing moment for him, to realize, that nobody had understood what he was doing. And maybe a good lesson for me too, to realize one must be lucid and clear, write in a way that everybody can understand.

ROWLAND: In some of your own work -- in Of, for example -- you use uncredited quotations -- translations, sorry --

CORMAN: Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very -- have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who's really interested could easily recognize ... Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who's really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don't want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself design: without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there's nobody else that ever has done this; and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all, because I don't give a shit about my name, or fame; and I've refused publicity, over the years, that would have made me very well known early: I was in Don Allen's anthology, which made a lot of noise and fame for people.
     He was here in Kyoto, actually, at the time he was making the book, and I had signed a contract with him and pulled out at the end. He was very upset with me -- nobody else had done that. My reason, I told him very clearly, which was the truth: I hadn't been published by any large house, and I didn't want to be known by just eight poems of mine, I didn't want to be limited to that kind of feeling. I know the way anthologies work, having read so many of them already at that point: that people get stuck on the handful of poems that becomes the signature of the poet. Well, they were all poems from my book Sun Rock Man -- and they were all good poems -- there was nothing wrong with the poetry -- but I didn't want to be known just by that. So I pulled out, and that pissed him off.

ROWLAND: I'm thinking of the implications of your sense of poetry's "call[ing] for anonymity," as you wrote in one of your books [Words for Each Other, Rapp & Carroll, London, 1967]. On the other hand, as you say, your approach is very direct, and self, your sense of self is -- sometimes in a very straight autobiographical way -- very openly involved in the poems.

CORMAN: But not all "I" poems are me -- not in an autobiographical sense, and my work is not at all confessional.

ROWLAND: That's one of the things I like about it: the ... not exactly tension ... sort of interface between this open involvement of self and the strong pull towards anonymity.

CORMAN: You know, I'm the inventor of oral poetry, I'm really the inventor of rap [laughter], because I started improvising poetry in '54 in Paris. In Origin there are my essays on oral poetry, but almost nobody understands them, because very few people have had the experience of really hearing oral poetry. And what passes as rap and so forth is not really improvised poetry, because it's all plotted in advance: they don't know the exact words maybe but they know very well what they want to say (and it tends to be ethnic, of course). Whereas when I do my oral poetry, I make a point of having no idea, not the least idea, what I'm going to say: it's important to me to go in absolutely blank; and what I say speaks from my core to the core of others. And I had the experience of getting that as a response to the work, when I played it at La Jolla -- at the University of California in La Jolla in 1970 when we were there for a month, invited there by Roy Harvey Pearce, who was well known at that time, a critic of modern poetry -- and I played one of my tapes. Dave Antin was in the audience, and that was the beginning of his improvised work, actually (and he's openly said that) --

ROWLAND: But you said that you started doing it in Paris in 1954.

CORMAN: Yes, well, I had a Fulbright to Paris, grant, otherwise I could have never gotten there, of course. (I've travelled around the world by boat, but other people have paid for me.) I got to Japan -- my friend paid for the trip -- by boat, from Marseilles to Kobe: on a Messageries Maritimes boat (Conrad's famous company) on one of the last trips those boats made, because Vietnam (French Indo-China) was the main ... It's a cargo boat as well as a passenger boat -- the S.S.Laos -- and I remember every day vividly of the whole trip, a month. We stopped every three days at different ports and we could get off the boat, and I did, so I saw the Pyramids in Egypt -- extraordinary thing -- and the desert -- that's the most extraordinary ...

ROWLAND: I understand that you came to Japan almost by accident, and you've been here for over 40 years. What's kept you here so long?

