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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»

Two nibs


Clayton Eshleman in conversation with Ian Irvine, late 2007 to early 2008

Clayton Eshleman

Clayton Eshleman


Ian Irvine: Clayton, you seem to have been enormously productive these past few years, and across all areas of your public profile as a writer. There is certainly no sense that you’re slowing down either in terms of publications or public engagements/ performances. Similarly, in terms of quality it appears to me as though you’re at the height of your powers as a poet, translator and essayist. Are their any reasons for (secrets behind!) your remarkable productivity at the moment?


Clayton Eshleman: Completing Juniper Fuse in the late 1990s released a lot of energy. I also retired in 2003 and soon realized that I had been quite depressed in the classrooms at Eastern Michigan University for the past decade. I was trying to teach students how to write poetry who had read hardly anything at all and were mainly in my classes, as far as I could tell, out of curiosity. My best students were painters.

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So, getting out of the classroom made me feel like a lion let out of his cage. I completed a number of projects involving essays and poems, and the following year, when I got a contract from the University of California Press for The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo, I began translating Vallejo’s first book — the only collection of his poetry I had not previously translated — and revising all of the rest of my work, with a great deal of joy.


There is something about an accumulating focus that pays off. I had insisted on dealing with my background in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so that early life traumas were written into and through, and cleared, for the most part, by the time I began my research, in 1974, on Ice Age cave art, for the book that turned out to be Juniper Fuse.


I had also taught myself, by the mid-1990s, to write first drafts of poems and then turn them over and leave them alone for a year or so before doing any revising. I had discovered that when I attempted to revise immediately I destroyed the most original parts of a poem. I was like an animal mother turning on one of her cubs. After a year or so, I could re-approach poem drafts and inspect them as if I had not written them. This has enabled me to protect what was most original about such beginnings, and to revise on that basis.


Ian Irvine: In my first encounter with your poetry back in 1983, i.e. the poems in Hades in Manganese, your incorporation of terms drawn from the technical vocabulary of Ice Age archaeology really stood out: ‘A wheeled figure stabs and sews/ the infancy in our grain to the skin of the ground./ Wheeled wall master who mends in manganese ...’ Just how important was your engagement with the caves to your development as a poet?


Clayton Eshleman: To my knowledge, the lines you quote there, from the poem Hades in Manganese have no technical archeological language. I think those lines are imaginal improvisations off what I saw initially in the paintings on certain Ice Age cave walls. I think the “wheels” on my “wall master” came about via my attempting to engage the acrobatic drawings and engravings in such caves as Pech Merle and Lascaux. Lines swirling and superimposing evoke a wheel-like motion, or a wheeling of the mind as, like an ice-skater, the engraver or painter’s hand cuts and feints across the wall.


I became aware of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings in my late thirties, at a point when I had worked through a lot of my own personal early life, and was looking for new challenging material. The cave paintings, with no historical context, turned me from my personal life to transpersonal materials and that was both exciting and demanding. The caves and their ensouled decorations took me out of myself, and made me utilize my imagination in a way I had not done before. The cave images also humbled me as they empowered me. They also gave me a back wall, not a Greek or even Neolithic one, but a true back wall, where that truly revolutionary move from no image of the world to an image seems to have taken place.


Much of your poetry projects an aura associated with elements drawn from primal spiritual traditions. This aura is supplemented by your use of imagery etc. related to Upper Paleolithic cave art and also from more contemporary art. It strikes me that whatever happens to be unfolding in the foreground of your work is often positioned in a kind of unique communion with a vast repository of archaic and modern imagery. You seem to describe aspects of this in terms of your ‘compositional method’ in the notes to the poem ‘Spirits of the Head’ (in Reciprocal Distillations) [1] when you write that the poem arose out of ‘over a dozen pages of notes’. Could you comment on both the layered visual quality to much of your post-70s poetry and its relationship to your way of composing poems.


I think that the main benefit from research for a poet (in the case of Juniper Fuse it involved library work as well as cave crawling) is that it builds up a file of materials that cling to the underside of consciousness, and can be brought into play when, in composition, one needs a hoist to move the poem along into another dimension or sounding. I also try to open myself to what I call “lateral entries” while writing, so that the focus can be bombarded left and right by images that, at a glance, do not seem to have anything to do with the ongoing core meander, but may turn out, when viewed in terms of the whole composition, to extend the focus into a more complex, or as you put it, “layered” presentation. I am not talking about “automatic writing” here, or “free association” (whatever that is). I attempt to keep a rational “shit detector” beeping slightly above my head to the left, while I write, so that trash (clichés, sentimentalities, repeats, nonsense) is immediately phased out of the composition. Thus I’d say I work in a state of qualified spontaneity. The “layered... quality” you speak of probably refers to the conjunctions that occur in my lines, where what I am probing is intersected by materials from the research arsenal.


