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Beverly Dahlen, photo by Jackie

Beverly Dahlen, photo by Jackie Link

Beverly Dahlen in conversation with Paul Jaussen and Emily Beall [1]

University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
6 May 2009

A native of Portland, Oregon, Beverly Dahlen has lived in San Francisco since the mid-1950s. A Reading, her ongoing work in progress, has generated five volumes to date, the most recent being A Reading 18–20, published by Instance Press in 2006. She was one of the founding editors of the feminist journal HOW(ever). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals, including Ironwood, Poetics Journal, Sagetrieb, River City, Hambone, and Crayon.


“Beauty and ethics, and destruction or death”


Paul Jaussen: Beverly, you said a couple of days ago that you write essays in a somewhat cumulative fashion, and we were hoping that, even though we have a game plan in terms of the questions, we can use this space to cumulate ideas and listen to you thinking through some things, if you feel comfortable doing that. So we’ll see how it goes. I think Emily is going to start us off.


Emily Beall: I wanted to start with some straightforward questions. When did you first begin to write poetry and how did that happen?


Beverly Dahlen: Well, the first poem I ever wrote was in Portland when I was a child. I was in the seventh grade — however old people are when they are in the seventh grade. I knew this was a real poem because it came to me. It wasn’t like a voice dictating, ala Jack Spicer, although I don’t know what is really meant by that. I’ve puzzled over Spicer’s idea of dictation for years. But it came to me and I wrote it down and that was the first poem. [I was walking down Catlin Street past Dr. Phillip’s house with the monkey-puzzle tree in the side yard when I was “given” (in Creeley’s sense) this poem.] [2]


I have a memory of what the poem was about, but I do not have, unfortunately, a copy of the actual poem. But I can tell you, if you’re interested, what it was about, because I think it’s rather strange. I was a young person, but the poem was written in the persona of an old woman. And this old woman was sitting in a rocking chair looking out towards the sea at sunset. I used the word ‘envelop’ (the ‘night envelops’) for the first and perhaps only time in my life and misspelled it ‘envelopes.’ Obviously a poem looking forward to death at the age of, what, eleven? Ten or eleven, something like that. So that was my first poem. [I showed this poem to my mother and she laughed. And that’s why I think the poem was “odd.” I have internalized her judgment. There was nothing odd about it. I was a child discovering the inevitability of death. She might have done anything but laugh. But I suppose it disturbed her and she laughed defensively.]


I took the poem to school and showed it to my teacher. She said, “It’s about time… ” About time I did something serious. Evidently, I had been goofing off in class. I was more interested in drawing than studying or writing. I still have two drawings from that time.


[The poem was subsequently published in the James John School newspaper.]


But I was not the kind of kid who wrote steadily and kept diaries and notebooks. I’ve never been that sort of person. I’ve written sporadically. When I was in high school I remember writing a lot of poetry, and it was all pretty… ethereal, I guess. It was all fancy clichés, about sunsets, and woods, and darkness coming on. In fact, a lot like the first poem. I was reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe at the time, I think. I took it to one of my teachers, the only teacher I had who seemed to be at all interested in my writing, and she said, “Well, this is all very well, but why don’t you write about what you know?” Every young person has to get that advice at some point, “Write about what you know.” “Oh, ok.” So I remember writing a very long poem, pages and pages and pages, just about the bus ride home from high school. I wrote every detail. I observed everything very closely. That was my first realist poem, I suppose. Maybe my only realist poem.


So it went along like that. But there were long stretches when I didn’t write. I was always interested in writing, and in reading writing, but it has been a very spotty relationship with writing all through my life.


EB: When did you first encounter some of the communities you’ve been involved with: the HOW(ever) community and working with that group, and the Language community?


BD: I don’t know how far back you want me to go. You know, I’m really a shy person and I think poets are hard to get to know. When I moved to San Francisco in the 50s, I moved there partly because of the scene that was going on there, although I would have gone there anyway.


That was the exciting beginning of what came to be called the Beat movement. Ginsberg was around, and Kerouac, but these were people who drifted through San Francisco. There were other people who were really centered there, like Jack Spicer and his group. I was never part of that group, and I only saw Jack Spicer once from afar. He was pointed out to me one day. This was very shortly after I moved to San Francisco and a friend of mine was taking me on the tour of North Beach. We wandered into the bar called “The Place” and my friend said, [whispering] “There’s Jack Spicer!” A national monument or something! “Jack Spicer’s sitting at the bar!” Surrounded by his acolytes. But I never knew Spicer. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t, because I would have been trampled by his enormous… I wouldn’t have had any defenses at that point.


I was not really part of a community of writers at all. I got involved at some point with the artists then gaining some critical attention, partly because I got married at that time and my husband was an artist and he knew these very interesting people who were going to the California School of Fine Arts, which is now called the San Francisco Art Institute. They were people like Bill Wiley and Bob Hudson. They were a group of the most incredibly gifted people who came down from Richland, Washington. Their parents had all been involved at the Hanford Nuclear Site. They were the children of the atomic bomb makers. Bill Witherup was the poet in that group of visual artists. He lives here in Seattle now. [3] [They all pay homage to Tom McGrath who was their teacher in high school and their mentor.]


So at that point I got more interested in art and what was going on with artists. It was this wonderful time of abstract expressionism, but in California people were beginning to do other kinds of work. Richard Diebenkorn and David Parks and Elmer Bischoff, people who were around the art school then were beginning to do what came to be known as California figurative painting. And that was all really very interesting. So I was watching the work of the younger people and some of the old — older, at that point — masters. It was a time when I was doing something else, not writing.


