Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 25.1, Fall 1999.
Mông-Lan: You said once that the value of the literary enterprise was that it brought to you company of like-minds and not so much monetary value, and that Charles Olson had felt that Robert Duncan and you were writing in the same room. Do you think that you are writing for these people? For whom do you write?
Robert: Best put, I guess, as Stendhal's "happy few" or else Allen Ginsberg's comment on writing Howl to the effect that he wouldn't try to write a poem (such as was then thought to be one) but would rather write what he wanted for a few like minds. You may have noticed how poets generally collect as various "groups" or company whereas novelists—while they may share techniques or general effects—are seemingly much more singular. I think of Russell Banks, or Michael Ondaatje, or Paul Auster—all particularly related to poetry, be it said, where each has had a far more evident company than has seemed the case otherwise.
But it would be useful to emphasize that one is not writing because of that company, not providing a consumer product (although that may well be poetry's relation to its defining social body, the "use" of poetry, so to speak)—but is wanting, as musicians might, a company that can hear them, whether other musicians or those who can hear them. I think of the early days of bebop (and my own youth) as active instance. Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan were certainly a crucial company for me of this kind as were also my elders, Williams and Zukofsky. They could hear what I was then doing.
Mông-Lan: If there were three poems that you would want to be remembered for, which would they be and why?
Robert: Again, one is not making artifacts which are solely interesting as "material" and to pick three, or three hundred, having the proposed sense you note is literally impossible. What is it Ginsberg says in "Kaddish"—"some of my time now given to nothingness..." In any case, I would never make a choice that effectually said the poems apart from those three were less interesting to me. That would be like choosing the "best" of one's children—an abhorrent thought indeed!
Mông-Lan: Does the artist have an obligation to self and/or society? What is it?
Robert: Inevitably any one of us is in the world, whether we realize it or not. Whatever one writes is fact of that situation. In that presumption I read "literature" much as a Marxian critic might, believing it is fact of a socially, politically and physically determined "world"—there's no other finally possible. So it isn't so much that we have the choice of an "obligation," we are committed to the world we live in willy-nilly. What we do about it, or with it, largely defines us as people. In that fact poets (and artists more generally) are included.
Mông-Lan: You say, then, that we as a people all have obligations to the world because we live in it. You said once that "in the curious service of this art" no one owns it, that this is a multiple poetry. There I take it that you mean we have an obligation to the art. But looking at the word "poet" which from the Greek, poeiein, means "to create, to make" what do you think the responsibility of the poet is to the self and to the world through the making of the poem? (Some people believe that as artists / poets, we should look to culture and be mindful that as participants of this culture, we also create it.)
Robert: Most useful would be to read, just at this point, Robert Duncan's clarifying essay, "The Self in Postmodern Poetry" (Fictive Certainties, New Directions, 1985). I feel in the cast of your question the sense that one can be apart in some way from what one otherwise is, that there is the possibility of objectifying one's self—as though one could so see the "self" as a reflected image in a mirror. In fact, it's the reflexive, or possessive, presumption of this fact of person, call it, that bothers me—that we can so think of "ourselves," that we can call that "self" to an imagined order, "oblige" it or improve it, give it tasks or purposes. I see that "oblige" has root in the meaning of "bind" and "near"—just as "religion" has "binding" as root—and "negligence," its opposite (Skeat says). In any case, for me the "self" is the given of person in the world, without relief—beyond the intent or control of rationality. That's where poetry speaks most complexly and commonly of what "we" are. Again Duncan is very useful: "Responsibility is the ability to respond." We are "culture," we can't choose it.
Mông-Lan: Because you have such a unique style, what do you think makes a good poem?
Robert: Action, I guess—fact of movement, energy disposed, "language most fully charged with meaning," as Pound put it—like Olson's sense of a poem as "a high energy construct." (These are not metaphors incidentally.) Possibly the best answer would be that given a friend years ago when she had asked Philip Guston how he could tell when a painting (his own) was finished? He said simply, when I can't do anything more to it—when what one does will begin to vitiate the activity, will displace the coherence and integrity recognized. Much of the dilemma of working to a formula is that that preemptive containment can argue that "more is needed," when in fact it may not be—or may only be a factor of the general form, not the specific instance the poem is. It's a bit like prefab houses as against what one might build for particular persons and their needs.
