KN: After Jack is your third book of poetry. How did you get started on it? One would logically assume that it emerged out of a close reading of After Lorca, although sometimes books have rather serendipitous beginnings.
GTM: Yes, the original urtext of After Jack sprang out of a close reading of After Lorca, although I was also influenced by the entertaining Spicer biography Poet Be Like God, trying to recontextualize some of his attitudes in our own era. I tend to see him as a figure conducting oppositional poetics in his time. My understanding is that he felt somewhat dwarfed by the Beats, O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, etc. and reacted to their poetics with his own brand of magic, waging imaginary turf war against their own forms of expression. I find this classical bent that seeped into some of our Canadian poetics really fascinating, regarding medieval themes and tarot and such. Then After Jack expanded to interact with a number of his other writings, including the seven books of The Holy Grail. They are not necessarily “rewritings” but rather conversations that start to move some of the same furniture around. The moving of the furniture (language) is in itself the critique.
KN: Regarding what you call “oppositional poetics”, it seems to me that, back in the forties and fifties, Lorca was very much thought of as a political poet and embraced by the Left primarily on those grounds. Just about every activist/political poet of that era has a poem about Lorca with a political edge to it. But I think Spicer was interested in co-opting Lorca for primarily aesthetic reasons. Do you see it that way? Was this another aspect of “turf war”?
GTM: Well, I think with certain figures such as Arthur Rimbaud, Federico García Lorca and Jack Spicer, the overt emphasis on gay authorship tends to lead to a discussion of lifestyle (or extremist lifestyle) or biographical tidbits instead of a distinct quality I find in the respective works of these three poets as individuals, where the aesthetic principle overrides aspects of social interaction and namby pamby romanticism. En masse, this is a dangerous principle, although for the individual railing surreal invectives against social excess and superficiality, this becomes a fascinating assertion of poetical magic. One only needs to take a look at Latour’s “Un Coin de Table” to get a picture of the Parnassian Poets of Rimbaud’s day. Yet his genius was to master a multitude of classical and literary conceits as a teenager and then throw them over to fully embrace a new kind of poetry in the form of the prose poem. In Une Saison En Enfer, this question arises:
Il a peut-être des secrets pour changer la vie?
I would attribute this desire (and associated despair) to these three poets, their ardent belief in the charm and alchemy of words to have a transformative effect on life itself. Lorca is the most directly political in terms of his role in the theatre world and certain expectations of his audience. And yet, I suspect his use of Buster Keaton as a surrealist character and his demonstration of aesthetic metadramaturgy in works such as The Public are parts of his writing that would have attracted Spicer to his approach.
I have never understood the relationship between poetry and politics. I believe in protest and expressions of civil unrest and so on, but there are far more effective methods of getting things done than poetry. Poetry has such an “infinitely small vocabulary” that it seems easily overwhelmed by any issue larger than it. In his Vancouver lecture on “Poetry and Politics”, Spicer asks whether the poem is about going to bed with somebody or Vietnam, obviously hinting at the most common subject matter of his time.
The short answer is yes, I think Spicer was interested in co-opting Lorca for aesthetic reasons. He was criticized by academics, just like Ezra Pound for his translations of selected elegies by Sextus Propertius, although Pound speaks through the mouth of Propertius to talk about war in his own era. Spicer is also eager to point out these adaptations of Lorca poems are “transformations” and not “translations”.
I think for me, “imaginary turf war” is a turf war over imaginative and intellectual properties. I think “engaging the enemy” is a way of motivating oneself to action (ie. writing with feeling) instead of surrendering right away, an action which I notice is often self-defeating, and really, an excuse for not even trying. Of course, I find that the exercise of rewriting is most often parodic for me, as that is my bent.
KN: Let’s talk a bit about letters, translations (or transformations) and dedications. First, letters. I think Spicer uses his letters to Lorca as a way of writing about poetics while avoiding the formality (and pretentiousness) of “the poetics essay.” Plus he derives the added benefit of having the poetics embedded in the book of poetry, as opposed to being kept somewhere apart. Do you think that’s true of Spicer, and, if so, are you doing something similar with your letters to Spicer that appear throughout After Jack?