Another aspect of your poetry is the impression you give the reader of a kind of metaphysical/sacred (or at least ‘visionary’/ ‘magical realist’) view of our place in the cosmos. In your recent poem ‘Some of Her Names’, for example (in Reciprocal Distillations) [2], you write: ‘As a poet my cor, my heart, is under Cerridwen’. In some of your poetry you seem to express a deeply immanent, embodied spirituality informed by mythopoetic feminism and archaic spiritual traditions. Do you see your work as a poet as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ — if so, in what ways?


My poetry is not “religious,” as it is not based on a point of view involved with organized religions. I was raised as a Presbyterian Christian but most of that stuff fell away when I discovered poetry in my early twenties, as a student at Indiana University in the late 1950s. Poetry became my practice, my way of orientating myself to my life as well as to the world around me.


I disagree with Gary Snyder here who has written that a poet needs religion in order to learn how to live. While poetry, fundamentally is without moral strictures, and irritating “do thises” and “don’t do thats,” it is such an all-embracing way of being that a sense of meaningful living emerges via what one teaches oneself while writing. I should acknowledge here the work of Wilhelm Reich. I was in Reichian therapy with Dr. Sidney Handelman (who was a student of Reich’s) in NYC in the late 1960s, and at that time I read many of Reich’s books. I was extremely impressed by his ideas concerning Self-regulation and its relationship to orgastic potency (see pp. 39–41 in Companion Spider), which I saw, along with Research and Experimentation, as one of the poet’s “powers.”


It seems to me that your poetry has a great deal to say about humankind’s relationship with the animal and plant worlds. Arguably your work on Upper Paleolithic cave art uncovered a kind of pathogenic psychic ‘splitting off’ (‘fracture?’) between humankind and other non-human forms of life on earth. The poem ‘Fracture’ (1983) seems important in this respect, at one point you write: ‘... crying the oldest cry// that earth is responsible for our deaths/ that if we die collectively/ we will take the earth with us if we can.’ [3] How do you see our current global environmental crisis given the archaeological material you’ve researched over the past few decades?


The human immortality compulsion is one of the filthiest flies in our ointment. César Vallejo has written (see p. 355 of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo) that “the sorrow of men... lies in never being certain of death.” Not being certain of death but of seeking to deny death via solutions provided by organized religions, all of which I find odious (Tantrik Buddhism seems to be the least odious). I think that one reason people are cruel to each other is because acts of cruelty screen one off from one’s own mortality.


The planet suffers, as always, the human immortality hang-up which says, in effect, that life in the here and now, existent life, does not in the long run count for anything. As you may know, American Evangelicals are on record of having stated that it does not matter what we do to the earth (in fact, they say, the quicker we ruin life on the planet, the better). The same people heap abuse on Arab suicide bombers who can’t wait to get into their own form of paradise supposedly filled with sloe-eyed virgins.


There are other factors involved in human cruelty that I cannot nail down under the rubric of religion. I think human beings were cruel before there occurred what we call “religion.” For a monotheistic God to exist, you needed a social structure with a king or imperial leader. Before the Neolithic, before agriculture, there is no evidence of what we call “war;” hunter/ gatherer tribal units appear not to have been hierarchically organized. However, I do not think we can assume that such people were not cruel to each other, especially to strangers.


Becoming human, thousands of years ago, appears to have involved separating the human out of the animal continuum, a blessing and a curse if there ever was one. Cro-Magnon people seemed to have revered animals in ways that one still finds traces of in indigenous peoples today.


At the point that the connection between semen and pregnancy was discovered (very early I think) then the stage was set for our two-tiered system of women being inferior to men. The male became the “star,” the creator, with women relegated to being hot houses for his progeny.


In doing a web-search on your work (and also in reading more generalist texts on US poetry) three terms are repeatedly used to describe your core poetics: ‘deep imagist’, ‘American grotesque’ and ‘ethnopoetics’. How useful are any of these terms to describe the unique poetics you’ve developed during your life?


