This piece is about 60 (sixty) printed pages long.
Favorite Songs (poems), 1990, Big Bridge Press;
The Paris Journals (poems), 2000, Fish Drum;
Punk Rockwell (novel), 2000, Tropical Press;
Unhurried Vision (poems), 2003, La Alameda Press;
When I Met You (CD of songs, sung by Elya Finn), 2005;*
Narcissus (poems), 2005;
Elementals (poems), 2006
Drums of Grace (fiction and CD of songs)
I Murdered Elvis: The Nashville Journals (poems)
*You can download a 3 megabyte MP3 file of Elya Finn
singing the title song here. — Ed.
KG: Vernon, I followed your recommendation to catch Michael Rothenberg reading in the Spring of ’06 at the Poetry Project. Now, a year later, I just caught him again at PoProj, this time as reader for and editor of Penguin’s Way More West: Selected Poems of Ed Dorn, which is presently touring the USA. In between, I’ve read his books and listened to his songs, both of which have led me to a deeper appreciation of how he’s a poet, an insight into a lit community’s continuity in contrast to its star-maker machinery.
VF: Rothenberg is different from other poets in a number of ways. He’s a very strong reader, as well. He’s outperformed most of the poets I’ve seen him on stage with.
KG: He really has a presence, but it’s less a cutting contest, more like a nutty nod to human foolishness.
VF: I’m not thinking in terms of a cutting contest so much as I’m wondering how a guy who writes and recites so well can be continually overlooked.
KG: The first thing to catch my reading eye was the range of literary forms in which he plays. His roots seem to me deeply embedded in the New American Poetics tradition as characterized by Don Allen’s anthology from the early 1960s. You no doubt remember that Don Allen drew Walt Whitman as granddaddy to an American Grain lineage of open form and breath-driven individualistic expression, Ezra Pound as weird uncle. Although Leaves of Grass may not be the most direct line to Rothenberg, The Cantos gives us three clues: 1) everything, from history to the note on one’s desk, is potential material for the day journal, itself a poem, continuing, taking its course, breathing on the page its little song; 2) opera and troubadour traditions sing lyric and music as not two but one seam; 3) in ol’ Ez’s translations from the Chinese with his insight into the primacy of image, economically rendered in just-so language, the way was opened for a wide variety of experiments that created kinship in writers as diverse as that the ones who make up the NAP anthology and who Rothenberg is at home with stylistically, especially in the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissance, hence, the title of our convo-review-retrospective, “Who Are We Now,” from the Ferlinghetti volume, circa 1978. Is that a fair opening salvo into the roots of this writer?
VF: Definitely. Rothenberg wouldn’t consider himself a Pound disciple, but in poetry he’s analogous to Charlie Parker in that almost everyone writing poetry has absorbed Pound’s influence, either directly or from one of his disciples, such as Charles Olson. Rothenberg has roots in the troubadour tradition, as his song writing indicates. And his work in the journal format suggests he’s absorbed many of the techniques Pound employed in the Cantos for creating unity among disparate elements.
KG: Jonathan Penton, editor of Unlikely Stories, told me Rothenberg is not playing around with forms and genres so much as he is ignoring them entirely: “This is the freedom that we have now. Rothenberg was five years old when Howl came out. He doesn’t need to spend his time, today, challenging the concepts of form and genre. It’s unnecessary; the politics of genre is passé. Rothenberg’s effectiveness as a writer is partially due to the fact that he does not feel that he needs to whip that dead horse. He can spend his time seeking clearer and more beautiful ways to communicate his ideas. Michael was just part of a big ‘visual poetry’ show in Cleveland. His visual art is also hanging at a gallery in Sebastopol, California, near where he lives. That’s an art gallery — it has no particular ties to visual poetry, other than open-mindedness. Michael can’t draw, as far as I know. But Adobe Photoshop has reached a point of sophistication that allows him to take the techniques he’s learned as a writer and apply them to a visual realm. Which means that all the things he couldn’t express as well in words, he can now express visually, building on what he’s already learned. I mean, that’s what visual poetry is, but the reason Michael is so good at it is because his brain isn’t divided into forms and genres. Mediocre visual poetry occurs when the artist puts too sharp a divide between ‘visual’ and ‘poetry.’ Michael blends them seamlessly, just as he blends memoir, fiction, songs, and poetry. He uses techniques and tricks that are generally associated with one genre, and he drops them into another. But he’s not dropping them there because he wants to push the envelope or do something revolutionary. He drops them there because they’re the best way to get his point across in whichever loose medium he happens to be using.” Do these insights help us understand what is unique in his approach?
VF: Very much. Some of what Penton says is a generational commentary in that the writers who followed the Beats grew up in an era in which the gates of artistic experimentation had been flung wide open. It’s not uncommon now for artists to work in a variety of forms. But Rothenberg has so much experience under his belt that he can reach for and employ almost any expressive device with ease. When you reach that level, you don’t think about genre per se but about making the best work you can. Although Rothenberg’s work encompasses more styles, idioms and what have you, his primary goal is to make the pieces fit within his own work, not within some pre-defined format.
KG: What do you make of the following written by Rothenberg himself:
“The New American Poetry (NAP) meant nothing to me, I’d never heard of it, as I wandered through the lives of Keats, Shelly, Byron, and Blake in Mrs. Halperin’s 11th grade English class in 1968. “Beauty was Truth,” I was sure of it, as I consumed, along with Ode to the Grecian Urn, the popular music of my day, The Beatles, Dylan, and blues & jazz collections I got my hands on from Uncle Milty, a record distributor & friend of my father. I dug the Romantic “life-style”, because it resonated with the 60’s vision, but the poetry of the Romantics seemed like old stuff.
“The new stuff was pop music.
“Then one day Peter Schneider, a misfit friend from Miami Beach, where I was born and raised, played me recordings of Howl and Coney Island of the Mind. Something changed. “Truth was still Beauty” but weirder. What were these strange languages and voices, songs without a band? What kind of poetry was this? The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Phil Ochs’ Crucifixion were lyrically mysterious, but Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were unintelligible. They obsessed me and belonged to me. In retrospect, Howl and Coney Island of the Mind were probably more accessible than the pop songs I listened to, but maybe it was their “clarity” that was unintelligible. I don’t know.
“Poetry now had new possibilities, well for me, poetry now had possibility! I could use it to sing my own song. But mainly I looked to Bob Dylan for inspiration, his surreal flashes of imagery, Desolation Road and I Want You seemingly disconnected but emotional and inspiring.
“Living in Miami Beach, I was late to the game, but I made it to San Francisco before high school graduation, and stepped into the “Wild Kingdom” after having only seen pictures of it on the TV. I witnessed the flowering of the counter-culture, walked among beatniks and hippies, saw Allen Ginsberg playing harmonium with a rock band! I had finally transgressed, made my pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore, and found The Wild Kingdom real and alive. And I was a part of it, appropriately middle-class, alienated, and wanting nothing more than to be a poet.
“I was under the spell of Ginsberg, Dylan, Ferlinghetti but there were no specific signs, billboards that said: The New American Poetry this way. All I knew was that there was “Real Poetry” or should I say “Official Poetry,” and this other thing, dumb drop-out hippies and beatniks were writing, that I identified with, that didn’t count as poetry. Then, in college I found out at a poetry workshop with Howard Nemerov I was no poet at all, would never be one, I had the entirely wrong idea, heroes, subjects, politics, god knows what. But I didn’t give up. I began digging deeper into the meaning of language, reading esoteric writings like The Hobbit, The Little Prince and Technicians of the Sacred, and it became obvious there had to be some kind of connect between how I approached poetry and how I lived my life. In came Forest Reed, a great English teacher at UNC-Chapel Hill to give me some hints. He was a Pound scholar who was in love with poetry. Every day he took on the personality of the poet he taught, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, Frost, and Williams, mostly samplings of The Norton Anthology, but all the while Reed hinted at the infinite possibility beyond The New American Poetry Anthology. I really had no idea that there were camps, schools, armies that divided writers, institutions that trained armies, literary canons that exploded when you crossed from one boundary to another. I learned from all the poets I was reading. For me, poetry was a diversity of voices exclusive of gangs. Of course, I had my favorites they gave me the biggest highs. But still there was room for Plath’s Tulips, Stevens’ Blackbirds and Frost’s Birches. And Chinese poets like Tu Fu and Rexroth’s translations. And Rexroth! But I never saw the NAP signs that would have told me a literary revolution was taking place.
“Now, the poetry I liked was one thing, what I could write was another. I couldn’t write a “whole anything,” just fragments, which started to bother me, lock me up, since it seemed there would have to be some kind of “whole thing,” like Birches (Frost) and Tulips (Plath), that I could write that would end up in Norton’s Anthology. Then Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley came to UNC-Chapel Hill, read their poetry, and talked about Black Mountain College, and a new poetics I never heard of, and hardly understood. But a bootleg copy of Gunslinger was circulating and it blew my mind. It was narrative but not confessional, with language that jumped off the page. I signed up for a 1-on-1 with Ed Dorn & told him I couldn’t write a poem, that all I could write were fragments. And he said, “What’s wrong with fragments?” So I began to work with fragments, and learned how fragments in juxtaposition tell stories, or could exist on their own, like William’s Wheelbarrow or Whalen’s “The dog writes on the window with his nose.” I didn’t have to lead the reader with elaborate exposition. I just had to take it down, and somehow it might add up. But still no signs of NAP. I did find a copy of Philip Whalen’s Like I Say in a used bookstore, which I tried to read, but couldn’t understand.
“Eventually, I moved to Pacifica, CA, where I started Shelldance Bromeliad Nursery. I wrote and read, and met Margo Patterson Doss, who wrote about Shelldance in her “Bay Area at Your Feet” column. Margo lived in Bolinas and knew poets, hosted Olson and Whalen in her home. She introduced me to Joanne Kyger. I read Joanne’s The Japan & India Journals. She asked if I ever read Donald Allen’s anthology. Talked about breath, space, projective verse, Charles Olson, and reinforced my understanding of the movement of thoughts in the mind, how I could speed them up or slow them down, or as she said, “If I was really lucky, have no thoughts at all.” That’s when I finally got an idea about NAP. Joanne helped expand my ideas about the journal, urged me on to writing lots of journals. And she encouraged my involvement with ecology and activism on the Pacific coast. She supported the idea that community and how one lived in the world mattered. This all seemed right, bromeliads and activism and poetry. I thought, isn’t that what the poetry and poets I liked were about? Then Michael McClure came to the nursery. He heard from ornithologist, Luis Baptista, about the bromeliads on the hill. We became friends, hiked the hills around the nursery, spoke about art, political activism, and poetry. I learned from both Joanne and Michael, and from their friends, at lunch, through gossip, that there was a lineage, a NAP, bigger than the Beats, Black Mountain, Objectivists, any generation of New York School, more inclusive and expansive than San Francisco or Berkeley Renaissance. There was an all-of-it-world-of-poetry, disparate, desperate, and diaphanous voices, all rolled up into one, diverse and inclusive. That was my milieu. And Joanne introduced me to Philip Whalen, who explained that probably NAP is more than an Anthology to look back on, named, dead and dusty, but “part of the huge stream of evolving language.”
“Then at New College, as a “returning student”, David Meltzer taught me more about the poetics of NAP, erotica, pop music, jazz, the mystery of language, signifiers, tradition and the Hermetic. And Joanne, all the time curious about what I was learning from David, telling me to “Date my journals,” and asking, “Are you writing?” Then I became Philip Whalen’s editor. As an editor I learned how to read Philip. He taught me to not be so serious. He helped me develop my capacity for caring, and accept that Idealism was only an Ideal. Finally there was Naropa, the summer sessions I attended over the years, which drove home more of NAP, where William Burroughs brought Joyce to Punk and Comic Book to Political Exorcism; Amiri Baraka taught race and jazz; Anne Waldman rejoiced, obsessive and elegant, breath sweeping and tenacious; and Allen, Allen, showed me line, verse, line, and shared his dream of meeting Ma Rainey; writers from all over, who taught, learned, and heard the same possibility of meaning in poetry, recognized a freedom, the inside and outside as one consciousness, dharma, karma and practice, serious, playful, and rooted, always meaning something but never too much to atrophy. Naropa became a spiritual home for NAP, for me, more than just a bastion of Beatitude. And my poetry friends were part of that home, walking, living, breathing embodiments of NAP, my sangha, a home for my experiment with myself, my consciousness, a place to gossip and share the story of a vast agreeable and sometimes disagreeable tribe. I learned that poetry was more than a product, a religion, a god, a piece of nothingness, the quotidian, a fragment, that there was no Beat Thing or NAP really, and the closer I lived in my breath, and looked and learned, in my breath, and space, there was only practice, lots of practice, a life time of it, an art that would never be resolved, the beauty and horror of that unresolvedness, impermanence and poetry, experience, “a continuous nerve movie.” Finally, it is too much to say, what was or is my experience of NAP. The signs are never so clear, and I’m still learning.”
VF: For me, at 15, Don Allen’s New American Poetry was a relatively new book that imprinted on me the kind of poetry I would want to write and read. Coming along five or six years later, Rothenberg absorbed the work of its poets through other means. His discovery that he would “never” be a poet seems so typical; how many really good writers have to overcome grossly inaccurate pronouncements about their abilities? Quite a few, I’d guess. But his entry into the Beat scene appears to have succeeded because he didn’t try for it. He lived his life, did his own work, and it led to some extremely felicitous encounters.
KG: The most revealing detail to me in his essay is that during his coming-of-age, it was pop music that best represented the Romantic movement’s impulses. The mood of the Sixties — whether in New York with a Judson Church dance “happening” or the participatory audience approach of the Living Theater of Beck and Molina or in San Francisco with the acid tests — was collaborative and inclusive. Making culture was not this lonely, personal crusade against all that is wrong with society but a tribal event, something to celebrate, to dance to or share with other people. Talent, especially in music (the band was the unit of measure, not the soloist, singer, arranger or leader) looked to cooperate, not compete, in a multi-media venue that, thanks to technology, promised to dissolve the barrier between performer and performed to in a participation mystique.
To return to your opening remarks that Rothenberg is different and overlooked, and to expand on this notion of defying genre, it should be said that he is a poet, songwriter, novelist, editor of four Penguin Selecteds (Whalen, Meltzer, Kyger and Dorn) and a Collected Whalen from Wesleyan and publisher of Big Bridge, which is as eclectic as literature gets. In addition, he is also an outspoken eco-advocate, nursery owner and bromeliad grower. These last three aren’t literary, but they deserve our particular attention:
1) Writers who protect green things have a different take on “nature” than most of us. Serving as president of Pacificans for Mori Point and as Pacifica Planning Commissioner, sitting on the Board of Directors for Pacifica Land Trust and the Steering Committee for People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area and coordinating Earth Island Institute’s Sea Turtle Restoration Project speaks to a pro-active level of involvement with the environment, something many writers are naturally squeamish about since it involves time spent out of the writing shed. It also means wearing a lot of hats, getting along with people who have differing points of view and cooperating for the greater good, which is also a long way from the artistic seclusion of Yeats’ poetry tower.
