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This issue of JACKET is a co-production with New American Writing magazine
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Tom Orange

An Interview with Clark Coolidge

The following is an edited transcript of a phone conversation that took place on February 4, 2001 between Tom Orange in Washington, D.C. and Clark Coolidge in his home in Petaluma, California. This interview attempts to catch up with Coolidge in the twelve years since his last interview, conducted by Edward Foster for Talisman (now reprinted in Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews, Talisman 1994). His most recent books include The Book of Stirs (Seeing Eye Books, 1998); Now It's Jazz (Living Batch, 1999), a collection of writings on jazz and Kerouac; Bomb (Granary Books, 2000), which includes photograph collages by Keith Waldrop; the first volume of On The Nameways (The Figures, 2000), an ongoing series of short poems; and Alien Tatters (Atelos, 2000).

So when did you move to Petaluma?

It was December of '97. It was just about a week before Christmas, so we've been here over three years now. I guess you want to know why?

Well, it's surprising, since you had been in the Berkshires since at least, what, 1970?

Yeah, we moved in the summer of '70. We just got tired of it after twenty-seven years, twenty-seven winters. We were living on a dirt road hillside that was difficult when it snowed or when ice was there. Also, our daughter grew up there, and finally matriculated. And we never really intended to stay there that long, it's just inertia I guess. It was a good place to write; it was in the woods and quiet. Except for people's machines on the weekends — it's never that quiet.

And you had also established something of a community there as well, between there and Providence and New York?

There was a kind of poets' community in the Berkshires for a while in the early eighties, when Peter Gizzi had o.blek magazine going, and there were some reading series, and a certain amount of activity that came in just for a few years. And Mike Gizzi moved up there and we became good friends. And I'd get down to Providence once in a while, although I was never really connected with the Brown creative writing scene except knowing the Waldrops. So, we just decided . . . my wife's from out here, and . . .

That's where you met, right, in San Francisco?

In '67, right, when I came out here to join David Meltzer's Serpent Power band.

Was that the primary incentive for going out West that time?

Yeah, it was the trigger. I wanted to get out of a situation I was in back East, I had just been divorced and was living with Aram Saroyan and some guys in Cambridge, and it was getting kind of intolerable, different wills and different directions. So when David said "Hey, I got a band and we need a drummer," it was just perfect. The timing was right.

So what was the instrumentation and the people in the band?

David and Tina Meltzer were the singers, Dave wrote the songs and played lead guitar, and we had rhythm guitar, bass, and me on drums, that was basically it.

No keyboards?

Well yeah, on the record we had a keyboard, then he left the band. And the band pretty much broke up after the record. We reformed as a kind of rag-tag free-jazz rock aggregation. We made the record in March or April of '67, and then that aggregation broke up and David and I spent the summer auditioning bass players, rhythm players. And finally by the fall we had another kind of band going. We had a guy playing shenai, Daniel Moore*, who used to be known as a poet and was published by City Lights.

[* City Lights co-published a book by Daniel Moore in 1996 titled The Ramadan Sonnets. Daniel is now a Muslim / Sufi and goes under the name Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. — Editor.]

Photo of Clark and Susan Coolidge

Photo of Clark Coolidge and his wife Susan by Tom Raworth
Copyright © Tom Raworth, 2001

What's a shenai?

It's a double-reed Chinese horn. He would also dance around like a dervish! We also had a guy on alto sax, sometimes a banjo player, various people sitting in. It was actually an interesting band that never recorded, it was all kind of spontaneous. . . . It was a really different idea from the album, although we still did some of the songs, like "Endless Tunnel." But it all turned into a very free kind of playing . . . sometimes had hour-long tunes, stuff like that.

What kind of sound were you guys striving for? Were people into the Soft Machine, that kind of stuff?

No. David and I both have backgrounds in jazz, and he has a sort of country influence. Also the whole atmosphere of San Francisco at that time was very experimental, and all kinds of different kinds of music coming in — a little more free and mixed-up than it sounds on most of the records that came out because the bands got pretty solidified into their styles when they signed up with the big companies. But some of the early Dead would be I think closest to what that atmosphere was, kind of jam out and go free, play anything you could think of. Some pretty amazing sounds were made and mostly not recorded.

Did you play out at a lot of gigs?

We had a couple of pretty regular weekend gigs at two places, both in North Beach, at the Coffee Gallery and a place called Deno and Carlo's, which later became the Keystone Corner, a pretty well-known jazz club in the 1970s and 1980s.

And that was the same place that Spicer held court too, right?

No, that was Gino and Carlo's. It's a confusion. They're only a couple blocks away from each other in North Beach. I get the names mixed up myself.

So the Serpent Power album has been reissued on CD.

