Thursday, August 30, 2007

Interview with Stephen Vincent

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Stephen Vincent: In the past several years, the poems emerge from three places. One seems entirely impulsive, while the other two are compelled by the informing construct of works by other poets or in response to digital photographs that I have taken.

“Walking Theory,” a poem of 71 parts, initially was a pseudo-commission from Chris Sullivan, who anointed the project with its quasi-facetious title. Chris—who writes, photographs, and makes music–is drawn to what he calls “photographic language.” He very much liked the visual detail in my poems. In practice, I am a walking “eye”–always telling people to take a look at this or that. Out on the streets, I am constantly “on the look,” somehow magnetically drawn to any kind of stuff. Once I got going with this “commission.” the writing took on an impulsive life of its own, where the pulse of the walk seemed to drive the emergence of each word or phrase. It was as though some inner engine took over. For about a year or so, the poems popped out, one after another.

Much of “Walking Theory” was written in the diverse neighborhoods--the Mission, Liberty Heights, Noe Valley, and the Castro–that connect with Dolores Park near my home. I always carry a journal and a ballpoint pen. While I walked, I often stopped to bring yet another new piece to the page. No matter how serious the material, the process was joyous. Walking Theory–the title for the Junction Press book (2007), as well--also includes extended poems from several long walks, primarily from San Francisco up and down the nearby coast.

In three or four recent projects, I used the language and forms of other poets as a way to make new work. Transversion is the name I’ve given to this process, which leads me to reverse, or make oppositional conversions to, line by line, the words and the tones within the poems to which I am drawn. Simply, black becomes white; a tone of affection becomes one of contempt, and so on. Initially, it’s a way to explore a poem’s antithetical proposition, as if a poem were a beautiful flower and this transversive process pulls the flower out of the ground to look at its roots, which may also be beautiful.

It is a process–at least with the work of certain poets–to which I have found myself almost demonically drawn. Perhaps it’s just a knee-jerk part of the way I live in the world, where I like to turn things upside down and see what’s on the other side. I make the assumption that what I see–particularly if the poem has a rich language—will include a bi-polar component. Ironically, as in the way of surreal writing exercises, the poems of others also provide constructs from which I can pull up stuff that’s lurking inside my own consciousness, stuff that’s been looking for a way to get into the air and onto the page! It is also a good way to write in a state of constant surprise. I can never predict what is going to come up.

To date, the transversive work has been published in two e-books; Triggers (Shearsman Books, 2005, at

is based on the work of Fanny Howe in her Selected Poems. Sleeping With Sappho, the first 40 poems of which were published by Faux Press in 2004 was based on Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, her complete translations of Sappho. I have also done extensive transversive work with Louis Zukofsky’s “A-22” and “A-23,” Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Jack Spicer’s Language. I find the transversive process a great way to explore an intimate dialog–playful and serious–with the formal challenges and language of my elders and peers.

Finally, for another kind of writing, particularly during the past two years, I take digital photographs and respond to the specific content with either poems, stories, or, occasionally, commentary. I call this work Ghost Walks, and I post much of it on my blog. Photographs are a great, independent way to explore language that, if left in a “pure” poem, without the counter-play of the photograph, would probably come off as an obnoxious cliché. The colors and rumpled shape of the blanket of a homeless person found on the park grass, for example, may provide permission to revisit a whole series of intimate situations and emotions.

TB: Before these last several years, what was the impetus? What woke you up to becoming a poet?

SV: I find a difference between an early childhood consciousness of experiencing the world in the manner of poetry–and feeling frustrated by not being able to articulate that consciousness–and the experience of starting to write and savoring the writing process for the first time. From when I was very young, I valued, even envied, people who could speak imaginatively and lyrically in direct response to the life around them, as well as to their histories. I grew up in Richmond, California, primarily a postwar, blue-collar town north of Berkeley, where I was doubly exposed to both university-educated people with a formal sense of culture, as well as to uneducated white and black people from the Midwest and South, many of whom loved to talk and spin a story with colorful metaphors, dramas, physical gestures, and so on. I grew up in a space that was still given to oral history. I also loved to read. My mom took us to the public library on Friday afternoons and, from early on, I admired people who could write a good story.

There was so much in what I saw, heard, and felt in the world and--whether in celebration or anger–I wanted to express it! As inarticulate and shy as I was, I made an instinctive decision to become a writer. When I was 15, even though my own writing was clumsy and came hard, I began keeping journals, including the occasional jab at an unsatisfying poem.

My first "wake-up call” about writing poetry came in an extra-curricular poetry workshop at University of California at Riverside in the late 1950s. UCR was at the time a very small liberal arts college (750 students), a kind of intense co-ed academic monastery stuck out in the middle of orange groves and desert sagebrush. A group of us, including professors from various departments, met once a week to share poems and criticism and to produce a mimeographed magazine. Although I was terrified of the idea of becoming a poet, instead of a political scientist or politician/lawyer, as my parents seemed to want, it was at Riverside that I first really got the poetry-writing bug! It was the heyday of New Criticism–William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and all of that. Criticism was an intense, heady, mostly humorless process. One of my roommates insisted that he had found “the Eighth Ambiguity,” while I felt my mind was turning into mental toast!

