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John Tranter

Very Rapid


An Interview with Kenneth Koch
New York City, Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1989

You can read a feature on Kenneth Koch in Jacket 15

If your browser has the RealAudio plug-in you can listen now to an edited recording of this interview, about 18 minutes long. If you’d like to obtain the free RealAudio plug-in for your browser, go to and download the basic model.

John Tranter: Kenneth, your new book is called One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. Now how did a poet come to write a thousand plays?

Kenneth Koch: Well, there are actually 112 — although I must have written close to a thousand from which I chose these. I just called it ‘One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays’ to give it a sense of a very large almost infinite number. I’ve been writing plays all my life. The first plays that I remember writing I wrote when I was eleven years old, and I’ve written plays at the same time that I’ve written poetry — forever. Except that I always gave my main energy to writing poetry — that is to say, that always seemed most important, although I always enjoyed writing plays also.
      But I tend to write plays very quickly, and I’ve almost always written my plays for specific productions. Someone would say ‘I’d like to do a play of yours; but we have this theatre for a week, can you write something soon?’ I usually wrote the plays quickly — I’d revise them, but still it would be fast — and I never worked on them for a very long time. They were like parties I gave — you can only work on a party for so long because then the guests come, and the party’s over.
      After I published my Selected Poems and after I published On the Edge — two long poems — and after I published Seasons on Earth, I couldn’t think what I wanted to do next in poetry. While I had the time to do it, I wanted to do something more with the theatre. And I decided to devote my entire attention to writing plays for a year or two. Which is what I did, with the One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays.

Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch,
New York City

Photo copyright © John Tranter, 1998

I guess it’s difficult to write a thousand long plays, but some of these are really short: I mean, like half a page.

Why are they so short — probably I really don’t know. I just had the ability to write short plays at the time... I’ve written three-act plays... but there were a few reasons why I was interested when they were short. One is that... I’ve noticed when I go to the theatre, unless it’s something very great, that within one or two minutes in the theatre, I get it. I’ve had the excitement of the strangeness of who the people are, I’ve had the excitement of the strangeness of being in a theatre, and I know what the plot is, and what the attitude is ( — I know most of what the plot is —) and the rest is just seeing how it’s worked out. Which is not A-1 entertainment.
      I noticed also on television, when there are a number of movies on, that I can switch from one channel to another and be in the middle of three different movies and in 30 seconds I could be laughing or crying at what I saw. That a great deal of plot was being communicated in an already ongoing piece — very quickly. And I wanted to get that part of drama, that part of theatre, on stage — or at least into these texts.
      I really wrote them to be done on stage. Many people who read them including you, John Tranter, thought I wrote them just to be read, which is flattering to me because it means they’re fun to read — which I hope they are. But I don’t think I could have written them unless I was thinking about their being done on stage.
      Also I noticed that everyone has... that the most dramatic moments in my life are very short. The moment I saw Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ — it lasted about 30 seconds or a minute, and I was terribly excited. Now it’s true that that moment had a long build-up. I had to learn how look at paintings, I had to look at a lot of other paintings, and I had to get through puberty and adolescence and a lot of things in order to be able to have the shocking response I had to that painting — I mean it was ‘shocking’ to me.
      Or indeed in order to have the response I had to looking out at the valley of the Arno from the Piazzale Michelangelo... I had to leave Italy, and just the tremendous drama of seeing somebody one thought one had lost and taking somebody in one’s arms that one though one would never see again...
      It’s true all these moments have a history, and playwrights have satisfied a lot of our desires for knowing the history of these ecstatic or tremendously shocking moments, but they also exist all by themselves, and I thought it would be interesting to get on stage these tremendously dramatic climactic moments.
      And then after I’d written some of them, I realised that assembling a lot of them, putting a lot of them together, would in some way be an interesting, a fair, and one of the several true ways of representing my experience of life. That it seems to consist of a lot of strong moments which are not connected in any obvious way.
      The emotion I feel on the Grand Canal in Venice seems unconnected to the emotion I feel when a poem of mine is published, or when I’m with someone I love, or when I win a game of tennis. These don’t seem to be connected, and they also don’t seem to be connected with all the thrilling moments that I read about when I read about the past.
      But in a way they are connected because they make up my life. They’re sort of like the... the low... if one thinks of experience as flat, say, they’re like the low relief parts, the ‘bosses’, the parts that raise themselves a little above the surrounding plain... in any case, all these moments seem part of my experience, so why not put them together, and see what’ll happen?
      I wanted to bring in a lot of the past, too. After I began to write these plays I began to be very ambitious for them, and wanted them... I wanted to bring together in them moments of excitement in the present and things that happened in the past which were in one way and another ‘momentous’ — either for the world now, or momentous at the time for the people who lived them.
      And I knew there was a great deal I thus would be unable to leave out of these plays. I couldn’t leave the thought of Sigmund Freud out of them, I couldn’t leave sixteenth-century Spain out of them, I couldn’t leave capitalism out of them, I couldn’t leave a lot of things out of them which I usually leave out of my poetry.
      One reason I wanted to work on the plays, I guess, is that I’m very excited by the theatre, and I think there’s a lot of genius in contemporary theatre. Most of the genius I’ve seen in contemporary theatre seems to be in the directors. I’m not sure I can tell genius in an actor; there seems to be some there too. But the texts of contemporary plays I’ve seen have not seemed to me to be of the same quality — most of them — as that of the work of the best directors.
      It also seems that the work of the directors that interested me most — such as Robert Wilson, Peter Brook, Arian Mnouchkine, who works in Paris and Luca Ronconi who did that amazing Orlando Furioso years ago in Italy and who also did a wonderful Bacchae of Euripides using one actress — in any case, all these great directors seemed to me to use either old texts — Shakespeare, the Indian epic the Mahabharata — or else like Robert Wilson they use throwaway texts, texts that are just there like a piece of language, in which you’re not really supposed to get an asthetic experience from the words — the words are there like collage.
      So it didn’t seem that the best directors were working with the best writers.
      There’s a reason why the best writers haven’t written for the theatre, but that would take a long time to go into.
      But I thought the theatre perhaps could use some good texts — it was not so charitable a thought as that, I thought: well, all this stuff is very exciting, the directors, the good things that are going on in the theatre — I’ll write something for it. Why aren’t there any plays in words that are as interesting as Balanchine’s choreography, for example? Now I can’t claim that I filled the gap, but at least there did seem to be a gap.

