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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

Eliot Weinberger

in conversation with Kent Johnson

This piece is 4,600 words or about ten printed pages long.

Kent Johnson: It’s already a commonplace to observe that the world has changed forever after September 11th. Has American poetry also changed forever? What’s a U.S. poet to do? Whither our poetry?

Eliot Weinberger: American (or any other) poetry changes forever with each poem worth reading. The Trade Center attack will not alter the autobiographical, anecdotal, therapeutic poems of the workshops; it will merely add another subject. But it will be interesting to see what happens, if anything, on the progressive front. Their poetry has been a kind of decadent modernism and their politics has tended toward an academic pseudo-Marxism that is completely oblivious to politics as the rest of the world knows it: the infliction and alleviation of suffering. Meaning is not a capitalist construct, as they claim, but meaninglessness is, and 9/11 was an explosion of meaning in the prevailing media-fantasy unreality of the nation.
      It was curious that the poem most widely circulated through e-mails after the disaster was Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939.’ In other words, there was no poem written since that so clearly and immediately spoke to so many people.

Kent Johnson: What poem would you have sent around?

Eliot Weinberger: I confess the poem I immediately thought of at the time was an even earlier one, Reznikoff’s:

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
a girder, still itself among the rubbish.

which I always remember the way George Oppen used to misquote it, with the last word as ‘rubble.’

Interesting that someone who has written an hilarious send up of the New Formalism would choose a couplet of near-perfect blank verse as example...

Blank verse is normal speech in English and, after all, Rezi didn’t write:

Amidst the rubbish a solitary girder
Would have delighted Johann Gottfried von Herder.

I wish I had a decent comeback to that. So to shift the focus a bit: As essayist, translator, and editor, you have been a consistent champion of innovation and experimentation in poetry — of writing that challenges the literary establishments and prevailing canons of taste. You just strongly suggested that the work produced by the most visible wing of the U.S. poetry ‘avant-garde’  — a grouping that has come to academic prominence in the past decade or so — has been lacking in certain fundamental qualities. Could you talk more about the relationship, as you see it, between formal experiment and those ‘enduring’ contributions poets should be aiming to make? That is, to the extent that a ‘reconstruction’ of America’s avant-garde poetic spirit is on the agenda, what girders of meaning amidst the rubble, so to speak, might innovative poets seek to salvage?

I am not a critic, so I don’t write prescriptions. And I am especially not an academic critic (left or right) in that I don’t write the same prescription for all ailments. There is no agenda for the American ‘avant-garde poetic spirit’; it will be transformed when someone writes the work that transforms it. Nevertheless, in this moment when the war has finally ‘come home,’ one would hope that there will be a new poetry of a political engagement deeper, or more realistic, than the Jesuit Baroque of so-called theory. There are two models in the recent (American) past. One is the overt political poetries of Ginsberg (particularly in the 1950s and early 60s), Baraka (particularly during the Black Nationalist period), Rexroth and Rukeyser (throughout their careers) and Duncan (particularly the war ‘Passages’) — all of which were ‘formally innovative,’ and all of which, from the flood of antiwar and civil rights poems of the time, remain great poetry. The other model, far rarer, is an interior poetry of the political zeitgeist. For me, Oppen is the primary postwar American exemplar. Some others, in the 20th century, would be Vallejo, Célan, Césaire, Bei Dao.
      I also happen to think that American poetry — left, right, and center — will be revitalized when people start getting out in the world. Some of the 20-somethings are beginning to recognize this, but in (roughly) my generation, the only poet of some reputation who has spent much time in the Third World is Carolyn Forché. I’ve said some unkind things about her work in the past, but I respect her as the only one in the 1980s and 90s who was going out and reporting back what she saw, even if her reports were sometimes drippy. As for the others, the left went to the chateau at Royaumont and the right went to Florence on their Guggenheims.
      Moreover, if one is a poet presumably one knows something about how to write. And there are countless things one can do as a writer — not to mention as a citizen — besides offering the world one’s perfect villanelle or deconstructed lyric. It’s the classic dilemma articulated by Oppen: ‘I’m a wooden nutmeg maker and here is my wooden nutmeg against the war.’

So what does one do? I’m remembering that for Oppen, actually, the only answer was to give up poetry for a very long time in order to do full-time political work.

