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Photo: Nathaniel Tarn, 1979. Photo Janet Rodney.
Back to the Nathaniel Tarn feature Contents list
Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36
This interview first appeared in Zoland Poetry, an Annual of Poems, Translations & Interviews, No.3, edited by Roland Pease, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2009. Jacket is grateful for permission to republish.
DB: You recently [November 2007] traveled to New York City. Can you tell me what poetry business took you there? A talk or lecture? Reading or research?
NT: Janet [Rodney] had a reading with Talisman Press and I went with her to that. The main issue was to talk with New Directions about a new book which they will do in the Fall of 2008. I love being some three days in NYC, after which I need to get back to light and space. Mainly, this time, we saw friends. I often travel for art. We did get to the Age of Rembrandt at the Met, the Latin American Abstracts Art show at the Grey (NYU), where I thought the Venezuelans came off best, and the new Rubin Himalayan Museum in the old downtown Barney’s which is splendid and whose collection I had seen before the Museum was built.
As far as I have always been concerned, all travel is for-poetry. Two meanings to this I guess: first the hope that poems may occur and here I find that movement is almost always helpful. Second the biz side: readings, conferences, etc. Frankly, I usually read well but I no longer need to hear the sound of my own voice per se — and thus travel in the hope of selling a few books. Co-relatively, I now go to extremely few readings by others. Leaving friends apart, I only go to reading by people I need to hear. Conferences: I do not get to many of those: they are mostly about issues in criticism which I have found myself avoiding more and more over the years. Actually, from college on I wanted to read primary texts, not secondary ones and so never got heavily into literary criticism. (I could of course name important critics: Northrop Frye, Paul de Man, and others). There are not many invitations in any case. The only critical book I have done, I suppose, is “The Embattled Lyric” at Stanford University Press (a revision with many changes, subtraction and additions of “Views from the Weaving Mountain” at University of New Mexico press which Lee Bartlett was kind enough to believe in) And there has been virtually no reaction to that.
DB: That’s a wonderful notion that “all travel is for-poetry” and your work certainly makes use of it as a principle. What can you tell me about the new book of poems?
NT: I guess you can say that I have two kinds of poetry books. One kind covers the long poem which takes over the whole book or a suite or group of serial poems: kind of like small-long poems (as in, say, “Journal of the Laguna de San Ignacio”) and the other I’d call “anthological” where the book is made up of single poems. Publication of the two kinds seems to alternate up to a point. The new book is anthological. There is one suite: the “War Poems yet Again; ” a bunch of singles culminating in the “Matthis at Issenheim” about the great Grünewald altar in Colmar, Alsace: I think of the Matthis as a single unit; another suite “Dying Trees” about the bark beetle plague of two years ago in the West. Finally, travel-wise, there is the section “Movement. North of the Java Sea” which culminates in the long title poem “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers” about practical anthropological work and birding in Borneo.
DB: Do you have a method for writing when you travel?
NT: Nothing very original. I usually carry a very small pocket notebook — or, if that has gotten mislaid in a slew of pockets, there’s always the back of air tickets, food receipts, brochures, whatever. If something is going to happen in relation to the locus or loci, it will start suddenly and continue with a bunch of lines: singles, short batches, long batches — captured very impressionistically. There is no attempt I’m aware of to link these, or limit them in any way topically, or make sense of them on the spot, or build them up thematically. What irrupts into the mind is just what is put down. Usually, I am moving very fast (and get pretty whacked out) so linkage does not take place even when eating or preparing to sleep. On getting back to base, I’ll be anxious to see if they “make sense” in terms of a poem that can be developed out of them. Sometimes they don’t and are dropped — or certain lines or information bits may get into other poems. I guess all this may be why some of the poems I think of as “long poems” may actually look like serial poems. There is a strong sense in which the physicality of movement, of going from locus to locus, is very productive. But it occurs to me that the process would have to be in one cultural context: the road poem about many different loci frequently becomes too disjointed for my taste, unless the loci have not been the main concern.