When I wrote poetry, however, I felt my whole body and imagination get into it. I was physically energized instead of drained. Much of my youth was spent on a basketball court; I found I could find a similar love of hearing and dribbling a ball down the floor in the process of making words rhythmically cross the page. Making and sharing poems, no matter how challenging, became a source of joy. Frank Bidart was in this workshop, where he also began writing his first poems. When I graduated–even as a good student--I knew I did not have the patience to become an academic scholar. Looking back, I can see that New Criticism was a great training for reading poems closely, a process that has stayed with me, I found myself totally exhausted from such critical work. Instead, I went on to the graduate program in Creative Writing at San Francisco State. I also very much wanted to be out of the desert and to live in San Francisco, already well- known as a place for making and hearing poetry.

TB: Talk a bit about how you came to your present approaches to poetry. Transversive writing, for example: How did that emerge as procedure or method?

SV: In early 2002, in the waning days of the craze, I was taking a train, an hour each way, back and forth from San Francisco to Mountain View in Silicon Valley. While I was reading Howe’s Selected Poems, then recently published, almost instinctively, as the train bounced along, I began to use my journal to make what I would eventually call transversions. Through various means, sometimes word by word, at other times by the tone or intention of a particular line, I would work to make a new poem by reversing and/or altering the intention of the primary poem.

For example, in Howe’s Selected. in a section called “The Quietist” on page 148, I go–in italics--back and forth with each of her lines:

Go on out but come back in
Ascend and dive
you told me to live by, so I went
and don't tell me a thing
with my little dog trotting
I've got a good love on the loose

As my side out of the garden
into woods colored rotten.
A wet madrone, skin pealing, its bone bare trunk

I did this several times, out and in,
Never stop for thought,
it was of course a meditation
especially when the going's good

The out surrounds me now
She's inside me, then out,
a whole invisible O to live in:
tactile as a banana or something to munch

Tender tantrums, sky goes suddenly gray–
Spasms spring tender illuminations
still soften light but no one brings
mauve and pink

[Papers here to sign. The top of the water
Shudders under the brush of wind.]

Past? Present? Future? No such things.
I am a young man now and a young man then:
Live live live

Originally I attempted a transversion of the two lines before the end line, but I dropped it. Whatever lines I came up with simply did not “make sense” and/or fit with the rest of the poem. And Howe’s last line, I turned into two. Yes, I often break my rules! When I really get into this process, the antonym is just one of the “triggers” that transforms the work. I make the poems very quickly and rarely revise, except to delete portions of the pieces. When I was in my early 20s and it took me forever to write and revise a poem, I would have envied and hated this person I’ve become! My mind just goes into another gear--an almost alchemical space--in which the author’s original poem becomes a scaffold, a transitional point, into a poem upon the poem. The original poem is a palimpsest, a foundation upon which I make something new. A serious scholar could explore whether or not my work is also having a meaningful dialog with Fanny Howe’s work and critically explore the relationship of the two poems. Maybe. I did feel like I was in the middle of a dialog with her work, and I definitely ascribe to the idea that writing poetry is a form of dialog with what has been and what is being written. I am just not the one to make that kind of critical reading of Triggers or any of my other transversive works. When I publish any of these pieces, I do acknowledge the author of the foundation of the work.

Transversions are a way to unleash new work, stuff that has a life of its own, quite different from my approach to my Walking Theory and Ghost Walk pieces.

TB: Please delve into the differences. What motivated, animated, framed your Walking Theory and Ghost Walk texts?

SV: Ironically, walking as a particular “animator” of my work emerged more than 20 years ago. I was driving Folsom Street–probably on the way to pick up my kids from their after-school program–and the phrase “…walking, walking…”
began to repeat over and over again, becoming a constant motion and vocalization in my head–observations, insights, and so on. I parked my car and just began jamming; words seemed propelled out of the pen. I love that kind of mysterious event! For the next months, wherever I went, walking or not, I filled these little 3 x 5 “Artist” sketchpad notebooks. The book, Walking (Junction Press, 1993) emerged from that work.

Over the 1990s and into the start of this century, the act of taking walks–urban and beyond–became an essential part of my life. The writing also became more measured. Several friends, and eventually my youngest brother and my father, were either dying or in the middle of serious medical troubles. Although I had no friends who passed from AIDS, death was also a palpable presence in the City. Walking became a form of reflection and grieving, as well as bonding and talking with friends as we walked. Here is a passage from “Elegy’s Laundry”:

   The beach a rigor of signs.
No blessing. The tide risen.
Trees up to the edge
ten years ago, now gone.
The sand plateau where,
once, we played volley ball
practically gone. Young,
my daughter still in diapers,
I carried her there
down the ladder
from a higher cliff,
the cliff from which
hang-gliders ascend.
People, the other adults,
it was a picnic, most
of them I didn’t know,
except one of the mothers
whom I tried to date.
They thought it was strange,
such a young daughter,
no mother, and how was I
to know what to do, or not.
I climbed back up the cliff,
daughter, undiapered, on one arm,
a little frightened,
her eyes darting out
over the fog-draped ocean,
the green & gray waves,
the diarrhea
dripping over my arm.