CORMAN: Well, I liked Japan right away, although I had no intention of ever being here ... My friend Will Peterson was responsible for my getting a job actually, but ... Actually Gary was the connection. I was living in southern France with friends, an old girlfriend who was very wealthy, married to an American painter, and she painted too. (She died in southern France -- I think: nobody tells me, I assume that she died. She had cancer.) But, she paid for the trip here ... Obviously the American impact was everywhere, and I wanted to see a little of the old Asia before it was lost. So I wrote fifteen letters looking for work, fourteen to India, one to Japan. The one to Japan was sent to Gary Snyder, because he had published a couple of poems in a magazine in Toronto, edited by my dear friend Ray Souster, who's still alive there and still writing poetry -- he recently, a year or so ago, sent me a couple of new poems. (We were quite good friends; I visited him a couple of times, hitch-hiking from Boston to Canada. That was the beginning of the American-Canadian connection, personal connection). But it connects also with the oral poetry because -- all these stories interlock -- because, well, in Paris, when I came over on the Fulbright, my plan was to record French poets. I had connections, even in America, because a number of the younger poets had come, to Harvard University and I had met them there. So André du Bouchet (who I was told got the Legion of Honor in Paris recently), was my age exactly and we became friends; he was on my radio show with me, and then, well there are other ... anyway ...

ROWLAND: The oral poetry.

CORMAN: The oral poetry. I went to the American Embassy and asked them if I could have -- tape machines had just come in -- and I asked them if I might have one for this work, and they said they only had one or two, and they had given them, they were using them elsewhere, but they had a wire recorder if I liked. And so I said, Well, all right, but I didn't feel wire was good enough to record the poets. I figured, no harm in taking it anyway, so I took the machine back to my room in Paris -- and I lived in a situation that my friends thought was horrible. I lived in a broom closet, actually: no windows; when you opened the door you were in bed -- it was that close, one step was bed, it was just a cot, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, and I used to have to piss and shit in the sink ...

ROWLAND: So cheap accommodation in Paris has always been bad!

CORMAN: Yes, I'm sure it's still, to some extent still true. Everyone went to the Deux Magots, because it was a beautiful café, you could shave there and clean and so forth, that's the reason the poor artists went there. It was too expensive; I went there once, but it was too expensive for me. So I couldn't go in there, but everybody had friends who had a bath arrangement or something -- you had to know people just to survive as a human being -- and I had a good friend. But a third of the money went to Origin, that was one reason I went for the grant in the first place, to have money for the magazine, it was still the middle of the first series, or a little beyond the middle; and a third went to a painter, an artist friend, who was Polish-Australian, who was broke at the time. After I left he began to get well-known ...

ROWLAND: What was his name?

CORMAN: His name was Stacha Halpern. He was an offbeat character, but he was a delightful companion and friend. And that's how we survived actually, because he was invited to all the parties, because he was so outgoing and jumpy, and he would do things, you know, make a party lively, that's how he managed to eat -- to survive. But he lived in terrible conditions, and I'm sure that's what led to his early death, actually, back in Australia later, after I left. I have some work of his still, and he did the cover of my second, little book -- not the one I mentioned but real work, that began in Europe. And then ...
     I had this machine, so I was back in my room, lying down on the cot, and I thought, "What the hell am I going to do with this machine?" And I thought, well, I had just received from New Directions Book Four of Paterson (Dr. Williams), and I thought, well, let me read it into the machine and then lie back in bed and listen to it, because it has a lot of dialogue in it and so forth, so I thought that might be interesting. So I started to record Paterson Four, and I thought, Jesus, what the hell, why don't I just invent poems? You know, on radio I never used a script. I felt uncomfortable reading from a script: I used to just speak whatever came, and I felt much more comfortable -- I always have felt more comfortable just talking. It's like giving readings in public, here or elsewhere: people here often get annoyed because they want to know in advance what I'm going to read, and could they make copies of the texts, give it to students, you know, and so forth. I said I don't know what I'm going to read.

ROWLAND: Did you ever suffer from nerves?

