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It is copyright © Clayton Eshleman and Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/36/iv-eshleman-chernoff-hoover.shtml
In this issue of Jacket you can read: Clayton Eshleman in conversation with Ian Irvine (late 2007-early 2008)
Clayton Eshleman in conversation with Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff: A Dialogue;
Clayton Eshleman: Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe: On Bosch’s «Garden of Earthly Delights»
in conversation with
Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff:
Sulfur and New American Writing: A Dialogue
PH: Clayton, you’ve edited a literary magazine for most of your life as a poet, first Caterpillar and then Sulfur. What caused you to found the magazines when you did, and why did you decide to suspend publication of those influential magazines when you did?
CE: I started doing Caterpillar Books after I moved to NYC in 1966 and discovered that I could cover more ground with a literary journal than with undistributable chapbooks. So, Caterpillar, initially subtitled “A Gathering of the Tribes” (which I soon dropped), began in the fall of 1967. I wanted to do a magazine based on Cid Corman’s origin, but one that was bigger and more burly, taking on more “fronts” than Cid had engaged. I sensed, correctly I still feel, that I was part of a new generation “coming on board” at the time, and there was no magazine around that was going to let us gather and do our thing in one (hopefully) noisy space.
I stopped Caterpillar with its 20th issue, in the spring of 1973, then living in Los Angeles. Caryl and I were preparing to go to France for a year.
As for Sulfur: in 1981 I was a poet-in-residence at Cal Tech, in Pasadena, and once more, there was nothing around that was up to my vision of what I thought a literary journal could be. I recalled that Charles Olson had sold the idea of The Black Mountain Review to the administration at Black Mountain College as a promotional flag for the school, so I approached Roger Noll, an economist who was the Head of the Humanities Division at Cal Tech, and suggested that a literary journal would tell the world that Humanities were alive and well at Cal Tech. It was a little far-fetched (as was Olson’s proposal) but Roger liked the idea, and found money to start and underwrite Sulfur for five years.
In contrast to Caterpillar (20 issues in 6 years), Sulfur had a long life for a non-institutionally-based magazine — 46 issues, 19 years (I lost Cal Tech’s backing in Sulfur’s third year, something we can discuss if you like). Caryl and I moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1986, when I became a Professor in the English Department at Eastern Michigan University. EMU gave us a little support, and we edited issues 17 through 46 there, coming out bi-annually most of the time. By the late 1990s, we had realized everything that Sulfur had set out to do, and we were ready to do other things. We had also lost our National Endowment for the Arts grants (of which we had 13), so that made doing the magazine more difficult, including no longer paying contributors. So we stopped it with a big double issue, #45/46, in 2000.
Paul and Maxine: Tell us about the origin of OINK!, and how it evolved (if that is the correct word) into New American Writing. In what ways is NAW a different kind of magazine than OINK! (one of the great all-time literary journal titles, in my opinion)?
PH: James Leonard, Dean Faulwell, and I founded OINK! as a quarterly in 1971 when we were graduate students in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois Chicago. We had already been meeting at Dean’s Belden Street apartment every Monday evening to discuss our poetry; those meetings turned into editing sessions. The title and focus was influenced by Dada, Surrealism, and the New York School. The first issue contained our own work and a satire Dean wrote on the poetry of Robert Bly. We were great admirers of Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire and the Berrigan-Padgett collaboration Bean Spasms. Dean was a lecturer in the German Department at UIC and older than Jim and I, so he was our leader. We produced three issues quickly. Then Dean moved to California, where he founded the short-lived BOINK! Jim dropped out following number six, and Maxine and I produced 13 more issues of OINK! In 1985, we ceased publication, only to revive the magazine as New American Writing in 1986. The final issues of OINK! had largely the same poetics as the first issues of NAW, and we consider it to be the same magazine with a different title. Its 30th anniversary was celebrated at the National Arts Club in NYC in 2001. I was surprised to note recently how many poets from the first issue of NAW still appear in its pages. However, it’s fair to say that OINK! had more of a New York School emphasis and that since the mid-80s NAW has published a balance of innovative work, with New York School and language poetry among the major threads.