2) Writers who grow and nurture plants, trees, shrubs and flowers often see our human drama in larger, less human-centric terms. In my experience the minute you start planting things, you’re taking sides: Is Paradise, that word from the Persian meaning “a walled garden,” something you build (become) or something you enter (be)? Many gardeners and landscapers want to civilize nature at the expense of what roams free. It’s a writer of a very rare breed who both grows a nursery and protects the wild.
3) Rarest of all writers is the one who goes backpacking into the jungle in search of rare breeds of bromeliads. Rothenberg has spent time in Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico and Argentina doing just that. Do you know that great film Adaption, starring Chris Connor and Meryl Streep, about orchid hunters in his home state of Florida? So much of Rothenberg’s literary and ecological agenda can be gleaned from this very revealing film. Suffice to say, hunters of the wild orchid march to a different drummer; they’re folks at the final frontier. I bring this up because I think it essential to frame any critical appreciation in this larger context if we intend to understand his contribution and do his work justice.
At the end of his life, Pound lamented that his fifty-year poem didn’t cohere, and he may have been right. By contrast, here is a coherent writer working in many modes, all of which should be considered a part of the whole, even the songs in Hollywood films. Why shouldn’t they add to the total? He embodies many elements of the NAP lineage and yet interviewers can’t seem to appreciate that this tradition is still alive! Google him and you can see what I mean. He gets asked some provocative questions — and this from a literary journal — about the difference between beatniks and hippies, terms I’ll call distracting and margin-making, generated by a voyeuristic mainstream, not by the folks participating in the actual experiment. Imagine having to be the apologist for events that these terms obscure! Ken Kesey’s phrase went something like, “You can’t mess around with it and not get some of it on you.” Robert Stone’s just-released memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, reminds us how, after the Pranksters’ famous bus trip from California to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow in ‘64, “Kesey and Cassady went home too. Fame awaited them, along with the same loathing that Kerouac and Ginsberg had endured. We couldn’t imagine it at the time, but we were on the losing end of the culture war.” Maybe by inheriting the beat-up/beated-down “Beat lineage” he realized it was wise to branch out. What do you think?
VF: As far as Rothenberg’s being in the awkward position of having to explain the difference between beats and hippies, that’s something many of us who came up between 1950 and 1970 have to contend with. We’re a source of history to the generations that increasingly lack a sense of it, literary or otherwise.
Of course, he’s one of the most qualified to talk about the subject, considering his longtime associations with Whalen, Meltzer, McClure, Kyger and other poets we might call the San Francisco Beats. But I don’t think his branching out came about as a reaction to that. At least in part, I think that’s a product of his range and his belonging to a younger generation.
As an artist and as a person, Rothenberg has range. Yes, we have to consider his literary works on their own merits, and those are substantial. Among actors, I’ve always liked Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, who can play a wide range of characters. Like them, Rothenberg can do more than one thing. As you pointed out, he’s a songwriter and novelist. He also does excellent visual poetry and language poetry and has experimented with computer-generated text and writing in code. I attribute some of his range to what we’ve talked about as Post-Beat, an extension of the Beats’ artistic explorations. During the latter part of the Beat hey-day, multi-media art started gaining ground. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Meltzer and other Beats worked in a variety of mixed-media endeavors. As their generational successor, Rothenberg lives in a world in which multi-media events are increasing, and sometimes morphing into their own art forms. His efforts are consistent with what I see happening among writers of our generation and younger.
Rothenberg isn’t just a poet; he’s a literary force. Your comparison to Pound rings true in more than one way. To some extent, the journal form that Rothenberg employs enables him to work within a compositional field as open as Pound’s or, later, Olson’s. As a literary force, he makes me think of Allen Ginsberg, whose organizing and persuading abilities were instrumental in getting the Beat Generation into print. Without Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs very likely would have remained unpublished and disdained. But Rothenberg also invites comparison with Pound because of his catalytic activities. Pound shaped the direction of modern literature not just through his own work, but through his discussions with Eliot, Stein and Joyce, among others.
Rothenberg works differently from Pound or Ginsberg, though. Instead of cajoling editors, the way Ginsberg did, he refers you to one who will likely be sympathetic to your work. Like Pound, he’s an Idea Man. A terrific one. His advice during the typesetting stage of IMPROVISATIONS really helped to make the book what it is.
When he organizes readings, they proceed without a hitch.
As an activist, he’s done extensive pro-environment work, and charity work for other poets. His Poets-in-Need organization would exceed the quality control standards of the job I held in a former life: all volunteers, no administrative waste. It runs on donations. Rothenberg, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino and Suzie Winson are four of its six board members. When a poet in crisis approaches them, they evaluate the need and write the poet a check. The number of people who would qualify is too small to warrant a paid staff, which saves the organization a lot of expenses that would consume most of the money the board dispenses directly to the poet(s). If Rothenberg wasn’t the founder of Poets in Need, he was instrumental in founding it. So, he’s a force beyond his own writing.
True to the Stone quote, the Forces in Power won the Culture War of the 1960s and have nullified much of the resistance to established power through a very sophisticated co-opting mechanism, e.g., transforming the Beats and hippies into niche markets so that we can feed profits to the mega-corporations and feel we’re still protesting. Rothenberg realizes this and is trying to continue to fight “the good fight” through alternate strategies. And this is where his cultivating a community of artists enters the picture.
I think he realizes that the corporate takeover of the large presses and the funding problems of the small presses prevent us from receiving even the modest rewards that we older writers expected when we started out, say an occasional ten-dollar bill for a poem, maybe even twenty-five dollars, a book that sold and paid royalties that you could use to buy lunch or maybe a night out. The increasingly limited options for publishing serious literature has put a lot of writers at each others’ throats. Rothenberg recognizes the competition is destructive and, well, stupid. So he tries to reach out to other people, and give them the opportunity to present their best work and have people read and appreciate it.
His editing Big Bridge is just one forum among his extensive literary network. But it’s a massive publication with tremendous scope. He publishes a lot of Beat writers, but opens the door for other poets, giving entire spreads to Slovenian poetry and Welsh poetry, mixed-media works...You name it, you just might find it there.
For all the work he does in all these areas, you’d think the literary world would give him much more acknowledgment than he receives. But then, I’m continually puzzled by the way the process of literary recognition works. At times it seems to contain elements of a caste system. Once certain people are “anointed” and assigned a certain status for their work, their position is not only unshakeable but seems to prevent other, equally gifted writers from receiving a similar status.
KG: Vernon, if folk$ paid litera-chore this much attention! Our enemy is not one another, but the overwhelming number of other leisure options — cable TV, 24/7 sports channels, CDs, ‘puter games, DVDs in surround sound — that require less imagination than reading. It’s goodbye to Howl’s boxcars boxcars boxcars and hello to screens screens screens that ubiquitously “give narrative” but don’t require the three-in-one act of reading-imaging-critiquing. In an age of alleged post-scarcity, people actually work longer and harder; they come home too tired to read about it. In this era of post-literacy, even crossword puzzles are our ally! Is it too much to say that if people saw language as a tool, we’d all have more fun opening our mouths-ears-hearts and maybe be less likely to think we are “fighting” for democracy when we occupy oil fields in foreign countries?
As writers we abhor what is happening in the name of wee dee people and we no doubt make too much of ourselves since no one else is bothering. If, as you say, there is a caste system, artists are certainly the untouchables. The only time art counts in the USA is when it makes gelt. When I was younger a few of us used to ask about a writer or musician, film director, “Yeah, but is (s)he saying something?” Now the question is more like, “How much of the gross did ya get and how about a tee shirt tie-in deal on the foreign rights?”
Is the joke that in this era of product branding and marketing logos, a writer like Rothenberg working within the Beat mantle in multiple genres is bound to be misunderstood? Should we at least be happy a cat with as much on the cap and as responsive to the journal tradition of Pound, Olson, Duncan, Kyger and Whalen, Rothenberg gets published and reviewed at all?
Which quote makes more sense to you vis-a-vis his dilemma: Dwight Garner wrote in a recent New York Times Book Review, “This country doesn’t need more writers; it needs more close readers,” and Christian Wiman, an editor at Poetry, wrote in the December issue, “The more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate for your taste and needs. With all the clamor in this country about the audience for poetry ... we shouldn’t lose sight of one of poetry’s chief strengths: how little of it there is.”
By the way, I think the two male figures in Punk Rockwell — Jeffrey, the poet/orchid hunter/selva savior; Punk, the sloppy, worldly novelist fighting over the beautiful female — are Rothenberg’s satiric insights into how status corrupts literature-making and turns the writer away from the contemplation of beauty. Am I wildly off-base here?
VF: No, Kirpal, not at all. Punk Rockwell appears to have all the qualities the poet/narrator craves for himself, including a sense of self-assurance and ease with the external world that the Jeffrey, the narrator tries to possess, but can’t. Punk has a comprehensive grasp of the world that Jeffery admires. But Jeffrey’s insecurities drive him into situations with Punk that unravel his life and subject him to the estranging realities of the world’s underbelly. On one level, it could be a novel about the effects of a menage-a-trois. But Jeffrey talks about himself as a poet and Rockwell as a novelist, so making the leap into aesthetic matters is very much in context. Punk is a novelist, a field that many people perceive as far more financially rewarding than poetry. So, the clash that results when a poet aspires to a novelist’s status, wealth and recognition, is already built into the plot. Being a poet doesn’t get you much in today’s world, no matter the level of your commitment. One of poetry’s greatest rewards is spiritual. While writing a novel can offer the same gratification, people commonly perceive prose writers as less exalted, more practical and, as a result, more rewarded with money, status and influence. The novelist has his feet on the ground and knows how the world works, as Punk shows through his myriad connections, national and international, and his knowledge of things that Jeffrey learns from him, more often to his detriment than his advantage.
Granted, there’s only so much room at the top. But when you look at the neglect of writers like Rothenberg, you begin, like him, to question the pyramid paradigm. His work more than holds its own with everybody I’ve read, and you can see evidence his of presence everywhere. Yet, if you’re overlooked in one area, people won’t even know about the other five or six areas worth looking at. So, perhaps because he’s egalitarian instead of haughty, he doesn’t create the kind of presence that inspires the form of intimidation we call awe. Instead of leaning on his heels, conducting himself as slightly superior, he meets you face to face as an equal. It may be that his very humanity, with its mensch-like qualities, doesn’t conform to the “star poet” posture. It’s possible that his extensive work in the journal form throws some reviewers off. It’s not a common form to work in, and the organic collages that develop as the journal progresses may demand more attention and concentration than some reviewers want to give. It’s easier to absorb a twenty-line poem than a ten or twenty-page one. And let’s face it, even in the literary business, as in the civil service, some people do take the easy way out. But doing so means missing out on the humor that Rothenberg can apply to even the most tragic situations, or the juxtapositions that to some degree create their own kind of ideogram over the course of the poem. Even though he’s solidly in the New American Poetry tradition, you have to pay attention to what he’s doing, the way you would with Olson or Duncan. Rothenberg’s poetry isn’t as obscure, but he incorporates sense impressions and other subjective elements the way Olson and Duncan did.
At long last, Rothenberg is gaining some recognition through his recent readings with Beats such as David Meltzer and Michael McClure. It gets him increased exposure. But again, a lazy-minded audience might see him as an “opening act” instead of a colleague. Having said this, I’m still puzzled that more people haven’t considered Michael Rothenberg as a poet — or a literary and social force — considering the strength and range of his literary work, and his efforts to advance the work of his colleagues and create a sense of literary community among them.
KG: It’s exactly why I want an interviewer to ask intelligent questions. Forget for a minute the fits that Rothenberg can give critics; if informed questions were more often the case, Rothenberg would more likely receive the recognition he deserves.
By “pyramid paradigm” I take it you mean our uniquely American habit of glorifying the writer of mass market as a stud instead of celebrating a process of poetry-making that unites disparate people into a sense of community. The irony with Rothenberg is that, from the beginning, his work has been a kind of blueprint on how to be present in the poetic moment — nutty perhaps as one could be, a fool if you like, but free, open, sincere — rather than how to get ahead in the po’ racket! This irony is furthered by our misunderstanding of seva, the traditional path of service as practiced, say, in Buddhism or Hinduism. Americans caught up in what Max Weber called “capitalism and the Protestant ethic,” Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism have a hard time with the idea that not everyone’s motive is the same — kill or be killed — and that donating time, money, effort and skill to a cause is not an invitation to a beheading or some horrible Kool Aid to drink (not the electric kind). Maybe we don’t really give props for serving the poetry community because we interpret from (project onto?) the folks at the no-room-at-the-top-of-the-pyramid that “service” is for suckers, shabbos goys, do-gooders, kiss-ups and the untalented, and that being the alpha poet streaking-freaking-&-acting-out is the only game in town. Unless a motive can be reduced to my “getting mines,” some folks question the writer, which is particularly inappropriate regarding Rothenberg. His mutual interest with writers began more along the lines of breeding orchids and saving sea coasts than a line like “study poetry with us and we’ll make you famous.” From the get-go it seems he’s been collaborating with artists, troubadours and the ecologically conscious. So is this what you are saying — that Rothenberg’s lived on the West Coast for twenty-five years, and so what if some of his friends are famous — can we take the bull’s eye off his ass now?
I happen to think his old school style of mentoring should be required reading for young writers going into BFA and MFA programs. Note his remarks earlier as an undergraduate at North Carolina struggling over his own fragmented lines. Even more to the point I’m making is his Master’s program. He had been writing for many years and had developed an interest in song writing. Meltzer, you may recall, wrote songs and rocked with Serpent Power back in the day. So Meltzer guided him through the tradition of songwriting, the troubadour and the primitive song, while he traveled the country writing tunes, living and learning.
Now this is what I mean about having an open mind with many hinges with which to understand his open form approach: all of living is the poem, not just the scratches we make in fading ink on onion-skin paper! Out of his self-inventing Masters program comes I Murdered Elvis: The Nashville Journals and maybe six songs scattered among films like Shadowhunter and Outside Ozona. Yes, but that’s not really the half of it in respect to Rothenberg’s output. However circuitous the route, one thing “all ways” leads to another with him. There’s the encounter, for example, a couple of years later with Elya Finn, this Russian chanteuse who was born to seam his moody lyrics to zee cabaret tunes she writes! “Mysteries hide/Behind the motion that is moving inside” — the combo of his words and her voice is spooky, a French love song meeting a restless diasporic rootlessness. Shades of Piaf with Blossom Dearie’s whisper in her delivery, the balance achieved between restraint and expression.
