Tom Beckett in Conversation with Richard Lopez
This piece is 4,700 words or about ten printed pages long.
¶ Richard Lopez: You have been actively involved as a writer, editor and publisher in the avant-garde for some thirty years outside of academic institutions — a rare feat, it seems, when most forms of writing and publishing are sanctioned and codified by universities. Do you think your situation as a working poet living and writing outside of academe unusual?
Tom Beckett: Unusual? I’m not so sure about that. I think in fact that we are legion and that our unpublished, often unpublishable works overflow attics, file cabinets, trash cans and shredders in dwellings throughout this benighted land — indeed, throughout the world. Of course, some of this material is starting to flutter out into cyberspace...which, still, is not quite the same thing as being published by Wesleyan, Harvard or the U. of Chicago.
¶ RL: I would argue you have played an enormous part in collapsing what Charles Bernstein calls “Official Verse Culture” with your writing and editing. The work of individuals, not institutions, gave us the writings of say WCW and Oppen. I’m thinking specifically of James Laughlin’s New Directions. Of course Laughlin did have a trust fund, but it was the love of reading and writing that kept his press so vibrant. You mentioned cyberspace currently doing part of that collapsing as well, where work that might have languished in a writer’s desk drawer can now be published online. What, in a broad definition, has online journals, weblogs and e-mail done to the contemporary writing scene for readers/ writers? Do you think writers and readers need the University of Chicago Press when they can find good work online?
TB: In his book Music or Honesty (Roof Books, 2003) Rod Smith quotes Michel Foucault: “People know what they do, most people even know why they do what they do, but what they don’t know is what they do does.” What an elegant summation of the limits of human intelligence! I have tended to see my work more in terms of what I have been unable to accomplish than anything I may have been able to do. Not, I know, the healthiest of attitudes. It’s even been a form of paralysis at times. I am very skeptical about any influence my work may be said to have exerted. I think that, in the main, it has been ignored. I have never had the opportunity to publish a full-length collection of my writing. Such a publication is, at this point — I’ll be 51 next month — no longer even a goal.
¶ RL: We don’t have to choose between online publishing and traditional presses I think. Book distribution has always been a problem for small presses. But a great advantage of the Internet is that micro-presses today can circumvent regular forms of distribution and sell their publications directly from their websites. I too love browsing in a good bookstore such as Moe’s in Berkeley because the Internet cannot replace the rush of holding the physical object of a book in your hands, a book has a weight, a texture, a smell, and the Internet cannot replace the discoveries one can make by picking up a book. Still you have published rather a lot online through journals and your weblog. You have mentioned you do not live in a “poetry hotspot” such as the Bay Area or NYC. I marvel at the fact I can read and communicate with writers who live a world away at an instant. Do you think the Internet is breaking down these barriers between writers living in these major urban areas and poets who do not by being in cyberspace? Who can tell if Jacket edited by Australian poet John Tranter is an Australian publication because it exists in cyberspace and not necessarily in Sydney?
TB: The Internet is breaking down barriers but it is not a substitute for regular personal contact, poetry reading venues, having a beer together, having actual sex, etc. One can e-mail someone across the world, which is great, but does one take the time to talk to one’s neighbor? I see the Internet as a simulacrum of reality. Much easier to get caught up in it than in the real world. Cyberspace is not something that I want to romanticize. I’m not a true believer.
¶ RL: Your poems are often openly erotic. In your latest book Vanishing Points of Resemblance a section begins with the sentence, “Writing and sex are inseparable,” and there are other references to writing and sex, masturbation, etc. in the poem. Would you comment further on what you have called “the textuality of sexuality.”
TB: I believe that the writer/ reader relationship is an erotic one. I’ve written before that the risk of a poem is the same as that of an unsolicited kiss: the object of one’s affection (potential reader/ potential lover) may ignore the advance, respond as if assaulted, or repay one with interest.
¶ RL: Perhaps that is why I find your work so buoyant, it activates the pleasure centers even for such serious topics as the subject of identity, like a good lover. The processes of writing are so much in evidence in your poems that I think, if I’ve read you correctly, writing and living, like sexuality, are so thoroughly braided in your texts. Also the processes of your reading are abundant in your writing. “Making love, making art,” these are parts of the whole of living for you, or do you make separations in your working life, writing life, family life etc.?
TB: There are a multitude of separations in my working life, writing life, family life. In fact, one of my chapbooks is entitled Separations (Generator Press, 1989). I’m as defensive, neurotic, idiosyncratic, riddled with self-doubt, overworked, overwhelmed, alienated — but funny! — as anyone you might want to know.
¶ RL: Well, I hope you do wear your squirrel fur thong, red towel cape and cowboy hat when writing! It brings forth bounteous images. Often you iterate words and sounds in your poems, such as the first stanza of a single word section, “But/ but/ / But/ but/ / But/ but,” in the poem How Say (Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, 2002). It seems an example, I think, of “unprotected text” in its application and that the phrase itself contains many meanings and layers. That language itself becomes a fetish, erotic. Does language get in the way of discovery?
TB: Does language get in the way of discovery? It’s more a matter of my limited language skills getting in the way. Clark Coolidge, in an early interview, spoke of adopting chance procedures in order to circumvent characteristic vocabulary choices. That comment, in a nutshell, defines the impetus behind one of the major threads of Language writing — finding ways to break out of one’s usual habits of thought/ speech through mechanisms of disruption. Bruce Andrews is a master of this approach. Even the Table of Contents in one his books will often read like a transgressive poem. (Look for example at the ToC in I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), Sun & Moon Press, 1992). I, on the other hand, bring considerably less sophistication to the table but no less passion.