I know, several times actually. I saw one recently from Italy. Of course nobody ever gets told by these companies, or god forbid paid.

So nobody ever sees royalties?

No, no such thing! I remember I got paid maybe two hundred dollars for the session, that's all I ever saw. Plus a couple copies of the record. But that's pretty typical. Of course we weren't doing it for money really, although we were trying to survive. But it's the kind of idealism that comes with the music that's good.

Recently, in the note on Ing that you wrote for the forthcoming Angel Hair anthology, you say "All the sixties San Francisco musical potential had tattered away in big fame and bucks as American usual (in only a year!), and I was back stuck with my words." Can you elaborate on that, the breakup of the band? What happened, people had other interests?

People had an interest in supporting their families and staying alive, and I think there was always a tendency or a pull on any band to become more of a commercial band or a dance band. We had arguments about that finally. Also I had just met Susan and was getting involved personally away from it. So the band came to an inevitable split-up, and I just started writing more.

You also said once that it came down for you to a decision about continuing to play or writing.

I always used to argue with myself about that, I always thought you couldn't devote your full self and energy to two different arts. I don't know, I sometimes think now that that was kind of a bum steer, except that it was always a problem or a fork in the road in my life. I can look back to times way before that where I could have gone more in a jazz direction if things had broken a certain way. But they didn't, and writing was always there, and of course you can write without other people. Band problems are always a problem of chemistry and the right people and the right times. You can always go home with a pencil and paper. The one great advantage of writing.

Well you have played sporadically between now and then, right? There's the publicity photo in The Rova Improvisations of you behind a kit.

No, I didn't play actually. I messed around with somebody's drums. There was a guy, a drummer named Vladimir Tarasov, who was a member of the Ganelin Trio, which is a pretty famous Russian jazz group. He played with Rova one evening, I think it was in Tallinn; he had this great array of a drumset, and afterwards I asked him if I could sit down and tap on it and he said sure. But I didn't actually perform with them.

So what motivated you to go to Russia with Rova back then?

I knew Lyn and Larry, and they were trying to gather together some friends to make the traveling a little more affordable. And a bunch of us jumped at the chance to go see that country, and see that kind of a group, what kind of response they were getting and where it was taking them. It was a wonderful experience. Of course we also met poets, because Lyn knew people like Arkadii Dragomoschenko in Leningrad at that time.

And you went twice.

It was '89 and then '90, the next fall I think. Lyn had cooked up a thing with some of the Russian poets: I think we started in Stockholm, Helsinki, and then went back to Russia, and gave readings together and hung out together, which was I think supposed to end up as some kind of anthology which I don't think has happened. But that year was right on the edge of the Soviet Union disintegrating — it was really quite a time to be there. I remember there was a jazz festival in Leningrad, and I'll never forget seeing a band of maybe 13-year-old kids playing like the Basie band! You know, from Georgia, or somewhere to the south, in Russia. And they were wonderful! They had this incredible guy who was their teacher who was just leaping up and down leading them, it just brought tears to your eyes. The way that music has spread really around the world . . . and good players, drummers with good time and everything, which wasn't always true back in the fifties.

You could have 13-year-olds doing Basie and then Rova coming out of the more avant-garde tradition, side-by-side. What does that say about the reception of jazz in Russia, as opposed to here in the States where you have the Ken Burns shows lumping all of the post-1960s stuff into the last ten minutes of episode ten?

Exactly. They were, it seems to me, really just hungry for music. And I suppose they argue about it among themselves, but there were huge audiences and enthusiastic responses, so that was a little different. We're more used to a divided-up audience, or practically no audience, for avant-garde things. We could go into the Burns thing, but that's another whole barrel of pickles. I hated the way they treated Cecil Taylor on that show. He was really the only one where they negatively commented on him, as if somehow he was doing something wrong.

Which is what he's been hearing since the mid-1950s. —   He writes poetry too.

Yeah, there have been attempts to publish it over the years, and somehow people always had difficulty. But, yeah, he does write. I gave a reading with him once at St. Mark's Church, I think it was '91 or '92, and it was interesting although strangely enough I didn't really get to meet him, he hung out with his people and we didn't get together, but we did read separate sets. There's a tape.

So was it hard to leave the Berkshires or were you ready by that point?

I think we were ready. I was getting, strangely enough, more attracted to my home town in the last couple of years before we left — Providence, Rhode Island. My mother was still living there and we were going down to help her, because she moved out with us. We were helping her move out of her apartment, so I ended up spending a lot of time down there walking around and seeing the old places. For a second I even thought of moving back there, but I don't think that was in the cards anyway. I started writing a long book-length poem about Providence, which I started in early '97, and it's still going on actually, I'm still fiddling with it.