With this collaboration of talent you see what Olson and Duncan were up to about intuition and correspondences, how nerve end and intention, voice and breath, sound and imagination, ear and eye are all-of-a-piece. I mean here’s this free verse serial poet in a very closed form, the A-A-B-A pop song. Like any projective poet or jazz musician or action painter, he turns the form’s conventions and constraints into interesting solo opportunities, in this case, saying more through saying less while hitting the end rhyme straight on. In Finn’s knowing, haunted, gypsy voice they don’t sound like songs at all but zones of longing, lullabies of hope embedded in loss, love’s casualties in a world war-torn seeking to be re-born. They play in the mind-heart-breath long after one has turned the music off! No question, the pop tune kicked his ass, deepened his ear, burnt away the dreck, plugged in the mortal aspect. Let’s just play the first track on the CD with an eye to the lyrics (click here for MP 3 file):
When I met you
How was I to know
You were just like me
We were both alone
That’s no way to be
Then I felt you touch me
All my tears flew by
And every kiss
That took my breath
Also stole my mind
Getting close to you
That’s all I think of
Getting close to you
I dream that all my life
I’ll be with you all my life
When I met you
No one had a clue
I was getting close to you
The words are something else again when sung by Elya Finn! [You can download an MP3 file of Elya Finn singing this song here. — Ed.]
So yes to your remark about his being a literary and social force, willing to follow the muse, no matter how foolish. Do you think this has hurt his work?
VF: It’s something that really should have helped his work, seeing how this incredible poet also can work in a variety of forms and help artistically challenging poets find publishers and advise others on how to present their work in the best possible light, in addition to co-founding a charity organization for poets in crisis. But it probably hasn’t because the human tendency toward a lazy mindset facilitates pigeon-holing. You might remember that the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin received criticism in the jazz world because he didn’t just play bop or just play free jazz. He loved music in all its forms and played in as many as he could. His reputation suffered, not for a lack of talent, but an abundance of it.
I’m not sure how much Rothenberg’s diversity has affected the literary public’s reception of his work. Frankly, I think, unlike Chapin, a lot of people just aren’t aware of his other work. They don’t realize that he’s a highly skilled songwriter who can compose anything from ballads to rap, and write a soundtrack for a short novel, Drums of Grace. Whereas Chapin’s range worked against his acquiring several equally deserving reputations, Rothenberg’s range doesn’t even seem to get noticed.
KG: Drums of Grace breaks any category a critic might use to describe it! Of the sixteen tracks on the CD, there’s a rock anthem, some heavy metal weirdness, an ass-kickin’ country & western tune, a Cars-like punk rocker, acoustic folk, jazzy R & B, beautiful ballads and some hip-hop. You know, the rapping ain’t some weak or fake shit neither. It’s contemporary and gives us hip-hop nation’s tribal feel. He’s down with their “musical directions” as Miles called it, just as he is on the West Texas tune. He’s not frontin’. What he’s doing is the swing of delight. He’s on the inside of the veil, as the Sufis say. Check Jonathan Penton: “The poem and the song are not different forms; the difference is a matter of emphasis, not milieu. Rothenberg writes songs as a collaboration between his style of writing and his partner’s style of singing. They’re playful, they’re humorous, and they’re tailored to the singer’s strength. He simply does not acknowledge what is expected from him artistically.”
I think Penton’s on to something here, especially that last sentence. Per your question of why Rothenberg gets so little rhythm from critics, only the rarest music critic has ears for all the forms he works in; intellectuals, just like everyone else, have their favorites; they often are the artists who confirm or conform to their theories the most. Poetry criticism is no exception to that; Rothenberg is just less limited in taste, scope and interest than the rest of us.
Another way of putting this: Rothenberg is hell on one’s snobbery. His work is like a snob meter: one can’t get through it without checking some of one’s own elitist nonsense at the door. Hey man, I lived in the Texas Hill Country. When Rothenberg offers me a taste of C & W, he better have chops because I can’t abide any of the clichés in that music. You see what I’m saying? The guy gives you new ears to hear a musical form you may have closed down on without even realizing it. This is where his jester’s gesture comes through — not mockery but “the unspeakable vision of the individual,” as Kerouac called it.
We already are in Orwell’s 1984, an age where a press kit is headline news and corporations spend billions of dollars to drill their mottoes into our brains. Thinking is evil, let’s face it. It can cause anxiety. Art is just part of a larger confidence game to sell you things you don’t need. It’s the Mickey Dee-ing of culture, fast food to enlarge and confound, but not satisfy, appetite. This is indeed the theme of Drums of Grace, a totalitarian world devoid of musical expression. My only objection is in the appropriation of screenplay-think to tell the tale. It’s not up to the task! “The most beautiful woman in the world turns heads as she walks down the busy street” is what I mean by screenplay-think, the dependence on things outside the story (unearned) to tell the story. Rothenberg has quite a collection of songs performed by a wide range of talented musicians, but his fantasia is peopled by characters in a Wizard of Oz meets Star Wars and the Furthur Bus. At least that’s how it reads on the page, and I’m not sure the page is its final manifestation.
Protagonist Walter Blue is a lovable lawyer, but events become predictable rather than revealing as the tale unfolds. Here’s where I want to reserve judgment. As cinema, especially handled by a Busby Berkeley or a Vincente Minelli, what’s missing in the script makes the dances and songs more central to character and plot development. So maybe Drums of Grace will yet morph into film.
Another way of saying this is that there is something unstable in its electrons! It’s a question of admitting to the sub-atomic to find the Gestalt. The longer I looked at Ira Cohen’s wavy-gravy photos interspersed with the text, the more I felt the collaboration’s psychedelic dimension. I don’t mean these two guys are ingesting psychotropics. I mean the sensation they produce together is vibrational, shamanic, full of transport, beyond the portals of personal identity. In keeping with our oldest spiritual impulses, from the Rig Veda to now, they demonstrate that our human form is a chrysalis; sing, dance and lose yourself to find you’re alive inside the lungs and jaws of a lion! Like the Joshua light show that accompanied the Fillmore’s triple bill of rock, blues and jazz, Cohen, who calls himself “an electronic, multi-media shaman,” adds that swirling element, that Sixties feeling, what another Cohen (Leonard) called, “god is alive, magic is afoot.” This strange brew is a long way from the single snapshot cliché of the SF Renaissance captured in black & white: its Far Eastern minimalism, calligraphy, ikebana and hyper-neatness. It’s also a long way from MTV and other multi-media forms that once held the promise of the Sixties. It’s got teeth and a helluva bite.
Yet another way of saying this is that taste is a tough thing to calculate.
VF: It is. I view Drums of Grace differently. It definitely has a kinship to the Wizard of Oz and Divine Right’s Trip, Gurney Norman’s novel based on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their bus, Furthur. It also makes me think of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.
I think Penton’s remark about Rothenberg working beyond forms is somewhat apropos here, even though Rothenberg does employ elements of traditional forms to create the unique fusion that is Drums of Grace.
To me, Drums of Grace is an attempt at a multi-media novel. Rothenberg combines his own text and music with illustrations by Ira Cohen. While I see its cinematic potential, I think Rothenberg actually appropriated the style of the fairy tale for the work: a simple, straightforward prose narrative, very unlike the collages and juxtapositions that characterize most of his other work. Sometimes you have to simplify the writing style to allow other elements to work, just as in a seven-piece band, you might play less and leave room for other sounds than you would if you were playing in a trio. Rothenberg wrote Drums of Grace in a very basic style — -the fable format — to facilitate the interaction of text, images and music. It’s an allegory, and traditionally, allegories don’t have characters developed much beyond their symbolic function. In that respect, I can live with the simplified characters because they serve a function different from what we expect to find in conventional realism. I can’t recall any well-rounded characters in Pilgrim’s Progress, although the Slough of Despond had a delightfully amorphous configuration. I would say Rothenberg also appropriated elements of the Broadway musical, as well. The characters in musicals aren’t necessarily developed in depth, either. They exist to experience emotions related to romantic love and to spring into songs that seem irrelevant to the fundamentally flimsy plot. You could even make a case for Drums of Grace being an interactive work because the reader/viewer/listener has to decide when to look at the illustrations and when to listen to the songs — all of which, by the way, are deeply grounded in their respective idioms. We can also go back to the children’s book as a model for Drums of Grace. In the days that they comprised the Toronto Research Group, Steve McCaffery and BP Nichol wrote that children’s novels were early multimedia vehicles, combining text, illustrations and a recording between the bindings. This simplicity informs Rothenberg’s approach and allows him to create an allegorical work.
As an allegory, the book runs on one simple thought by Walter Blue: The inner nature of all things is musical. From there, the journey takes the idea through the core themes that run through Rothenberg’s work For example, you can see his satiric take on the environment when he pulls into the Dino-Tech Petroleum Station and encounters a clerk whose uniform features a red Pterodactyl and a quote: “It’s Natural!” In this world of silence, Newspeak blasts loud and clear.
I try to consider any work I read on its own terms. Drums of Grace makes a different set of demands from Punk Rockwell, Unhurried Vision or The Paris Journals. For me, the things you mention aren’t mistakes so much as they are conventions that fit the allegorical aspect of the work. I think it would make a very enjoyable movie, though.
But, once again, Rothenberg has ventured into areas that defy categorization. Not everybody in the literary world will accept this mixed-media change of pace on its own terms. And, as you said, Rothenberg will really mess with your Snob Meter. This work incorporates elements of popular culture that many tastemakers would cringe at — unless they had a great sense of fun. And once again, whatever the differences in our opinion of Drums of Grace, we do have to appreciate Rothenberg’s willingness to write on his own terms. Whether others will judge the work on its own merits is a sticky matter because he’s broken the mold once again, gone against type, so to speak.
The world is very slow to embrace people who insist on creating their own space instead of accepting the one externally assigned to them.
KG: Drums of Grace as a multi-media novel! I hadn’t thought of that. So you have songs to hear, images to look at and words to read — and in any order that makes sense. Okay, but now I’m hoping it makes it to the stage sooner or later. It’s musical theater, after all, why the characters aren’t fleshed out, as you mentioned, as they might in fiction. The songs are so central to the story and so varied in style that the biggest demand on the audience is to have a beginner’s mind, as Suzuki Roshi called it, to be open to everything.
It’s clear that Rothenberg loves to write and make music with people. There’s a certain vitality to this more tantric state of mind, an openness, a willingness, and people who live in smaller universes may feel frightened or challenged by him or what they may think he represents. People who love to swing, however, outlast all the jive talkers, doubt-casters and nay-sayers. In this sense, I would call him a jazz musician.
Regarding Chapin who I know was your close buddy and cohort, were he alive now, in this more reflective era in which all forms are celebrated as valid, he would undoubtedly be a lot more well known. He’d be making music with Rothenberg, too! In spite of the changing styles you mentioned, he remains, among jazz musicians in New York, a well-loved horn player. Phil Woods recently said upon his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame that the three things killing this music are the journalists, the radio dj’s and the rekkid companies.
Pigeon-holing this protean musical heritage is always a wrong move. In Mumbo Jumbo Ishmael Reed called jazz by the name Jes Grew. However, this music has always faced adversity way more head-on than poetry. Jazz, to borrow Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s phrase, is black classical music. It’s forged with the blues, a sanctifying church, a strange fruit, a voodoo riddle in a slave’s call-and-answer shout, a signifyin’ on human oppression through a hybrid vigor of Euro song form & African polyrhythm, a greater exploration into freedom than Tom Jefferson had the cojones for — in other words, a survivor’s tale!
Nevertheless, if you don’t think there are struggles equally maddening and plain-up stupid crazy as take place every day in the smaller world of poesie, let me cite the case of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center project. Unlike practically every symphony orchestra and ballet company in the USA, jazz has never had corporate funding or official sponsorship of any kind until Marsalis pulled this amazing rabbit outta the hat, a multi-billion dollar baby with educational programs for middle school kids and the whole shot. It’s years later and some folks are still saying Marsalis is a sell-out. Does he have to hire every jazz band in New York before folks will cop to the fact that he is advancing the art for all of us? I mean Wynton doesn’t need Lincoln Center to get him a gig!
So if we grant that some folks in the arts, especially poetry, “act like a dog that’s been beat too much,” then people with a sense of tradition meeting a new vision are what the doctor ordered. However, the thing I find most disturbing regarding your comment about Rothenberg is the implication that, by serving the poetry community, he is actually limiting his reputation.
VF: It is disturbing. But the pigeon-holing that you or I might use mainly as a short-hand for conversational purposes is something that many other people take seriously, however inaccurate the labels might be. If some of the things I’ve read about Rothenberg’s work didn’t affect his career, I’d find them laughable. We all know his close friendship with Philip Whalen and Unhurried Vision, the book of poems he wrote about their friendship. The comparisons that reviewers made between Whalen’s work and Rothenberg’s struck me as facile, and less than accurate, for the most part. Contrary to the impression these reviews create, Rothenberg owes very little to Whalen in terms of style. The popular term for this these days is “reductive.” And the reductive mindset, which in the instances I’m talking about are more facile than thoughtful, limit their perception of Rothenberg’s scope and the reader’s perception, as well. As much as this of thinking may have helped Rothenberg become known as an editor, it hasn’t helped him become known as a poet.
KG: Which of the four review excerpts comes closest to anticipating your objection and getting the book right?
1) From the Australian writer Laurie Duggan: “If we can’t have the real thing, might we be satisfied by a book of poems written in the mode of the author by one close to them? This is the atmosphere in which a book like Unhurried Vision might be expected to exist. Michael Rothenberg takes up the notion of the poem as a kind of ‘sensitive tracking device’, a ‘continuous nerve movie’ that Whalen had advanced as his own poetic. With writing of this kind after a while nothing ‘out there’ seems ‘accidental’ and there is a danger of the whole structure frosting over; becoming too conscious of its own art. Whalen usually manages to avoid mannerism, breaking off where you sometimes want him to continue (from the reader’s point of view it’s a bit like experiencing the frustration of a desire to turn flat images into perspectives). The problem for Rothenberg lies in his brief: presenting a diary of disintegration; a kind of ‘still life with dying poet.’ Rothenberg apes (often successfully) the style of his master. There are many moments in the book when the reader is uncertain just whose voice is speaking: is it Rothenberg himself or, through him, Whalen? There is an additional indeterminacy in the punctuation that leaves certain phrases hanging, able to belong to either the foregoing or the thereafter.”
2) Randy Roark in Jacket 25 noted three formal characteristics. “The first is the most important — the deconstruction of the false ‘fourth wall’ between the poems themselves and the author’s actual experience. ‘It’s all one poem,’ Ted Berrigan said, but sometimes it’s not this easy to see it as all one poem. What we get instead in Unhurried Vision is the quality of continuation. If nothing ever really begins or ends, it just continues in a new way. In this way, each poem here begins within a larger context — amending or ‘commenting’ on what has gone before and ignorant of what’s coming up next. Just like real life. There is even one ‘list poem’ (in this case a list of Philip Whalen’s unpublished journals) that spreads over three separate poems, and in this way we actually re-experience the joy of the rediscovery of these ‘new’ notebooks. The third quality is less in the nature of the ‘daybook’ but rather, I imagine, a result of Rothenberg’s interest in Buddhist meditation. The white space that is usually used to ‘set off’ a poem has largely been incorporated into the poems themselves — almost as instructions for proper breathing, or in an attempt to get us to slow down, at least for as long as it takes to read these poems. But this book is mostly (for me) a celebration of community: of breaking bread with friends (who are about to become compost themselves), how the process of lineage actually works (and has worked for millennia), and the preciousness of everything (and everyone) that gets lost along the way.”
