Friday, May 19, 2006

Interview with Aldon Lynn Nielsen

Tom Beckett: If you were to describe your poetics in terms of an intersection, what would the names of the crossroads be?

Nielsen: Somebody stole the street sign off the corner about twenty years ago and the city council has never approved funds to replace it. The locals refer to it as “the corner where the Holiness church used to be.”

TB: Ahh, you're a wise guy, ehh? Nyuck, nyuck.

But seriously, Aldon, maybe I think of you with reference to streets because you and I both have had the experience of missing an airport exit whilst engrossed in conversation with David Bromige. Though, I'll admit, Robert Johnson was floating around in the back of my mind too.

Nielsen: My punishment for that airport mishap is that I have had to move from being a poet of the streets to being a poet of the terminals. Between the time of your first and second questions, I had to fly from Pennsylvania to California.

For most of my younger years, I walked everywhere. When I was growing up in D.C., the streets were my muse and living room. As a college student, I made the walk every day from above Dupont Circle over to 2nd & E Sts., N.W., altering my route each day to bring new vistas and neighborhoods into view. Just as I was finishing school, the first segment of Washington's Metro system opened, making me mobile in yet another way. I didn't even bother to buy a car till I was thirty, and for a time I used it mostly to go out on dates. (By the time you're thirty, many women take it as a signifier of something if you show up for a date on foot or by bus.) And for quite a while, despite the lack of good retail book stores in those days, D.C. was dotted with an amazing collection of used book stores and remainder shops. So the three legs of my educational tripod were the streets of D.C., the public university I attended, and the college of used and "hurt" books. There was even a store for many years that specialized in remaindered scholarly books. My entire education in structuralism came from great hardbacks that I bought for 99 cents apiece.

But, as a result of my walking ways, I didn't have a lot of experience with driving and talking to poets simultaneously. David Bromige, you remember, was the occasion of the first contact I had with you, when you were preparing a special issue on his work for The Difficulties. I was supposed to be driving him out to Dulles airport after a reading visit he made to D.C. -- At that time, I hadn't been that far out into Virginia in years. So, locked in converse about verse, I drove right past the exit. The funny thing is that this had happened before. Just a few months earlier, I was driving Amiri Baraka in my newly purchased car to National airport after a reading he'd done at George Washington University, where I did my grad work. (Walked there, too.) We were talking about poetry and poets, and drove right past the exit.

Both poets, though, made their flights -- so I haven't done irreparable harm --

In the end, it was the need to get into a tenure track job that drove me into the air, and I've been flying ever since. Always with Robert Johnson in the back of my mind.

I never took my poetics into a crossroads, 'cause that's where poets tend to get run over -- usually a hit and run -- We had a lot of circles in D.C. My poetics were formed somewhere in the streets between Dupont Circle and Far South East; between, say, Discount Books and Frederick Douglass's house.

TB: At what point did you come to know that poetry was going to be integral to what you were going to do in life?

Nielsen: I honestly can't recall a time when poetry wasn't integral to my life. The real problem was finding a way to live that would allow me to continue in that course. I'm not at all sure how this happened. My family did read, but there were few books in the house in my childhood. There wasn't that much music, either, and yet I grew obsessed with music and literature at a truly early age. There was the Bible, and there were nursery rhymes, and I was scribbling rhymes and proto-psalms and posting them on the door when I was a child.

But I do remember one thing in particular. I saw, once we'd gotten a TV set, a showing of TREASURE ISLAND. There was a scene in which a piratical gentleman walked up to another man and handed him a piece of paper. (At least this is how I recall the scene. I've never watched it again.) When the paper was unfolded, it bore just a black spot. Somehow the reaction of the recipient of this ominous message stuck with me, something about the power of the sign. When I learned that there was a book of this thing, I had to have it. I got a copy from the library, but it was a book well beyond my ability to read at that age, and so began the endless process of my running into the next room to my mother, pointing a finger at something on the page, and asking my mother what that word was. I can say that my parents, even though they weren't especially literary people, always encouraged me in this way. Not in the sense that they encouraged me towards a career in literature, not at all, but that they encouraged me in my learning, for which I remain grateful.

