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Michael Gizzi and Craig Watson in conversation with
9 June 2006
Michael Gizziwas born in Schenectady, New York in 1949. He received his BA and MFA from Brown University where he studied with Keith Waldrop. Subsequently, he was associated with the circle of poets centered around Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press. For seven years he worked as a tree surgeon in southeastern New England, before moving in the early eighties to the Berkshire Hills where he collaborated on several Kerouac-inspired projects with Clark Coolidge. In the 1990s, he edited the Profile Series for Hard Press in West Stockbridge. His books include Continental Harmony (Roof, 1991) No Both (Hard Press/The Figures, 1997), My Terza Rima (The Figures, 2001), and New Depths of Deadpan (Burning Deck, 2009). He lives in Providence, RI.
Craig Watson is the author of Secret Histories (Burning Deck, 2007), True News (Instance Press, 2002), and Free Will (Roof, 2000) and eight other books and chapbooks. Shearsman Press will publish his new book, Sleepwalking With Orpheus in 2010. He has worked in the performing arts, corporate arts, literary arts and emergency services, among other oddly chosen vocations. He lives on an island at the mouth of Narragansett Bay and spends an ever-decreasing amount of time on the “main” land.
MIR: First, I want to start with some basic questions. How did you guys first meet? Part of the reason why I want to do this interview is because you guys have been friends for a long time.
WATSON: It was this dark leather bar. [laughter] And Michael was cruising… No. The first time I met Michael Gizzi was in the summer of 1976. I had just moved from Northwest Connecticut to Providence and had met the Waldrops [Keith & Rosmarie] and some others. We went out to Michael’s house which was somewhere out in Rehoboth [Massachusetts] or Seekonk [Massachusetts]…
WATSON: … for brunch and Michael was about thirty feet up in a tree [laughter] and as far as I recall he remained there for quite a while… while we were shown around the house, introduced to his wife, and his daughter who was the same age as a daughter I had… have. That was the beginning. Hawkes [John] was there; Jack Hawkes was with us, the Waldrops. I don’t remember. But, Mike was up in this tree and being somewhat recalcitrant.
MIR: [Michael,] was that tree surgeon days?
GIZZI: Yeah. I guess I was nervous about people coming over [laughter]…
WATSON: It was funny!
GIZZI: … so I retired to a tree.
WATSON: You hadn’t broken a lot of bones at that point.
WATSON: That was early on.
MIR: Were you finished with Brown at that point?
GIZZI: No, in ’76 I graduated, I got my undergraduate degree and started graduate school in the fall. And had purchased this house in Rehoboth, and my wife, Ippy, who was also a writer and an artist very much wanted to own a house, so it happened that we did because she made things happen. It was a really wonderful place and I do remember that afternoon. I think I was feeling a bit shy, uncomfortable, not that these people weren’t all friends, I just felt uncomfortable. As I recall, it must be the reason why I was up in a tree.
WATSON: Showing off! He was very amusing, though. [Michael,] don’t be so self-deprecating. He was very funny, very entertaining. I was terrified.
GIZZI: I remember Jack [Hawkes] saying something funny.
MIR: So, that’s funny, the whole crew from Brown went out to Rehoboth to visit you.
WATSON: But, I was the real newcomer.
MIR: What brought you [Craig] to Providence?
WATSON: A job — I had worked in the theatre in Hartford [Connecticut] for five years and eventually sort of timed out on that job. I just had a second baby, I needed a bit more secure kind of day job than the erratic life of theatre, and so I came to Providence with an offer to create the Office of Cultural Affairs for the city of Providence. For the next five years I produced concerts, festivals, poetry readings, and art shows around the parks department… and created a municipal arts office, which still exists, actually, in the city.
GIZZI: That’s where you met Bob Rizzo, right?
WATSON: And lots of others.
GIZZI: Did he work with you, or did he take over after…
WATSON: He took over my job after I left in 1980. I think there was someone else in the job for like a year, and then Bob took it and held it for the next twenty years.
MIR: Were you writing poetry at that time, Craig?
WATSON: Yes, I started writing poetry when I was fourteen or fifteen and haven’t found a way out yet. [laughter]
MIR: Did you have any idea who the Waldrops were when you came?
WATSON: Oh, yeah. I had been in touch with the Waldrops. I lived in a little town called Canton, CT up in northwest Connecticut. Not all the way up in the hills, not quite Berkshires, but some thirty miles outside of Hartford. So, I was very isolated and my whole literary life consisted of correspondence. I was in close — and of course before email — it was just a very active life of letters with a lot of people, including the Waldrops — the Waldrops were never great letter writers, but they were great publishers. I had bought lots of their books and had been in touch with them and told them I was coming to Providence. They were very welcoming.
So, I knew them, I knew Tom Ahern in advance, I had read Hawkes, Hawkes was something of a god for me. I think that that day may have been the first time I had ever met Hawkes, and that was terrifying in itself. Those were some of the people I knew. We [Watson’s family] rented a little house — it was pretty rundown — out in the woods where Chris grew up, my son, for the first five years. We had acres and acres of woods and streams all around us.
That’s when I first became a volunteer fireman because pretty much all the men in the town became fireman, which was about your only defense against disaster. So, that’s when I started to get into that.
MIR: How about you, Mike, did you know the Waldrops before coming to Providence?
GIZZI: No, I met them in 1971 at Brown. The way I met them was through my wife, Ippy. At the time she was a student at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. We came to Providence because she’d been accepted to RISD. We were in Stockbridge, Massachusetts at the time. And I thought well, let’s go. If you’re going, I’m going and I’m going to apply to Brown. That was ’70/’71 and one could… one could actually… Well, I went to the English Department, which was in Horace Mann [former English Department building] on George Street. I brought my poems that I had written over the past couple of years.
I’d been in a psychiatric hospital, which as it turned out was a great experience. I learned a lot, met a lot of amazing people, don’t regret it at all. So, I brought my poems and my one story to Edwin Honig and Jim Schevill and spoke with them and they actually spoke with me. They were very gracious and they helped me get into school. I don’t think you could do that nowadays. So, I was very fortunate because I really didn’t go about things in the proper fashion. I really was helped by a lot of people… I am very grateful. Anyway…
WATSON: They were both very generous, grand…
GIZZI: Yeah, they really were…
WATSON: … men
GIZZI: Gentlemen. And so, Ippy was at RISD and she was very much interested in writing. In fact, her writing was so good that it inspired me to work harder and to try other things in writing. A man named Phil Bailey, who ended up being a good friend of ours, was the English teacher at Brown, he and Mike Fink, excuse me, at RISD. He [Bailey] said to Ippy you should go up and find somebody at Brown because they have a writing program. So, they sent her work up to Keith Waldrop. He read it and he thought it was fantastic. He wanted to meet this person, and when he met her… of course, she’s extremely attractive as well so there’s no way Keith wasn’t interested [laughter]. I ended up meeting them at their house because they invited Ippy and me over. I hit it off immediately with Rosmarie, but as I said to Bart St. Armand, “You know, I don’t think Keith Waldrop likes me.” [And he said,] “Well, maybe it’s because you’re too tan.” [laughter] But, we got to be obviously very good friends soon after that.
MIR: What first drew you both to poetry and was it a first choice of arts?
WATSON: Of course, the money. [laughter] That’s what I went for at first. Actually, I started painting in my teens. I had more exposure to the visual arts and visual arts materials and ideas than anything else. I started off painting and somehow branched off and started writing poetry from that. By the time I was in my early twenties I was pretty singularly committed to writing poetry. I wrote plays at that time too, but I stopped writing plays by my mid twenties. That’s not an entirely coherent answer, but it’s the best there is.
MIR: Do you still paint?
