To be a good finder:
Kent Johnson: Your first full book of poems, American Rambler, has just been published, and in a beautiful edition, by Thorp Springs Press. The early Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, and his wanderings through what is now Texas, is at the center of your book. So to begin with a somewhat unimaginative but potentially productive question, why Cabeza de Vaca?
Dale Smith: I grew up in Texas, and like a lot of people, especially young people, I very much took the surface at face value here. There were highways, buildings, parking lots — all the recognizable products of modern life popping out against an extremely diverse landscape of desert, wetlands, hill country and forests. When I moved back to Austin in 1996, I was curious about what might lie beneath the concrete, literally and figuratively. My first attempt, Texas Crude, a chapbook of satiric epigrams, led me to examine the social facts. What happens to a world transposed by economy?
Q: Okay, so it seems he’s an image for you and not just an historical figure?
A: Yes, as an image, also, Cabeza de Vaca struck me. He was washed naked into the New World. He became a trader and healer, and lived among his native lords for eight years. He is Cortés’ shadow in a sense. Like Cortés, he was trained to conquer. His grandfather exterminated a large portion of the population of the Canary islands for God and King, not to mention his own wealth and honor. So Nuñez grew up in that kind of household, under the eyes of a tough old man. He fought in some bloody European battles before going west. So he wasn’t heading to the New World with any but the standard ideals, to take gold and, if possible, extend the domain of his Catholic God.
Q: American Rambler has already been praised rather lavishly by poets like Joanne Kyger and Diane Di Prima. And not too long ago, you received a completely unexpected letter from Robert Creeley, in which he remarks, inviting you to share his opinion with others, that, “Not since Haniel Long’s retelling of Cabeza de Vaca’s poignant journal of his wanderings has an American writer so vividly and particularly located the mind and heart of those historic particulars. Here is initial America sans the hype, the heart-breaking first story.” Well, so as they used to ask at Stanford, around the zenith of the Political Correctness years, “How does that make you feel?”
A: Creeley’s words are significant to me because I hold him in highest regard. He has assumed the role of Odin to me, and on his watch poetry receives one of the highest orders of intelligence possible for it today. I want recognition for what I’ve accomplished. Any craftsman would want that. But the poems are responsible for whatever praise or regard they draw from a reader. That I made them is really very incidental. My work was to make myself capable of the myth-image of Cabeza de Vaca; my aim was transparency. I can only hope, in the future, to find those reservoirs of clarity again.
Q: But to go back to what Creeley says about the “heart-breaking first story”... You said that language both relates and distorts a landscape. And this is interesting to me, because I wonder how you would regard American Rambler in this regard. Isn’t it the case that your own work is fueled by, and in turn fuels, the distortions our “mappings” in language make? Or is the formal attitude you have taken in this book — one that is speculative and heuristic in its orientations and proceedings — an attempt to circumvent or outpace such distortion? If the former, where would or should one seek the book’s primary value, since its hope is, in a sense, “washed naked onto the shore” from the start? If the latter, what is it about such — shall we say, Olsonian? — poetic method that holds promise as a vehicle of investigation? Is method ever a working compass?
A: My possession of, or by, language is located with me alone. As the title poem of the book says: “but the land has been mine, / the sky with its fried light / and the wind swaying / pecan branches / near springs that remain / cold year round / I’ve felt with my skin and / heard with my ears.” My claims are for myself. The land preserves a record that is retrieved by archaeologists and geologists. Language commits this record to the imagination.
Q: What about your “post-language generation”? Is it in any sense wandering lost like Cabeza de Vaca? Where is innovative American poetry headed, in your opinion, as someone who’s been involved, if contentiously, at times, in the — if you’ll excuse the word — scene?
A: There are poets of or near my generation who are doing terrific work. Roberto Tejada writes with an extraordinary sense of language as cultural and personal artifact, and his translations of Cuban poet Jose Lezama Lima are breathtaking. Kristin Prevallet is someone else whose work I very much admire for its unique voice, commitment and earnest thematic investigations. I hear Colorado in her lines. My wife, Hoa Nguyen, continues to impress me with her compressed lyric statements. Dan Bouchard possesses an eye and ear turned on the variances of place. Ben Friedlander’s tight, thoughtful poems put forward an intensity of observation that I find admirable. His proposals bring an original poetic voice to the scene of our social failings with subtle wit and humor. Anselm Berrigan brings brains and heart to his work, while Edmund Berrigan’s rootsy folk weirdness has matured into a fuller song. Rachel Levitsky and Linh Dinh are two other writers whose work I always read... Once you start on these lists, where do you stop? There are many more. And I don’t know what the poets I’ve named have in common that speaks to me other than their developing attention to craft.
Q: The great majority of the erstwhile Marxist Language writers and the younger poets in their orbit fell behind the “liberal” wing of the American ruling class out of mortal fear of Bush. Well, here we are... I suppose they’d say that “perceptive acts” are much less likely to “lead us forward” in the current climate.