At any rate, from at least about age five, reading and writing were at the core of life for me, generally to the accompaniment of music. But I have to admit that I was well into college before it dawned on me that people didn't make a living writing books of poetry. There were books of poetry for sale in stores; I bought some of them. I don't know why it took me so long to realize that there wasn't a living to be made this way.

Then, too, it helped that I came of age in the sixties. In two senses. First, in the wake of the Russian launch of Sputnik, America began a serious investment in public education at a level we have not seen since. I spent my entire pre-college life in the public schools, and I was able to secure a really good education. Sometimes this was in spite of the teachers, but the fact is that the resources were there for someone like me who was determined to take advantage of them. Secondly, I happened to be a teen-ager right when the reawakening of American transcendentalism and bohemianism were reaching their peak. The years when I was in my teens were years when you were SUPPOSED to be a thinker, when people thought it was cool to be seen with all sorts of deep and difficult books sticking out of their jeans pockets, whether they read them or not, and it was a time when thousands of people would show up for a reading by Ginsberg, when poets would be asked to recite at demonstrations. Poetry seemed integral to everybody's life, at least briefly, and people seemed to long for something that was felt to be available in poetry. This was a time when Don L. Lee (before he became Haki Madhabuti) sold something like 50,000 copies of his little book of poems DON'T CRY, SCREAM, something it would be hard to imagine happening today. Maybe you can sell that many copies if you're a dead rapper -- And it was a time when publishers seemed willing to try wildly innovative texts. Grove Press alone, whose books were available even in the most staid Brentanos outlet, made available to me a wide range of innovative literature and remarkable non-fiction works. I didn't even know what a small press was at age sixteen, but I was able to read LeRoi Jones, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara right out of the most mainstream, even suburban stores. The poetry was there for me long before the word "integral" was.

TB: Zukofsky's "integral" became important to you, enough so that it provided the titles for two of your 'zines.

Who do you think of as your most important poetic forebears?

Nielsen: By then I had encountered calculus.

I started out on Homer, but soon hit the harder stuff . . .

Eventually I came to see that the American pathways are mostly laid out in Edward Taylor, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (this explains the kinship you can observe in Stevens and Williams, for example). But that's an understanding you come to only after you've read everything and can look back over the broad expanse.

In Junior High School, I read through whatever was in the school library -- Frost, Sandburg, cummings -- And then I set out on my own -- I believe the first book of poetry I ever purchased with my own money was LeRoi Jones's THE DEAD LECTURER -- So I was starting out right in the middle of the New American Poetry and the emerging Black Arts era. I suspect that for many in the generation just before mine, Jones/Baraka was somebody they discovered by way of his associations with Beats, Black Mountain School and New York School poets. For me, though, he was the route by which I learned of those others. Seeing poems like THE DANCE, noting dedications to Duncan, Olson and others -- I did the same thing I did in music -- When I liked an LP, I'd go looking for recordings by all the people listed on the cover -- In my readings in philosophy, I'd pick up something that looked interesting (this is how I found Derrida when he was first appearing in English translations), then I'd go read all the philosophers that person had addressed. This was extremely unsystematic, or more accurately, followed a branching system of discovery that was less chronologically directed than a college syllabus might have been. (There were no courses JUST in poetry at the schools I attended in those days.) This accounts for the fact that I would come to a Zukofsky, Niedecker and Oppen, who remain central to my understanding of what's valuable in American verse, at the same time that I would find a Tolson or Toomer, who also remain central to my comprehension both of what American poetry is about and what I am trying to do in my own writing.