But this is a long way around to answering your question. I had a very difficult several years there, and a long illness, and, finally, a divorce. It was ten years later that I went back to school. I went to San Francisco State to get a teaching credential. I had to put my life back together, and I went back to school to begin that process. But that was where the poetry life for me began. Because at that point — this is now the mid 60s — I had put myself on the straight and narrow. I had to get a teaching credential: “I’m not paying any attention to anything else, no poetry or music. Let’s do this, let’s be practical for a change.”


And then it all fell apart. It just absolutely did. I could not deal with student teaching in public schools. I asked all the wrong questions on the first day, I was immediately on the suspect list, and I got thrown out of student teaching. So I went back to school and I thought, “Well, now what?” And my mother very kindly suggested, “Bev, are you always going to go on failing?” That’s wonderful, wonderful Mother!


So I said, “Well, what do I do now?” It was the middle of summer, and the campus was pretty dead. I was walking by the door of the Poetry Center and there was a sign on the door that said, “Wanted: A Student Assistant” and I went in and I applied and I got the job. And that’s how I started working at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. “Wow!” And it became the center of the universe, for me. That’s where I had always meant to be and that’s where I wound up. And it was great. That’s when I really started to know poets, because I was working with all of the guests that we had. You all know about our Poetry Center? Which I have to call our Poetry Center. Because it’s a truly wonderful institution. It’s been going now for so long, and the archive is incredible there. So there I was working in the center of poetry and meeting poets. It’s also the center of controversy, because there is a very factionalized kind of thing when you’re doing poetry. The people who love Jack Spicer hate Robert Bly. The Iowa Workshop writers have no respect for the so-called Language writers. You know how all that goes.


But I would say that’s where I formed a real community with other poets. Because I was at school, I also wanted to get back into writing and I leveraged myself into writing by getting into writing classes and working out what I needed to do in workshops. From then on I always had some sort of group even outside of school and regular classes. I was always meeting with people.


When feminism began to come back as that second wave in the late 60s — San Francisco State had been a real center of not only poetry but of all kinds of political movements in those days. The student strike there went on for a good part of the year ’68-’69. I was certainly involved in that. We had shut down the campus. That was really about getting our third-world program going. It was about having a Black Studies center, and a whole third-world program.


But then the women began and there were these rumors of people saying, “Well, wait a minute, what about us?” And so I began reading. One of the people that I met was Frances Jaffer. She was MarkLinenthal’s wife. Frances is now deceased. Frances and Mark had been my mentors to some extent. He had been the director of the Poetry Center when I worked there. Frances became an ardent feminist, and I used to go to consciousness-raising groups with her. She formed a reading group including Kathleen Fraser and some other people. She was the one who wanted us to begin to read the modernist women writers, because we all felt at that point that our educations had been completely biased. I mean, I can remember professors of mine scorning the idea of reading Virginia Woolf! I had never read Virginia Woolf!


So we started with people like Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own.” Frances became a fanatic about H.D., and we read a lot of H.D. Of course, a lot of H.D. was being brought back into print, because much of her work was just not available. Some of it had never been published until around that time. So we read H.D., we read Marianne Moore, we read many, many of the modernist women.


Out of the reading group that we had we formed a writing group. Kathleen and Frances and I wanted to get together. This is the 70s at this point, mid-70s. We wanted to get together with our own writing to read to one another and offer some sort of support and critique. Then we began that as well. There were different people who came to the writing group at different times. Tamara O’Brien, who is probably not a well-known poet, but — [Laughs] I have to give you this trivia: she’s Anne Rice’s sister. I knew Anne Rice at State then, and StanRice was the assistant director of the poetry center. Gloria Frym, Laura Chester, even Marilyn Hacker dropped by one day when she was in town. Carolyn Burke, who was teaching at Santa Cruz then.


That became the foundation for HOW(ever). One day Kathleen said, “I think we have to begin our own publication.” The Language poets were going strong by then, they were very much on the scene at that point. And Kathleen said, “We have to begin our publication.” So we thought about it, and brainstormed about it. We had a good model. Carla Harryman had been publishing QU, a little poetry newsletter, it was terrific, but it was Language poetry oriented. Kathleen and Frances and I thought, “Well, it would be nice to have something that was more directly feminist, more out and out feminist, interested in experimental writing by women.”

Kathleen Fraser (right) and other evolving associate and contributing editors for the original HOW(ever) magazine [1983–1989], minus the second Contributing Editor, Carolyn Burke, who did not make it to that event. Photo courtesy of UCSD Mandeville Special Collections Library.

Revolving associate and contributing editors for the original HOW(ever) volumes I–V, [1983–1989], minus the second contributing editor, Carolyn Burke, who did not make it to that event. Editorial group for the original HOW(ever): Editor/Publisher, Kathleen Fraser (top row, right). Associate and Contributing Editors top row (left to right): Beverly Dahlen, Susan Gevirtz, Rachel Blau DuPlessis; bottom row, Frances Jaffer. Photo courtesy of UCSD Mandeville Special Collections Library.


We kept it at newsletter size because not only did we want to put it together without being overwhelmed for years and years with manuscripts, but we wanted to get it out in a timely fashion, and we wanted people to really read it. You know how it is, you get an anthology that large [gestures] and it’s hard to deal with. No, we wanted it to be immediate, and we wanted response. I have to give Kathleen most of the credit for a lot of the ideas that are still a part of HOW(ever) as it exists now, HOW2, online. So if you go back to those essays that Jeanne [Heuving] mentioned, in the issue she edited, there’s a very good history of that by Ann Vickery. [4] When I read that, I said, “Yes, that’s the history I remember, that’s how it happened.” I don’t know where she got the information, but she recounted the naming of HOW(ever). It was very accurate in terms of what I remember: that we sat around and brainstormed ideas for what to call this little project. [It’s the “however” from Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry.”]