The elegies that form the first portion of Walking Theory took form in the days after a walk. Pieces of conversation, encounters with others, geological shapes, fragments of memories, and poems by others each contributed to the content of poem. The momentum of the walk, its rhythms, its variant fast and slow paces, ascensions and descents--especially in the walks that were several miles long–informed the open, unfolding shape and movement of the poems. It was as if I–as the body of the writer-- were a vessel, the insides of which needed to be poured out into the shifting container of the poem. I really enjoyed the serial continuity of making that work.

Jack Spicer’s and Robin Blaser’s concept and use of the “serial poem” are a big influence on how I shape much of my work. Rarely are my poems self-contained, singular frames. The energy of one spills into the next–like a canal with a series of opening and closing locks. I am also influenced by the interior walking monologs of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s character, Marcel, in Remembrance of Things Past, both works to which I am hard-wired, not only to their sense of visual witness but to the music of their meanderings. The poetry of Walt Whitman and Charles Reznikoff, and Walter Benjamins’ notes and essays are also at the core of the walking work. Nathan Whiting, a New York contemporary, who has run, walked, and written of both, was also, early on, an influence. Over the past twenty years, other walking influences included folks in the visual arts: Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, David Nash for their sense of rural witness and play, and Joachim Schmidt, a German, for his interpretive work with found objects in cities, which are quite brilliant and fun.

“Walking Theory,” the extended series of poems and fragments in the new book, has a different momentum from the more formally realized elegies. Undoubtedly influenced by my relatively new involvement with Vipassana Buddhism–a walking and sitting “insight” meditative practice–the poems strike me as more existential. That is, as I walk, my eye seems much more focused. The poems seize on immediate details to render the material with an almost palpable sense of presence. At best, the language becomes immersed in what I lately call the “factual sublime.” Within that sight/site some kind of interpretive insight is also usually at work. The credo is to make an insight synchronous with facts discovered on the ground:


stenciled in big black letters on the sidewalk.
Sweeping the corner - a tall young man emblazoned with a red
dyed crew-cut,
a large black widow shaved into the back of his skull.
A young woman with a large, silver-plated unicorn pinned over
her heart, atop a black silk jacket.
Seven-thirty this morning: post-lunar eclipse, pre-Halloween and
in front of the Star Wash, corner of 17th & Dolores.
A curious confusion, dark times, optimistic and not. Hard to read
either as omens or conditions. Disturbance
On the hill above Dolores Park a young woman gyrates her hips
to the rising sun. Doucement. Doucement.

In Walking Theory, I also began to expand my concept of a walk to include other activities, including reading books, acts of the imagination, and remembrance. Walking became a metaphor for strolling through any of these parts of the world. Transversions are also my own way of walking among and being in dialog with the writing material of others. Walking or not, every act becomes a kind of critical reading and response, as well as a form of opposition to a life of passive, cultural consumption. Maybe hyperactive in spirit, I have never been good at sitting back and soaking things up like a sponge!

Ghost Walks are works that take things to another level of visual dialog. For the past couple of years, during my walks, I often take digital photographs. I tend to focus on objects that either throw me off kilter or fill me with an immediate sense of awe. For example, the blankets of the homeless I found to be provocative, often sensual, physical shapes, designs, and colors. The blankets have been ghosted. We do not who slept within them. As in the transversion process, the blankets become a foundation and means to give an imagined, fictive life to the world of the former inhabitants, including their dreams, origins, love lives and losses.

Alive or dead the royal ones remain sumptuous
One can tell by the way they sleep at night
No doubt in couples, the way the curled folds lead one to imagine:
The question is, why do they beckon one
With their sensuality, particularly, such pure white
Pleated tenderness? What do they give us?
A pure love for the edge, that grace note between earth
Whatever is beyond. The beloved guile
An agile ness in the eyes of angels.

[For picture with text go to]
Writing is a constant invocation of ghosts. In the passage of time, moment-to-moment, everything becomes ghosted. Nothing is permanent. The objects I encounter and photograph permit in my writing a dialog that gives me, and the work, a larger imaginative life in what is a quite diverse neighborhood, a neighborhood of ghosts. Such objects infinitely vary from advertisements, shop and house windows, scaffolding and tarps, parade costumes and masks, graffiti murals and street detritus, among much else. The stuff invariably provokes the improvisation of a poem or story, or the possibility of one. The sight, for example, of two faded American flags–one small, one larger–hanging parallel and down in front of a dirty, chenille curtain provokes a political reflection:

We live in a fading country.
My wife said that.
I am not married.
My country is an ex-wife.
She has moved in with a violent man.
She lives behind curtains. Flags. Signals.
Not a ghost.
Not a ghost of a chance.