3) Tom Bell writes, “Unhurried Vision is a book of friendship, of sitting with, of loss, of contemplation, of beauty. It is not about those things: it is. It chronicles a year Michael Rothenberg spent sitting as Philip Whalen leaves us. It is a beautifully and simply and carefully crafted piece that conveys Whalen’s essence and his quirks: Dharma transmission: ‘another maniac unleashed, alas!’ Who is speaking here? Does it Matter?”
4) Finally, this from Meltzer: “Political, personal, and romantic, Unhurried Vision works to savor the impermanent, looking at the moments in a poet’s life, contemplating the body of experience. It is the mind on a quiet stroll through longing, loss and beauty. Unhurried Vision, a year in the life of Rothenberg, is really a deeply loving celebration & farewell to mentor Philip Whalen, poet, roshi, & all around confounder of boundaries. A day-book; a non-epic odyssey through routes & roots of living & dying; a gastronome’s pleasure dome, but above all a deeply stirred & stirring affirmation of poetry’s centrality in realizing mundane & profound instances in the everyday extraordinary. Rothenberg’s raw footage is disarming, sly, self-effacing, proclaiming, doubting, affirming.”
VF: I would say David Meltzer’s commentary is the most accurate. Duggan’s referring to Unhurried Vision as a “continuous nerve movie” is a fair comment on Rothenberg’s writing in general, but I think Rothenberg came to it on his own through the immediacy of the journal form. “Still life with dying poet” may serve as a thumbnail sketch, but if you look more closely it’s not a “still life,” but a life in process whose predominant contextual focus (in this book) is Whalen.
Rothenberg does write differently in this book. His style is less telegraphic and does, more than I thought at first, reflect more elements of Whalen’s style than he customarily employs. [I would, however, take exception to Duggan’s term “apes,” since its nature as a left-handed compliment diminishes Rothenberg’s work. May reviewers of Unhurried Vision assumed Whalen had a direct influence on Rothenberg’s style. For the most part, I don’t agree with that assumption.] Some writers influence you in ways that your style doesn’t reflect. Given the kind of relationship they had, Whalen may have influenced Rothenberg more as a person than as a poet. Without ever knowing Whalen personally, I’d guess that his kindness, compassion and ability to laugh at himself reinforced similar qualities in Rothenberg. More than a poetic style, this might be Whalen’s legacy to Rothenberg. Rothenberg really writes about his life as a process in process and in his other work the journals collage elements from all parts of his life, a holistic juxtaposition of elements diverse in times, locations and characters.
Although Whalen is the primary focus of the work, he appears in the context of Rothenberg’s life which, for this period of time, is focused on Whalen. Having read both writers extensively, I don’t find myself doubting whether Whalen or Rothenberg is speaking. Rothenberg’s voice is still distinctly his own, even though his content reflects a more relaxed or “unhurried” approach. If he’s riffing on Whalen’s life and work, you have to allow him the latitude to capture Whalen’s attitude through the range of literary techniques he has at his disposal. The “indeterminacy” in punctuation that Duggan mentions is something I’ve encountered in almost all of Rothenberg’s work; it gives the reader room to interpret Rothenberg’s passages in multiple ways, allowing the reader to see multiple perspectives within the situation.
Randy Roark’s breakdown of Rothenberg’s craft is more accurate than many reviews I’ve read. Rothenberg does try to break down the “fourth wall,” the divide between art and life. If his use of the journal form is more focused in Unhurried Vision, it nevertheless begins and ends as a continuing flow, like many of his works that make more expansive use of the journal. His beginnings and endings are not finalities so much as they are notes of resolution caught in a pause before the melody modulates into another key of life, so to speak.
Roark’s comment on Rothenberg’s use of white space is interesting, especially since I think it’s one of Rothenberg’s strengths. He has a strong visual sense, as evidenced by his visual poetry, and his use of text and space on the page is brilliant. Of course he’s using space to determine the pace of the reading and, in this case, create a more reflective work. But Roark’s comment about friendship and literary community holds especially true. The sense of community is evident in all the references and quotes from Whalen’s and Rothenberg’s colleagues.
But Meltzer brings it all back home. In what he calls “raw footage,” he describes the traits that characterize Rothenberg’s work as a whole: “sly, self-effacing, doubting, affirming.” By doing so, he, in effect, places Unhurried Vision in the context of Rothenberg’s corpus. While referring to Whalen as Rothenberg’s mentor, he doesn’t reduce Rothenberg to an apprentice’s role, but sees him as a complete person living a complete life in which Whalen, at the time of this book, was a central character. Unhurried Vision in some ways may represent a departure for Rothenberg — and a critical one, given the importance of Whalen to his life — but instead of looking at it as a derivation from his mentor, I see it as an expression of Rothenberg’s poetic range as well as an expression of deep love for a dear friend. Whalen isn’t Rothenberg’s dominant influence, stylistically speaking. But Rothenberg may have learned some life lessons through his friendship with him that he reveals through a world view that is simultaneously “disarming, sly, self-effacing, proclaiming, doubting, affirming.”
KG: I agree with you, particularly the last point about Whalen’s influence being more a friendship, a mutual appreciation of “absurdity in a sand grain,” than a seminar on poetry or Zen sitting. Rothenberg strikes me less Buddha, more Byron. Whalen and traditional meditation fit whereas Rothenberg seems a songster, a romantic and a gyani, a well-traveled intellectual juggling ideas from many traditions — or as Whalen said, “too complicated for sitting practice.”
Even his being misread as riding Whalen’s gravy train (to the grave?), cashing in on “the master’s style” is kind of funny, missing the point. Consider Be More Dying:
Be “actively” dying qualify for hospice
Be “just dying” qualify for extended health care in maximum security file cabinet
Urine pool, feces, public body classified, legalized, certified every 3 months with ultimate
goal to be quickly and inexcusably dead
Venerated Monk wakes in lake
Floats on hospital bed where fish leap over rainbows
He can’t find the brass bell to wake him from the panic of unexpected dislocation
This not the mind he knows
Now praying to wake
Be more dying the system says
Practice death rattle for next visit, re-certify for warm bed,
massage, dolmas, peanut brittle
Die with dignity, but quick
According to regulations
“Hurry up please it’s time!”
This bed is for people “actively dying”
You’re passively dying. No not dying, you’re living! You’re living not dying!
You’re dying and living at once!
We can’t have that! Which direction are you going in? We need to know so we
can send your charts to the state, get reimbursed for this burden of you
Be more dying or we’ll put you on the street
Be more dying, be more meat
Be less spirit, be less conscious
Be out the door, not in the lobby lounging, flaunting good humor and will
Don’t act like Baachus, be morose, hang your tongue down
Roll your eyes voidward, be blisters and horror
We’ll drape ourselves over you, moan, moan!
Be more dying!
Groan out loud, in horror, evaporate
Then everything will be better
Happily ever after.
Whalen’s getting kicked out of the Zen hospice after a life dedicated to dharma, sangha and living the poem makes this not “a tale of beatnik glory” but the saga of cantankerous individualism at the hands of a mismanaged bureaucracy. Rothenberg’s reaching out for a fair shake for the blind old sensei, not ringing the bell for zendo.
Of the four reviews I liked how Duggan anticipated your concern over voice and resolved it, much like Tom Bell, asking if it matters. Melzter, hands-down, said it best in his accordion prose, but I thought a lot about Roark, “...this book is mostly a celebration of community: of breaking bread with friends (who are about to become compost themselves), how the process of lineage actually works (and has worked for millennia), and the preciousness of everything (and everyone) that gets lost along the way.” It’s the terminal ward that gives UV balance. More to the point, lineage is a living thing, community but the size of one’s own heart and Roark’s remark talked me out of disliking the book.
To illustrate let me take a chorus here: you mentioned Allen Ginsberg before, and one difference of opinion I had when studying with him one summer was his endless promotion of his friends. I thought this was aesthetic; only later did I see it was born of a sense of family and tribe, but at the time, big know it all that I wasn’t, I questioned his (lack of) judgment, why he didn’t read other poets more, share the stage with “the other side.” When some of the real down-and-outers made fun of him for his help, calling him out in public, “Mama Ginsey,” I thought they were awfully infantile, you know, with their jones coming down. What I’m saying is that it took me time to realize AG was their ultimate advocate willing to share it all — and he was all some poets had. So part of the feedback from those he hired or talked up and who owed him favors was that he shouldn’t get too caught up in his own Jewish mother generosity poster. After all, he got big bucks to read poetry, sing off key, play harmonium badly and get naked after the same gig the schnook got bupkis for, that’s what Corso couldn’t get over, and he had a point and suffered it. I think it’s what Rothenberg keeps saying, that tradition is not some static picture of an enlightened roshi or uber-poet but a sense of who you are, that lineage is a human drama and a process or method of becoming more fully human.
So, anyway, on the first reading of Unhurried Vision, I kept thinking, “Why the name-dropping? Who cares who said what about Whalen when?” All these names were getting in the way of, and then becoming, the poem. It was claustrophobic. I put the book down and moved rocks in the garden. On the next read, I saw Rothenberg making fun of the whole charade, including his own character, noting the actual things that happened in contrast to the myth-making. Check May through June’s New York to Naropa entries, and tell me if you catch the humor it took me a moment in the garden to find: poets may be too self-important to realize their bid for immortality is the biggest joke around, you know, to inject the sense of humor of a Whalen into the telling?
What more loving tribute to the man can there be?
Regarding The Paris Journals, written in the Spring of 1998 and published in 2000, what are your impressions? Here the poet’s personal life again, but unlike UV, it has no po’ angst to weigh it down. It’s light and presents a trippy guy with an interesting life wandering Parisian streets recording impressions.
VF: I think The Paris Journals gives us another context in which to understand Rothenberg and his work, one that doesn’t include the Beats and Naropa. In The Paris Journals he’s going to Paris for his first time in ten years and recounting his range of feelings and sensations, just as he does in most of his other work. He’s a “naked” writer. He stands in front of us, revealed — nothing hidden.
I think The Paris Journals casts a different light on the matter of name-dropping in Unhurried Vision. As I see it, name-dropping, “the mention of famous or important people as friends or associates in order to impress others,” isn’t just the saying who’s there but why one says they’re there. When Rothenberg uses names, he does so because it’s his natural conversational mode, the way he refers to people he knows when he talks about something that happened. His other books name people unknown to the public in similar ways. In the case of Unhurried Vision, the names establish the context and “place” of the work. If he didn’t mention Whalen and instead talked about a “famous poet” unnamed, he would avoid the label, but you would wonder [who’s the poet and what’s the dirt?] In Unhurried Vision, the naming of public figures familiar to him replaces a narrative explanation or thumbnail sketch of the person. He’s doing it for artistic reasons, not to enlarge his ego or enhance his status, which he has obvious doubts about, viz the cologne and stockbroker. In the Naropa section, all the names are there to be dropped, worshipped or fucked by one gender or another, depending on the situation. That the names are well enough known eliminates the need for description for a large number of readers. As you mentioned, Rothenberg’s kept company with the Beats — especially the San Francisco Beats — on a regular basis for over twenty years. He’s known them long enough to get well past the initial sense of awe associated with meeting them. He knows their mystique, but he sees their warts, the ego displays and whatnot. If I had mentioned them, it would be name-dropping because my contacts with them aren’t subjects of my everyday conversation. To Rothenberg, mentioning Meltzer, Kyger or McClure is about the same as mentioning his son or his wife. And he does give a little zing to those who serve as mentors and idols to others, e.g., “Allen, get out of my poem!” Basically, he’s reminding us that we’re all human despite our accomplishments and reputations and, no matter how rave our reviews, we still eat, sleep and pay or boycott taxes. When I look at the references to the Beats in Rothenberg’s work I don’t find them distracting. They actually interest me because I learn more about the Beats as humans, which is to some extent outside the context of the literary work itself, so let me get back to that.
In the May-June section, “June 20-23, Naropa, Summer: The Beat Legacy,” Rothenberg shows us a variety of attitudes toward the Beats he’s known. The “Night Before Going” section talks about the difficulty of getting invited to Naropa and compares his future company to bromeliads. But in the last lines I sense some ambiguity, that, aside from night bringing out the best in his company, “the fragrance stronger” might suggest the fragrance of another, not legal, plant being smoked. The “Going After” section reads like a transcript of a typical Rothenberg presentation, including his humor — “before going off the deep end introducing you to my ambiguity” — which he uses to deflate the impression of his own “importance” and relate to the audience as an equal with something to share, as opposed to present. Anne Waldman’s response at the end, asking how much Whalen received from the GI Bill after Rothenberg says not to ask, suggests either that he may have taken himself too far off the podium or that the environment at Naropa is very casual. On the one hand, mentioning Waldman appears to be a distraction because he mentions her by name and anybody shouting “How much” could have been the agent of the punch line. But his citing Waldman establishes the setting and indicates how the Director of Naropa Institute sets the tone for the program and. In “Going On,” he gives more of a list of his Beat companions and conveys feelings of ambiguity: “I could be talking about strangers” — closeness — “This could be my family” — and a detachment from the situation that makes his describing their being “Dead, sleeping, blind” humorous, the way one might toss off a comment about one’s own family. In other sections of the poem his sense of “What am I doing here?” jars sense of familiarity.This comes through when he describes himself wearing French cologne instead of the scent of a “whole earth vegetarian restaurant” or when he deals with a call from his stockbroker. Neither French cologne nor stockbrokers are things we commonly associate with the Beat lifestyle. So, we experience Rothenberg’s flashes of self-doubt and his dispelling them with humor, as he does in describing himself as:
Boomer yuppie schlepping
Stigma through a meadow
Of day-glo flowers
In recognizing his generational difference, he makes fun of himself, yet indicates an awareness of his occupying a stance that suggests “Post-Beat,” a new generation of artists building on what the Beats did and taking it further.
KG: I read Rothenberg as being at his most satiric in the reefer-vegan-fascist-references you mentioned. Let’s hope in taking the lineage Post-Beat, as you suggest, that his “letting the air out of egos” helps liberate Beat writers from the limits of personality in much the same way Keats’ “egotistical sublime” trimmed Wordsworth’s excesses.
On the other hand, I hear you about lightening up on the name dropping.
