Interview with Jim Cohn of the Museum of American Poetics, 2010
Randy Roark: Interview by Jim Cohn
Randy Roark came to Boulder in November 1979 to apprentice with the poet Allen Ginsberg as he assembled his Collected Poems, and continued to work in various capacities with the poet until Ginsberg’s death in 1997. He has published over 40 volumes of original prose and poetry and art criticism under his Laocoon Press imprint. See http://randyroark.com/. This interview began in March, 2009, and continued for several months.
Jim Cohn: As a child growing up in a small town in Connecticut, did you have some kind of idea early on that you would have a passion for the arts?
Randy Roark: I didn’t really have much exposure to the arts when I was a child. I do remember seeing a photograph of a garden sculpture by David Smith in an issue of The Weekly Reader when I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade that moved me enough that I cut it out and hung it over my desk. It was entitled something like “Reclining Woman” and it was a metal sculpture of loops and curves longer than it was high. First I looked for and found the shape of a reclining woman, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself because it was definitely abstract, but then suddenly something happened and the sculpture kind of disappeared and I was looking at the sky and the clouds behind it. Then my vision would flicker back and forth—I’d see the sculpture, then I would see the suggestion of a woman reclining, and then it would disappear and I’d see the sky and clouds. There was this “leap” that I’ve associated with art ever since. That’s one of the reasons I still go to museums—to change my way of seeing, to experience that leap from looking at something to suddenly seeing something else, something that was hidden, something that didn’t exist a moment before. I find that experience most often when I’m reading a book or in art museums or at rock shows. I think the experience of seeing in that way must release endorphins or something because it’s a kind of high that persists even when I look away from the painting. I can feel a definitely altered state of consciousness come over me after a couple of hours in a museum—I begin to slow down, my awareness changes, not only about the art but about everything—I become hyper-aware of the light in the room, the silence, the people around me; what they’re wearing, the way they stand and walk and talk to each other. I kind of disappear. I remember once in the Denver Art Museum they had a temporary exhibit including one of Cezanne’s paintings of Mt. Ste. Victoire and in this altered state of mind I saw for the first time how cold colors receded and hot colors advanced, and for a moment the painting became three-dimensional—it sort of reassembled in the air between the painting and my eyes and I got so dizzy I had to sit on the floor until I could stand up again. I had a similar experience after an Impressionist exhibition at the same museum—when I left the museum it was dark and everything was covered in silvery snow and the streetlights were diffused through the fog and there were swirling crystals forming in the air like thousands of diamonds and I felt like I was walking in an Impressionist painting.
As for literature, I was fascinated with long novels, especially the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, as soon as I could read them. I enjoyed opening a book and entering a world that I could get lost in. I also bought poetry books from the Scholastic Book Services in grammar school. I don’t know why I started reading poetry or kept reading it because I didn’t really understand many of the poems and I can’t remember poetry even being taught until fifth grade, but I would buy these anthologies and read them all the way through just for the pleasure of the sounds of the words themselves. They were like brief pieces of music whose structure was a measured line, and they usually rhymed which was also fun. And they would keep this forward-moving rhythm going on until they reached a full stop, usually ending with a surprising rhyme so the last word would hit with a loud thump followed by this weird, portentous reverberation. It was a different kind of experience than when I was reading novels where I felt like I was living inside the story. There was hardly ever any sensory imagery associated for me in reading poems—they were more like overhearing someone talking in a fancy language that I didn’t really understand but I knew it meant something to someone. I almost knew what was going on, but I didn’t know how I knew. I’m also a little bit dyslexic so poetry was easier for me to read because it was usually one poem on a page with a lot of white space surrounding it. There was something pleasurable in that as well, which is why I also bought a lot of books with jokes in them. Jokes were also usually printed on a page that was mostly white, and they were square, and they ended with a thud and a little surprise too, just like poems. The only time since then that I’ve had that strong of a visceral reaction to reading was when I got home as a teenager and read Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, and realized I’d been carrying a bomb in my pocket all day long, just waiting to explode.
So there were two different experiences that I read for—one was to lose myself in a story, and the other was more for the sound of the words.