DB: What is the best use of travel you feel you have made for a poem? Are there some poems, more than others, where you feel that the kind of writing you do while traveling or the kind of writing that travel may lead to has been optimal on certain excursions? Are there localities that move you to write more than others? Have there been trips where you have not felt at all moved to write, or thought you would and didn’t? Where you think some of your best poems “came from? ” and what are they?
NT: First, there are trips and trips. Anthropological fieldwork is more than a trip though it may contain trips: while working/living in Atitlan, I walked, bussed and flew all over Guatemala. Some long trips get close to being fieldwork: the three seasons in Alaska; the spell teaching in Manchuria followed by the Silk Road; the recent Borneo trip. Some field-work has led to poems I consider relatively “important” within the opus — like the Atitlan sections of “The Beautiful Contradictions, ” the Chinese and Tibetan sections of the “Architextures, ” the title poem of the next book “Ins & Outs of the Forest Rivers” set in Sarawak, Borneo. Some long trips have led to whole books — like the “Alashka” Janet Rodney and I co-wrote. Some short trips led to a lot of work as in the book “At the Western Gates” about Baja California and other seascapes. I know at least one person who likes that last book better than any of the others. Passion arises over three things: i) magnificent monuments; ii) magnificent people; iii) magnificent landscapes: nature and culture. If they coincide in a given locus, all the more wonderful. Among magnificent people: the Guatemalan Maya, the Arctic Inuit, the North Japan Ainu, or the Borneo Dayak.
There’s a dichotomy “Home” and “Away. ” The older I get, the more I love “Home” and the more “Home” may be replacing “Exile, ” but, for most of my life, I always wanted to be “Away. ” (And I was fortunate to be able to do it). Coming “Home” was always (often still is) subject to serious post-partum blues. Doubtless, “Away” is the “Home” of “Exile: ” it’s gotta to be something like that. Seeing such monuments, peoples, landscapes or living with them induces anticipation, a sense of importance and significance leading to thoughts of life’s worthwhileness (as opposed to the usual gran nada of the depressive) and the hard-to-define intuition of something worthwhile having been accomplished. This presumably connects with a desire to do something worthwhile in response, as gratitude perhaps, and since what I do is poems… Given the major importance of books, these senses can be linked to the experience in youth of finding a book that you would need in ten years or so and the idea that you had saved the book from barbarism — I later discovered the same feelings in Benjamin’s “Illuminations.”
Yes, plenty of trips — those not involving nature and culture in the sense I just alluded to — do not lead to writing. And plenty of trips do seem to involve nature/culture in that sense so that writing may be anticipated, but nothing actually occurs. Hard to know why. No juice.
DB: What about your home of twenty-plus years outside of Santa Fe? Obviously you travel a good deal, but what about when you’re not traveling: what does an extended stay at home look like for your writing? How much do you read in new areas or re-read familiar texts? How much time do you give to writing?
NT: Given how I use the word “exile” in many places, there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as “home. ” However, yes, the Ombligo de Tesuque(my term) is where I have had an headquarters since 1985. I guess I’ve never had that anywhere for quite as long a time. So travel is: leaving desk / movement / returning to desk.
I would say that there are a fair number of “home” poems in the opus. Most recently, there are some named as such in the Salt Press “Recollections of Being” plus the poems about New Mexico in various places. From the first book, “Old Savage/Young City” to “The House of Leaves” etc. etc, there are virtually whole books written from “home. ” I don’t know that there are “extended stays at home” though. Some kind of movement seems to occur a couple of times a year, even if it is only to see the family in Yurp or in South Africa, or friends here — usually on the East or West coasts.
I read sempiternally. Always both new and old stuff. I’ve always preferred not to work in Libraries so I figure there must be some 25,000 books in the house (many are reference of course) and I’ll never get to them all. I have always spent all my pocket money on buying the damn things relentlessly. I should slip in here that my only complaint about death is that there are no libraries or bookstores. Since a return to South East Asia, and the South Seas generally, some three to four years ago (but mainly island S. E. A. rather than mainland this time: I had worked in Burma etc. ), I’ve been reading in the history, archaeology, anthropology of this area. Right now, it is Chaloupka’s huge book on Australian Aboriginal Rock Art; works on T. G. H. Strehlow, Baldwyn Spencer and such; recently a great deal on Borneo. Bird books all the time. Always some “season” on a poet, (recently Hölderlin), usually by getting as much of him/her together as possible and then going through from a to z. Also right now going back to Ancient Greece. Then, well: I never finished a French education in which I would have had “philo. ” So, starting with Spinoza some two years ago, I’ve been working my way through. Right now I’m in the middle of Nietzsche’s huge output. Re-reading is a problem when you think of how much there is to study. But it happens more now. Failing memory, of course, spurs that on. Then there is the wretched business of starting to read a “new” book and realizing from pencil marks that you have in fact read it before.