As we were preparing OINK! double issue 9/10 (1974), Jim Ramholz gave us the following information, which we placed on the final page: “OINK is the Romanized spelling of ונל (auinak), meaning ‘thine eyes,’ which is found in Isaiah 1, 20: “Thine eyes shall behold Jerusalem at peace, even thy habitation. The ‘peaceful habitation’ refers to the Sephira on the Tree of Life called Kether, the Ancient One, who is hidden and incomprehensible.” All true, according to an online search. Odd coincidence that, in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, the words porcine and porcelain relate to the whiteness of flour and of a pre-Christian female deity. Of course, we knew nothing of this when we named the magazine. We had intended to be as arbitrary and undignified as possible!
MC: We stopped OINK! for a year because we were having twins, but we never wanted to end it. Although it was quite a departure, we felt that we wanted to make a bigger claim with the new title. With the appearance of the first issue, distributors who hadn’t represented us before suddenly took us up. In both magazines, we have published well-established and emerging writers. Also, NAW has come to have more of a focus on translation.
Tell us how you put together an issue of Sulfur with regard to your own editorial focus and how you selected and collaborated with contributing editors, for instance in your intellectually robust back pages.
CE: Initially, Robert Kelly and I were going to co-edit Sulfur. We edited the first issue together, but then Kelly disappeared. By the third issue, Michael Palmer, Jerry Rothenberg (only for several issues), and Eliot Weinberger had become Contributing Editors; they could include anything of their own they wanted to, as well as solicit work. Slowly a Correspondents group was assembled, and with #20 Rachel Blau DuPlessis also became a Contributing Editor. Correspondents were welcome to contribute, but were not asked to solicit work. The editorial shape of the magazine constantly shifted through the first twenty-five issues (for a while John Yau was the art editor listed as a Contributing Editor). When I had a piece that I did not know what to do with — to accept it or reject it — I sent it to three other editors (including Correspondents) and let them vote it in or out. DuPlessis, Palmer and Weinberger were all terrific to work with — each made a substantial contribution to the magazine as contributors as well as editors. I never held material over. Everything that was accepted went into the next issue. I tried hard to get a few unknown people into each issue. Especially with Rachel and Eliot I worked hard to include archival material (Pound, Williams, Crane, Olson, Dahlberg, Leiris, Artaud, Oppen, Loy, for example). It still amazes me to what extent each issue came together and usually cohered. This was remarkable because many of the editors and correspondents had differing aesthetic viewpoints (an argumentative discussion of Language Poetry by Weinberger, Charles Bernstein and Michael Davidson took place in #20).
The Commentary section (roughly 40 pages per issue) was by far the most complicated aspect of the magazine to edit. Since we paid very modest contributor fees, it was hard to assign books for review unless someone took it on him or herself to do a review, meaning it was very hard to place books objectively with a reviewer. Occasionally, I asked people to take charge of the Commentary section (such as Dennis Phillips and Jed Rasula) and to give me X number of pages of reviews for a particular issue. The Commentary part of Sulfur, while dynamic, was uneven, and of varying quality. In spite of such complications, I kept it going because I feel that a literary journal without commentary is more of an anthology than a journal. I think a journal must constantly express, and test, its viewpoint, and praise especially accomplished books that otherwise might not even get reviewed, and also include polemic e.g., Weinberger’s sardonic review of Frederick Seidel in #1, Jerry Rothenberg’s blast at Harold Bloom in #3 or Gerrit Lansing and Don Byrd’s negative evaluation of the Tom Clark Charles Olson biography in #29. In the late 1990s, I asked Dan Featherston, Roberto Tejada, and John Olson to provide Sulfur with several short reviews each for each issue. We chose books together. While this worked out pretty well, I think earlier Commentary sections in their own ways were just as interesting.
Having briefly made a case for reviews in a literary journal, I wonder on what basis you have not included them in New American Writing. I assume you disagree with my position in this regard, and I wonder why.