How long do you think it will end up?

Well right now it's about two hundred pages, and I think it's more or less reached the length it will have. I've been sort of working around within it and changing things around, but it seems . . . I mean I could go on forever, I always feel like most works that I get really involved in I could keep going on them, but there has to be some point where I stop or give myself a reason to stop. You know because it's maybe true that it's really all one long lifelong work.

So do you like being back in the Bay area?

Yeah I've always liked it here. I suppose I should temper that with some concerns now, like, for power and so on. But yeah it's a nice place to live. Petaluma's a graspable, small enough town that you can kind of feel the people and feel where you are. As far as the poetic community, it's always been pretty scattered around, you know, some people in San Francisco, some in Berkeley or Oakland, others out in the north bay. We probably don't see each other that much, but we talk on the phone more, exchange books and so on. But, you know, I'm talking about people that are older and don't have that young energy to form a group or anything anymore. I mean that's a whole interesting subject too, about how those groups get to happen when they happen, and when they stop happening, what the use is of them and so on. Of course the latest one out here being the Language thing.

Let me ask you about some of your recent work. I'm especially interested in your preface to On the Nameways, where you say, "I began writing these poems in an empty moment when I thought maybe I'd run out and had no more to do." And that you found "a glee here I hadn't felt since writing the first poems of my own (1965)." Can you talk a little bit about this slump, how you came out of it and how the Nameways poems brought you out of it?

Yeah, well I've been trying to do a little homework here about when things were written in the nineties, and I actually had to go back and look at all the manuscripts because I don't remember always what followed what exactly. And it seems to me I was a lot busier during that time when I was remembering a slump than I remembered I was.

Yeah, because I've got the list of your unpublished books, and looking from 1990 straight through the present there's pretty much something every year. And I was trying to figure out when this "slump" was as well.

Well it wasn't exactly a slump or a block, it was just a feeling, and it may not have lasted very long — it probably didn't. But it was a distinct feeling of getting up one day and thinking, well, maybe there isn't that much more to do. And then suddenly I started waking up with lines in the morning, and they'd turn into a short poem. And I'd think well, something is tugging at me here, like it won't let go, so what the hell, I'll follow this, I've always been following something. If it stops pulling me, then I will stop.

And it obviously continues to do so! What's the count on the Nameways poems up to now?

I haven't counted them. It got up around two thousand and I stopped counting. The number of them is kind of unimportant in a way, I mean it's just daily work. It doesn't feel like I'm doing a tremendous amount of work, but didn't Gertrude Stein say something about how if you write a couple of hours a day, it's amazing how many pages you pile up? It's true! It's almost like that activity isn't quite according to chronological time anyway. In fact I don't think it is, but that's a whole other metaphysic or whatever. No, these things are going on, though I'm beginning to wonder about the title. The title made more sense maybe in the early part of it, and Geoff's going to do three volumes under that title. But that won't even get up through the first couple years of it.

There's also this little chapbook called The Names, dated December '94. Was that the start of them?

It's funny. I was looking through some really early manuscripts — way back to the beginning, like late fifties, early sixties — and I found a work that was just a list of names, made-up names. So I think it's always been there.

Tonto Lavoris is kind of like that.

Right. That was a collaboration with me and Larry Fagin. I think Larry started noticing two-word groups in my poems that sounded like names. Some were, but most of them weren't. And he started making up this list. I think "Lavoris Tonto" was the original sequence, but we changed it to "Tonto Lavoris." That was a collaboration, but all the words come from my poems.

From previous work?

Yeah, he was editing Adventures in Poetry magazine and books, and he had a lot of my manuscripts anyway, and just started noticing them. I was talking with him on the phone the other day about this, and at some point he or I or both of us came to the conclusion that they were all names of wrestlers, and wrestling teams, like tag-teams. [Laughter.] Names like "The Nutritious Ton." At some point we got a take on it and it was funny, we started looking at it that way. You could probably take it other ways. But we were going into gales of laughter over it, discovering these funny names out of what had actually been more sort of abstract poems.

And that must have been, what, early seventies?

Yeah, early seventies.

Because there were also moments here and there, well, I think of the music passage from the "long prose" work, and there's also something called "Middle Borders," those have a lot of names in them.

Right. "Middle Borders" were written from maps, some of them actually while driving across the country one time and looking at the place names on the maps. So obviously names are a big source for me. Aren't they for most poets? I don't know, maybe not quite so accented, but . . .

Well it's certainly an interesting thing because it seems like a new focus of your work but, like you say, it's been there all along.

Yeah, I don't know, sometimes I think I underlined it a little too much by calling it Nameways. I was looking for some connection to Kerouac, like On the Road, and I thought of On the Nameways. But the title maybe doesn't last too long, I don't know quite what I mean, but . . .