“Deep Image” emerged out of the evolving poetics of Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg in the mid-late 1950s. Statements on it can be found in issues of Trobar and Poems From The Floating World magazines. This term was mainly a provocation and a sighting, and not a “movement” proposal. Both poets dropped the term after a few years. Curiously, it was then picked up by Robert Bly and James Wright who simplified it and are still today, by some, thought to be its founders. I was just finding my way into poetry at the time Robert and Jerry were involved in “Deep Image” (an American crossbreeding of Surrealism, Projective Verse, and depth psychology, to my mind). I found their thoughts about it fascinating but I was never part of it in a procedural way.


“American grotesque:” I am not sure where this term comes from or exactly what it refers to in American poetry. Perhaps it is a play on Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, “grotesque realism,” elaborated in his book Rabelais and His World. If so, then I do feel it is relevant to my work. I read the Bakhtin book in 1972 when I was finishing the writing of Coils. Bakhtin confirmed in his discussion of “grotesque realism” certain strategies that in my manuscript I felt uncertain about. His vision of the open body, blended in with animals and the world, or degradation as involving both burying and sowing simultaneously, confirmed the breakthrough farewell to my “given” Indianapolis world, which I viewed as racist, sexist, and rancidly repressed.


“Ethnopoetics:” Another Rothenberg formulation which I am very sympathetic with, but am not directly a part of. I suppose you could extend my work on the deep past, and connect it with ethnopoetics, but such is an association, not a link. Back in 1966, I was suspicious of what Jerry was up to, when he was asking American poets to transform ethnographic or missionary versions of tribal poetries into a kind of Williamsesque speech-oriented American poetry. I recall sitting in the living room at Paul Blackburn’s flat on East 7th Street in NYC, which I had rented for the summer of 1966, staring at a missionary version of an African hippopotamus chant and feeling absurd. The chant, in the version given me, was not only stilted and probably filled with translation errors, but it was just one aspect of a charged, sensual rite involved with dance, color, smells, food, and the environment. So I told Jerry that I did not know how to do anything with it, and did not became involved in his initial ethnopoetic project.


Since then I have decided that in spite of my objections to the “hippopotamus chant” situation, that Rothenberg’s project was an honest and imaginative attempt at a grand inclusion of the world’s poetries relative to 20th century American poetry. In terms of the continental USA, as demonstrated in the Rothenberg and George Quasha anthology of the mid 1970s, America A Prophecy, the ethnopoetic push brought to bear on poetry written for the most part by white heterosexual males, indigenous and folk poetries heretofore excluded and confined to such categories as Folklore and Ethnography. I recall Helen Vendler’s fury in her review of America A Prophecy in The New York Times. She could not tolerate such inclusiveness. Imagine! Sitting Bull cheek to jowl with Marianne Moore!


In ‘Prologue to Origins’ contained in Vol. 1 of Poems for the Millennium the editors state that it is impossible to understand 20th century radical poetries ‘without mapping at the same time some features of the old worlds, brought newly into the present & viewed there as if for the first time ...’ It seems clear to me that in some senses your attempts to plot the origins of the imagination back to Upper Palaeolithic cave imagery represent perhaps the exemplary case of what Rothenberg and Joris were describing. If as they put it ‘the new seeks out the old’, the ‘old’ you went in search of was very old indeed. I wonder how you now view your decades long commitment to this project given that your major work on the ‘origins’ theme, Juniper Fuse has just recently been published? Do you have a sense of closure?


Juniper Fuse was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2003. The book is going into a second edition this winter.


For the most part, my work on Upper Paleolithic imagination is complete. I stay up on archeological publications in the field, because my wife Caryl and I lead a yearly tour to the painted caves of the Dordogne every June, and I want to be able to respond to clients’ questions.


In 2005, I was given permission to visit the Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, in the French Ardèche. Chauvet appears to be as important as Lascaux. I wrote a poem about the lions on the left wall of the end chamber that is included in Reciprocal Distillations.


Any Australian reader of Juniper Fuse would be immediately struck by the great silences one encounters at every point of your tentative poetry and archaeology-based reconstruction of the subjectivity of Upper Paleolithic humanity. “I wonder if she will pass through// the Aurignacian assembly./ I’d like to hear the speeches/ as she defends her ogre intelligence.” [4] Given the immense antiquity of indigenous Australian traditions, not to mention the fact that much Aboriginal rock art remains intimately connected to living spiritual and cultural traditions the question arises: how might contact with living guardians of our indigenous traditions impact on your work? I know that you’ve been interested in visiting Australia for some time now and wonder what it is you might be seeking here were you to make a visit?