Yes, it should be said that these are real people, a community of his friends that, after forty years, are like family. Or more exactly: a community free from many of the limits of family and its dysfunctions, an alternate model of relatedness; moreover, an opening of the gate to the reader. On another level, I suppose these names could also be said to be products and brands, not just characters in a story but real writers and good ones and reason to go out and buy their books, too. Nothing new there, nothing wrong with that, either; that’s been going on from the beginning, it’s The Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac’s original shot, an interconnecting multi-book epic about his friends. To extend the idea that Unhurried Vision is a historical document: yes, it does tell of a socio-spiritual community, specific to Buddhism in the Bay area, that did not adequately care for one of its key figures at a timely moment. It was Whalen who reminded Rothenberg, “The further a religion gets from its source, the weirder it gets.” However, Rothenberg’s kind of telling makes its points by keeping you guessing. Not only are we never quite sure who’s doing the talking, Whalen or Rothenberg, or whether it’s a convo in the head or spoken aloud, but in keeping with the tradition’s “burn-the-temple-down” anarchy, the poem asks if such an entity like the Beat School even exists or could be said to function as if it did. I like that.
Nevertheless, for me the phrase, “Allen, get out of my poem” is the worst moment in Unhurried Vision. Maybe I just didn’t find it funny. However, I think any reference to anyone outside the poem, whether the dead or one’s wife or son, must be weighed out against the reader’s patience. I dislike the chumminess in Frank O’Hara as well, this gossiping or making public a private address to an individual. Maybe, as Rosemary Clooney Died Today suggests with its echo of O’Hara’s Lady Day elegy, Rothenberg is simply reclaiming names and figures as more symbols and iconic references. Check this:
Rosemary Clooney Died Today
I’m in a hurry with no place to go
I’m here, it’s here, not there, but here
Burning incense 10:29 am, Sunday
morning, rain, rain, come this way
mind o mind float away.... “krishna lila”
by dj Cheb i Sabbah, put me to sleep
last night when I thought I’d never stop
running the tap, frozen in sleepless
headlights. Everyone should know
I was there for him. I was monkey son
and hope I didn’t hurt him
not sitting with him
every remaining departing moment
Separation and exile
He complained about being alone
but knew it was nothing unique
Moment to moment, each breath
and thought breaking apart, the delicacy
of regrouping those thoughts into
a concoction, to consume once again
Agates, buddhas, books and very little else
over 78 years, but tons of friends
Who admired him, never knew
how to talk to him, or ways to take care of him
Protect him in his grand vulnerability
He was after all a cranky guy but so what
if that was his worst aspect
then give me more Philips
Banquets of Philips
Trees of peach Philip fruit
Tomes of Philip
Philip barks and howls and groans
to populate the thickening silence
Philip silence and Philip pause
Philip face distorting
to punctuate the situation
Philip ears and images
What a handsome fatman
I picture him and my mother talking
from one hospital bed in Miami to another in San Francisco
Two handsome cranks both sure
how this miserable story would end
No question, but beautiful. Certainly a detail like Cheb i Sabbah’s raga montages makes it new, makes it now and makes it history all at once. Certainly the streaming of Whalen and his mother in the last lines makes Rothenberg’s Clooney more personal than O’Hara’s Lana Turner poem. Yet I wonder if the reader, rather than the famous, were kept at the center of the reading experience, would the Beat agenda of a more intimate engagement with the text be better served. Relating humanly to the reader drove the Beats to “howl” a larger cultural revolution about self-expression.
We shouldn’t forget how square things were in post World War II USA. Beat writers from the East Coast were drawn to a town like San Francisco. The powers that be in the button-down New York book industry had not a single Dionysian in that whole Pope-&-Parson Eliot-Seven Levels of Ambiguity tweed and elbow patch crowd! Otherness of any stripe couldn’t get a gig in that world so dig: don’t hak me a chaynik. At Columbia the English Department had no love for Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs. How many early City Lights and Grove titles were banned by the government and went to trial? You may recall what T. Capote said about JK’s spontaneous bop prosody, “That’s not writing; it’s typing.” That sounds kind of snide and mean to me.
Dance with the one who brung ya, that’s what they say in Texas, and I hope this doesn’t sound too adolescent but wouldn’t it be great to see Rothenberg help the Beat lineage outgrow its own adolescent narcissism and re-affirm its roots in what made it so transformational in the first place: jazz, ecology, nuclear disarmament, civil rights and the Vedic-Taoist-Buddhist-Al Jerreau insight that “we’re in this thing together, got a love that’ll last forever?” On the other hand, maybe I am too old school; you’d never know in these days of ubiquitous poetry venues, e-zines and “the open mic” that the Black Mountain poets were considered too “out” to appear in lit mags or readings.
Back to your point about lineage. Unhurried Vision is published by La Alameda Press in Alburquerque. They have published Again by Kyger and Beat Thing by Meltzer as well as good work by Jim Koller of Coyote (a publisher of Whalen) and Miriam Sagan, the sister-in-law of Suzi Winson, publisher of Fish Drum, whose brother was old friends with Whalen, who had quite a following in New Mexico. As I understand it, Rothenberg met Winson when he was caring for Whalen. She stepped in to add financial assistance with Whalen’s care and took a liking to Rothenberg’s work. So Fish Drum and La Alameda are a continuing, or filling out, of associations from the Whalen world where lineage is happening on more than just a publisher or literary level but a community or sangha level. Fish Drum, in New York City, is the publisher of The Paris Journals.
VF: I didn’t realize how complex the connections were, but it’s not uncommon in the literary world. Networks form in a variety of ways, and they’re necessary. Without the Whalen-Kyger connection, Winson might never have known about Rothenberg’s work. The Beats probably didn’t start out as a cult of personality, but as it evolved and each of its writers gained media attention, I’m sure egos and personalities entered the picture in a big way. The practice itself is probably no different from the interactions of Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Stein early in the twentieth century. These seminal avant-garde writers and the Beats needed to form networks because the mainstream literary world didn’t support them any more than the current mainstream supports writers like Rothenberg. And if Winson likes the work of Kyger, Whalen and Meltzer, it’s very likely that she’d want to publish the work of someone like Rothenberg, whose work has so much in common with theirs. Despite the existence of the network, the merit of Rothenberg’s work was what got it published.
But, as you point out, this network also contributes to a sense of community. Winson is on the Board of Directors of Poets in Need. And that organization, in turn, connects poets from the New American Poetry and the Language school in a common cause. The Language poets don’t publish the New American poets, but they do work together, and in doing so, extend a sense of community beyond where the lines have been drawn in the literary history of the past twenty-five or thirty years.
The Paris Journals isn’t a work that found publication because its experiences take place among the “known and notorious.” Whereas parts of Unhurried Vision are a “public work” because of the people involved, The Paris Journals documents a more private realm. When Rothenberg refers to a person without a literary reputation, he does it in the same offhand way that he does with Ginsberg, et al in Unhurried Vision. Rothenberg incorporates the characters into his way of looking at the world and his way of talking or writing about it. As far as what constitutes literature, Rothenberg is, as you said of Pound, using everything at his disposal as material for poetry. In Paris, his anxieties have nothing to do with his relation to the Beats or to giving public presentations, but to the feelings he has while traveling alone in a foreign country. The anxieties he experiences in Paris parallel those in Naropa insofar as he, as presumed protagonist, tries to clarify a sense of himself in each locale. And the ultimate perspective usually achieves its resolution through a mocking, sometimes self-mocking humor.
I think some of Meltzer and Kyger’s influence reveals itself in The Paris Journals, but as I recall, I thought I saw some Allen Ginsberg in there as well, most notably in the telegraphic style of many of Rothenberg’s lines. His breezy humor, so off-the cuff that you have to be quick to catch it, is entirely his own, though. Even when he’s despairing, he can dismiss it with a laugh and a glide.
The depth of Rothenberg’s knowledge of Buddhism surprises me, but I think Whalen’s description of his being “too complicated for sitting practice” rings very true. Rothenberg’s not a doctrinaire person, even though his convictions about preserving the environment and stopping all war are very strong. He’s not an ideologue, but a person working — as opposed to proselytizing — to achieve the goals he believes in.
KG: The thing all these NAPsters you’ve mentioned have in common — Dorn, Whalen, Kyger, Meltzer, even Berrigan and Ginsberg — is nutty humor, a biting wit, a sense of anarchy, a social satire, a song of merriment. It’s a stance. Asking yourself if you are a butterfly dreaming you’re human or vice versa is not exactly the kind of question that engages the more fundamental among us. I happen to admire Rothenberg’s sparkling eye as he lands on his feet after tumbling down the stairs! However, folks stiff in their shoes may have a tough time with his Han-Shan/Chuang Tzu point of view, even though one could say they are on the side of the angels for if you don’t laugh, you cry cry cry. Ha ha ha. The joy in the knowledge that “no, no they can’t take that away from me” makes his journal-day poem a delightful adventure in which a reader can “cohere” the pieces any way it fits.
Like Alan Watts arguing that the Advaita-Tao-Chan-Zen lineage is not salvation in the Western sense but an ongoing tradition of existential liberation from mistaken identity, I see Rothenberg celebrating a similar sense of freedom in the serial poem: the Poundian puzzle pieces, the interplay of opposites, the layers of montage, collage and bricolage. The skill is in the notes not played; the craft is in the details.
As for content, there’s no left field. Nothing’s too far out to be excluded. His asides — a menu here, a list of cemetery dead there, a set of variations on Man Ray out of nowhere — alter narrative flow and let it breathe. It grips like a detective novel. Unpredictable things happen and make a strange new kind of sense. I thought of Miles Davis and how he found new room to stretch out with the blues in his experiments with modal forms. Rothenberg doesn’t have to play what the Prince of Darkness called “all those butter notes.” How one thing ends and another begins is up to the reader, not necessarily intrinsic in the telling. Back to Olson and Duncan: this is what open field is for, a passport. Released from the reductive tyranny of rhyme, meter and character-setting-plot, the poetic line becomes a dimension — negotiable, up for grabs, multi-phasic, anything goes. The unknown becomes a new known, a way to enjoy reading through dislocation and re-location. The haiku-like jump is actually a little shutter light or snap pulse, the line breath the switch. It’s enjoyable whether you call it the hallucination of narrative or the hallucination of seamless decomposition and deconstruction.
Put another way: navigated on the page, the poem is a treasure map, a coded discovery. Consider Masque and how each section plays off the other:
Face in wood
One we invoke
The others . . .
The extent to which primitive art, the mask, etc., influenced 20th century art is well documented. Still, I wonder if we remember, as we sit down to the task of creation, that we’re not working from ritual artifacts, primitive art or the mask. Rather we’re creating from the essence before ritual, the essence behind the mask, and the essence within space, line and image. We’re dealing with spirit that comes out of the essence of ourselves. It’s an essence that we can’t identify with words or stone or paint. We can’t put it in a museum or hang it on a wall. We can only infer it. Art is not even it. Art remains a manifestation of it.
This culminating breakthrough poem/essay hybrid comes after Rothenberg has spent days wandering around Paris, looking at painting and sculpture. Once again he is soaking in (yang) elements in Western art that not traditionally related to the SF Renaissance with its (yin) eye to Japanese landscape painting, simplicity in expression and a rigid minimalism. After journal entry upon entry of museum musing — “masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull,” as Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses — he’s searching out what’s under the surface to complete the Gestalt. Like his collaboration with Ira Cohen, he’s after what the light shows of Plato’s cave reveal, the difference between the manifestation & the It, is the theme and thread of the book. A yoga of noir, through a glass darkly.
Ars poetica for the journal format, Masque sits amidst street observations, lists of products, American tourist cyber convos, a spiraling misunderstanding that gets him kicked out of his flat. Rothenberg folds layer upon layer into the mix followed by a trip to the Eiffel Tower where he does what every good son should do; he calls his mother. His sense of humor triumphs. Shall we call him a member of the Cool Fool School?
VF: I don’t know that I’d go that far. He’s not a buffoon. But, like Whalen, he does have a delightful way of deflating his ego and while feeling deep emotions making light of them. You wouldn’t expect to find this trait in Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs or Corso. It really does seem to be a breath of Bay area sea breeze clearing the air.
Those poets aren’t a stodgy group in any sense. Rothenberg has made this point himself on a number of occasions. Along with many other things, I think literature has lots of room for freedom and play. The lively spirit of the San Francisco Poets resonates with me more than the work of most other writers. You can belly-laugh while being deadly serious. If you can do a pratfall and make it fit into your poem, why not? Context is the key here. You can do anything you want, so long as its fits.
Now, the journal form creates a very wide context. It’s not completely open form, but it’s referential language stretched to its limits. When you compare the open possibilities to Miles Davis’s modal music, you definitely hit on the idea of more blowing room, i.e., room for expression that contemporary poets use, as opposed to the “harmonic system” of meter.
But I would take it a step further and say that the journal form opens the poem in a way very similar to Charles Mingus in a live performance. In Mingus and in the journal, you have a few restrictions, but they’re minimal and in the moment — a journal being a recounting of the moments in a day, be it moment by moment or a wrap-up at bedtime — prohibits the fluidity of conventional form. Collages and juxtapositions of sensations experienced and transcribed create a different relationship between the elements of a poem. All of a sudden a list might appear, or several lists. And in the context of the expanded form they may make perfect sense, not though a sequential fluidity but through the relations the reader’s (and author’s) mind makes between the elements of the text. And, as you say, the reader doesn’t make the same connections each time through, so we have an openness and richness of material to interpret.
Michael Rothenberg’s poetry uses these juxtapositions to great effect. He’ll collage sections out of chronological order, so that we move back and forth in time and place among different characters and situations, all linked by a common thematic thread that may not be obvious in itself but nevertheless creates a cumulative effect in which the juxtapositions eventually dovetail.
KG: Juxtaposition is a subversive form of narrative. It slows things down and admits that the really important evidence is between the lines. Rothenberg’s greatest tactic is a kind of “mental ellipse,” the notion that we can trail off on one telling and pick up the thread of another. That’s why the journal is so open form. It loves the kitchen sink, the stop-and-start, the double narrative as well as the counter-narrative’s collage impulse: the grocery list, the weather for the week, the autobiographical aside, the train schedule, the back story on who he’s waiting for at the station, the food left on a plate a hungry thief takes, a chance collection of book titles, a dream that drips out a memory that seems a digression but becomes the next journal entry’s jump-off point.
Everything is up in the air, just like real life and love and struggle.
By contrast, we’re so conditioned by narrative in the language we read and hear. Even the guy silently panhandling by the subway entrance in the rain is a whole story in one second, “a petal on a wet, black bough,” as Pound put it in In a Station of the Metro. Narrative seems a pre-existing form, like Duncan said about language, something in the blood, a way we access information. You could also say narrative is eating our lunch. Or lulling us to sleep. Or causing us to purchase a version of reality that tells us our whole lives in thirty-second commercials.
Let me suggest that narrative is as imposing on language as melody is to music. I’m not sure what you mean about Mingus in concert — I’ve only seen the Mingus Big Band live — so let me take it back to Mingus’s hero, Bird, who you mentioned earlier. He showed us melody is not so dominant after all, that first came percussion. Breaking I’ve Got Rhythm down into beats: what a way to re-arrange the song and extend opportunities for improvisation! Once our expectation has been set, then it’s time to turn the expectation on its “head.” That’s Gershwin’s Rhythm changes in Anthropology. I’m saying that by breaking up narrative conventions like chronology and character and re-casting them, Rothenberg’s giving us some be-bop medicine, asking us questions about what happens, not just convincing us he’s got a great story to tell.
