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This is Jacket 16, March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

Jerome Rothenberg

in Paris, in conversation with Nina Zivancevic

photo of Jerome Rothenberg

One of the best contemporary American poets, the founder of Deep Image movement in poetry and father of Ethnopoetics in anthropology, has just given a reading at la Maison de la Poesie in Paris. In a spontaneous conversation Jerome Rothenberg discusses some of the major artistic and literary events that ‘shook the world’ by the end of the previous Millennium and the ways he saw them either as a participant of certain movements or a master-builder of some of them.

This piece is 7,200 words or about 16 printed pages long.

Question: Many people have  tried to define literature — what is it for you and how much does your approach differ from the traditional approach to it?

Rothenberg: My sense of  literature comes basically from poetry, so I won’t broaden that to discuss various forms of fiction which would change the discussion in any number of ways... but possibly not. For me, the turning to poetry came from my need for a different kind of language from what surrounded me in the world in which I was growing up. Poetry had some of that difference, and that it was so often despised only made it that much the better. Ultimately of course the language of poetry — for myself and others — came to be closer and closer to the language that people really use in everyday speech, but different at its best from official language, from authorized language — as we get it in politics, in advertising, in standardized religion — all of that.
      So it seems to me that poetry continues to have a sense of otherness about it; so, looking back, it seems to me that what I was engaged in with others of my generation was the search for a new language, another language, over against the language that was taught to us, force-fed to us, in which the values of the society that we would come to question were expressed. So the ‘ other language ’ came to be asscociated in my mind with the language of poetry — whether in my work or in the work of others whom I began to read and who began to influence me. And this was a central point about which — the nature of that language — I entered into what seemed to be some sort of discourse, some sort of dialogue.

Was there a desire also to express some sort of a ‘ surpressed ’ language, the one you spoke perhaps at home?

Well, you and I both write primarily in English, though we both have roots that take us elsewhere, I’ve always written in English as far back as I’ve written and you come to the English language at a later point. But, in fact, there was the other language for me in childhood — the Yiddish spoken in my family — and certainly the first language that I spoke as a very young child was Yiddish. So I still have some memories of coming from that first language into the other language when I was maybe two or three years old. And the first language would invade the other — stray words, even somewhat later on.

But then you had to suppress it in school, right?

Well, there was an obvious push toward suppression in school, but there was another push — different and maybe stronger — toward suppression in the street. So from very early on, for most of us who were immigrants — the children of immigrants — there was a movement from the place of the family into the place of the street, and the street took the part, played the part, of the larger society... I don’t know if I was compensating — later on — for the loss of the first language, and I know, looking back, that that first language was never entirely lost. I could still speak with my grandmother and the other people in my family who did not have English as a ready second language. I would speak to them in Yiddish, although over time the Yiddish weakened for me as a language.
      Even so I still hear it in a way that I don’t hear any other language besides English. I can speak German when the occasion arises, I can speak French or Spanish when the occasion arises, but I’ve never been in another language otherwise, never to the point where I’m simply speaking the language without something else going on in my mind — a train of thought in English, accompanying the speech of the other language. It doesn’t happen now that I get to speak Yiddish very much, because the older people with whom I spoke it then are dead, but when I do, it comes (so to speak) trippingly on the tongue... it comes automatically...

Photo of Nina Zivancevic

Photo: Nina Zivancevic

Have you ever tried writing something in it?

Yeah, occasionaly I’ve let it come into something that I was writing, especially when I was doing something like Poland 1931. Later on in Khurbn, there are brief moments when the language invades a poem, because of what I’m doing there specifically — a response, so to speak, to two visits to Poland (1987 and 1988), with a sense of Holocaust there for the first time — the first time that I let it, that it made me let it, come into the body of a poem. Both the Holocaust and, here and there, the Yiddish. Also, many of the titles in Khurbn, including the title of the book itself, are in Yiddish.

It comes in as some sort of a ‘metatext’?