CORMAN: No no, that's never been a problem. But I like to see the audience, I like to see who I'm talking to, usually, or have a sense of the people, so it's much more comfortable for me that way. And I have no trouble talking -- as you can see. So I decided, Well let me try. After all, I said, if it doesn't work I can erase it -- nobody knows, nobody's going to be embarrassed by it -- so I started, in the middle of the tape. Well, I did it, and it felt interesting; I wanted to continue, so I did, I finished the tape, but then I had to erase the first half and then throw in the first part, but this was all improvised, I had no idea what was going to happen. Well then I had it on wire. I got my Polish artist friend to come and listen to it. Well first, I think, there was an art critic who lived, that got the room in the hotel (this was facing Notre Dame in Paris on the Left Bank, I don't know if it's still there; it was a shabby, shabby place. It was called the Square Hotel and Creeley, when he visited, felt it was right for me because I was not into drugs and so forth; I was square as they called it then, not hip, and all the rest. Of course I've never been into drugs or booze, really, I don't give a shit about any of that, it seems stupid to me. I get high just being alive, so I don't need any drugs to tell me where I am and what I am.)
     Anyway, the wire recording was there, and Pierre Schneider it was I think -- Pierre somebody -- anyway, he was a North African, he was from Algeria but he spoke English, and I asked him to listen, because he'd lived on the same floor with me, the top floor of the hotel, a rickety old place -- the stairs creaked and you thought they were going to break under your step. But at any rate, he listened, and he said: "Very good, you must do more." Well, I wasn't sure, and then within a week I invited my Polish artist friend and he came in; well, he was angry at my living in such a room, but anyway he listened, and he said, "Wonderful." So I thought, well, this could be nice, so I used up all the wire, recording. The grant of course expired after a year. I had a little money that a friend gave me so I could live on in Europe. That's a story in itself. My four years in Europe make about five novels, which nobody would believe anyway, so -- well, it's stranger than fiction.

ROWLAND: I don't know if it's too long a story, but I'd like to ask you about what took you to Italy and in particular the town Matera, where you spent some time, the basis for Sun Rock Man.

CORMAN: And I still have contact with them. Well, that's a story. Oh, I didn't finish -- let me finish this, then I'll give you the Matera connection. Well, actually, after Matera, living in southern Italy, and then doing Sun Rock Man in Florence for six months with the savings I had accumulated teaching in Matera --. The good thing about Matera was that I was in charge: I was the school -- private school. I taught six days a week, but I started teaching at four o'clock in the afternoon, because I could arrange the schedule myself. I taught from four to seven, so I had the whole day to myself, and there was nothing else to do anyway: writing was the natural thing to do, so it was perfect. I was the first gaijin ever to live there and so I was treated like royalty almost. Granted, I lived very modestly, and in such a small town there was nothing to spend money on, so I saved. I wasn't making a fortune, but it was as much money as I've ever earned, and so I saved it and then went up to Florence because there was somebody from Matera who was there, who hated Matera actually, because it was such a poor place, but had family there. They put me in touch, because I wanted to go up to that area; and he got me a pensione arrangement before I even got to Florence, which was perfect, right in the center of the city. (He worked in a hotel, as the main desk clerk, nearby, and that's the hotel I put the Zukofskys up in, later, when they needed to find a hotel.)
     Then, after that, these friends of mine that I mentioned (in southern France, the lady friend of mine, artist, she and her husband and two kids, boys) were travelling -- they made regular trips to northern Italy to travel, visit museums and famous places, to look at art works; and they were coming through, so they picked me up in Florence. I gave them whatever money I had left at that time, because they were covering all expenses, and went with them. We did a little tour of locations I would never have seen otherwise: Piero della Francesca's hometown, the frescoes he made in Arezzo, and so forth; and it was a very good trip. Anyway, when we got ... I was staying at their place which was a farm near Aix-en-Provence (so when I write about Cezanne's mountain -- I could see it from where I was -- so I'm reading exactly my experience).
     But when I was going to come to Japan, my friend there, she said to me -- she knew I wanted a tape recorder -- she said, "That's your choice: a tape recorder, or the boat to Japan." So I said, "Well, I have to take the boat; the machine will have to wait." I wanted to be able to play that tape and do more work, but it didn't happen. Anyway, I came to Japan, and after a certain amount of time, shortly after I got married, actually, when I had a little money because I was teaching then, although part-time, but still we were saving a little. And something must have happened, I must have sold something, papers or books or something that got me enough money so that I could get a machine. I got a beautiful, real professional model. In this room I had it (there was a little more space then), then ... Here I had the machine, and I don't know what the hell ...
     No, a little earlier, Gael Turnbull, in Ventura, California, where he was a doctor -- he was the only poet that was interested in my essays on oral poetry, strangely enough. He responded very warmly to what I wrote, he was very curious. So he said to me, in Ventura -- he wrote me, a few years before I got this machine -- that I should send him the thing: he had the machinery to copy onto tape the wire recording, and he would send both back to me, which he did. Well, he never wrote me about it, so I thought, "Well, it wasn't much, really." But when I had this machine, suddenly three years later, sitting here, I said to Shizumi, "We have nothing to play on this damn thing ... Oh I have that tape that Gael made for me! I could listen to that original tape," so I did, I played it. Shizumi was flabbergasted, she could understand every word -- it was very simple language -- and I could smell the hotel. You could hear the sounds of the creaking of the stairs, and so forth. The whole thing was an extraordinary experience -- to have, like, total recall: every element came back to me, that room and so forth. And the poems were really good, I was shocked, it was way ahead of what I was writing at the time. So I wrote to Gael again, and told him ... Oh no no, at the end of the tape -- that's it -- it was Gael on the tape! He answered me on the tape -- this was three years after -- and at the end, speaking in a whisper: "Ten o'clock at night" (he said), "Wife and children are asleep in the other room so I'm whispering ..." He'd come back from work and he had listened to the stuff. So three years later I wrote to him to thank him for doing that, for his applause! Then I started doing it, so I have about eight hours of oral poetry and I've done it various ways, but always pure improvisation. And it's different: it is one person talking to another in a very intimate fashion. At La Jolla when I played it, after the tape, in a semi-darkened lounge at the university, so that people would feel the words more -- lights off in the place -- one of the people there said he felt it was so intimate that he felt embarrassed that there were other people in the room. That gives you a sense of the way the thing works. It's so close, it's like somebody like a ghost is talking to you -- your own mind -- so it's very intimate in that sense of speaking one person's heart to another directly, in the simplest language.

