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Two nibs


Jackson Mac Low
in conversation:

Making Poetry “Otherwise”

28 January 2001

This piece is about 16 printed pages long. It is copyright © the contributors and Jacket magazine 2007.

Making Poetry “Otherwise”

Note: You can also read a transcription of the 1979 interview between Jackson Mac Low and Gill Ott, here:


The following conversation took place after Jackson Mac Low’s talk, “Making Poetry ‘Otherwise,’” which he delivered in the Vestry Room of St. Philip’s in the Foothills, Tucson, Arizona, on 28 January 2001. A dozen or so people from the poetry community were present, including Charles Alexander, Lisa Cooper, Dan Featherston, Rachel McCrystal, Tenney Nathanson, Dlyn Fairfax Parra, Tim Peterson, Lisa Phillips, and Frances Sjoberg. Those voices that could not be identified are indicated in the text as “Audience.”

Jackson Mac Low, New York City, 1997, photo John Tranter

Jackson Mac Low, New York City, 1997
Photo John Tranter

George W. Bush had been sworn into office a week before Mac Low’s visit to Tucson, and the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election is on the minds of many of those present. The discussion therefore approaches not only questions about aesthetics but also some of the complex issues arising out of the poet’s relationship to social, political, and religious realities. Among other things, the generous movement of the conversation testifies to Mac Low’s abiding interest in poetry’s commitment to the social sphere.

paragraph 1

Tenney Nathanson (TN): What are some of the ways your own work interests you?


Jackson Mac Low (JML): I could not put that into words. I probably could eventually, but mostly what I find interesting is not necessarily “interesting.” [Laughter] Sometimes it simply comes out that way because I set myself the task of making sentences mainly from each line of the output by changing suffixes, adding helping words, or changing helping words, and by changing the word order and suffixes and everything. And so it’s mainly a simple judgment of taste more than anything that I could put into exact words. For instance, the two-line poem I read last night [“Burning Deck”] happened to come out just two lines, and I liked it very much. I divided it in two lines because a capital letter happened to come in, so the second line begins with a capital. They are what Austin Clarkson’s psychologist friends call liminal choices. [Clarkson] had been at the Cage conference in Mills College and he used this term in relation to the works of John Cage, quite aside from whether they were chance operations or anything else. I think the choices that he and many of us made when we devised systems would be egoist in the very absolute Zen sense. Certainly, they’d come from the mind — Oh, I want to have that kind of thing in this — and one always makes those choices, no matter what kind of work. It is through having done this that I came to realize other things about Buddhism, working both with Buddhism and these methods.


But I would guess there are sorts of decisions I make sometimes instantaneously. I see it and, Oh, that’s one I don’t want to change very much, or, Oh, that one has to be put into sentences; take my words from different parts of the output and use as many of them as possible. So there are the extremes. In other words, Oh, I won’t touch that, except maybe divide it and have capitals at the beginnings of the lines or something.


TN: So you don’t retrospectively make up stories for yourself about the operation of your own…


JML: I don’t think so. I mean, now that you’ve asked this, I might have to do those reflections. [Laughter] I like the methods that began coming out when I started with the acrostic poems, which were the first deterministic ones, because they did produce stanzaic poems. Because once you have a seed, usually it’s relatively few words and one repeats that several times. And there, often, I would stop. Making The Asymmetries, which are irregular, I’d often stop the poem when I’d hit the bottom of the page of the notebook. Those poems are everything from one word, one letter — one just the letter ‘a’ — to very longish poems, because I used both individual words and up to whole sentences within a single poem. The decisions of each case would be made separately as chance operational.


Frances Sjoberg (FS): Last night some of your poems seemed almost like symphonic orchestrations, very rhythmic and musical… [1]


JML: Which ones? Were they Forties poems or Stein poems?


FS: Stein poems. I’m wondering how, when you measure the pauses like that, how do you note that on the page?