Then one day while I was reading an anthology of Metaphysical poetry—poetry that said almost nothing to me at the time—and I read John Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” and almost immediately I could hear that specific narrative voice I’d always associated with prose, and I could understand exactly what he was saying, and he was trying to convince a woman into action, and he was imploring her, so she was in the poem as well. It was like a little scene in a play, and by reading it the characters came back to life, and they were living right there in the room with me, and I was in there somehow too. And I was aware of how he’d crafted his thought into lines with a very specific rhythm so the emphasis would fall on the convincing words, and how the lines carried over into the next line with a strong forward motion, like impatience, and how the sound of the words themselves created the musical structure on which the meaning was carried, and how it told a little story, a little vignette that only lasted as long as the poem did, like the 45s I was listening to at the time, like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Paperback Writer.”
What Donne was saying was that he wanted to be a flea so he could crawl under his lover’s clothes and walk along her skin. And although I don’t know how—I was only ten or eleven at the time—I knew in an immediate and personal way what he really wanted because I wanted it too. It wasn’t to be a flea, really—so there was this leap and I understood metaphor. And for the first time the experience of reading a poem jumped from being something outside of me to something that was happening inside of me, and in that moment both of my reasons for reading combined—there was the sound, and there was the little world that opened and then closed.
The part of me where I understood what he was saying was a funny place that was not really thought, or memory, or anything I could really recognize as me yet. It was just this sense of certainty—of knowing. I didn’t know what it was, really, but I knew I wanted to be in contact with a woman’s warm flesh in that way too, even though I hadn’t yet, and it opened this ache in me or touched a place in me or something in me woke up. That experience of words leaping off the page and at the same time hearing them in some mysterious way inside of me, of having them open something up inside me—some understanding or insight or even an ache or a longing—was something I began to seek out and to associate with poetry and songs on the radio more than prose.
As for writing my own lyrics, that began sometime when I was walking to grammar school. When I left the house I would continue to sing whatever song was playing on the radio, and the lyrics would get boring pretty quickly and it was a long walk to school, so I began to make up my own lyrics. I knew it had to rhyme, but I didn’t really know anything about meter and rhythm. Even so every once in a while the whole line would fall into place—the phrasing, the meter, the rhyme, and it would be the way I’d really say it if I really meant it. And when it was an emotion that I could really identify with—like intense anger or intense longing—the words came on their own if I concentrated on the feeling itself. It was as if I was letting someone speak through me, that I had opened a valve, and singing became a means to get all of this emotion out of me. And when I could really feel the emotion I was singing about, and if it was something I’d like to say in real life, I could fill the words with air, I could stretch them out, I could fill them with all of the emotion I was feeling.
Later, probably in fifth grade or so, I began to write long loosely rhymed poems in imitation of the kind of poems that I was studying in school—so they were full of allusions and extended metaphors, and I would call my friends on the telephone and explain all of their hidden meanings for hours.
I was considered enough of a poet in seventh grade that I was asked by one of the nuns in my Catholic junior high to write a poem to read at the school assembly when our principal retired. My poem was entitled “The Principles of a Principal.” The only thing I can remember is that people told me afterward that I read so quietly that only the first few rows could hear. Two years later I published my first poem in my high school magazine, The Sabre. It was rhymed and in meter and was meant to be funny, and it was about how I enjoyed looking at women getting dressed. The next time I read my own poetry in public was in 1980. I had written a poem called “Why I’ve Never Read in Public” for Ted Berrigan’s class at Naropa and he asked me if that was true and when I said it was he set up a reading series and had me open for Rachel Peters on the final night. I think he intentionally gave me time to prepare and learn from the more experienced students before I had to get up and read myself.
JC: You were a student at the Kerouac School in the late 1970s, in the school’s first decade and a teaching assistant to Allen Ginsberg. What were you doing in the years immediately preceding your involvement at Naropa that led up to your focus on poetics rather than any of the other arts that were of interest to you?
