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

Anne Waldman

Excerpt from an Interview with Kenneth Koch, New York City, 1980

“...architecture.... suggests that one’s silly sad little feelings are very noble and grand and that life means something.”

This piece is 3,100 words or about seven printed pages long.

Anne Waldman: In [your] poem “Fate”, also in “The Burning Mystery of Anna,” you have some lines concerning Frank O’Hara. To paraphrase: “Frank was sure of his talent, but didn’t say it that way. I didn’t know til after he was dead, just how sure he’d been.” I just wondered how you had that realization about him. Was it looking at the poems after he had died? in a new way?

Kenneth Koch: When Frank died, all of his friends were of course very upset, and, you know, wanted to do something, that kind of frenzied desire for activity there is when something like that, so Larry got the idea that we should go to his apartment before it was sealed up and get all his poems, so we went there and got all his manuscripts. And then Bill Berkson and I divided the manuscripts and read them all and cataloged them. It was very hard work because I was, there was a lot of crying and feeling awful about Frank as I read all these things.

But, yes, it was reading these poems. There were so many poems of Frank’s that no one remembered or had ever read, certainly, or that were never published. There were a number of them that were very cocky about his own writing. I really knew from these poems I read in the manuscript, how good he knew he was and also from some of the prose he wrote too, but mainly from the poems. Never, hardly ever I don’t think, never would I say, when he was alive, did I ever hear him say he was a great poet or brag about his poems. He would put down other people sometimes when he didn’t like them. And when I asked him, “Frank,” one time I said on the telephone, “why is it that we keep writing poems?” he said “well, have you ever read any that have already been written?”

But I remember a conversation one night, We’d all just been in the Chelsea Hotel for some reason and I was saying to Frank something like maybe John and he and I were great poets, or maybe something about Larry Rivers being a great artist, I don’t know what it was, and Frank said, “I don’t think we’re great at all, I think when we’ve done as much as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams and then we can begin to think about it.”

But he was very strict about how — and I remember once when I was talking to him about publishing his poems he said, “Oh, Barney wants to do this book, or So and So wants to do this book” and I said, why don’t you, or you know, why not? And he said “I just don’t have any particular desire to publish a lot of my poems. I mean, John thinks that his poems should be on every wall of New York City and every page in the world, I think that’s fine, I think John should publish his poems, but I don’t feel that way about mine.”

So that I didn’t really have any idea how well he thought about himself as a poet, but and even how totally important it was to him. One got the idea from being around Frank that art meant more to him than poetry and than music did. One only had this idea sometimes. It wasn’t true, I don’t think.

Ann Waldman photo by Ssibley AW: How was it when he’d say, show you a new poem, or read a poem to you over the phone, I don’t know how often that was...

KK: Well, it varied at different times, I mean at the time I wrote “When the Sun Tries to Go On” and when he wrote “Second Avenue”, we would spend half and hour to an hour on the phone every day reading each other the result, that was wonderful. But hardly a telephone conversation ever went by between me and John or me and Frank without our reading poems to each other.

AW: Did you give a lot of criticism to one another?

KK: “No — Oh that’s great — I like that,” or... And then every time we saw each other we’d usually have a poem in our pockets. We saw each other in the Cedar Bar or somebody’s studio. Frank would say, “Here, Kenny, look at this, I want you to see this.” And I’d say, “Look at these five, are any of them any good?”

AW: This seems a little abstract, this question, but where are you “looking” when you’re writing? Does that make any sense?

KK: Usually at the typewriter.

AW: But you don’t have any — I know you have a line about how a poem with its ending figured out is hard to write. I was just wondering about when you actually sit down to write, how that process goes along. Because some of the poems seem (such as “The Duplications”) like they had a plan, maybe they didn’t.

KK: Oh, no!

AW: Not at all? Maybe you could tell us something about how long that took, or what the process was for that poem,

KK: Actually the process is, in one way, different for every poem I write, but there are probably some things that are the same. I mean that somebody else could see that I might not be able to see that — perhaps you can. Perhaps not worth seeing. What usually happens when I write is I just sit down and write, it’s like somebody jumping in the water and then finding some nice place to swim. But of course I’m very conscious all along of judging it all the time as I go along. But the more quickly I can write and — I feel there are things that only you can get, I mean Frank had the same idea, at least he says so in an early poem, that the, I mean there are things you only get by being quick, and for as long as that lasts, I like it. I usually don’t know where I’m going to end up or what’s going to happen. But I can tell when things are going well.