As you know, I have read Barry Hill’s Broken Song, and written a six page poem, which I regard as a kind of summation piece, called “The Tjurunga.” I hope to publish this poem in an Australian magazine, and I would be very interested in the response.


I would love to visit Australia and made an attempt a couple of years ago to get enough readings and honorarium to cover a one month trip. Were I to come, I would try to arrange to see rock art sites and to have some contact with indigenous people — especially artists and writers. I keep thinking that there will come along, one of these days, the indigenous equivalent of the French poet Antonin Artaud: a man or woman who will tear away the communal residue of two hundred years of colonization and reveal the psychic force within.


I have an old friend in Los Angeles, the scholar Ronald Gottesman, who collects contemporary indigenous paintings from Australia. He has visited, in Australia, the artists he collects, several times. This has been a remarkable experience for him.


I would also like to visit Australian museums and wineries, and to meet non-indigenous artists and writers. Besides my own poetry, I would like to read my translations of César Vallejo, Antonin Artaud, and Aimé Césaire.


It would also be very interesting for me to show some slides of European Ice Age cave art to indigenous Australian artists and talk with them about their response!


You’ve had some fairly critical things to say about neo-formalist trends in US poetry (its promotion of a return to ‘traditional’ ideas of poetry). There is the sense that your critique comes out of your long engagement with traditions of experimental poetry. Is there still a ‘mainstream’ in US poetry and a clearly defined avant garde, or is the situation more complicated these days as you seem to be suggesting in your article ‘A Wind from all Compass Points’?


While the boundary between the conventional and the innovative is always hazy, I think it is definitely possible to understand that poets like Robert Kelly and Billy Collins come from two essentially differing viewpoints concerning the art of poetry. The difference is one between an alchemist (Kelly) and an entertainer (Collins).


The lineage of American poetry that interests me the most is the one that begins with Walt Whitman’s extraordinary breakthrough, nearly Cro-Magnon in its originality, and continues in the early part of the century with the work of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein, to name three. In the 1940s, Charles Olson appears, and, in the 1950s, Robert Duncan, and those two poets carry forward aspects of early 20th century innovative strategies. Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, both poets I admire a great deal, especially Crane, are outside the directions I just indicated, but they are both very special, very original, and so I don’t care what lineage they belong to. Crane is our Arthur Rimbaud. Stevens has an extraordinary mind but is also passionless and suffocatingly proper.


I do not believe that poetry is sentimental thinking done up in classy wrappings and ribbons. It is about the extending of human consciousness, making conscious the unconscious, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its finest moments overcomes the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed.


It looked as if in the late 60s, as part of the alternative culture explosion, that innovative poetry was going to move to the fore, and cease to be foregrounded, as it always has been, by poetry that reinforces the status quo. But this did not happen. The energy of the 60s suddenly crashed, in 1970, with the Manson murders and the death of Charles Olson. Two new things occurred: the university creative writing degree programs began to proliferate (there are now over 300 of them) and a new and relatively uncommunicative experimental poetry, Language Poetry, proposed itself as the new American avant-garde. Powerful poets of my generation like Robert Kelly, Gustaf Sobin, and Jerome Rothenberg were, in the eyes of the handful of critics writing about the “new,” leap-frogged by the Language Poets. The writing degree programs are not interested in poetry on an international scale, and the poets emerging from them, with jobs on their mind, have proven to be, in some cases, quite talented, but in nearly all cases, not original or commanding.


Two primary enemies of poetry are education and entertainment. The university system in creating young professor-poets out of graduate students focuses on a poetry that can be easily bricklayered into the educational curricula.


But back to your question: sure, there is always a mainstream American poetry and it is never very interesting, from my point of view. The current one “stars” such poets, for example, like Collins, Louise Gluck, Derek Walcott, Mary Oliver, and Robert Pinsky, all talented writers who have never made me change my mind about anything. Collins has replaced Allen Ginsberg as the famous populist poet. This is very sad. At his best, Ginsberg was a miraculous bridge figure, wise, available, courageous, risky, and politically savvy. Collins is none of these. Ditto Dana Goia and Ted Kooser.