That was the beginning, and it was really wonderful. We were all amazed at the amount of work that people sent us almost immediately, the quantities of it. Kathleen, because she was the editor, saw most of it. She did the winnowing, and I was down the line doing second reading. There was an immediate response. It was just so obvious that people all over the country, but women especially, women writers, were looking for this and responding to it. And the kind of work that we began to read was just amazing. We were so struck by how many good, different kinds of writing were coming from women. And just a tiny fraction ever got published in HOW(ever). There were several people whose work I remember reading first there. One was Diane Glancy, whose work I’m very fond of still, and always.


I don’t feel that connected to any group at the moment.


EB: That would be another question I have. It seems to me, and especially as I was reading about the history of HOW(ever), and the article you mentioned, that the reason that community is such a model to me is because you were willing to hear each other, and hear each other’s disagreements, and explain to each other what you saw going on in other women’s work. There’s a kind of embracing of difference that tends to be a little more generous than how groups can work. How has your relationship to feminist communities changed over time? Do you still feel connected to them even if you are not as actively involved?


BD: Yeah. No. That’s right, I’m not. I’m not as actively involved. I’m not sure why either, but I’m not. I think when Frances died, the spark went out for me a little. I am still a feminist, but I’m also interested in the larger world of politics and literature generally. Some of what we used to do in groups, we do now on the internet. But I am still and always looking for a group to join face to face, because I like that kind of energetic exchange. The last group I was part of met once a month at Mark Linenthal’s house to read and discuss poetry — not necessarily our own work. That group was suspended because of Mark’s illness.


PJ: I would like to hear about the relationship between the feminist critiques of psychoanalysis and your explicit use of it in A Reading. They’re pretty well documented, and obviously there’ve been writers like Julia Kristeva, who you’ve said have had a profound influence on your thinking about language and the unconscious, who have tried to rework psychoanalysis in interesting ways. But still, psychoanalysis, especially Freudian psychoanalysis, has been critiqued in so many ways. How do you feel A Reading as a poem challenges and responds both to the critique of psychoanalysis and to psychoanalysis as a practice?


BD: Well, I don’t know. The rejection of Freud by American feminists was very profound and I think still is. Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate [5] was the first book that I read that actually recovered Freudianism for feminism. Of course, she was very much relying on the French feminists, whom I had not at that point read. If the question is how does all of that relate to my writing, then I have to say that there can’t be a single answer to that. I mean, it is a very complicated question, because when I look back at parts of A Reading now, I realize I was in the thick of thinking through someone like Kristeva. She’s very, very there, her thought is really guiding the writing. And in a way that it doesn’t any more, at all, and I don’t know where all that goes.


We really don’t have access to the unconscious. That’s the first thing I would say. People very glibly say things about the unconscious. How do they know? [Laughs] We don’t have access to the unconscious! So how do I know that it’s there? I think that there is something — it’s a process, it’s not a thing or a place, it’s a process. I would say if you could tell me where dreams come from adequately, if you could really tell me why when you’re asleep and there’s a part of the mind that goes on making up the most fantastic little movies, if you could tell me where that’s coming from, I would be impressed, to say the least. You can’t.


What I think is I is an Other, I is an Other is a stranger. I don’t even know what words to use. We’re fragmented. We think there’s a self that is bobbing along on this surface, and it’s whatever else is there. It’s something that we have very, very little access to. Now Freud thought that he had seen through that to some extent and in various ways, and he thought that perhaps by having someone just begin talking and listening very carefully, that maybe he could detect a trace of something or other. I just think it’s so mysterious, I hate even trying to put the language around it.


It’s an open question for me. I can’t accept any sort of unified ego as real, so those are questions that I worry through all the time in writing. I’m thinking through those questions, and I’m thinking through those different writers. I may not be thinking through Kristeva now, but I’m thinking through someone else. Or many someone elses. I’ve been thinking a lot about Jack Spicer obviously, lately. The new collected is out, [6] you’ve seen it probably. There was a long period of time when I rejected Spicer on feminist grounds. You go through these funny times when you’re politically correct. I mean, Spicer was a brute and a misogynist and it’s very clear from his work that he’s no good, and why bother. [Laughs] I just could never really, really leave Spicer. I mean, some of his poetry means more to me than anything. “This ocean, humiliating in its disguises.” “No one listens to poetry.” [7] He has everything that I come back to. The idea of the ghost, this haunted business. The idea that we’re really speaking with the dead when we’re writing, that comes so wonderfully out of the letters to Lorca. “This is how we dead poets write to one another.”


That’s what I’m thinking through now, and reading Spicer again, and reading the works that have come out of the archive at Berkeley. It’s very difficult for me to speak about it right now. I’m in a very speechless place vis-à-vis Spicer right now. I’ve written about Spicer, but I’m not at all sure that I would even agree with that essay that I wrote about Spicer any more. I think it’s more about my relation to Lacanian psychoanalysis at that point than it is about Spicer. I don’t know if you’ve seen this essay. It’s called “Tautology and the Real.” [8]


EB: I’m interested in this distinction you’re making between talking and writing. It sounds like when you’re in the process of engaging with a text and writing, you are not sure how you’re going to be haunted by that text yet, and you can’t speak about it.