ROWLAND: Many of your poems on the page are very short. These oral, improvised poems: do they tend also to be fairly short, or of a very different nature?

CORMAN: Yeah, most of them are relatively short, and I number them, so that they're a sequence. But there's no reworking: if something doesn't work, it doesn't work, it's part of the sequence. So there's no fooling around: I don't play games, as I've often said: I play, but I don't play games. I believe in playing, but not games. So my work has this kind of directness. Do you know this book [All Yours, 1991]? This was done at Cooper Union -- it's the oldest art school in America, and all the students have scholarships, so you get a lot of people with poor backgrounds there. But the architecture school, actually, invited me, and they did this book in their basement workshop there, they printed it -- not the way I really wanted. I wanted this in two lines, as almost all my words, titles, are in two lines, or three or whatever. I was the first person to be invited in a new program -- it's explained in the beginning here -- and I dedicated the book to the three people that helped me: Tony remains a friend; Alan Jones, a real character who was teaching there at the time; Diane also was teaching there. Tony is a painter and architect. I had met him here originally, quite early, when they had an expo in Japan. He helped design the American pavilion and I met him at that time and he did this piece -- he does sumi work -- but this isn't the complete design that he did -- he was upset.

ROWLAND: Is this the same guy that did the cover of Of?

CORMAN: No. He did the cover of this, this is his work, and this is much better.

ROWLAND: This is your latest [Nothing/Doing].

CORMAN: Yeah, this is my New Directions book, and this is his brushwork. He lives within walking distance of New Directions, so it was natural to use him. He's a dear friend, a very fine person. I think he still does a little teaching, though he's along in years now too.

[Shizumi brings cake.]

ROWLAND: That looks good.

CORMAN: Yes, that's from our shop. [Information, in Japanese, at]

ROWLAND: Yes, I have your meishi. You should open a branch in Tokyo.