MC: At times we have published special sections containing interviews and considerations of writers — #19 has a Clark Coolidge feature that was a double issue with John Tranter’s online magazine, Jacket (issue 13, April 2001) and #25 a Nate Mackey section — but we’ve largely considered it our aim to publish the work and let the discussion of the work enact itself outside of the issue. We have always looked at the Commentary pages of Sulfur with great interest but have decided to let the poems in OINK! and New American Writing seek their own judgment. Also, given that Paul and I have chosen to do all aspects of the magazine ourselves (aside from rare but occasional help from an intern), it seemed that our focus on poetry was adequately large for us to pursue without engaging others for reviews, comments, etc.
PH: OINK! and New American Writing have never published a review, not once in 36 years, and perhaps only three of our issues, in the 1980s, contained authors’ notes, largely because Ned Rorem, a contributor of that time, convinced us to include them. The leanness of the NAW format was probably inherited from OINK!, which for many issues was that of a 32-page chapbook (or as many 8.5 x 14 sheets as were needed to print “two-up,” wrap with a cover of the same size, bind with a special long-armed stapler, fold in the center, and crease the spine with the side of a coffee cup). We have published essays and interviews. We enjoy reading reviews in other magazines. But the machinery and politics of the review section, and authors’ notes as well, seemed a distraction. In this way, we were consonant with the Beat attitude that an intellectual stance was at odds with the real work of writing. The Beats and New York School only rarely produced “thought pieces” on their poetics; it was the Projectivist, or Pound-Olson, tradition that very effectively did so. Maxine has written reviews of fiction on assignment for the New York Times Book Review, as I did briefly for the Chicago Tribune, and I began to write essays in earnest in the 1990s (Fables of Representation: Essays, 2004), but we have largely avoided writing reviews. All by way of saying that we came to commentary late, for me with the enormous work required of preparing the anthology Postmodern American Poetry (1994).
Clayton, your vision as a poet is distinctive, as is the character of Sulfur, the magazine of yours that we know best. Can you elaborate on the evolution of your vision as a poet and translator as it relates to your vision as an editor?
CE: Could you focus this question more specifically? Are you referring to vision as a viewpoint, or in the sense that one would say: William Blake is a visionary? I think you may mean the latter in regard to my own poetry but probably the former in regard to Sulfur. If you can tell me what is in back of your question, I will have a go at it.
PH: You do have aspects of the visionary in your work, the “companion spider,” the caves, and so on, but I meant the relationship of your vision as a poet (or kinship in poetics) with those you have included in Sulfur — Césaire, Artaud, Vallejo, Celan, Will Alexander, Jerome Rothenberg, James Hillman, and so on. But I would love to hear your response to both sides of the question.
CE: In both of my magazines I have tried to address the range of my interests in art and in literature. There is virtually no fiction in either Caterpillar or Sulfur because I have read very little fiction since leaving Indiana University in 1961. I’d like to think that my magazines have backed not only poetries that are compatible with my own but poetries that argue with my own. Ron Silliman, at the beginning of his career, appeared in Caterpillar in 1969 and I imagine that a strong 300 page selection of Language Poetry could be assembled from the pages of Sulfur. While I do not feel much connection between Language Poetry and my own work, I recognize that Language Poetry raises pertinent questions about what poetry is and can be today; therefore, it was important to include some of it. Ditto a poem by Jorie Graham, which she sent in unsolicited. I am not much of a fan of Graham’s work at large, but “Le Manteau de Pascal” is a terrific poem and I was happy to include it. On the other hand, I rejected one of Donald Hall’s baseball poems because I did not think it contributed to the complex mix I tried to achieve in each issue. By running a lot of archival materials, Sulfur tried to keep a sense of many generations still being pertinent to poetry today. In fact, I think someone should apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship to investigate and make a check-list of the archival holdings in university special collection libraries. I suspect that some of the most interesting writing of the 20th century is to be found there.