And, of course, simultaneous with my discovery of Baraka/Jones was the eruption within my consciousness of Bob Dylan -- Sitting in the back of my parents' car at an intersection (to get back to your first question), I heard a rim shot come from the radio that brought my head up and my ears open -- the next thing I knew, actual poetry was coming out of the car radio accompanied by a swirling organ figure and punctuated by harmonica. To a mind already listening intently for the possibilities of language in the world, that song was a call to a calling -- Years later I would understand that not everybody in my generation was thinking about THE DEAD LECTURER and LIKE A ROLLING STONE at the same time -- but the key was, as I mentioned earlier, it was a time when such synchronicities were both possible and encouraged by your peers. Maybe nobody else wanted to do what you were doing, but they thought it cool that you were doing it. If you can imagine breakfast at your neighborhood café with Melvin B. Tolson and Emily Dickinson, you can imagine the poetic family that I live with.

TB: Do you think poets have a special social responsibility?

Nielsen: In my view, the term "social responsibility" indicates a general responsibility that all of us confront, whether we elect to honor that responsibility or to evade it. I don't believe that the poet differs in this respect from anybody else, from plumbers or from computer engineers. The modes of such responsibility may be what differs. In the same way that we would expect a computer engineer to carry out the work in a responsible fashion (remaining prepared for disappointments in that regard), I remain sufficiently naive as to want to expect the poet to honor a certain responsibility to the socius of language. None of us invented the languages that we speak, though we inflect them and shift their course, leave our marks upon them. Even if we do attempt to invent a language, we will invent it in a relationship of difference to the languages that have already been given us. But the languages come to us from others, and become our companions. We owe to them a certain respect, and a part of that respect is shown even in our disruptions of them, which must be meant to, well, mean something new. By virtue of my having been born into a society, I find myself given a responsibility towards others. As a poet, part of my recognition of that responsibility takes the form of a caring for, a looking after the language. This has nothing to do with policing the language, or correcting it in some way, least of all "purifying" any language of any tribe to which we might belong. It has to do with a care for the means that have been given me to exist within the society. Even the ethically challenged Heidegger saw that language is the house of being. It has to do with how we choose to live in language that we share with others.

TB: What are some of the choices about how to "live in language" that you see yourself having made in your work?

Nielsen: Ezra Pound was quite taken by what he thought he understood about a particular Chinese written character, which he read as being composed of the figures of a man standing by his word. He was after something like the Objectivists' take on sincerity and clarity. Whatever Pound's grasp of Chinese may have been, whatever Pound's grasp of himself may have been, the idea of standing by your words is a mode of sincerity I aspire to. It's a serious matter, or, to steal the title from a long-running arts festival, serious fun.

In his battles with Derrida over the corpus of Austin, Searle argued that, if we wish to understand how it is with language, we had better not start with such matters as fictive speech and literary inscription. Derrida argues convincingly that the desire to separate those categories from "natural language" is itself an impossible dream, and that in fact things like jokes and poetry may be regions of our most useful inquiries into our own language.

That's where I have chosen to live.

And much of this may be an outgrowth of my having given myself over to reading. I've always had the feeling that I write the things that I write because I want to read them and they don't exist yet. In some cases, such as my first critical book, READING RACE, this is a fairly clear matter of responding to an obvious lack in the political/critical discourse. As a graduate student, I wanted to see what people had had to say about racism and poetry in the twentieth century. I truly was shocked to find so little in the libraries that addressed the subject. So in that instance, I felt the need to write the discussion I had been looking for. In the case of a poem, such as "THE ASSEMBLY OF GOD AT JASPER," that motivation may seem considerably less direct, especially since many portions of that poem are derived from my reading. But again, I felt the need to read something in the way of lyric that got at race and history in ways that I couldn't find in the books around me. I suppose anybody could say this of their work, but at least it's a potential guard against simply repeating what others have done, or what you have done yourself.

I have taught two graduate seminars in the politics and ethics of reading. At some point in each seminar, the students told me that the course could as easily have been about writing. They were right.

Bottom line comes from Williams -- keep an eraser close at hand --

Of course, since my poetry and my criticism bear different signatures, I suppose you could make the case that there are two men standing by their words. I hope in the end they will approve of one another.

TB: I'd like to get a sense of your process. Could you take me through the creation of one of your poems and talk about how you literally work?

