INTERVIEW WITH GEOFFREY YOUNG by Thomas Fink
Geoffrey Young: I date my connection to writing from the year I spent in Europe, when I was 20. After three semesters of college French, I embarked in 1964 on a ship from New York called "The Seven Seas," and after ten days at sea, with a bunch of European students returning from their summers in the States, I got off in Southhampton, still wobbly from North Atlantic storms, made it to Londonfor a week where I stayed with family friends (the novelist Oakley Hall and his wife Barbara), then settled in France where I studied for three months at the University in Aix-en-Provence. For the ten months I was in Europe, living on the cheap, traveling around the Mediterranean from Tangier to Istanbul (by way of Malaga, Florence, Rome, Corfu and Athens), I kept a journal, daily. Together withletters home--there were no telephone calls in those days--that daily practiceof writing changed my relationship to language, making writing an automatic companion and record of what I was up to. It wasn't poetry I was writing, nor can I read what I wrote back then without flinching, but it was the naturalizing of my sensibility. That I read some Giono, Proust and Rimbaud, and that I heard Dexter Gordon in
Copenhagen and Don Cherry in Paris, can be found in those journals. I remember I carried a paperback copy of Crane's The Bridge with me for those
Upon return to UC Santa Barbara, my father, who, unbeknownst to me had been sharing my letters home from Europe with the poet Howard McCord, put me in touch with Howard, who was teaching at Washington State, and we began to correspond. Howard turned me on to shelves of good books, and wrote such clear, excited letters that I was immediately attracted to his mind and his life as a poet.
And, apropos of origins, the house I grew up in was filled with books--both my parents were readers, my father had written poetry, my mother had written stories--so there was nothing foreign about literacy, nothing alien about the arts. Though I was most of the time across the street at a playground playing ball, some of their bohemian arts orientation must have rubbed off.
TF: What wonderful environments to begin your immersion in writing! How did you come to associate with Language poets and members of the New York School? Did that start to happen in the late sixties or early seventies?
GY: Laura Chester and I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1974,and, with luck, I got a job at the newly hatching West Coast Print Center. I knew a few local writers already--Stan Rice, Stephen Rodefer, Summer Brenner--but it was not difficult to meet others, since there was a steady stream of reading series, both in SF and Berkeley. At the Print Center I met Barrett Watten and Johanna Drucker, among others (almost every editor and publisher and poet came thru its doors, getting cheap typesetting and printing for their mags and presses), and soon we were all talking, drinking and dancing after various Talks and Readings. Lyn Hejinian had moved back to Berkeley, Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw found a loft in SF, and many others already there, or soon to arrive, found common cause. Ron Silliman, Tom Mandel, Kit Robinson, Rae Armantrout, Erica Hunt, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Alan Bernheimer, Leslie Scalapino, Kathy Fraser, to name but a few. Theblack tarantula Kathy Acker was living in SF at that time, as well, about to embed a diamond in her front tooth.
When the Grand Piano reading series started in 1976, in the Haight, founded by Barry Watten, things really picked up. Everybody read there, including out of state poets like Ted Berrigan. At 80 Langton Street (an arts organization sympathetic to writing), residencies by Clark Coolidge, Peter Schjeldahl, & Alice Notley were sprinkled in with performances by local poets (Steve Benson, Tom Clark, Anselm Hollo). David Antin did a memorable talk at 80 Langton. Ed Dorn read from Gunslinger at the San Francisco Museum of Art. We met Tom Raworth that evening, and later published many of his books. Older poets in the community, likeRobert Duncan, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi & Larry Eigner, could be heard orvisited at one place or another.
One reason we chose to live in the Bay Area was its historical hospitality to poets and poetry. Everyone was aware of City Lights Books, of the Beat phenomenon two decades earlier, but no one was sentimental about it. Language Poetry hadn't been named, but various theoretical efforts were being concocted in the brainpans of Silliman, Watten, and others, and they were in touch with Bernstein and Andrews in the East, whose L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E began to appear in 1978.
I'd arrived in Berkeley a fan of WCW, had been reading for a decade Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts, O'Hara's Lunch Poems, Whalen's Memoirs of anInterglacial Age, Creeley's For Love, Spicer's Book of MagazineVerse, McClure's Dark Brown, Raworth's The Big Green Day, and Stein'sMelanctha, to cite examples. Within months of living in Berkeley, I wastranslating poems by Francis Picabia, Vicente Huidobro, Louis Aragon. Booksmattered, as did history. Many of us admired and emulated the local tradition of fine printing as exemplified by Auerhaun, White Rabbit, and Jack Shoemaker's SandDollar, among many other often short-lived but mythic presses.