Mông-Lan: What are the sources of humor in your poetry?
Robert: Displacement, self-reflection, recognition of commonness. There's no simple resource—but insofar as "the poet thinks with his poem," as Williams put it, humor will be a factor. Humor has the same intimacy as poetry, is local in the same way (as Rene Thom observed). Both rely entirely on humanness per se for their existence.
Mông-Lan: What do you mean by “displacement?” Do you mean actual displacement? For instance, I was born in Vietnam and grew up in America. If so, how is it related with humor?
Robert: I was thinking that humor disarms us, makes us "helpless" (with laughter, for instance). Somehow it provokes recognition of a world we cannot finally control or surround with our thought. For example, I am moved that "happen" and "happiness" have the same root. So I was thinking of "displacement" as that which takes us out of our determined patterns of control, makes us conscious of vulnerabilities, confusions, errors ("bloopers"), etc. Of course, there is legitimately the person who says, that wasn't funny! Even more to the point—that was not supposed to be funny. Perhaps humor is the perception (or comes from it) that we are without defense, once we recognize we are literally alive. "Born to die," that's a good joke?
Mông-Lan: It is very rare for a poet to achieve the voice through line breaks, which you have done remarkably well (i.e., the enjambed syncopated stops, etc.). How did you stumble upon this technique of creating your voice through line breaks?
Robert: In the 1940s the prevailing imagination of poetry was so dominated by critical theory, especially that of the New Critics, that one was left with little room, either to think of poetry as a various and yet particular possibility of ways of speaking, or to be one with others commonly, in a given place, time, company. Just to be free of "The Rage for Order" or "The Well Wrought Urn" and the rationalizing thought back of them was instantly relieving. So I listened to a lot of jazz, having friends who were active musicians. Otherwise I hung out with mathematicians, art history majors, anyone who proposed the world in less cramped and presumptive manner. Some of the aforesaid critics I did like—William Empson, for example, or Kenneth Burke. But the patness of the Understanding Poetry proposal was really unpleasant—it had no room (or "understanding") at all for my own heroes, W.C. Williams most particularly.
In jazz I found much more instruction as to how to manage rhythm, how to make a line, call it, and keep an active pattern—"how to dance sitting down," in Charles Olson's phrase. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and many others before them and after were really my source and instruction. There is so much emphasis put upon what poems "are saying." Yet it is only in the way poems are "saying" anything that I find them interesting. Otherwise love's love, eggs eggs, water wet. "Listen to the sound that it makes," Pound emphasized—so I did.
Mông-Lan: How do you reconcile the life lived intensely and the life lived as a person who has duties/obligations?
Robert: Insofar as circumstances permit—and that's a large qualification I know—try not to live two lives, so to speak. Best if one can have some sense of coherence, integration, wholeness—and it's here, I'd guess, one might well quote the old chestnut from the great poet indeed: "This above all, to thine own self be true..." One recognizes they didn't know what "self" was anymore than we do! Duncan loved it when I told him that, on my leaving home, my mother had given me what I considered generous and reassuring advice: "Just be yourself..." What a thing, Duncan said, to tell an 18 year old! As if he or she could know what that "yourself" was.
Mông-Lan: For these times as opposed to the days when you graduated from New Mexico, what advice would you give a graduating student from an MFA program: to stay in academia teaching or to go find a job elsewhere in the world?
Robert: I never intended to teach at all, and, remember, I dropped out of college (Harvard) the last half of my senior year there. I certainly had no "career" in mind at all, other than to survive (if I might be so permitted) and to write. As with Allen Ginsberg, "a few golden ears" was the sum of my presumed audience. I've taught every grade but the sixth, a fact which really gives me pride—because "academia" is not a term which applies to the usual first grade teacher, nor to the second, third, fourth or fifth, nor seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh or twelfth grade teacher—at all. In short, teaching is an art in itself, and I am pleased to have the small association I have had with it professionally. I have not been a teacher of workshops at the university here (where I've now been employed since 1966), rather of literature courses, however ineptly. "Oh fathers and teachers," Whitman writes. I can dig it, like they say. But it could have been plumbing, or the chickens I started with, or something just as unexpected as "teaching" then was. Olson once suggested I might teach the absent Biology course at Black Mountain. When I said it was the one science course I'd never taken either in college or in high school, he said, "Good! You can learn something too."