Well, Oppen was a unique case in that he was a committed Party member who refused to write Party propaganda, whether prose or poetry, and, unlike every other Communist writer, he didn’t think writers should be treated differently than other people. That is, if the work to be done was organization and agitation, then a writer shouldn’t be exempt. So he simply stopped writing for twenty-five years.
      I’m not a Communist in the 1930s, not much of a team player and, in the context of Oppen, barely worth mentioning at all. But, for what it’s worth, my own little bit is that I write articles on American politics for magazines and newspapers in around a dozen countries. These are written for export only, which means that they must explain certain things that would be obvious to Americans and that they are written in a language that can be easily translated. But it’s a way of doing something besides griping to like-minded souls over espressos, and I think it’s useful whenever the world sees that the U.S. is not a monolith of self-righteousness, that there are dissenting opinions here — much in the same way that a poem is subversive in an authoritarian state because it tells you something you don’t know. To cite Oppen again — Oppen is always the man in a moment of political disaster — it’s the little pin that pricks the giant balloon.

If we could talk about the essay, then, a genre you have certainly put to controversial use in pricking a few balloons over the years... But your prose is hardly limited to the didactic and polemical, and it’s been opening more and more, it seems, into lyrical states and even poetic forms — such as ‘Renga’ in Karmic Traces. I’m wondering why you insist on classifying everything you do under the generic marker of ‘the essay’? In Karmic Traces, for example, what do recognizably essayistic, often sharply polemical pieces like ‘Can I Get a Witness?’ or ‘What Was Formalism?’ have in common with quasi-lyrical and decidedly bizarre works like ‘Naked Mole-Rats,’ ‘An Archaeology of Dreams,’ or ‘Sex Objects’? Aren’t you writing, in these latter cases, as a poet? A mutual friend of ours, in fact, himself a New Directions author, remarked to me once that you are ‘America’s great poet in public intellectual disguise.’
      OK, so the essay: What is it? What is it not?

The essay strikes me as unexplored territory in English. With a few exceptions, it is either stuck in the 18th century narrative model — now called the ‘personal essay’ with its various sub-genres (travel writing, personal journalism, memoir) — or in standard literary criticism. The exceptions — in English — have been mainly poets (D.H. Lawrence, Pound, Olson, to name a few obvious ones) or writers close to the poetry world (such as Dahlberg and Metcalf). These days, amidst an overpopulation of everything, there are, as far as I know, only two writers doing anything interesting or new with the essay form: Guy Davenport and Susan Howe.
      I can’t understand this at all, as the essay seems to me to have unlimited potential. It doesn’t need a first person; it can stretch toward pure narrative or the prose poem or the documentary; anything is possible. In writing essays, I only follow one rule, which is that all the information is independently verifiable. Contrary to what some people think, I never make anything up. Faux-erudition was done brilliantly and wonderfully by Borges and Nabokov. There’s no reason to do it again, particularly when the real world is strange enough.

By the way, I mentioned our mutual acquaintance in the question above, and I know that right after you had spoken to his classes at Harvard last year, three or four of his students were inspired to drop out of school so they could take up being full-time writers. As someone who has written often and in sometimes cynical terms about poetry’s relation to the academy, how  — as they used to ask on campus in the sensitivity workshops of the 1980’s — does that make you feel?

The strange part was that I hadn’t even told them about my own dubious past — and now the parents will probably sue me.
      I dropped out of college after (barely) one year to follow the Ezra Pound course in everything (except economics) that one needs to know to be a poet. (I was also miraculously in touch with Octavio Paz very early on, and published my first translation of one of his books at nineteen.) You’re supposed to graduate the Ezuversity at 30, at which point you’re ready to begin writing poetry. At 30, I realized I was really a lousy poet and unhappy writing poetry, but I could apply all that I’d learned to writing prose. Suddenly I was happy, or almost happy, again, and the stuff wasn’t as bad. So that’s what I did. It kept me off the streets and didn’t harm anyone.
      Unfortunately, what I knew best was poetry, so that’s what I wrote about at first, and I was labeled, completely inaccurately, as a ‘poetry critic,’ even though — unlike real critics — I was mainly interested in writing sentences. In America, I’m still somewhat trapped there, though I rarely write about poetry these days. Abroad, where the essays on poetry aren’t published, and where no one knows (or cares) that I’m a translator, they think of me as an entirely different kind of writer.
      Back to your question: I of course think that the retreat of American writers into the creative writing school diaspora has been a sociological disaster, even if, at the individual level, the pay’s not bad and the hours short. It’s much healthier when writers are out in the world. In Mexico, for example, 90 per cent of poets — they did a survey! — work in what is called ‘cultural diffusion’: columnists in newspapers, editors at publishing houses or magazines, screenplay writers, art critics, workers in the huge Mexican arts bureaucracy, cultural attaches abroad, and so on. This means that they are plugged into the intellectual and political life of the country in ways that are unimaginable here.

