Poetic License and the Powers That Be:
in conversation with Kent Johnson
This piece is 5,600 words or about thirteen printed pages long.
Rachel Loden: Well, this gets at something I’ve been worrying about: what if I can’t stop writing Nixon poems? What if he won’t go away? I think people were amused to see him on the cover of one book, but are they going to start getting peevish if he won’t go gently—if he insists on staying at the nub of things, where he always expected to be?
Yes, I see. But how did the book happen? What came first, the death’s-head or the writing?
What came first is probably the forcible immersion in history, since (for instance) my father, an actor and radio announcer, was blacklisted the month I was born. That same summer, Richard Nixon made his name at HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities). So Nixon has always been with us.
Now, what first emerged on that kitchen table was The Last Campaign, right? Hotel Imperium is an expansion of that chapbook?
Yes and no—somebody did once call it ‘Motel Imperium.’ And some of the poems in The Last Campaign are crucial ones in the longer book. But I think I needed the larger canvas to begin to see patterns in the work as a whole and that was a bells-ringing, lights-turning-on kind of thing. I didn’t try to make a book until I’d been writing for decades—partly out of something like shyness, partly because I was convinced that these obstinate, separately-occasioned poems would never fit together. And then they did. It was very odd.
Interesting. So has this unexpected experience changed your attitude or confidence insofar as ‘composing books’ is concerned? What’s in the hopper presently, if there is something, and does it seem to be happening in a manner similar to Hotel Imperium ?
After Hotel was published, I was sure that now I would become a grownup and change my MO and write books rather than poems, as all the really sophisticated people seem to do.
But no—the poems want to come in the old way, one by stubborn one, rather than being called out from their hiding places in perfectly matched frock-coats and tiny shoes. They want what they want when they want it. And they don’t intend to dance to anyone’s tune. I suppose it would be much better to write a bunch of poems that all fit together like puzzle pieces, but in a defiant way I guess I’m glad that’s not happening. Because I like the fact that each one is a world. Which is to say that each one is set spinning at its own moment and finds its own bearings in space. That allows unexpected things to happen, things that (I imagine) couldn’t happen to poems that were part of a grand design. I guess I still prefer to find the design afterwards. What’s changed is that I’m much more confident that it’s there, coded into the poems themselves, because they emerge from a particular mind.
To go back to your blacklisted father, I have to ask you, as a long-time former member of the Socialist Workers Party: In that marvelous poem, ‘The Death of Checkers,’ (see Jacket 12), is your correct and fairly unusual use of ‘Trotskyist,’ instead of the commonly-adopted Stalinist epithet ‘Trotskyite,’ indicative of your father’s political affiliations? Was he Trotskyist?
You’re putting me in mind of an old carol:
On the first day of Marxmas, my comrade gave to me
So what is this, a HUAC hearing? But no, my father wasn’t a Trotskyist. Neither was my then much more ‘militant’ mother. My parents paid an unimaginable price for organizing unions and integrating radio stations, so as long as they’re living, I’ll say only that his secret pet name for her was ‘Krupskaya’ (and that Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya was a
Russian revolutionary and V.I. Lenin's wife). It was a secret pet name in that my mother didn’t know about it. That was just how he thought of her, several thousand years ago.
I hope you won’t mind my asking you to talk a bit more about your past. It’s interesting—I believe I’m correct—that you have no ‘academic’ training, at least not in the sense that so many poets today receive it? But here you are, in this age of Creative Writing MFA’s and PhD’s, seriously admired by a considerable number of people in the poetry world, many of whom, I think it’s fair to say, are quite curious about what you might do next. Not to appeal to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival audience, but could you talk with as much detail and candor as possible about your poetic education? How did you come to develop, outside the standard channels, what is clearly a very rich and informed poetics?
It’s true that I came to writing in a fairly unusual way—and that was accidental, really, a function of what was going on in my family and in the country at the time. When I had the luxury of being in school, I thrived on it.
That’s a tremendously interesting answer. But to be candid with my ignorance: Rebecca Harding Davis?
Yes, fiction writer and journalist (1831–1910). Her novella Life in the Iron Mills created a sensation when it appeared in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. ‘Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else recorded; alone in its epoch and for decades to come, saw the significance, the presage, in scorned or unseen native materials—and wrought them into art.... Written in secret and in isolation by a thirty-year-old unmarried woman who lived far from literary circles of any kind, it won instant fame—to sleep in ever deepening neglect to our time.’ (Tillie Olsen)
You’d mentioned ‘The Poets’ Commune’ in Berkeley in the early 70’s. For the sake of the forthcoming ‘Oral Historical Record of American Poetry,’ you have to tell us something more about that.
Actually, I think we were soon a subset of the Poets’ Commune, which was run by a much older guy. We went off and had our little cabal of twenty-somethings and it was great fun. We brought in outside readers (such as Creeley), started a magazine and all that good stuff. There were some marvelous writers in the group—Anna Hartmann was one, and her name will be very familiar to some in the language circle.