How much time for writing: there are poets I respect who hold the view that writing has to be done every day. One danger is an opus as long as, say, Victor Hugo’s and I don’t know who can read such large machines or who there will be in the future to read them. I write every day (e-mail seems to take up more and more and more time) — but not necessarily poems. Certainly not mainly poems. I have a volcanic interpretation if you like: the lava is always working inside non-stop, but eruptions occur only every now and then. Rarer perhaps as you age.
Leaving aside the old saw about “things were always better in the old days, ” I truly believe that the conditions of daily life are deliquescing so rapidly that there is a serious question about how writing poems ever gets done. Forget the planet’s condition, the population problem, the never-ending wars; forget the saturated criminality of politics and of corporations and transnationals; forget the ever growing gap between rich and poor and the other ten thousand ills. I’m talking right now about the “blessings” of technology which, while allegedly making everything “easier” for us actually complicate them a zillion miles beyond what they were when I grew up. The brutality of computer codes never destined to be understood by normal users. The fact that the phone industry was fucked up from the moment the answering machine was invented leading, of course, to massive automation. The insanity of our becoming accumulations of passwords, IDs, card numbers which everyone knows you will forget. The lunacy of security-mania complicating the simplest things from mail to travel. The fact that, if you write a letter about a problem, the answer is a call to write another letter about that problem. The incremental growth of requirements in applying for anything; filling out anything; explaining anything: every time a new duty arises, there is one more thing to do, to think about, to try to figure out. The interminability of dealing with hordes, armies, invasions of chores. Even getting to the desk of a morning seems to take more and more time every week.
Beyond this, there is the serious problem of the poetic environment itself, the whole “pobiz” phenomenon. While the majority of the population as a whole sinks evermore into dithering illiteracy and cultural ignorance, the production rate of poets continues to rise. I was once asked something along the lines of “What else are these wannabe people going to do with their education? ” I have written a fair amount about this and no one likes it (it is a question of jobs on the line, of making a living) — but the statistical problem is severe. An Indonesian director of a cultural center told me the other day: “We do not have pobiz like yours but every day, more writing comes in to us and the ratio of bad writing grows. ”
How can anyone know more than an infinitesimal fraction of what is going on? How can you look consistently at the whole octopus of blogs and websites fattening every day and not just at one of its ten thousand tentacles (increasing) not to mention the output of traditional publishers? How can you be sure that, in this morass, you and others are not missing one or two “mute, inglorious Miltons” (can “no talent unrecognized” still hold? ) How can you be sure that one, or say a dozen, out of a huge number of mediocrities being published or rewarded does not prevent a valuable artist from coming out and from being seen, heard or read (as the man said you can only hack just so much reality… ) How can you responsibly react to all the poetry sent to you when, if you tried responding responsibly to it all, or even a fraction, you would never, really never, read anything of your own choosing?
I do not enjoy feeling “undemocratic” but let me ask the question: “How many people are there who are wise enough to forego their ambitions versus the multitudes who persist — not in just writing for their own pleasure — but in foisting their indifferent produce on the community? ” I am sure that most often this view is called hierarchist or elitist, but, to me, it raises the most serious possible questions about the survival of the art itself, the survival of any set of meanings and purposes any of us can live by. It raises the problem, in education, of how much the intellect has taken over from the emotions, of how much “writing” has taken over from “poetry. ” It raises problems of fashion, of fads, of politically-savvy movements knowing how to ride the waves of these. For me, it raises the problem of hope, the one essential and sine-qua-non food of poetry. I know that there is another side to this: poetry is a good thing and one cannot have enough of a good thing: at the very, very far end of the day it does not wash. If you try to be contextual, to avoid small factions, to deeply sense the life of the art as a whole, such questions must influence the extent to which you can live, write, publish in a way satisfactory to yourself. We know that population increase is a major danger to the planet; we do not know that it is a major danger to the art.