Window on 22nd Street, between Guerrero and Valencia, San Francisco, California. >

[For picture with text go to]

Ideally, the humble, found character of images permits the writing to leap spontaneously from micro- to macro- without sounding painfully pretentious, but more ironic. It’s the old adage that simple things can pull up huge things, particularly those that are aching to get out of your insides. For example, I had not been able to address my sense of loss and love for both the person and work of Robert Creeley. I did not want to force anything. One day, about six months after he died, I photographed a white basketball backboard in Dolores Park, its orange rim and white net catching the last angle of sun on a Fall afternoon. When the image went up on my monitor at home, almost instinctively I wrote:

Basketball Hoop

Autumn & the juice returns. The rhythm. Slap on the ball. Drum beat patter against floor, against asphalt. Youth re-enfolds. Leap taken, not taken. Jump shot, long shot, lay-up, fake here, fake there, drive. Drive, one never stops saying. Backyard, Elementary, Junior, High School, College, Pro. The rhythm of one’s life, one’s season, the delivery: one’s shots, one’s defenses, one’s gifts: the high arc of the ball drifting down:

In memory, Robert Creeley, passed this year. (2005)

[For picture with text, go to]

Initially, I had no prescribed intention to write a memorial for Creeley. The piece was more my celebration of my life-long love of basketball. But that word, drive, evoked the association with those off-repeated lines from his “I Know A Man”:

…drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

Those lines became an instruction to a generation-my own-to keep moving, attentively, and not slack in either poem or body. Certainly. Right down to the level of working with syllables, drive, that sense of momentum, has been my credo. In my piece from the photograph, drive was the word that keyed the association and deep importance of Creeley’s work and his example to my own.

As I move along, my attention to the visual world through photography and the potential it provides in relationship to text becomes more important to my work. I see working with the two mediums as another way of forming an aggressive, imaginative, and interesting, if not always loving, dialog and partnership with a world. It’s my way of pushing back and moving forward to let the art reclaim an active, meaningful presence in my day-to-day life. It might not be lucrative to work this way, but it’s both challenging and fun. Initially I publish most of these pieces online, either in electronic magazines or on my blog. If the work permits a sense of liberty on any level to any one, it’s done its job!

TB: Do you feel as a poet that you have any special social responsibilities?

SV: Of course! I try to bring my tools as a poet to a way of critically looking, hearing, and responding to the various worlds in which I live. That does not mean I am interested in public office, though I am tempted to get on the City’s Pedestrian Safety Board. Sixteen people, including five elders, have already lost their lives crossing streets this year alone. Give me somebody with a cell phone to his or her lips while turning their car through a crosswalk– especially into one that I am about to step, it makes me go ballistic. Not everybody is able to drive and talk at the same time. From a solid, active-citizen perspective, instead of yelling or slapping the backs of moving cars–pedestrian rage--I figure I should put that energy into a more positive, responsible form.

In politics I am no doubt deeply shaped by the political and aesthetic movements of the sixties and seventies where I was deeply immersed the Civil Rights movements, including black, Latino, gay, and feminist consciousness actions and reactions! In the arts, I was deep into jazz (John Coltrane, Ornette Colman, Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago), the predictable folks in the rock world, and theater, Jerzy Grotowksi, Bread & Puppet, The Living Theater. Folks that were making work to take the top off the world were my bread and butter! My generation was deeply affected by the polar drive towards liberation from the politics of war and racial and other oppressions while, at the same time, strongly colored by the forces that led to the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Forces, I am sorry to say, that remain central to life in this country and abroad.

I grew up in a very politically oriented family. A six-acre Federal Park in the East Bay is named after my folks (Barbara and Jay Vincent Park) on the City of Richmond’s Marina. Both were civic activists with a long involvement in environmental issues, including the development of parks, trails, and recreational sites. My mom was actually on and chair of the City Planning Commission. I grew up around a dining table always keen on discussing local, state, and national political battles. Unlike the family backgrounds of many poets, I suspect, the political involvements of my parents and their friends gave me an organizational head. When I was young I thought I could network and organize anything! I transferred those skills into developing California’s first statewide Poetry-in-the-Schools program and two publishing houses—my own, Momo’s Press, and Bedford Arts Publishers.

Like several poets of my generation, in both leading and setting up workshops in the schools, I felt it was my responsibility to get writers to come into the schools where we could work with students and teachers–no matter their age or grade–to teach them to value poetry and to activate their own writing through imaginative exercises. As we were mostly young poets, we approached the work with a great feeling of fervor and pride. We were probably overly zealous and condescending, if not degrading, toward the limits of the host teachers and schools! The program’s impulse was to introduce poetry in such a way as to demystify the poet as a distant public figure.