Within a few years there was almost too much going on. Tuumba, This Press, and The Figures would throw joint publication parties, Bob Perelman's Talks Series thrived, various teaching jobs were jockied for, and though most of the poets were scuffling, studying leftist thinkers, no one talked about money or real estate. Writing was the dominant theme: and that meant Russian Constructivism, Surrrealism, New York School, Black Mountain, the Allen anthology, Zukoksky, Kerouac & Coolidge, and the new writing just emerging, much of it published by ourselves. I know I aimed The Figures at this generation just appearing. For example, in 1978 I published books by Perelman, Armantrout, Hejinian, Robinson & Rodefer.
I never felt completely identified in any group, however. I had two small kids, teaching jobs, played softball for "The Best Minds of Our Generation" aka The Minds), and attended what jazz and pop music concerts I could); there was barely enough time to do the 1000 things we were doing, but the creative excitement in the air propelled us all.
TF: In your article, “The Figures: A True Account of the Origin of a Literary Small Press”, you mention that “Language Press” was one of the names considered for what eventually became “The Figures”—which, you observe, is especially suggestive, not only for its reference to Olson’s “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You,” but for the thirteen definitions in Webster’s Dictionary. As you’re pointing out, you published many Language poets, as in 1978, but the Figures was never a “Language press”; your list includes quite a few poets who don’t fit the category. Toward the end of the article, you note that Stan Rice’s Some Lamb was the first book you published (in 1975), and I don’t think he fits. What are the aesthetic and perhaps political factors that made you extremely sympathetic and helpful to the Language poets but “never completely identified” with them?
GY: I had always loved Jack Spicer’s work, from the moment I first bought Language and Book of Magazine Verse in 1966—it was hip, perverse, unpredictable, savagely personal, intellectually brilliant, & often very sad-sack elegiac—so I’m guessing that “Language” Press would have derived from that interest, as well as the simple fact that language was everything, it was the medium through which we could see where we were.
One of the problems with talking about Language Poetry is that it has no stable, unbreakable rules. It isn’t a sonnet, for example. I don’t know what Language Poetry is. But I was eager to publish work I liked, or was learning from; that was enough. If it was tinged with New York School overtones, or OULIPO constraints, or was, like Hejinian’s Writing is An Aid to Memory, very difficult from moment to moment, but fascinating, it made no difference.
We’d all come through the anti-war years; the exhaustion and idiocy that was Vietnam ended in 1975 as The Figures came into being. Politics mattered, but I don’t remember having much time for it. And the writing proposed a critique of conventional poetics that was inherently political, or at least aggressively impatient.
Looking back I can see that lots of the writing that happened was the result of a generation’s brain power bumping up against new sources of critical content. That it was frequently hyperestheticized, and mixed with interest in art, music and movies, is what kept it alive.
TF: If I just name five Language Poets you’ve published, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, and Rae Armantrout, and if we add Clark Coolidge as a “fellow traveler,” we can observe a stylistic diversity that many in the mainstream won’t acknowledge, no matter how often Marjorie Perloff points out this kind of thing. I’m heartened by the idea that you “don’t know what Language Poetry is.” Its detractors stereotype it as anti-referentiality, but a quick look at your backlist makes it clear that even the appearance of referential opacity was never a basic criterion for inclusion in your stable.
The Figures put out nine books by Coolidge, as well as a collaboration he did with Larry Fagin. What has it been like to work with Coolidge and to witness his various aesthetic changes?
GY: The accusation that Language poetry is defined by anti-referentiality is interesting, and the degree to which it's true, is the degree to which perhaps Language poetry has failed. The way painters dealt with anti-referentiality early in the 20th Century, as abstraction was coming into being, challenged the prevailing assumption that a painting was a "window on to the world." Insisting on the autonomy of the art object, that
the thing made needn't refer to anything outside itself, made for a tough, refreshing art.
Visual breakthroughs in Russia, Germany, Holland, France, Italy and America came at roughly the same time. The Futurists praised noise, speed, the machine, war--anything anti-bourgeois--as did the Dadaists. Walter Arensberg wrote elegant, hi-faluting gibberish poems in 1918, poems that Duchamp praised. We're perhaps overly familiar with abstraction in Art--non-representational painting needn't sap art of its energy, or
pleasure--because in Art it works (color, shape, texture, & formal limits define their own worlds), and less sensitive to how abstraction works in language, when it does.