GTM: I tend to think that poetry is always writing about poetry. Lately, I’ve heard a number of notable poets using the modifier “important”, as if to say this book of poetry is “important” because it is about an important issue or historical/cultural happenstance rather that whether the poems in the book are in fact all that striking/interesting/intriguing. Once you step outside of the medium of expression you are no longer speaking the same language as what you are talking about. It is likely painters can comment upon other painters better than most poets, although in a language that may appear inaccessible to everyone. I feel the same way about a book of poetics talking to a book of poetics. Before Talonbooks grabbed it up with glee, I was bemused by one large poetry publisher that informed me part of this text was “too esoteric” for its mainstream readers. I wanted to say and am saying, isn’t that what poetry is?
With regard to the essay form, I don’t know how or why we’ve gotten away from the experimental sense of Montaigne’s “essai” (“test” or “trial”). I don’t often see how a regulated organization of hierarchical referents can interact with poetry. Surely this type of experimentation was more in line with poetry. I found that George Bowering‘s Errata was an excellent reworking of the essayic form to talk about literature, and in such a way my dear departed grandmother could sit down and be entertained. I thought Spicer did a fascinating parody of the academic framework in “Heads Of The Town Up To The Aether”, including footnotes that provided more ambiguity and questions than explanation.
I am aware that Spicer received flack about reading letters as poems, although they are also a way of demonstrating one’s poetics. Personally, I am a prolific letter writer and find a letter is a less formal medium in which I can express certain thoughts I might not have reached another way. I mostly learned how to “write” through reading and writing letters and I considered it a breakthrough when I began writing letters to Jack Spicer, because I was writing to him in the Dead Letter Office very real letters while I was on some level aware he was also providing an aesthetic receiver, a quantum cat that did and did not exist. Our schools might be different if we had students write directly to Plato or Socrates instead of about Plato or Socrates.
And don’t even let get me started on Plato or Socrates!
The “Letters West” section in the book was mostly written during my last days of living in Ottawa in 2009 and when I was stuck in the snowbound Calgary airport while reading Spicer’s Letters to James Alexander and waiting to return to Vancouver, which involved no small amount of personal suffering. I felt that my own longing for some concept of home formed a synthesis with Spicer’s letters at the time of writing. It is at times like a dream, where the characters are substituted for other characters. Except there is no tidy resolution and I had no real target for my letters, neither person or place. This was yet another step beyond writing to a dead poet.
KN: I think Spicer created a whole world of permission for poets interested in translation, or transformations, with After Lorca. Before I read After Lorca I used to do some very strict translations of Pablo Neruda, a poet I got quite interested in when I was an undergrad (and a Lorca pal). After reading After Lorca I went out and got a copy of the Collected Lorca. Then I started going through it, trying to find the poems that were in After Lorca. Perhaps surprisingly, a few of Spicer’s “translations” were quite strict (I believe, “Ode to Walt Whitman” was one of those). Others veered wildly from the original text. And other poems, of course, couldn’t be found at all: he created them out of thin air employing the Lorca voice. As someone who was interested in the Hispanic as a poetic resource, realizing what Spicer had done led me to kick the scholar/translator down the stairs and really turn the poet loose. I would imagine that you experienced a similar liberation? Pound’s “Cathay” got the ball rolling, but, for me, After Lorca completely broke me out of the confines of the Anglo tradition. It really fulfills a Modernist preoccupation.
GTM: I think that translation certainly has an important function in literature. The problem for me is that over the centuries the essence of a tongue has been lost in relation to its own paradigm. With Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of La Divina Commedia, for example, we get a terza rima structure imposed upon English which not only loses meaning but more importantly the effects that might more rapidly be found in one of those long sentences by Proust, although it is not merely this essayic movement full of rich similes that characterizes Dante. It is the effect of the language, the gnashing of the teeth of Minos and the flick of his colloquial tongue. A sound poet might do better with these effects in a translation that kicks all that religious allegory down the stairs. There are also countless translations from the Ancient world that have been made to sound like umpteenth century British poetry (not the best!)