Here’s a question out of the blue: Is meter important to you?
What, do you mean you’re not counting off syllables on your fingers as you write? Heavens to Murgatroyd. I don’t do that either, but I can’t see how meter can be unimportant to anyone who loves ‘Jabberwocky’ or ‘The Wall of Death’ or ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ or Mother Goose or Smokey Robinson or Shakespeare or Emily ‘Vesuvius’ Dickinson or Robert Zimmerman. I wanted to be a singer before I wanted to be a poet, and I never really squelched that longing. So the ear matters a lot to me, and that means music as it happens in time. But I almost never think about these things in a conscious way before I write or as I’m writing. I don’t measure them out in coffee spoons, you know. The music happens or doesn’t and afterwards, rarely, I’ll notice something that might be called ‘meter,’ as in the cracked nursery rhyme ‘Headline from a Photograph by Richard Avedon’ (in Hotel Imperium, and in Jacket 12). But that poem was written the way a sleepy child makes up a song—by ear, not by counting.
Mr. Rivers then went to Europe, living for a few months in Paris, where he studied old masters, Courbet and Manet. After he returned, he painted ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1953), a deadpan parody of the salon classic by Emanuel Leutze. He said he was stimulated by Tolstoy’s retelling of a national epic in War and Peace. ‘I wanted to take something corny and bring it back to life,’ he said.
I want to do that too. And of course there’s nothing cornier than meter.
OK, so in this absolutely fascinating education in poetry, the English classics, say, with all their various and intricate prosodies, didn’t play a central role? There wasn’t some kind of serious imprinting in that regard? I’m asking, actually, because there are poems in Hotel Imperium that seem quite deftly formal, possessed of a hardness and pacing and cut that comes usually from an awareness of what one is doing against the arras, as they say, of tradition. Poems like ‘Continental Drift’ and ‘My Geomancer,’ for example, suggest a subtle but real prosodic control, I think, where things have been carefully measured, to some conscious degree, one would assume, and yet the overall feeling that is accomplished is of poised casualness and ease. These, like many other pieces in the book, really are stunning poems, in the tenors of their sense, and the vehicles of their language and form. ‘Ruthless and luxuriant,’ as you say in ‘My Geomancer.’ They seem, again, guided by a confident and knowing formal hand. So that’s why I threw that question about meter at you.
Well, I guess we could kibitz a little first about the word ‘formal,’ and whether it can really be used to point to a certain sort of poem. Ron Silliman has a ‘knowing formal hand’ but unless he writes secret sestinas (and I’d love to see them), he’s more or less allergic to received forms. I’m not, and neither are Ashbery and Koch, say, but they’re rarely mentioned when rigorously ‘formal’ work is discussed.
You’ve mentioned Ashbery and Koch, O’Hara and Berrigan. I recently read what I think is an excellent essay in American Poetry Review on the NY School, by Paul Hoover. In it, Hoover names you as an heir of that lineage. I was wondering what you thought of his placing you ‘there.’ What if people were to now start pegging you as a third generation NY School poet?
I love those poets. And I might wish that I were in their direct line, in an uncomplicated way. But Hoover placed me, rightly, in a list of people influenced-by, not card-carrying. That’s exactly as it should be, because I’ll never be one of the avatars of third generation NY school, even if I did spend years in Brooklyn! There’s too much of an admixture of Brecht and Plath and Mel Brooks and whatever else for me to belong there, or (most likely) anywhere. But that NY school influence is present throughout my work and I was really glad that (for the first time) somebody noticed it.
Allow me to pose a question of different type, one with some background, if you’ll excuse the length and detail. Last week I was in Monroe, Wisconsin, at the annual Cheese Days Festival. Along with New Glarus, which is right up the road on Hwy 69, Monroe is one of the original Swiss settlements in America. Anyway, on stage in the town square were twenty or so men and women members of The Monroe Clog Dancers Association, and they pounded out, in their traditional puffy skirts and lederhosen, the heavy, insistent meter (albeit with mysteriously subtle and infinite variations) of a Swiss utopian dream that they knew (for their pasted-on smiles betrayed it) had long ago kicked the bucket. Drunk tourists in shorts from Chicago bit their bratwursts and raised their Berghoff beers in mock toasts, laughing at them. Nervous pigeons, at regular intervals, flew in and out of the County Court House bell tower.
I don’t think there are more cloggers today than at any time in literary history. Well, maybe more by the numbers, but not as a percentage. There will always be people who feel safer in groups, and who cares? As the Finns say, ‘Stupidity thickens in a crowd.’
I doubt if I could. Very well, here’s another totally odd question, one that maybe relates to the issue of meter’s ghost that just came up. There’s been some talk in the past few years about ‘avant-garde’ poetry and the sacred, and about the potential concordances between idiosyncratic compositional approaches and spiritual practices. If you don’t mind my asking a perhaps impolite question: Do you believe in God? Whether yes, no, or I don’t know, as a so-called ‘innovative poet,’ how does spiritual belief or the lack of it relate, 1) to your poetry in general, and 2) to the specter of Nixon and other spirit personages in Hotel Imperium in particular?