I see the poet as a figure who, while based in his own poetry, extends his vision into translation, prose commentary, and into long research projects (mine being translating César Vallejo and researching the origin of image-making via the Ice Age painted caves). To some extent these concerns are borne out in Sulfur. I published writers like James Hillman and N.O. Brown because I feel that their visionary scholarship is absolutely pertinent to what poetry can be. Both men have given me ideas to think with and against. I think Will Alexander was hardly published when we met in 1981. Along with Linh Dinh, Will is one of the most important of the magazine’s “discoveries,” in my opinion the most extraordinary American poet to appear in the past several decades.
I have to say here too that I had no direct control over at least 40% of the material that went into Sulfur. So while I feel that the magazine backed up my vision of what is valuable in contemporary poetry, there was a lot of action there that contested or even contradicted it. I like to think of poetry as a simultaneous synthesis and melee and to some extent my magazines have supported this notion.
I found this question difficult to respond to, so I am going to turn it back on both of you! Tell us how your magazines have supported or argued with your visions of what your own work should be.
MC: I presume that all editors move within their own interests as they select poems for their magazines. Over the years our magazine has been consonant with our interests but, for example, in the years I wrote only fiction, roughly from 1990—1999, NAW remained a poetry journal. Even while I was a fiction writer, I identified myself more closely with my first literary incarnation as a poet. Also, it seemed that with an actual market for it, fiction could do fine without us, but there was a need in poetry for a magazine such as ours that published different aspects of the innovative in poetry. Because Chicago, the location for our journal until 1994, was outside the major centers of poetry on both coasts, local grievances were unimportant to us as we looked for important poetry of various “schools.” Once, to the dismay of both, we published Carl Rakosi next to Barrett Watten. Neither man was fond of the other at the moment, but we wanted to enact conversations in our pages that went beyond the local. That, I think, should be a goal of editing, to include more voices and be open to possibilities.
Another interest that developed in us first as editors and now as practitioners was for translation. This began with OINK! 12, which had a section on class-conscious Latin-American poetry. It contained some wonderful Cuban poets, among others. In more recent years we’ve done major Brazilian, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese sections. To some degree these special features have paralleled our travels as writers. More recently, as Paul has come to co-translate Vietnamese poetry and Paul and I together the poems of Hölderlin, we’ve turned a keener eye to translation in general.
PH: I looked up Linh Dinh in our files. We first published him in New American Writing 16 (1998), a story.
The “vision” question is difficult, because, as in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the measurement of a phenomenon changes and risks freezing it. Some years ago I sent some poems to Conjunctions, and Brad Morrow sent me a note of rejection saying that his publication was of the Olson/Duncan line of practice, whereas my own was of the Pound/Williams. That’s cutting it fairly fine, but we can sense the distinction — my work had a “voiced” quality that was too close to Williams for his comfort. The best magazines have a distinct poetics, or taste, but they should feel as if they are always opening rather than closing. Poets and editors should always be in discovery mode.
As with Caterpillar and Sulfur, there are no dicta nailed to our magazine’s doors. An early issue of OINK! contained an Oulipoesque poem by Bruce Andrews; another, published in 1974, contained the following poem by Billy Collins — yes, the Billy Collins, then in the process of founding a journal called The Mid-Atlantic Review:
It’s a pingpong ball
Each word white spherical
(dropping your paddle
This is a different Billy Collins than the one writing today. His humor and conceptual framings now float on more sustained, languorous rhetoric.
To attack the question directly, our earliest influences were Surrealist poetry and New York School adaptations of it. We had an attraction to prose poems, especially the violent humor and fictiveness of Michaux and Edson. Michaux’s, “My King,” in which the narrator keeps his King under his bed, now and then slapping his face until the snot flies, was, along with the paintings of Chicago Imagist Roger Brown, the tapestry we stood in front of as poets and editors. Those interests may be hard to locate in our own most recent works of poetry, as well as in New American Writing, but the “deep play” of mind that drew us to poetry in the first place is still there. The most recent issue of our magazine, no. 25, opens with the poem “Remorse” by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Terese Coe. The first stanza is: “I have committed the vilest of any crime / a man can commit. I have not been happy. / Let the ruthless glaciers of forgetfulness / come wrench me out and lose me.” No king is shoved beneath the bed. But there’s a backlit melodrama of light and shadow figures that’s our idea of a good time in language. The work of Vallejo has so much linguistic drama, it’s like standing on a carpet of lightning strikes.