DB: Many readers have seen in your work a constant concern with what most of us would call “spiritual” matters. Can you comment on that?
NT: Religious/spiritual questions have been with me virtually from the beginning. I was very quickly turned off by the scraps of formal religious education that I got from my family and school contexts and have never returned to any of that — except as an anthropologist watching, recording and attempting to interpret the more or less formal religions of “other” peoples, those that were once mistakenly called “primitive. ” Two exceptions to this: First, around my early twenties, for reasons I forget (perhaps reading Medieval Philosophy and the Lives of certain mystic/saints), I went through a crush on Roman Catholicism. The aesthetic achievements that church had generated over the centuries probably also played a part. The crush lasted a couple of years at most, probably less.
Second: interest in Judaism was nil, except — again — for a relatively brief period brought about mainly by the work of Scholem — the “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” primarily. That shows up in the work from my first book “Old Savage/Young City” through to the “Lyrics for the Bride of God, ” and, to the best of my recollection, terminates there. My attitude toward contemporary Judaism is — I have to admit it — one of desperation. Especially in all matters concerned with Israel’s dealings in the Middle East. But, whatever the hype, I see no genuine creativity in any religion. To be very brief and thoroughly anti-ecclesiastical, I can only see our world beginning to be thoroughly saved by one thing: the destruction of the three religions of the Book and the churches built on them. That should get rid of a major slice of the infantilism so many millions are still sunk in. And it should take quite a bite out of what we are pleased to call “Western Culture”! I am by no means the first to say this. Until a far larger portion of mankind gets to access full Humanity this famous Culture is largely a sham. Eastern Culture is being gobbled up by and large by Western — but there is no harm in what is left of Sufism, Buddhism and some of Hinduism surviving
One story which is fun. I had sent [Gershon] Scholem “Old Savage” I believe and reminded him of this at a History of Religions conference at Strasbourg in the late 50s or 60s. “Ah yes, ” said he “I remember. It is on a bookshelf at home with all the other books inspired by my “Major Trends. ” Well, he had a point: virtually single handed, he had opened up a long hidden (except to initiates) treasure trove
A strong interest in what can be called “initiatic” or “esoteric” literature came about early though I no longer know how or through which channels. It was certainly there while I was in college at Cambridge: a close friend and I became extremely interested in the writing of a Frenchman: René Guénon, whose main title perhaps “The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times” still influences my thinking today. Obsessed by the atom bomb and its threats, we tried to create a future for ourselves within the context of what looked like world despair versus individual illumination. This was followed by some two and a half years in Paris during which I encountered a painter couple — Henri and No Seigle. During early conversations, I discovered that the surrealists, whom I had imagined as dead and gone when at school in Britain during the war, not only were not dead but still held court in a “café” every Sunday in Montmartre. I soon attended, more as an observer than a participant, the Sunday sessions chaired by André Breton. The boss, at this time, was very much torn between those with mainly political interests who perpetually raised the problem of what attitude to take towards the Left and those who were more interested in his own writings on the esoteric, like, let us say; “Arcane 17. ” Some kind of suggestion on his part was the probable source for the formation of a small lecture seminar led by the Seigles, the audience being myself and one of the younger surrealists and his lady. We were put through, in initiatic mode, a whole course on the perennial philosophy and its symbolic manifestations. This had a major effect on my life for many years. The Seigles remained my best friends until the end of their lives in the early part of this millennium
Around 1953–4, a miserable loss in my private life led me to seek refuge for a couple of months with the Seigles in a house they had in the south of France. Left a great deal to my own devices, I seem to have invented for myself certain very practical techniques of mental attention with which to stave off massive depression, pain and maybe worse — techniques which I found later to be reasonably close to some of the more elementary ones available in Buddhism. At the end of this stay, an epiphany occurred as a result during a day alone in Toulouse and this left deep traces
In subsequent years, I studied Buddhism fairly extensively and took part in various Buddhist activities with various groups. Zen Buddhism was then the most in view, later Tibetan Buddhism, which attracted me more, became widely available because of the Tibetan diaspora. To be a good Buddhologist — in scholarly terms — one probably has to have taken in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese plus-plus or a good part of these by age 18 or so. Too late for me. It did occur to me however that I might get closer to the subject as a sociologist of Buddhist institutions and this is what took me eventually to Burma — that and the more worldly fact that London University needed a specialist in the Theravada field. Theravada has its own attractions: I had even left a month’s time in which to become a monk with a major Abidhamma monastic teacher in Rangoon though a serious illness put an end to that intention.