You’re widely recognized as one of America’s leading translators of Latin American poetry. You’ve argued that the dearth of translation activity among contemporary U.S. poets reflects a generalized poverty of cultural perspective and imagination. And you’ve pointed out that ‘most of the great ages of literature have been great ages of translation,’ which, if true, would seem to make our age a minor one... Is there reason to think the radically new and unfolding international context might have a stimulating effect on the practice and status of literary translation?

It’s been ten years since I published a book of translations of a Latin American poet, so if I’m still ‘leading’ it only proves the dearth of poets translating.
      Before 1970, nearly every American poet translated something; it’s hard to think of more than a few who didn’t. After 1970 (with the exception of the veterans from the 60s: the Waldrops, Eshleman, Merwin, Simic, and so on) it’s hard to think of more than a few poets — known themselves as poets — who translate poetry. The result is a kind of stagnation in American poetry, with nothing entering the gene pool, and a general ignorance of the news from abroad.
      Once upon a time, we were getting the news more or less as it was happening. To take Latin America: Paz began appearing in English when he was in his 30s, Neruda in his 40s, and their work continued to come out in translation not so long after it was written. These days a Latin American poet has to be very old or dead to reach English, and a well-read poetry reader here would be hard-pressed to name a single one under eighty.
      But I don’t think this is a ‘minor age,’ but rather a moment at the end of a great age. In the 20th century, there was more great poetry written in English than in any other language, most of it by Americans. (To continue out on this limb, I’d say that in the 20th century there was more great prose written in German than in any other language, most of it not by Germans.) This is not an expression of nationalism on my part, nor do I attribute it to American political or cultural imperialism. It’s just an accident of history, in the same way that, around the year 1000, the greatest prose writers were Japanese women aristocrats and, two hundred years later, were Icelandic sheepherders.
      Translation feeds a national literature, and in that sense we are, at the moment, starving. But there is another factor of equal importance: people coming into the language. It generally takes at least a hundred years before these ‘new’ people start creating a great literature, perhaps because one needs a certain number of educated generations before a cultural context can be created. American literature as a whole really begins somewhere towards the beginning of the 19th century; African-American literature in the 20th; German literature by non-Germans in the 20th; and so on. In all these cases, the new people revitalized the old language, much as Latin America has done for Spanish and Portuguese, beginning at the end of the 19th century.
      I’d say it’s a safe bet — and the signs are already here — that in the 21st century, the great literature in French will be written by Africans and Caribbeans (whether in France or in their own countries); and in English by Africans, Caribbeans, Asian-Americans, so-called ‘Latinos,’ and, above all, by Indians both in India and the Indian diaspora.
      There are always great writers, but a great age of literature is one in which the mediocre writers are interesting. And it seems to me that the next great age, one that has already begun, belongs to writers in the major European languages who are not white.

In the past few years, the politics of anthologizing has been something of a critical battleground in poetry studies, and issues of race and gender have been at the center of the debate. You’ve been brought into this discussion yourself: your 1993 anthology, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, having been the subject of some harsh polemic in the pages of the American Poetry Review and other places. Looking back, and in light of what you’ve just said about the ‘next great age’ belonging to non-white writers, is there anything you would have done differently with that book?