Clayton, what other emerging poets than Linh Dinh and Will Alexander are you proud of having brought forward? Secondly, as you now reflect upon Caterpillar and Sulfur, in what ways did they contribute to changing American poetry?
CE: Before responding to your question, Paul, I want to comment on something that Maxine brought up: the juxtaposition of Rakosi and Watten. That’s smart, in my opinion, and an editorial move I first became aware of in the 1960s reading Henry Rago’s editing of Poetry (Chicago), where I once discovered a Charles Olson facing James Wright. Rago was one of the finest eclectic editors of any American poetry journal, and after he left Poetry (Chicago), it ceased to be, and has never again become, interesting. I mentioned publishing Jorie Graham’s poem earlier; in Sulfur we published a number of poets most people would not associate with the magazine: for example, C.K. Williams, Charles Simic (a very interesting poem dedicated to Clark Coolidge), and Hayden Carruth. As you two know, keen editing means keeping open to anything of interest that comes in, regardless of who it is by. Anyone can exceed himself, and it is one of our responsibilities to not edit on the basis of names.
Your mentioning of Watten’s being upset over appearing next to Rakosi reminds me of an odd incident: when Jed Rasula was editing the Commentary section for Sulfur, he was also working on a PhD at UC-Santa Cruz, which was taking up most of his time. At the end of one summer, he sent me around twenty contributions for the next issue, commenting that he had probably accepted some pieces that should not be published and that I was free to edit them as I saw fit. This put me in a situation I didn’t much care for, but I still had to deal with it. One piece was a twenty page lecture by Barrett Watten. Watten was apparently discussing one of his own books, but he did not mention its title, and I found the piece utterly incomprehensible, so I returned it to him, with a brief explanation as to why we would not run it. Two weeks later, I heard not from Barrett but from his friend Lyn Hejinian whose letter began: “Sulfur is now the enemy.”
Paul, you ask what emerging poets I am proud to have brought forth. I don’t know in most cases whether these were first publications, but Caterpillar was at least one of the first magazines to publish David Henderson, Hugh Seidman, Frank Samperi, Carl Thayler, Max Douglas, Thomas Meyer, Charles Stein, Ron Silliman, Richard Grossman, Michael Burkard, Rae Armantrout, and Lauren Shakely. With Sulfur and its 46 issues, the list is much longer. I am particularly proud of being one of the first, at least, to have published Mary Caponegro, Gerald Burns, Andrew Robbins, Aaron Shurin, August Kleinzahler, Craig Watson, Diane Ward, Martha Ronk (at the time: Martha Lifson), Rafael Lorenzo, Robert Fitterman, Andrew Schelling, Geoffrey O’Brien, Norma Cole, Chris Cheek, Ammiel Alcalay, Susan Wheeler, Roberto Tejada, Daniel Tiffany, Karen Kelley (her “The Red Snake We Woke” in #26 was one of those great blasts out of the blue editors live for), Phillip Foss, Myung Mi Kim, George Kalamaras, Martine Bellen, Pam Rehm, Dan Featherston, Heather Ramsdale, Wang Ping, Garrett Kalleberg, Tina Rotenberg, and Dan Beachy Quick (at the time: Dan Quick).
Here it makes sense to include, for young writers reading this, the following: occasionally a young would-be contributor to Sulfur included with submission a cover letter in which she briefly discussed what she had read in the magazine that had moved her to want to contribute to it. Such letters got my attention, and made me read the accompanying submission more carefully than I probably would have had it come in with no cover letter or a generic one.