I guess that things continued along these lines until about two years ago, after I had been established in the States for some thirty five years or more. Janet and I had recently attended one of the great Kalachakra ceremonies presided over by H. H. the Dalai Lama. At a certain point, here in the Ombligo de Tesuque, during daily walks, I realized that the whole vast concern was slipping off me like a coat which I no longer needed or wished to wear. I became what I can only call a confirmed agnostic: one who feels s/he does not know but also cannot know the answer to the ultimate questions. Also that there is no one who can know. All the great “spiritual” systems seemed to me to be attempts at answering, accounting for, soothing, the human fear of death and, ultimately nothing more. Something in the nature of Flaubert’s — was it? — definition of Christianity as “good for art. ” Good for art, for symbolism, for aesthetics, at times for philosophy in every one of its domains, good for many of the major achievements of mankind. But not something to work at day in and day out as a way to somehow find a special, “dedicated” wisdom and an understanding which would spare one from both the beauties and the horrors of our human existence. This undressing into a kind of realm of unknowing (beware of the mystics who will also want to claim “unknowing”) has its own very complex nature which I find it impossible to talk about now since I am still trying to find my way in it. I am fairly sure that it is influencing the poetry.
DB: The image you conjure, “the whole vast concern was slipping off me like a coat, ” makes me want to ask how it feels now to not need a coat. And do you feel any regret in the not needing? I wonder about the trajectory at which you arrived at the sensibility? Did you feel maybe you’ve always had a kernel of agnosticism, to a greater or lesser degree? Do you feel the spiritual concerns are apparently less “constant” in recent poems?
NT: I guess there may well have been a kernel of agnosticism from the very beginning. Incidentally, I want to add that “agnosticism” to me is not just not knowing about a divinity but not knowing about any ultimate “truth” somewhat beyond what science can provide. After all, anthropologists are constantly looking at different systems of belief, tying them to their social and cultural structures: how do they stop doing this when looking at our own cultures?
Yes, there is some regret. Taking off the huge coat means letting go on an intimate basis of a vast universe of materials — though one can still accompany them in scholarship. One can be lonely — solitary is not a problem, I have been that most of my life — but lonely is something else, lower in the scheme of things but painful. All the more so since, today, in the vast competitive problematics of overpopulation, business (i. e, busy-ness) comes first, friendship last. Something very serious has to happen to you for even those one counts as friends to phone or e-mail (forget writing). And the moment you get “better, ” everything fades away. Virtually for me nowadays nothing is more than acquaintance with no responsibilities on either side. Nine times out of ten, it is dull, boring, chit chat: usually illiterate and often infantile. I become more and more reclusive to avoid “wasting time” and to abide with and conjugate the solitariness. From time to time, though, I get into relations with people who have no idea of what I am usually talking about and I listen with pleasure to their issues, mostly domestic. Only yesterday I talked a long time at the P. O. with a vet of the Korean War who used to take briefings to one of Eisenhower’s sons, his officer. I’m not exactly a monk of any kind.