WATSON: I don’t. What happened to me… painting, playing music, which I also did, and other artistic interests… the pressures of time and life, you know, winnowed things down so that it’s hard enough to do one activity, to focus on one creative art form when you have a full life of jobs and people and families and things like that. So, reluctantly that’s gone by. In terms of where the initial impulse started that’s probably a deep and complicated question for both of us… and probably differently…
MIR: Might even be unanswerable.
WATSON: Yeah. The cheap answer is… For me, it was a sort of act of rebellion. I was living in a really brain dead, awful middle-class community in central Connecticut. Being creative and just expressing or thinking, both of those were highly marginalized activities… and ostracized activities. That’s probably what drew me to them in the beginning.
GIZZI: Well, my father was a chemical engineer, but he was very much interested in the arts and always had been. He was sort of a frustrated artist himself. He introduced me to music, art, poetry. I remember his favorite poem being — I memorized it — “Miniver Cheevy,” about a guy in the trenches in the First World War. I think it’s Edward Arlington Robinson. In any case, the same guy who wrote “Richard Cory.” That really made an impression on me — I was about eleven, ten or eleven.
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and
steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.
Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.
Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
I was an incredible daydreamer, and we were always moving, so I lived in my head. I was always looking for ways to escape from the reality of moving, meeting new people, I was afraid of everything it seemed. It [poetry] appealed to me. As did sports, which appealed to me because I could play them and they were another escape. I was not a team player. I was into the great outlet of frustration and, in many cases, anger. So, sports and poetry were my two early fixations. When I broke my knee in half on a kickoff return when I was eighteen I had an amazing hallucination or out of body experience, I guess you’d call it. It was as though my body were a pebble or the ball bearing in a slingshot, which were the ligaments, I assume, from my knee. They all snapped and I was shot into the air, and then I floated down and I had a green book in my hands. Like a prayer book, but I knew it was a poetry book. It was a green book, which is what was most significant. I remember the thought, “It’s over.” Trying to decide which way to go, sports or writing. I knew I couldn’t quit sports, but I knew I couldn’t do anything unless it was forced upon me. That was a significant thing that happened.
WATSON: What was the green book?
GIZZI: I don’t know. It didn’t have a title. It was a green book.
MIR: Did it look like it had words in it?
GIZZI: It had more… sort of arabesques on the cover. Almost like, when I saw it later, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. So, I wrote poems all the time. My mother would take them out of my suit jackets, because I went to a school where you had to where a jacket and tie.
MIR: Catholic school?
GIZZI: Yep. She would give them to my father who would have his secretary type them up. He’d pass them around. I would grab every copy I could and throw them away. I hadn’t shown them to anybody. It was kind of inappropriate, an invasion of my privacy. And, as Craig said, it was definitely a form of rebellion. When I heard Bob Dylan at fourteen I knew that I was on the right track. That’s the kind of poet I wanted to be — a combination of Bob Dylan and John Keats, if such a thing is possible. A baiter of bears. [laughter]
MIR: Michael, in your poetry ‘place’ is often central. I know from talking to you, but also from your writing, books you’ve co-edited like Lowell Connector and The Blind See Only This World, that New England is central to your imagination. Could you talk about how you view ‘place’ in your writing and what, beyond love of Kerouac and Wieners, drew you to those projects?
GIZZI: Those things just kind of came about. I definitely love New England. I feel like I’m a New Englander. I feel very comfortable here and I’ve lived other places. It worked. I remember being in Upstate New York [pruning trees] and I became really obsessed with Wallace Stevens who actually wasn’t from New England, he was from Pennsylvania. He was a kind of quintessential New England sensibility in a way, for me.
Kerouac, I got into when I realized that I had a lot in common with him insofar as I was a kind of first generation Italian-American, so I identified with that immigrant thing. I indentified with the jazz — the energy definitely. He had also been a big sports guy. We had a lot in common, so I could relate to him. I like the idea of, having had a lot of energy, just going for it.
Wieners, I think, is just an incredible poet who, as he says [about his method], “I just say the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” I relate to that, too. I just think he’s a heartbreakingly great poet — also, a formal poet.
I like Creeley.
Olson was my biggest, my first big turn on. He’s really a New England poet.
MIR: Were you drawn to these particular poets because…
GIZZI: I think I was drawn to them, and the poets like them, first of all because of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. You know, I liked O’Hara and Ashbery. Jimmy Schuyler, I love him — some of the west coast poets. I like Jack Spicer a lot.
But, definitely I identify with things New England. Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson…
MIR: Craig, do you feel like New England, since you’re also a New Englander, influences your writing?
WATSON: I have tried to escape the gravity field of New England several times in my life and failed, so I think that attachment is organic and inseparable in some primary way.
MIR: Does ‘place’ feel important for you? In your writing, unlike Michael’s, there isn’t a lot of direct naming of things New England. I’m wondering how feel about New England while you’re writing. Does ‘place’ figure in?
WATSON: Place, as an idea, is very prominent, I think, in a lot of my later work. In True News, the center of the book is called “Geographies” and it’s an interrogation of four places, none of which is New England. The organizing idea premising the whole series is the nature of place and what does it mean to be in a particular place in a particular time. Who am I, or who is the observer/participant in these places? So ‘place’ as an idea as a context to be aware of is pretty important.
You’re right, I don’t reference ‘home’ places in the same way as Michael does. Generally, we don’t have a very similar syntax or sort of poetic rhythm, so that wouldn’t be true for me. Someday I hope to write something about Jamestown [Rhode Island], but in twenty years of living here I still haven’t quite figured out what that is. [laughter]
MIR: So, I’m going to ask you this question that sort of relates to what you’ve brought up on your own, because I was thinking of the ‘local’ in your work as well. In the line from “Ecuador” in True News, “that which we inhabit/inhabits us,” and this relates to something like “Steppe Work” [from Secret Histories] as well — and maybe even those math books on your shelf — placing yourself in a different locale does that free up your imagination more… travelling from here to Mongolia by doing a lot of research?
WATSON: Yeah, but I don’t want to limit it to a sort of fantasy experience. It’s not really imaginary. In the case of the “Ecuador” poem, which comes from having spent some time in Ecuador and adopting a baby in Ecuador, and again there I’m very much trying to think through or at least interrogate the question of what does it mean to be from a place, what does this mean now that I, an American born in the mid-twentieth century have now adopted a child from Cuenca, Ecuador and brought her back to the United States to be raised. There are lots of dialectics going on there, cultural and historical, political, and racial, so it’s an actual experience. It’s not just the imagination of that [experience].
In “Steppe Work,” the way that transferred was from the physicality of place to the reality of history, and of course I couldn’t enter the reality of thirteenth century Mongolia, so I tried to interrogate that from research, from imagination.I also use music a lot, from a lot of different sources. The question being raised [in “Steppe Work”] is similar [to “Ecuador”]. What can be known? What can be learned, what can be understood about that experience, you know, even though I can’t participate in that, personally.
MIR: With a poem like “Steppe Work,” do you feel that thirteenth century Mongolian mysticism and esotericism figure into your imagination in the same way esoteric systems would with someone like Yeats or Duncan?
WATSON: I hope not, he says, emphatically. I have respect for both of those people in certain contexts, but that appropriation of mythologies, the privileging of esoteric systems for their own sake is not something that would interest me very much. Any project that I write that’s heavily influenced by a source material, like “Steppe Work,” has multiple points of entry. “Steppe Work” didn’t just come out of a desire to write about the Mongolian empire. It was something I was interested in for a long time, and I didn’t really know where that came from, and I started trying to think that through, but the principle line there was a book called The Secret History of the Mongols, which is an orally transmitted text from the time of Genghis Khan that was only written down and then eventually published in Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century, and is still very rare in Western languages. Plus, I have an interest in Greek fragments and early Greek poetry.
So you see that sort of form applying a lot there, and the fact that the Mongols had created the largest land-based empire in the history of the world, and that’s something my country is now heavily invested in doing, so I was very interested in the nature of empire. I suppose more of the energy came from the nature of empire and the appropriation of other cultures, languages, and traditions than it did from any sense of mysticism.