JML: I used to use moderate five-count, and I dropped it to a four-count for each strophe break to make the breaks sensible. Rather than something on the page, you could hear them. So I just generally count 1, 2, 3, 4 between…


As composer Morton Feldman once said, “This silence thing is a joke.” When he, Cage and a couple other friends and I were coming back on the subway, he suddenly said this. Does anyone know the work of Morton Feldman? He’s a wonderful composer. Both [Feldman and Cage] work with silence, and Cage’s first book of essays about music was called Silence. Once, Cage went to an anechoic room where you’re supposedly not going to hear any sound at all. But what he heard was a high pitch sound that was his nervous system and a lower pitch sound which was his blood, so you don’t even have…


Audience: There was a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of New Mexico. He studied silence in the Apache language and found it…


JML: Are there silences of different lengths?


Audience: Yes.


JML: And they change the significance of the words on either side of the silence?


Audience: I can’t remember. It’s been twenty years. But he definitely found meaningful silence.


JML: Meaningful silence. What silence is, is actually when a person who is speaking or anything else, shuts up, and then you hear the environment and all sorts of other sounds besides what’s being produced by the speaker or the instrumentalist or whatever. But it’s definitely a sound-filled thing.


Cage has a piece called 4’33”. The pianist and composer David Tudor was the first to play this piece, which was to open the keyboard lid as silently as possible, then after a certain number of minutes…


Charles Alexander (CA): Four minutes, thirty-three seconds.


JML: Yeah, but it’s divided into four different movements, and that each movement, he would open and close the keyboard at the beginning and end [so you hear] all the other sounds produced by the audience. One was done near Woodstock, so you heard the birds, the rustle of the trees, and so on.


CA: I’m interested in the Forties and Twenties pieces. I’m hearing in those pieces a relationship to the Stein pieces and others that do use methods. I’m wondering if those pieces, and the ability to make those, depend on your history and your ability to make different methods…


JML: No, see this is another part of the illusion, to be able to evade one’s biography and history and so on, that those of us who started working with these methods in the mid-fifties had. I think the fact that there are these similarities between a person who is working, especially in the Stein poems… in fact in some of the them, especially the late ones, I’m employing some of the spaces for caesural pauses, and also hyphenations to get slower and faster groups of words. There’s a definite relation in the fact that I’m making similar revisions in the raw output of the methods. The choices in revision are like the choices in making and revising The Forties. I no longer tried to escape myself but to work with myself.


I think the main difference between them is, I tend to have a continuous flow, which unfortunately I didn’t always keep up in The Forties. The only stops are between the eight seventh interstanza stops. Others come along, and they’re gone. And that’s the main difference, whereas the Stein poems are much easier to perform because they’re mostly either regular or elliptical sentences. I had ones with word strings with no normative syntax, but mostly they are sentences.


What you’re saying is, would I have written The Forties if I hadn’t worked with methods beforehand, would they have come out that way, and certainly I started revising and using the outputs of the diastic method more cavalierly. I always tried to keep the lexical words, their roots, but other than that, I’m certain there are the same kinds of deliberate decisions in making the Stein poems. But they’re always dependent on a lot of things that are dependent on normal poetry writing; that is, euphony in the case of The Forties.


One of the things you learn in writing poems is to listen very closely to whatever happens in the poem. And there are two kinds of writing: The ones like John Donne, where Ben Jonson said he should be hanged because he didn’t keep number, and then in the late-seventeenth century, a new kind of writing emerged, especially in the work of Edmund Waller. They were trying to get a maximum euphony and this very much influenced writing, certainly through the eighteenth century, the way poets who were mostly writing in heroic couplets were trying for this euphonious way of writing. They started a whole way of writing that continued even into the romantic period, especially in the eighteenth century. I think we began to have that cacophony mainly in the so-called modernist period, although some poets, especially Ezra Pound, who was very much a Wallerist in much of his writing.


CA: And some writers seem to make a euphony of cacophony. Some of Stein’s works do that, and even earlier, you could possibly see some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s works…


JML: Yes, well Gerard Hopkins was someone who influenced me in every way. He and Donne, especially Hopkins. In fact, when I want to emphasize certain syllables, I use his method, which is to use acute accent, sometimes italicizing a whole word. His main way of writing was to count the beats and not the feet of the line, so he might have a whole bunch of things that are clumped together. He has all sorts of wonderful consonant clumps. He’s really… does anybody know the poetry of Hopkins? All the poems we have, they are mainly in some sense religious. He was a Jesuit priest, and he died of it, because they kept putting him in these various Jesuit houses in England and Ireland. I’m sure that everybody got dreadful flus. He wouldn’t have written those poems if he wasn’t that type of poet.