Well the little chapbook is called The Names, and then you've listed also a manuscript completed in '95 called The Names: Poems 1993–1995.

Right. There have been three or four collections that haven't been published: one in '92 which is called The Moment So Far, which is poems '88-'92, then the next one would be The Names which is '93-'95, and the one called Day Bang which is '96-'97. That's just a way of containing the shorter poems from those years that don't attach to anything longer.

So you say On the Nameways as a title may not last too long, but what happens when various forms of these names moves through the different published and unpublished works over time?

Well if you work on something for years, it goes in different directions. That was the problem I had with that "long prose": I could never get an overall title for it because I worked on it for so long, and I wanted it to keep turning and twisting and taking up different subject matter and so on, that you'd almost have to call it something hopelessly generic like The Book. I think probably it doesn't want to have a title, or it doesn't have a title. I thought for a while a few years ago that if I knew somebody wanted to publish it I would call it by the title of what is the last section, called "Another Life." But that would be just a convenience, to finally get it over with. But so far nobody . . . I mean it's so long it would probably have to be done in two volumes. The other thing is that for shorter works I would usually get the title after I wrote it, so I thought with the "long prose" maybe I'm waiting until I finish it, then a title will appear, but I never really did finish it . . .

It just kind of stopped.

. . . I just called a halt to it finally. But that didn't produce any particular name either, so there you go.

So how do you see the name functioning in your work? Typically for the New York School, the name is a reference to a community of friends and poets; it also sort of fixes the work in a particular moment in time.

Well, somewhat that way, and also maybe even more so in just an imaginative way, what names of well-known people do to your brain: movie stars, writers, politicians. And then also made-up names. It isn't very far from some of the famous names to just altering them a little bit and changing them to someone that doesn't exist. I suppose there's an almost fictional desire to sort of invent people, and give them a place to . . . I almost feel there's a kind of underground narrative going on in these poems, where sometimes these names pop up again or they're a little bit changed the next time, and something is happening to them inside the poems, and they're beginning to have a history there. So that's part of it. Plus naming is just so basic, and maybe really basic to what poetry is.

Also you go back to the whole Genesis story, and that was Adam's job, to name things.

Yeah, exactly. And the sort of wonderfully arbitrary nature of a lot of names that don't really connect necessarily to the thing or the person, but you put them there and they stick, and people start calling them by them. And then you're into another whole phase of connections and generations.

As far as names of real people, are they a way of sort of cataloging or indexing the contemporary moment?

Or keeping track of something maybe? I don't know, I haven't thought of it quite that way. I was thinking of the way that names function in Ted Berrigan's Sonnets. Some of them are, you know, "Dick" and "Anne" and people that he knows, and some of them are "Ira Hayes," or . . .

"Guillaume Apollinaire" . . .

Apollinaire, sure. John Greenleaf Whittier? And then what he does with those things: later in that poem it says "down the John G. Whittier railroad road." I was very influenced by Ted, particularly that work. I think that's a really seminal American poem. I'm glad to see it reprinted once again. With more poems this time.

Maybe I'll read you that Aram Saroyan quote I mentioned earlier. This is in his contribution to the Stations symposium: "The amazing thing about Clark Coolidge is that all the time I believed he was a conceptual artist, making impersonal structures of words, he was probably in fact writing a very deep, very American, very spacey autobiography, which he continues to do."

Well, I think Aram himself was writing more conceptual works at the time. And he kind of wanted to think that I was too, because he and I were almost a group for a while in 1966. I think Ted even refers to us that way in an interview. Doing, for want of a better word, really more abstract works, and Aram was doing one-word poems and I was doing maybe five- or six-word poems — which was a great difference between us actually as it turned out.

Have you ever thought of your work in terms of conceptual art?

Not really, no. I had a brief interest in it for a while in the sixties, or was it the early seventies. I remember Aram and I used to talk about people like Don Judd a lot, Dan Flavin. I got more interested in Robert Smithson after a while, partly because of the geological connection, partly because he's a terrific writer. Even if you don't get to see Spiral Jetty, which I guess nobody does anymore because it's under the water. The writings are terrific — really generative work.

What about this autobiography notion?

Yeah, "spacey autobiography"? I don't object to it as much as I probably would have a couple of decades ago, when I was more . . . "conceptual," or wanted to define my way different from other people or something. But that seems to go away after a while; I don't care that much, I'm just doing what I'm doing, whatever it is. Inevitably as you get older you start working on memories, and that just keeps surfacing more and more strongly.

You've had more overtly autobiographical work; maybe not all that's been published.