Ultimately, I found teaching creative writing repetitious. At that time I also taught at San Francisco State and the San Francisco Art Institute. The results seemed so temporal. I turned my interests and imagination to publishing where I felt I could produce books with a lasting impact. Influenced by the strong tradition and examples of poetry publishing in San Francisco (Auerhahn Press, White Rabbit, and City Lights, among others), I had first published books when I was in Nigeria in the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties. From the early 1970s, both presses that I
began included a political awareness.

Momo’s Press, and Shocks, our magazine, produced titles reflective of issues raging through this nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Racially diverse, Momo’s Press published the first and early books of Jessica Hagedorn, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Ntozake Shange, Beverly Dahlen, and Hilton Obenzinger, among many others. But it was hardly a press driven by “ethnic” identity. I wanted a variety of good writers from different backgrounds and aesthetics to appear in the same arena to explore what those contrasts would do to the language, as well as to reflect the larger social/political scope of the City by which we had begun to define ourselves. The books and magazine were quite successful. Unbeknownst to the mainly white-owned publishing industry, the Civil Rights movement, gay liberation, and feminism had begun to create a huge potential audience. Obviously, industry publishers began to figure that out by the 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, in contrast to my desire to collect good writing and writers as an ensemble-interesting because of its inherent conflicts and potential to create new work-the large publishers and institutions drove things in the direction of promoting “identity-centered” writing–black, Latino, and Asian. This often led to audience segmentation by race and, often, the aggrandizement of a kind of ghettoized writing. That did not interest me much.

After the demise of Momo’s Press, I became the director of Bedford Arts, an art book press, from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. I stretched this diverse vision of publishing to include books by nineteenth- to late twentieth-century artists, photographers, sculptors, and writers from across several continents, from America to Japan to Europe. Until the collapse of the economy and the art market, that work was fun and deeply engaging. We were able to do many beautiful, provocative books. I stopped writing poetry almost completely. Working with authors, artists and great book designers, as well as promoting and distributing books became the poem.

These days, my blog has become my little publishing house. It is where I produce my own new poems, photographs–including Ghost Walks–as well as commentary on poetry and political turns of events. The blog serves as a public incubator for new work and as a means of reflecting and measuring the public pulse. It’s also a way to sound off when I want to. I get between 1000 and 1500 visitors a month. Some stay for 5 seconds; others stay for up to 30 minutes or more. The blog gives my work more exposure and feedback than most of my books and publishing projects. However, I still prefer edited, designed, and finished books as the crystallization of poetry in its most significant public manifestation. Blog entries roll off into the sunset to disappear without much long-term weight! The whole paradigm is changing. Monitor and book manifestations will eventually find a good mix, to which I look forward.

So as poet-citizen I have employed my tools variously. My poetry mentors in spirit–Kenneth Rexroth, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, among many more–always revealed a public ear to the ground. This poem from “Walking Theory” sums up something of what I am about
as a citizen on the street:


Walk poverty: an architecture to look
closely her gray synthetic leather purse
shreds into loose shingles, the heart
let loose among buildings without trees,
the lobbies of the dead, people who lean
variously to struggle with reason against
an architecture born deadly, the empty
Sunday playground, blue, yellow and white structures,
a vacuum unbound, wall-to-wall piss,
the street stutters, step-by-step, who can tell of the poor,
the decorum of the poor? Good-bye rhetoric, the desperate,
what can the poem do, walking, step-by-step:
witness, suffer, hope.

The task of the poem is still about words, including the energy, intelligence, and imagination that shape and give integrity to each line. It’s about bringing a blowtorch to clear out drivel–whether that is the speech of politicians and advertisers or the impotent, self-destructive internal chatter that sabotages our capacity for insight and appropriate action. That does not mean you cannot have fun, or that fun and play are not also politically important to our communal well-being. Finally, for me, the best poetry–in the political and most other senses--is about looking and listening closely.

TB: What are you most preoccupied with right now?

SV: I have several current preoccupations:

1. Inventory! My mother once said that even though I appeared to be listening closely, I did not speak a word until I was two years old; when I finally began to talk, I spoke in compete sentences. My poetry career is somewhat similar. Though I have always written and never taken my eye off some concept of myself as a poet the number of books I have published (five) is quite small. Yet, about the time I hit 60–age, not speed! --I began to write like mad, finishing whole, raw manuscripts, one after another. Triggers, Sleeping With Sappho, Walking Theory, Tenderlies, Zuk, After Language / Letters to Jack Spicer--each came tumbling out one after another. A kind of mania! But now, with the exception of Walking Theory, I have much real work to do around getting all this new work edited and navigated toward book publication. Yes, it would be nice to have an intern to help manage all of this paper!
2. New writing projects. The walking work-- including the Ghost Walks-- is expanding now in the direction of a greater sense of investigation of the City. Lately, on my blog, I have been using the street photographs to explore typologies: shop windows, stencil art, signage and graffiti, scaffolds and buildings, more blankets of the homeless, gardens, and so on. The work is an attempt to reveal the forces that impact an immediate, continuous sense of the City. From this investigation, the city planner in me wants to make a series of related urban constructs in the form of books and gallery shows. Fortunately, now in the City, many people–artists, writers, librarians, and landscape architects, among othersare interested in collaborating toward similar goals.
3. Haptics. I’ve given that name to a drawing project that involves hearing sounds in various parts of the City, then registering those sounds with the touch of pen to paper, often in the panels of an accordion-fold book. The marks on these pages form a visual syllabary, where the shapes and durations precede the making of letters and words, a not-fully-formed calligraphy that acts as the rhythm and music that precede language. I love the physicality of making the haptics. With my pen and paper I feel like a one-person instrumentalist responding to the fluid, noisy forces of the material world. Currently I have been putting photographs of these pieces up on my blog. But I want the haptics in books and galleries! There is interest in publishing an artist book in which 24 accordion-fold panels reflect my experience of listening to the ocean. For twelve days I went down to Ocean Beach to challenge Jack Spicer’s lines in the first poem in Language:

…The ocean
does not mean to be listened to…

I will not say who won the challenge, but the listening was intense, and the blue marks, more so!

[For a picture of the Spicer haptic, go to ]
4. Age. I have a long-term creative writing project with my 91-year old mom. I suggest phrases or concepts; she dictates poems. The work is getting published gradually–much of it has been put up on my blog. She has always been a writer wannabe. Now she continues constantly to surprise me and her readers with her sense of modernity and, often, grim authority. When I suggested, for example, she give me a rhyme for “April,” it evolved into this poem about the months:

January will open the horrible threat.
February will break off a few of the wicked.
March the winds will blow and frighten everybody.
April will break my heart.
May will come whisking through.
June is hard to decipher.
July will never stop to say hello.
August is jolly and happy for people like me.
September is hard to take.
October is full of joy for very few.
November marks the worst that could ever come.
December for many it’s love and joy
But not for me.

Many people with aging parents are curious about what goes on in the heads of people at the end of interesting lives--let alone about their own aging process. My mother has become a window for others and me. Her poems and my commentary are working themselves into an essay.

So, yes, I probably have much more to do than I ever can. I aspire to be as honest as I can become in the work–the language, imagination, and clarity of it. I want to surprise myself continually. And not cheat.

TB: A final question: What do you find most encouraging and most discouraging about the current poetry scene(s)?

SV: Various “scenes” are always in a cycle, illuminated for a while with real leadership and energy before transitioning into a pale reflection of themselves with, at best, a vital memory of particular events and sequences of poems as their legacy. What was current and vital in the Bay Area two or three years ago, is best manifested in the Bay Poetics anthology wonderfully edited by Stephanie Young, and beautifully published by faux press. Combinations of house, bar and the Grand Street readings, the new phenomenon of blogs and ephemeral publications made it possible to meet and hear the work of a fantastic variety of poets that were also vital to the making and reception of my new work. David Larsen, Cynthia Sailers, Chris Sullivan, Catherine Ming, the late kari edwards, Jen Scapetone, Taylor Brady, Rob Halpern, Ali Warren, Brandon Brown, Kate Colby, Del Ray Cross, David Abel, Andrew Joron, Mary Burger, among many more. Lately, it’s been less frenetic. Some folks even dismiss the current scene as anemic. I don’t think so. True, some important folks have moved away, Kasey S. Mohammed to Ashland, Rodney Koeneke to Portland, David Hess to Texas, Maggie Zurwaksi to Duke, and now Judith Goldman to the U. of Chicago. In order to survive or professionally evolve, some have sunk themselves into counter-productive jobs or gone off to pursue PhDs or taken teaching positions.

In terms of cycling, it seems the recent local flourish of energy and poetry is now getting transformed into an “adult” world of responsibility! Yet, I remain happily astonished with the number and audience sizes of local readings, while young poets keep coming to San Francisco to live and/or study. Apart from short and radically shifting lives of some scenes, thank goodness we have long-lived places such as the San Francisco State Poetry Center, Small Press Traffic and many alternative poetry sites and bookstores here and across the country that help keep us chirping away with readings, archives, and so forth--let alone the hang-tough poetry book publishers.

In addition to my own shifting local scene, I have been personally grateful to the national and international blogosphere, listservs, and online publishers. Still very young and diverse, the exposure and discussions of these media have been very helpful in bringing to the work of many, including my own, a visibility that was previously very difficult to achieve. Both nationally and internationally I would never have known the work of Jean Vengua, Jill Jones, Allen Bramhall, Halvard Johnson, Sheila Murphy, Shanna Compton, Alison Croggon, Mairead Byrne, Jonathan Skinner, Jow Linsday, Peter Manson, Tim Peterson, John Latta, David Chirot, Alan Sondheim, Charles Alexander, just to cite a small number of good, active folks I have met in the cyber-world.