Yeah, in a manner of speaking. And yet I don’t really think that it exists for me as a presence when I’m otherwise writing in English. But I do take some pleasure from time to time, on those now rare occasions when I come across an individual who really speaks Yiddish, to enter into a conversation. In those circumstances it’s always with somebody who’s a far superior speaker than I am. It’s a nice exercise in language, but not much more.
      But as for the poetry, it was more than a language exercise, and the struggle was in English really — my real language. I don’t mean to say that the poetry or that my thinking was separated from the ‘fate of Yiddish,’ but at the same time it related to many other losses that were a central part of what we took to be the human condition in the middle of the century. As I grew aware of those, the poetry became for me, as for many others, an act of defiance, as if all of our languages had been destroyed or lost their meaning. And we thought, rightly or wrongly, that we were in a position to make a new language, an other language, using English as the vehicle for that. It allowed us to say things, to use logic — or illogic — as a way of thinking, a way of talking which was otherwise unacceptable and sometimes disturbing to the society at large...

You mean disturbing in ANY language?

Yes, any language would suffice. I assume anyway that something like that was going on for some number of poets, not only at the time of the Second World War, but going back far earlier than that. There were poets who were writing in French, writing in German, at both ends of the century — poets to whom this would apply. Certainly someone like Paul Celan, whom one takes as a prime example of that kind of situation — a situation in which the German language had not only failed him but was so clearly identified as the language of the oppressor. (This has been said many times about Celan, and still it’s absolutely true.) So, as his poetry, his language, develops, he builds it up of course out of German, but it’s a German that’s post-Holocaust, the German of a post-Holocaust writer and a witness. It’s fair to say that it becomes a kind of counter-German, a German that contradicts, and yet it’s all the more German for being that, the way the actual features of the parent language become exaggerated and distorted in the writing.
      The point is that you don’t escape from it — the language as the base of what you do: for Celan German, for me English. Some poets of course have gone beyond that, and their experiments have been of interest to me though I don’t think they’ve always been successful in dropping the normal, ordinary or specific language out of the writing... in the attempt, that is, to develop forms of sound poetry, a poetry without recognizable words. This is something that was clearly present with the Dadaists, as with the Futurists, both Italian and Russian, around the time of the first world war, and it began to take new and very dynamic forms after the second war.
      I think the war connection had something to do with that: the renewal of an attempt to get beyond what Hugo Ball in 1916 described as ‘the garbage that clings to language,’ something that was later reiterated by Artaud and others and that came into prominence again with the post-World War Two makers of sound poetry, poésie sonore, particularly those who combined it with some political stance or, otherwise, with what Olson called ‘stance toward reality. ’

So, would you say that the stress was primarily on the quest and investigation of a sacred language?

That too — at least for the early ones who had mystical/spiritual ambitions like their counterparts among the early abstract painters. For myself, I became aware and interested in so called ‘sacred languages’ sometime in the 1950s. At the time it was possible to think that what we were doing in the present was an ‘othering’ of language, the making of a language that, while it was rooted in the specific spoken language we grew up with, transformed that language in a variety of ways — some deeply meaningful, some not.
      It also became clear to me that in the past, conceivably for other reasons, certain religious poets had used language in the context of religion and mysticism that was also — like the work of the experimental modernists — a transformation of ordinary language. So, sound poetry and other such extreme contemporary forms had their counterparts in traditional cultures in which — not as a matter of avant-garde experimentation, but as a matter of trying to understand what were taken to be powerful forces and presences in the world — the performers spoke, chanted, sang without words but using sounds that resembled words, speaking in tongues as that was called in Christian tradition.
      This is a phenomenon that turns up in many parts of the world, in Sufism, for instance, in traditional Jewish nigunim, or in Tantric practices — the mantras which begin to depart from ordinary language, the syllable by syllable repetition of words and sounds.
      As I was looking into those areas everywhere, I began to find very much the same practices in traditional American Indian songs and chants — what I took be a basis for a traditional poetry on the American continent. And I’ve explored that as well.

Well, is there anything that you can find in so called ‘oral’ or tribal verse that you can’t find in contemporary poetry of today? In other words, was there something bothering you or some sort of absence in the contemporary poetry of your day that made you go back to the traditional oral verse?