Right. I wrote a whole book about the relationship between myself and two friends in high school, which was written for these two people really, and not intended to be published. Although when Lewis Warsh was editing an autobiographical issue of The World, he published part of it. But I think there are some works that are really for certain people and they aren't really public in that way. Other people just wouldn't get the references. It's an attempt to write within a particular group and use the language of that group. We had particular words and ways of talking and joking with each other, or which were involved with certain activities we did, like cave exploring, climbing and stuff. I wanted to not have any kind of compunctions about not making it bigger for people who didn't know us.

It's almost as if each work, to use Duncan's term, "proposes" its own language that you have to work within?

Yeah, except that you always have your basic language, or your subconscious choices or whatever it is. Probably, to me, all my work is autobiographical in the sense of personal reference. I know what it all refers to, and I know that everybody doesn't need to know all that, the reason why certain sources are used or not. It's not particularly germane to a reading public. Although that sounds pretty stiff. I don't make those rules, really, just thinking about it now . . .

What about the language of alien abduction, which figures into Alien Tatters? You talk a little about the appeal of that language in the endnote. Can you elaborate on that?

I've always been interested in that back to the fifties, and I've always wanted to see one of those things. It seemed like the people who were seeing them or being involved with them are getting more and more involved with them. In the fifties, you'd just see disks in the sky and that was it. And then it began to be — they used to call them "contactees," people who have walked out into their backyard and met some Venusian woman in a skisuit. Or something a little more realistic. And then finally we have the abduction scenario, which is very involved, and that's what really got Alien Tatters going, because suddenly there were all these hypnosis tapes. I actually got a hold of some tapes that Budd Hopkins had recorded of people describing their experiences under hypnosis, and the language is interesting.

So actually the source material there is audiotapes?

Mostly it was books, but I did manage to get a hold of a couple tapes. The books sometimes contain transcriptions of the tapes, in fact largely they do. The last book by Hopkins called Witnessed is a really interesting story, and not just because it involves aliens either. It's a very strange psychological situation. And that was the source for the last section of the book, the one called "Girl in the Light of an Object." I debated for a while putting a list of sources at the end but I finally decided that was tying it down too much.

That's something you did with Smithsonian Depositions.

What, listing source material? Right. And I did it also in the back of Quartz Hearts. And that makes me wish that I had always done that, just for my own reference, because I can't remember all of it. Particularly like the Quartz Hearts one, because it listed just about everything that I was listening to or reading or whatever for the period of writing it, and it would be really interesting for me anyway to see what I was doing. Because my work often comes from a lot of different sources, not always just alien scenarios or whatever.

Have you seen that book Charles Olson's Reading, where it's less an autobiography and more simply a biography of his reading over the years, sometimes day-by-day?

Yes! He was one of those book omnivores, eating up everything that came within reach. Ted Berrigan was like that too. In a certain way I am, I read so many different kinds of things and don't distinguish necessarily. . . . You had asked in one of your letters about a shift in my work "into pop culture from more arcane or specialized areas." I don't think I've so much shifted, all that stuff has always been there. Beckett and all is still there of course, and things like cowboy movies go back to some of my earliest memories. It's all good for that, it's all grist.

As far as compositional processes, I think your readers are probably interested to know how you're working with materials. In the Lee Bartlett interview you talk about Ehrenzweig's theory of "de-differentiation" and the idea that "very little children and artists have a place in their head where they can keep many, many different particles in suspension, all ready to drop into place." Is that something you see yourself still doing?

That was just a statement or a bit of analysis that struck home; it felt right. I don't know how anyone could ever prove anything like that. It's not something that I consciously do, certainly, but it just felt like that's the condition. If you're really working, there are ways in which you can use a lot more different elements than you consciously could if you were sitting there going, "now I'll do this, now I'll do that, now I will reject this." So it almost seems like there would have to be something like that as a neurophysical mechanism, because otherwise how would one handle all that disparate material in a very short time?

Do you then sort of saturate yourself in source materials and then write, or do you have the materials out in front of you when you're writing?

It's not so conscious; I just always have these things going on. I'm always reading something, or watching a movie, or listening to music. And every day, let's say, I do some bit of all those three things, which impinges. With the Nameways poems, since I've lived here I've had this satellite TV and I get all the premium movie channels, so that's a tremendous input. It's very easy to do that, just turn that on and write literally while watching it. They're wonderful sources because you have everything: you have the sound, you have language, images, everything, so you can riff in and out of that. I find it very easy to do that.

Do you have the option of having closed captioning on as you're watching? A lot of times in the captioning the dialogue gets misrecognized and mangled into some pretty interesting language.

