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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

To be a good finder:

Dale Smith

in conversation with Kent Johnson

. . . on his poetry, Cabeza de Vaca, historical poetics, the younger generation of American poets, Carl Thayler, the state of radio, and the legacy of Ed Dorn.

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?
    That’s what I asked, and in the process of that I discovered Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to pass through here, as far as anyone knows. His is the first written account anyway of this region and its indigenous tribes. So that interested me deeply, because his words, with some few other Spanish documents, are all that exist historically. Archeologically, there are some very sophisticated stone tools and rock paintings, and other remains, but Nuñez’s was the first written account.
    Carl Sauer and Cleve Hallenbeck, separately, made very close studies of this relation, comparing his words to the geography they encountered in the 1920s. That was very important to me too, how language both relates and distorts a landscape, because the earth itself keeps records of its past that do not always correlate with what men or women think they have found. Olson also had read this story closely, but I only discovered that once my own journey began.

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.
    But right from the start, things went wrong. He left Cuba in 1527 with more than 500 men and was one of four to return nine years later to Mexico City. His years in the wilderness, and his very careful relation of this wandering to King Charles V of Spain, struck me as very significant and demanded a closer look from me. Despite modernity’s dominion, I believe that wilderness remains an active force in the New World. Yes, it remains a force as a subliminal image.

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.
    Any relation necessarily distorts that edenic first day. Cabeza de Vaca’s account to his King was crafted with high knowledge of courtly conduct. After all, he still had a career to maintain to whatever capacity he could manage after nine years in the wilderness. Haniel Long, free of Spain but subject to his own Depression-era American pressures, reached for a closer spiritual approximation of that experience, and framed it through the figure of Nuñez.
    My own work resulted over a two or three year period. I was delivering flowers part of that time and on many days I would stop the van and write some of these poems in my delivery book. The combination of movement through space, in a place familiar to Nuñez, but delivered through my own unique perspective of voice, eye and ear — that’s how it happened. There was less method involved than orchestration. Kenward Elmslie said he saw me functioning as a movie director in this book.
    I don’t know if this really addresses your question completely. Yes, words distort an event, as words do, but with that comes a clarity of the imagination, fueled with new and greater possibilities. I think it’s wrong to call “Olsonian” that “attempt to circumvent or outpace such distortion.” Olson gave history and poetry the force of his imagination. His phenomena were his own. If it’s useful to others, it’s useful to them in their own ways, individually. There are objections to his data dump, at the expense of higher poetic music. But those are formal considerations. Whatever method Olson used was Olson’s alone, or so it seems to me. The Rambler in American Rambler is myself; Cabeza de Vaca chose a deliberate route South x Southwest.

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.
    By the way, I don’t think of myself as being “post-language.” Whatever any of us are doing I think falls under the mutating forces of what Clayton Eshleman has called International Modernism. Even that sounds too broadly academic. I love words and stories. I want to find out what happens in the world. I don’t know if one generation is any more lost than another. I think we’re at the end of a very fertile period of activity in American arts. The Modernists gave us a lot, and it will take some time for their work and ideas to finally filter through. I don’t think the work they initiated will be exhausted for quite some time. Those who are in possession of themselves still tap into an extraordinary reservoir of ideas and images. The difficulty for us today, I think, is the acculturating distractions and psychic assaults that remove us from the important craft of honing poetry.
    How can our poetry exist with the vapid, socially engineered Ally McBeal? Or Survivor? Or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The task of a poet today is probably more difficult due to this total siege by a culture that seeks dominion over our psyches. The dogma masters of the ad agencies are culture priests, and we’re all being manipulated by our desires. Critical theory, and, through it, Language Poetry, helped us articulate the chains that bind us to our culture. But I’m sick and bored with enumerating the now obvious infections that limit our actions as men and women. Conceptual arts have magnified the prison yard. I trust perceptive acts to lead us forward, if there is a forward.

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.
    Poetry is an archaic time machine among other things that occasionally connects and extends vast spaces of the imagination. You want to go to 2nd century A.D. Alexandria, or maybe 3rd century B.C. Alexandria? Cool, let’s go right now. Well, I hear the objections, that I’m running from the present. There’s that social lump Z Magazine details ad nauseam, with its blubbering for good. Americans have this naïve faith in their good actions, but there are inner acts of an equal or greater magnitude.
    But to get back to your question, it doesn’t matter what you write about as long as it’s charged and vital. Everybody’s getting hits from everywhere all the time. If you’re listening closely to your environment, you must take the past seriously as a subject of study and retrieve from it something necessary to the present. That kind of connectivity is what I find most interesting about poetry and mythology.

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.
    I think it’s important to be a good finder, because you have to train yourself, learn for yourself how to look. You have to intuit some sense of connection and determine for yourself what’s useful to the art of the poem. The art of finding is possibly more important than writing poetry right now.