Yes, but let me see how I’m going to answer that question... When I started doing books like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin what was bothering me was possibly the absence of a reason for doing what we were doing. I could explain it in the terms that I’ve been using here — a sense of the struggle between a new language and a debased older language — but what struck me most about the old poetries was a resemblance to what the experimental poets of our own time were doing, but at the same time rooted in tradition — a poetry in which, even when one departed from obvious meaning, so to speak, into what the anthropolgists and ethnomusicologists used to call the ‘nonsense’ syllables, the resultant work — the poetry — was deeply deeply involved with meaning, and furthermore the poetry seemed to exist at the very center of the culture from which it came.
      So, I think the question of context became very attractive, although I have little hope that one can transfer that, or that our own experiments were really leading in the direction of putting back that kind of poetry at the center of the experience of people in our time.
      Occasionally I was more encouraged in that belief, but over all I tended to feel that this was not going to happen, and that, you know, was an uncomfortable conclusion to come to, and I would rather have felt that we were really coming back into the center with all of that. But it was interesting to me that whatever I took to be the most radical, the most experimental work in our own time seemed, as I looked back at it, to have a counterpart somewhere in the world.
      The sound poetry is one example, the one that comes most easily to mind, but there are also forms of visualisation, forms of visual poetry, whether it’s pictograms or forms of writing that many cultures use to form calligrams or to combine with numbers, as in the Hebrew kabbalistic traditions. Things that would have seemed new when they came through Oulipo or other experimental movements had counterparts in activities that went back very deeply into human experience, and it seemed to me that in some way this proved or gave a sense of the humanity of what we were doing.

I think that every honest writer feels, at one point of his development or another, that connection with the previous tradition, as he also feels dread that what he has said is not new but an echo of the previous school...

Oh, that also, but of course at other times I obviously felt a great excitement that everything that we discovered might be said to have been discovered previously: forms of experience coming into contemporary poetry, contemporary writing, contemporary art... voices omitted from previous discourse... compressed identities... body and mind... a vast amount of dreamwork... visions of gods and men... and women.
      Forms of explicit sexuality, say, which came in full blast during my lifetime, have clearly had counterparts in many parts of the world and often of course were connected with the most central cultural values of any given society. I know that some people are disturbed by or dismissive of that confluence of times and places, yet to me it seems so wonderful that, to quote Gertrude Stein as I have before: ‘As it is new it is old, as it is old it is new, but now we have come to be in our own way which is a completely different ways’. So, it is, and it isn’t, and she knew that she was getting back to someting very... that in being original she was being aboriginal at the same time. And of course she was one of those who led us into wherever it is that we find ourselves at this particular time...

What is your stance on deconstruction of poetic language, on ‘language poetry’ that became predominant in the last decades of the 20th century — have you participated in that movement, or do you consider yourself a participant in it?

Well, language poetry — to which I had some closeness and some affinities since its beginnings in I guess the 1970s — represents a particular self-defined movement by certain poets who recognized themselves as sharing an approach to poetry that was setting them apart. To me it seemed after a period marked by a poetry that either in a shallow or a profound way explored personal experience, that with poets like Bernstein and Silliman and Andrews and others, there was a return to an exploration of language... of words and the way words came together... of meaning and its problematics. There was a concern with things that were concerning others of us also but that we had failed to nail down in a way that called sufficient attention to itself. [A move from experience back to language, which I thought was very salutary then, but neither side sufficient in itself.]
      So language was now taken as the central work, not the recollection and enhancement of experience (the Beats and others had taken care of that) — not the oneiric dreamwork of the Surrealists — not the psychological [or confessional], but some kind of working on the material of language itself with an interest also in what was then being referred to as ‘non-referential’ poetry.
      In other words, how to use words and drop the emphasis on referentiality. All this began to appear and seemed very interesting to me.
      I along with David Antin and others — Armand Schwerner to some degree — Jackson MacLow who had gone much further with it — had already been involved with something like that, but these younger poets came along and worked specifically on the exploration of what they were calling ‘language-centered poetry’, before it became simply ‘language poetry’, or in Charles Bernstein’s case ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’... written large and with those equal signs.

Well, I don’t know if you’d agree on this, but Charles’s case is very specific — because he combines this oneiric, dreamlike quality...

