Friday, May 27, 2005


Jonathan Mayhew, second from left in hat, with (L-R) David Shapiro,
Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner & Douglas Rothschild
Photo © 2005 by Jordan Davis


Prompted by the twelve questions currently being posed of a number of poets by Fulcrum, Jonathan Mayhew has crafted ten questions for me of his own.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range?  What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

This has certainly evolved over time. When I was young, under 30, it extended back to Pound & the high modernists, with maybe a sense that Whitman belonged there as well, but not an intuitive sense of how he fit into my sense of things. Now I would extend it at the very least back to Wordsworth, Coleridge & Blake, the first real avant-garde in English, and to Baudelaire in France, but on an expansive day, I might argue for Chaucer – who has been a personal favorite for decades – and possibly the Beowulf poet.

Having been raised in a house without books or music to speak of, at least not beyond my mother’s collection of King Cole Trio 78s, I have rather had the typical working class kid’s problem of starting relatively close to the present – with poets who were, if not of my own generation then at least that of my parents, and constructing a sense of tradition backwards out of that. So it feels more like an archaeological project than an inheritance, not something I was given but which I’ve had to go back to reconstruct. I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately & thinking of how he fits into this as well. Stephen Greenblatt, in his biography, makes a good case for Shakespeare very much as an oppositional figure to the Official Verse Culture of the University wits such as Ben Jonson.

Probably what defines my sense of tradition more than anything is an attitude towards form & creativity, that it must be ever-questing, attempting to evolve, and looking coldly at the material conditions of its time for how its relationship to that social strata is changing. I believe in a poetics of constant change, always informed by engagement. That’s not a sense of “progress,” for example, so much as it is one of continuing alertness & literal responsibility.

With regards to “my closest poetic collaborators,” which I’ll define here (overly simplistically) as the poets included in the anthology In the American Tree, I always think that the “secret” differentiator between us all often has to do with one’s relationship toward the New American Poetry that dominated avant poetics in the 1950s & ‘60s. One aspect of the New American Poetry that proved to be extremely generative for the next several generations was that it was rich with possibilities – New York School poets were different from Projectivist poets were different from the Spicer Circle were different from the Beats, etc. Of the poets included in The Tree, I sometimes think only David Bromige had a deeper engagement with Projectivist poetics than I had as a young writer. You can sense elements of that same engagement in the work of Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, David Melnick & even Ray DiPalma, but for various reasons all of these writers seemed to have stayed more independent in that relation than did Bromige or I. And there are so many other langpos whose engagement was with the New York School rather than Projectivism, and somebody like Melnick can reflect engagements with both, but I don’t think that I do. But I don’t think it’s any accident that some of the langpos whose poetry I have felt closest to, and learned the most from, have been precisely people like Armantrout, Watten, Melnick & Bromige. I see/feel/hear, can almost taste, so many layers of deep resonance in their work that at times it feels spooky.


2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alongside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above?  Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

I’m not sure that I would define contemporary poetic practice. That, to my mind, is one of its issues, very possibly also one of its attractions. I have, as you must have guessed, a strong mental map of the history of poetry up to, say, my own generation – all of whom are now in their 50s & 60s – but after the language poets & the poetry wars of the 1970s & early ‘80s, the American literary map has felt far more atomized – in the negative sense that Sartre gave to that term – which amounts to “every poet for him- or herself.” There have been a few attempts at movement formation, most notably the Apex of the M thrust circa 1990 (which also incorporated much of the editing of work that was presented at the New Coast conference in Buffalo then, published as a double issue of O•blēk) that argued that the previous generation (my own) had failed to incorporate a spiritual dimension into its/our poetics. That didn’t go anywhere, largely because it wasn’t accurate as a diagnosis, but it was the last serious move of that kind we’ve had. The more recent New Brutalism scene out of Oakland has been a more parodic gesture toward movement formation. Ellipsism, by which I mean the poetry one might ascribe to the work of C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Ann Lauterbach & others, seems to me not to be a self-organizing phenomenon at all, but an attempt by individuals to write a middle path between the post-avant & school of quietude worlds. It’s not an accident that that term was coined critically by an outsider to that phenomenon, not by one of its poets. So the one real attempt I do see in this regard is Geof Huth’s work at creating & developing a serious intellectual underpinning for visual poetics. Because of him, I think anyone working in that general vein is going to either have a much sharper sense of what it is they are doing, or else they are going to have to operate in a far deeper well of denial pretending that they don’t.


3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

That’s a tough one, in part because that category has been ever changing in my head. There was a time, 35 years ago or so, when I would answered “Clark Coolidge,” but it was precisely learning to see the humor in Clark’s work that offered me the road in to its great depth & charms. Right now, I don’t feel that there is anyone who seems fully opaque to me, more that there are aspects of people’s practice I wish that I understood better. For example, I am completely in love with what Leslie Scalapino does with syntax & the sentence & the role of time in/with meaning, but I wish I had more insight into her theory of genre. I wish I had a better sense of the inner workings of Will Alexander’s longer pieces – are they really as improvisatory as they feel to me? Taylor Brady’s work is something that I feel I really need to learn & understand, even tho I think it’s evolving rapidly still, so that maybe he feels the same way right now.