Dan Featherston (DF): Yes, inscape and so on, the poem as a sort of manifesting of something godly or spiritual. You were talking about Buddhism. Is there a similar sense in your work, maybe not in a spiritual sense…


JML: I think there is something operating there, especially in the earlier chance and deterministic work. I felt whatever was given should be accepted. And it’s a real change when I started thinking that what was made by the systems was not necessarily any better. I don’t know what… does anybody know what “spiritual” means? [Laughter]


No, it’s very, very serious. I’ve never been able to understand the term. It’s usually in relation to some religion or other, and usually something to do with priests, even in Buddhism, and I’ve always wondered what they mean by spiritual, especially people who aren’t necessarily believers in one of the organized religions. What is “spiritual”? Most people seem to use the term quite easily.


Audience: It might be one of the ways to evade the ego.


Lisa Phillips (LP): I think it’s a kind of fullness intricately combined with emptiness.


JML: It tends to be something connected to God, and if you don’t believe in God you can’t be spiritual.


DF: In more vanguard dimensions of religions, there’s a sense of reverence to the object world — that it has a kind of sovereignty that can’t be accessed through language or what have you. And a sense of language as material…


JML: Language as material?


DF: Like in cabalistic…


JML: Well that’s an interpretation of language in gematria and so on. But those people, the cabalistic practitioners, were experiencing something very definite. It wasn’t a way of making poems. And it was supposedly… the words of the Bible, each letter has a kind of aura around it. Somebody asked me, I think yesterday, about cabalism and Jewish mysticism as being one of the sort of indirect sources of my way of working, and I think it is mainly in this general sense that what happens in language is more than merely ideas, or descriptions of the world, or anything like that. It’s more than any explicit theory. I think that there’s something significant in any sound made by a sentient being. Ducks and cats and other animals, it’s significant. It’s not meaningful in the linguistic sense, but there is an expression of what’s coming out of these beings and being part of them, and I think part of what is being done, at least for me when I was working with these ideas, is to let what’s there be; especially letting words, linguistic units, be, not making them carry a burden of my thoughts, my feelings, or whatever. I think a great deal of poetry is still an expression of feelings and thoughts. This is one thing I like about contemporary writing and writings of my own, the idea that language has value as a being that one should be able to participate in more directly than by using it as a means of expressing thoughts, feelings, or whatever.


TN: Athletes talk about being in a zone. I remember one of the times the Yankees won the World Series. Reggie Jackson was batting against Bob Welsh, and Thurman Munson was on first base, and [Jackson] said the ball looked bigger than a grapefruit. You know, there was no way he could miss. They sent Munson to steal without telling Jackson, and Jackson struck out. The next night, he hit three home runs on three pitches. There’s a way through meditation or things like that, where everything around you can be just as large and slow as the baseball. It’s just all right there. And I think the silence in the Cage piece is a way, among other things, of making that happen for people in the auditorium, turning it into everybody’s meditation hall.


JML: Yeah, they listen. People, if they’re really listening to those pieces, are listening to all the sounds around them, and the players are being silent. Certainly true in both Cage’s and Feldman’s work.


TN: That seems closely related to some of your work, and a sense of the spiritual very close to that sense of fullness that’s empty too.


CA: Getting back to Hopkins, Dan pointed to inscape and sprung rhythm. There’s a sense of something that’s barely being contained, that’s always struggling to free itself, because there’s something beyond the words that’s there. The words imply much that’s beyond the words, and would that be a way of poetry being spiritual?


JML: Not all poetry, but certainly a great deal that people have valued. That’s why people write poems rather than expository texts, and poems in either prose or verse, because there’s more happening. As they say in Indian music, the spaces between the sounds are the important things.


Dlyn Fairfax Parra (DFP): So I’ll tell you my misconception. I was told, just out of the blue, that you had technique for liminal poetry, between the spaces of the material and the sacred, or consciousness and unconsciousness, and I thought, Oh, I’m gonna go to this place, and he’s gonna get me into a trance space, and I’m gonna write poetry. I really thought you were going to do that for me.