Oh, increasingly... but I’m really trying to think back to the mid-70s situation. I had done a little publishing with Ron Silliman when he had a first magazine called Tottel’s Miscellany, and, although it didn’t fit directly into the language poetry grouping, with a magazine of similar interests, ‘Zero to 9,’ which was published by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Meyer. For me it was all a part of our activity at that time, and so I found myself curiously in the position of bringing Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews into that framework, although they would have made their way into it anyway. It was just that I happened to be there and told Charles and Bruce, separately, to get in touch with Ron Silliman because the poems that they were showing me seemed to be close to the kind of thing that Ron and the people in San Francisco were exploring.
      So I came to language poetry really with a kind of immediate sense of friendship/kinship with the poets who were most active in initiating all of that. Later I came to know some of the others, and I had Ron assemble a mini-anthology of that kind of writing in my magazine Alcheringa — some time in fact before Charles and Bruce had come into it...
      A second point — and one that you started to get into before — is that with them, although I don’t think that I was particularly aware of it at the time, there was already a delving into or being influenced by what in the universities and elsewhere came to be called critical theory or French criticism... French theory.
      My sense of it in retrospect is that it was in part a kind of generational thing. In my own generation, and with those somewhat older, while we thought — sometimes — that our way of thinking was quite original, there lurked behind it — whether it was me or Duncan or Olson or David Antin — other non-poet thinkers who were being very influential: Whitehead, the geographer Sauer through Olson, Wittgenstein for so many, or... The ideas didn’t come out of nowhere or in strict isolation, and one could easily recognize that and recognize poetry, like other forms of mentation and expression as a shared enterprise... even in a sense a communal one.
      I think, for all of that, that some of us began to feel (by the mid-seventies or early 1980s) that there was now an overemphasis on critical theory in the poetics of it, the writing about poetry.
      It felt anyway like a resurgence by way of France of an emphasis on criticism that was like what we remembered from the ‘new criticism’ days of the 1940s and 50s. Otherwise the French connection seemed tenuous, and I didn’t perceive that the poetry of the Language Poets matched, one way or another, the poetry that was being written in France. (Silliman was pretty insistent in calling his anthology of language poetry ‘In the American Tree. ’)
      Also, for all of the poets involved, the theoretical basis for the poetics over all came from a line (or several lines) of thinking about poetry that had been generated not by critics and philosophers but by the manifestos and other writings of avant-garde poets and movements — from both ends of the century. So it was in some sense that the language poets (though Silliman and Hejinian were a little older than the others) had attended school or otherwise come to consciousness when the Frenchified theory was being a kind of frontline or academic avant-garde... or could be taken in that way.

It is funny though — the other day I was reading your old interviews and there was your dialogue with William Spanos where you tried to avoid this academic kind of vocabulary and he was insisting on it...and it was funny also when Armand (Schwerner) said that he wanted to step away from them, from the language school, and on the other hand many language poets claimed him to be one of their grandfathers or predecessors...

Yes, but I think in Armand’s case — because I had conversations with him about all of this — he felt himself not sufficiently recognized by the younger language poets. There was a degree of tension for him around that, but for myself, I had come to them at a different point, and there are certain personal associations, it seems to me, that very much influence how one thinks of the work of others.
      For me it was easy, it made some sense to me, though in the beginning I felt that they had come into it without sufficient recognition of what others of us had been doing previously. It seems to me it took a few years before someone like Mac Low, for example, became an actual recognized prededecesor to what the language poets were doing.
      Their strongest sense of predecesors concerned the people from whom they derived and whom they were in some way challenging — the various groups of poets defined in the Donald Allen New American Poetry anthology from the 1960s. I think there was a non-recognition at that point of what had been done by the concrete poets, the visual poets; I don’t think there was much awareness or particular interest in what the post-World War Two earlier generation of sound poets had been doing. (That would hold for the earlier avant-garde in general.)
      But we’re talking about a situation maybe twenty, twenty-five years in the past, and in the intervening time I think the view of those language poets has greatly expanded. Certainly Charles has as much of a grasp on experimental, avant-garde poetry as anybody I know. So I do not speak of the Charles Bernstein of 2001 as I would of the Charles Bernstein whom I first met, I imagine around 1975 or something like that.

It is hard to talk about movements of any sort in art and in literature- there are so many of them, and their branches as well!

Yeah, but it [language poetry] was as much of a movement as we had that point — in American poetry at least — and it did cause a shift away, for better or worse, from a lot of the emphases of the immediately preceding generation. Still, there were many things of value — certainly for me — in the poets of my own generation or the poets who were somewhat older: the historicizing of Olson, the history plus mythopoesis of both Olson and Duncan, all of that was important; the experiential work at its extremes, not the confessionals (so-called) but what Ginsberg or, from a different perspective, Eshleman were capable of doing.
      I found at least initially with the language poets that I was missing some of that in their work (although I knew it had to be that way to start with), but as it got on, a lot of adjustments were made... not necessarily for all of them but certainly for some...