I think the jury is still out, but getting close, on my generation’s worth and accomplishment. Certainly its worth will be heightened (or even sometimes dismissed or lost) by succeeding generations. It’s kind of silly to name names since I will undoubtedly forget to mention many good folks. On today’s memory palate (!) I will mention Fanny and Susan Howe, Beverly Dahlen, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Jean Day, Lisa Robertson,Bob Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Barry Watten, Bruce Andrews, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Duncan McNaughton, Lawrence Kearny, Jim Thorpe, John Taggart, Steven Ratcliffe, Keith and Mary Waldrop, Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Gloria Frym, Joseph Lease, Gilian Connely, George Evans, Harryette Mullen, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Nathaniel Mackey, Clark Coolidge Michael Palmer,Mark Weiss, Charles Alexander, David Abel, Andrew Joron, Laura Moriarty, John Tranter, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Trevor Joyce, Geoffrey Squires, Maurice Scully, Maggie O’Sullivan, Geraldine Monk and Alan Halsey come to mind as just a few of the folks devoted to creating an enduring foundation for work contemporary to my time and interests.

I cannot remember a darker political time in my life. Dick Cheney, Bush, that whole regime, covers everything. Historically I am sure what has happened here will be defined as a coup. The damage is impossible to fully gauge. I can not yet begin to imagine a time in which we will re-emerge with a democratic sense of ourselves. The country has lost its moral center. It’s hard to write yet and imagine a language with the power to reinvest the country’s consciousness with a sense of liberty, equality and play. And happiness, too!

I, as I am sure many of us do, find the time absolutely scary to behold. Yet things do play out in history, I would rather be making and reading poetry than not doing it. At this point, maybe it’s not even a choice!

Please note our grateful acknowledgment of Gail Larrick's copy editing/format assistance with this exchange.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Thomas Fink:
Broken World is studded with anaphora, and the musical effects are marvelous.

Joseph Lease:
Thank you.

Robert Creeley and many others have testified to the remarkable grace of your music. Are there some principles regarding the musical element of poetry that keep occurring to you at points in the poetic process?

My work is ear driven. Language is music. When the music is right, I know the poem is done. When the music is right, your mind, your spirit, your emotions, change.

Standard Schaefer—in a very insightful review of Broken World—said you had written some of the most memorable montages in American poetry. Often your montages involve shifting from verse to prose or prose to verse. I really love this technique when I read it. I know it's great. But I'm not sure why.

Again, thank you. All I can say is that I’m trying to make change actual, to embody change. It has to do with the lyric sequence, and feeling tone, and scene structure. You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.

In A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry, I wrote about how your poems meditate on intersubjectivity, the limits of the self, and the demands of the collective; and how your lyric I invites, invokes, and probes community (112). This applies to Broken World and your most recent poems as well. Would you say that a primary language entails solicitation of dialogue within a lyric/narrative construct of words?

Yes. Sure. We’re put here to mend the world—and that means the word for dawn is others. So a primary language can be, often is, an opening—a ritual for creating dialogue. All the poems in Broken World explore this theme. I think especially of “’Broken World’ (For James Assatly),” “Soul-making,” “Ghosts,” and “Free Again.”

As in the powerful short lyric, “Ghosts,” which commences Broken World, the ghost has been a recurring motif in your poetry.

When I was twenty—I wrote “Anything can be a ghost”—And twenty-two years later I wrote "Ghosts," a love poem to a visionary storyteller (Donna de la Perrière, my wife) and a meditation on visionary translation—The secret meanings of colors and dawn and others and an elegy for visionary awareness of correspondences. The word for dawn is others=in a word the uncanny (anything can be a ghost—even a bowl of strawberries—nature is a haunted house—of an unfinished world). America equals ghost.

“I can remember my secret book--

     I was a ghost, you were the only one

                               who could hear me—“

Your visual descriptions can be even more precise than Ashbery’s, but I think what you’re doing in Human Rights, Broken World, and after indicates the absorption of both Ashbery and Creeley’s different uses of enjambment within a stanzaic pattern, and of Ashbery’s play of disjunction and continuity.

I’m excited about your new work. “Try,” for example, uses compression in a remarkably evocative way:

traces of snow, snow flying

if anybody needs
          a branch in light—


panic, let time wash you, you can swim—
the green hills turn to gray, gray turning
blue, just say undershirt, just say hair,
—I’m falling, I’m flying, I’m
waiting, I’m nothing, I’m


                                in the forest we can say anything:
                         O cream, a warm

night in December; your hips sing, dinner makes a
naughty dream—let’s say I was Frank Sinatra’s
toothpaste, let’s say I lead a life of crime—O cream,
park your raspberries
on my moon—


                            if anybody needs
                                         the lake’s glass skin—

                           traces of snow, snow flying

                           if anybody needs
                                         a branch in light—

We talked about intersubjectivity, about addressing readers regarding shared concerns, and these lines do. Even if there are only “traces of snow” and not the full presence of an abundance, that speedy “flying” might be terrifying, and the poem, as I see it, is an exhortation to “try” to endure, to thrive, to live intensely in the face of “falling,” experiential speed, “waiting,” and a sense, at times, that the self is “nothing.”