CORMAN: Well, the irony is that we've introduced many American things to Japan, as we introduced many Japanese things to America. Because we started a shop there and introduced kaiseki ryori -- actually that was the name of the place: Kaiseki. Our ice cream is the best in Japan -- there's no question of that -- maybe the best in the world. It's made from scratch at the shop, no chemicals ever used. It can only be done by a small shop or a fancy restaurant that has their own materials. We're the only shop in Japan that does this. In America you cannot do it, it's really against the law, you have to have health inspections every week, and it makes it impossible for a small shop to do. Only a large company could do it, but a large company would lose money if they did it, because it doesn't pay to make real ice cream, so you won't ever find ... Häagen Daz is not real ice cream -- if you know ice cream ...

ROWLAND: If this is better than Häagen Daz, I'm buying!

CORMAN: You can order from the shop, they will send ice cream all over Japan, and cakes too, and our fruit cake at the end of the year is fantastic -- you can get drunk on it. It's a little expensive -- our stuff tends to be a little expensive, but the cakes are larger than most cake-shops', and they're real. We introduced blueberries to Japan.

SHIZUMI: Pecan pie.

CORMAN: Pecan pie, an American southern specialty, although we changed the taste for Japanese taste, because Japanese don't like so sweet. The cheesecake is also great stuff. Like this brownie, if you don't like chocolate taste, better not eat our stuff, because our stuff is real. She's the first one to bake bagels in Japan. They were first imported in Tokyo, but she's the one who first baked them, and they ended up probably the best in Japan too.

ROWLAND: This is very good.

CORMAN: Most Japanese cakes have no flavor at all, no matter what they look like on the outside. They can say chocolate, and if you close your eyes you wouldn't know what taste you were tasting. They're pretty, usually, to look at, but ... Did I tell you how I got to Italy?

ROWLAND: No, you didn't.

CORMAN: Well, one of my friends in Paris had seen an ad in The Herald Tribune, there in Paris, that wanted an American in southern Italy, in Bari -- it had to be to teach at the English school in Bari. So I wrote the guy -- the head of the school in Bari in Italy -- immediately after I got the address, and my first sentence was characteristic of me: "I don't really want this job. I'm a poet, and I don't want the job unless I'm going to have time to write." This was the way I opened.

ROWLAND: And was it effective?

CORMAN: I got a telegram back, saying the job was mine if I would come at once. So I went. I arrived in Bari -- the train ride, again, was a thing in itself, another story (it didn't go direct, there was a snowstorm, and so forth), and my Polish art friend had to help me pay for the trip because I didn't have enough money. The books I was carrying cost me as much as I did, for the ride -- I had cases full of books. I arrived, with five lire in my pocket -- that's less than one cent, American (that's like one yen, in my pocket), and I ran upstairs where the office was, in this building in the center of the city. I told the boss man, who was a young Irishman, that you'll have to send somebody down to pay the cabby -- which was a horse-drawn cabby, because it was the cheapest way to get from the railway station there -- and he did. And I told him also, at once, that I would have to be paid a month in advance, because I had no money in my pocket. And he was just open about it. I ended up spending the whole day with him -- all night long. Why did he ... I was the last one to apply for the job, he had fifteen people before me. Why did he choose me? Because I was a poet, he was crazy about poetry. We sat together and he was spouting Yeats to me, all night long. He knew it all. He was just a couple of years older than me, he was just thirty-five, and a crazy character, absolutely nuts. In fact, a year later he was in an insane asylum. He was making a fortune. He had a thousand students, in this small school. But he was in love with the richest lady in town (who was married), and he was spending all his earnings buying her jewelry and stuff.
     I would come in in the morning ... All the other staff were Irish, but I had to be American, the United States Information Service was providing special capital to have an American teacher teach important people in the city of Bari. This was during the Eisenhower administration ... Anyway, none of the Irish teachers were reliable -- I mean, they would disappear overnight sometimes -- so he was having problems keeping people there. He was no good as a manager, but -- I saw him teach -- he was a brilliant teacher, he was very good at teaching the kids, older people too. So I was teaching American English, as it were, there, and the hours were reasonable. I had told him from the start that I would not fill in for others, that I needed the time for my work, every day, and he understood that, so it was all right. But I could see he was wacko: I'd come in in the morning to teach, and there would be the rest of the staff (he lived at the school) looking through the keyhole in his bedroom: early morning, before classes, he was already fucking one of the students. It was an incredible kind of scene: to come in and see all these people taking turns, looking through ... [laughter] Well, the United States government pulled out after six months. One of my classes -- teaching assignments -- my predecessor, a young high school teacher from America, was in Matera -- this was two hours from Bari by train, small train, two-cart train, running through the backlands, and it was two hours to get there and two hours to get back to Bari -- Oh, you have it [Sun Rock Man , 1970] ...