Nielsen: Thanks to my several employments, I've never been one of those writers who can sit at desk for a set period every day. And being who I am, I've never been one of those writers who can get up before dawn each day to spend several hours writing before heading off to the office. So, like Williams, I've become something of an expert in finding ways to be able to write when and where the opportunity permits. The critical work and the poetry tend to follow quite different procedures. The critical writing happens in a more "normal" appearing way -- I research for months, then sit down to work in a fairly straightforward way and keep at it for days till I'm done. The one year that I had a sabbatical (1993-1994), with no classes to teach, I was able to get more done on critical projects than at any other time in my life, because I was able to go to an office just to write every day - something I'd never been able to do before, and haven't been able to do since.

The poetry gets on the page in quite a different manner. Poems have always come to me in one of two ways. Some of them practically unfold themselves in one continuous thinking. A recent lyric that takes off from my having noticed that George Oppen and my father were both wounded in the same battle during World War II came in just that way. Those poems really are unexpected. They just open up in front of me, as it were, and I'm left with the work of editing and forming them. For those, it's primarily a matter of putting myself in the way of the thinking, so that I'll be prepared for it when it appears. But there's another class of poems in my experience that take much longer, sometimes years. A phrase or a situation will start nagging at my mind. I'll walk around toying with it for days, weeks, months. Another phrase will arise from the interstices of the first, and so on. The editing and forming is no longer something that happens near the end of the process, but rather something that is going on all the time. In both instances, I think my work follows very much in the traditions of composition by field, as it was spoken of at mid-twentieth century. I may not accept many of the suppositions about the poet's presence that you find in, say, Olson and Ginsberg, but the actual compositional mode is, I think, similar. Then, too, given the way I live with music, it might be more accurate to describe my compositional mode, at least in poetry, as analogous to the way that a Cecil Taylor creates a solo within a unit structure.

There's also the rare procedural poem. I have pieces that have grown entirely out of my misunderstandings of lyrics I half heard on the radio or in the street.

Like most poets I know, I always carry around a little notebook, now joined by both my PDA and my phone (which has a notepad function on it), so that I can immediately write down something that occurs to me. Many of these notes remain in temporary storage for months or years, till the time comes that I seem to understand what to do with them.

The main thing I've learned over the years is that I should never throw away anything. In the early years, I'd toss anything that didn't seem brilliant to me at the time. Now I know that I should keep the manuscripts of even the failures. One day I may look at the piece again and suddenly see the possibilities suggested by even just a few words.

So . . . nothing out of the ordinary. I've always been impatient with the tendencies of some poets to mystify the process. One of my graduate students recently asked me about methodology. I told her, the method is to read a whole lot and write all the time.

TB: What do you think poetry does? Why does it matter?

Nielsen: [Now in New York] You'll read in one camp that poetry educates while it delights. In another camp you'll read that the aesthetic is marked by its purposive purposelessness. Here's a well-known example of what good poetry does:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Here's what good prose does:

"So much depends upon a red wheel-barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens."

But in some camps (and I should let you know that I never went to camp), good poetry can do this:

"Furious fiddles of post-op Bop. Publishable by law. Nobody is black or white by himself. "

And good prose can do this:

" riverun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and environs."

Now, as to why this matters. The question itself is profoundly odd in a way that poetry can help us to understand. Things, whether poetry or color, do not matter as a matter of course, in themselves, for themselves. They matter to us because in one way or another we choose them, choose to attend to them. Money doesn't matter, unless it does. Which is a trite way of pointing out that value does not inhere in the object itself, but is a property of relations among humans. Money matters because we value it. Poetry doesn't matter to many, yet thousands die miserably every day for want of what can be found in Williams. Poetry can help the matter of mattering to take place. Else all is nattering. When West calls his book Race Matters, his heavy-handed pun is a poetic device, a mode of making the matter of race raise its mattering in the mind of a reader in particular ways. When Dana Gioia titles a book Can Poetry Matter?, the rhetorical work of that question goes a very long way towards taking all the mattering away from poetry and giving it to political prose. Poetry can take it back, can help us to comprehend how mattering happens, how matters matter.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

Nielsen -- Ah, a trick question, meant to capitalize on my time zone confusions. I'm back in California again. -- earlier you asked who were my most important forebears -- now, like those psychological profiles they use at the FBI, you ask a slight variation on the question to see if my answers will be consistent. --

My poetic forebears (those who have offered me forbearance? those who bore up before?) are Rod Smith, Duriel Harris, Deborah Richards, Mark Wallace, Eileen Tabios, Evie Shockley, Buck Downs, Renee Gladman and Claudia Rakine.