You’ve been devoting a lot of time to the editing of anthologies, the most recent one being Poems for the Millennium. When compiling them, were you guided by criteria such as different literary movements, chronology, or some other ones?

Well, when you say ‘movements,’ there is no question that with the first volume of Poems for the Millennium, one of the objectives that Pierre Joris and I had in mind was to give particular attention to certain of the major movements of the early part of the twentieth century. This followed from our sense that particularly in the United States there had been an overlooking or a downplaying or a scorning of those movements when it came to poetry, and we wanted to put the movements back into the history of poetry. (They were of course well enough known in the history of art.)
      So we have big sections on Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, and (because we’re writing out of the United States) the ‘Objectivist’ poets as well. And while we didn’t want to trap everybody by placing all poets inside some movement, we didn’t want to do yet another anthology without the movements coming into it. Before us no other anthology of world poetry published in the United States — and there were few enough of those who tried to do world poetry... none of them had paid attention or made a thing out of the movements. That was something lost and in the past.
      And even when it came to the second volume (“from postwar to millennium’), although we found few large and defining movements of that kind, particularly with an international emphasis, still we made room among the ‘galleries’ for small ‘corridors,’ sometimes very localized as with the Vienna Poets; or sometimes centered in the United States (like the Beat poets); sometimes quite international to start with like concrete poetry; sometimes centered in places that we knew very little about in the United States, like the Tammuzi poets of Iraq and Syria who make up one of the sections of the book.

That’s a different approach to editing, say different from your earlier work exemplified by the anthology Revolution of the Word. I remember reading it aloud to some people and every poem in it was a specific individual expression of a certain craftsmanship.

Revolution of the Word was a small anthology of American experimental modernism in the twenty-year period between the two world wars. That was something different and did in fact concentrate on individual poets. But in Poems for the Millennium also, most of the poetry does not appear within the movements but in those other sections to which, as curators of the book, we gave the term ‘galleries.’ So there are three galleries of individual poets, and then a section at the end of ethnopoetic sources and writings, both from the traditional cultures as rediscovered in our own time and from twentieth-century writers showing the influence of other, either non-western traditions or occulted European traditions...
      I saw the anthology as a form for doing a big work and a form for including — if I was given the permission to do so by a publisher, an institution, a benefactor — that which had been excluded from public view and which I thought, from my position as a poet, was absolutely necessary to be given some form of display. And somehow the opportunity was given to me to do that.

Was there something that occured in your research of the traditional verse that led you straight to the avant-garde of the 20th century in poetry, or was it your research of the 20th century poetry that took you back to the ancient verse?

Well, I think I would look back for myself to the 1950s — that there was an opportunity to go over again the history of what had happened just before our time, partly because it was a very conservative time in American writing or certainly in American poetry, and the experiments of the early part of the century were said to have been bypassed by then. This was a dead letter, this was not something to work with any more. And that gave us an opportunity to look back and say: is this really a dead letter or are we being told that by those whose work in fact is deader than a doornail?
      So I think we were able in the postwar period — the late 40s for some, the 50s and 60s for me — to look back to experimental work of the earlier part of the twentieth century and search in it for the possibility of new beginnings or continuities into our own time and place. The exploration of the primitive/tribal/oral was for me one of those possibilities that, as far as poetry was concerned, had only barely been touched on, although the beginnings were evident...
      What was important, then, what we couldn’t have known, was that behind the very conservative, anti-modernist, anti-experimental approach that seemed to be dominating American poetry at that time, all the forces of change were already in motion. So there was, as I said, a re-exploration... The influence of someone like William Carlos Williams was already taking shape. He had been calling for years for a change in the way poetry was written: a change in the very idea, the structural idea of the poem itself. Olson by 1952 had picked up on that and others would follow.
      But until that happened, the landscape, the outlook for poetry, was ghastly. Even Whitman, the great father of American poetry, was, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, a very despised figure — I mean at the schools, the universities, where all of us had to contend with that kind of assessment. It’s hard to imagine that... fifty years later. William Blake was then emerging... and emerging... and emerging, and still he was described by T.S. Eliot as the primary example of a minor poet.
      So it was obviously a very different situation, and being that kind of different situation, we had the opportunity for re-establishing contacts with poets and artists of the near past, and with others like the earlier [European] modernists, and for looking into distant pasts and other cultures, other places, looking for new ways, different ways, of making poetry, trying to see how poetry was made in those times and in our time as well....
      There was also a shift into performance because the opportunities were being give to us — of alternative spaces for speaking poetry out loud — and audiences eager to listen and to hear the poems without compromise. There came to be a growing concern, a growing interest in how oral poetry had existed and how it had been perfomred in other cultures... and whether there was an oral base for poetry, and if there was, whether we could learn from those cultures in which writing didn’t predominate, where the dominant forms were spoken, sung chanted... oral...