BD: No, because that’s in some other place. It’s like I was saying the other night, you don’t want to sit down and write an outline for an essay so you know where it starts and where it ends. What do you find out about that? It’s not something I’m interested in.


EB: When you were talking about that first poem you wrote when you were very young, with the old woman looking out on the horizon, that really resonates with me. Sometimes when I’m reading A Reading I feel a very profound sense of loss or I feel death very close to me. It’s interesting to me, because I feel in the process of reading that it is simultaneously a process of mourning. And what I was thinking looking again at your Egyptian Poems


BD: You’ve seen the Egyptian Poems?


EB: I have. We got our hands on the Ironwood issue. [9]


BD: The beautiful chapbook was just… ah, there are so few copies and I don’t even know where they are. It’s too bad. But go on.


EB: Those for me, too, had an almost ritualistic address…


BD: Oh, absolutely. Those were completely ritualistic approximations. They were my imagination through H.D. and she’s the guiding spirit there. I’d been reading Helen in Egypt and was so caught up in all that mythology. I went to the Book of the Dead and all of that comes out of the Book of the Dead. And Rundle Clark’s book, it’s a wonderful book, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. [10] It’s really such a wonderful text about that. It’s a book, I’m told, Robert Duncan read frequently.


EB: Do you consider the act of writing to be a mourning ritual itself? Or the process?


BD: Sometimes. Sometimes very much. And literally. The last poem I wrote was a poem in memory. A friend of mine died in April, early April. It was interesting writing that. I mean, everything you write is different, and comes out of different sources, but that time I wanted to write a poem and, of course, when you want to write a poem, you’re never going to get it.


And I kept trying to tease it out. My feelings were all sadness and so on, that kind of heavy feeling. What was interesting is that when the poem did come finally, it was angry. There was really a lot of anger in it. It was curious to me because I’ve had that experience before. In my first book, there’s a poem dedicated to the memory of my childhood friend Darlene Tower, who committed suicide. This is years ago now. I was so upset and shocked by that, because Dee had been someone in my life all my life. Although she had been living in New York for a long time, still we corresponded and we saw one another here or there, and I always fantasized that I would always have Dee around in my life. And she died. I was shocked. I went into a terrible depression over it. And when I finally wrote the poem, the poem was so angry. It’s really pissed off at her for leaving me. The dead person leaves you, abandons you. And that’s very interesting, that’s a reaction I have probably more frequently than not, to people dying. “How dare you abandon me?” [Laughs] Very selfish. The living are very selfish.


EB: Selfish, but maybe a form of love, too, in some way.


PJ: In that sense, do you think that there is a link between analysis and ritual and poetry, in that they are bringing out these things which are often embedded in our language or in our thinking without us even being aware of them? In that sense, is A Reading itself a response to trauma, or is it trying to help us in these symptoms, or deal with symptoms?


BD: In some ways, I think so. It’s a response to trauma, to violence. Going back to those Egyptian Poems, they’re very violent. That’s what I noticed about the Egyptians. But then you start looking at rituals of any church, any religion. Maybe not in Buddhism so much — but when you look at Tibetan art and see these demons, the violent side of all religions is very apparent, the violent imagery. I was struck by the violence of the Egyptians. You see in the Osiris myth, he is being torn apart by his brother Seth and the fragments of his body are scattered all over the landscape of Egypt. Isis then goes about picking up the pieces and putting them together. So Osiris is really the dead god. He’s sort of patched back together, but his power is the power of death, not of life. He’s a real underground figure. But there are many manifestations. Osiris is also the god of the flood. Not now in Egypt, because of the High Aswan Dam, but in those days the Nile flooded regularly and they watched for the flood, they waited for it, because that was life, that was the source of their agriculture. They even had these little cut-outs in the shape of Osiris, and they planted the seeds in that shape. This was the shape of fertility, so here is also fertility, a god of life as well. So Osiris has many, many forms. [I slid right off that question about trauma by referring to myth. But my own personal sense of trauma begins on page one of A Reading with the first lines: “before that and before that. everything in a line,” There are many ways to read this, but one might be the difficulty of placing oneself in history, or the history of a family. And behind that the question ‘where do babies come from.’ That’s an anxious question. Freud thought every child asked that question in one way or another.


The line becomes, metaphorically, the roof line of an unfinished house which is further “broken into.” The house is/and is not identified as a body, violated. There has been an “assumption of protection” and that protection failed. That’s the wound, the trauma, one of many.]


EB: Sort of changing gears a little bit. I’m kind of (selfishly) happy to hear you say that you don’t feel like on the one hand that we can know the unconscious, or on the other hand that there is a unified ego. But part of the weightiness or mourning in Spicer’s poetry, which I do find in yours as well, is this idea that there’s always something beyond language, that horizon. In an earlier essay, “Something/Nothing,” which was in Ironwood, you talk about language as a scapegoat — another violent sense, I suppose — or substitute or replacement for the real. The real maybe being the body, or objects, or thought. That stuff beyond the horizon, that thing that is the real that our language can’t get to, is that a gendered thing for you?


BD: Is the real a gendered thing? No. And this is interesting about the word “real” or “the real,” because it’s something that’s important to Spicer, and I’m not really clear about what Spicer means by “the real.” That was one of the things I was investigating in that “Tautology” essay. And actually one of the reasons I’m not satisfied with that now is because I think I’m trying to use the Lacanian sense of the real to probe the Spicerean sense of the real, and I don’t know if they fit.