Some commentators on post-WWII US poetry suggest that a crisis in language (as un-problematically ‘transparent to reality’) was at the heart of poetic postmodernism and that it gave birth to what we might call certain ‘non-linear’ poetries. Others have suggested that a more significant strand in postmodern US poetry was the attempt by many post war poets to breakdown Western ethnocentrism and expand the range of possible poetries in multiple directions. Commentators on your work seem to see it as representative of in particular the second type of poetic postmodernism. How do you place your work in relation to the larger poetic and cultural trends of the mid to late 20th century? In what sense do you feel your work gives voice to a post-modern poetics?


I have read internationally from the late 1950s on, and feel more connected in a comradely way to poets I have translated, especially Vallejo, Césaire, and Artaud, than most English-language poets. Translating creates what I call an “assimilative space,” opened up by doing many versions of a single poem, and spending hours with dictionaries, especially English-language ones. Thus Vallejo, for example, permeated my mind in a way that Pound or Williams never did.


This is not to dodge your question, but to offer it a perspective. My work does relate to that of Charles Olson’s in its concentration on the archaic. In a way, you could say I took a lead from Olson’s 1953 notes on paleo-archeology and cave art, and developed what he only touched on. I also feel a kinship with the poetry of Robert Duncan of the late 1960s on, and Denise Levertov’s political poetry from this period too. The last thirty years of Adrienne Rich’s and Gary Snyder’s poetry means a lot to me. But no one has touched me a deeply as Vallejo, whose broken lantern glass I will carry in my stomach until the day I die.


I should also mention William Blake here. His Herculean attempt to create a new realm of mythology for the West engaged me deeply when I was in Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1960s. In an effort to dynamite my blocked ego I created some of my own god-forms in a long poem called “The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration.” I was not able to complete this poem and abandoned it in the early 1970s, using some sections from it in my book Coils.


If my language turns out to be as inventive as I hope it is, if my work on the origin of image-making connects poetry to the earliest kinds of mental travel, and if some of my translations turn out to be energy deposits for poets to come, then I guess I will have contributed to a late 20th century/early 21st century extension and enrichment of consciousness.


As a follow up question: where do you feel we are currently headed in terms of the main thrust of poetic innovation?


Who is “we?” All English-language poets, including Australian and the English? The question is too general. I am not well-read in either contemporary Australian or English poetry.


In terms of American poetry, the younger awarded and widely-published mainstream poets, nearly all of whom have been through the university writing mills, appear to be involving a kind of non-sequitur Language Poetry to which is added displays of self-sensitivity. Among my younger contemporaries, I admire the writing of John Olson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Anne Waldman, Andrew Joron, and the late Tory Dent, to name a few. I mention others in the essay you have cited, “Wind From All Compass Points,” which is in Archaic Design.


One of the notions I have come to believe is that ego consciousness is inadequate to write poetry. So one thrust of poetic innovation in our times is the work of Will Alexander, whose poetry seems to be driven by a revolving bicameral psyche, and take place in a trance-awake dream state.


The challenge for American poets writing today is not only to explore their imaginations but to simultaneously hold themselves open to information and feelings about being Americans and part of a system that has been thrusting an armored nose in other peoples’ business since the end of World War II. One must pick up on what is in the air, not merely information, but the ways in which imperialism creates psycho-linguistic micro-climates that are willy-nilly tapping into all of us. Adrienne Rich’s new collection of poems, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth (which I finished a review of this morning) is one capable response to the challenge I am sketching out here.


Writing poetry is an essentially affirmative activity, but affirmation, as such, only makes uncommon sense when its feet are relentlessly being held to the fire by negation. There are social negatives as well as one’s own intrinsic dark. Cid Corman wrote a two line poem years ago which goes:


You are dead.
Speak now.


That is also part of the furnace of our challenge.


It strikes me in reading your poetry and essays that you have spent a great deal of time exploring what we might call the deep psyche or the collective psyche. A number of psychologists have also influenced your work over the years — most obviously James Hillman and Wilhelm Reich. Where do you stand these days in terms of the various depth psychologies that were developed in the 20th century? Are alternative psychologies still inspirational to you?


While in Japan, I read Joseph Campbell’s tetralogy, The Masks of God. That was my introduction to world mythology and, as an introduction, it was useful. Today I find Campbell often superficial, and much of his cross-cultural mapping suspect.


Jung is a much deeper vault, and anytime I get involved with a mythical figure or event, I always consult my Collected Works of Jung’s writings to see what he has to say. Jung’s contrast of the ego with the self, and his thinking about individuation, has fed me for years. I probably should have sat down at one point and read him straight through. But I haven’t. I have cherry picked, as they say, here and there.