TB: This is what comes of working on multiple projects simultaneously--and being over 50 years old. I literally forgot that I'd asked you about forebears earlier. Sorry about that, but I enjoyed the way you spun my clumsiness. You're very kind.

You're blogging now. Any thoughts about the 'blogoverse' and how it is influencing your own practice and that of the poetry scene in general?

Nielsen -- Why isn't "blogoverse" the name of a verse form? I just started the HeatStrings blog a month ago, so it's far too soon to tell if it will have any discernable effect on my own practice. My hope for blogs generally, and for the web as a whole, is that they will be seen in the end as something like the mimeo revolution of the Post-WWII era, that brought us such publications as FLOATING BEAR. The simple technology of the mimeo made it practical for poets to circulate fairly large numbers of copies rapidly at little cost, and the result was that poets far too interesting to get published in the Atlantic or the New Yorker, or even the somewhat more open POETRY of that time, were able to band together and create wildly innovative mags, what came to be called zines in a later generation, that a lot of people could see quickly. There are a few group blogs, but most blogs to date, including my own, are far more directed to an individual take than were the mimeo mags of the past. It's a great protestant phenomenon, the priesthood of all believers becomes the editorship of all writers -- each can nail 99 theses to the virtual church door.

When I'm not delivering myself of political rants on the HeatStrings blog, I use it to forward the projects in poetry and poetics that interest me. I've been posting photos and poems by writers I'd like to call more attention to, along with some of my own writing, and I've started an occasional "from the archives" segment in which I post interesting documents I come across in the course of my research. I am making plans for a related web site, and I hope to use the web to bring more attention to the life and work of Lorenzo Thomas. It was my sad duty to become Lorenzo's literary executor, working with his brother Cecilio, when Lorenzo died last Summer. The blog and other web sites will be useful in getting word out about future publications of Lorenzo's work. I'll also be posting reports from panels devoted to Lorenzo Thomas's legacy that will happen at next year's meetings of the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association. Lorenzo and I were on a similar panel looking at the legacy of Sterling Brown a few years ago at the AWP, to date my only venture onto that terrain, and it would be great if that conference could host a discussion of Lorenzo's work as well, given his activities in the world of university creative writing programs.

TB: What is your greatest frustration in terms of the current writing scene(s)? What, as a writer, do you worry most about?

Nielsen: As a writer, the thing I worry most about is always publication! I'll come back to that in a minute.

My greatest frustration with the current constellation of writing scenes remains their near segregation, and this is true in both of the realms in which I do most of my work, criticism and poetry. Even after decades of public commitment to multiculturalism (a commitment that is always under attack from the right), you still find a disturbing settling out around readings and publications. Take the divisions of the Modern Language Association, for one instance. I belong to the Poetry Division and I belong to the Black Literature and Culture Division. Very few members of one attend the sessions of the other. Lorenzo Thomas was one member who was active in both; Meta Jones is a good example of a younger scholar who works in both divisions. But if you go rapidly from one conference to another, say from the last American Poetry Conference at the University of Maine to the Furious Flower conference on African American poetry at Madison U that happened not too long afterwards, you'll only see about three of the same people, Meta Jones and Grant Jenkins blessedly among them. That is truly disheartening to see at this late date.

But as a writer, I always worry most about publication -- I really wish poetry publication, at least in book form, could be a little less tied to personal associations. I always celebrate when I see an editor choose to publish a book by someone fresh with whom they've had no personal associations. But that's a rare event.