In the solitariness, you could face more and more the matter of timor mortis. Curiously enough, this comes up less and less. If you become fairly convinced that the afterlife is the “nothingness of nothing” as I have called it somewhere, there is not a great deal to be concerned about. I stress nothingness of nothing because it is impossible for us to conceive “nothing. ” If there is only one real divinity and its name is Life, that divinity hardwires us against being able to conceive of, to experience, ”nothing. ” The stress is the best we can do. Taking off the coat — as we are coming to call it in this conversation — may be a preparation for that. Something like what is constantly discussed in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Something like the “Brother you must die” — the only greeting allowed to those Christian monks who are committed to silence — the Trappists I guess. Be sure to note that in the higher levels of philosophical Buddhism — possibly the highest level of understanding of all those ever reached by humans — talk of “re-incarnation” disappears.
A somewhat “retarded” individual came to the house some years ago to do a little yard work and said that the only divinity humans needed was this planet. Not one bit “retarded! ” This makes more and more sense to me. How about a hierogamy: Life +or = Gaia? That covers a lot of ground.
DB: I wonder if you know the poem by Stephen Crane, part of a longer series and only six lines long, it runs: “If I should cast off this tattered coat, / And go free into the mighty sky; / If I should find nothing there / But a vast blue, / Echoless, ignorant, / — what then? ”
NT: No, I do not know the poem. I very much doubt that he or anyone would go into the mighty sky because, by the last breath, I suppose that the nothingness of nothing will have intervened immediately.
DB: How does the nothingness of nothing come up in the recent work do you think?
NT: Well, look at the most recent poem “Gondwana” for instance. A long poem in several parts that looks like a suite. If travel for me is work and not, as people — in and out of the I. R. S. — insist on calling it, a “vacation, ” there is a lot of work going on in this piece about the great A, Antarctica. At one point in the poem, the South Pole — the spot from which everything else is North — challenges the old Buddhist definition of illumination: “crossing the river to get to the other shore. ” Suddenly, there is no river and hence no other shore. There is only that one spot: perhaps the nothing of nothing. Amusingly, the people who work at South Pole Station constantly have to run around to find the Pole — not to mention the fact that there are several Poles.
DB: Is there something you feel to be a little more — shall we say — cheerful about all
NT: I think there is. Paradoxically, there is a great deal more attention to the minute details of existence: “our little light” as the Chorus says in the Hyppolitus. Our little time of light in the immense darkness of the cosmos out there. Paradoxically because, while more and more reclusive, I am concerned — not on a face to face basis but interiorly — with the details of individual existences and this may go from a baby cactus one inch in diameter on a daily dog-walk to a little finch alone in a pet shop, bought and sent to a friend’s aviary, to a suffering colleague, friend or acquaintance. A fellow being let’s say, a fellow sufferer, trapped in the same infernal system as we are. And the interiority needs stressing because it is the place of poetry. I have always, with fear, foreseen a time when poetry might become less important to me. And then discovering that I have nothing else left
For this or that reason: the irrefutable link between poetry and desire for instance. I have always, so far, come back from that and found, more and more, that poetry was the only thing left. I guess this is what some would call a “path. ” For someone who has always been interested in too many things, that can be a great relief. Cutting out humungous masses and masses of stuff — as when, realizing that you are dying, you suddenly topple over some peak and stop “collecting” or “amassing” and start giving or selling away.
DB: Why infernal system?
NT: I guess a good Buddhist for example would say that I am still exceedingly far from having achieved any kind of understanding whatsoever. I do however seem to take a Greek or Nietzschean view of life: that we have to deal with it, and even love it, though it is infernal. For me, it is a mystery into which we are dragged without our opinion being taken and out of which we are dragged without our opinion being taken. In other words it is an insult. Perhaps we can call it a scandal. Should you follow a doctrine like that of karma for instance, or even the Christian reward/punishment hypothesis, you would modify that considerably. But I find it very difficult to transcend the “infernality, ” if, indeed, it can be or needs to be transcended. And if “transcending” has meaning. If I were to become more wisely Nietzschean, I might look at his idea that life cannot be evaluated because that is the only thing there is. From there it might be possible to graduate to his Gay Science and cease to find life infernal — in fact to find it cheerful. Yeah, in spite of all the wars from the beginning, in spite of Tasmania, Wounded Knee, the Amazon, Armenia, Nanking, Dachau and co, East Timor, Darfur, etc. etc. etc. to the power of n.