I met Jim Hillman while living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, attended a number of his lectures, and at one point, in Dallas, Texas, interviewed him (the interview appeared in Antiphonal Swing, my first collection of prose, published in 1989). He is a very smart guy and a fine writer. He has been obsessed with getting “image” back into an archetypal psychology, and probing mythic cores that connect with poetry. My attention was first called to Hillman by Robert Kelly and Robert Duncan, two poets with their own vast encyclopedic files. Hillman’s book, The Dream and the Underworld, was very useful in offering me a perspective from which to regard cave art, to study it as a psychic phenomenon, and not as literalistic “hunting magic.” Hillman himself has not studied the deep past (his back wall is Greek) but he has a broad sense of the European underworld.


When I read your poem ‘Hardball’, for example (out of the collection Under World Arrest)  [5], and even some of your more recent poetry concerned with the consequences of the extension of US hegemony abroad I am struck by the link between your understanding of acts of injustice and oppression (‘personal’ and ‘structurally engineered’) and neo-psychoanalytic (especially Reichian) critiques of what we might call the fascist/authoritarian character type. It seems to me that a poetic assault on the authoritarian character type has been a long-term subtext/theme in your work. Did this arise with your early readings of Reich or did it come from somewhere else?


I wrote “Hardball” in a state of anguished fury and tried to jam words together to the point that they cracked or melted. The first half of the poem is stronger than the later half. It is very difficult to follow the first half assault with convincing reflection.


Up until I went to Peru in 1965, I was what we call “apolitical,” meaning supportive of the status quo, and thus, actually quite political, though I didn’t know it. In Lima, I had an adventure with the American State Department and that, plus my utter shock and bewilderment over the extent and depth of Peruvian poverty, made me wake up and start to regard peoples’ lives as politically contoured. At this point, Vallejo’s Poemas humanos took on greater resonance. It is a masterpiece of political awareness realized in non-agendafied innovative language.


By the time I moved to NYC in the summer of 1966, I was ready for Reich — not only the Reich of The Function of the Orgasm, but of The Mass Psychology of Fascism and People in Trouble. In 1967 I became very involved with Angry Arts, an organization of some 500 NYC-based artists and writers protesting the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam. I organized the “poetry wing” of Angry Arts. A couple dozen of us rented flatbed trucks which we parked in hostile neighborhoods in the Bronx, Harlem (where people turned out to be supportive of us) or before the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With megaphones, we read our angry poems about the horrors our government was perpetuating in Vietnam. At one point, I met with a doctor who had just come back from Vietnam with some photos of napalmed children. Ramparts magazine ran a few of his photos, but some were so ghastly they would not touch them. I ran two of the most horrible in the 3rd issue of Caterpillar magazine. Our Angry Arts poetry group had these photos blown up in poster form, and we rolled them up under our suits and went in to high mass at the arch-conservative St Patrick’s Cathedral, with the idea of standing up at a certain point, taking out our posters, holding them over our heads and marching out. Alas, we had a stool-pigeon in our midst and the plain-clothes cops hidden among the congregation were waiting for us. At the moment we stood up, they pounced. I was on the cover of The New York Times the following morning, along with another poet being hustled down the cathedral steps by a cop. We all spent the night in jail.


When I first read the poems ‘Iraqi Morgue’, ‘Dead Reckoning’, ‘One if by Land, None if by Void’, ‘From a Terrace’, ‘A Ferocious Fold’ and others in the Alchemist collection I was fascinated by the incendiary mixture/cocktail of visionary language and political directness. In ‘Autumn 2004’, for example, we come across the lines: “Dick Cheyney’s mouth/ slides on circular-saw teeth, with rakers,/ to rip out the throats of words… ” [6] Is this visionary, political directness a general feature of the US poetry scene at the moment or are you in some senses a lone voice?


While I like to think that my political, or civil, poetry bears my own stamp, I am in no sense a lone voice now. Since the beginning of the 20th century there has always been some American political poetry. However, if you look at the work of the major poets of the Pound generation, there is a sad lack of response to Nazism and the Holocaust. This absence is most embarrassing in Pound and Stevens. Charles Reznikoff, almost alone, of that generation, addressed the Holocaust in his 1975 collection, Holocaust. Of a slightly later generation, Muriel Rukeyser wrote potent political poems at many stages of her career.