ROWLAND: This is New Directions, who published your latest --

CORMAN: Yeah, after many years. Jay Laughlin is dead now, so ... The girls there now, who run the place, are friendlier. Jay was friendly, but as he used to say, like the man at Black Sparrow on the West Coast said, "Cid, your books don't sell, you don't sell." I had to explain to him that I'm not a salesman, I'm a poet.

ROWLAND: I would have thought that this kind of book, NDP, and your latest, should sell quite well, if distributed properly.

CORMAN: No. This book [Sun Rock Man] went into second printing, or third printing, very quickly, because in 1970 when it came out I was in America - I was there for six months -- and I gave readings all across America. That sold the book. As soon as I left, bookshops stopped selling. No readings. That's how you sell poetry books, by readings. And my books, 150 or more: not a single one in Japan, you won't find anywhere in Japan, maybe in second-hand bookshops. There are twelve books that came out last year, there's three already this year, and there are already three or four ready for next year -- the publishers have -- but they're all small presses.

ROWLAND: Coming back to a book that is understandably a challenge to sell -- Of -- could you talk about the fourth and the fifth volumes?

CORMAN: Well, Bob Arnold has all in stock, I don't have any.

ROWLAND: Including the fourth and fifth?

CORMAN: The fourth and fifth. Of course, I have the manuscripts.

ROWLAND: You haven't yet found ...

CORMAN: No, I need money to do it. It has to be done here, because it's the only place that can do the book. The first three volumes were printed here in Kyoto, and done beautifully. My brother-in-law is a printer, here, and he did the third volume, actually better than the first two. But I don't think he earned any money out of it. He spent so much time finding the people to be able to do ... It's hand-stitched, it has to be, because I want the book to open like that -- flat. You can open it as long as you like and it won't break.

ROWLAND: It's a very beautiful book.

CORMAN: And the artwork is done by Sam Francis, Sam, I don't know if you know his work at all. Well, let me show you a little of his work. A wonderful artist, he died, of course, some years back: that's the reason the final volumes weren't done, he didn't know I had written them. Sam was an artist in Paris. I met him the first week I was in Paris, actually, because I gave a poetry reading of Wallace Stevens to a group of American artists in Paris -- many of whom are well known now. Sam was the most promising, actually, of the whole lot. He invited me to his studio there, and we became friendly. I didn't see very much of him, I wasn't close with him, but he kept up with my work to some extent, and I of course saw his work. And then he came here about twenty years or so, twenty-five years ago, and I met him. Because I used to hang out at one of the art galleries -- now defunct -- I was there every day -- and he came in and he remembered me, of course, said he'd been reading my work, and he liked it. And he said, "Cid, you and I should do a book together someday." I said, "Sam, that sounds great."
     Well, I didn't hear from him for about twenty years, and then he had married -- his fourth wife was the daughter of Idemitsu Company here, and they had a large collection of his work they had bought. His paintings sell for half a million dollars. He painted a lot, this is the kind of work. There's a Japanese flavor to some of it, the later work; the earlier work is somewhat different.
     Here's Sam, that's the way he looked when he visited, he was here, in this house, in this room, about seven/eight years ago. He was a very sweet guy, with his Tokyo gallery man with him, and then we went out to eat at Shizumi's older brother's -- at that time had a beautiful Chinese restaurant here. We went out in the evening to eat there, which was very good. Really splashing paint around, but obviously knowing exactly what he's doing. And he did the ceiling -- I think it was just after he was here -- of the Opera House in Brussels, must have made millions on that. And he called me up, a friend of his called me up from Tokyo six months earlier and said Sam had started a publishing company, doing art books and poetry; and he was interested in working with me, and he would get in touch with me. Well, six months later he called me, from Tokyo, and first words he said to me were, "Cid, I want you to know I'm very rich." And I said, "Sam, I've heard words to this effect before." And the second thing he said was something any poet dreams of hearing. He said, "Cid, I want to publish all your work." I started to laugh. I said, "Sam, you don't know what you're saying."