Here is another story: I accepted some new poems by John Ashbery for #19 shortly after his Selected Poems appeared. Sven Birkerts, who had already written a couple of book reviews for Sulfur, asked if he could review the Ashbery book, so I sent it to him. The review he submitted was a total rejection of Ashbery’s work. Absolutely negative. I suddenly realized I was going to be printing new Ashbery poems in an issue in which a review dismissed all of his poetry! The easy way out was to reject the Birkerts review, but since I had approved it in the first place, to do so smelled of censorship. So I was in a pickle. I then decided to send the review to four Sulfur editors (Palmer, Rasula, Coolidge and Weinberger). I was pretty sure they would all come down on it (they did, with even greater ferocity than I anticipated!) and that by running their responses along with the Birkerts review (and Ashbery’s poems), I would have handled the situation as well as it could be handled under the circumstances. I wrote a little note explaining what I had done. The results: Birkerts wrote me that he felt like Saint Sebastian filled with Sulfur arrows, and, understandably, he never contributed again. Ashbery, who I had thought would have been at least amused, was, in fact, infuriated at me for having run the Birkerts period, and has never spoken to me again.
MC: People and their feelings! We’ve had moments of difficulty with authors, but mainly they’re personal and often petty: poet X had six pages but you gave me only two, and so on. Or, “Now that I’ve published you, of course you want these poems for NAW.” Like you, we take pride in publishing many writers early or even at the complete beginning of their careers, including a few you name: Susan Wheeler, Elizabeth Robinson, Linh Dinh, Noelle Kocot, Elaine Equi, Connie Deanovich, Mary Jo Bang, (the last three were Paul’s students), as well as early Bruce Andrews (early OINK! issue, David Sedaris, C.S. Giscombe, and many others. Certain people we were delighted to find who were already published but new to us such as Caroline Knox, John Olson, Aaron Shurin, Andrew Joron, and Phillip Foss. Our consistency is also notable. Many poets included in OINK are also found in all stages of NAW, again and again. Those people are too numerous to name. One person I am delighted to have published is Tymoteusz Karpowicz, a Polish poet now in his eighties, who emigrated in the 1970s under huge pressure from the Polish government, who hadn’t published his work for 17 years because of its “surrealist” and “experimental” tendencies. When he wanted to leave Poland, he had to requisition, in triplicate, every one of his 7,000 books to leave the country. Some of them, seen as “national treasures,” were not allowed to leave the country and became property of the state. He’s one of the most inventive and playful poets I can name, and I wish he had received more of the post-1989 attention that has gone to Eastern European poets, because he is far more advanced than most of them. We published him in OINK! before he moved to Chicago to teach Slavic languages at University of Illinois Chicago, and produced a special section on his work in a recent NAW. He had lost an arm in the Polish resistance and had a prosthetic one with a black glove on its hand — no kidding. Everyone should make it a point to find his work. He deserves a major book of his wonderful, complex poems.
PH: I would add Sharon Mesmer to Maxine’s list of young poets whom we were the first to publish. She appeared in OINK! 19, 1985, with its Joe Brainard cover, along with the poets and writers Ned Rorem, James Laughlin, Jacques Prevert, Philippe Soupault, Barrett Watten, Carl Rakosi, John Godfrey, Ron Padgett, Marjorie Welish, Maureen Owen, Bob Perelman, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, William Corbett, Kenward Elmslie, Geoffrey Young, Tony Towle, August Kleinzahler, and Carla Harryman. We were among the first to publish Peter Gizzi and Kimberly Lyons, and we helped to introduce John Tranter, as well as a number of foreign poets, by means of Tranter’s Australian supplement in NAW 4 (1988), Ric Caddel’s “26 New British Poets” in issue 8/9 (1991), Wang Ping’s translations of contemporary Chinese poetry in NAW 21 (2004), Todd Swift’s extensive feature of young Canadian poets in issue 23, and Nguyen Do’s “Nine Contemporary Vietnamese Poets” in the same 2005 issue.