GIZZI: Good answer!
WATSON: Those are not two poets [Yeats and Duncan] in whose company I would normally expect to be found.
MIR: I didn’t necessarily think so.
WATSON: Probably my lack, but it’s true.
MIR: How do you approach form in your work?
WATSON: Form, structure, presentational elements, for me, are best when they are derived from the actual writing, when they’re part of the dialogue that’s going on in the writing process. It’s true that we all have to start somewhere, and we all start with some set of assumptions, so when I start writing, which I usually do by hand, you know, rough and raw material, I have some sense of form. I’m either writing sentences or I’m not, for instance. What will I allow a line to be, you know? Does it have to have a verb? Do they all start with prepositions? There’s usually some sense of that, but that’s just to get things moving. One of the reasons my work takes so long to evolve, frustratingly so for me, is that I sort of have to work on it and work through it and remold it until the form or the presentational structure arrives.
“Persuasion and Judgment” was consciously written out of my corporate experience, all of the utterances in that poem were in a sense quotations, in a sense they all belonged in the corporate world that I inhabited at that time, so writing them down wasn’t hard, but figuring out how they related, and how to narrativize them, and how to build something through them, that was the harder part. I think form evolves, or structural relations evolve in dialogue with what the writing is doing.
MIR: Michael, in your work, I know from many of our conversations, and also from reading it, that improvisation is especially important. I know that you’re really into jazz. I’m wondering if you share Craig’s view of form? That is, form comes while you’re writing — do you ever think about form?
GIZZI: Well, I used to think about it, in the beginning more often. I remember the first sort of mature thing I wrote was Bird As, which I wrote in response to a final exam in metaphysics — it was way over my head, I don’t know why I took it.
MIR: The metaphysics or the poem?
GIZZI: The course, but I loved the language they [the metaphysicians] used. And so, I filled my blue notebook with the answers, which became basically Bird As — so that was improvisational. That was where I first really learned how to do it, up against the wall I had to turn something in and I had three hours. I had all the notes I’d taken for the entire semester, extensive notes, and I used them to make this poem.
I had been obsessed with birds as a young man, really obsessed with them, so then I thought on the strength of what I’d written, Bird As & Other River Parts, that I would write another book about [birds], playing off the word “avis,” dead bird, bird in a dead language. So, I did that and I started out writing poems in which the only stipulation was that they have the word “avis” in them someplace, and I got about ten or twelve of those. I remember at that time Edmond Jabès was visiting and I told him what I was doing. He gave me a few [unintelligible] — it was interesting to him. I couldn’t write anymore [of those poems], it seemed to me that it was going to become tedious or forced, so I just went on with other things to do with birds and stuff like that, I was interested in people like Crevecoeur, I was reading those Loeb classics, reading all those works on natural history, I got some stuff out of that, and that’s how I finished the book Avis.
WATSON: Those are green, you know. The Loeb Classics.
GIZZI: Yeah, I never thought of that. In any case, I was also working as a tree surgeon at the time and I had a horrible job spraying all of the trees on a hot day in the summer, every tree in Swan Point cemetery, which is a lot of trees, that’s a lot of poison. I had a guy drive the truck and I would just walk behind with the spray gun and spray them all. It got so boring I’d spray headstones, you know, and stuff like that. I sprayed this one headstone, I was feeling stoned from all this poison, my hair was blond from [the poison] raining down and the sun hitting my hair. In any case, I sprayed down this headstone — I was trying to figure out how to end this book Avis — and I hit the headstone and [it said] “Samuel Walter Avis,” I sprayed this stone, he was born on February 13, which is the day I was born. It was really weird. I thought this is it, so I drew a headstone, there’s a headstone in the back of the book, and I wrote a poem about looking at that headstone, riffing off of that. So, there again is improvisation of a sort.
Then I got into Species of Intoxication and that was a little bit more like what Craig does, I did a lot of research on a guy named Dr. Ordinaire. I’d read about him in Horticulture Magazine, or some place.
MIR: Yeah, I was wondering if he was a real person or not.
GIZZI: Yeah, he was. He came up with, he was kind of a shadowy character, but he was the one who came up with the recipe, the original recipe for absinthe. He was a royalist during the Napoleonic era, so he escaped to Switzerland. In fact, he hid under a bed with his recipe apparently. He sold it to the Pernot brothers. The rest is history. But, he in fact had written this recipe, devised it. So, I wrote the book thinking I’ll write his journal. Everyplace is what I would take to be a garden and they got further and further out, they might be Aranjuez, you know in the south of Spain, which is a garden or they might be just Locus Solus. So, there were a lot of those [poems] and that [the book] was more or less successful — it was kind of our job to do, some of them I like and I was trying to strike a certain couple of tones in that [book]. Then I didn’t write anything for a long time, and then I came up with Continental Harmony. Those were more influenced by jazz and Crevecoeur.
MIR: Yeah, Species of Intoxication seems the most different of your books.
GIZZI: So, there was about a ten-year hiatus, and then I came up with these more or less jazz America poems.
WATSON: Although jazz wasn’t a starting point, right? It was Charles Ives.
GIZZI: It was Charles Ives, yeah. But, they were influenced by that kind of impulse. That book was based, thank you [Craig] for reminding me, on Charles Ives. It had three American figures, Ives, Jim Thompson, and the first inspiration, which had been William Billings, the great American composer of anthems, who was the first real American composer. I’d been studying his songbooks. I worked at the Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., and they had a very extensive library, they had all these Billings’ scores, I used to study them, and he was sort of the first inkling of someone like Ives in being an iconoclast and singularly American. Of course, Jim Thompson, the American dark side, so that’s what that book was about. Continental Harmony was the last songbook of William Billings. And then, it truly got into jazz and that kind of thing. Now, I feel I’m over that. Well, I feel I’ve done what I can with that, and I’m having a hard time coming up with the next thing.
MIR: Do you think My Terza Rima was the end of that phase?
GIZZI: Yeah. Again, that had a bit of a form — it’s Dante, but Dante on nitrous oxide. No Both was a family thing.
MIR: There are some lines at the end of your poem “American Scriptor” in Continental Harmony…
GIZZI: “Americana Scriptor.”
Best author I ever knew
was an arm
Didn’t point to any one thing
just delivered the picture
like a Satchel Paige kinescope by rote
Said in fact when the voices stopped
‘It felt like I lost my arm’
That passage makes me think of Williams’ idea, “No ideas, but in things.” I’m also wondering if at that particular moment, or could you say over the whole course of your writing life, that that’s been a general philosophy, to avoid a grand statement and do more of a “pointing towards?”
GIZZI: Yeah, I would say so. I feel at some point, though, in order to continue I need some sort of framework. Be it a loose goosey Dante, be it family, you know, be it Pernot, be it a word in Latin — it can be very vague and loose, but I need it, in fact it needn’t be too constraining, but I need something.
Williams is one of my favorite poets, a big influence. I had the idea, I remember thinking, you know, if I write longhand I could write things I don’t even think, I don’t know I was even going to write. Of course, now I can’t really write like that anymore because I can’t write that fast or legibly, so I’ve switched pretty much to the computer, I never thought I’d do that, I mean I pooh-poohed that until it poohed on me. [laughter]
WATSON: You’re not writing in notebooks anymore?
GIZZI: A little bit, but I just can’t. I feel like I can go faster at the computer now.
MIR: I just thought of this, too, with the mentioning of Satchel Paige. How does history figure in for you? You’ve talked a little about it with Billings’ songbooks, but with No Both, which focused on family, did you do any digging up of family…
GIZZI: Family stuff? No, I looked at photographs. That came in 1989 when I turned forty I wrote a little book called Just Like a Real Italian Kid, and I did that by looking at photographs that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time, and I got out a shoebox full of photographs because it was suggested to me that I do something like this, I think it was suggested by a psychologist or a counselor or someone, and I thought, “Fuck you,” but I did it, and it was great.