In the third section of the poem, erotic joy comes to the forefront as a component of the task of articulation of awareness and the struggle against annihilation, the force of that earlier “nothing.” In the poem’s final section, you hark back to the “need” of the first section, adding “if anybody needs/ the lake’s glass skin”—a remarkably lucid image!—before you end by returning to two couplets that also open section one. This recurrence (with a difference) is designed to ask the reader to consider how the middle sections have changed what about “need,” illumination, and the fear of violent experiential speed. Surely, contact and sexual openness have been made precisely actual in a construct of language—to paraphrase Creeley’s reading of your earlier work. What else?

For me the poem embodies a kind of tenderness. I believe (many) readers will feel a gentleness in the poem—a fullness, and a tender awareness of aging. It’s also a poem of erotic experience. And of course there’s fear too, but the poem is a very tender motion. I hope the reader of this interview will go back now and read the poem a second time. I agree that the poem gets happier as we move forward in time, but I don’t think the opening is all that terrified. There is an excitement in the emptying out of the self, of zooming away from fixed, stable conventions. There is certainly fear there, and the fear is mixed with tenderness and desire and gentleness, and as the poem moves forward the tenderness deepens. Anyway that’s how I read it.

Let’s turn to your new long poem, “America,” which has a structure very similar to the long “Free Again” in Broken World; each section begins with the title of the whole poem. Like the earlier poem, which I’ll get to shortly, this one excoriates the right (and perhaps the center) for how they have wrecked the U.S.’s democratic potential and imperiled the entire world. There are various powerful citations, ones about ecological disaster, absurdly inhumane governmental budget priorities, Cheney’s remark about the endlessness of the “War on Terrorism,” and Bill Moyers’ urgent call for democracy to be rescued. These are juxtaposed with synecdoches for and reflections about an individual’s daily experience, brief allusions to recent national problems (“We’re going back home to every vote counts we’re changing the rules”), and more abstract, yet lyrical passages. Could you talk about how, through the heterogeneous textures of this juxtapositionality, you are making “America” enact political critique and redemptive exhortation and building on your past aesthetic innovations?

“America” builds on “’Broken World’ (For James Assatly)” and “Free Again”—and I guess it’s the most “topical” poem I’ve written so far. Parts of it work by collage—and it’s very direct. You know, we write what we need to write. Anyway, I was inspired by Susan Howe’s “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings,” Laura Mullen’s “Turn,” Donna de la Perrière’s “True Crime,” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Also—of course—Ginsberg’s “America.” All these poems put America inside a self-in-process. For me fullness of representation is both an embodiment of what it feels like to think/desire/fear in the world (to contradict oneself) and a continuation (proceeding by contradiction—I can’t do it/I must do it) of the lyric self. Howe and Rich and Ginsberg all refute the claim that lyric is unified or merely personal. The lyric “I” is a place. It’s a process. It’s not fixed and commodified. And that process becomes the ground for action, for critique and for re-imagining America.

“Re-imagining America” is surely the task of “the lyric ‘I” in “Free Again,” and this intense activity—which you never make into anything programmatic or anything less than a complex process of negotiations—seems to include an implicit call for people to go beyond the false consciousness that corporate elites often stimulate: for example, “I want you to stand there in your brightly frisky middle-class personalities and chant after me: ‘How about another tax cut, how about another tax cut—‘our wilderness’ and liberty and justice for us. . .” (52).

I attack the way the Republican Party since Reagan has tricked the middle class into voting against its own interests over and over, and into identifying with a political imaginary in which individualism equals upward mobility.

The manipulated portion of the “middle class” sees social programs for the poor as responsible for their tax burden; they miss notions of economic interdependence.

I think “Free Again” is about the absence of community and the need for community.

The title “Free Again” implies a recovery of fundamental democratic principles so that what was always theoretical in the U.S. can become actual. To go back to the idea of “re-imagining America,” I am interested in passages in “Free Again” that provide subtle intimations of the transcendence of current injustice and anomie; I see the social as connected to the soul in the poem: “It could be gorgeous, it could be/ loss, it could be broken, it could fold—/ . . . the soul inventing the world/ the soul inventing the soul—” (46). What empowers you to invest in felicitous spiritual or psychological /social aspiration in the face of rampant negativity?


Do you mean religious faith?

I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. Part of what I mean is faith in God. You can be a left-wing Dickinsonian/Emersonian Jew. I also mean faith in the human and social justice. My version of faith breathes discovering the joy of creation. Faith and art are both ways of learning—asking—they invite us into understanding and connection with others and with the sacred. When Paul Hoover asked me whether I see poetry as a soul-making activity, I said: “Soul-making, sure. Why not? That just seems true to me. I don’t want to sell poetry short. Poetry isn’t just a reminder of what we already know—it can be that—but it can also create life that we need—life that we don’t recognize until we are in the poem. And, yes, it also returns us to ourselves and makes us new. And it demystifies lies. I love Keats’s idea that the world teaches us to make our souls. I don’t see why poets would want to escape from that . . . In “Free Again” you have 26variations and the total is expansion of a life, a spirit, toward others.”

Thank you, Joseph.