JML: No, no trance. [Laughter]


DFP: Then I thought, maybe looking at all the output of computer generated random things would put me in a trance state.


JML: Well, there’s no randomness if it’s computer generated.


DFP: I thought you wanted it to be random?


JML: No, I never like randomness. I want specific things.


DFP: Specific parameters?


JML: “Random” is a misused word. That is, chance is not necessarily random. And certainly the deterministic work is not random.


Audience: Did you say you disapprove of trance or something like that?


JML: Well, if people want to go into a trance, I have nothing against it. [Laughter]


What people think they are doing when they are going into a trance is, they’re just getting spaced out. And this happens more often than not, as I’m reading right now, a book by the Dalai Lama in which he mentions that when we speak of thoughtlessness, we don’t mean just sitting there spaced out.


There is a kind of writing where one does write in a semi-trance. That’s what liminal writing is, I guess, one goes in and out of something like a trance. But it isn’t a trance, in that one is always conscious of everything. It is strange to what extent, in fact it’s questionable, this whole explanation of writing I took to, because I liked Austin’s [Clarkson] uses of it. I know when I write such poems, especially The Forties, the Twenties, also other sorts but certainly them, I was only consciously there in part. Then I’d be carried by the sounds, rhythms — all those things that are part of ordinary poems. I’d be carried from one word to the next by all kinds of associations, and most often I think sound things, especially when they’re word-strings rather than syntactical groups of words.


CA: When you say it that way, there’s almost this sense of entering the space of the poem similar to what Robert Duncan describes as permission to go into the meadow, which is the space of the poem, and start making decisions based on…


JML: A great deal of Robert’s work was written liminally, and it started way back and has a relation… he didn’t like surrealism. It has a more general relation than most surrealist poetry to whatever that layer of the person, the unconscious or the subconscious or somewhere in between, the part that doesn’t take hold of it and appropriate it to the self. Something that just comes to mind, when the words come into the poem, especially like The Forties, but also in others where the original words are given to modify. I think that’s one reason why Robert [Duncan] liked the kind of work I did so different from his, because I think he felt that a similar kind of thing would happen where he would be carried along. He moves from writing liminally to deliberate sentences. Do all of you know the work of Robert Duncan? He was definitely writing in that area in his own way. I guess the main catchword would be “liminal,” but it isn’t always that. [Duncan’s] going in and out of various parts of his psyche, parts of his person are. I think a great deal of poetry is written that way, but it’s more obvious in poetry like Duncan’s. But in the works of Hopkins, very often he’ll be just carried along by a series of rhymes, half-rhymes, alliterations. For instance, in “The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo,” a long poem. I wish you’d all look up the work of Hopkins. But if you’re anti-religious, forget it. [Laughter] I mean, forget that it’s religious; you’ll forget that you’re anti-religious.

[end of tape]


CA: A few years ago there was an attempt to try to define this period as the age of information, and that seems to have disappeared a little bit. You don’t hear that anymore. I heard that five or ten years ago, and that doesn’t seem to be useful…


JML: [This age is] different from the mechanical age and the machine age, but [“postmodern” is] certainly a very superficial word. I’ve dropped all these words like “avant garde,” “innovative.” I just say “otherwise writing.”


Audience: Otherwise?


JML: It’s otherwise than what other people were doing at the time. I got it from Kurt Schwitters, where he said, possibly with tongue in cheek, “I’ll always do otherwise than the others.” And I don’t think that’s a good maxim. Sometimes, if you want to do just like some of the others, go ahead. I know people who write beautiful, very euphonious sonnets. In fact, you might know the magazine Talisman. The editor, Ed Foster, writes very beautiful, moving verse. I think you can do anything. It’s useful sometimes for groups of individuals to have a sort of prescriptiveness about what they’ll do and what they won’t do, but I think it’s better when you assign that to yourself, not a group-think. There’s always some kind of things, I’ll say, as in a Stein poem, Well, I’ll use at least the lexical words in some way, the roots of some words, but otherwise I’ll change things around. That’s a kind of taboo situation too, but it’s useful.