I see him doing the same thing in the 183 prose pages of Punk Rockwell. Instead of a journal of poems we are presented with a journal of sketches, sometimes three or four pages and sometimes just three or four lines long, not linear chapters, but bits that, like the journal poem, “hang” together in spite of liberties taken with convention. They layer, contradict, reveal what’s really happening only by getting deeper into the tale, out on your own interpretive limb, so to speak, making it up as you go.
VF: The journal’s fragmentary nature slows us down by making us think about how all the pieces fit. It’s both narrative and non-narrative: narrative because the nature of language and its traditional usage almost make a narrative format impossible to avoid; and non-narrative in that the suspended elements of narrative have to be pieced together through a thought process that functions outside the linear narrative to make sense of the discontinuous elements. Breaking away from narrative allows us to tell a different kind of story, one that a strictly linear flow would conceal more than reveal.
My references to Mingus were based on recordings such as Live at the Jazz Workshop, in which Mingus plays a version of Fables of Faubus but segues into a blues form in the middle of it, as well as a modal flamenco section. Mingus employed structure, but employed it so freely that he was free from in a way different from the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.
Another device Mingus used was pedal point, in which he would repeatedly pull on one string of the bass — let’s say the E string — because hitting the one note in a repetitive manner allowed the soloists to play within the keys of E, A and D, as they preferred. In doing this, he made more notes available to his soloists while restricting the tone colors by not including all twelve tones.
In his journal, Rothenberg isn’t writing “free,” so to speak. But he opens up areas so that he can shift between them or links moments that don’t connect chronologically so that we can see the connections between them in ways that a narrative would detail in too cumbersome a manner. It’s still very “bebop” in that its structure conveys apprehensible “meanings” in ways that Language Poetry doesn’t, but it’s pushing the limits of the narrative by rendering them disjunctive and letting them reassemble like a deconstructed I’ve Got Rhythm that retains a sense of the theme while perhaps moving through and settling into keys other than the original. So, Rothenberg is definitely exploring artistic freedom and, via the journal, using a structure that allows him a combination of coherence and freedom that doesn’t appear in a similar way in the work of very many other poets.
Punk Rockwell is very much an extension of Rothenberg’s journal approach, although it’s not at all without precedent in fiction. It starts like a conventional novel and stays that way just long enough to let us know Jeffery’s angst about Emma and Punk’s affair. Then the pieces break down and the chronology becomes less certain, as if reflecting the narrator’s doubts and reassessments of the situation. Its overlaps at times remind me of the way the narrator of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier tries to make sense of what happened in his life, turning events over and over, looking at every angle and only finding more to look at. Punk Rockwell breaks its share of traditional rules or customs governing the novel, such as its shifts into third-person viewpoint, which we can either interpret as the narrator recounting information he gathered without telling us where and how, or the author employing the third-person narrative format to “reduce” the first-person narrator from that viewpoint’s form of omniscience to an object. This happens in Chapter One in such a way that Jeffery Dagovich, at the start of Chapter Two, doesn’t know the third-person narrative information and so becomes an object in a world in which he perceives himself, through the narrator’s role, as the subject. There are other ways to do this, but the fluidity of the journal approach as applied to fiction allows Rothenberg the flexibility to juxtapose structural elements in ways that project the contradictory emotions churning in the narrator’s psyche.
KG: You said it! The shifts in narrative viewpoint, startling and confusing at first, end up adding suspense and humor, engaging the reader in a more participatory or detective role. You’ve got to be open for things to change, even become their opposite. In (Chapter) One, which is the book’s first third, Jeffrey is portrayed as a tender but cuckolded nebbish, and as he meditates on his cabron-hood, the narrative breaks down, as you point out, so that by Two, we are calling into question whose author-ity drives the telling. For one thing we are told, “Events revolve around people, not the other way around” on the same page where we read, “Jeffrey Dagovich is an idea.”
I see what you are saying about Mingus, the pedal point and opening the music. I think Punk Rockwell is a good example of the freedom you are talking about because there’s plenty of play in this serial novel. First, there’s that wacky Kurt Vonnegut world view, let’s call it Living with the Bomb or The Ice-Nine Metaphor: the characters track down a Soviet crate of caviar that is not what it appears to be, a substance that can change the world as we know it in an instant. Next, there’s a symbolic element in the characters right down to their names. Jeffrey Dagovich, however lacking in sexual charisma and Bond secret-agent-hood, seems more “real” than opportunistic Punk Rockwell, a pun of a name (a punk who rocks well, a Norman Rockwell of punkdom), who seems more like a foil to Jeffrey’s good intentions, a hollow man drinking scotch looking like everything we question about America, a shaygetz working for the CIA with little conscience about getting his. Everything is his, even Jeffrey’s wife, Emily. He’s Hemingway at his most overblown, a hunter-fisherman-explorer-novelist with a secret agenda paid by the US government, a character who also doubles as a running commentary to the mix of worlds Rothenberg swirls: literature, masculinity, ecology, humanity and morality. I suppose one could extend this symbolic frame to Emily, a real woman with some splitting issues, as opposed to Angelina, “an eternal beauty who once saved Fidel Castro’s life,” whose affairs with Punk and Jeffrey don’t matter to her KGB husband who’s glad just to have her. From a certain eco-pov one could argue that until these characters choose to become more real, there’s not much hope for a human response to the mess we’ve made for all sentience on our planet. Is it too much to say that by shedding false, manufactured or fantastic identities that are compensation mechanisms for a life unfulfilled, Rothenberg’s characters subvert the usual narrative arc and enter a different kind of sympathy and level of engagement with the reader? Is that what’s happening?
VF: I’d say you’re on the money. Especially with the names of the characters. In this allegory, the narrator doesn’t need a symbolic name since he represents a kind of Reality Principle, or a struggle to establish one, that survives outside the allegorical context. Punk Rockwell gets tied to Hemingway throughout the work, as on page 89, Jeffery refers to Punk Rockwell as “the old man and the sea.” And other images tying Rockwell to Hemingway abound, including his intelligence connections. In many ways, Rockwell is an alter-ego to Dagovich. Rockwell embodies all the things Jeffery Dagovich aspires to be, but isn’t. One of his several “lessons” seems to be that aspiring to become what you’re not can be extremely destructive to one’s sense of self. Part of this aspiration involves the basic difference between a novelist and a poet, which I mentioned before. We tend to perceive novelists as financially successful and worldly, whereas we typecast poets as impoverished and socially inept except for the poems they write. Neither stereotype holds true very often, but the myth made of it serves as a springboard for Rothenberg’s deconstruction. The poet becomes the most real of the two characters once he’s disentangled himself from the Rockwell web.
Emily is the most real woman in the novel, if only because she receives the most description, in terms of her needs and desires. Angelina parallels her with a package of generalities high on sex but low on everything else except socio-sexual connections that are more named than drawn. And Sue Cross mainly moves the plot along with a few sexual encounters along the way. So, Emily is the most fully-drawn female in the novel and Rothenberg, and the reality of the relationship she and Jeffery share becomes a positive comment on the value of a love based on concerns other than the physical, a sharing at the human level, instead of a conquest or a succession of them.
I don’t know that I would quite describe Jeffery as a “Vonnegut” character — he’s not oafish in the way that a number of Vonnegut’s characters are — but the theme of apocalypse, focusing on an ecological issue, carries the thinking of writers such as Vonnegut into the environment, a field, so to speak, that doesn’t receive a lot of literary attention. In this case, though, Rothenberg’s abundance of natural description brings the issue and its consequences into, ahem, full bloom. In the novel, Rothenberg makes a very strong statement about the environment and the dangers human continue to pose to it.
The final chapter seems to explode into a variety of possibilities, in which some fragments refer to the novel’s opening pages. Chronology itself appears to explode, until we realize that Rothenberg is writing in the self-conscious mode that characterizes postmodern fiction. On page 153, the characters fall under his control as a narrator who controls the lives and deaths of his characters. At different points along the way, Rothenberg also drops a passing phrase that lets the reader know that the novel is a work of language, which, aside from establishing itself on postmodern turf, informs the reader that the narrator now has control over the creation of the reality presented in the novel. Bringing the novel into the realm of language, as opposed to realistic representation, allows for all kinds of possibilities, such as Rockwell’s evolutionary relation to the turtle and other characters’ roots in other, more primal life forms, bringing the ecological issues to the human level from an evolutionary perspective — something I don’t recall seeing in any other novel I’ve read. It allows him to create a narrative omniscience at the same time that the shifts in viewpoint also limit the first-person narrator’s authority. The contradiction that both is and isn’t enables the work to proceed in a multiplicity of directions, allowing Rothenberg to orchestrate the novel’s multiple themes.
KG: No, I don’t think of Jeffrey as a Vonnegut character. To paraphrase Whalen on Rothenberg, he’s too complicated.
I mean the mood of the novel is so apocalyptically Vonnegut: the hilarious, bizarre, surreal plot turns; the multiple settings in the Mexican Baja and Latin America, Miami and the Everglades, the California coast and the redwood forests, Russia and Moscow’s Arbat Street; the wild cuts from scene to scene, sometimes requiring us to read forward, sometimes backwards; the element of terror embedded into the telling, that people who don’t really know what they are doing are in charge!
Adding to what you might call these “free jazz elements in chance combinations” is the dream-scene quality of the novel. Let’s consider one page (page 80) of the novel exactly as it is laid out:
It’s not impossible to change.
Three months after Emily and I met Punk, Punk came to Florida. Florida was a second home to Punk.
Punk, like the King of Hosts, called from Miami International Airport. He wanted Emily and I to join him for tarpon fishing on Shark River. We would leave from Everglades City. Punk hired a boat and captain. He wanted to stay three nights. We were going tarpon fishing with Punk Rockwell. He had a boat hired.
Shark River. The famed ten thousand islands of the Everglades. Flamingo. Roseatte spoonbill. Anahinga, their wings raised and warming in the sun. Blue fiddler crabs, carrying a religious message to alligators who don’t believe in religion. Shark River. The Everglades, like a dream in the middle of paradise, tide high and falling. Sawgrass strands and deep-wooded hammocks. A slow steady current. Poachers, baiting alligator dens in the darkness. Black tarp. Poachers elude the Park Patrol, escape under moonlight, race under moonlight, on sawgrass strands. Speeding over the shallows while the rest of the planet is being rezoned.
These quick sketches follow their own free-association or inner logic, dream fragments that, like the serial poem, build up and take new shapes. In the same way that we don’t ask our dreams to obey a strict sense of narrative, Rothenberg layers these pieces before us in a kind of Jungian style to note both the deceiving and the truth telling are valuable guides since all the characters are part of one dreamer, the Self’s many selves in many phases.
On the other hand it could be said that all of the characters’ interacting lives permutate a vast array of experiences on love and marriage, both its limits and its liberations, so that in the end every character becomes cuckolder and cuckold, found and lost, hurt and healed, and what unites them is their biological imperative to generate that must be interpreted and made sense of against a world out of balance. I read the layering repetitions of betrayals & betrothals as true to consciousness. We repeat and distort scenes of our own humiliation as well as our alleged victories, trip out on murder and violence and mayhem, play the event over from different angles, even confuse the actual with the fantastical under extreme stress.
In addition to this sense that our perceptions are not ours but undergoing change, the hint of extinction winks back and forth between Jeffrey and Emily and their life as ecologists and as mates. The answer to how to save Indonesian fruit bats and how to re-pollinate a marriage merges in hyperprose, a sweeping dreamscape, cutting back and forth into time, a hybrid of poetry and fiction. Consider the effect of this passage on page 36:
Punk worked for himself. He was a detective. A consultant. A shaman. He came to Emily, shook his wings over us.
It’s an ideogram!
Could it be said that what drives Punk Rockwell is the search for a more compassionate state of mind? If we could read our lives as well as the book with a less controlling ego, one more responsive and less reactive, would we naturally drop obsolete gender roles in order to be more present for the transformational side of conjugal love?
VF: The elements you describe are definitely Vonnegutian, as you suggest, but in a very atypical way. Rothenberg’s lush descriptions employ a richer language than Vonnegut’s prose, for example, I feel Jeffrey’s angst with an immediacy that I don’t sense in Vonnegut’s characters. To me, Vonnegut has a detachment that’s almost Brechtian. You don’t empathize with the characters so much as you observe them. On some level, everyone is a Montana Wildhack from Slaughterhouse Five living on exhibit in a cage. Rothenberg writes from a more involved perspective. He’s joking about the world from the perceptive of a participant.
Rothenberg uses the same juxtapositions and leaps in space and time as Vonnegut, but to a more extreme degree. Vonnegut, for all his innovation, adheres to basic rules of narrative prose such as not changing viewpoints, or at least, not changing them in the middle of a chapter. In breaking the rules, Rothenberg uses viewpoint to serve multiple, non-traditional ends. In Chapter One, the shift to third person viewpoint sets up the start of Chapter Two, in which Jeffery acts without knowing what the caviar really is, which was explained at the end of Chapter One. And in the final chapter, where plot resolutions take place despite or as a result of events that feel like chronology exploding, Rothenberg’s multiplicity of themes comes together in a juggling of story elements that is more complex than I’ve found in most of Vonnegut’s novels. Rothenberg uses the elements of Vonnegut, an author whose reputation has been widespread for at least thirty-five years. But he varies the Vonnegut recipe, adding his own spices, and a good deal more erotic content than Vonnegut provides. But Vonnegut doesn’t usually delve into his characters’ sexual lives to the level that Rothenberg does in dealing with the testosterone-juiced image of Punk Rockwell and all the attendant political connections we associate with institutions dominated by males and seemingly run on loin juice.
This, in turn, leads to an exploration of the gender roles you mentioned. With a macho novelist like Punk Rockwell, Jeffrey has to tolerate the program and in his own seductions seems to emulate them, even though the affairs with Angelina and Sue Cross result in advancing the plot more than they do in deepening the relationship or opening Jeffrey’s eyes to a new perspective. I think Jeffery feels conflicted about Emily’s affair with Rockwell, since his tone moves between anguished, accepting and inquiring. Ultimately, Jeffery and Emily get back together, and Emily’s affair with Punk Rockwell has given Jeffery a clearer idea of what he needs form their marriage. I don’t think the novel creates new possibilities for future relationship paradigms so much as it shows Jeffrey, in the course of risking his marriage, gaining a renewed and much clearer understanding of what he really needs from his marriage and that it isn’t the Punk Rockwell style of burning his way through the bushes as part of or en route to his next adventure.
It might be that Jeffrey ultimately learns to feel more comfortable with exercising his own clarified masculinity than in following Rockwell’s pecker tracks. And this ties back to the Novelist-Poet conflict because Jeffery’s adventures in his idealized vision of the novelist’s life ultimately prove less gratifying than the simple sensation of feeling his wife touching him at a moment when he feels vulnerable.