“The real is that which always returns to the same place.” [11] It’s the obsessive thing in your life, the question you have to keep coming back to, the chronic idea, the reason that you can’t close the poem or conclude the poem. It’s the niggling thing that you can’t get to the bottom of.


But there’s another sense in which I think the real is not so much about a personal consciousness or unconscious or neurosis. The real is what’s out there — it’s the universe, in toto. It’s an earthquake. When you live in California, the world could collapse. When you live in Seattle, when you live anywhere, the world could open up and swallow you in the next second. And that’s the real. I’ve lived through a number of earthquakes, and the last big one was in 1989. One day, the walls start shaking, the windows start breaking, the lights go out, and that’s an earthquake. And it’s the real. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just there. It just happens. It’s this incredible force of “nature.” It’s an incredible force of the way things work.


It’s this overwhelming force. You drive out there and you’re looking at the geology, and you go, “My god, look at that, it’s fossilized force.” On this long road trip, I’m aware of that again. You’re going through a canyon and everything’s going like this [makes zigzag motion with hands] and you can feel how shaken we are all the time. There’s nothing you can do about that. That’s what the real is. I hesitate to put this in words, but I think that that is what Spicer is saying to some extent in that poem about the ocean, “Thing Language.” In that poem, the ocean is what’s real, and it’s meaningless. The ocean does not intend to be listened to. It’s not there to hear your poetry. It gives off “White and aimless signals.” We cannot read it, we don’t have access to it. Period. That’s all there is to it. And “No / One listens to poetry,” that’s the other part of it. See, I don’t know how those two things fit together.


PJ: Would the suggestion there be that listening to poetry is what tells us that there is that gap? That the real is there and not…


BD: Poetry is one of the things that tells us that. Philosophy does as well, sometimes. Depends on the philosopher. That might be. That could be true.


EB: But then sometimes language can also be complicit in covering it up, too.


BD: More often it is than not, I would think.


PJ: Don’t you talk in that essay about Spicer’s interest in poems that were like lemons — isn’t it like lemons, the image he uses? He wants to bring the real into the poem.


BD: He wants to bring the real into the poem, right. But that’s the letter to Lorca where he says you’re already defeated about that, you can’t do that. Remember the collages of the early Cubists. Now they look so quaint because you get these little fragments of very yellowed newspaper. The real doesn’t stay real, it moves on, it changes, so you can’t drag it into the poem bodily like that. Isn’t that where he starts talking about how you have to have correspondence? The lemon tree I see in California corresponds to something you saw in Spain. That’s how we speak to each other, in these rough correspondences. Because we do inhabit the same planet, and we touch at some level, at some point or points, we’ll get the idea of the thing, at least. Somehow a little bit of it gets transmitted in these correspondences.


PJ: To pick up another correspondence, this is also from “Something/Nothing.” There’s this passage that we both really love where you’re talking about thought and language. You say, “There’s an image of something, perhaps an ancient bird, embedded as a fossil in rock. So a thought seems embedded in language.” That image is fun because it’s a geological one, too, another sign of force, but it strikes me as a way to distinguish between thought and language without separating them. You see the fossil in the rock but the fossil is not necessarily the same thing as the rock. First of all, this is a fairly old essay, and you said yourself that you’re not sure if you hold to “The Tautology and the Real” anymore. Do you still think that way about thought and language? Do you see them as being dichotomous?


BD: Actually I re-read that the other day. That was a very controversial essay, by the way, when I gave it. It was a talk at a feminist conference on women working in literature. Most of the women there did not like it, they rose to speak against it, because it was going on about language theory instead of our lives. They were really literal-minded, many of them.


So do I still agree with that?


PJ: The dichotomy.


BD: You know, as a metaphor, I still do. I still like that as an idea, the thought being embedded. Because we write something and there it is, but that was then and this is now. I like the idea that that thought is fossilized, but it’s not what’s going on now, the present really is something else.


PJ: So the “language” that you are talking about in this metaphor is language as writing, or language as the past writing.


BD: Yes, it’s writing that I’m talking about. I hope we’re thinking through our writing! But it’s not a final thought or anything. It’s not like my last word, I hope! I’m just trying to indicate that we move on from our thoughts, from that thought to another thought to another thought.


I think that we look at a finished work and pick it to pieces and try to understand it, all the things we do in literature classes all our lives. That’s fun and nice. But the thing is that you can’t ever have that again, in a sense. If you’re the writer, particularly, it’s never going to happen again. The clearest example of this sort of thing, if I may, is haiku, which has been so popularized. Haiku is meant to be an expression [slaps her hands] of that, the sudden insight. The sudden sight of the moon. This quick little bit of enlightenment that comes to you in a flash. Nice, but the thing is you can only have that once. Once you’ve read about the old pond and the frog that jumps in and destroys the silence with “Plop,” that’s great but you can’t have that anymore. So that’s a frozen thought now. It’s just the opposite of what it was. What it was in that moment was this flash of enlightenment. What it is now is just this cute little poem. It’s not the thing.


EB: It strikes me that that’s part of what the form of A Reading addresses, conceptually, that it is always going and always contingent upon what comes next. And in being contingent upon what comes next, it acknowledges that what came before is before, is just one moment. I want to talk a little more about form in a bit, but practically speaking, I’m curious about your relationship to the publication of A Reading. Because it strikes me it might be odd to have what you wrote 20 years ago, it being so particular to that time, coming out now. Is that intentional on your part? Do you do it in order, or do you want it to be a time lag?