Tim Peterson (TP): How do you feel about manifestos?


JML: Oh, I hate the idea. [Laughter] The surrealists were big on manifestos. And the futurists: “Destroy all the museums,” “War is good.”


Audience: Anarchy.


JML: No, that is not anarchy. I am still to some real extent an anarchist, and I worked for many years with an anarchist pacifist group, from ‘44 to ‘54 in New York. Anarchy simply means people are making their own decisions. And when they do make decisions with others, they’re doing it voluntarily. I think of anarchy now as being a regulative ideal. It only regulates what you would do within the actual situation.


I shocked some friends of mine a number of years ago, saying, “It’s a duty of every anarchist to vote for the lesser evil,” and I think that’s true in a very real sense. It’s the only compassionate way of acting, [realizing] that what happens is going to happen in such a way. For instance, having a government that will not favor increasing the minimum wage, or will try to stop people doing what they want with their bodies, including having abortions. Even though the democrats are full of rotters, and the democratic leadership council is very little different in basic aspects — Clinton and Gore and Lieberman — what look like tiny differences make a difference, and I think it is our duty. You know, people fought to have the franchise in every sense of the word, and not to use that little bit of power our situation contains is not right. I think we have to use that [power], and not do it in symbolic ways, as when people voted for Nader. I don’t think he’d have been a good president, but he’s someone who at least stands for a good muckraking. He’s a wonderful muckraker.


LP: But as a Buddhist, wouldn’t you vote for Nader?


JML: As a Buddhist, I voted for Gore. I certainly would vote for Gore. It wouldn’t be compassionate to…


LP: But could you see another Buddhist voting for Nader?


JML: I don’t know. That’s up to the other Buddhist. [Laughter]


Audience: You probably did see a bunch of them…


JML: I knew at least a handful, and I know a handful who wouldn’t vote for Gore or Bush if they were in nirvana. [Laughter] But imagine what’s going to happen to the Supreme Court. I mean, it’s bad enough already. These are very important things. The basic thing is compassion, that’s the basis of Buddhism, and what happens to the majority of people is meaningful. I don’t think majoritarianism is that evil, as some of my anarchist friends think. In a sense, it’s a kind of utilitarianism: What will lead to the greater happiness, or in the larger sense, better lives. And in that case you have to vote for what is more likely one of the two possibilities we’re stuck with. A lot of people voted for Nader thinking they were going to help start a third party, and the third party failed miserably. It just took away votes from the lesser evil.


Well, enough of that. Are there questions about poetry or anything? I think poets should always be in some sense involved in their context. And not just poets. I don’t think art should be rhetorical. There are some great Stalinist poets, like Bertholf Brecht. He wrote wonderful poetry, but he was a Stalinist. And there’s some better fascist poets. Pound wrote wonderful poetry, and he was a fascist. He was a populist fascist. His fascism was related to what he thought: That a system based on getting money from money, making money from money, was a sin. And this goes back to church doctrine. He was very sincere on that. He had the illusion, when he first came across social credit as a system, that this was going to end usury, and through Major Douglas, who founded social credit, who was a kind of a fascist. [Pound] used to send me the Social Credit paper from London, and a number of other things, and it was openly anti-Semitic. I’ve known other people who are into money reform. Have you ever known any money reformers? They’re motivated by very high ideals, but they somehow get linked up with fascism.


The first poetry I liked was Whitman’s. And Carl Sandburg, who was a very political poet in a sort of populist way. Well, the first modernist poetry I thought about was Pound’s work. I was still in high school. I didn’t know anything about fascism; [Pound] just wrote wonderful poetry. I remember going home on the Elevated [in Chicago] and sort of crowing on the way home: I discovered Lustra. I did get into contact with [Pound] through Dr. [William Carlos] Williams. Robert Duncan and I got into a reading of his, so we both got a chance to talk to Dr. Williams. I asked him how Pound was, and the next thing, I got a letter from Pound. And I had decided at that time that one shouldn’t push a man in his paranoia. [Laughter] You know, [Pound] was a poor madman in that sense. He wasn’t a mad man in all senses. Late in life, he told Allen Ginsberg that it was a stupid, suburban prejudice. That’s certainly a mild description…


DF: of his own anti-Semitism?