KG: If Punk Rockwell is a mutation from fictional linearity, this hide-n-seek, cut-n-paste narrative isn’t a departure for Rothenberg, only another variation of the serial poem that appears in his first book of poems, Favorite Songs, in 1990. Maybe Penton was on to something when he suggested we consider the issue of genre and form as irrelevant to Rothenberg. “Instead of seeing his work as a single thread running through different forms,” Penton wrote, “I see it presenting numerous threads of thought in a milieu that never stops to consider what milieu it is.”
Let me quote Mink Household in its entirety, one of the more arresting poems in Favorite Songs:
The Household was Mink-
lined, Pearl-studded, Chandeliers hung elegant mooonlight above Linen
and Silver. Veal Cutlets, braised Asparagus, chilled Apple Sauce, Baked
Potatoes topped with Sour Cream,
flaked with Chives,
Romaine Salad with Vinaigrette. The Cook, the cream of domestic
soup, served our meals on matching China. We called Plumber, Dry
Cleaner, Day Worker, Gardener,
Carpenter to fix it when it broke. There was a Decorator, Doctor,
Dentist, Dermatologist, Orthodontist and Podiatrist, they tended
ornaments and fussy organs. My mother was
Queen, and she went Shopping while the King, my Father drew up Contracts, claiming Lands for Real endeavors. He drove a Caddy, she drove a Lincoln. I drove a Schwinn. My brother, too. We had a Boat.
We flew in Planes.
We went to Europe, rode the Trains. Ate Russian Caviar, dipped Maine
Lobster in lemon butter. We ate Marzipan, Swiss Chocolates, Pasta al
dente, with Pesto. My brother
and I drank Coca-Cola, my Mother drank Wine, my Father drank J&B, Stolichnaya, Courvousier, Crème de Menthe. My Mother drank less than my Father. We ate because we ate well. I saw the Ice Capades,
the Harlem Globetrotters,
Cassius Clay fight Sonny Liston. The Beatles at the Deauville, Bob
Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Dave Clark Five, Sonny and Cher,
The Rolling Stones, The Fleetwoods, The Diamonds,
Little Anthony and the Imperials. I had a Microscope, Chemistry Set,
Rock Collection, Shell Collection, Stamp Collection, Black Light,
Incense Burner, model of a Spanish Galleon,
replica of a Bowie Knife.
I drove a Country Squire Wagon, Grand Prix, Fiat Spider. My brother
drove an Austin Healey, convertible. I had a Leather Jacket. Play
Clothes, School Clothes, Dress Clothes.
My Father wore
Silk Ties, Silk Suits, Italian shoes. Mother wore French Fashions, Mink
Stoles, Strings of Pearls when she went out with Dad to the Embers,
Chez this, Chez that, other
places I was too young
to still remember. We had Wine Cabinets, China Cabinets, Dressing
Rooms, Florida Room, Dining Room, Ironing Room, Closets, Closets,
Closets. And for all that, we were still
very middle class
The effect of this poem is like seeing a film whose music was written by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Days of Heaven, Once upon a Time in America, Cinema Paradiso) about whom Anthony Lane wrote in last week’s New Yorker, “What ignites Morricone is less the nostalgic impulse than those pure, primal experiences which are destined to become the objects of nostalgia — the laying up of treasure open earth.”
Does this do justice to the poem? Is it correct to call these details confessional or personal? They work a powerful magic. Perhaps one claims the language by choosing things that resonate. Maybe this is the secret meaning of the list poem. I wonder, do you have to be of a certain age to appreciate his humor and candor, especially in that last line? Marona mia, an admission of middle-class-dom is about the most un-Beat thing a writer can do! This is what I mean about his being a snob meter! You may remember Karl Shapiro published a collection called Bourgeois Poet in 1964, a strange title (what Ted Roethke once called him), especially for that era, which happens to be the time Rothenberg remembers in the poem. I’m saying it takes a lot of chutzpah for a NAPster to write something like Mink Household and then dedicate it to your mother, no?
VF: I think it took a lot of chutzpah to write the poem, period. Consider that Rothenberg has lived much of his life with people such as Whalen, who lived lives of principled poverty. The list he presents is antithetical to those principles. It lists a life of opulence in a level of detail that would make your average working stiff drool with envy. And at the very last line, he undercuts all of it with the irony that despite all the comforts his family was still “very middle class.” Now, to some, this level of affluence is still considered upper middle class. To others, it’s an affluence they can only associate with what they consider the rich. So, the last line echoes a class-based ambiguity. I think it also shows Rothenberg’s sense of discomfort with his background. As much as he may have enjoyed going to the rock concerts and seeing Ali-Liston, I think he may have felt a certain unease about it since his personal values became more artistic and spiritual and less related to his background. On one level, you might consider dedicating the poem to his mother an act of bohemian rebellion. But more likely, and as I think his other work suggests, Rothenberg had close ties to his parents and, despite whatever irony the poem contains, expected them to accept him for what he is and his work as part of it.
I think the perspective that comes with age helps us understand the poem’s multiple resonances. If I’d read the poem as a teenager, my response would have been more simplistic and my attitude about class differences too black-and-white to let me see the complexities Rothenberg’s last line creates.
KG: Pardon this hard line or axe I appear to be grinding, but I liked the poem because I didn’t have to have any idea about its writer: the list says it all and the list says it differently each time I read it. This is the magic of placing items apparently at random that make and unmake tales, and this is the value of the narrator not being the point of the poem. As he says, “Chez this, Chez that, other/places I was/too young to still remember.” You can see through or past his singular point of view; it’s open ended.
Favorite Songs struck me as a writer’s first book of poems. Did you sense a hint of Robert Creeley in some of the shorter poems, how the words cluster on the page? Of the longer poems in the serial style, did you think the title piece about his dad’s last days worked to great effect? Is it fair to say that by the time he wrote I Murdered Elvis, he had developed his serial technique so that he could handle any coverage, even Nashville?
VF: It’s not his first book of poems, but I can see signs of Rothenberg’s evolution as a poet in Favorite Songs. In that sense, it is an “early” work. I do sense a hint of Creeley in poems such as On Colder Days:
On colder days, the sun
is in the whiskey,
in the glass
inside my hand.
of early spring,
in breaking ice,
as I empty the glass
a certain shining
In this poem, Rothenberg’s punctuation breaks don’t create the stop-start rhythms of Creeley’s early work, but they do slow down the poem in a way similar to Creeley, to allow you to ponder a range of possible meanings. The glow that comes from consuming alcohol, especially on an empty stomach, can be very warming and create a feeling like a sun dawning inside you. We have a kind of play in which we gather the narrator seeks the sun for personal comfort and renewal in an uncertain time characterized by “rumors of an early spring.” The narrator acts in a time of uncertainty to renew himself. Yet the act of renewal contains the seeds of destruction in that whiskey is more damaging to the body than sunlight. So, the narrator may be seeking a relief that turns out to be a false one, no matter how reassuring it may be at the moment of consumption. The poem itself is as much a prism as the whiskey in a glass in a sunlit room.
Whether Creeley directly influenced Rothenberg, I can’t say, although you quoted him as finding Black Mountain’s poetics very interesting. Favorite Songs seems to mark a development from shorter poems to longer, more complex ones that appear to be forerunners of Rothenberg’s serial style, and a format that Rothenberg continues to use to great effect in his shorter poems. The Bromeliad, for example, isn’t a serial poem per se, but its length allows for greater development and the length allows him to express his passion with a musicality that appears more prominently in the longer poems:
In the air! Maybe there
the spindly creatures
are ethereal. Maybe at
the Heart of Hurricane.
But know them as I know them!
When Caribbean breezes
are spiders’ transport,
leaf to leaf. Know them,
the leathery grapplers,
woody rooted, sawtooth wind-slicer
holds fast to slippery bark of Anything!
Fierce, succulent, windworn.
Know them! Passionate exhibitionists,
burning, aching high
violet sweetheart of hummingbirds,
broad berried wands of ripening Tropica, all
no pretense to divine. They are great
white tufted seeds parachute course
through curtains of lianas
cling to craggy bark,
build gardens, festooning cities.
Bromeliad, out on a limb, civilization
of raw vegetable kingdom generating until all
kingdom, life and limb, crashes to the ground.
Frog pond! Serpent house! Stagnant channeled
reservoir! Malaria nursery!
Or wedged on rocky sun blast ledge! Or anchored
as forbidding hedge
for robbers. Barbed.
Now, I have pet peeves against poems about flowers and dad cats. To me, it’s very difficult to write a convincing poem about either. But in The Bromeliad Rothenberg writes with a passion that goes beyond the superficial prettiness that makes too many flower poems read like an analogy to a beginning painter’s study of a bowl of fruit. The passion here is real, a paean rooted (so to speak) in the blend of beauty and gritty durability that you described earlier when you talked about Rothenberg and his passion for bromeliads. And the language is so rhythmically and phonetically fluid, it’s music as much as it’s poetry. This poem doesn’t employ the serial techniques you mention, but its expressiveness opens the door to Rothenberg’s serial poetry. It also reflects, although I would guess not consciously, Rothenberg’s own durability in the face of the experiences he writes about in the serial poems that appear later. Favorite Songs, the title poem, employs the serial style extremely effectively, although it doesn’t stretch the limits the way his later work does. It presents the juxtapositions that create a full — if fragmented — picture of the period of his father’s illness and death. We see the family wrestling with their opinions of Rothenberg’s father:
Brother grumbles as I shuffle memory,
dilute father’s generosity.
The wound’s angry.
Mother mediates — he was a good man
but the armor fit a little tight!
The day after his father’s death, Rothenberg, in a reflective moment, observes:
Bay too calm.
Tension in the surface.
The Bay serves as a central image in this poem. Aside from Biscayne Bay’s natural beauty, its appearance reflects Rothenberg’s shifting emotions:
Boats clip between red buoys.
Not enough antidote.
The day following the bay’s disturbing calmness reveals, in a muted way, an opening of feeling, but in a context that leaves room for interpretation. One interpretation would be that his father didn’t have enough antidote to survive his condition. But another, not necessarily conflicting, interpretation, could be that Rothenberg doesn’t have enough antidote to ease his own feelings of pain and loss.
The poem departs from chronological structure, enabling Rothenberg to shift between recollections of his father’s life, the hospital and the grieving. It also makes use of lists, such as his father’s estate and his favorite songs, the last one of which, Ace in the Hole, summarizes his father’s character in life and in memory. Favorite Songs contains the elements that would eventually become cornerstones of Rothenberg’s serial poetry in the journal form.
Although an author’s publication doesn’t necessarily mark the chronology of his artistic development, I’d have to say, in reply to your question, that yes, I Murdered Elvis shows Rothenberg’s serial techniques operating at full force. It’s the first of a series of largely unpublished works — Unhurried Vision is the exception — that Rothenberg wrote with a thorough grasp of the journal form and its serial potential. The book as a whole is very powerful and the title poem, which could be a chapbook in itself, is a tour de force. Its juxtapositions portray a songwriter’s struggles with a reality — if not a literal realism — that can be unnerving at times. One phrase and its variants throughout the poem stays with me: “He’s a great lyricist but only writes words.” It’s the kind of comment any person struggling in any field of the arts is likely to hear, the kind of dismissive comment that makes you wonder if the people appraising your talent are really qualified to do so.
The poem itself finds its summary statement in:
Cousin Margo says,
“Murder Elvis- That’s how to get attention in Nashville.”
And in the course of the long poem, Rothenberg describes himself and many others going to such extremes to get a toenail in the door that their efforts seem tantamount to trying to murder Elvis.
KG: You are bringing our conversation full circle in many regards, especially your remarks on Favorite Songs and I Murdered Elvis. For one thing, we can really see the development of his poetry in the former, as you point out. Just compare the poems you mentioned — On Colder Days and The Bromeliad, tightly crafted and singularly themed — to the rambling, serial-styled and juxtaposed ideograms in the title piece. Favorite Songs ends with a list of his father’s favorite tunes where the personal and the elegaic meet in a deep reverie, but if you take a look at a longer poem near the end of the collection, The Human Story, where “Clearly, the voice of the Cosmos/is more than a human shudder,” we see Rothenberg struggling to tell a larger, multi-foliate tale where a loss of love and a loss of life draw him into considerations about the loss of a human-dominant world. His wider point of view embracing ecology and empathy comes together. In the penultimate stanza he asks:
O, Heart, what am I made of?
Who goes on the brain-journey
Upstairs through door to fumeless fire?
The Human Story, spread over twenty sections, tries for many things. Like Favorite Songs, it follows its own time frame, easing up on the immediate, and as it slows down to see the single raindrop, it pulls together the whole world. It combines the short, haiku-esque poems in the collection with an eye to the fuller context, given in incremental bursts and building its own momentum and drama.
The second thing that struck me about your comments on the development of his craft is that, as his orientation moved from the merely personal to the more resonantly universal, the journal format allowed him to quilt a wider range of responses, insights and elliptical commentaria that extinguish the either/or logic of an Aristotle in favor of the more Madyamika (middle of the Middle Way) position of a Nagarjuna. However he arrived at this ability to stop time, contain multitudes or embrace contradiction, through Whitman, the NAPsters or the multiple masks necessary to survive Nashville, the serial poem shines in I Murdered Elvis.
What we haven’t said yet, and which harkens back to your opening salvo, is that Rothenberg’s oeuvre doesn’t travel in a single direction. I Murdered Elvis, which tells of the writer’s attempt to land a job as a lyricist for a songwriting company in Nashville from August ‘93 to February ‘94, can be read as a companion piece, or counter-narrative to, the allegorical fantasy Drums of Grace. That puts the Nashville material four years before he began The Paris Journals and five years before he began Unhurried Vision.
If Drums is, as you mentioned, the Magical Mystery Tour of “blue meany” fear of music’s redemptive power, then I Murdered Elvis gives us the blow-by-blow report from the trenches of pitching tunes, paying dues, and Lawd-have-mercy, name dropping to get your song plugged. Here, however, you can’t miss the humor, irony and tongue-in-cheek in the foaming for the famous. Perhaps because there’s more money attached to making music than to experimental poetics, the desperation, status-driven gut checks and looking at a door that never opens have him, “A songwriter trapped in a poet’s mind,” wondering what he is doing there:
Songwriter Chamber of Commerce president
Betty Lou Redneck
Teased white billows of hair
Green eyes sparkle
Empty jewelry box head
Wrinkles sealed with equestrian grooming powders
“So, what’s a Jew doing in Nashville?”
“Why Ma’am,” I say in the vernacular
“I came to write a Hit Song!”
You know, in the Prelude there is this incredible optimism:
Songs are poems joined with music
Poetry is read!
The substance of music is godhead
However, we soon see:
Pop culture as art is illusion, the poet is in exile
“I killed Tin Pan Alley”
Bob Dylan couldn’t have known what he said
Consolidation of assets into one Talent/Property
Will I ever wake up?