MIR: Did it feel like up until that point with your writing it was hard to go that up close and personal?
GIZZI: Yeah, so I just let it all hang out. Of course, it was a great relief and release for me. People loved it. That’s a dangerous thing too, if people really like something, you then think that’s what you should be doing. But, that’s not how one judges what one is doing.
MIR: Do you think it held you back at all that people loved it, and that you had to fight it for a while?
GIZZI: Well, I think that actually I went back to it — I always wanted to go back to it in a different way. Even Bob Creeley said, “When are you going to do the second part of that?” So, I thought well I’ll do a second part of it, but it’s not going to be quite like that. And I did it, I’m glad I did. I was also trying to exorcise myself of some things to do with my family, my childhood, and I did it.
WATSON: What’s the second part?
GIZZI: The second part is called “We See,” which is a title of a Monk tune. It’s like “No Both,” “We See.”
MIR: Tree surgeon stuff, I gotta ask you questions about that.
GIZZI: Yeah, go ahead! Whaddya got, some trees?
MIR: I was wondering how that period, you talked a little about it with Avis, but more specifically I’m wondering what led you to become a tree surgeon. I’m sure you worked with some pretty colorful characters who probably had all kinds of interesting things to say about x, y, and z, and I’m wondering if those years ended up being a big influence on your poetry in any way?
GIZZI: Not to be repeated.
MIR: Maybe in the talkiness and wise guy attitude that some of the poems have.
GIZZI: Definitely, most definitely.
MIR: Do you think that had you not been a tree surgeon and encountered the people you did, do you think your poetry would be very different?
GIZZI: I don’t think it would’ve been very different, but I don’t know.
MIR: It’s hard to say, I know.
GIZZI: It’s hard to say, but there are a lot of poems in Continental Harmony, which are definitely about men doing work. There are poems like “Treeman’s Lament” and stuff like that. There are definitely poems in there about being a treeman. Trees are in my poems everywhere — I’ve always loved trees. Yeah, that kind of vernacular, the demotic speech of the working class, I like that, taking it out of context in little snippets and bites of that. And as I’ve discussed with Craig, the whole idea of the poem being an athletic event, I like that. To me it was a kind of athletic event. How much energy can I get into this thing?
MIR: Since Continental Harmony has come up a bunch, I can definitely see those poems as being very athletic. By time we get to the end of it, we’ve been given a lot of information.
What about the other part of the question? Did you just flat out need a job when you became a tree surgeon or was it love of the trees?
GIZZI: Well, I was married and I had a little baby, I had a daughter who’s now a big baby, big daughter, I’m a big baby. I needed to get a job and I don’t like work.
MIR: Tree surgery is work.
GIZZI: It is, but it’s a kind of work I could get into… didn’t want to be behind a desk and I thought it would be, to be honest with you, more conducive to writing than student teaching and things like that. I was one of the guys in the [Creative Writing] program who opted out of doing the teaching.
MIR: Oh, really?
GIZZI: I said I’ll take the money, whatever it is, and get my own job. I really wasn’t into this, I’d had it with school by that time, and I was really into being outdoors and dealing with real life.
MIR: That’s sort of what I was getting at, I guess. Were you seeking “real” life?
GIZZI: If I had I not broken my back, finally. I went back to it, but I kept reinjuring myself. I think I would’ve been in that business still in some capacity.
MIR: How many years did you get to spend in that business?
GIZZI: Seven or eight.
WATSON: This is one of the things that attracted me to Michael in the early years, and for a long time, like me he had chosen to live and work in the so-called real world and not in academia. We both have our own relationship to that and thoughts about that, but that was really a bonding experience, I mean when we went to work we both went to work with non-intellectuals, you know, non-artists, non-students, and a whole different set of practical problems everyday. Plus, we both had young kids and problematic marriages. You know there was a lot of common ground at that level and I think a lot of mutual respect around that.
MIR: Michael, did working in the trees end up being more conducive to writing?
GIZZI: Oh, by all means. I was writing all the time.
MIR: And it seemed like you got lucky finding Avis.
GIZZI: Yeah, but I was writing all the time, I mean I came home and I needed a shot of intellectual rigor, and companionship with books. I read a lot. And then I could come home and research things. It was great — I loved it.
MIR: What about you Craig, was it conducive for you to not be in academia?
WATSON: Well, I’ve never had a life in academia, so I can’t really compare it. I suppose I’ve always looked at the academic life as being pretty privileged. My father was an academic, so I have that sense of it. And I know that teaching isn’t easy because I’ve done it, but I’ve pretty much always had jobs where I had to get up in the morning and show up someplace, and I had to produce something tangible or not get paid, and time has always been, pretty much since I can remember, time has been the most valued commodity: time to work, time to think, time to read, time to do something other than work, work, work for money.
GIZZI: He’s a little bit of a workaholic. Wouldn’t you say, [Craig]?
GIZZI: Well, you were. Maybe you don’t want to be anymore.
WATSON: I’ve had very demanding jobs at times.
GIZZI: Well, I guess he does what’s expected of him, right [Craig]?
WATSON: It’s hard to say. I could give you references to argue a point.
MIR: Another idea I had behind this interview was that it would be nice to get some Providence stories.
WATSON: I just want it on the record that Providence is not Rhode Island.
GIZZI: Ah, good point.
WATSON: I do not live in Providence. I do not like Providence. I don’t think there is a there there.
GIZZI: There, there, or here, here!
WATSON: It’s not to be confused with Rhode Island. Once upon a time, it was downtown Rhode Island, but since it’s been corrupted and eviscerated commercially it’s not even that anymore.
MIR: The downtown area makes me a bit angry. But, I haven’t even been here that long, you guys have so that’s why I want to bring it up, but you may or may not have a lot of information for these questions.
You both have had a strong connection with Providence and Rhode Island since college days for Michael, and for Craig you worked in the theatre in Connecticut, and then came here.
WATSON: I was born here, too.
MIR: So, you both have had a pretty strong connection here, but for a twenty year period, Michael, you lived in the Berkshires, so what was it that drew you away from Rhode Island to the Berkshires, and then once you finished that period, what brought you back here?
GIZZI: Well, the Berkshires are really beautiful and I was looking for something more rural, and it’s close, an easy two and half hour drive to Manhattan, and [the Berkshires] have all sorts of things going on in the summer, and then the tourists all leave and you get the place back — it’s a beautiful, idyllic place with a lot of interesting people. I knew people and I had fond memories of having lived there [when I was young], so it called to me, and I’ve often found, this is me, I’ve had to examine this, that I go someplace where I really want to go to and then I’m not happy there [laughs]. The behavior’s not unique to me, but it’s my unique problem to figure out. So, after about twenty years it got really claustrophobic, I got tired of it.
MIR: But, you did some good stuff while you were there.
GIZZI: Oh yeah, I don’t regret it. I had a good time. I don’t even want to go back and visit now because I have some memories that I’d rather forget and I don’t want to go back and interact with a hundred people, but I came to Providence because I always liked Providence, having lived here and having had good experiences here as well, and I didn’t want to go to New York, I don’t like Boston, so I thought well I have friends here, I’ll come to Providence.
MIR: Did it feel a little bit like a homecoming? I remember vaguely when you came back — I’d been for a year, a year and a half maybe — and you started showing up at things like Shandy Hall [experimental theatre produced by Keith Waldrop and Gale Nelson] and various readings. I remember everybody saying, “Oh, Michael Gizzi lives back in Providence now.” So, did it feel like returning home?