The Vietnam War forced both Duncan and Levertov into a political dimension, as I have mentioned earlier. In fact, fine poems aside, their correspondence contains, at points, a remarkable meditational exchange on the role of the poet during wartime. I highly recommend The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov to Australian readers. Of this period, Michael McClure’s Poisoned Wheat is also a fiery political poem.


Today, five years into the Iraqi invasion and occupation, many American poets have been moved to express their distress over what our government is doing. The poets whose names first come to mind are Adrienne Rich, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders, and Jayne Cortez. Jerry Rothenberg wrote a powerful middle-length poem in the late 1980s, called Khurbn, documenting a trip he made to what was left of the death camps, where some of his family members perished, in Poland.

I am, however, one of the few poets to question in poetry the so-called “official version” of what happened on 9/11. A year after the attack, I wrote “The Assault,” which accuses the Bush administration of complicity in the destruction of The World Trade Centers and the attack on the Pentagon. It can be found in Archaic Design.


In your prose introduction to Alchemist you write: “American poets today, facing the possibly comprehensible mindset of neo-con conquest, amor-fati, and the need to find out for oneself, must assimilate such vectors and figure out ways to articulate them. If we cannot accomplish this, then our distinction may become that of being the first generation to have lived at a time in which the origins and the end of poetry became discernable.” [7] I wonder, have the recent crises (from the perspective of an outsider admittedly) in US relations with other nations, and within the US itself helped birth a new ‘poetic’ of historical significance among contemporary US poets — i.e. one capable of addressing the destructive side to the Neo-Con ‘vectors’ you allude to?


Unless one is willing to spend hours daily visiting websites, watching television, and reading newspapers and books, it is very, very difficult to gain a comprehensive sense of what is actually going on, as far as our government, at home and overseas, is concerned. It is probably harder now, than ever before, because of the Bush administration’s secrecy and stealth. I give the news about two hours daily, and I know that I am aware of only a fraction of what is actually going on. The amount of governmental dissimulation makes me question anything I read or hear and such subsequently makes it difficult to be bold in working with such matters in my writing.


It is also an up-hill battle to, as they say, wrap one’s head around the true facts of what our government is up to because of the self-censorship that is built into all of us. We have been educated for decades that America is a democracy that supports freedom everywhere. We know this is false — have known it for years — yet the propaganda entangles itself with the American landscape which, with jarring industrial and urban exceptions, is still without the conflicts taking place in so many countries. Speaking for my own generation, I believe there is an attitude in me concerning America that was fashioned during the Second World War (when I was a child). Younger American writers may be less imbued with such formations. I would be foolish not to recognize these traps and make myself aware of their subconscious and conscious force.


Given your long history promoting, translating etc. poets living and working under socially repressive regimes — as evidenced by the recent up-date to your 1988 anthology of translations, Conductors of the Pit (2005) — what advice would you give to poets and other writers/ intellectuals on the receiving end of what Pen International has described as an increasingly global attack on freedom of expression — often under the banner of defending the public against ‘terror’?


As an American writer who can still write and publish what he wants to, I don’t think I am in a position to give advice to writers in places like Burma, Russia, and China. I met the Chinese poet Bei Dao in 1993 and have since watched what he has been up against with the Chinese state. And Bei Dao is hardly what is generally called a “dissident writer.”


Here, for the most part, people do not pay attention to what writers say about the state of the union. Of course there are exceptions: immediately after 9/11, Susan Sontag, in The New Yorker magazine, said, in effect, “what did we expect? We have been provoking those people for decades.” While she was harshly criticized (I think mainly for not merely expressing sympathy with the victims’ families), nothing happened to her.


Earlier this year a book containing your translations of the complete poems of Vallejo was published. [8] His work has haunted you — often in an almost literal sense - for many decades and you’ve written extensively, over the years, about the role he’s played in your development as a poet and writer generally. I’m struck, in particular, by the idea you have that becoming a poet involves, at times, subordinating one’s ego and entering into an apprenticeship that involves giving something back to poetry/literature. Could you discuss how you see your long commitment to translation, editing and teaching at this point in your life?


I have translated off and on, sometimes full-time for months, ever since I was a student at Indiana University in the late 1950s. I have only translated poets whose work I thought had something to teach me (I have translated no prose at all). And I have always been aware that in doing so I have, on one level, been shoveling some of their coal into my own furnaces. That is, in moving Spanish or French into English I was creating half-way houses, texts that were no longer “theirs,” but also texts that were not truly my own, texts that I could influence myself with — in contrast to being influenced by poets who write in English. So in the kind of translating I do, there is a trade off: I create what I believe is an accurate translation that absolutely respects the integrity of the original. I can offer this text to a monolingual American reader and assure him or her that what I am offering does not misrepresent the original. In this way, I have provided a useful service, in exchange for which, while translating, I have planted in my mind many seed-ideas and sensations that may be of use in work-to-come. There is a community involved here, of the living and the dead, and it includes as well the unknown reader/poet who may take some charge from my translations and build it into his or her own work. I see this as part of the readership I would like to think I am in touch with.