DB: I’d like to jump now to something a little more everyday perhaps. In your preface to “The Embattled Lyric, you thank a large number of people, many poets and artists, for support over the years. Can you talk about support among artists, generally?
NT: You know, there is a memory problem here. I have diaries and daybooks from 1939 onward — it may be one of the longest of diaries — and, in these, there may well be accounts of meetings, conversations, examples of support, etc. etc. with and from these people. Those are in my archive and I cannot easily go back to them. An archive is supposed to be for others to work on, not so? So, such memories are at this point usually reduced to a vignette. I remember having a very serious and illuminating political conversation with Dali at a Paris garden party for instance — I remember thinking that this was not the clown everyone expected but cannot recall the exact conversation. Or, on arriving as a student in Paris, a long talk with Lurcat about the Spanish Civil War. Or one with Giacometti in his Paris studio. Or talks with Duchamp in New York — incidentally, some nonsense has gotten around that I played chess with him. Not so.
But I should clarify that if I talk of support, I do not necessarily mean close-support. Sometimes a life-long presence is all that’s needed. Who was it, Sartre?, who once talked about poets’ real families as being other poets and artists in their own time or in other times: elective affinities. Many such. (I have, just before writing this, read of the death at 94 of Aimé Cesaire. Great poet: should have been the Caribbean Nobel (if the Nobel were not such a joke). I feel that particular death, it diminishes me — not all that many do, apologies to Donne.
Being in love when a youth with Fonteyn, for instance, getting one letter from her and a signed portrait but seeing her dance dozens of times is “support” in my book. (Discovering years later what an astonishing woman-about-town she was does not change the matter one bit — only leaves regret that I was not her age). Now I am “in love” with diva Anna Netrebko and actress Gong Li. And I regret that I am not their age…
DB: What about influence?
NT: I realize that questions of influence and close support are very much intertwined and hard to tell apart. Take Charles Olson for instance. I do not quite recall when I got on to Olson. It may have been in 1961 or so when, on my way to convene a seminar on the sociology of Buddhist Institutions in Hawaii, I stop in San Francisco and discover City Lights. Downstairs. Pick up all sorts of goodies (now rare): Olson, Whalen, McClure, etc. Later, I am working at Jonathan Cape in London and establishing my “three pillars” as I call them: whatever else I can get, I must have Olson, Duncan and Zukofsky. At a party, I meet the Goliard Press people — Barry Hall & Tom Raworth — and am given their new Olson chapbook “West. ” I argue Cape into joining with Goliard, eventually taking a contract to Bled, Yugoslavia, where, after reading with Pound at Spoleto, Olson shows up to this PEN special conference. He is late. I am watching a movie and something huge sits down next to me. “You must be Olson. ” “ — You must be Tarn. ” We talk on the terrace of my room overlooking the great lake. I probably understand very little of his harangue. We exit to go to a party at Tito’s villa. From far, Olson sees a diminutive lady in the doorway. “Excuse me, Nathaniel” and marches off. He dances with the lady, towering over her. I remember that he is a great dancer. See him one other time at the important First International Poetry Festival, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, with Neruda, Ungaretti, Bonnefoy, a host of famosi. At a party afterwards, Olson and Dorn happen to see me sitting next to Berryman. I am having nothing to do with Berryman. Everyone drunk except me. Nasty remarks by O. and D. about my locus. They then walk into another room. My interest at this time was in the “Kingfishers” — “Maximus” comes later. When at SUNY Buffalo in 1969, I was going to visit him in Gloucester but alas he was sick and died soon after.