ROWLAND: I can imagine, from the piles of work sitting in there!

CORMAN: I said, "You wouldn't be able to publish anything else, if you started publishing me. You don't have any idea what you're saying." Well then he said, "Well, let's do something together." He repeated that he was rich several times on the phone, then he came over here. Well, it was fine, he wanted to do my Celan translations and so forth. Celan's wife said that my versions were the best that were ever made -- that's before she died. She was friendly with other writer friends of mine in Paris. I didn't know her at all. Well, I had met Celan, early, before he really became famous.

ROWLAND: Where did you meet him?

CORMAN: In Paris. The girl I was living with at that time got him his job at the United Nations -- she was German also, but of Jewish descent, but brought up in Argentina, Buenos Aires -- an offbeat character. She's married now to a British professor; she's written me a few years ago, and we're on good terms. All the ladies that I had affairs with remained on good terms -- well, most of them did. Anyway, he came here [Sam Francis]; he said, "Let's do a nice collection." So I said, "All right." So I sent him the manuscript of the first volume. It was being done, slowly -- he was willing to give me some money in the interval, to help me survive, which was nice of him. I'd suggested that he might have to, that I didn't know how long it would take for the book to be done; if he could, it would be nice of him to help me out during that time, interval. He did that. Although it wasn't a vast sum, it was still very helpful. And I liked the guy very much, he was just a year older than me. He was having health problems already; he wrote me, I must have a letter from him somewhere in which I think he told me it was cancer, but the people around him, I don't know if he told them or they were told not to say anything, the people who worked with him, and so…
     After the book got going, I realized it had to be two volumes, the second as big as the first, so I put that together and sent it off to him and it stopped him a little: he hadn't anticipated that. I hadn't anticipated it either! I mean, it's something I just realized, happened, so it took him a little while to fall in with the idea. Then O.K., we'll make two volumes together -- the first two volumes. Then he ended up having them printed right here in Kyoto by Nissha, which is one of the big publishing outfits in Japan. They do museum books all over the world, they do reproductions exceptionally well, and so forth, catalogues; and they can do lovely color photography for books. Plus the fact, of course, that I would be on top of it. The typesetting was done in America, and the design; so I saw the final proofs here, and so forth. Which was good, although there are still a few errors. Then the book was getting done; and just before the book came out, I realized there had to be three more volumes -- the same size. I wrote to the man who helped design the book, who was up living near Berkeley, California, a younger man. I wrote to him about it, but I said, "Don't tell Sam, until the books are out, and I'll write to him myself directly." Well, in fact he let the word out, and told Sam's man in Los Angeles, and he wrote me a letter, one of the shittiest letters I've ever received from anybody, blasting me for "using" Sam, and deliberately taking advantage of him and so forth, and this was a terrible thing for me to do and so on and so on. Well, I wrote him a blast back, needless to say…
     But Sam died within a year after that, so that was the end, the company folded. And the first two volumes were dumped. But Bob Arnold went around and picked up all the copies of the first two volumes. He bought from the shop that handled it, using different names because they wouldn't sell to one person. And my friend Greg Dunne here who did the interview for me - apr [American Poetry Review, July/August 2000] - he picked up some copies. He was back in the States, and he also went to the place and picked up so he sold some copies at the end and gave some to me, and to Bob -- because they were very cheap at that point.