GIZZI: Yeah, it did in a way. Plus, I was going through the end of a twenty-three year relationship, which ended here where it had begun. That was extremely painful and I’m glad I was in Providence when it happened, if it had to happen. I got a lot of support from friends and I don’t know if it would’ve happened if I was in Lenox [Mass.] — things needed to come to a head and they did and it’s all worked out for the best. I’m very grateful for that, too. I’m glad to be back in Providence and the Rhode Island area, I love Rhode Island beaches and things like that, Jamestown, Westerly, Charlestown.
MIR: Craig, you were born here, and then moved away to Connecticut, have you ever lived someplace outside of New England?
WATSON: Well, I was born in Rhode Island. I spent most of my childhood on Long Island just outside of New York City, and then the junior high and high school years in hell.
GIZZI: What state is that?
WATSON: Connecticut, actually, central Connecticut in the 1960s.
GIZZI: Canton, that area?
WATSON: No, it was the other side, Vernon. Actually, Canton would’ve been nice because it was rural. Vernon was the land of insurance executives and Pratt and Whitney engineers. You know, it was clinically brain dead, the whole place. That’s where I spent the high school years, and then I got out of there.
GIZZI: Oh, Hartford!
MIR: I know from your comments a few minutes ago that you feel Providence… did you live in Providence ever?
WATSON: Yeah, I first came here in ’76 and lived in Providence until 1984.
GIZZI: Near the Waldrops, right?
WATSON: Part of that time I lived in a house that backed up to the Waldrops’ house. On Wayland Avenue.
MIR: I am curious what you think, both of you, about Providence as a city that has seen a substantial change. It’s changed a lot in the five years that I’ve been here! I’m wondering what you guys think of it as the place that it is culturally and socially?
GIZZI: Actually, I lived in Rhode Island for three years of high school. My family moved here from Ohio, and then they went up to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but for three years, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, we lived in East Greenwich, Rhode Island — it was a nice community down by the water, really beautiful place, I loved it. I used to hitchhike up to Providence. I’d skip school sometimes and hitchhike up to the Rockefeller Library [at Brown] and look at all the books and journals and stuff.
But, when I finally moved [back] to Providence as an undergraduate [after living for the first time in the Berkshires as a young man], I was married, downtown was a really ugly and frightening place with nothing going on. There was no reason to go down there except to… I remember people used to get the bus in front of the Outlet Company and Cherry and Webb, those were the only two places to go to down there as I remember, and then they were leveled — when I came back years later Johnson and Wales was there. But, I think it’s still a ghost town. It’s like some kind of movie set for…
WATSON: … the 1940s.
GIZZI: Yeah, 1940s or the aftermath of a neutron bomb. [laughter] There’re all these buildings, but there’s nobody walking around, there’s nobody down there. But, I like where it’s going, where it’s headed, I think it’s headed… it can only go up, even though it’s Downcity [Providence’s “catchy” name for downtown]. The things we’ve done at Tazza [Downcity Reading Series] have been very good, the bookstore, Symposium, is great, the Black Rep. [theatre], and Trinity Square [Repertory Theatre]. No matter what you think of these people or places, forget the personalities, it’s a great idea and something could happen. I think the more the universities become engaged or involved with downtown the more will happen.
Again, I haven’t been here for a long time, so I don’t have that kind of — and it’s good — that kind of deep-seated negativism that most people who had to deal with Providence, I’m not just talking about Craig, but a lot of people have who think, “Oh, this fucking thing,” because of the politics, because of who runs the place, because of the cronyism, and that type of thing, right [Craig]?
WATSON: If I didn’t like and care about Rhode Island, I wouldn’t have such strong feelings, I think, so I’ll say that as a caveat.
I worked for the city of Providence for five years. I left largely because I was obviously unwilling to be party to the corruption that was all around me, and that was the longest amount of time I could survive.
MIR: That was the Office of Cultural Affairs, right?
WATSON: That was the Office of Cultural Affairs and a fairly marginal function at that, but the corruption was everywhere, financial corruption, stealing, and kickbacks, all the usual stuff, but also a kind of moral corruption that was as cynical and as dirty as anything you can imagine. I worked in the Parks Department and the relationship between the Parks Department and the city administration and the neighborhoods where the parks existed was incredibly hostile. I remember the Deputy Director of Recreation for the city of Providence, when he was told that a playground was full of broken glass, his answer was, “Screw it, it will teach the kids to be careful.” And it was serious, that was the serious environment. So, there was that.
Plus, I raised two kids in the Providence school system. Neither one of them is institutionalized now, which I think has more to do with their character than the school system. The school system became increasingly corrupt and destroyed, first by the teachers’ union, and then later by the administration, as it became political football. It’s always been amazing to me how a state this small, can have such a corrupt government on an ongoing basis, and yet year after year the state legislature is investigated for various kinds of corruption. The state legislature is famous for withholding programs from popular vote, the casino being the most recent one, but, you know, the pork barreling that goes on in a state that you can drive across in forty-five minutes, okay, smaller than a lot of counties in other places. You know, it’s that corrupt. People are willing to fight over things that small.
So, yeah I have a lot of arguments with Providence and they’re not really about the architecture. Why are so many buildings empty downtown? I’ll tell you why. Because a very small handful of people own those buildings and it is more financially prudent for them to keep those buildings empty, unoccupied, and unserviceable than to occupy them and bring them up to code.
MIR: Do they get tax breaks or something?
WATSON: There are incredible tax breaks spread all around the city based on who you know and what party you belong to and what your last name is — there are incredible deals. There are all these counterintuitive measures that leave these buildings to stay empty. I work downtown, have worked downtown for the last eight years, and go by empty buildings all the time, all the time, including many owned by the city.
What the city decided to do to reinvest in itself was to basically ghettoize its historical downtown section and build a self-contained, air-conditioned mall half a mile away, that’s what they did, and that’s where the economy exists. None of that economy splashes over into the city. All of that economy is eaten up by chain stores.
MIR: And it’s going somewhere else.
WATSON: It’s going somewhere else, as are the people who visit it. It’s totally self-contained. You get off the highway, you go into the garage, you go out of the garage, you get onto the highway. So, I have strong feelings and a fair amount of bitterness around this. I was here when Bruce Sundland sold off The Outlet, the last big department store.
MIR: Was that Rhode Island-based?
WATSON: That was Rhode Island-based.
GIZZI: An institution.
WATSON: I remember 1954/’55, one of my earliest childhood memories was being in a car on my way to The Outlet to have my annual photograph taken, when Hurricane Carol, I think Carol, was coming in and everyone was freaking out. I remember we just barely got out of the city, before it flooded, back to my grandparents in East Greenwich. That wasn’t too long after The Great Hurricane of ’38, which in my parents’ generation was the biggest event besides the war — it was the biggest local event that ever happened here. So, hurricanes were a big deal. So, The Outlet goes way back.
I remember when Bruce Sundland sold it and it was emptied, it was an empty shell and I remember the day it burned, which of course it would have to sitting there as a humungous, insured empty building — it was going to be a lot more valuable leveled to someone than it was… and that’s what happened.
GIZZI: So, they burned it!
WATSON: That’s what happens everywhere. It’s how people make money at arson.
MIR: The Downcity Diner is in that same area isn’t it?
WATSON: And The Downcity Diner just burned. It’s been my favorite restaurant for the last five years — that’s where I take people.
GIZZI: That’s why they burned it.
WATSON: You know I work at Trinity Rep., which is downtown, and I’m in senior management and we fight the battle everyday of trying to get people, normal people, who are now people from the suburbs, to come into what they call Downcity… to come into Providence to see a play. I understand — it’s not a small commitment. Parking is scarce, it’s dangerous, it’s expensive, restaurants are far and few between in downtown, not that you still can’t get great meals all over Providence, but there isn’t much downtown.
GIZZI: You think it’s that dangerous down there?
WATSON: Oh yeah.
MIR: You think it’s still dangerous downtown?