When would you say, this shift started in American poetry, these changes which you have just mentioned?

Well, I think much of this had been brewing for a long time and had never really disappeared, although for some of the poets who had continued to practice a more structurally or a more experientially experimental modernism, there were some very dark and neglected years. Poets who became important later to some of us — like Oppen, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, who were the then forgotten ‘Objectivists’ — had never come into high recognition during their early years, and for a period of time — from the middle 1930s until their rediscovery by my generation in the 1950s — they had been, as someone in my family used to say, talking to the wall. They were writers without recognition, without an audience, and because of their work and their courage (if I can say so) they became very exemplary figures for us later on.
      The other, older writers were then largely out of reach. Pound, for various reasons that we know, had ended up out of commission, although continuing in a state of self-imposed isolation to write Cantos and to translate anew from Chinese and Egyptian.
      Williams, until the time of the strokes was the most accessible of the older Americans, traveling around and preaching on behalf of a new measure and what he called ‘the variable foot. ’ The first time I saw him reading poetry and lecturing was at City College in the late 1940s or maybe 1950, telling all of us that the time had come to seize the language and make it ours. I remember him talking with a real awareness that he was addressing largely immigrant kids or the children of immigrants at City College, telling us about the language: Take it over! Blast it to hell! You have a right to it!
      So... that stuck with me, even though the equally important pickup — for me at least — was from European poets and others outside the language and the ‘American grain. ’

Given the fact that the realm of the poetry perfomance is still being discussed here in Europe as some form of a slippery ground, that is, people are still suspicious of it, could you clarify here what importance (if any) you give to gesture, movement, dance in your own poetic events? Like the event we witnessed last night — I call it ‘event’ because you read your poetry which was obviously written on the page, but still, there was more to it...We know that poets don’t have scores to read to, so, how do you get to read your musical work?

Well, some poets of course do have scores, going back to Mallarmé’s Coup de Dès or Schwitters’ Ur Sonata, and forward to post-World War Two sound poets and others. Jackson Mac Low, in many of his poems, writes with scores that are notated for such normally musical considerations as speed, loudness, duration, duration of silence... numbers of other things that come into his scoring. Other American poets, certainly from the time of Olson on, began to look at the disposition of words on the page as being a key to how the poems were to be read aloud in a performance situation.
      For myself, with others of my generation, I came into a situation... a situation developed or we developed a situation in which the reading of poetry, poetry readings, became a regular activity or exercise for us, but almost all of us were writing poetry. So there was the writing of poetry on the one hand and then the bringing of that into a performance situation on the other hand. And truly, once into the reading or the performance, what became of interest was how to perform the work.
      After all I had written the work previously.... David Antin, then, takes this as part of his rationale for stopping to make writing the primary work — switching over to talking, he says, when he lost interest in a performance that involved coming with his written poems to a poetry reading, where would get up on the stage and start reading them, and would find that he was boring himself because the work had already been done — the poems were written and done with (at least for him), and reading them in public was secondary to all of that.
      So I think he began to find more interesting that part of the poetry reading in which he, like many of us, introduced the written poems with some amount of talking about them. When he was talking before the reading of the poem, he was doing something new, there was an element of improvisation that came into the event, whereas there was no improvisation with the reading as such.
      And so David put aside the written work and the performance became an extended talking. Then only after that — after doing the talking, putting it on the tape recorder, going back, listening to it, transcribing it — the actual writing of the poem, or the ‘talk poem’ as he calls it, would start up.

So that book called What It Means To Be Avant-Garde was actually taped and transcribed?