There are the people I do not meet. Arrive once in New York for Cape and call Laughlin. Oh, says he, what a pity: if you had called yesterday, you could have had dinner with us: Pound was there. So I get to be the guy who did not meet Pound. Why did he have to tell me? Mind you, E. P. was not talking at the time…
All sorts of things like that. I’m in the States on joining Cape trying to persuade people into my program. Happen on a reading on top of Mt. Tamalpais by Duncan, Everson, Rexroth. A first! Talk to them after the reading and fix meetings with Duncan and Rexroth. I’ve been working on Patchen and tell Duncan that there is a midnight rendez-vous with P. and can he help me off Tamalpais? Duncan more or less commandeers a young man to drive me down to a Palo Alto bus. Miriam is most welcoming, brings Patchen out from his bed onto a couch and we talk a fair long while. Was my Selected Patchenat Cape before this or after? Anyway they said at some point that they liked it very much. I had edited it at Capel-y-Finn (where Ginsberg wrote his Wales poem and I wrote “The Beautiful Contradictions. ”) I deliberately did not look at the New Directions Selected and came up with an amazingly minimal overlap. Nobody paid any attention to that fine book… but I have always thought that Patchen gets very little of his due in our time. With Duncan and Rexroth I discovered the acme of the Great American Monologue. Interestingly, when alone with Duncan there was nothing like that — but if a third person came on the scene… then the theater began. At another time, I interviewed Duncan in London for the BBC. I said “Well, Robert. ” Half an hour later I had not said another word.
So, here we have some of the great dead. I remember visiting Zukofsky for Cape and his virtually sitting me on his knee and reading his Catullus to me — which Cape Goliard had done or was to do. And his telling me how, every year, he culled a number of books from around his bed and hoped to end up with none or near none. Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scot… partner in my “liberation” with EP and Olson. He came to read in London. Oh, I have not read him! Rush out to buy a book. The Reading. Dios mio! What have I been missing, this guy is like a mountain on which the little English sheep wander around knowing nothing of the mountain. Write to McD. insisting that all the finest poets in the islands are Celts and that Jews must be admitted into the Celtic ethny and that I am coming up to visit. No answer. From Edinburgh, mail a telegram. Yes. Buy a huge cake and a huge bunch of flowers. Mrs. McD. with a fierce reputation waits outside. Place cake and flowers into her arms and slip past. McD, sitting under an open bookshelf loaded with zillions of newspapers, with a diminutive giggle, “Oh, Tarn has made quite an impression here! ” On later occasions, McD. in London hauls me out from miles away with virtually no notice to go pub-crawling (and I’m really not a drinker. ). Once he writes me to the States that he is glad I am alive (I had sent him something) because he had read my obituary in the Times!
So many stories like this. Notice I am not going to talk about the nature of the “influences. ” If any. Flaubert, was it, or Stendhal: “Do not discuss your triggers. ” It is so many times a question of co-presence in the universe, nothing more but nothing less than that. It could be Homer, Euripides, Sappho, du Bellay, Racine, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Rilke, Apollinaire, HD, Yeats, Vallejo, Breton, Saba, Tsvetaeva, Radnoty, Blackburn (and I am not talking of the living) — Jeezus, there are dozens and dozens. And not just poets – the pruzzers: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Thoreau, George Eliot, Melville… and the artists: Tintoretto, Velasquez, Bonnard, El Lissitzky, Giacometti, de Kooning… and the musics: Bach, Schutz, Monteverdi, Beethoven, Verdi, Shostakovich… I mean one could fill pages with just names, interminable catalogues… The great architects; the great designers (aircraft designers for instance: the Wrights, Mitchell, Caproni) not to mention all the sciences, the philosophies. And then the very few life-long friends, (at whatever point forward of life). Those two painters I mentioned: the late Henri and No Seigle; then: Isac Chiva — anthropologist, friend of Celan, colleague of Lévi-Strauss; the late Lucien Biton, Orientalist; Michel Deguy, poet & philosopher; Hans ten Berge, poet & critic; John Digby, poet and collagist; Eliot Weinberger, poet, essayist, scholar of news, politics and publishing; Lee Bartlett, poet and critic; Shamoon Zamir, archivist, critic, Americanist; CleoMcNelly, critic & theologian; Toby Olson, Linday Hill, Dennis Phillips, poets & novelists; Carolee Campbell, photographer & printer, and recently: Robert Adamson, Australian poet with his wife Juno Gemes, Australian photographer and cousin of Radnoty; Janet Rodney, poet, printer, graphic artist, major intuitive and also beloved spouse. And, at the top of the tree, the members of biological & affinal families who sometimes like what has been done, but, hey, that gets perhaps beyond the subject… “God” forbid I momentarily forget anyone… And, hey again, there is no end to this!