TB: I share your concerns about publication. My first full-length book of poetry--Unprotected Texts (a Selected Poems)-- will be published in a few months. It's been a long journey to get to this point. I've been writing for over thirty years! One glimmer of hope is print on demand publishing which seems to be starting to bloom in some interesting ways.

Groups of writers form to fend off their isolation and to support one another. Which is not a bad thing, but the networks need to be continually reinvented as insulation sets in. It can be a difficult situation for a writer who is unaffiliated with academia or living in Ohio, say, while trying to interact with scenes on the East and West coasts and beyond. The internet has been helpful in breaking down some of these barriers, but there are still not enough open-minded publishers of full-length poetry books. Chapbooks are the true currency of poetry writing. And Zasterle Press has recently issued Mixage, a terrific small volume by Aldon Nielsen.

Nielsen: I don't see any question marks there, so I'll just jump in and take up a few points.

First of all, that's great news about your new book. A lot of us have been waiting a long time to see such a collection. And you're right about chapbooks -- what's the old blues song? If it wasn't for chapbooks, I wouldn't have no books at all?

I've somehow always managed to just miss group affiliations. I was out of D.C., for instance, doing the work my draft board assigned me, during the time that a group of great poets was forming up around a book store near Dupont Circle. That group at one time or another included P. Inman, Joan Rettalack, Hugh Walthall, Beth Joselow, Terrence Winch, Lynn Dreyer and Tina Darragh. By the time the draft let me loose and I'd returned to D.C., the groupuscules had all shifted and reformed. I eventually came to know all those people individually, but I was never part of the "group." But it may be just as well. I don't always "play well with others."

I've often told my students that writing is one thing, and publishing another thing all together -- The two don't have all that much to do with one another. In my own case, each of my poetry books, with the exception of Evacuation Routes, could have been subtitled "Selected Poems." I keep writing every year, and then on the rare occasion when somebody appears who is interested in publishing the work, I shape a book out of the material that I think works. This is not to say that I don't have a book in mind as I write. But from early on I learned that the wait might be quite a long one, and a manuscript that had started out as one thing might evolve into something else. Since I don't publish dates of composition, this has lead to some assumptions about the development of my writing on the part of readers. Some years ago, one reviewer was commenting on the progression from a poem in one of my books to a poem in a later volume, not knowing, of course, that the second poem preceded the first in composition by a decade. But that isn't really an important matter, at least not while I'm still alive.

My life in the university has shown me what an odd thing poetry publication has become in America. I've found that it is considerably easier to get innovative scholarship and criticism published by a university press than innovative poetry. On the critical side, the presses are hungry for work that breaks new ground, that is seen as moving the discussion forward and opening up new areas of exploration. Most of the university press series in poetry, including those that work by way of contests, are really subsidiaries of the creative writing programs, and peer reviewing in that context tends to enforce conformity. So it's really a breakthrough when, say, Wesleyan publishes Juliana Spahr, or Iowa publishes Ed Roberson. These events are so extraordinary that they really stick out. I can give you a good illustration of this. With Lauri Ramey, I have just co-edited a volume of avant garde poetry by African American poets that has been published by the University of Alabama Press in their contemporary poetics series. It's sort of a companion volume to the trilogy of critical books on the subject I'm publishing. I can guarantee you that if most of the poets in the book submitted their work to the Alabama poetry series, they would be rejected out of hand. And that would likely be true at any of the university presses. Add to this the fact that commercial presses pretty much stopped doing anything new and interesting in poetry in the 70s, and you see that the small and independent presses are more important than ever. Williams understood that in the first half of the twentieth century. People like Olson and Baraka understood it in their generation. And that's where I look to see the most exciting work today -- the web can only benefit us in this regard -- though the web can also proliferate bad writing just as easily as good -- Even with so many of us doing our own blogs, I think a lot of readers will search out edited sites that bring them the kinds of reading they find most rewarding. All to the good, I think.