What I love about Rothenberg is his total embrace of the troubadour tradition, even in the face of its unknowing agents and talent scouts. This is a guy who can’t play an instrument — hence the line, “He’s a great lyricist but only writes words” — and yet here he is making the rounds from contact to contact, swapping tapes, living with songwriters as roommates, feeling like a fraud, getting homesick but promising to re-locate to Nashville at the first sign of a nibble! It’s funny: compared to the mythic Drums of Grace with its defeat of a music-less world, I Murdered Elvis could be said to portray real loss, a disintegration of a uniquely American experience, what B.B. King called “the white man’s blues.” I rooted for Rothenberg to quit trying to make it in Nashville, go home to his family in California and write both songs and serial poems! Which is what happened in “real life.” Am I correct in assuming that his meeting and writing lyrics for Elya Finn is what happened next? Now don’t get me wrong: the range of his work on Drums of Grace is formidable, but his collaboration with Finn on her CD When I Met You is the real deal. Would you agree?
VF: If we’re focusing on Rothenberg the songwriter, I’d agree. Drums of Grace is an excellent sound track album for Drums of Grace as a novel or, if it should happen, a movie. His pieces are extremely solid in every idiom. Like you, I was impressed by the authenticity of his compositions, his grasp of the idioms and the freshness of his expression within each. I can’t recall many other songwriters — or any, to be honest — who can cross musical boundaries so fluidly. I can’t picture Willie Nelson writing for Snoop Dogg or vice versa, and yet Rothenberg writes equally well in all pop genres. If he did play an instrument — he was trying into learn guitar in I Murdered Elvis — he might be able to compose jazz tunes, as well. Or maybe he’s just never needed to compose tunes in the style of a Jon Hendricks ensemble of jazz vocalists. But Since I Met You shows that he probably could, just on his ear for verbal music.
It occurs to me that one of Rothenberg’s biggest problems in achieving success as a songwriter is that his lyrics are just too intelligent. This may be the curse he speaks of, “A songwriter in a poet’s body.” Between Drums of Grace and Since I Met You, I can’t find a forced rhyme or clumsy phrase anywhere. If his songwriting lacks anything, it lacks Lowest Common Denominator Appeal. The decision makers worry — incorrectly, I think — that work involving a modicum of mental effort won’t sell to the demographic they’ve targeted. I personally think they underestimate what their audience can grasp. But somebody, I can’t remember who, once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” So, they play it safe and profitable.
Getting back to your question, though, Since I Met You delves into a realm somewhere between jazz and soft rock and digs deeper into the music along that continuum. Rothenberg is working in real depth here, not offering a sampling of musical styles. His lyrics are extremely intelligent, like the jazz vocals of the late fifties and early sixties, but not geared to jump tempos the way those compositions were. Elya Finn has a smoky, sexy voice that fits the material like a custom-made velvet glove.
Once again, the lyrics flow. They’re definitely songs, as opposed to poems, but he doesn’t rhyme them with the regularity that other composers do. His poetic skills enable him to maintain the flow of the song form while avoiding the more facile devices that most composers use to make lyrics into a song. While Elya Finn seems almost ideally suited to sing these lyrics, I can hear other jazz vocalists, such as Holly Cole, giving these piece some very tasteful renderings.
As you said earlier, Rothenberg’s work as poet or songwriter doesn’t fall into an easy chronology. As a multi-dimensional force, he can work in several areas simultaneously with equal effectiveness. And some of these result in very interesting fusions of artistic mediums. Drums of Grace is thematically central to his body of work in that its core themes radiate outward to his other achievements — in poetry, in songwriting, and in writing fiction. You could say that his entire body of work, published and unpublished, fits the concept of the journal and the serial poem in that thecollages combining different idioms form a coherent structure if you look at Rothenberg’s life in toto. You can consider his ecological work, his anti-war statements, his Poets in Need work and his roles as editor, literary advisor, networking facilitator and community builder as part of a life lived along the lines of a serial poem. I don’t think Rothenberg has set out to make his life and his work another Duluoz Legend, but its elements overlap in the way that Kerouac’s novels did and the letters and lists we find in Rothenberg’s work are pieces of a life as well as of a poem.
KG: Interesting that you mention Kerouac here. On the Road was often talked about before it found its way into book form. What unpublished manuscripts of Rothenberg’s deserve attention and speak to your notion that his lifework is a serial collage?
VF: I’d say all of Rothenberg’s unpublished material deserves attention. In addition to some of which we’ve discussed, He has three manuscripts that would continue the notion of an extended seriality, either by accident or design: Simply Infinity, Narcissus, American Smile and Elementals.
Many of the poems in Narcissus focus on vanity, particularly Narcissus Journal, a serial poem of a cross-country jaunt whose narrator seeks to finds himself, but too often finds a void where his reflection should be, despite the tantalizing proximity. Of particular note is Delusion, a collaboration with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen in which Rothenberg selects two poems from the manuscript to be permutated by a computer program. It’s an extension of Rothenberg’s serial work into a poetic realm beyond the New American Poetry. Although he doesn’t appear to work in this area on a regular basis, the material that he publishes in Big Bridge reflects his interests in the directions that the various forms of contemporary poetry are moving. American Smile combines a series of poems that focus loosely on other matters of vanity, such as the multi-media consumer satirized in Entertainment Vampire. But the long poem that fills the last half of the manuscript, Floating on my Back, is the centerpiece. Its serial form shifts from reflections on a past lover to Rothenberg taking care of his dying mother and dealing with her death. In addition to the fragments of correspondence and clippings, Rothenberg generates aleatoric elements similar to some of those found in his collaboration with Kervinen through extending his serial approach just a little beyond where he usually takes it.
Elementals streamlines the journal technique, leaving less leaping space between textual juxtapositions and offering a more focused perspective. Like American Smile and Narcissus, it’s about making transitions — major ones. Its poems document a year in Rothenberg’s life, a year in which his family’s home in California burns down, his lifelong best friend dies of leukemia and he breaks from his past life in Florida to return to California. The elements play a key part in the book, from fires to hurricanes. And the move to rural California in the final poem celebrates a return to a life among the elements, among nature. The opening poem, House on Fire, documents the blaze that destroyed Rothenberg’s home and many irreplaceable possessions through collages of newspaper articles, letters to and from friends, and the feelings of post-traumatic stress that resulted from the horrible incident. Hurricane juxtaposes the blow-by-blow News updates on Hurricane Frances and the whirl of life and hurricane winds around him while his contemplating the death of his closest friend becomes the only constant amid the turbulence, the eye of the storm of the narrator’s life. The later sections build toward Rothenberg’s move to California, which culminates with him moving to the Russian River section of northern California, just in time to experience a flood that made the national news. The books is about elementals: natural elements and fundamental truths, the inevitability of enduring natural forces, whether they’re hurricanes, floods or deaths — and surviving them with a sense of humor.
The manuscripts aren’t strictly chronological. As in Rothenberg’s other works, time and sequence overlap, so that the illness and death of Rothenberg’s friend Alex appears in more than one work, as does the illness and death of his mother. Their inter-relationship establishes a serial thread that runs through much of Rothenberg’s work. A number of his works can be linked in this way.
But as we discuss Rothenberg’s serial work, we have to note that his books are usually not volume-length long poems per se, but long poems clearly in the serial mode we’ve been discussing juxtaposed with shorter poems that stand independent of a single, unified long poem, but are so thematically related to the material that they complement the longer works. So, even as we see the unity of themes and techniques running through Rothenberg’s work, our attempts to contain it within a single approach again face the uncategorizable nature of Rothenberg’s work.
The material in each poem in Elementals in some way contains material that relates to Rothenberg’s eco-activism, even the descriptions of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. And the community-building, while not a focal theme in any of these works, is present in that Rothenberg’s experiences take place within a context of community. In House on Fire in Narcissus, for example, the newspaper’s accounts of the fire are very supportive of Rothenberg and his family, and his correspondence shows that he received a considerable amount of emotional support from the community of friends and poets he has in California.
KG: Regarding Narcissus, yes, his collaboration with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen and the computer program certainly extends the serial approach beyond the New American Poetics.
On the other hand, I found it incomprehensible. I was more drawn to the use of prose in Section Two, which goes a longer way to enrich the serial approach with the power of the sentence. In any case, Rothenberg reveals his willingness to continue to experiment with form.
That experiment yields much more satisfying results in Elementals. He has really sharpened his ability to tell more than one story at a time while keeping us turning the page! Certainly his content is richer in this, his latest collection, as you pointed out, but the beauty is in the breath and pace of the telling. Of the six sections of the manuscript — Still Life of the Imagination, House On Fire, Stargazers, Hurricane, Katrina and Redwood Floodwatch — the last one is the best use of the serial collage in all of his work. He’s really found a way to fuse what you aptly called “natural elements and fundamental truths, the inevitability of enduring natural forces and surviving them with a sense of humor.” In the hands of a less imaginative or less informed writer, these themes would not cohere, but Rothenberg has developed what Pound called “vortex.”
This is also true of House on Fire, which is a reader-friendly gumbo of newspaper journalism, letters to friends, lists of items lost, family quotes, dream streams, thoughts and fears on the nature of tragedy and it all fits together.
However, I think Redwood Floodwatch is the supreme example of the serial poem’s success. Watch how the use of caps, etymology, quotations and spacing help tell the story:
“What’s your address in the redwoods?”
Redwood, “Sequoia sempervirens
A very tall, evergreen, coniferous tree
“Sequoia, Cherokee who invented Cherokee alphabet
Sempervirens means ‘ever-living’”
And beyond that:
A POT OF CHICKEN
SQUASH ONIONS MUSHROOMS
IN WOOD STOVE
“Native to coastal ranges
of southern Oregon and central and northern California,
having small seed-bearing cones
with peltate scales and unflattened branches.”
CREEKS SPILLS SEEPS FALLS
“Some Native Americans stripped bark off redwood trees
to gather sweeter cambium layers for food”
Hot tub in the redwoods
HIGH WINDS OFF PACIFIC BLOW DOWN
FROM ALASKA BAY
Donald says he’ll show me how to climb a redwood
Listen to wood stove
Shuffle wood in stove
BLIZZARD IN SIERRAS
“Do you believe it, you own all these trees!
“You own me,” I tell the trees
(under the stars)
See how he develops this point of view here? Perhaps because he’s considering the more impersonal event of floods rather than his own home burning down, his concerns come together more:
“One of the survival strategies of redwood trees
is ability to sprout from bud tissue called burl”
HIGHEST TIDE OF THE YEAR
“If a tree falls, logged, or trunk damaged,
the burl can be triggered to start sprouting new growth”
“The sprouts use the root system
of the parent tree and are genetically identical”
Who’s to say they’re not the same tree?
These last lines have a real Rothenberg humor to them:
Blue Jays wake the morning Yes! Come in! Sit!
I’ll be right with you
There’s a war I must finish!
I will win it shortly
Does that say it all, Vernon, or what?
VF: It definitely sums up Rothenberg’s view of life: facing adversity with perseverance and a laugh. To go back to his collaboration with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen in Delusion I understand what you’re saying. When you work with computer-generated text, you eliminate authorial control. In the program employed, the computer program arranges the line spacing and word order. As an experiment, I think it works well. Some serial poems could extend in this direction, but Delusion doesn’t add “meanings,” only the possibility of meanings. It’s another sign of Rothenberg’s willingness to explore and extend the boundaries of his craft, but I don’t see his serial work expanding into the aleatoric. The juxtapositions he creates contain aleatoric elements, a controlled randomness that can occur simply by writing one entry at one time and another entry at another. The different times, situations and subjects of the journal entries contain an inherent discontinuity and randomness. While Rothenberg flirts with the margins of authorial control, he still holds a grip on the reins and uses a subtle touch to shape the direction of his pieces.
Section Two’s prose poetry sections advance the theme of Narcissus and Echo while reducing the roles of the ego to forces at play beyond the limitations of the self. As a motif “It has nothing to do with us” emphasizes the self’s insistent needs and places them in the much broader context of the universe, despite its vacillations:
It’s got nothing to do with us.
We’re only dust. It has to do with stopping the sun. Half-naked on a beach before the
Prom. Photographs of who we once were.
What do you think of me now?
This is the ego asserting itself despite an awareness of greater forces at work in nature. And yet, the experience doesn’t exclude the self and its relations to others:
It’s got nothing to do with us.
It has to do with all we’ve seen, heard and felt.
The experience of the greater forces comes through a perceptual process. The experience of “all we’ve seen, heard and felt” is both “us” and “not-us.”
This and the other poems set up the positioning of Narcissus Journal, which actualizes the pursuit of an illusion that is at the same time not an illusion — one of the paradoxes at the core of our existence, or our perception of existence.
I agree, though, that the technique finds its most effective use in Elementals. Throughout the book, he’s dealing with natural forces he can’t avoid: hurricanes, deaths, floods...just about every unavoidable natural affliction appears. Redwood Floodwatch marks the culmination of a journey shaped at the start by fire and concluding with a flood of the Russian River. Within the excerpt you quoted, the Sempervirens means ‘ever-living’. The phrase places Rothenberg, a mortal, in a context that makes questions such as “What’s your address in the redwoods?” seem almost insignificant. Yet the redwood has played a role in the survival of the Native Americans who inhabited the area, one that Rothenberg is mindful of. The somewhat scientific descriptions of the redwoods place them in a role humans can comprehend — a reduction of nature to human scale through scholarship, as it were — even though they will endure the flood even if the humans don’t. The bursts of capitalized words create their own movement from provisions to natural events to disaster headlines and finally “RED CROSS.” And these in turn play against luxuries such as hot tubs that suggest the transitory comforts that people consider integral to their lives. The elements render them superfluous. One’s communion with “the eternal” and survival in the face of it create a paradox that also serves as a summary of the existential human situation. If Rothenberg’s work has “vortex,” then his juxtapositions rely on his intuitive sense of “centrifugal force” to keep them in place as they whirl through the moment of the reader’s attention. This ability, which runs throughout his work, holds the fires, winds and flood of Elementals in a fluid balancing of juxtapositions. We could say that it’s a culmination of his technique to date, but we can’t overlook its presence in such powerful collections as I Murdered Elvis or Unhurried Vision.
You might even consider the “vortex” an outgrowth or inner working of Rothenberg himself. I’ve called him a literary force and his “vortical sense” might inform his life as a poet, songwriter, editor, ecological activist, supporter of poets in need of help, his contributions to and development of a community of poets. The centrifugal force would balance these activities so that their de-centralized activates cohere within the force field that is Michael Rothenberg.
Looking closely at Rothenberg’s work allows us to see just how substantial it is in its range, scope, vision and richness, all tied together with masterly technique. In addition to his craft, his style and vision place him apart from other poets. His body of work is unique in its exploration not only of poetic and fictional techniques, but in its songwriting and fusion of multiple media. He’s stayed true to himself and done his work despite the difficulties in gaining recognition for it. But his work stands up on repeated reading or listening. Rothenberg’s style has the uniqueness of jazz musicians such as Monk, Coltrane and Archie Shepp — you can identify them in the first few measures of any solo. You can tell Rothenberg’s style almost immediately. I think, as we move forward, Michael Rothenberg’s work will take its place among the most important writers of our generation.