JML: Yes. I don’t know what he thought of Major Douglas by that time. I’m sure he no longer idolized Mussolini as someone who would bring about the good society. I’ve never known to what extent he understood… has anybody some sense of that, what extent Pound understood what was happening to people? Do you, Charles [Alexander]?


CA: What was happening to people in…


DF: The exterminations?


JML: Not just the Holocaust, but everything that was happening in fascist countries.


CA: If you hear the radio broadcasts, you think Pound will support what’s happening, but what sense he had of what was happening…


TN: He was at best only intermittently apologetic. [Hugh] Kenner tells the story in The Pound Era. It was a great embarrassment that they finally pardoned [Pound], and put him back on the boat to go to Italy, so he could stay with his daughter, and the first thing he does when he gets off the boat, he gets on the Italian shore and gives the fascist salute.


JML: Strange thing is, he thought abstraction was worse than anything. And yet, he was completely in an abstraction never-never fantasy.


CA: One gets the sense in Williams’ biography and others, Pound was always dealing with ideals and abstractions. He could be a great friend and helpful to others, but not have a real warm, human touch.


JML: He was [warm] with some people, including Louis Zukofsky. About ten years after we’d been corresponding, I started hitting on the anti-Semitism and fascism, and he said, “I never bitched Louie [Zukofsky], I never bitched Mina Loy.” And it’s true, he was a very good friend to several Jewish poets he liked very much. He loved Zukofsky and his work. I think that’s where the abstraction wasn’t working.


Once, I came back from Woodstock to my apartment and everything had been taken out of it. Eventually, we made up an anarchist “Gestapo” and traced down some of the stuff. So I wrote to [Pound] that this had just happened, and that the people were probably heroin addicts I knew through other connections, and he wrote to me: “Abstraction worse than heroin!” [Laughter] I mentioned in the same letter that I’d been studying Lao Tzu. I didn’t realize his hatred of Taoism and Buddhism at that time. I hadn’t read all the Cantos. In fact, I don’t think they’d all been published. This was about 1947. And yet [Pound] was living a life of abstractions.


TN: In the Kenner book there’s stuff on various transactions over the decades with the Chinese materials, and by the time Pound’s writing the “Pisan Cantos,” without knowing it he’s basically transcribing Taoism — all this stuff about “the way.” He still doesn’t know, because he’s working with French translations, that he’s turned into a Taoist.


On the poetics list Charles Bernstein runs, one of the things that cycles through is the discussion of Pound and fascism. About four years ago Jerry Rothenberg wrote a beautiful post many pages long talking, as a Jewish poet, about what are the appalling aspects of Pound and what are the incredibly enabling aspects of Pound.[2]


JML: Isn’t that in the little anthology Joel [Kuzai] made?[3] Well, everybody’s full of contradictions, but boy, some of these people! [Laughter] I mean, this wonderful person who inspired untold numbers of poets and writers and other artists.


CA: And still does.


JML: Exactly. My love of infamy… [Laughter] no, euphony stems from Pound and having been led to read Waller seriously.


CA: Pound’s melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia are still quite useful…


JML: Hopkins had another kind of abstraction, but it was not that destructive accept to himself, living in those horrid places. He died very young and his poetry wasn’t published until years later by Robert Bridges, who is in many ways a very interesting poet. Robert Duncan loved especially “The Testament of Beauty.” Bridges is one of two people Hopkins often corresponded with; the other was an Anglican, Canon Dixon. So in 1920, Bridges decided, Well, the world will be able to receive this work to some extent. So he put out the first edition of Hopkins’s works and this inspired a whole generation of British poets. Do you know the Auden group? There was a group of poets at Oxford, most of them at that time were some kind of communist, and they were especially inspired by Hopkins and Wilfred Owen, a person killed in the war, who wrote anti-war poems and used something akin to aliteral assonance, which was something that Hopkins uses, too. C. Day Lewis: Does anybody know that name? Cecil Day Lewis.


Audience: One of his heirs is a famous actor.