No. Some of the subtitling of the foreign films now and then is pretty strange. And useful! I remember one time I was on an airplane, I think I was flying back from Peru on a German flight, and I was watching a movie with Liv Ullmann and Charles Bronson, some kind of a caper movie in Provence. I remember Cezanne's mountain was in the background of all this silliness. And on the arm of the seat there was a little dial and you could switch between various dubbed languages; you could have English or French or German or Spanish. And I was just like a kid with candy, I kept flipping back and forth: "Oh, this is fantastic! Why don't we have this all the time?" Which I've never seen again, but I suppose in this digital age we'll soon all have these. —   But no, it's generally just the movie on the screen. I don't need anything more at this point.

I also wanted to run down the order of writing of your most recent books. Odes of Roba and The Book of During, even though they came out in '91, are books of the eighties, as is The Rova Improvisations, right?

Odes of Roba was written when I was in Rome, from the fall of '84 to about March '85. The Rova Improvisations were in '86, when I was asked to write the liner notes for their album The Crowd. Then The Book of During: the finish date is March '90 but I know I worked on that through a lot of the eighties, so that was a thing that was going on over time. Then there was This Time We Are Both, which is the poem from the first Russian trip, that was in '90; and a long work called To the Cold Heart, which is a retranslation, in the loosest sense, of the Han Shan Cold Mountain Poems, all three hundred and whatever of them. Then in '91 there's a book-length poem called Man with His Head Out, which is from looking at all the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and a work called For Four, which is four sections on West Coast artists that influenced me, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, and Jess. In '92 I put together the collection The Moment So Far; The Book of Stirs was written in January '92, the poems from Lowell Connector were written in '92, January and February. Then the second Russian poem City in Regard was written, and then a book called Berlin Book, which came from a visit to Berlin and to the Literarisches Colloquium. Then the book Registers (People in All), but that was started in '89 and went until '92. That was written from listening . . . I got hung up on listening to talk shows on the radio, something that became a terrible vice I had to break. I don't know if you listen to much of that . . . Rush Limbaugh, stuff like that. A lot of them tend to be right-wing and totally maddening, stupid. I found a way of dealing with my addiction to it was to constantly be writing things that I heard there down in a notebook, or maybe mishearing what I was hearing. So that's how Registers was written.

Why the form in that case? You've got sections of tercets, and with usually thirteen or fourteen stanzas in a section, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen.

I don't think the length was that conscious. To break it in threes was just a way to look at it better, to divide it up. It could have been one long uninterrupted stanza; I just wanted to be able to see the ends and the connections a little better.

And the title? Because it's a pretty rich title: speech registers, and also musical registers as the cover suggests.

That's a piece of music by my old friend Alvin Curran, who's a composer who mainly lives in Europe but has been teaching at Mills College out here one semester every year. And it's dedicated to Richard Foreman, whose theater I like a lot. He writes almost in a similar way: he writes things down in notebooks, and then when it comes time to make a play he gives them to characters, but they're written almost like poems, more originally. —   Then there was Keys to the Caverns, that was something I had worked on for about five years, from '88 to '92, starting with just a two-page poem, and it went through all kinds of stages. It ended up being a work that used a source text very heavily. It was a guy I've always read, a naturalist writer from the turn of the century named Horace Hovey, and he'd written some of the first accounts of the famous American show caves, one of which is Luray Caverns, in the Blue Ridge in Virginia. My parents had taken me on one of those trips to Washington, DC in 1948: I would have been nine years old, and I was already interested in caves and I got them to take me out there, and that really started all my interest in that, or my activity in caves. He wrote a big account in that sort of flowery 19th-century naturalist prose which I find fascinating. So it's sort of a mis-re-writing of all of that kind of material. And then I see here I wrote . . . John Cage must have died that year, and I wrote a work called For John Cage, sort of a book-length poem. Then '93 starts with On the Pumice of Morons, which is a collaboration Larry Fagin and I did to Maya Angelou's inaugural poem, which we thought was hilarious: it was just a pee-your-pants laughing scene. Then that year gets darker. There were two deaths in the family: my father died and then my cousin, whom I was very close to. I wrote a long prose book called Closer and Darker, which I think is going to be published, maybe this year or next, by the Qua Press.

And this is a follow-up to Mine you say?

Well, I suppose in the sense of being a prose book of similar length, but the material in it is very different, it's much darker, more difficult. So there's that. And then that year I started working with Jim Brodey's poems, he had died, and . . . boy that's the year of death, amazing. . . . That was putting together his manuscripts for the book that became Heart of the Breath. So while doing that, I mean I can't just be doing one thing, right? [Laughter.] So I started writing short stanza poems which accumulated from '93 through the next year, which is called Shifts in the Gamut. It moved away, out of Brodey . . . there's one section when I took all the photographs in Robert Frank's The Americans and wrote a poem for each one. Which is a project that I had always wanted to do, because Kerouac in his introduction, writing about how wonderful Frank's images were, ends up saying "Oh the poems that could be written!" And I thought that's an instruction I'll take and do someday. Let's see, '94, there's a long poem called The Light in Depth Then, which is based on notebooks from a trip to Peru that we took in '81 or '82. Then For Kurt Cobain, I think he had died.