It is important to remember that when Pound arrived on the scene, this was the kind of metronomic “slither” he was facing. The French had already shown the way and in a sense, Pound and Eliot and William Carlos Williams were their American acolytes, banging on about “vers libre” and the like. As for me, I went through a technical stage which really annoyed a lot of my peers, as I was churning out a lot of Ezra Pound imitations, including translations of Sappho, Anacreon, Catullus, Propertius, Dante, Li Po, Rimbaud and what have you. However, what you call my own “liberation” only occurred at a point where the “techne” had become such a part of my writerly reflexes that suddenly tapping into these emotional geysers was like giving the elbow greased machine those necessary drops of oil. There are a lot of formalist poetic experiments about these days, and I admire them in once sense, although in another sense, I am limited in wholeheartedly embracing them, having rejected this approach to some degree.
Also, when I see rather outdated cut and paste plagiarist experiments as conceptual art, I feel a bit like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, to whom the kids in the poetic cafe are showing their latest experiments in “nudisme” (a book of blank pages).
My own position is rather decadent, rather Dionysian, which is being a ‘seducer’ like Kierkegaard, or an ‘actor’ as Nietzsche rather bitterly calls Wagner. However, in Wildean terms, this is the erratic bouleversification of life’s dreary muzak and monotones, a spilling over of art into life, whether in the form of idea, suggestion, trance, hell, even opera. I feel the underbelly I am unearthing is primordial yet necessary. I often think there is a connexion with my Native ancestry, since this form of theatre is not separate from a way of life, but serves a cathartic and healing function, almost something like an exorcism. Only, I have no contemporary context for explaining this theory, no convenient postcard or souvenir to go along with it. I feel it and sing it in my own way. I find it in the instants when Stendhal or Huysmans or Proust express the imaginative realm as outstripping perceived reality, the same social and political unrest in every era. What is it but a variation upon the same little phrase, really?
My, how I have abused your question to squeeze my own two bits out of it! It takes me a while to get at something, often voluminously. But these arcanics are what unite we poets as stragglers, along with a few sympathizers. We have to invent a common vocabulary, a poetic Chinook for our own purposes, and a belief system that rejects belief. I don’t think what Lorca refers to as “duende” is something that can be learned. It quavers somewhere beyond even brute tenacity and dogmatism. It simply is, or is believed in.
It is the same with Spicer’s rope trick of language. So long as you don’t debunk the fakir entirely, there is room left for magic. There is a straightforward argument that this necessitates the trick is fakery, but this is not the case at all. The dual reality is that the belief makes the trick real, and this is subject to the dynanism between the perceiver and the performer. We could refer to Plato or we could refer to what we have learned about quantum mechanics. The point being that it took a dreamer with a unique fold of parietal lobe to imagine there were black holes in space, perhaps before the swallowed light of their existence could even reach us. If you understood that, then perhaps you also understand the unwieldy nature of “duende”.
I have talked with some poets about Spicer’s phobias and neuroses. I think these add a layer to this book and I could not really say they are an expression of myself or my own opinions. There is a sense of playing the medium at a party, with trembling knees that make the table move. And I can’t really answer this question, other than with the sort of anecdote I might relate at a party. I heard that in response to her eight-year old daughter insisting that poetry is really just nursery rhymes, a woman I barely know sat her down and read “Anode to Walt Whitman” to her as an act of refutation, my own version of that transformation of a translation, the longest poem in the book. I find this story both shocking and titillating for some bizarre reason. I felt an unfathomable mirror held up to me through this story. It’s positively unheimlich! It expresses what Françoise Sagan might very well call a distinct “désinvolture”.
KN: Jack Spicer, as you know, was very big on dedications. I think he used dedications as a tool for the formulation of community. Are you doing something similar?
GTM: I don’t agree with this statement at all. I think that if it was the formulation of community, it was also the backhanded dissolution of it. You have to approach the concept in Spicerian terms. I have heard he saw himself as Merlin (or even Mordred) in a poetry kingdom he saw as corrupt, which is likely how he perceived poetic communities. Even now, Spicer’s lectures and influence in Vancouver is overshadowed by the 1963 Poetry Conference, although I think his lectures are far more coherent. My understanding is that he saw Olson and Creeley as Arthur and Lancelot figures in his poetic micro/macrocosm. I always refer to this as the imaginary turf war, where poets undergo these private battles and torments which matter so little to the public. I am not indicating they should matter. I think we tend to squander our energies over trifles is all. This is a human story, not merely a poetic one.