But abstraction in writing risks a greater loss. Especially if the writing ain’t about nothing!
Color, composition, and texture--the action of painting itself, the way we read into the work--generate ranges of possibility that purposeful abstraction in writing is hard-pressed to match. Who cares about the atomization of language? No one I know. (Well, a few.) Language poetry perhaps had to go through a comparable set of uncompromising assaults before the writers realized that few readers cared about such self-indulgent drivel.
It was with a linguist's sense of curiosity that Jack Spicer wrote, as if he were a randomly generating word machine: "Sable arrested a fine comb." Not long thereafter Clark Coolidge began writing poems as if they were crystals impacted with glancing light, as if each poem harbored within it the shapely irreducibility of a mineral.
Even his early, longer works, things like The Maintains, or Polaroid, started with conceptual limits, and in their amassing, became performances of difficult procedures. I never liked those early works of Clark. I couldn't read them. Though they seemed to garner a fair amount of respect from people like Bob Grenier and Bill Berkson, I found them dry, formally chilling. It was only in 1982, when Barry Watten handed me the manuscript of Clark's Mine: The One That Enters the Stories, that I fell in love with Clark's writing. Quartz Hearts had been readable, and American Ones even more so, but with Mine, Clark was firmly making nods to more traditional prose, his sentences and paragraphs were excavating personal and writerly material on every page. I jumped at the chance to publish it.
I remember calling Michael Palmer to get Clark’s phone number the same day I read the first 35 manuscript pages of Mine, thinking that someone else might be about to accept the book and I’d better jump fast, even before finishing the manuscript. As a publisher I’d never had that experience before. So I called him and said I wanted to publish it. He was surprised, and then thrilled two months later when he came out to San Francisco to read at Tassajara Bakery and I handed him the first printed copy of the book. Summer of 1982. Thus began an important chapter in the life of The Figures.
Every year or two I'd do a new Clark Coolidge book--The Crystal Text, At Egypt, Odes of Roba, The Book of During, On the Nameways volumes 1 & 2--and in so doing, got familiar with his brilliant freedoms. He has a way of stringing words together that is sophisticated, painterly, sonically weird and mindfully wonderful. At times wildly non-referential, at other times transparent and immediate, there is always something newly minted, freshly felt in his word choices. Open his book to any page, and just catch the ride. He's really playing the instrument of writing. But for a few misspellings, I never had to suggest changes, improvements. And he didn't want to go back and doctor anything up. He let things stand, as they happened in the act, and moved on.
I published several books each by poets as different from each other as are Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Christopher Dewdney, Ron Padgett, John Godfrey and Ron Silliman, to name seven. Linked by generation, perhaps, by social affiliation as friends, as well as by intellectual inclination, they might all be called Language poets, but there’s no common thread that I can see that would unite them. And, in truth, I wasn’t looking for poets who limited themselves to some pre-existing aesthetic limit, supposing there was such a thing, but for poets who pushed form, voice, attitude, information, sustained attention, and bravado toward something fresh.
TF: Your book Lights Out includes poems from as early as 1981 to 2003, the year of its publication, and so it can be regarded as a kind of Selected Poems. It makes sense, then, that my focus in talking with you about your poetry should be on this large, impressive collection.
Your experiment that, although your own invention, keeps coolest with Coolidge (not the Calvin of two-word answers) seems to be the remarkable “Mount Trove Curry” ((LO 111-123). The after-statement of this poem tells that you “decided to construct forty stanzas, with 25 words per stanza, using only five-letter words, for a total of 1000 words,” and “no word could be repeated, and no two words in succession could start with the same letter” (123) Such exacting constraints! Further, “all words were chosen from daily reading, rather than from raiding dictionaries.”
“Mount Trove Curry” might be the most extreme example, but much of your poetry has the verbal bounce, sass, jive, mojo, and disjunctive mindfuckabilitude of the best Lang Po—and, I might add, New York School inventiveness. The title, “The Diatribalist” (LO 73), is a compound coinage that wonderfully exemplifies your sense of play. Like Ashbery and some other New York School luminaries, you make assertions like “Curiosity kills the crap” in “Frank” (LO 25), an homage to O’Hara, that inject new juice into hackneyed verbiage, and this sentence also exemplifies a tenet of poetics: “curiosity” about what language and fresh perception can accomplish “kills” banality and stupidity. What crazy compass guides you to achieve these effects? What do they do for you, and what do you want them to do for your readers? In the case of “Mount Trove Curry,” what protocols of reading do you want your readers to observe?