Did you have to ask about that?... Well, OK: An anthology is a game where the publisher and the editor set the rules, and one tries to play the game within those rules. First, there are the number of the pages you’re given and the number of lines per page. This requires that the editor read with a pica ruler and a calculator, a weird and not particularly pleasant way to read poetry. And it turns out that every poem is much longer than you remember it as being, so one’s ideal anthology quickly crumbles.
      Second are the editorial parameters of the anthology. At the time I edited the book, in the early 90s, there was no anthology that generally included these poets, and many of them had never been in a major anthology at all. And the most vocal avant-garde of the moment, the Languages, were still in a militant phase of denying nearly everyone, except Stein and Zukofsky, who had come before them. So I thought there was a need for a brief historical overview of a certain lineage in the postwar period: to start with the last works of Pound, Williams, H.D., and Langston Hughes (whose writings of the 50s and 60s were never read in the context of the New Americans, with which they were simultaneous and tremendously influential); continue with the return of the Objectivists; then the New Americans (Beats/ Black Mountains/ N.Y. school); the poets associated with Caterpillar magazine (the other N.Y. school); and on through some of their heirs. And because I had begun so early, it meant that I had to stop with poets born before World War II — the last was Michael Palmer. I had simply run out of room.
      Furthermore, I wanted an anthology that one could read cover to cover and where the individual poets could be heard. So I was happy to work within the limit of 450 pages set by the publisher, and I selected 35 poets so that each one would have about 10 to 15 pages. Finally, I picked poems not as the poet’s ‘greatest hits’ but as poems that would communicate with each other. Every poem, in my mind anyway, bounced off one or more other poems in the book.
      It was intended to be an historical anthology, and not particularly a representation of ‘what’s happening now.’ Exactly half the book came from the 50s and 60s and half from the 70s and 80s. And I was careful not to make any grandiose claims, as McClatchey did in his Vintage anthology, that these ‘are simply the best poets.’ I thought I was merely offering a reading of certain poets from a certain line in a certain period.
      The problem with anthologies is that they are intended for people who don’t know the turf — as a way of pointing them to the books by the individual authors — but they are reviewed by experts, who merely scan the table of contents and read the introduction. Worse, an anthology is the only book that is judged by what it is not. In my case, as there are around 8000 poets in the Directory of American Poets, this meant that I had ‘omitted’ about 7965 of them. Every single review listed some 30 to 50 poets who should have been included — even if this would have meant a book of 1500 pages. One reviewer suggested that the only worthwhile anthology of American poetry would be a CD-ROM, which is true if you want an encyclopedia. A year later there were two mammoth anthologies — by Paul Hoover and Doug Messerli — whose contents pages made reviewers happier, though I found them reference books and not anthologies. Something to refer to, not to read.

Of course, the book appeared right at the height of the multicultural and ‘Political Correctness’ era in academia...

Right, and since I am not a prof, I wasn’t thinking about the academic standards of that moment with its retroactive affirmative action. (The opposite, by the way, of what affirmative action is supposed to be: a way to change the future.) So everyone counted heads and found that the statistical number of women and minority poets did not mirror the population at large, even though — I’m sorry but it’s true — among those kinds of poets in that particular historical period, most of the ones of enduring interest happened to be white guys. (And some of those who were not, and who I included, had been, until then, completely ignored as avant-gardists: I’m thinking of Hughes and Rukeyser, who were strictly read as ‘black’ or ‘feminist’ poets.)
      So I was attacked pretty much everywhere and APR notoriously devoted a quarter of its issue, in an article more about me than the book, to denouncing me as a sexist colonialist imperialist who held ‘degrading views of African Americans’ — based, bizarrely, on my inclusion of Hughes and Baraka, and — I hope I don’t need to say it — absolutely no other evidence.
      That review really did me in. I had believed that everything I had done as a writer and translator and editor had been, however insignificant, at least in the name of a cross-cultural curiosity. And so, to be publicly characterized as someone who hates black people was more than I could take. I ignored Hugh MacDiarmid’s Prime Directive — one has to be thin-skinned to be a writer and thick-skinned to deal with the consequences — and I stopped writing, or doing much of anything, for a long time, a year or more.
      But to answer your initial question: What I would have done differently is not to have done the book at all. It wasn’t worth it. At least the American version wasn’t. The happy part of the story is that the book was originally done in Mexico, where U.S. poetry, with a few exceptions, had never been of great interest. The book was a huge success and hit number 2 on the bestseller list, just behind García Márquez. The poems were translated by 25 young Mexican poets, most of whom had never heard of the poets they were assigned, and many of whom have now gone on to translate book-length collections by those same poets. These days, I laugh whenever I see Reznikoff or Niedecker or Spicer referred to in passing in a Mexican magazine, as though they were part of a cultural landscape that everyone knows.

That’s an amazing thought — that those poets may be more familiar names to Mexican poets than to U.S. poets!

But it’s generally true that abroad they have more interesting taste in American poetry than in the U.S. French anthologies of American poetry are better than the American ones. When I talk to Brazilian or Danish poets, they ask me about Michael Palmer or Rosmarie Waldrop or Robert Creeley. They’ve never heard of Stephen Dunn or Mary Oliver or Alan Dugan or some prizewinner. In countries where poets are intellectuals, they simply can’t relate to all those poems about changing the storm windows or the jonquils coming up through the snow.