I just realized that at the start of this interview, I was a proponent for the imaginary turf war and at this stage I am complaining about its carnage. I am certain hypocrisy is also a key part of my poetic form. With such duality principles, it is hard to take a stance on anything, truly. Always the ocean of daily distraction to interrupt and interject, always churning, churning…
What I am saying is that Spicer used dedications as admonitions, as roasts, as kvetches, although this concept might have troubled him. It’s an impolite way of elbowing someone and egging them on to shape up. I am aware in my own book that I am poking folk I know in avuncular fashion, parodying formal structuralist poetry, flavour of the day pop culture poetry, avant-garde pretensions, self-conscious dramaturgy, and even my own former Bukowski-isms.
It’s as good as saying to an acquaintance you are not entirely indifferent to, why don’t you stop writing heaps of books and concentrate and focus and write one hella good book? Why worry about all this crap that everyone will just forget in precisely fifteen minutes? That would be one or two of my admonitions. “The Holey Grail” is about this, about the ways in which people can get lost and no longer know what they are about, about what the essence of their quest is, if they ever had one. This is part of my own philosophy, the hard medicine approach, which has caused a lot of distress (and death threats) in writing group scenarios.
I believe Rumi says we need to beat the soul with a stick. There is a certain discipline, a necessary hurt and loneliness and meditation and stoicism. I don’t know whether it can be learned or not, or whether it really matters in the end. However, I don’t think this is about forming community at all. The dedications are broken valentines, with either a critique or a warning inside.
Or something like the hilarious curses the Ancient Romans used to use to warn thieves not to steal their clothes in the bathhouse. If you swipe these sandals, may the gods deprive you of your impoverished pecker!
Now we’re getting somewhere.
KN: I don’t think of Jack Spicer as being a very political poet. Am I misreading him?
GTM: I would say no. From his lecture series, I get the idea he felt that political issues abrogated language for its own peculiar motives, and that is a form of dishonesty. Lately, I’ve heard a lot of “important” issues being read out loud, and I feel this dumping of a poorly written news article into poetry is like pouring smelt into a paper bag and hoping they’ll last forever.
On occasion, Spicer parodies this concept. I believe he has this refrain in at least a couple of his poems, indicating this is “a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy.”
KN: Why is the title of the book After Jack, not After Spicer?
GTM: No comment.
KN: Okay, well my comment would be that it “feels” right as After Jack. To me, he feels like a poetry pal, rather than a great companion. I think of Spicer and O’Hara as Jack and Frank, and I suspect you do too. When I’m teaching a class on Spicer and O’Hara, after a while the students are calling them Jack and Frank too. That DOESN’T happen when I’m teaching Creeley or Duncan. They call Kyger “Joanne” too. Some poets just invite you to call them by their first name.
I can imagine a lot of other poets would have called it After Spicer and then stopped at the end of the parameters of After Lorca. You just keep going. What can you tell us about the methodology of “The Holey Grail”?
GTM: Yes, even our formal use of Spicer in this conversation is rather jarring to me and feels like an impasse. I think it is fitting to refer to him as Jack, as there is a kind of intimacy implied in the way the letters/poems are signed, a sense of a conversation drawing you in. The poetry can ring you and say “it’s me.” I mean as opposed to “Hello, my name is Robert Duncan. I’m calling about my arty mythological play.”
Well, first of all I find it funny the way Jack’s “The Holy Grail” is supposed to be a poetry by dictation exercise or pseudo-divination that dropped neatly into seven books with seven parts each. It’s like The Prelude or Paradise Lost or any work with a definite structure that is said to spring solely from the font of inspiration.
As for me, I followed Jack’s model, substituting as one does in dreams different figures. I was considering some of my own writer friends and their preoccupations. Although it is clearly not a morality tale, there is something of that flavour, doling out admonitions, urging others to find the right path. There is also a sense of the folly of youth and bidding farewell to halcyon days. Perhaps we live in an age too cynical or ironic or distracted for such a concept, but that is what I am getting at. It is a time in one’s life when everything seems interesting and exciting, before it is dulled by habit and complacency. There was a very brief time when everyone I knew around me seemed inspired, perhaps to write their best poetry.