Yeah, David’s method was to talk, simultaneously to tape, to transcribe the tape, and to whatever degree he chose, to rewrite it in the process of making the final work. So it’s not like somebody else... not like the old Andy Warhol book which is just talk talk talk talk, with the uhs and the ahs and mmms... everything transcribed exactly as it was spoken. No, David will depart from that and work over the transcription when he does it in written form.
      You know, for me, I found that the poetry reading could be exciting because I had to learn how the words on the page were different from the same words as spoken, and there was plenty for me to do in going from the written text to the sounding of the text.
      Certainly too, when one added the presence of musicians, that was a whole new dimension, even though I wasn’t changing or rewriting the poems when I did that. What changed was the whole attack, the whole strategy of reading, when I was playing off against a partner or a group of partners who were doing music as an accompaniment or as a separate invention. So in working with musicians I learned how to time the pieces that I had written, and probably that has had an effect on me also in the way that I now write poetry.

This question almost imposes itself on us now: if we had an imaginary library of all your work — your books, and then the same work on CDs or CD ROMs — would readers treat them all as different works (those in books and their ‘replicas’ on the tape)?

I think for many readers of the work they would get a different sense of it once it was accompanied by my voice reading it, as people get a lot of information about the nature of the poetry when I do a live poetry reading and as I get information about the work when I hear other poets whom I’ve only known on the page in written form do a live poetry reading. Once I’ve heard them read their work, even if they’re not such good readers, it teaches me a lot about the nature of that work that I would not have known otherwise, because the score is not a clear score... because we’re not really systematizing in that way.
      That was true, I believe, even when Williams or Olson were going at it and when a new measure or a new form of verse was the driving idea. With Olson’s Maximus poems, say, there are limits to what we would be getting from the written text alone. We can make something out of it because he’s told us to go and make something out of it... that the way the poem is disposed on the page has something to do with where it comes from and where, projected outward, it’s going to end up. But to hear Olson read is really the key to the work, it’s really where it all makes sense.
      So for a long time many of us thought, gee, poetry books — or certain poetry books at any rate — should really be accompanied by a recording of the poet. Back in the sixties and seventies that meant a kind of floppy l.p. that was easy and relatively cheap to manufacture. And I tried to do that in at least one magazine of mine, Alcheringa. Later on we thought about using tape and more recently CDs, whatever means the technology allowed us. And today there are web sites like Kenny Goldsmith’s Ubuweb or the archives of the Electronic Poetry Center in Buffalo, that offer the voices of poets reading over a wide spectrum — easy to get to and to have access to the readings of an extraordinary range of American and world poetry.
      Book publishers, though, have been very slow about doing it, including little press, alternative press publishers. I find that surprising because it’s not all that expensive to do, once you’re into the other costs of publication. I suppose there’s a sense too of keeping books and writing dominant, and that’s the other side of the matter, for most of us I think — the nature of writing and the written text in itself.
      So the question may come up: are we absolutely departing from writing when we speak about performance as a dominant activity for those of who do it at this time? And for myself, clearly, I think there is some poetry that exists best on the page — concrete and visual poetry without question but other forms of poetry as well. So we don’t supersede writing any more than writing has ever superseded speaking and singing. There is in effect no culture without writing as there is no culture without language in performance.
      These are assertions that I’ve reiterated many times, and to go beyond them, the means of making poetry — as became apparent to me maybe a quarter of a century ago — would also include the use of signing, as in the real language of the deaf, which therefore would be a further area of expression, this one without a base in voice or sound. It is language, then, by whatever channel it emerges, that shapes our poetry and thought. I find myself awed by the complication of all of that and am happy to join, whenever I can, in its celebration.

Nina Zivancevic is a poet, fiction writer and a scholar-translator who resides between New York and Paris. But her main home remains the hidden ‘house of language’, as Heidegger would have it. Andrei Codrescu said of her ‘Among us bilingual guerrillas, she is the chief flame-maker.’ Charles Simic claims that she is ‘one of the most interesting and original poets in Eastern Europe’ who taught herself a highly idiomatic American by writing original poetry in it.

Her book More or Less Urgent is available through New Rivers Press, 420 N 5th St. Apt. 910, Minn. 55401

Photograph of Jerome Rothenberg copyright © 2000 Nina Subin

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