Were you a big Nirvana fan?

My daughter was, and she introduced me to him, and so I did become a big Kurt Cobain fan. For part of a year; he died very soon after. —   Then Alien Tatters, and then a book-length sequence called To the Caves, which was based on a trip down south to Mammoth Cave and some of those caves down there. Then The Names, and a work called The Diaries where I found my father's diaries and rewrote them. Then '95 the only thing I have down is the big collection called The Names, which includes that poem. Then in '96 I started the big Providence poem, wrote Bomb in February '96, and then that's where the Nameways poems start, so that's pretty much up to date.

Had you known Keith Waldrop for quite a while?

Yeah I met him, probably late sixties or middle sixties? I forget when they actually moved in. But there was Alan Sondheim at Brown, I had somehow met him in the art community there while I was long out of school but I was living in Providence. And he was one of those polymathic maniacs, he was trying to be the fastest guitar player alive. He had a kind of band — there was this amazing performance, I think there's even a tape of it somewhere, of a reading performance that he and I and Aram Saroyan gave at Boston College in '66, where Aram and I read separately, and then I also played with Alan's band, which was a totally free, improvisational band. He wasn't really a musician, he was more interested in the concept of something like playing as fast as you could. He was also into some sort of mathematics, and philosophy, poetry, and he had a magazine . . . then he finally got into video and I lost track of him. Anyway, that's who introduced me to Keith and Rosmarie. But I didn't get to really know them. I left the East Coast for three years and came out here, then gradually other people that I knew who were involved with them brought us back together, Peter and Mike Gizzi particularly, who both studied with them. They were the mentors of an awful lot of people at this point, quite an amazing source. You wouldn't believe how many books they have in one house! I mean we all do but they've got us beat!

What led you to decide to do the Bomb collaboration together?

I'd written a poem which was based on a book of photographs of the Manhattan Project, and Steve Clay was always interested in having poets collaborate with visual artists, so when he decided to publish it he asked me. I have a collage of Keith's here in the house that I've always liked, and I thought of him. They were living in Paris that year and I sent him the poem and the book. The images he used are taken from some of the photographs in the book, so it's really all of a piece. I wrote the poem in February of '96 and he did the collages a few years later.

And then you have something called Far Out West forthcoming from Adventures in Poetry.

Yeah, that's just some of the poems from the Nameways series that deal with old westerns, particularly Hopalong Cassidy movies from the late thirties. That appealed to Larry's sense of decorum and humor to group something according to a theme, and that'll probably happen in the fall it looks like now.

The Nameways thing is still going as far as you feel or sense it, right? Is that your main project right now? What are your others?

Yeah, that sequence, or whatever it is, of poems is still a daily business. I have a couple other notions, one of which is to just write down some prose, some really autobiographical prose from memories. Occasionally I will tell a friend some story about somebody like John Cage or going to see Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot or something, and they'll say, well why don't you write these down? And for many years I resisted it because of the kind of language that would come out if I tried to do that — it didn't interest me very much. But now I'm beginning to think I should do it anyway, just to get it down. And maybe, who knows, if I got doing it as a regimen, something might come out of it. And they say that you remember more things like that if you actually start writing them. So that's a project I think about and that I might start soon. I want to write more about jazz.

You see that in Now It's Jazz too, that a lot of those album reviews are letters at the same time.

The piece called "Listener's Reach" was all taken from letters, correspondence I had with David Meltzer when I was living back east and he was out here, over a period of years. I don't keep copies of my own letters, but he sent me xeroxes, so I was able to use those as a source. It's kind of cool because it's very hard for me to just sit down and say, "Now I'm going to write about Sonny Rollins." But if you're in correspondence with someone, as I think we all were more energetically years ago, you're both just high on a kind of mutual enthusiasm for certain records, and we were exchanging tapes and things too — so that was a nice way to get that done. It's interesting and kind of too bad that a lot of the correspondence has sagged or almost disappeared.

It serves a certain purpose of documenting your take on a particular record in the same way as a recollection or an anecdote of meeting somebody or whatnot. It's a good thing that David was able to send you those back.