WATSON: Yeah, yeah. It’s better than it has been in the last five years. The new police chief has done a lot, the new downtown patrols… what was it five years ago where a couple of kids were kidnapped in full-view right in front of the Arcade [the first shopping mall in the country dating from the nineteenth century] and taken out to a golf course and executed? Still when I’m downtown at night for plays or for poetry readings at Tazza on the walk back to the car there are still gangs, there are still very rough characters abroad on the streets and not a lot of police or any other mitigating influence, you know.
MIR: Do you think the city doesn’t care that that’s going on? Do you have any theories as to why they’re not paying attention to that area?
WATSON: Well, if the buildings are empty and not paying tax, then there’s not a lot of economic support for a police force to police it. Such police force as there is tends to be more active in the neighborhood in the residential neighborhoods. Like other American cities that have remained residential cities, and of course most haven’t, but Providence has — it’s a very ghettoized situation. We have basically one zip code in which the average income is above the poverty line, and then… maybe poverty line is too strong.
GIZZI: Ah, good ahead, say it.
WATSON: We still have tenements; we still have total enclaves elsewhere, which is where the police, I think, focus. I’m not an expert on the police science, but I just tell you that you don’t see a lot of them downtown.
MIR: Providence is an interesting city too in the way that it seems that you could theoretically go your whole life being on the east side and never even go to the south side.
MIR: The south side is a completely different can of worms than even the west side.
WATSON: Well, let me challenge you to think about it. When I was a kid, when Michael was a kid, Route 95 didn’t exist, okay, there was no huge river, huge crevasse, between the east and the west, and the city was continuous.My grandfather owned a furniture store on Westminster Street, you walked there from downtown, I mean it was downtown, it’s over near where Classical High School and White Electric [coffee shop] are now, it was continuous, you’d drive down Broadway and you’d go, my God, how did these houses get here, you know, well because that was a very upscale part of town, in the 1950s when they started building highways and they gave control to the local municipalities in the states where the highways would go that’s where the line was drawn, it was literally drawn between the east side Blue Bloods and the Italians and everybody else on the west side.
That line could’ve been somewhere else, and that highway, arguably, could’ve gone somewhere else, because where it went, you know, chopped up property and destroyed, but that’s not an organic place. Just like if you’ve ever wondered about that “S,” that Thurbers curve [in the highway], or the “S” curves in Pawtucket, okay, somebody powerful owned land around those places and decided to create this obstacle course of a highway where theoretically the Department of Transportation could claim eminent domain, and you find elsewhere in the country in the big highway systems they’re straight as an arrow — not Rhode Island.
I’m just saying it goes way, way back, you know. And I don’t think the division of the east side, which remains a perfectly fine place to live, besides the school system, but it’s separation, I don’t think, is by accident.
MIR: Do you feel like Providence is any less corrupt than it was?
WATSON: Well, it’s certainly less corrupt than it was under the Cianci administration, you know, which was so corrupt it was willing to broadcast its corruptness. But, I think it takes a long… I mean this is not an urban country anymore, is it, this is not an urban centered civilization, you know, the great urban… actually there’s only a few great urban centers in this country anymore, like New York City, everywhere else has been diffused. I think the idea of urban renewal recreating a culture that doesn’t exist anymore is probably foolish. This is a long thing… Urbanization relies on mass transportation, or group transportation in some form. It cannot rely on the car culture, it just can’t, it doesn’t work, and that’s what killed it. So, the idea that Providence can come back to what it once was…
GIZZI: It’s a dream.
WATSON: Cities need to reinvent themselves. I think the good ones do.
MIR: This is a bit of a political interlude here, so I’ll ask this question. Do politics ever figure into your writing? [Craig,] I know there’s a part of True News — I can’t think of the exact title of the poem that you wrote after 9/11…
WATSON: “Home Guard.”
MIR: Yeah, exactly, that’s what it’s called. Have you always made moves like that in your writing or is it more recent?
WATSON: I think the political is inherent in everything, you know, it’s part of the context, the discussion, so it’s not divorceable from anything. I don’t think you can legitimately talk about an apolitical gesture. To sort of misquote Terry Eagleton, the critic, you know, someone claiming to operate with no political agenda is just operating with an older one, a more assumed one. I think it’s always present. The series of poems and books that I’ve been writing since 1995 starting with Reason are in fact more overtly political than the work that came before in the sense that they’re very consciously engaged in interrogating the world, or interrogating language in the world. That’s not to say they’re not lyrical, but they’re very self-aware. I think most of these poems are pretty self-aware of their political circumstances.
I don’t think that they’re political in the sense that Allen Ginsberg wrote political poems, I don’t think my poems ever try to tell anybody what to do. After September 11, 2001 it seemed impossible to not factor those events, what was happening historically and politically in any responsible writing, but what I was really drawn to and interested in was the way the media… was the way people talked about the event, not so much the event itself, but it was the way the media reframed, re-contextualized, repackaged the events of that day and the subsequent events. “Home Guard” is largely dealing with those issues, with the way a historical event — an undeniable, profound historical event — then entered history as myth. That’s one of the things that language does. It quantifies, it qualifies, it codifies, it measures and redistributes real events into a mythological context.
I think it started that day sitting watching the television that morning and Tom Brokaw was the first person to say this, it might have even been before the towers fell, but I remember him saying, “This is an act of war,” “The United States is under attack, this is an act of war.” Well, no one had said that at that point and that shift from whatever else we might have been thinking at the moment, for instance I was thinking, “This is a criminal act,” to “an act of war” became profound, it became profound in the way that the Bush administration prosecuted it. You can see that from everything from Guantanamo to these wars of aggression that the Bush people have launched, but it was just a word, it was an appropriation of language to turn a real event into a myth and it became a myth of “the war.” It could’ve been other things at that moment. I think that poem sort of started in that moment and went on from there for several months.
MIR: Do you think the moment that Brokaw made that declaration was the first moment in your life that you noticed the media making a statement that demonstrates that it has that much control?
WATSON: Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve had a lot of experience with the media in different forms. For five years I was the chief media relations person and the worldwide spokesman for this corporation I worked for, so I dealt with the media from 60 Minutes to The Providence Journal… both here and abroad… I didn’t have any real illusions about the media. Again, just like with Providence, I’m not an urban planner, I’m not a media analyst, I would venture to say, and this is cheap analysis, but from the time of Woodward and Bernstein to that Brokaw moment that’s the period to look at, that’s when the media went from a sort of standing start and became a true player in that they took down a corrupt president, by the time you reach Brokaw the media is now a corrupt player, has now entered the circle…
GIZZI: I hated that guy.
WATSON: … of corruption. I think a Woodward and Bernstein is impossible now. It’s impossible. What you need is a Woodward and Bernstein to do to the media what they did to the government.
MIR: I think even Woodward himself is impossible now.
WATSON: Woodward’s impossible! Woodward’s become his own enemy, his doppelganger-assassin. My interest isn’t the media; my interest in poetry is always language. I think as poets that’s what we’re always about is interrogating the language, interrogating our material, and all the things that come with language, you know, context, all the shades of meaning, rhythm, all those things, so it’s not the media so much as it is the way after 9/11, for instance, that language was used to reapportion, to redirect this experience, and it was remarkable because it was a profound experience that we all had, we all had it at the same moment, you know, we all watched this thing occur, and then we’ve been told what to think about it.
MIR: Michael, you don’t have to direct your response to 9/11 necessarily, but over your writing life how have politics or historical events that you’ve lived through, not like, you know, looking at Billings or anything like that, but how has it or has it not influenced you, does it figure in?
GIZZI: Not at all — I don’t even care about 9/11. I think it’s terrible that three thousand people died, but three thousand people are dying as we speak somewhere and it doesn’t even count for shit. I think America has become a despicable place and I’m here, so what can I say? It sort of invalidates everything I do in a way. I think it’s ridiculous to even respond to any of this unless you’re going to go out into the street and do something or get involved and shoot somebody. I think it’s all a wasted amount of breath and I think the Republicans and the people in power know that. They hate intellectuals, they hate anybody changing anything — they’re control freaks.