BD: That’s a very good question. I write, but I have no great ambition for publication, apparently, because I just don’t seek publication. If somebody asks me, “why don’t we do your book, why don’t we do a new book?” Well, then I have to sit down and edit the goddamn thing. A Reading is written as free association, but it isn’t an analysis, so editing it is difficult. So I’m terrible about publishing, I just don’t do it. I guess I feel guilty about it. There are all kinds of practical things that I don’t do. All my friends have sold their papers to an archive, and I don’t even know how you do that! [Laughs] I can’t stand it!


I’m not a professional, in that sense. I’ve never taught. I’ve taught a course here and there, but I haven’t got a career and I haven’t got a sense of publishing. If somebody wants to publish something they’ll ask me. Rob Halpern got on me about that the other day. “So that’s your M.O. is it? You wait around for somebody to ask you!” And I said, “’fraid so, that’s the way it is.” Maybe I have to try to figure out if I should do something about that, what do you think? No, it’s not deliberate. It’s just that I’m lazy about aspects of being a writer.


EB: I’m sympathetic with that, because when you say that this is something that’s in progress and it’s always going to be in progress, one of the things you’re doing is letting it exist outside of the capitalist market —


BD: I hope so! It’s not that I’m objecting to being a professional. I have nothing against it. It’s just not my thing. It has never been something I could deal with. I always just go straight off track if I try to deal with it that way. You know, the time I was trying to get my teaching credentials. I never did, I never never never did.


And I’m much more an outsider I think than people believe or want to deal with. I’m really a beatnik!


PJ: Clearly you’re willing to work with something for a long time. I have a question about form in writing A Reading. There’s a recent piece that Rachel Blau Duplessis published on long poetry — I think it was actually a talk she gave — where she cites Ron Silliman’s idea that the length of a long poem might actually be a secondary effect of the activity that the writer chooses. [12] On the one hand, that seems to fit really well with A Reading as an activity. On the other hand, though, the epigraph to the first volume was very much calling attention to the potential interminability of the project, so it seems that length was at least recognizably part of the project itself. How would you respond to that notion: is A Reading an activity and length just a secondary consequence, or is the fact that this can keep going part of what interested you?


BD: If by length you mean some sort of ambition that it should be a thousand pages, or something like that…


PJ: I’m just thinking big, it’s big!


BD: Volume after volume…


EB: It doesn’t end.


PJ: It doesn’t end, it keeps going.


BD: Well, I never thought of it as a long poem. I just thought of it as open-ended. In a way I’m sort of surprised that it’s as short as it is. There really isn’t that much of it. I mean there are manuscripts that haven’t been published in book form, but it’s an open-ended project. So that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be long.


Now I mean Rachel’s approach is totally different. She has got things so organized in her Drafts series, and she’s got slots for things she hasn’t written yet. It’s like this complex box of interlocking this’s and that’s, and it’s really so different from what I’ve ever thought of doing. I don’t want my comments about Rachel to sound in any way like a criticism. I want to emphasize that we love and respect one another’s work but my work is very different from hers. And in fact, I don’t write A Reading all the time. I write other things than poems. It’s hard for me to organize, it’s hard for me to finish things. So I don’t have a clear sense of any of that. A Reading as it exists now in its printed form is pretty much what it is, but there will be more. There conceivably will be more, there will be more volumes. And then people are talking about well, why don’t we do a one-volume book incorporating everything, and that’s OK, we can do that. Maybe that will get done. [Laughs]


PJ: It just interested me because in the published form it starts off quoting Steiner quoting Wittgenstein on the interminability of the analysis, and there’s something both exciting and terrifying about undertaking something like that.


BD: In the beginning, it was both, to do something that’s interminable. I wrote about that in “Forbidden Knowledge.” [13] There’s another long piece called “Carnal Knowledge” that I’m not sure you’ve seen, but that’s also out. [14] That was something that I wrote for Naropa University, and I gave it at Naropa as a lecture.


It’s published in River City, and it was interesting to me to reread it because it’s really clear that that’s a cumulative piece. It reads like John Taggart’s work, Peace on Earth. [15] Like minimalist music, you have a line and then a slight variation, and it builds on itself that way over extended pages.


EB: I’m curious about form on a more micro-level. I noticed that, when reading A Reading 1–7, you’re dealing with the sentence and the paragraph in a certain way. And that seems to have changed by the time I get to Reading 18–20, there’s more of a breadth of forms. When you sit down to work on A Reading, do you know what linguistic or page form you’re going to be working with?


BD: The basic form became those sectioned-off pieces that look more like prose than anything. But then as time goes on, things that look more like poems come into it. I’m not sure how that works. It’s really hard to say how, when you don’t plan something ahead, how it happened. It’s kind of hard to look back and say, well, this happened because I suddenly saw this as a poem. It wasn’t something I worked on. I don’t do all that much editing, or thinking about “now what kind of form do I want for this and that?” It’s really pretty spontaneous. So you know, for example, in what I read the other night, the letter to Michael, which is really an essay, is bracketed by what I think of as two poems, or two halves of the same poem. [16]


EB: That’s a particularly interesting example, too, because in the middle of that letter, you’ve got the quotation from Barrett Watten, [17] where you say, “I’d like to be able to use this, but I can’t really do anything with it except quote it in its entirety,” almost as if there’s this very strong core, and then the poem is being built out from around that core of language…


BD: I remember struggling with that essay. It’s really hard to read Barry! But I was just obsessed with that negativity business that he was writing about. My counter to that was the Kristeva. Someone asked me “did I really believe it?” You know, I’m not sure. I mean, it’s a wonderful little fantasy, but what do we have besides fantasy, in life? We’ve got the real, and we’ve got fantasy! [18] [Laughs]


PJ: Changing gears a little bit: A Reading Spicer & 18 Sonnets [19] was published in a series dedicated to “Western Poetry.” Do you recognize a “Western poet” when you see one?