JML: It’s his son or his grandson. Anne [Tardos] read somewhere, he was indeed Cecil Day Lewis’ son, I think, but it seems more probable grandson. [Cecil] Lewis died at 47. He’d just been made Poet Laureate, and was able to be Laureate for three years, and then poof.


CA: I think his work is still widely read in England. People like the Movement poets.


JML: Right, in England. I still like Auden’s work very much. He’s rejected because he was the establishment here as much as in England, along with the New Critics. But wonderful work by Auden. Now, everybody has to defend their own territory, and I guess this keeps going. Do you feel this, that you have to do things to defend your territory within the arts?


Audience: Depends on who you’re talking to.


JML: I’m talking to everybody, everybody here. Within the whole field of the arts, I think people are always defending a certain territory, partly because it’s something different from what’s been done before and partly it’s some kind of group-think, too. But that you have to attack the others, because it’s different from what you like to do and what you think is important to do.


CA: Sometimes you can feel this, if your work is different in that way. That’s sometimes true, sometimes not.


JML: But often you are being attacked by others.


TN: We’re supposed to be out by 3:30, so we have another ten minutes. Then we’re supposed to vacate.


JML: Well, I thought we had to vacate at some time, but I was beginning to think, Ah, the Anglicans come through once more! [Laughter] It’s my experience that the church this place is part of, at least in the North, it’s one of the most liberal churches in the whole schema. You have the obviously liberal churches like the Quakers, the Universalists, and so on, but they’re the only churches that I know of in New York that aren’t low church in British terms, that have, for instance, gay ministers. In Greenwich Village there’s St. Luke’s Church that now has two lesbians as ministers. The bishop of New York, Bishop Moore, is wonderfully liberal in a real sense, not this sense people use as sneers or as boasts. But how what was maybe the most conservative church in the United States has developments of this sort is very interesting. And that shows you can’t work the abstractions, Ezra Pound, alas! If you think, Oh yes, they believe in God, and the Eucharist, and all this stuff… it’s not true. You can’t tell about people or even established churches. It’s what they do. It’s the same thing, on another level entirely, why anarchists should vote.


DF: And the political consequences of writing…


JML: I write for the sake of the poem. I realize that more and more. I don’t write for the sake of political, religious, or any other ideas, except letting the poem come to be. That’s probably art-for-art’s-sake theory, but that’s where I am.


Audience: Do you take pleasure in that? Earlier, you said, “I don’t know about my taste, it’s more just a task.” It’s like a job?


JML: Well, it’s like a job. The taste is all that’s being exercised, as one realizes. Cage’s projects allowed him to make all sorts of wonderful pieces. We both studied with Daisetz T. Suzuki, a Japanese Buddhist teacher who always insisted, “I’m not a roshi, I’m a university professor.” But he was very much a Buddhist teacher. He taught a course at Columbia, and [Cage and I], at different times, studied Zen and related poetry of Zen Buddhism. But I think of [my work] as being in some way connected with Zen, which is a fascinating thing, or any other kind of concretism, which is where I am. I don’t like certain aspects of Buddhism. I don’t like the guruism. I don’t like the hierarchy that every group, accept maybe the Unitarians and the Quakers, have — a top-down hierarchy. That’s certainly true of every Buddhist group I’ve encountered, and that’s always been a stumbling block for me, no matter how much I’m impressed by the priest or the lama. Does anybody have any connection to Buddhism or so called mystical groups?


TN: There’s a lot of interesting American Buddhism…


JML: In California, Green Gulch, there’s Norman Fischer. I have never been there except seeing it from the road. [Green Gulch] seems to be very non-hierarchical. Norman Fischer was an abbot there for a while. Far as I’ve heard, he and a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist, Tich Nhat Hanh, are both very nearly democratic, and Tich Nhat Hanh is very much engaged in actual politics.


TN: I think there’s a lot of that going on in Zen groups around the United States.


JML: I see. I don’t know very many Zen groups. Well, I think we have to vacate. I’m sorry if we sort of got off the subject. But I think being off the subject is often being on the subject.


[1] Mac Low gave a poetry reading at Dinnerware Gallery in Tucson the night before.

[2] The Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY-Buffalo. See

[3] Poetics@, ed. Joel Kuszai (Roof Books, 1999).

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