So, everybody listens to the news and it keeps everyone in a constant state of irritation or fear or apathy, but everybody has a knee jerk response to it. My knee jerk response is I don’t even give a shit. You’re not going to get me riled about something I can’t even affect in any way, and I used to think I could, but I don’t even know anymore. And I think, as Craig said, everything is political. Even a poem about a flower is political.
WATSON: But, you do get affected by it, [Michael].
GIZZI: Yeah, I do get affected by it.
WATSON: I’ve seen you affected by it. I don’t want you to give the impression that you’re apathetic.
GIZZI: No, I’m not. I’m pissed off about it all.
WATSON: I’ve seen you as profoundly depressed by what’s happening in the world as anybody else.
GIZZI: I avoid it because it’s completely emasculating or whatever the word is.
WATSON: The sense of impotence that Mike’s expressing and I think is there in some of Mike’s poetry because I think Mike’s poetry is political. I think that that’s a profound thing now, a profound moment for everyone. If the Bush government has taught us anything, has told us anything, it is that we don’t matter, that we are in fact impotent — they can in fact do anything they want.
GIZZI: And do.
WATSON: And do, you know. Somehow even our generation, I don’t know about yours [Stan], felt like we actually could affect things, we ended the war in Vietnam, we got Richard Nixon out of office, you know.
MIR: Those are big moments.
WATSON: Those were big moments in my life, in our lives, you know, and yet here we are now on the downside and we’re being told, “You know what? We’ve outflanked you. We’ve outflanked you.”
GIZZI: We’ve outflanked you and that [revolution] will never happen again.
WATSON: It will never happen…
GIZZI: And the only thing that ever came out of it was, again, marketing and capitalism, which was “The Youth Generation!” And that’s what it’s been ever since.
WATSON: What came out of it was that they got smarter! You know, it’s like some kind of radioactive… like some kind of comic book where the radioactivity makes the beast stronger. Rumsfeld, Cheney, all these guys came out of the cauldron, the furnace of Nixon, you know, and all they did was get stronger from it. And now they’re back. There isn’t going to be another “Saturday Night Massacre” (when Nixon fired the top echelon’s of the Justice Department until he found someone willing to do his bidding) because they’re not going to make that mistake, you know. There’s not going to be another special prosecutor to call the question because they’re not going to do that, there’s no tapes because they don’t do that, you know.
GIZZI: And they’ve hamstrung the Democratic Party or they’ve [the Democrats] done it to themselves, I don’t know. But, there aren’t even two parties anymore it seems.
WATSON: Emasculate is a good word for that. Castrated.
MIR: When you sit down to write do you sense any sort of leakage from day-to-day political events into your writing or are you able to focus on what’s immediately around you?
GIZZI: It comes through secondarily in the form of frustration and anger. I’ve written some poems that are sort of against George Bush, but you probably wouldn’t know it.
I don’t have a TV. I listen to public radio all the time — I heard them yesterday, I was so busy doing other stuff, I heard all about this al-Zarqawi, but I already heard about how they convicted him and I thought that was a ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ money. If they want to shoot somebody, why don’t they just shoot him? And they did, right? How’d they kill him?
MIR: They dropped a five hundred pound bomb…
WATSON: … on his house.
MIR: And somehow he was still in one piece.
GIZZI: Still alive?
MIR: No, he wasn’t still alive, but he’s in one piece. You know a five hundred pound bomb seems like it would shred things.
GIZZI: They ain’t seen the last of Al-Qaeda. If you ask me anything about any of that I would say I have nothing but the utmost respect and healthy, and very real fear about what these people could do because they’ve got their shit together. Not only that, they have a cause. We have no cause except shopping. They have a cause — they want to be free. We used to know what that was about a long time ago. I completely relate to them vis-à-vis what this country was about and how it was founded. Why not? Everybody gets a turn and they’re doing a hell of a job! My only problem with it is based on their fundamental religious belief, but what the fuck are we doing? That’s how the Republican Party got over and they don’t even really believe in it [Christian faith].
I think some religions need to be done away with, mostly anything to do with Jesus. If he really was about love, we missed it, so let’s get rid of him because you had your chance to absorb his message and you completely missed it. Let’s get rid of him. Get rid of Freud and Jesus and you’ve got it licked. Now, look where we’re going with all this.
MIR: How about a question that’s definitely more particular to you guys?
GIZZI: Maybe upbeat?
WATSON: What would that be?
MIR: I’m sorry I took it way down that [political] path.
WATSON: No, don’t be sorry. It’s fine. Look, you can’t divorce politics and poetry, you can’t divorce politics and art, and you constantly in this discussion have to redefine your terms. You know, what do you mean by politics, you know, what do you mean by poetry? That’s just the fact of the world we’re in and if we don’t do that we’re fooling ourselves. Nothing to apologize for, you know.
GIZZI: It’s a reality.
WATSON: My anger at Providence is all of a part with my anger at the United States, at the failure of the United States to recognize what we have here, you know, the amazing thing and we’re just blowing it. We’re blowing it at the smallest level. There’s no difference between the corrupt part-time legislator who comes from Cranston [Rhode Island], you know, and works forty days in the statehouse, and the people who work for George Bush — there is no difference. Just like there is no difference between one evil and Adolf Hitler, and another evil and… they all measure up. That’s my closing remark, thank you for your vote and try the roast beef. [laughter]
MIR: Well, the turkey was great! So, I want to ask you guys, too, about Qua Books, which is hopefully an upbeat topic.
WATSON: Not particularly.
GIZZI: It’s not.
MIR:What was the impetus for starting Qua Books? Michael you did Lingo, the magazine, for a while. Craig, did you edit anything prior to Qua?
WATSON: No, Michael got me into this. This one’s clearly his fault.
MIR: Oh boy!
GIZZI: I know how to do it.
WATSON: To answer that question you’ve [Michael] got to talk about Hard Press, the end of it.
MIR: Was Hard Press something you were directly involved with?
GIZZI: That was Lingo magazine; the magazine was part of Hard Press. I did that from 1992–1998 and published about twenty-five books and Lingo magazine. I was interested primarily interested in doing a profile series, which was reclaiming or redefining people I thought were really great writers and had been overlooked and under read.
The series began with Bernadette Mayer’s Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, the next one was Jim Brodey’s Heart of the Breath, and then Merrill Gilfillan’s Burnt House to Paw Paw: Appalachian Notes, and the next one was Frank Lima’s Inventory. We also did a bunch of books by Tim Davis, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, and people like that; a lot of art books. But, I wanted to continue with that profiles series.
It was an uphill battle with the person who was the co-editor who knew nothing at all about anything except a little about punk music and Lou Reed. He’d been an asshole [the co-editor] in New York, so he came up to be an asshole in the Berkshires — you can quote me on this — where the only friend he had was from high school, the only friend he had period. I think he was her friend because she was worth so many millions of dollars and she’d bailed him out of many things. She gave him a million dollars to start a press and he kept lying and getting more money from her. A lot of it went towards his car, his house, and things like that.
So, the fact that we got anything done — he couldn’t even spell his own name I remember he finally put one of his poems in Lingo and I rewrote it for him a hundred times and he insisted on it being in the there and he spelled his first name wrong — I figured that he could at least spell his name — so he really paid attention to things. It became an untenable situation because of him, and he burned a lot of people that were friends of mine. At the same time a lot of great things got done and I’m happy about that. Those things never last anyway.
MIR: Small presses?
GIZZI: Yeah, how long do they last? Burning Deck has lasted a long time, The Figures, a couple of others have, but that’s it. It drifts off into history or mythology or oblivion. Actually, it was Craig’s idea to start Qua Books.
WATSON: It was?
MIR: Did it come about before you [Michael] came to Providence?