Perhaps it’s partly economics — you have to pay the actors, and rent the theatre, and therefore you have to fill the hall up every night; and so producers often tend to go for a lowest common denominator to make sure they’ll survive the experience.

Yes, but you have to fill the theatre up with ballet, too; and with the Mahabharata also. But it is a problem economically. But also even in the theatre of the avant-garde I don’t think it’s the texts that have been outstanding. I’m generalising; there are some good texts, but not a whole lot of them that I’ve seen.
      So those are the reasons I figured out why I wrote the plays.
      To tell you the truth, I just wrote them because... I wrote a few, and it seemed to me finally I’d found a way to write plays and be totally serious. The plays seem a little funnier that they are because they’re short. Obviously the Marx Brothers play is funny, and a few others are funny, but...

The Marx Brothers play is hilarious.

I thought that one could do all of these plays in one very, very long evening; or one could do about twenty a night for a week, or one could do a selection. Most of the plays are written so they could be extended to cover a good deal of time by an inventive theatre company. I mean — it may seem a funny idea — but the play about Yeats which lasts thirty seconds when I read it — if you think of it with music and dancers, a lot of snow-fall, howling of wolves, and so on — I guess there are no wolves in Ireland, but — it could last a long time.

Well, they have Irish Wolfhounds, but wolves I wouldn’t know about. We have dingoes in Australia, wild dogs. But where did your characters come from? ‘Cook’, for instance.

‘Cook’ was inspired by a young woman I saw in Cheng-Du.
      I went on a trip there with a number of university professors from Beijing. One goes to Cheng-Du to see the beautiful old Summer Palace on the outskirts of town. There’s nothing to do at night. I was walking around the main part of town in the evening where there’s not much except the smell of coal gas.
      Every once in a while I would see a couple of young men and women dressed all in cooks’ costumes, in white, running through the streets with huge steaming tureens. And this one young woman with a very pretty flat face — sort of plump — I saw two or three times; and I had a fantasy about her, how she was feeling. All she seemed to do was run through these gassy streets with soup in a big tureen.
      So I of course was ‘Brad Garks’ (another character); I imagined speaking to her, and proposing love to her, and she would tell me that she was too much of a cook and not enough of a girl.
      A number of the characters in these plays appear in a lot of plays — ‘Cook’ appears in about ten plays. I got very interested in her as a character. Later in the plays she becomes very famous as a spokesperson for China.

What about On the Edge — the book with two long poems in it that came out in 1986 — and Seasons on Earth, published the following year?