Okay, let me lay out some contradictory evidence. In Hotel Imperium I explicitly address ‘God,’ ‘Jah,’ ‘Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim,’ and ‘my little flower of the Negev,’ all in one furious rant. And I just bought Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St. Matthew,’ which I first saw many years ago. His Christ is so compelling that I suspend disbelief, at least while he’s on screen.
Well, that’s probably a reference by Carroll to getting a hit on the opium pipe, wouldn’t you say? What’s your opinion about the drug-free, eroticism-free, ‘mind in control of its language’ poetics of Language poetry in its classic ca. late 70s–80s period? Do you think ‘Language poetry’ is still relevant (the academics certainly seem to think it is!), or does it sort of seem to be coming to mean to American poetry what Nixon has come to mean to American politics?
It’s still relevant, or you wouldn’t be asking me about it, yes? It’s there like the sets in an opera, a backdrop for acting out Oedipal fantasies and all sorts of Sturm und Drang. Some people are shrinking away from it in horror, some are running towards it with eyes closed, some are trying to attach themselves to it with tiny suction cups, still others are pensively taking its measure and chipping off pieces of lake and cloud.
I wouldn’t want you to think I’d left that ‘God’ question behind. Why’d ya tell God to ‘get out of Dodge’ in the poem ‘Roger the Scrivener’?
Actually, I didn’t. I offered God a whole menu of choices—removing His helmet, taking a mud bath with the rest of us, showing off the seven wonders of his crazed fecundity, etc. ‘Or just get out of Dodge,’ I said. So the choice was entirely His.
I just read this wonderful interview with Cesar Vallejo, conducted in Spain in 1931, and originally published that year in the Heraldo de Madrid. It is now on-line in Masthead # 6. I believe this is its first appearance in English. Here’s the opening:
You mean, do I have Nixon mixed up with George Bowering? What a thought. Nixon in drag, Nixon with a lampshade on his head! No, I don’t think so. I have, you know, never met George and Maria, and I haven’t seen David in a very long time. But I am quite fond of them all. I don’t know how they looked at what we were doing, but I thought we were spoofing the list. What sort of behavior could we engage in that would turn a prevailing humorlessness on its ear? We were tummlers. I found it amazing that some people read those posts so literally. Or thought we were hanging our private brassieres and/or jockstraps out to dry! That kind of underscored (what I thought was) the point of the whole sordid exercise.
That’s a remarkable anecdote. Of course, if God had been with us, he would have kept sleeping for the next fifteen years or so. OK, next question: A reviewer in The Boston Review compared your wit to that of W.H. Auden, a poet whose work, of course, has connected with great numbers of readers. Hotel Imperium, quirky and smart and with as much irony-cut as it has, seems to have a kind of ‘popular appeal,’ a quality of audience pull, à la Auden. And I’m not suggesting it could really happen, because we are in another time, certainly, but would you like to be a poet with the kind of popular readership and cultural ‘oomph’ that Auden had? I’ve no doubt you are having a hard time keeping a straight face at this, and I kind of am too, but in another sense I’m actually quite serious, inasmuch as one has to wonder to what extent formal/ conceptual ‘experiment’ and ‘innovation’ in poetry surrenders, ipso facto, in its textual micro obsessions, any claim to a macro public resonance. Your work, in some ways, might be seen as pointing to a felicitous middle ground, where humor and pop culture and edged nostalgia dovetail with poetic rigor and ‘difficulty’?
Well yes, I am cracking up a little. The poems of an agoraphobic housewife in Palo Alto, California, are not likely to take the world by storm. Have to say I’m also gagging a bit at the word ‘nostalgia,’ however edged. If there are thousands of readers in the hinterlands who get all squishy when they think about J. Edgar Hoover, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and that tricky guy who wanted to blow up the Brookings Institution, then welcome to my world! I remember walking home from second grade and finding the FBI waiting at my front door. So ‘nostalgia’ is not really my take on the last century.
Thank you so much. It’s been very interesting. My last question: What do you still hope to do in poetry and in your life?
Silence, exile, and cunning. I just want to write some poems that can’t be denied, despite the fact that I’m not likely to get out there and flog them anytime soon. My model of a ‘career’ is very different from the one that seems to be in vogue. I want the luxury of compression. With luck, I’ll be a little like Jack Gilbert, who publishes books rarely and makes each one matter. I don’t need tenure! My early years were interesting enough, shall we say, that I’ll never use up (or live down) all that awe and terror. What Emily said. ‘My Business is Circumference—An ignorance, not of Customs, but if caught with the Dawn—or the Sunset see me—Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty, Sir, if you please, it afflicts me, and I thought that instruction would take it away.’
You can read Tom Clark’s review of Hotel Imperium in Jacket 12, and two further poems by Rachel Loden in Jacket 16.
Jacket 21 — February 2003
This material is copyright © Rachel Loden and Kent Johnson
and Jacket magazine 2003