BD: I don’t know! That was Charles Alexander’s idea, I had no idea that was going to happen with that book. I’ve never talked to him about the “Western poets.” I guess there are people who are identified with the West and Southwest more than not, and I have a certain amount of trouble with the bi-coastal business because I think that in some ways it’s pretty artificial.


I do have a sense of myself being a regional poet. I’ve always lived in the West, and I feel there are certain characteristics to having had that kind of life. I’ve never really wanted to live anywhere else. I don’t know if this is different for people who’ve always lived in the East, or not, but some of us are more susceptible to taking on the myths of our place, the place where we happen to have grown up. I was certainly very open to that growing up in Oregon. I think the essay on beauty [20] is reflective of that. As a child I was absolutely in love with the landscape of Oregon. I didn’t know anything else, but I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth, even if I’d never seen anywhere else or anything else. And then the history of the place was very new. It was a very new place. Of course, as you grow up you accumulate more and more of the myths, and then you change the myth and you find out something about the real history. There’s a whole interplay and a whole dialectic that goes on. Our sense of guilt about what happened to the Native populations, and our sense of disaster that capitalism brought. You know, they’ve really finished this place off. It’s really shocking. [21]


I realized as we were driving up here [to Seattle from San Francisco], I could never live here anymore because the place is so clear cut. It’s just so devastated. They’ve really extirpated those Douglas Fir forests that I remember, and replaced them all with deciduous trees. They’ve changed the entire ecology of the Northwest. I can’t believe it! So you know, it’s that kind of thing that I feel deeply as a native of this part of the world. Having now lived most of my life in California, I feel as strongly about the ecology of California. I don’t know how people who live in the East see these things. I assume there are environmentalists everywhere, and they all have some sort of sense of place. I know that. But it would have to be somewhat different. That’s very far from the literary expression, but there is a tradition of Western writing about the land, the landscape, and about wilderness itself because this is the place where it last occurred. With David Brower and the Sierra Club, all that began to be important to people as a political issue beginning in the 60s.


There was one little line that just popped into my head, it’s somewhere in A Reading, that line about the Columbia being polluted by the runoff from the Hanford plant. [22] It’s a good question. I don’t know about the Western angle. Jack Spicer was very much a regional poet, and he intended to publish only within the Bay Area.


EB: We wanted to talk about beauty a little bit. Those images that you talk about seeing, driving up the coast, why you couldn’t live in Oregon anymore because of the clear cut — those are images of destruction. You take those up really usefully, I think, in your essay on beauty and it seems like it’s a problem you’re trying to actively work out right now, this relationship between beauty and ethics, and destruction or death.


PJ:You said on Monday that you want to believe in beauty in an ethical way, and I want to know if you could elaborate on that a little bit. That also reminded me of the very end of the beauty essay, where you link beauty to death, and you say that they are both a mercy. Do you think that there’s a link in your work, in your thinking, between beauty, transience, and ethics?


BD: Yes. In the essay, beauty is linked to death right away. I think that beauty is always tinged with sadness, for me. It’s a very different idea of beauty — I don’t know if it’s a kind of subset of the idea of the sublime, because the sublime is awesome and terrifying. Looking down the Columbia River Gorge could be a sublime experience, but beauty for me is wispy, it’s transient. Those images that were in the essay. The thing that I quote at the end is from an older part of A Reading, that beauty is a mercy. Well I should think that’s sort of obvious, isn’t it, or not? Do I have to explain? Beauty is a mercy.


PJ: There’s something both tragic and profound about it… Maybe here’s another way of asking the question: is beauty part of the real, because you talked earlier about the real being a powerful force. And the real in ourselves, the other definition of the real, the Lacanian definition of the real, is that thing we keep coming back to. So, if beauty is part of the real, or somehow participating in it, is that — I don’t know what the right word is here. I almost want to say consolation, and is that what you’re getting at by mercy?


BD: Well, consolation is not quite it because consolation is something second best. And that isn’t what I mean. I probably mean something that’s more religious, in calling it a mercy. I should write an essay about that. I realized when I came to the end of that essay that what I really needed to write about is these old sayings that go way back in my work, that beauty is a mercy and so is death. I don’t know what I mean by that, and that’s why I need to write an essay. I think it must mean something like: because life is painful and sorrowful and grief-stricken [chuckles] — and laughter is a mercy too! [Laughs] Because life is painful, beauty is a gratuity, and so it’s a given, and that’s what makes it a mercy. It’s a given as grace is a given, and it’s not present all the time. Sitting here looking at these flowering chestnuts is such a wonderful thing, and they’re beautifully in bloom. It’s a part of life. And it’s probably part of the real, though I’d have to really think about that. Certainly, it seems to be. And the part about death being a mercy is that you can’t want to live for ever. You must want, at some point, to just let it go, mustn’t you? If you read Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, you really get the sense of that. People talk about the death instinct, and that’s really not a good way of thinking about it. Ripeness is all, and then it’s over. So transience is always a part of that, of that sort of cluster of ideas.