¶ RL: Writing, the urge/ need, to write is passionate. So is reading, I suspect. Both go hand in hand, the need to write is very closely related to the urge to read, I would argue. You have written in Vanishing Points of Resemblance that you read, “reams and reams and reams of avant-garde poetry, fiction, art history, philosophy.” From that sentence, I gather, you take your reading seriously. Would you talk a bit about your practices of reading, how your reading influences your writing, your living?
TB: There are three areas of activity within which I have glimpsed the possibility of utopia, the possibility of living an unalienated life. Those areas of activity are: reading, writing, and sex. Now, I can and do go for long periods of time without sexual activity. I can and do have periods of time within which I don’t write. It is inconceivable to me that I might go even a day without reading.
¶ RL: You have mentioned writing/ reading/ sexuality are possibilities of utopia, that writing is a utopian project. Does the poet have a responsibility to society, and if so what are the responsibilities of writing to society as a whole?
TB: The responsibility of a poet to society is to cultivate the ability to respond, to learn to pay and repay attention, to inspire others to do the same.
¶ RL: One of my favorite passages in the collection Economies of Pure Expenditure: a Notebook (Leave Books, 1992) is when the grandmother asks, “if I still wrote ‘Poultry.” And then when she asks if there is any money in it replies, “‘Buck. Buck. Buck, Buck.’” There is much humor in your work. Can you speak a bit about humor in your writing in particular, and the role of humor in general? Though your concerns as a writer have a philosophical cast, you are, I gather, pretty well read in contemporary theory, you are just too funny to be a philosopher.
TB: When I was a boy I wanted to grow up to become either an archaeologist or a comedian. One could argue that in my so-called “career” as a poet/ editor I have become both.
¶ RL: “Ideology” seems to be the fuel of much of your writing. Philosophy appears to be a source of nourishment for you. What are the consolations of philosophy, in your poetry?
TB: Not sure what you mean when you refer to ideology as a fuel for my writing. Certainly at times I’ve tried in my poems to provide glimpses of the ways in which ideology is embedded in speech/ habits of thought. I have tried also to be clear about where I stand in relation to the “consuming realities” I refuse.
I want you
I am speaking to the same exigencies from a different angle.
¶ RL: Your “ideology” I referred to is a committed anti-capitalist, anti-war machine mechanism I find evident in your poems. Does changing poetic language, through shifts in registers, parataxis, varied vocabularies (you use scientific phrases and words like “fuck” in your writing), fractured or aborted syntax, to name a few techniques, change the language change consciousness and thus change lives? In writing, do you hope for a better world?
TB: Refocusing attention can help to lay the groundwork for shifts in perception and perhaps changes in consciousness, changes in lives. Look and then look again, but from another angle. How can I say this — how can I say this better? Technique, in and of itself, is of no particular interest. (Nonetheless, keep a full toolbox!) What is interesting is the disruption of habits of thought — that Brechtian moment of interruption that can enable recognition and discovery.
¶ RL: I think “disruption of habits” is the core of writing, also. I do want to ask about your “toolbox.” You write texts in lines and in prose. What makes poetic language distinct, in verse and prose? Also, what makes poetic language “poetic?” (I suppose this is akin to asking what makes poetry poetry.)
TB: I’m not really very interested in genre distinctions. The French word genre means “gender”, too, and I find that instructive. One wants categories to be clear and distinct, but they aren’t. All experience, all phenomena can be viewed in terms of a continuum. Things elide, bend, slide into one another. That’s good. Erotic, even. And we’ve got to own up to that reality. We are all connected whether we like it or not. The world we inhabit is an organism with infinite orgasmic possibilities.
¶ RL: That is a wonderful way of expressing it. Can you expand on lineated poems being about “units of sense” and prose “waves of expression?” If you don’t find genres distinct how does poetry become poetry? Does poetry encompass all possibilities of the text?
TB: Everything is possible. Everything is permitted. That said...
¶ RL: You write with an eye on the page, how the lines or paragraphs form patterns? Is visual poetry important to you?
TB: It’s more like writing with an eye to the ear. When I nattered earlier about how a poem displays itself, I was thinking more of linebreaks and stanzaic divisions — more, that is, about the organization of sound/ content.
¶ RL: Can you talk about your role as publisher and editor? You published your journal The Difficulties in the ‘80s. How did you come to start it? You’ve written on your blog that you encourage young writers to start their own journals. What were the joys and pains in publishing it?
TB: I had about seven years of small press experience prior to starting The Difficulties. Ken Irby, circa 1978 — the year our first child was born — gave me the courage to begin the magazine when he said I should start thinking of myself as something more than a local poet.
¶ RL: I am curious to know what you think defines a “local poet,” what is meant by the phrase? What are the differences between “local” and “non-local,” since every writer must live somewhere and that “somewhere” is bound to influence his/ her writing and reading habits. How does “locality” factor in your writing/ reading/ living life?
TB: I have lived in Kent, Ohio since the early 1970s. I entered Kent State University in the Fall of 1971 and graduated with a degree in Political Science in the Winter of 1974.
¶ RL: One last question, Tom, how do you manage to maintain your sense of joy and wonder in such arduous times?
TB: I don’t always. It’s not easy, but I have a good family and good friends. There aren’t many of us but we watch out for one another. As I write this, my mother-in-law is dying. And as I watch my wife deal with her grief I am more conscious than ever of the fragility of everyone everywhere.
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