Sure, I never would have done it. I've never wanted to keep my letters, although sometimes there's a need for them later. But you just can't keep so much stuff around. One pleasure actually of moving out here was finally having to get rid of so much stuff, books and things that had just accumulated. I finally had to face the fact that I would never use them, never really crack them again. So it was good to do that. But you also have to be forced to do that if you're of a pack-rat mentality like I am. I pretty much hold on to everything, and it's good to have to be forced out of that.

Looking back over the list of works from the nineties, there's certainly such a variety of forms, prose to individual poems and poem sequences of different kinds. You were talking with Ed Foster about Schoenberg, how he would get a visual sense of the form or envelope of the work and then fill it in with the pitches. Would that apply to these works as well, that at some point in their developing stages you get a visual image of what the form will be like and then fill that in?

It almost isn't just limited to the visual, it's a feeling of a shape, but it might be translated out as an outline or an envelope or something. I have the impression that what Schoenberg was talking about wasn't necessarily visual but a feeling of this sort of overall form before it got detailed. And I think that happens pretty much with anything I do, prose or poetry. At some point you get a sense — I don't know if it's always at first, it's sometimes while you're working and you get a feeling of what it's headed towards, or what the overall shape could be. Not that you're filling out an outline, that's the wrong figure. But you're making the details construct this. Plus it's always a problem about where to end; if you get a good instruction about where the ending is that's all to the good. It was always the problem all the abstract expressionist painters would always talk about — "when is the painting finished?" And I always identify with that: I felt I had some similar impulse.

You used the word "instruction" earlier. And in the Foster interview as well, talking about Mine, you said you got "the instruction to cease. . . . And I did try to write beyond it, thirty or forty more pages, but none of that would attach to the work and I realized that I'd been given this instruction, whatever that might be, to stop."

Right. That was the most dramatic of those instructions I've ever had actually.

It really sounds kind of like Spicer.

Yeah! I suppose. There are certain resonances with him, yeah. One of the big books of my life was Heads of the Town. And it was not something I understood or anything. In some ways I still don't. But I don't think you understand art. (How's that for a big final statement?) I was looking at this wonderful new collection of Morton Feldman's essays, and somewhere he's talking about that great moment when for a couple of weeks nobody understood art. And it was just enough time to really get something going. And also nobody was looking at these artists particularly, they weren't under the microscope, they weren't famous. Somewhere also he talks of somebody saying "Well I don't understand, I don't understand"; and he says, "Well, you're not supposed to understand art, you're supposed to understand culture." And I like that distinction. Culture being the sort of support area around art maybe, the comments on it, which are . . . more analytical, or whatever. A commentary using discourse. Those of us who use words as art have that additional problem of having all the criticism and comment use the same medium, which painters or musicians don't have.

If you're on the receiving end of instructions, I wonder if there's a way that you can then change the direction and sort of talk back to the instructions? Because you kind of get at this in the note to Alien Tatters. . .

I was just going to say, maybe it connects with the alien communication. But I don't know, what would Spicer have said? I don't think he felt could tamper with that.

Yeah, can you talk back, you know?

Yeah. And I don't think he did, did he? Or he didn't claim it. It just was there or it wasn't.

And if you can talk back, how do you know that your message is being received?

Or you might piss off the sender and they'll never send any more instructions. Presuming that you want them.

It's this weird kind of speech act that can never be completed.

I was just watching Cocteau's Orpheus again, and that wonderful image of Orpheus in the touring car telling everybody to shut up and go away and let him listen to the radio because he's getting his poems. It's a wonderfully evocative image. I don't know how much we'd want to claim that we're conduits through which whatever comes, but that feeling is always there somewhere, and when it's going well it always seems like it's not you, you get all your notions or your problems out of the way, and just let it wail.

So how do you see the recent work changing or evolving from your previous work?

Sometimes I can see themes or certain terms that go all the way through the work, and I can say well there really isn't a lot of basic change there, but that's almost like saying you're not a different person. You are kind of stuck with certain things. But on the other hand, overall, the feeling I've had writing those poems over the past few years is really a kind of exhilaration: I feel they're more free, that I'm getting a kind of freedom to include more, to go in different directions, to let certain voices come in that I wouldn't have before. It felt like before I was censoring it more, and I think inevitably you do because, especially earlier in your life, you're trying to get a certain form out, or you're trying to do certain things and therefore you won't allow other voices or forms in. It's almost like, "Later for you guys, we'll deal you later, not right now." And maybe now is later for me. Now I'm letting them. I'm just feeling, you know, I've gotten to an age where I'm not really trying to prove anything. I've done a lot of work and there it is, and that's what will probably stand for me, so why not just let what happens happen and see what I get? It seems it's an ecstatic experience when it's going best, and I wouldn't trade it at this point. Just see how it goes.

New American Writing # 19 and Jacket 13   Contents page
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