Beverly Dahlen, photo by Jackie

Beverly Dahlen
photo by Jackie Link


EB: This is kind of a follow up question and kind of not. I suppose this is a feminist question. Since A Reading is a life project in some sense, how have the realities of aging, of growing older, how has that changed your relationship to either this elusive real, or to your sense of feminist issues, or your sense of your own work in relationship to your body or yourself. How has that changed over time, especially as you’ve grown older?


BD: I don’t think it is a feminist question per se, it is a human question. Everyone dies and everyone is to some extent in denial about death. I don’t think A Reading is so much a life project as it is an “unfinished” project, as Paul describes it. In a sense everyone dies before their life is finished. Somewhere in A Reading I say “Death is never timely.” But aging is — honestly, I have to say I really don’t like it. I think I’m avoiding facing up to all its implications. And I think I’m angry about aging. There’s a kind of invisibility — people don’t see you on the street. So that makes me angry, angry and jealous of young people. Aging as a feminist issue would include all this and more as aging relates to women. It’s really hard when a woman is single, has few resources, no family, not much at all to look forward to. I don’t mean myself here.


PJ: I don’t know how quickly we want to change gears, but one last question in terms of practice: you said that you didn’t get your teaching certificate but you did work in the field of adult literacy. What link do you see between teaching language and your work in poetry? Is there a dialectic or a dialogue there, in your own life and work?


BD: I’m retired now from that program, but I feel it’s really interesting to go and work all day with really basic language skills. When I’m reading my writing from that time, I see that it’s really feeding in. Thinking about totally basic grammar and usage and spelling, you think about things like that in your own writing. I see my students reflected there sometimes. I also worked for a long time in a program with young people who were incarcerated in juvenile hall, in Alameda County. We were doing writing workshops with them, and I see them reflected in my own writing. There’s a lot in A Reading where the source is not given necessarily, but sometimes I acknowledge my sources. I didn’t want to do ten pages of footnotes for every one page of A Reading, but there are places where I’ve done that. Ben Friedlander, when he lived in the Bay Area, edited and published a couple of magazines. One was Jimmy and Lucy’s House of “K”, and the other was Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root. I did notes about the origins of one part of A Reading and it was absolutely amazing. I traced every line. [I remember a quotation that appears in A Reading is from Ruth Rendell’s novel Shake Hands Forever: “‘that goddamned crook and thief Robert Hathall’ whose life of crime resembles our own.” That was one part of the account I wrote for Ben. A Reading is about reading texts, among other things, and it’s also the only time in my life when I’ve been able to keep a daily journal. I also thought, somewhat sardonically, that I’d always have something new to read when asked to give a reading.]


[1] This interview took place at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, on May 6, 2009. Many thanks to Jeanne Heuving, who hosted Beverly Dahlen as part of her “Writing for their Lives” series at the University of Washington, Bothell, and who first suggested the interview. The project was completed in part with the support of the Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH) at the University of Washington.

[2] The bracketed sentences, here and in subsequent paragraphs, were added by Beverly after the interview.

[3] Beverly did see Bill Witherup at the Subtext reading that evening; he died about a month later of complications arising from an undiagnosed leukemia.

[4] How2 1.5 (March 2001) included a special section devoted to the origins and influence of HOW(ever). Ann Vickery’s contribution was entitled “Kathleen Fraser’s Feminist Alternative: HOW(ever).”

[5] Penguin, 1971.

[6] My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Middletown: Wesleyan, 2008).

[7] These lines are from Spicer’s poem “Thing Language.”

[8] Published in Temblor 10 (1989). In a later email exchange, Beverly noted that having re-read “Tautology and the Real,” her ideas in that essay do still hold for her.

[9] Ironwood 14 (1986) contained a special section on Dahlen, including a republication of The Egyptian Poems, which were originally published by Hipparchia Press, Berkeley CA, in 1983.

[10] R. T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1959).

[11] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), Translator’s Notes, X.

[12] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Considering the long poem: genre problems” Readings webjournal 4 <

[13] Poetics Journal 4 (1984).

[14] River City 16.1 (1996).

[15] Turtle Island, 1981.

[16] A Reading 18–20 (Boulder: Instance, 2006), 12–15.

[17] From Watten’s essay “The XYZ of Reading: Negativity (& Diane Ward)” Jimmy and Lucy’s House of “K” 1 (Oakland: May, 1984).

[18] The real, here, referring to an everyday sense of the word, not the Lacanian sense of the word.

[19] Tuscon: Chax, 2004.

[20] “Beauty: Another Reading,” Crayon 5 (2009).

[21] Robert Adams, Turning Back: A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration (San Francisco: Fraenkel/Marks, 2005). Beverly later noted that this “discussion about beauty and ethics owes a great deal to this book and to Adams’ essays. I cite Adams in the essay on beauty. I should note that Freud thought that our sense of beauty was derived from sexuality, that, in short, it is a sublimation. Obviously, I think it is more complicated than that.”

[22] In a follow-up email, Beverly sent us the reference: “a story of, a tale of jars, or a jar, the essence leaked out spread in the night air. some tale, receding, in which the substance, sealed or thought to have been sealed, somehow escaped and mixed with the air usually causing great harm, plutonium leaking into the Columbia River at the Hanford works. these stories, we follow in their footsteps. following his footsteps in the snow he found himself warmed. it was true. the king was a saint.” (A Reading 8–10, Tucson: Chax, 1992, 105).

Emily Beall is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington department of English, and her research takes up questions of embodiment, feminism, and experimental writing. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. A few of her poems have appeared in the online journal EOAGH.

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen currently lives in Seattle, where he is completing his doctoral dissertation on the many evolutions of the life poem.

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