Once I’ve written a version of the poem, I mean then I revise, I get an idea of what qualities I want it to have, and so on. I’ve gotten to like revising a lot more and to be better at it in the past four or five years.

AW: But you must know when you’re going to write a long poem. Or not?

KK: Well, I’ll tell you about “The Duplications”. I just —

AW: I was wondering where that was written also, was that —

KK: It took years. Just because it, I think I didn’t write it as efficiently as I wrote “Ko”, I wrote “Ko” all in three months in Florence. And I would just get up every day and drink some coffee and take a walk and come back and write, and I’d write for anywhere between two or three and eight hours a day. It was wonderful. I think I took Sundays off. That’s the happiest of when I was writing, and you know it was — I was doing something I had never done and it was very interesting.

AW: You were also living there...

KK: Yeah, but that — that’s true.

AW: Wasn’t it hard to stay inside?

KK: I mean how long can you be outside? I mean I did take a walk every day. You know what ambition is, and the need to create, and all.

AW: So tell me about “The Duplications”.

KK: I started “The Duplications” in New York City in at 268 West Fourth Street. For years I thought it would be nice to do a continuation of “Ko”, or something like that. And this was nineteen sixty... I think Katherine was fourteen —

AW: You date everything by Katherine’s age.

KK: ...1968 or ’69. But I started writing one night in Venice, the Grand Canal, just this whole image of this man — his private life — just popped into my head, it just developed. I guess in a way, the way I write, the way I write “The Duplications”, the way I write a lot of things, is just, it’s as though I were two people, as though there this genius and then there’s this John, or something, but I try to get the genius out of the stables, he starts to run, I don’t mean “genius” in the ordinary sense, I don’t judge myself that way. But I mean it’s like there’s this wonderful fast horse that can really go places I’ve never dreamed of and I try to get it out of the stable. I think if I set the pace for it, I wouldn’t get anywhere, I’d write like poets I don’t like.

Well, let’s see, one night at the Grand Canal, a lovely girl sitting by her stoop, sixteen years old was at the Canal, suddenly a giant ice cream scoop descended from the cloud and scooped her skyward in a looping motion. The gods of Venice saw and raged, they left off playing cosmic tennis and plotted their revenge.

Well, let’s see — Venice has been a great fantasy place for me and the secret locale of a lot of my poems, perhaps because of its resemblance to the inside of the body, or, you know, all that water, land and water. Actually I went to Venice three years ago in order to get — five years ago — in order to get re-inspired, so I finished this poem, it did help. Cosmic tennis is just a product of the rhyme with Venice, and —

AW: At what point did you know it was going to expand?

KK: Well, I love to write long poems, as I say in this poem, I like to write things that go on forever, because it makes me happy to write well and it’s sort of nice to include everything. Really what I’ll work at and hope to do though is to give the impression of including everything. That’s really odd, too, that the whole plot comes from the rhyme, from the need for rhymes. This is not, as some silly people think, this does not mean that the poem does not make sense, or that it’s superficial, or that it’s casual, it’s, as I said there’s this operation and inspiration which I’m very attentive to — veering in the right direction once it, you know, once you have a gush you need a derrick, you have to get the oil.

Anyway, my life was very mixed up and up in the air at the time, then I wrote some more of the poems, on Fairfield Porter’s island and Great Spruce Island I wrote more than one there. And then that summer I went to visit my friends Homer and Betty Browning in the County of Cork in Ireland and I wrote some more of the poem there. And then I was stuck, I couldn’t finish it. Then I wrote that on Bank Street in New York, that was after Janice and I had split up. Then I finally finished it in Paris and New York. I finished. I had this desk in the dining room there. I finished it there, I revised it a bit.

AW: Were you writing anything else? In between these?

KK: Yeah. That’s why it took so long. When I wrote “Ko” I didn’t let itself write anything else. When I wrote “When the Sun Tried to Go On” I tried not to let myself write anything else, but the play “Guinevere and the Death of the Kangaroo” sort of sneaked in as well as my going to Mexico in the middle of writing.

AW: So to go on, did you write, what was it, twenty-four lines on a page, as units, or — ?

KK: Yeah, I would always write at least twenty-four lines in a stanza. I’m very interested in the way I’ve written, different poems. I really remote “The Duplications”, endlessly. I hope it turned out all right, it was very had to get. It’s sort of like the story of one’s life, like a poet’s life. I’m often very inspired at the beginning, and then if there’s an interruption, it’s very hard to make the ending as inspired as the beginning, as free and spontaneous. And it’s hard to do that when you get to be older as a poet, too.