AND yes, a word of acknowledgment to Manuel Brito and his Zasterle Editions. Manuel has made a life's work of studying and promoting innovative American writing from his perch in Tenerife. I've only gotten to meet him once, briefly. We found ourselves on a critical panel together at the University of Salamanca, this after years of sending each other the works of other poets we'd each been publishing. Manuel has managed to keep up a wicked pace of work over the years, publishing, editing, writing -- I know I've learned a lot from his work, so I was especially delighted to have this little book appear in his series. When he sent me the cover art, a wild piece of imagination from Juan Tessi, an artist I'd never heard of before, I opened the file and laughed for hours. In a way, it seemed suited to the title of the book, Mixage, a word you'll see in the credits of French films, a word that has cogency in the world of sound editing even in English. "Sound editing," both in the sense of editing sound, and sound editing practices.

TB: Last question…What keeps you going, what keeps you interested?

Nielsen: Airplanes and interest -- poets really can't help themselves. You can spot us in public, suddenly breaking out in laughter in front of a sign that nobody else thinks is funny; listening with an ear cocked to the PA system in the store that is transmitting surreal grammar to us -- We hear the language in a way that most others quickly train themselves to ignore. I think that way of attending is what draws us to poetics in the first place -- and once we're there, there really is no turning back. On those very few occasions when I have taught creative writing classes (haven't done it for a decade now), I've always had students who wanted to know how they could tell if they were really writers. I told them to try to stop writing. If they could stop, they weren't writers. I didn't add that this is no measure of whether or not your writing is worth anybody else's attention, but the point was made. It's not really a question of whether or not you write to or for an audience. Every writer wants a reader, at least one more reader. But if you're really a writer you do it whether or not the audience ever shows up. This is one reason so many people we meet in the world of poetry fall off as they get older. But if you're given to verse because of the art form itself (as opposed to being attracted to it because it permits you to inhabit a certain role that you find attractive), you'll be at it your whole life.
Robert Creeley in the last decades of his life spoke often of the "dear company" in which he found himself as a poet. This is something else that keeps you going, the communion with others who are always presenting you with astonishing art. I had never met David Bromige, for example, until you gave me his address and suggested I might ask him for a copy of the manuscript that was soon to be a book of his. I would never have thought to write to a poet I didn't know and ask such a thing if you hadn't suggested it -- and in return I received one of the kindest and most generous communications I've ever gotten, and a new friend. And as I travel to conferences and campuses, I'm always meeting new people who share that same sensibility. Now, I'm not laboring under any illusion that poets are inherently good people --we all have horrors we could relate. But when I meet a Duriel Harris or a Evie Shockley or a Geoffrey Jacques, I come away with a new friend and a new reading. I would very much like to think that there are some few in the world who will feel the same way after an encounter with my work. Still, it's always the work that keeps me going, not anything the work might conceivably bring in its trail.

The words, to allude again to Creeley . . . one and one, and again one, after another – there’s always another chorus – always another friend pointing at you to tell you it’s your turn to turn in a solo –


Blogger Steve said...

Hello Tom and Aldon,

Wow, what a treat to have both of you, longtime friends I will always appreciate, sharing your poetry "values" on this wonderful forum today. (As always, Tom, you've got a really special thing going on here at e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s, probably the only forum of its kind in blogland, well, certainly the richest and most vital.)

Interesting coincidence, too, today, that I happened by and the two of you were talking about "poetry's value" and all. I've been struggling with questions about the value of poetry, myself, of late (recent posts at ). Lately, I haven't been sure that for me there is a lot of value to poetry, which is a difficult and very disturbing self-revelation rife with contradictions, especially in light of the fact that what I enjoy reading, so very often, is precisely the poming and poetics that friends like you two engage in lifelong. Of course, I've always had a difficult relation to the "concept of poetry" and frequently preferred "less esoteric," less (not "decorative," but) ostentatious thought, if you will. Poetry is supposed to be "the thing itself, not ideas," and all. Except that I love "ideas" and the free wheeling development of them, which doesn't men that they have to add up to anything in particular or serve the proposal of a bigger, main, and singular point -- well, even there, poetry does come in, since the more freewheeling "thought" gets, or is permitted to get, the more "poetic" form inevitably enters into the writing. That is, the purer and freer and more "open" any writing becomes or the more thought and its sister Writing are "open to" going wherever one's passion and curiousity want to go, the more the writing must also break from "straight" communication into word formation that may have no solely communicative or obvious purpose at all.