And isn’t it true that you’re better known abroad?

Oh definitely, but that’s another case. What I write — a kind of non-litcrit, non-‘personal’ intellectual essay — is utterly routine in many countries, but it has no place here. All the periodicals, except some little mags, are locked into their formats — N.Y. Review of Books reviews, New Yorker profiles and domesticated prose, etc — and all of them are ruled by editors — in many languages there is no word for editor! — who ‘polish the piece’ (as we say in a land obsessed with handguns and pornography) until it ends up sounding like everything else in the issue. Abroad, they print it the way you wrote it, and you sink or swim according to what you wrote.
      Moreover, in the U.S., the newspapers are written by journalists, not writers, and there is a prevailing belief — also true in book publishing — that people are a lot dumber than they are and don’t want to be any smarter. I once translated a Paz essay for the New York Times Book Review and the editor called me up to complain that — and he really said this — there were ‘too many big words.’ This was startling, as Paz wrote in limpid prose. Turned out the big words were ‘signifier’ and ‘signified.’
      The state of American periodicals was most apparent to me when I edited the big book of Borges’ essays. I had about 500 pages of previously unpublished Borges on every conceivable topic, some of it hilarious, all of it entertaining — I’d say better than his fiction — and nearly all of it written for newspapers and other mass-circulation periodicals, including the Argentine equivalent of the Ladies’ Home Journal. With one exception, not a single magazine was interested in publishing any of it. And the one exception, Grand Street, wanted to cut a three-page essay because they said it didn’t hold the reader’s attention all the way through. (This was before Ritalin.)
      I never worry about publication, as I write strictly because it’s what I like to do, but when I realized that even Borges couldn’t get published here, I stopped thinking about it entirely. So these days my essays come out in magazines in around a dozen countries and may or may not appear here before book publication. I’m evidently a much better writer in translation.

And yet the Borges Selected Non-Fictions had tremendous success, with its reviews and prize... [review in Jacket 9.]

It was a long slog, mainly because Borges is such a mess in Spanish and I had to track down so many of the texts, but I think it’s a delight on every page. And Borges was so unimaginably prolific, I could easily do a few more volumes that would be just as good.
      As for its reception, it was telling on various counts. First, the old invisibility of the translator. When it won the prize, none of the press releases or articles mentioned me. My publisher, Viking Penguin Putnam Pepsi Ralston Purina, took out a big ad congratulating Borges — wherever he is — but forgot about me.
      Second, it was a window into the N.Y. Times Book Review, a subject that seems to preoccupy many. Whenever someone is groaning that their latest book has been ignored by the book review of record, I tell them about Borges. The book got major reviews in nearly every newspaper, got a rave in the daily Times, and won an award from professional book reviewers, but the editor of the NYTBR told the publisher it was ‘too unimportant’ to review. The week I heard this, their cover story was yet another bio of Princess Di. The NYTBR once had a kind of furrowed-middle-brow quality, but now it’s strictly celebs and politicos and novels about getting divorced in Connecticut reviewed by someone who writes novels about getting divorced in Pennsylvania.
      Third, it was interesting to see how severe prizemania has become. I’ve never understood prizes. Everyone I know complains about the latest no-talent to get some prize, and yet they’re bugged that they didn’t win. They all believe that, despite the clouds of mediocrity that inevitably surround these things, their own genius is so obvious that this time will be different and the judges will see the light. This prize, the National Book Critics Circle, used to be a pretty crummy award. But these days, when there are more merit badges than Boy Scouts, every Golden Globe has become a Nobel. The news was reported all over the world, the ceremony was on tv, and I got messages from everywhere. The actual prize itself was a slip of paper saying I would receive a plaque, which I never did, so I won’t even have something to put on my dresser in the nursing home.

Speaking of old age, you’ve written that MacDiarmid wanted the inscription on his tombstone to read ‘A disgrace to the community.’ What do you want on yours?

‘Walkman, pass by.’

Eliot Weinberger’s most recent book of essays is Karmic Traces (New Directions). You can read other material by Eliot Weinberger in Jacket:

And you can read Nathaniel Tarn’s review of Weinberger’s Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges at

Kent Johnson’s interviews with Henry Gould, C.D. Wright, and Dale Smith appear in previous issues of Jacket. With Forrest Gander, he is translator of Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz, due out in fall of 2002 from University of California Press.
Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.
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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