Of course the trick there is to write in a different way. I never could have written “Marina” when I was in love with Marina, But it doesn’t work that way with the poem, when one has to get the same kind of thing, at least I tried to do in this poem. I think it worked out OK. I don’t know. Do you like this poem?

AW: I like it, it’s a little hard for me to have the whole thing in my mind at once. It’s so long, it’s quite impressive.

KK: “Im — ” or “O — ” ...

AW: Impressive. I’m very jealous. How many years then was that?

KK: Let’s see, it was published — I was revising it up until the moment

AW: I thought you had written it on Long Island or something.

KK: I wrote some of it there. See, it was published in 1977 and I started it in 1968, nine years.

AW: You know I thought it was — what was it, 1977? — yeah, I thought it was, you know, the year before that or something, I love this line — where is it? — something like “in our hearts — the seething’s always there, look at the possibility for great art.” Seething is a good descriptive word for seeing the poems.

When we were travelling, when we travelled together this last summer in England, you said something about architecture, I don’t knew at what moment this was, but, maybe it was when we were sitting in a dark cathedral looking at those gorgeous columns, you said something about putting the outside in. What you liked about architecture was the quality it has of — you know, it’s like terrific magnificent landscapes, or the sky, or the quality of ocean, of getting those sort of natural, great phenomena that are just out there in the world, in, inside, or in an enclosed area, inside a building.

KK: Organizing masses of distances which in nature are not organized.

AW: I just thought if you could talk a little more about that. And also, is that something you’re after in your poetry?

KK: I never thought of it, but I guess that art is sort of having one’s own way with the language and with what one thinks and feels and experiences. The reason what I said before sounds like a quote is, I don’t usually talk that way because it sounds absurd and pompous and pretentious. So how to say this in a simple way —

AW: Well, maybe you could just talk about art and why you enjoy architecture so much, I was thinking of your plays, more, some of the plays which lend themselves to architecture.

KK: There’s a lot of architecture in my plays, like there’s one called “The Construction of Boston”, and then there’s the city of Shanghai in “The Red Robin”. All those stairways. I seem to find something dramatic about building a city, or ruins, or something like that. I don’t know, architecture is very suggestive and it’s very big, but not threatening, like sort of big and generous in its way. Doesn’t everybody like architecture, I mean, I don’t know...

AW: Yes. You just seem more excited than other people I’ve travelled with.

KK: Probably about some other things, too. No, I mean —

AW: I just remember, also when were in the Pergamon [a museum in Berlin] when I started weeping —

KK: You bawled like a baby.

AW: I was thinking that probably everything would eventually have to be inside, because the planet is just getting so destroyed, eaten up. Just this realization that you would only be able to see these beautiful things inside buildings, and it made me very sad. But also I was very in awe, of that —

KK: I remember what you said, I said, "Why are you crying?" and you said, "Oh why does everything have be so shitty now?"

AW: That’s what I meant, that the outside. And I’m grateful, that — but so much of the traveling I do is inside these, art — you know, artificial situations, inside these museums.

KK: Oh, I know one thing that excites me about architecture is that it’s so thrilling to, the kind of life it suggests — it seems more than the other arts, perhaps, except music, but it’s in more permanent form than music, it suggests grandeur in people’s lives. Like it suggests kind of a nobility, a freshness, a romanticism, a sort of exultation of life. You walk through enormous porticoes and mysterious doors and into gardens and gates and there are high towers and roofs and it suggests that one’s silly sad little feelings are very noble and grand and that life means something.

It’s the biggest most obvious evidence that life is noble and grand. What made me realize that was that very pretty thing you said about the Pergamon being inside a building instead of outside, where it’s obviously out of the fresh air, it’s in the world of animals and clouds, and wind and trees and so, so wonderful. When architecture moves me most is when it is outside, of course. I went to Sicily last January and the Greek temples there — I’ve hardly ever been so moved by anything, I mean just the quality of the life that they suggest, God knows what it was actually like, but one can’t do anything about one’s modern eye seeing it, which probably seems in a strange a way as the insect eye seeing things.

AW: That’s what I loved about Rome, all those buildings and layers of life in different styles of architecture piling up.

KK: I suppose the connection in my poetry is that I really like, I’m excited by the idea of grandeur and nobility and things meaning something. Which may seem curious to those who think my poetry is satirical. Which, it may be comic, which it is, but that’s just a problem which people have who think that solemnity and seriousness are the same thing.

Photograph of Anne Waldman by Kai Sibley

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