In historic terms, tho, I might respond Wallace Stevens. His work is the hardest thing for me to quite get & pin down. But – and I know some folks will think this heresy – I’m not sure that I really need to do so.


4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"?  Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

Heroes & a pantheon is just a mechanism for valorizing one’s mental map. We each have our own private canon, quite apart from the alternate social ones that also exist – the academic canon, the “poetic” canon & the institutional canon – the books that get treated as “serious” by the daily press (because they’re published by the trade publishers who are significant advertisers) – may overlap, tho not as much as we tend to think. Louis Zukofsky has gone from being a marginal figure to a canonic one in my lifetime because so many poets found in his work a means of furthering their own thinking. Such mental maps are constantly shifting.

And open to question. The howls that went up at the publication of Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, really had to do with the fact that the volume was implicitly arguing for a reading of poetic history in which Fluxus was the central literary event of the 1950s & ‘60s, not the New American Poetry. You can see where that argument could be made – tho it’s awfully easy to disprove – but it’s not an argument that Rothenberg in particular had created the grounds for previously, even in a publication like Alcheringa. So instead of being taken as a bold attempt at a redefinition of the literary map, people perceived Millennium 2 instead as a failed attempt to counter the School of Quietude anthologies.

Are the various canons rivals? If you go back far enough, the answer tends to be no. The School of Quietude is in the curious position of constantly having to promote its relationship to poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, even Shakespeare, who, if anything, really belong to the counter-tradition. That tends to make SoQ historical writing sound incoherent or else leads them to mischaracterize all of the above. Random House has a series of CDs of poets reading that includes both William Carlos Williams & Frank O’Hara, each of whose accompanying paperback volume is introduced by series editor J.D. McClatchy. While I’m glad that McClatchy chose those poets to include in the series, and his introductions are well-meaning, all they really tell us is that he doesn’t much get the work of either writer. Imagine having a volume of McClatchy’s work with an intro by Charles Bukowski.


5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

I can’t even envision what “total absorption” would mean. I do think that poetry can be – almost has to be for a practicing poet – a way of life. Yet I don’t think that excuses the poet from living in the world. Think of Williams’ work as a pediatrician, for example. Poets who argue that they can’t – or shouldn’t – have “real jobs” because it would take away from their writing are really just using that as an excuse to cover over other kinds of social disabilities. Some of these folks grow up eventually, others do not. One peculiar thing about poetry, tho, is that it won’t punish you – it’s one of the few media in which a person can be a schizophrenic or profoundly physically disabled & perform perfectly well. It’s extremely democratic in that regard.


6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious category?

Poetry is one of the few “universal” art forms, practiced orally in pre-literate cultures and throughout the written world. Historically, poetry predates even drama & every other literary medium has emerged as an outgrowth of poetry, or of a genre that was itself an outgrowth of poetry. There were 25,000 novels published in the United States last year – roughly double the number of books of poetry, if we include chapbooks – and yet in 500 years, I wonder if the novel will have survived. It was an outgrowth driven by the need for a focus on narrative & character, social needs that have subsequently shifted to cinema. Unlike poetry, the novel has almost no relationship to communities – the one serious exception might be the cyberpunk authors, especially around Austin – and it is obvious that the economics don’t exist for the sustained printing of 25,000 titles in which less than 100 will prove profitable from the vantage of a publisher.


7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non?  Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

I’m not certain what’s really being asked here. Absolutely, humor is an important part of the toolkit of any writer – we still get most of Shakespeare’s jokes 400 years later – and yet hardly any serious poet strives to be a comedian, as such. It’s an easy mode for a young poet to slip into, especially if one is part of a scene driven by public readings, the poet as standup comic. I actually went through a period in the late 1960s where I refused to do any readings for a couple of years because I felt that that was a trap. And the history of Actualism shows that it can be.


8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

I’m interested in poetry far more than in poems, but I’m less convinced that this is a universal truth, tho it certainly is me.


9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

How about all of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All? That is the most accurate portrayal of the role & life of the poem ever written. If I had to encapsulate just one statement out of a work that, in its Frontier Press edition, is 98 pages long, I’d pick this line from page 70:

poetry : new form dealt with as a reality in itself.


10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry?  What other question would you add to this list?

The question about humor, number 7. These questions do come reasonably close to some ways in which I think about poetry. The fact that I took anthropology seriously as an undergraduate – it was the only subject I ever served as a reader for (the junior college equivalent of a T.A.), at Merritt College in Oakland, between my stints at SF State & Berkeley – has always led me to thinking of poetry sociologically as well as “simply” aesthetically. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

The question I would ask – and if I could answer, I would, since a good answer would help lead to the next shaping or defining literary movement (or moment) – is: what is poetry currently missing?

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