I suppose that is the sense of a Berkeley Renaissance and the maintenance of such minute localized magic. Right now I only seem to know either isolationists through distant letters or poets knee-deep in political concerns or their particular social milieu, which is another way of saying minds beset by the ceaseless ebb and flux of material concerns and mostly unable to concentrate for long periods of time. In other words, it is no longer the fashion to be contemplative or to focus one’s energies into one’s work. It looks like turning your back on the human race, I guess, although I see it as a bolstering of one’s personal vision and a withdrawal in order to try and evade the endless simulacra of mortal mimesis, those endless reflections of the same image outstripped only by the same echo, if not sound bite.
If Jack saw himself as Merlin, then that is probably the role tracing my own perspective. Oddly, the representation of these many recycled myths that has resonated most with me is from Tennyson. I suppose I see this figure of the poet as a babbling prophet who in spite of knowledge of the sheerly fatidic cannot muster enough supernatural strength or discipline to evade surrendering to human interests. I find a beauty in this, not in the heroic sense, but in the world-weary sense of our collective weakness. I have never indicated that my own surrender to beauty is not my own personal problem. It is often put to me that it is. To paraphrase Giacomo Puccini, if emotionalism is a form of weakness, then I like to be weak.
I want to quote a passage from Lord Alfred Tennyson that has lived with me for at least fifteen years, because I think it can convey more than I am able to:
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks—thou read the book!
And ever margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm.
I often offer this text to initiates who end up burrowing into my metaphysical cave for a while, seeking something, some knowledge maybe. It is interesting to me when I hear in the wind about other poets I knew who crawled or hobbled out again, perhaps emotionally shattered, but without being able to deny they learned something or at least that something happened. To paraphrase Deborah Williams, it’s like falling in love so hard the hips hurt.
I also want to include a quote from a fellow writer about the “Letters West” section of After Jack, since it also says more about the book and myself (and Jack Spicer!) than I can:
Ah, Garry. These are so terrible, beautiful, tragic, forlorn. They are too much, in the way that certain music is too much but plays on anyway, until there is no doubt at all. Tell me, do you raise such rich anxieties in everyone? Surely it isn’t only me. And reassure me: tell me that this is not the level one must reach before one reaches the gen pop, or I am doomed for sure, and might as well drop my pen in the nearest sewer grate.
This quote seems incredibly self-serving, but I am trying to demonstrate the effect I have had on others and why I am so presumptuous to even co-opt Jack Spicer, to use your expression. I seem to unsettle, perhaps because I ache to sing life into a sort of opera or perhaps because for me the line between the aesthetic and the real is so very filmic I want to walk on through as Heurtebise does through Eurydice’s mirror, or perhaps because today we seem to lack the mettle to adopt a pseudo-ascetic methodology. There are countless kinds of imaginationless artifices to jack into and jack off to nowadays, and yet we refer to these generally as “having a life”.
KN: About squandering “our energies over trifles”: as a young poet I was appalled at how petty poets could be. I was imagining this great fraternity of great companions, only to encounter how mean and bitchy poets could be. I think I fundamentally agree with your astute observation about Spicer dissolving community at the same time that he is formulating it. He always thought of himself as an outsider; nevertheless, he attracted a community of poets to his table. So the great spirit is also a petty human being. Poetry is, maybe, sometimes the transformation of petty disputes into something of greater significance.
I remember Louis Dudek once telling me about how much energy got squandered in his generation by poets trying to get published by “the right” publishers. Status issues, pecking order issues. When what really MATTERED was that the stuff got published. Contact Press started out as a refuge for all of those poets who couldn’t or wouldn’t get published by Ryerson Press. When we look back on the fifties and early sixties, Contact Press completely dominates the landscape, and all of those Ryerson Press chapbooks have pretty much disappeared.
O’Hara, in his lifetime, was publishing with small presses. Spicer was publishing with micro-presses. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay loomed large on the landscape. Donald Allen didn’t give Spicer a world of space in The New American Poetry. He declared Olson and O’Hara to be the real heavyweights. All of this stuff probably took up a lot of emotional space in Spicer’s life.
GTM: To try another tack, a cornerstone of my own forays into writing novels has been the work of poet Robert Desnos. A brilliant and often forgotten French poet, he wrote a novella that led to my own exploration of a surrealist serial form in prose. Although I laud the French for their 19th and 20th century gems that have influenced me, I think this is something quite new in terms of the structure of the Canadian novel, if there is such a thing, since we seem at least fifty or sixty years behind, based on French examples offered us by people such as Georges Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet. And in a grand effort to be more pusillanimous, I will include a statement from a Canadian book publisher about one of the speculative novels in The Chaos! Quincunx that I love to quote:
This is interesting, arresting, courageous work. I am sorry to say, however, that it is not really the kind of thing we publish.