A: Culturally, I’m glad Bush won this election. He’s stupid enough to light the global fires very soon. America is a boil ready to burst. Artists with perceptive lenses see this and anticipate it. It’s a spiritual preparation, whether we recognize that or not. D.H.Lawrence makes a distinction in America between those who seek their whole selves and those who would remain slaves [in “The Spirit of Place”, Studies in Classic American Literature]. Although this last election seemed to be tepidly divided between suburbs and cities, the Wilderness still receives the highest attention. We’re its shadow in fact. I think it’s possible that the continent itself is lulling us into our present stupor, but I’ve yet to test this hypothesis to adequate satisfaction.
Q: The way you talk about your new book suggests something about “where you come from,” poetically-speaking. This sense of the specific past as propulsive pressure behind one’s writing is clearly “modernist” in orientation, a tendency that comes to a head — at least in America and in terms of “name” figures — with Olson. Two poets you’ve had personal contact with, Ed Dorn and Tom Clark, carried Olson’s project forward, in their particular ways, but many current younger poets of intellectual inclination would regard their work as outdated, a hangover, of sorts, from Donald Allen’s anthology [The New American Poetry, Grove Press, 1960.] As a “younger” poet yourself, aren’t you something of an anachronism? This poetry of the “past”... does it have a future?
A: I’m listening to Charlie Haden these days. His bass fiddle finds what Williams and others have called the creative imagination. I hear this music and it makes me want to make something like it, to extend its living form into language. The problem with language, though, is that words carry meaning and they carry history, same as musical notation, but with a difference. And by way of the modernists and others you mention, I feel responsible for knowing, as well as possible, the history of words, people, places, things, animals, plants, art and whatever else delights my curiosity.
Q: Well, that’s an interesting cut against Z Magazine, one I read myself fairly often. You’re not dismissing the relevance of connecting poetry to progressive political ideals, are you?
A: We’re all obviously going through some kind of transformation now, and there’s a lot of focus on social issues of identity, race and consciousness. For me, to be responsible in any way to those issues I have to dig back behind them. It’s impossible to be responsible for all of history any more, working with it like Pound or Dante before him. But we can turn ourselves into archeologists, to borrow an idea from Olson.
Q: A poet who is very much in the tradition you speak of is Carl Thayler, someone you “rediscovered,” or “rescued,” just as he was arguably about to vanish into irrevocable obscurity (that sounds pretty melodramatic, I’m aware, but I’d wager it’s probably accurate). [See Mark Wallace's review in Jacket # 9, Carl Thayler on Paul Blackburn in Jacket # 12, and five poems by Carl Thayler in Jacket 12. — Editor.] You have committed yourself to his work in a personal and serious way. Can you speak a bit about the “why” of your dedication to his art?
A: Well, you introduced me to his work a few years ago and I immediately took to it. I like what he writes about, which is very often the American West, and I appreciate the formal rigor of his work. He has a certain strength of mind that I find important. Carl is also very sensitive to the syllabic pulse of a poem, and writes in a subtle music that correlates meaning with cadence. The formal energy of his poetry demands serious attention.
Q: To switch the topic a bit: You write a column on the subject of American radio, its history and current politics. Please talk a bit about radio as a cultural battleground. Are there any good reasons poets may wish to pay more attention to the issues and stakes involved?
A: Poets attending the radio will discover only this: radio is dead. It’s heartless, soulless fuckery. Clear Channel radio owns almost any station you could be listening to in any market. NPR is the Time Magazine of the airwaves. I listen to every word, or, well, to much more than most do. I covered a lot of pirate radio in Austin but my editor told me to cut that after a while. The FCC made a lame attempt last year to license low power FM stations of 100 watts or less, but the commercial broadcasters and NPR lobbied Congress to bring that proposal to a screeching halt.
Q: To conclude, I want to go back to Ed Dorn. [Jacket # 9 — http://jacketmagazine.com/09/index.html — has Tom Clark’s obituary for Ed Dorn. — Editor] You knew him. Please talk a bit about Dorn, what he meant to you as a teacher, friend, and poet. And why do you think he was so abhorred, while alive, by many poets in the so-called “avant-garde”? Was it just his cranky, sometimes-weird politics, or were other factors in play? Did he ever talk to you about these inter-poetic tensions?
A: Ed never was, formally speaking, my teacher. I spoke with him on the phone a few times, and I interviewed him in 1997, a few months after he had been diagnosed with the cancer that took his life in December 1999.
Q: One more question. Does Cabeza de Vaca represent for you a kind of grand metaphor for poetry: wandering around, desperate, dressed in bark and leaves, without any real idea — even if going, roughly, “south x southwest” — where he is headed? That sense of a deeper tragedy... But that there can be courage, and faith, and grace in the death-journey?
Kent Johnson is editor of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala), and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Michigan). He is translator of A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (West End Press). You can read more from Kent Johnson in Jacket 2, in Jacket 5, in Jacket 8, in Jacket 10, and in Jacket 15.
Jacket 15 — December 2001 Contents page
This material is copyright © Dale Smith and Kent Johnson and Jacket magazine 2001