The first poem in On the Edge, ‘Impressions of Africa’, was inspired by a month-long trip I took mainly to French black Africa, but also to Kenya. The other poem in the book, ‘On the Edge’, is — I don’t know if it’s the poem of mine I like the best, but I like it as much as I like anything I’ve written. It’s a rather long poem — sort of non-sequential in a way.
      When I wrote it I was interested in writing some form of my autobiography, and I got his idea partly from reading Stendhal’s autobiographical novel Vie de Henry Brulard — what inspired me was the fact that Stendhal writes not in an organised way about his early life, the way most people do, but he writes about individual moments. Like one moment he’s sitting here, and the sun is coming in here like so... he also has little drawings, like ‘I walked to the candy store, and it’s this way, and you can see the arrow going there, and I ran into Monsieur So-and-so, and he said... ’ And I thought oh, that’s interesting, I could write about my life that way.
      However, when I came to write the poem I found that... I didn’t seem to be able to write a chronological account of my life, in poetry, at least not the way I wanted to. I worked on the poem for a long time, at least three years. There must be a thousand pages of out-takes that I didn’t use. And what it turned out to be was something like... a succession of moments in my life when I felt that my life was particularly vivid or meaningful, or was about to be meaningful, that I was about to understand something...
      And what I meant by ‘On the Edge’ was not what it means in American slang (which means, crazy, or almost about to have a nervous breakdown).
      In fact, for some reason I hadn’t even heard that expression when I thought up the title, and then once I had the title I never could get rid of it. I meant sort of — on the edge of understanding, on the edge of things finally meaning something.
      But of course mixed in with this I suppose were all those moments that came also when I was writing the poem, and all the ones that come from the language I was using.
      There’s something that’s a little hard about that poem which I can make a little clearer. There’s a character in it named ‘Dan’ who moves in and out of the narrative, the telling of the story. And Dan to some extent is a... not exactly a heroic version of myself, because the part of the poem that’s not about Dan is all full of a sort of confusion, hesitation, ambiguity — but the parts about Dan are always extremely clear.
      Dan simply acts, and his acts have results. It seemed to me when I was writing the poem, often Dan was like the... a version of myself that exists only when I write poetry, a sort of clarified version of my own will and my own ability to act and to think; a version I can work on, a version of myself without the complications of doubt, anxiety, desire, fear, and so on.
      So there are two main characters in the poem. One is my ordinary self, and the other is Dan. There’s a wall there, and Dan climbs over it, or knocks it down, or thinks about it. Whereas when I look at the wall it turns into words and colours... in any case, that was that book.

And Seasons on Earth? It was more than just a reprinting of two previous poems together, wasn’t it?

Well, it started out simply as that; as a reprinting of two mock-epic poems I’d written and published before — ‘Ko, or a Season on Earth’, and ‘The Duplications’.
      However, as I thought about the prospect of these two poems coming out, and I thought particularly about ‘Ko’, which I’d written in the early years of my marriage, in my early thirties when I was very happy and very young — my wife and I were living in Florence, it was the beginning of spring-time and every day was just a joy to look at and to walk around in.
      And in that poem ‘Ko’, I remember thinking at the time, I decided I was going to put every pleasure I’d ever experienced in my life — it’s just full of all kinds of things, and adventures, and love, and this and that... suspense, surprise, baseball... I thought what sense does it make to bring out this poem now that I’m sixty years old since I don’t feel that way any more, or do I, or maybe I do but it’s for shorter periods of time — and — what was I feeling then, who was I then that I am not now, and is it ethical and is it practical, and is it pleasant to bring out this poem, and then this other poem ‘The Duplications’ which resembles it, to bring them out now? Why am I doing this?
      So I thought I would write a three- or four-page prose ‘Preface’. Because I finally decided yes, I do want to bring them out now, and there’s something in them that I find is true. Just because I’m not — just because there may be a building that’s gone up between me and the sunlight so that I only see part of it does not mean that the sun isn’t shining, and I sense — it seemed to me it was shining in those poems — that’s very corny, that sort of a dead metaphor, but it seemed like just because I wasn’t feeling something right now, I decided, does not mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it didn’t exist.
      So I wrote this out in prose, and it sounded very pretentious, as it sounds when I say it. And I realised I hadn’t gone deeply enough into the subject, and I thought well, I’ll have a go at it in poetry.
      So I started writing about the subject in ottava rima, which is the metre that the two long poems are in. And I managed to write a thirteen-page poem explaining pretty much exactly how I felt about it.
      It took me thirteen months to write — one month per page — because in writing a poem like that, which is about my own experience and about my own marriage which was very happy in a way, but which ended unhappily, I had to be very careful to expunge from the poem my expression of too much guilt, or my being too flip about what happened. I had to get out of it all sorts of feelings of being complacent about the fact that, well, I wrote good poetry anyway. I found it very hard to get just the right note. I finally got about as close to that as I could.
      Just the right note about — though the right note is always around the corner — about what my life had to do with those poems then, and what it has to do with those poems now. There isn’t anything that I left out about what I think about the subject.
      And then I wrote the plays.

And since then?

I’ve written a couple of medium long poems of about fifteen or twenty pages. But the main thing I’ve been writing in the last six months are very short prose pieces, fiction. I’ve finally found a way to write short stories in which I’m surprised with every sentence, and in which I’m surprised with the result, in which I can get to certain parts of my experience that it doesn’t seem to me I was able to write about before.
      Because when I write poetry, there’s a very rapid acceleration, and I immediately get ecstatic, or nostalgic, or filled with some strong emotion. Whereas in prose I can go more slowly.
      So that’s what I’ve been doing since I saw you last.
      At least that’s what I’ve been writing. What I’ve been doing I won’t tell you. (laughs.)

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