Regarding consistency, we have long been identified with New York School practice, but language poetry has been a large part of the discussion, too. The first issue of New American Writing, 1987, contained the work of Alice Notley, Bill Berkson, Barbara Guest, Ann Lauterbach, Marjorie Welish, Kenward Elmslie, August Kleinzahler, Caroline Knox, Geoffrey O’Brien, Rosmarie Waldrop, Charles Bernstein, Nick Piombino, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Stephen Ratcliffe, and William Fuller, who for years had the distinction of being Chicago’s only language poet. In fact, he should be added to our list of discoveries. The New York School & language poetry “dialogue” is a major part of what New American Writing has offered; it’s a particular signature of the innovative that has, in a sense, “come true.” We had nothing to do with the invention of either approach, but our magazine was one of the major forums (Sulfur and Conjunctions were others) where the two forces jostled for attention, and in that jostling revealed their relation more than their difference. That is, the inherently expressive nature of language poetry, both as personal expression (Lyn Hejinian) and poetics (Charles Bernstein), was in dialogue and competition with the inherently self-conscious, ironic, and abstract aspects of the New York School, as seen especially in Ashbery and Guest and their heirs. In that dialectic, the dark side of the mirror conversed with the reflective.
Clayton, it has been announced that your Vallejo translation, The Complete Poetry, is on the international shortlist for Canada’s distinguished Griffin Prize. Congratulations. Also, the great poet Aimé Césaire, whom you translated, recently died at age 96. This seems the proper occasion to ask to reflect on your larger experience as poet, editor, and translator.
CE: To write the unsayable, and to translate the untranslatable — aren’t these the two grand challenges for any poet or poet / translator? As a student at Indiana University in the late 1950s, I was simultaneously involved in working on poems, starting to translate Neruda and Vallejo, and editing the English Department literary journal Folio. I have practiced that triadic discipline ever since. I have found that working on poems is mainly working on self, the subconscious as warp, consciousness as woof, while keeping self positioned in the actual world. Much of what I have learned about language itself has come through translation. I have spent much more time with my 2nd Edition Webster’s International Dictionary (the best one I know of) as a translator than as a poet. And translation has constantly over the years swept me away from myself, locking me to the minds of those poets I have translated and, by doing so, have challenged and deepened my own base. Editing Caterpillar and Sulfur enabled me to construct an ongoing active mosaic of poetry and translation, and how the contemporary might mesh with archival materials, artwork and commentary. Over the years, this triadic discipline has operated in a fugal manner, one “theme” relentlessly intersecting another. I have tried hard to keep poetry as the core activity, seeing translating and editing as extensions of it. I guess the concern here is to not finally register as a “jack of all trades,” or a “man of letters.” To be a mental traveler, in a combined Blakean and shamanistic sense — that has been my lifelong goal.
Maxine Chernoff is the author of six fiction collections and ten poetry books, including World and Evolution of the Bridge, both from Salt, and Among the Names and The Turning, both from Apogee. Chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, she co-edits New American Writing. With Paul Hoover, she has translated The Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, to be published by Omnidawn.
Clayton Eshleman edited Caterpillar and Sulfur magazines and over a long and distinguished career has contributed poetry, essays, reviews and translations to more than 400 periodicals and has published dozens of books of poetry and prose. He received a National Book Award in 1979 for his translation with José Rubia Barcia of The Complete Posthumous Poetry of César Vallejo, and has translated writings by such authors as Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, Michel Deguy, Bernard Bador, and Arthur Rimbaud. His most recent books are An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire (Black Widow Press, 2006), Reciprocal Distillations (with an Introduction by Roberto Tejada, Hot Whiskey Press, 2007), and The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo (with a Foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa, University of California Press, 2007), which received the Landon Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets. In October, 2008, Black Widow Press will publish an Eshleman Reader, The Grindstone of Rapport, a 600-page selection of poetry, prose, and translations. Clayton is noted for his long and detailed investigation of Paleolithic art, and he and his wife Caryl continue to lead a tour to the Ice Age painted caves of southwestern France each June, sponsored by the Ringling School of Art and Design, Sarasota.
Paul Hoover’s most recent poetry collections are Poems in Spanish (2005) and Edge and Fold (2006). Les Figues Press will publish his book Sonnet 56 in 2009. With Maxine Chernoff, he has edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin and, with Nguyen Do, the anthology Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry. He has also edited the anthology Postmodern American Poetry.