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.
    For me he complicates the idea of the American West, because in it he finds the compelling and contradictory nature of those men who settled it. Carl’s not a visionary like Burroughs, nor is he an idealist. His ground is unredeemed, same as Burroughs, but Carl evaluates and digs through the historic past to retrieve the personae and events that compose it in his imagination. Burroughs is a romantic whose love of the outlaw and whose hope for some redeemed life away from snivelization (to borrow a word from my friend Philip Trussell), led him to write some very fine novels, especially The Place of Dead Roads. But that’s a book of magic, a kind of prayer for the Wilderness inside us all.
    Carl works with historic event and he’s not embarrassed to find heroes in men many of us today might see as villains. In the Poundian sense, Carl is working with those values that shaped the westward migration of European peoples. And Carl grew up in California, so the autobiography figures in as well, because that’s as far west as it gets. He has tested poetry and himself with the determination of his active imagination, and that for me is a serious accomplishment. Besides, poetry is indifferent to obscurity, look at Emily Dickinson. Poems go out when it’s time. Like Pound says, it’s the quality of our affection that matters. I think we can only learn to trust our affections and affinities for the poem and for poets. The rest will take care of itself.

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.
    Art Bell used to be very interesting to me, and he was someone I thought poets might dig. He broadcast from a trailer in Nevada. He talked to his audience about UFOs, crop circles, string physics — all kinds of fantastic phenomena, and he invited very interesting, far-out guests onto his show. But I haven’t paid attention to that program — Coast to Coast AM — since he left it last year. Actually, I understand that he’s back a few hours each night now. But since Y2K turned out to be such a yawn he’s piped down a bit. I wonder how many hand-cranked radios or flashlights his underwriting sold?
    Radio can be good if you work at listening to it. I still listen to AM, and religious radio. The obnoxious, nationally-syndicated right wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh is even entertaining at times. Unfortunately, Howard Stern’s no longer on the air in Austin. I interviewed G. Gordon Liddy and thought he was terrific. I asked him what he hoped to achieve by doing his show. “To instruct and entertain,” he said. I thought that was a fair and decent goal to set for oneself.
    Of course I think poets should listen to it. Radio is an intimate form of communication, and it has been stolen from us. I mean Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting own AIR, which among other things is a natural resource. We’ve all been bamboozled, and the radical consolidation of the ’90s really signals the end of even the dream of active, intelligent radio except in some remote public pockets. Anyway, it’s industry and propaganda. The newspapers are no different. But then who reads the paper for news any more? What’s not said and what’s not on the radio is much more important than what is.

Q: To conclude, I want to go back to Ed Dorn. [Jacket # 9  —  —   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.
    But he very much was a teacher in the sense that I have attended his work closely. Also, his friend Tom Clark was my teacher at New College [in San Francisco], and so there was a shared poetic body there that I was introduced to, and for which I will be forever thankful. For me personally, there are concerns of culture, politics and poetics through which I find affinities in Ed’s work. To me he was a great teacher through his books and conversation. His presence was magnificent. He is a figure of reason and intelligence, and he achieved through hard work an elegant and active vocabulary of spiritual and psychic depth.
    Finally, he turned all of that against a culture he found in disintegration. By the 1980s, he reduced his critical insight to the sharp, pointed epigrams collected in Abhorrences. For me, his great prose work, The Shoshoneans, preserves his most powerful and lyric prose statements about the dispossession he felt in post- World War II American culture. That book should be required of any serious student of the American West.
    His intelligence and attention were intimidating, because he constantly kept you aware of who you were rather than what you would like to present yourself to be. I think that’s one reason he was disliked by some people. When I interviewed him in 1997 I asked what he thought of American poetry. “It’s just a gutless wonder and it’s totally under the thumb of Rome and always was,” he said. “Because it admires centralized authority and coercion....”
    That kind of condemning attitude doesn’t win friends. But I think his bad reputation results mostly from ignorance and mean spiritedness. A few years ago in Exquisite Corpse magazine Mark Spitzer wrote a provocative exposé of Ed, noting his fondness for drinking and looking at beautiful women. One San Francisco Bay Area poet also has led a kind of Jihad against Ed for a long time.
    Ed said and did things that sometimes gave offense to those who are quick to take it, which is too bad, because he was also a very generous man.
    At this point, going back to the distortions carried by language, the acts that disturb this person have been quite blurred and lost on younger generations of writers who should be encouraged to read Ed’s work rather than revile it. If you want to know something about the west or poetry, Ed’s work is a good place to start. If you’re easily offended by an expansive and contradictory human presence, read Poetry Plastique.

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?

A: Of course. So let’s stop there, on the way...

Photo of Dale Smith

Dale Smith lives in Austin, Texas, where he edits the magazine Skanky Possum ( with his wife, the poet Hoa Nguyen. His poems, essays and reviews are available in several print and web journals, including First Intensity, Jacket, Exquisite Corpse and Mungo Vs. Ranger. He also writes about media and books for a weekly news magazine in Austin. American Rambler was published by Thorp Springs Press and is available through Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California.

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.

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

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