As Louis Dudek says in Epigrams, “two duds on a committee can outvote any genius”. My point is that the work of poets Robert Desnos and Jack Spicer (and perhaps even my own) needed to be preserved. I am greatly appreciated that I can still hold them in my hot little hands for very little coinage. In my own case, I feel that like the Modernists, I am inventing, nay, demanding an audience into existence that will appreciate my work in the future, but less so now when it is so raw and steaming and garbled and biting.
Living in the future so much, it’s a feeling like being one of those souls in The Inferno who cannot see the present, until the portal of the future has been slammed shut, right Dorothy L. Sayers?
With regard to your point about the transformation of pettiness, this must also be part of my poetic, as I am commonly accused of sublimation. There’s a character in Proust’s masterpiece who declines all invitations and yet is perpetually inventing her own historical account of the figures in her society, thus devoting her time to fabricating what happened rather than participating in what happened. Obviously, this is a subtle reflection upon the life and perspective of the author of those exquisite seven volumes, given that to the artist all the people and events in one’s life could appear like a diorama or magic lantern in one’s room, altered by the slightest trick of light.
You may think this is tangential, but this is what members of the Berkeley Renaissance were always talking about. In fact, I just made up their discussion as I went along.
KN: How much do you think Spicer is tied up with a Canadian West Coast poetics?
GTM: I like to think he had a lot of influence or may have for poets younger than myself, although somewhat imperceptibly. It is easier to say that the Berkeley Renaissance poets had a profound effect upon Canadian West Coast poets with their quirky and thoughtful classical bent. I think that Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer got the process started and that Robin Blaser continued it with his life’s work.
I keep thinking of the word midwifery for some reason. I don’t know who it was, but maybe it was Blaser swaddling the scalded infant Poetry and escorting it across the border. George Stanley is another, perhaps a “survivor” of the original grail hunt. Besides Daphne Marlatt, I tend to consider him THE Vancouver poet (present company excluded) because he managed to shake off some of the magic dust of Spicer’s “knighting” and find his own voice, which is spry, pondersome, wry, and intriguing. Also, he looked pretty impressed that Jack had written me a letter from beyond the grave.
The Can Lit thesis topic so far is “Midwifing the Muse: How And Why Americans Got Their Mitts On Our Poetry”. Better get cracking on that one.
It is clear to me that my own poetry has swerved in the opposite direction of Spicer’s work, which is to say an Orphic somewhat closed form. The problem with narrowing down intelligence and senses to such a fine point is that the poet runs out of poetry or words or molecules or whatever. Then we’re left with vast silences and a bit of bacteria at the back of a bus or stuck in a vacuum, bacteria we are told is very important bacteria, the most important bacteria in our entire civilization, and so on.
All this to say I am constantly at work at my lifelong long poem The Untitled, which even in spite of immemorial dream time, is a very long Canadian long poem. When I began this lifelong epic, it was not only to have my own ragbag of poetic conceits, but also to have a work that was biographical not in terms of my life but in terms of a compositional record, as the sonatas were for Beethoven, the symphonies for Mozart and the string quartets for Hadyn. We tend to forget because of the antiquity of it all that Haydn was rather subversive in wanting to freak people out because generally they were treating dinner music like muzak.
On a good day, I’d say that young George Bowering, who is also on record somewhere as initially thinking Spicer was too esoteric, was getting at this when he wrote of listening to a musician:
You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.
As he also points out, Philip Whalen referred to some poetry as “a graph of the mind moving”. This resonates with me, as I enjoy this kind of journey in long works. Part of the amazement I experience with The Cantos, for example, is the documented rise and decline of a single intelligence, with all its beauty and imperfections. I think my argument for characters such as Ezra Pound and Richard Wagner and even Jack Spicer to some extent is that there is sometimes more of value in the semi-unconscious realm of the artist than in the petty day to day life of the person.
Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen shows how power can corrupt the most stalwart of souls and how the heroic figure is a naive one at best and getting so preoccupied and misguided is moving in the opposite direction of love. In person, obviously he espoused and embraced fascism and expressed almost the exact opposite of the philosophy that can be found in his operas. However, as an artist, he forced poetry upon musical form in a rather grand and violent manner. If you watch a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, you get a general treatise on pretty much everything I’m talking about, because the story is only about what it takes to introduce a new type of poetry among one’s narrow-minded contemporaries.
As for Pound, I think he wanted to stop a war, and reached the point that frustrates most poets when they realize they cannot stop a war or alter human nature. He took out his anger on the American government and made his infamous broadcasts and ended up in a tiger trap for all his rage. Then he came out crushed and eked out apologies, admitting that he was wrong.
One of the most interesting additions to the revised edition of Muthologos is Phyllis Webb‘s CBC interview with Charles Olson where he appears to have reached the terrain I am talking of, only it took him a whole book of talking to do so. Sound familiar? Olson closes his remarks with a statement much in accordance with my own thinking on the matter of influence and our relationships with our poetical antecedents, projecting beyond the mere projective.
Here is what he says:
I, in dream, have been instructed by a man, of dream, named Ezra Pound, exactly how to write my verse, and that is not influence. That is something much more mysterious and vital and crucial, and I believe than any one of us would have to not only listen to that instruction but in that instruction we are being told exactly what to do. Pound in a dream, is my influence, and anything that I now am or do is following those instructions.
I’m sorry to make such a full English breakfast of your question, but this will make an excellent chapter in the inevitable upsized edition of Morselogos. Actually, I’m not sorry at all.
And yes, when I think of family members that fled Poland to avoid the pogroms and the anti-Semitism they then went on to experience in Britain (as Orwell’s essay documents very well), I feel rather uneasy about history and art and pretty much everything. Who wouldn’t be a paranoid nowadays? I tend to think my own approach to cultural issues is a Calibanistic attempt upon language, to ingest and destomach all the content again. Acts of reverse-appropriation and alchemic alteration season my diverse works and this continual unearthing cannot find a common collective or banner and I often think this is why it is misunderstood, since it rails so hard on contextualization itself!
This methodology is a major part of the subtext of my stories in Death in Vancouver, where the same story is virtually recycled over and over again in different modes and from different angles in the hope that all the stirred up layers of textual sediment might reinvigorate the imagination of the reader as he or she becomes alien and experiences the city made utterly strange.
Bitwise, the blipvert I wrote in a language from the year 2088 really drücks with omni who reads it. It’s a shame because this is exactly how Canadian children will sound in the year 2088, when we are finally amalgamated into the collective state of New Haudenosaunee. This entire hella important history is expanded upon in my five novel speculative series The Chaos! Quincunx.
In a letter you talked a bit of Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer as if they were on different sides of a poetry scale between letting in almost nothing and letting in almost everything. In a sense, they are also a measure of the contemporary Canadian scene, moving from a centralized National poetry in the East to an often neglected historical/geographical/cultural poetry in the West. I am generalizing of course, but I mean to point out the particulars in central Canada are heard often and almost too loud and clear although they have less bearing on some of the diverse interests of poets in the West. Perhaps in secret, we whisper about proportional representation.
It is odd to find oneself in a city that has hosted at least two major world events and still feel at the edge of the poetic world, in the last lyrical lighthouse for the bravest boat to find it, tapping out a portion of Morse now and again. Of course, that’s what often arises from reading the papers or knocking back the news. Charles Swann is right. It would be nice to open the paper up one day and find a copy of one book we could cherish forever.
Of course, I am completely biased, since so far as I know, I have written the first book of poetry about the Kwakwaka’wakw including their myths, history of their potlatch ban, and parts about my mother’s family of fairly well-known upstart First Nations chiefs. Discovery Passages will appear in the spring of 2011, courtesy of Talonbooks.
So to answer your question, what is not tied up with a Canadian West Coast poetics?
In this way, I am the Heurtebise figure stepping through the mirror and connecting Jack Spicer and American/European poetics with a completely different kind of Canadian poetics that takes into account other fascinating accounts of local cultural history. Perhaps my chagrin stems from the attitudes in Victoria and Ottawa towards my mother’s people and the potlatch. In other words, it is rather hard to admire the first Prime Minister when he is on record as saying one’s ancestors are “the most depraved and uncivilized in the province”.
On that note, this conversation is over.