GIZZI: Yeah, we did this for a couple years. We started out with the Ashbery book [As Umbrellas Follow Rain].
MIR: Spring of 2002 maybe?
GIZZI: What did we do next?
WATSON: The [George] Stanley [A Tall, Serious Girl].
GIZZI: He just won the Shelley Award [for A Tall, Serious Girl] from the Poetry Society of America. I guess they sold a bunch of his books there. We also did Bill Berkson’s book of art criticism [Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings], which is almost sold out. In great part to Bill’s hustling of the book and it being very good. Then we did Merrill Gilfillan whom I’ve always liked. He does nothing to further his sales, but he does have a groundswell under him as they say. He’s developing a following because he’s a good writer. We’re supposed to do Clark Coolidge’s The Act of Providence. We’re sort of in limbo right now.
WATSON: We decided if we were going to do this we wanted to focus and be clear about how we were focusing. Having been around this for a long time, you know, we know that you can’t be all things to all people and you can barely be one thing to anybody, so we wanted a strong editorial statement, which generally we’ve kept to.
GIZZI: And we branded it; they’re nice looking books.
WATSON: We’ll be back. It’s a matter of money and logistics right now.
MIR: In terms of your personal writing, I know Craig has Secret Histories coming out from Burning Deck, but how about you Michael? Do you have anything that you’re working on now that you’re excited about?
GIZZI: I’m not excited about anything particularly, but I’m in the process of getting excited. Actually, Burning Deck asked me to give them a manuscript in 2008, but I don’t really have anything that I want to give anybody. I could give them poems I’ve written, but I want to take a bigger turn, maybe write some prose or something, I don’t know.
MIR: Have you written much prose?
GIZZI: Not a lot, but I’ve sure read a lot. That’s what I’m working on this summer.
MIR: Is it fiction, non-fiction?
GIZZI: I don’t know, it’s more like poetic prose, I guess.
MIR: It’s still under lock and key? None of it has appeared anywhere?
MIR: Carolina [Maugeri] once mentioned to me that you [Craig] have a strong interest in Samuel Beckett. How does Beckett figure into your work?
WATSON: I’ve spent my whole life around the theatre and my work always has a performative context to it for me, which doesn’t mean I like to read it out loud, it doesn’t mean I’m in the oral tradition or something. But I always see poetry as a kind of performance, even on the page, that performance is the moment of perception and language. The relationship to Beckett — one of the questions Beckett continually asked his whole mature writing life was who’s speaking, who’s saying this, not just speaking, but who’s saying this, who’s writing this, what is the context, what is the fact of this particular event, you know. As you go into his later work it becomes more and more explicit.
So, even jumping off from The Unnamable where it’s just a voice in the dark, more and more the work becomes that, the disembodied voice in the dark, as if there’s just a mouth in a jar or something. That’s something I’ve learned from and drawn on as well as Beckett’s wisdom and overall sense of the world.
I’ve always wanted to write about Beckett, he’s always been an important touchstone throughout. I often write projects in my own sort of internal conversation with other people. There was a year when I was reading Beckett and Lorca, and there was this conversation going on between the three of us, that conversation was happening in the poems. It’s not as referential or as clear-cut as collage, I’m not exactly taking from them, I’m listening to them, and what I’m listening to is getting worked out in the writing. That piece never appeared in its entirety. Clark Coolidge once said to me, when we were talking about Beckett and I asked him if he’d ever written about Beckett, “He’s always seemed completely clear to me.” [laughs] You know, that’s true. That’s always sort of stopped me, what else is there to say, you know, besides “This is great!”
MIR: Do you find yourself working with sources a lot?
WATSON: I use sources as fence posts to stake off a ground. I’m not interested or proficient at collage, you know, or methodical drawing from things like Jackson Mac Low or even Rosmarie’s [Waldrop] incredible ability in the trilogy of prose poems. I’ll get into this dialogue with sources; I’m interested in those vocabularies, in the relationship of different ideas in different literatures. So, channeling those through will be generative for me. I showed you [Stan] a notebook upstairs that I had written while I was simultaneously reading and thinking about Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Basho’s travel journals, and Baudelaire’s Fleur du Mal. What the relationship of those things is I couldn’t describe to you, but somehow in triangulation they formed a space that was generative.
MIR: Your work, then, ends up being a sort of syncretism.
WATSON: Sort of. I don’t even claim to understand their thoughts. Again, what I always feel like I’m dealing with is the material of language. I’ve often talked about and thought about poetry in terms of sculpture. I wish that words were more tangible like marble, like clay, I envy people who get to work with that hard stuff in their hands. The language of Basho or Baudelaire, you know, functions in that way to me. So, it’s not purely… what did you call it?
WATSON: It’s more a working through. It’s not that I’m not appropriating, I’m sure I am, but I don’t want to claim that I have some great insight into Being and Nothingness. Actually, I don’t have any insight into Being and Nothingness! But, as a book of language it’s an extraordinary well.
MIR: You mentioned to me when we were upstairs that each project gets its own notebook. Could that be your way of trying to make writing more like sculpture in that the notebook becomes the tangible space?
WATSON: I think it could be. There are lots of eccentricities that I apply — probably other people do too — but once I’ve used a particular form of notebook for something I can never use that notebook again. There’s no such thing as generic notebooks. Most of True News was written in these A4 size notebooks that I bought in South Africa, wonderful notebooks that had black on the outside and had red lettering down them. I wrote that whole book in those notebooks. I don’t have any more, but it’s just as well because I wouldn’t be able to do anything in them anyway. Yeah, it’s some eccentricity in trying to physicalize the thing.
MIR: South Africa? How’d that happen?
WATSON: From roughly 1990 through 1995, I was a spokesman for a global technology company and I travelled a lot internationally. I had an apartment in London — the company had an apartment that I used — and a house in Johannesburg. I went there just after liberation and the election. I was there off and on through those years.
GIZZI: [sings] “Brother, have you heard the word from Johannesburg?” Do you know that song?
MIR: I don’t. Who is it?
GIZZI: Gil Scott Heron.
WATSON: South Africa was a particularly important and fertile place for me having gone there just after liberation. I had friends in the ANC [African National Congress]… I had a pretty amazing experience. I think the thing that really triggered those poems [in True News] was the decision that I faced of whether to move to South Africa in 1996.
WATSON: Permanently. I felt it was a really strong draw. The decision not to was because there really wasn’t a place, it was really not my place as I wanted to contribute, as much as I wanted to work in that situation, and be part of that, I could not either be invisible or appropriately visible as a white American in a country that was trying to come out of that situation.
Michael Gizziwas born in Schenectady, New York in 1949. He received his BA and MFA from Brown University where he studied with Keith Waldrop. Subsequently, he was associated with the circle of poets centered around Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press. For seven years he worked as a tree surgeon in southeastern New England, before moving in the early eighties to the Berkshire Hills where he collaborated on several Kerouac-inspired projects with Clark Coolidge. In the 1990s, he edited the Profile Series for Hard Press in West Stockbridge. His books include Continental Harmony (Roof, 1991) No Both (Hard Press/The Figures, 1997), My Terza Rima (The Figures, 2001), and New Depths of Deadpan (Burning Deck, 2009). He lives in Providence, RI.
Craig Watson (left) is the author of Secret Histories (Burning Deck, 2007), True News (Instance Press, 2002), and Free Will (Roof, 2000) and eight other books and chapbooks. Shearsman Press will publish his new book, Sleepwalking With Orpheus in the near future. He has worked in the performing arts, corporate arts, literary arts and emergency services, among other oddly chosen vocations. He lives on an island at the mouth of Narragansett Bay and spends an ever-decreasing amount of time on the “main” land.
Stan Mir (right) is the author of Song & Glass (Subito Press, 2010) and Flight Patterns (JR Van Sant, 2009). Later this year, Pavement Saw Press will publish The Lacustrine Suite. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.