At this point, I do not have any new translation projects. I may edit a larger edition of my Artaud translation (Watchfiends & Rack Screams, 1995), but that will not involve doing any new translations to speak of. My co-translator Annette Smith and I were very close to a “Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire” in the early 90s, having translated all but some seventy or so pages of his poetry. There is a possibility that we can complete this work in the near future.


I don’t plan to edit or teach anymore — other than in brief residencies, which I am happy to do. Although you do not bring her up in any of your questions, I do want to mention that since around 1973 Caryl has worked as my companion-editor, and has read all of my work, usually in an early stage, commenting astutely often on what she finds there. I think I have improved as a writer for one reason because of her honest and intelligent commentary.


In viewing your recent output as a poet, translator and essayist it strikes me that you seem to have completed or wound up at least three long-term projects — winding up Sulfur, publishing a definitive translation of Vallejo’s poetry and publishing your theories regarding Upper Paleolithic cave art and the origins of the imagination. However, these endings seem to have birthed new and fascinating projects — almost by some law of energy transference. Could you talk about your up-coming projects and answer the question: is one lifetime enough for a poet such as yourself?


Black Widow Press will publish The Grindstone of Rapport, in 2008, which is a 600 page “Eshleman Reader,” with a selection from the past 40 years of poetry, prose, and translations. I spent a couple of months editing it this summer.


I also have a longish (sixty-five pages) work in poetry and prose on Hieronymus Bosch’s “the Garden of Earthly Delights” that I researched at The Rockefeller Study Center in northern Italy in 2004, and completed here in Michigan just this year. This summer I worked a manuscript of short poems called “Anticline,” around seventy pages, some forty pieces. I think that I will add the Bosch poem, called “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” to “Anticline,” for a book to be published in 2010.


I have quite a bit of unpublished early writing that I don’t know what to do with. It is not up to my current standards, so I am hesitant to try to have it published. There is, for example, a journal with over three hundred entries, called “Heaven Bands,” that was written between 1968 and 1972. It is one of those workbook projects, full of dead ends, clumsy configurings, and statements I no longer agree with! I think it would be impossible to rewrite it and end up with more than a fraction of it.


I would like to go very deep into the ocean, really deep, down into one of those trenches. Were I to luck out, and someone offer me a ride, I would love to try to write what I see and experience in the abyss. An oceanic descent would be an extension of my work on the European Upper Paleolithic, as would a visit to some Australian rock art sites. After the European cave paintings, on the basis of studying photographs, I think indigenous Australian rock art is the most imaginative in the world.


Are we likely to see you ‘down-under’ in the near future?


If I am invited in such a way that my and Caryl’s expenses could be covered for a month, I would love to come.


[1] “A Note on the Poem ‘Spirits of the Head’” in Reciprocal Distillations, pp.5–11, 2007.

[2] ‘Some of Her Names’, in Reciprocal Distillations, pp.30–33, 2007.

[3] ‘Fracture’, in Fracture, p.37, 1983,

[4] From ‘The Aurignacians Have the Floor’, p.25 of Juniper Fuse (2003) and Hades in Manganese p.88, 1981.

[5] ‘Hardball’ can be found in Under World Arrest p. 132, 1994.

[6] ‘Autumn 2004’ can be found in An Alchemist With One Eye on Fire, p.49, 2006.

[7] ibid, pp.6–7.

[8]César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry (2006).

Ian Irvine

Ian Irvine

Ian Irvine is an Australian-based poet and writer. His work has featured in many print and online publications, both in Australian and overseas, including the anthologies Best Australian Poems (Black Inc. Books, 2005), Agenda ‘Contemporary Australian Poets’ (2005), and Fire (UK) ‘Special International Edition’ (2008). He is the author of three books and holds a PhD for his work on the phenomena of chronic ennui and alienation. He currently coordinates a writing program and has been working to develop a unique transpersonal-relational poetic. He first encountered the work of Clayton Eshleman in an Auckland bookshop in 1983.

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