Anyhow, it's not an easy time at all to be hitting the street. To come in with a heavy baggage of intentions would make it all even more brutal. One's life is the point—and the possibility, one hopes, that "What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee..." Living with people, keeping it together, I don't think it's ever more or less than that.
Mông-Lan: Would you teach a poetry workshop if you were offered the job? Why or why not?
Robert: I have certainly taught poetry workshops over the years, both in summer programs or as activities supported by art centers—and, very occasionally, in college or university patterns. I have also had modest relation with particular writing programs—as, some years ago, the one at San Francisco State. It was in that situation I met Susan Griffin and Linda Gregg, for example, among others. That people such as those two show up in workshops argues well for their use indeed. I know it was a time of crisis for Susan Griffin and the workshop gave her chance to take the potential of her writing seriously, and that was a remarkable event for all concerned.
But there is another side of workshops she and I both would well remember—specifically the fellow who wanted to dominate us all, and who trashed her when she brought in some poems of Denise Levertov's for our interest. That person is ubiquitous in any teaching situation, and no doubt the skilled teacher can squelch him or her as required.
Nonetheless there seems a tacitly competitive aura to writing workshops which I abhor. No one wants an argument in such situation—no one wants to be dealing with who wins, or who loses. So the often-horrid practice of "critiquing" one another's writing, with the teacher kibitzing all too significantly, is not one
I can ever accept or enjoy. One needs to be open in that circumstance, permitted vulnerability and enthusiasm, allowed mistakes and insecurity. At times the situation feels like a coffee klatch at work on some excluded neighbor—bleak, humorless, righteous and self-approving. Who needs it?
Last evening I went to visit with a group at a local college here in Buffalo. They asked me questions and I rambled on about senses of writing and the like. They meet regularly in their own interest, read their poems to one another, refer to outsiders or elders as myself as circumstances permit. There are no grades, no rankings, no authority to be applied to more than their communal group of necessity must constitute. I'd think theirs to be the most useful situation—one in which the group itself exercises the primary authority and determination of its own circumstance and needs.
Finally, one knows that in usual academic settings the writing program is a poor relation at best. No degree in writing per se (whether Ph.D. or MFA) is thought to be equivalent to the usual degree, accomplished through usual academic application, research and the completion of a dissertation. In applying for jobs in academia, the same holds true. Degrees obtained in writing programs are considered less authoritative and offer a far smaller range of employment.
The same situation is found as one tries to publish. Does it help to have a degree in writing? Does the publisher consider as more interesting those with such credentials? I think not—just that no publisher I've ever asked or otherwise known has seemed to think so. It doesn't hurt but it also doesn't help.
Finally to answer your question—I would not choose to work in such situation if other possibilities for livelihood existed. For short periods, workshops have been occasionally a great pleasure—as the company recently at the Vermont Studio Center, but it's to the point that we had no one determined to win among us, just a very good-natured fact of various people.
As a teacher, I wonder about "grading" "creative" work, about my own ability to see clearly what it proposes, why it is the way it is, what needs or strengths it defines. Perhaps I echo my own youth when no workshop ever was of use to me. I felt cheapened by the whole experience—despite my several teachers were persons of good faith and accomplishment. We were simply in the wrong relationship.
At SUNY Buffalo we have what's called the Poetics Program, a group which includes many writers (Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein among them) but which depends for its authority upon an active intellectual training and production, an academically determined one, requiring substantial research abilities as well as those relating to critical methodology and reference. It is in the conceptualizing of literature as a social practice and content that we find our active place and condition among our colleagues in the general Department of English. So I feel we serve both writers and those academically committed, confusing neither, yet insisting upon their common ground. Peter Gizzi's edition of Jack Spicer's Lectures would be a good instance of the consequent production. Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman's co-founding and editing of Chain would be another. This is equally the place of my own commitment and pleasure.