RR: I dropped out of college after my freshman year, in 1972, when I was eighteen. I got a job in the emergency room in Willimantic, Connecticut, and moved in with my girlfriend, whom I would marry when I was twenty-one. One day one of the women I was working with at the hospital was photocopying some poems, and I was stunned when she said her husband was a poet, because I kind of assumed that poets didn’t exist anymore. I specifically remember her saying that her husband was a poet, not that he taught poetry. He turned out to be Sandy Taylor, who was just beginning Curbstone Press in his basement in Willimantic with a large format camera and a dark room and an old drum press. He was teaching poetry and prose at Eastern Connecticut State College and I began auditing his classes, studying Yeats and Eliot and Frost and the modern novels, including On the Road, which I hated at the time. I was living with a radical feminist and read Ms. magazine every month, so the way Kerouac treated women in the book was reprehensible to me. I actually threw the book across the room at one point when they leave the wife in Utah, stuck with the hotel bill. It’s funny but when I re-read the book ten years later, I thought it was terrific and the way it treated women didn’t bother me at all. It wasn’t a manual on proper gender relations. It was about something else entirely.
Then about this time I got a second job running the used book section of a bookstore across from the university, and when the owners built an arts center they gave me the job of running the reading series. The first poet to read was Jim Scully, who had just published Santiago Poems, which was written during his first visit to Chile in the days immediately following the Allende coup. It was the first poetry reading I’d ever been to so I’d set up the room all wrong with the chairs around a conference table as if we were at a meeting and Jim read from the head of the table only a few feet away from me.
The poems were about the horror of arriving in Chile as a literature professor prepared to collect indigenous Quechuan poetry and finding a country in political lockdown, with swollen bodies floating down the river and littering the streets. But the scariest part was his voice—it was flat and unemotional, like the living dead, like something from beyond the grave. I could see his fingers tremble as he turned the pages. There were long moments when I literally stopped breathing, listening to him read.
He read a poem about how the soldiers chopped off the hands of the poet Victor Jara for singing “Venceremos” to the prisoners who filled the Santiago soccer stadium—“where torture became a national sport”—and jeered at him, “Now, sing!” And when he continued to sing, “they killed him / they couldn’t kill him enough.”
Then he read a poem about his visit to Neruda’s wife of nearly fifty years who he found sitting in the darkness by an open window, with a letter in her hand telling her that her husband had died of cancer while still in exile. Then he read a poem about looking out of his fancy hotel window at young men walking down the center of the street with their hands over their heads, and women risking their lives to gather eggs for their families in the morning, and the blackened bodies he stepped over on his way to the national library.
It was through Sandy that I was also introduced to the Eastern Connecticut poetry scene, which was made up of people who talked intelligently about art and film and poetry and politics—things I really cared about but had no one to talk to about. But most importantly I got to work with Sandy in his basement, and I’d spend each Sunday late into the evening learning how to work his old drum press and how to shoot and develop pages, clothespinning the wet sheets on a laundry line, and collating and saddlestiching his first books by hand, all the while asking him endless questions about poetry. It wasn’t until I was working for Allen that I realized that a lot of the people I met at the time had national reputations—including Sandy, who was later very involved with Allen and Ernesto Cardinal and Anne Waldman and Joe Richey and others when the Sandinistas were in power in Nicaragua in the early Eighties. And also people like George Butterick, who Allen had me write to for a copy of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You, a Magazine of the Arts for a class of his on “The Literary History of the Beat Generation.” It turned out George had gathered the best collection of Beat and Black Mountain and New York School publications in the world as the director of the rare books department at the University of Connecticut. And then later, when I began a reading group to study Charles Olson after I graduated from Naropa, I realized that George was also the guy who wrote those huge annotated books on Olson’s poetry. And then in 1982, I wrote to Ann Charters—the first biographer of Jack Kerouac and wife of music producer and jazz historian Sam Charters—to encourage her to be part of the Kerouac Conference, and I was shocked when I wrote her address on the envelope—it turns out she lived across the street from me in Mansfield Center, this tiny town in Connecticut where I was living when I worked with Sandy. It later turned out that John Clellon Holmes was living less than three miles away from me in Old Saybrook when I was living in Mystic, right before I moved to Boulder. But I knew nothing about them at the time.