GY: I like the phrase "Protocols of reading," maybe because I never think about what we want when we read, or why we need it. I’ve never missed a day of reading: I wonder, should we all take a day off? Could we do it? In the case of something obsessive and offbeat, like "Mount Trove Curry," I wasn’t expecting that anyone would actually read the work, at least not more than a few stanzas here and there. The "trove" was just too endless, and self-limiting; a reader trying to make it make sense might starve for the protein sense offers? I did want the words to be well-chosen (seem to belong to their moment), to be sensitive to their neighbors; but given the constraints, I gave up trying to illuminate anything, or build to any crescendo. If artists can stack stones (or used bars of soap), or paint with mud on gallery walls, I realized I could accumulate a mass of five
letter words, just to see what would happen. Maybe some reader will respond with an accumulation of her own, arrayed differently, in response. I still don’t know if I might have repeated a word in it—who can remember over the course of 1000 words whether or not some word "snuck" in there twice? But writing it provided relief from the condition; I’m no longer obsessed with five letter words.
What I respond to in writing is Verve, oops, a five letter word. Suppleness and verve. I like to be surprised by the aptness of a phrase, or amazed by the perfect strangeness of a word—that’s why Coolidge is always refreshing. And why Frank O’Hara is a pleasure to return to. The lyric seems the best mode for the kind of energy and flexibility that I respond to, though lately I found it in Philip Roth’s great novel from 1995, Sabbath’s Theater. Lyric seems to be the default setting on most practitioners’ poetry meters. I remember the first time I looked at the typescript to Christopher Dewdney’s Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night, in 1977. It began, "August a haze amniotic our dream aether and lens of distance," and I was just riveted. I didn't miss the absent punctuation, nor the fact that it was an incomplete sentence. The manuscript had been rejected by every press in Canada, and I published it immediately. Dewdney avoided the stultifying effects of cliché; he knew that poetry was a thinking jewel.
TF: In Lights Out, your use of allusion seems to serve different purposes. It can express aesthetic joy, or serve as an analogy for a different kind of experience, or make a seemingly “solid” reference into an absurdity, or act as a linguistic surface that plays against its status as a marker of time (what’s ephemeral, what endures).
Take this passage from the allusion-studded “Introduction”: “Robbie// Robertson was the guitar who could vacuum my pockets/ For jukebox quarters, especially on Dylan’s 2nd version/ Of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” issued on 45 only./ One of Robbie’s cropdusting “mathematical guitar genius” solos/ Par excellence, worthy of all the beernuts in Laramie. . . “ (81). It’s such an interesting passage, because I think of Robbie Robertson of the Band as a very competent lead guitarist who blends into the overall musical ambience that the Band and Dylan produced rather than standing out, like Hendrix, Clapton, Santana, etc., as much as or more than blending in, but you call him a “genius,” and the adjective “cropdusting” is remarkably elusive. About a page later, you make an analogy between someone’s “rage” (that you witnessed) and “the night Emile Griffith beat Benny/ “Kid” Paret into a coma and worse, the ref wouldn’t stop it.” From what I was told by some boxing enthusiast in the sixties, when I was a teenager, Paret called Griffith a “maricon” (“faggot?”) before the fight, and Griffith went berserk. Paret’s death brought energy to the movement to ban boxing, but it didn’t happen. Your lines evoked these long buried memories of mine.
What is your sense of why and how you use such cultural allusions in poetry? And how would you read those passages from “Introduction”?
GY: Seems our heads are full of culturally exotic vignettes (aka, allusions); that some of them find their way into poems seems natural—especially in narrative poems. Olson talked about “use,” delivering a million obscure (historical) details in the Maximus Poems, and I think it’s fair game to drop names in poems--to include telling, if obscure, details--as long as they don’t break the flow. Apropos Robbie Robertson, it was Dylan who called him a “mathematical guitar genius,” which is why I put quotes around it, in “Introduction.” Of course I haven’t heard that particular version of the song for decades—I don’t own the 45 record—so can’t verify if I’m “right,” regarding his solo. I agree, The Band featured a group sound concept, no front man dominating--only Garth Hudson didn’t sing of the five--which gave their arrangements lots of variety and flexibility. Their thumping tempos, downhome content, and aching harmonies made for a music of great gravitas.