Okay, but why "try to write poetry" if in fact one wants to "just plain write in general and if some of the writing takes some 'poetic' turns , then so be it." But why "aim at" poetry specifically? Isn't all rich thought (in words and language, that is, not painting or music or mathmatics, which also move or produce "thought," some would say), isn't all "rich thought" poetic, ultimately? Well, you can see that I am very confused at times.

Personally, life has been sometimes tough of late. I've really struggled with the retarded career and vocation changes I made 8 years ago (leaving teaching was, in retrospect, a big mistake, and I'm still recovering from that "mistake"). Times like this make me question all the years I took "poetry" and poets so very seriously but generally got small mileage out of my efforts in terms of teaching career and the like (despite the fact that I excelled at teaching Freshman Comp, did it better than most and much better than the poet with an M.F.A. ever did). Very complicated and maudlin issues for me... I'm not supplying enough detail here, but suffice it to say that whenever I've felt kind of screwed by "academia" and colleges I worked for, I've ended up questioning "poetry" and poets almost as much as much as the institutions and colleagues who made me feel (sometimes very bitterly) used and exploited. It gets all mixed up for me...

There's much more, though. It does NOT boil down to something as simple as job satisfaction, regular life existential problems that are fairly easily remedied by common sense and rational efforts (psychotherapy, filling out job aplications, etc.). I would not necessarily feel less ambivalent about the worth or value of poetry if I were a Ph.d and fortunately ensconced in a lovely university position, which I so much wanted in what my previous life... I think I'd still wonder what it, poetry, is really any good for. There are other pleasures and pasttimes in life. There are other stimuli and arts and intellectual pursuits that satisfy one's intellectual hungers (especially philosophical and theoretical prose, for me psychoanalytics especially). There are other sources of meaning (in a life). Most especially, there are other means to accomplishing heartfelt goals (for example, direct political action goes a lot further in solving political and social problems than does the writing and circulation of poetry; quality, adept psychotherapy goes a lot further in modifying the psyche and resolving psychological issues than poetry ever will; actually spending time with one's loved ones produces far greater social fulfillment than hacking out poems to/for one's mom or dad or brother or sister). Is "poetry" just a sophisticated filling out of one's leisure time, then? Is it, thus, a fairly "priviledged" indulgence? Is it just an inexpensive and unobtrusive, highly personal and private "hobby?" Is it truly a form of prayer for some? What good is it?

Surely it is variously "good" for any given reader or practitioner. Surely it should not have particular purpose imposed on it by maudlin thinkers like me who need to weather tough financial times every decade or so.

Anyway, I've been searching for new answers to my endless suspiscions, of late. This is not new to me. I came to poetry late, almost solely because I was so impressed by the intellect and energy and sophistication of our great mutual friend and mentor, David Bromige. I will probably never comfortably regard myself as a natural poet the way I regard D.B. or either of you two as "real poets" even if I pen several books in my lifetime and you "real poets" tell me over and over that "that's poetry, Steve. What you write is poetry. What you do there is poetry. You ARE a poet, among other things. Relax!" In brief, I still won't know always if it, poetry, has any purpose or why I should be wondering if it needs one.
I suspect that if "poetry" were placed on range between "doing" and "being," then it would locate itself much closer to the "being" end ofthe spectrum than it would to the "doing" spectrum. I suppose that it's just "being" for those who find their fondest and most gratifying venue of "being" engagement with words and "thought" (although hitting golf balls for hours on end, "mindless"ly like meditation, is right up there with "headstuff" like writing, too, for this practitioner).

Anyway, some silly reflections from reluctant poetry buddy Steve today... Bests to both of you.

5:18 PM  

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