Then sometime in the fall of 1976, I picked up a copy of People magazine in the emergency room where I was working and there was an article about Anne Waldman that mentioned Naropa, and it talked about Allen Ginsberg’s apprenticeship program. So I applied without much hope and was surprised to be accepted. I finally arrived to Boulder with my wife and our cats in November 1979. The plan was to apprentice with Allen for a semester and get my BFA from Naropa and the University of Colorado in two years, and then return to Connecticut. But I’ve never left Boulder, not even when Allen moved back to New York City in the early eighties.
JC: You were both a student and assistant to Allen Ginsberg while at Naropa. You were close to Philip Whalen at the end of his life and remain in touch with Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman, to name four significant American poets that passed through Naropa. Can you address what it was you found in yourself from having been informed, on many levels perhaps, by these writers?
RR: That’s an interesting way to put it—what I found in myself from being informed by others. It seems like those would be two very distinct things—being informed by someone, or finding something in yourself. But I know what you mean—it’s that jump I was talking about. The image I always use of the apprenticeship is of Allen talking to a very deep place in me and once I learned how to answer out of that place, he gave me my self.
As an apprentice, I would go over to Allen’s house on Bluff Street at least once a week and help him work on whatever he was working on—mostly his Collected Poems—more or less as his secretary, and in return he would look at my poems and tell me how terrible they were, which they were. I was 25 and basically an under-educated and under-read kid who wanted to be a poet. I asked him much later why he’d accepted me as an apprentice when my poetry was so bad, and he said it was because I was a good typist. And that I had been a medical transcriptionist and he wanted some of his lectures transcribed. And that I had proven I could get things done. But mostly he said it was because I was sincere, and there was more hope in teaching a bad poet with sincerity than there was in trying to teach a good poet without it.
I would usually spend the entire day there and deal with whatever came up. My main job when I wasn’t working at his house was to transcribe his journals and cull out any poems or anything interesting that I found there. I would also run errands, answer the phone, open his mail, help him prepare for his classes, drive him around, and deal with a lot of the bureaucratic stuff related to his schoolwork. If I stayed through dinner, Peter or Allen would cook, and afterward we’d listen to Ma Rainey records or Harry Smith’s anthology or Dylan or Bach or Vivaldi. Once I brought him a new Rolling Stones record and we listened to it over and over again.
Occasionally Allen would recite poetry to me from memory, kind of acting them out so I would get what excited him most about them. That’s something Sandy did as well—in class Sandy would enact Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for instance, slapping his hands to startle us on “a sudden blow,” waving his arms in the air for “the … great … wings … beat … ing … still,” staggering to “above the stag-ger-ing girl.” And at our first meeting, Allen acted out seeing Williams reading at the Met in the late forties, and at the end of “The Clouds” he leapt up and shouted “lunging upon a pismire, a conflagration, a….”—and he waved his finger in the air, as if lost for words, and looked down at me and said, “And I realized he was talking. Just talking.” At other times Allen would quote from something from Whitman or Blake to comment on what was happening in the New York Times. And when he wanted me to understand what he expected from my poetry, he would read to me from Reznikoff and Williams. Then, when the apprenticeship was over, I continued to work with him, first on a project to transcribe and edit all of his lectures on Blake, and then as his teaching assistant and an assistant in the poetics department.
But the poets at Naropa who had the most influence on my writing were Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo. I still feel like I’m only just beginning to understand everything Ted taught me about poetry. One time in a class during the Kerouac Conference he described the poet’s awareness as something like a helmet surrounding your head. It’s bigger than your thought or sense impressions—it’s aware of all that, but it’s something larger. And poetry comes from that place—the space that’s slightly outside and around your head—and you just have to write it down. You’re not in control, you just have to listen. If you can really capture that voice, that’s enough for any poem.
Anselm introduced me to Dada, and the writings of Marcel Duchamp, and some of the very best poetry written in other languages, and he encouraged a voice in me that I didn’t even recognize as my own. He would winnow out the false voice in my work by highlighting certain lines and images or sentiments or even phrases that had escaped my attempts to obscure and over-intellectualize them, and he ignored what was false in my poetry, believing that it would fall away on its own.