Watching Emil Griffith beat Benny Paret to death was one of those horrible moments that sports enthusiasts are treated to every so often, like football player Dexter Manley getting “clotheslined” into paralysis. If we in the TV viewing audience were aware that Benny was “out on his feet,” defenseless, how come the ref didn’t see it? Griffith was just doing his job—like a General’s job is to kill enemy soldiers—so I doubt that being called a faggot lead to Griffith’s zeal. The ref failed. I can remember it like it was yesterday, black & white TV, bedroom with white carpet, fists pummelling a helpless fighter, yelling “Stop the fight!”
Maybe this historical reference, once included in a poem, can reverberate beyond its occasion? Give a value to lived experience, even if mediated by TV? People fight, but only rarely should. And murder?
I don’t calculate what some reader might get from anything I write, but if something seems real enough to me, and it happens in the writing, then I don’t mind including it. O’Hara was the master of using the surface chatter of his cultural life in poems. How many names of writers, poets, painters, titles of books and movies, musicians, and dancers did he include in passing, without comment, thereby endorsing by his attention the things he mentions? Not to mention friends?
“Cropdusting” flies low and delivers its payload, like any good guitarist in the act of bringing it.
TF: I could conclude by asking about the effect of your pursuit of tennis amplitude and your work as an art dealer on your muse, but instead, I’ll question you about your most recent book of poems Fickle Sonnets (Great Barrington, MA: Fuck A Duck P, 2005). As you mention in the Preface, “Serendipity and Method,” the unrhymed, fourteen-line poems in the book are all rewrites of earlier poems originally penned between 1976 and the same year. “Whether shorn, expanded, or merely reconfigured,” you state, “each work’s mind changed, becoming newly svelt, normatively ample, or, like a Costco urn, functionally clunky, depending on the case” (11). I’m interested in hearing about examples of this. As befitting a book of sonnets, fickle or not, many of the poems in the book are about love and its difficulties. “Poem” (22), “What Is This Thing Called” (26), “Fool for Love” (47), “April Fools” (61), “Homage to Creeley” (64), and “Power Solo” (97) are all excellent examples. In poems like these, did the transformation from some other mode into sonnet form tend to change the meditative or affective core of the poem? If so, how? If not, what did change?
GY: Doing Fickle Sonnets confirmed what I already knew: that rewriting is crucial to my process. Not every poem in that book of 112 poems was an old one, though most were. Immersing myself in the process of rehabilitating them, of sending them to weight clinics, or springing them from the anorexia ward, caused me to write 25 new ones, at least. Coming upon some older work in the computer, it’s brutally self-evident what to get rid of, how to streamline, and even what to add, if necessary. That process of editing is a re-thinking; only rarely did the content not shift, mutate into something it wasn’t, before I began tinkering.
Since I didn’t have to be formally strict (I didn’t count syllables, nor worry myself with end rhymes), I could let the lyric/narrative aspect lope along, see where it led me. At sixty-two years old, I’ve been around a while. I’ve had two wives, raised two sons, enjoyed and been hurt by several other serious love-affairs, and inevitably, some of the poems, but by no means all, reflect the turmoil of these vicissitudes. For example, the poem “What is This Thing Called,” is made up of lines I wrote down one morning while watching Woody Allen’s film, “Love & Death.” “Fool for Love” was written some months after the painful evening it refers to, when the woman who would be my second wife, in anger scratched my cheek at a dinner party at the home of friends. Confession or story, I told it, and it seemed useful. Some writers find it hard to talk about their personal lives. I find it hard not to.
I have to believe that the transformation from whatever these poems were before I rewrote them made them better works. I didn’t store the originals, can’t go back and compare, now. Some just needed to be relineated; their words weren’t changed. Other longer poems were halved, with the dross being ditched. I got very sensitive to adjectives: how can I eliminate them, how can I force this longer thing into a fourteen line thing? Making each poem look the same (three quatrains and a couplet) was another formal constraint that helped me edit. I’m still inclining myself toward this format, putting any new short poem I write into it. It doesn’t seem to standardize the product, however. But it gives me a mold into which I can pour any emotion, any story, any kicked-up rampancy. And by the way, thanks for asking, Tom.
TF: And much thanks for telling, Geoff.