But the comment Anselm made that changed my whole relationship to writing was when he said that it was really all just one long poem. Once I truly understood that, it changed the way I wrote and collected and presented my poetry. Now it’s not about individual poems—it’s about being honest to my changing consciousness through a series of writings. And that a poet is aware of all the white space around the poem itself, and hears in the silence between the poems everything that’s unwritten. And that it’s in what’s unwritten that most of the poetry occurs.
On the other hand Allen and Diane were actually more like surrogate parents to me. They kind of took me under their wings. Allen and Diane and I rarely talked about poetry. We talked about our lives, about who was in jail or broke and what we could do about it, about my love life. I confided in them and they listened and gave me useful advice. And, quite frankly, I needed surrogate parents more at the time than I needed poetry teachers, and it was very important for me to meet people I admired who accepted me as I was and saw through my awkwardness into who I really was and sincerely cared about me. Whatever social skills I have, I learned from them.
Anne Waldman and Philip Whalen have always been more like embodied muses to me—I’ve known Anne for almost thirty years, but I don’t feel I have a real connection with her personally the way I did with Allen and Diane, any more than one would have with the muse. She’s more like an electrical storm—I can’t really have a relationship with a force of energy like that, I can only define myself in relation to it. Often a poem or prose piece will form in my head as if it’s one half of a conversation with her—as if the very highest state of awareness in me at the moment is talking directly to the inspired awareness that I attribute to her.
Another important part of my education occurred in a series of classes I took at the University of Colorado to fulfill requirements for my bachelor’s degree at Naropa. I took classes there that weren’t offered at Naropa—classes in composition and music history and journalism, and two semesters of the “Great Books” with Professor Dennis Gilkey, who had a real passion for ancient languages and literature. It was through him that I got a chance to hear Homer, Dante, Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, Petrarch, Sappho, and Chaucer enthusiastically read in their original languages. Ironically, the next time I saw him was years later when I was working in the emergency room and he was delivering The Denver Post for a living, having been laid off at the university.
I also studied with a woman at the university whose name I can’t remember who taught the plays of Shakespeare by first having us read the text, and then we’d discuss it in class as literature, and then we’d see a performance of the play, and then we talked about what we learned from watching it onstage. After all that, we had to write something original about the play, and she would write comments on our papers, asking us to expand on certain ideas. Up until then, I was taught literature as something that one studies in order to comprehend or create it, but she taught that both the text and performance were things that I could respond to with my own creative intelligence, and that I could have a conversation with it that was more important than what it “said” or “was.” It was a conversation aware of what the play said and was, but it was about more than that. Since then, if a painting interests me, I’ll read everything I can about the artist and the movement and the time, and then go back and try to see it again through the lens of all of that information. Then I can see not only what’s on the canvas, but also something of what the artist saw when they painted it, and what they wanted me to see. Then I stand an arm’s length away, as close as the artist was when they painted it, so that I can see the individual brushstrokes and sometimes even the sequence of brushstrokes. It’s obvious that however great it is, a human being made it, just like me.
I know this is not a very popular idea with many of my friends—they want to experience the painting solely as what it is as a visual phenomenon without projecting a lot of information onto it, but for me it’s often a lot like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” where the backstory makes the great work of art even more interesting. It’s like that with almost everything I get interested in as well, whether it’s a poem or a play or a playwright or a film or a piece of music or even a specific time period. I assemble everything I can about it and try to create a work of art out of what I’ve learned, because I always forget most of what I read or hear if I don’t write it down.
Take Picasso’s “Guernica” for example. There’s lots of ways it can be seen—first as a painting, but you can also learn to appreciate its technique of being painted on that scale and in black and white, or as an imitation of the newspaper photographs by which Picasso and all of Paris first learned of the horrors of the bombing of Guernica, the first modern terrorist attack. You can try to understand Picasso’s symbols and images, and where they came from. You can even get interested in the painting’s history, and what it meant to other artists and critics over time, including that great story of a Gestapo agent searching Picasso’s studio and, coming upon a postcard of “Guernica,” pointed to it and said, “Did you do that?” And Picasso replied, “No, you did.” And you can learn to see it both as a singular document of a specific moment in time and at the same time as a piece of the larger story of the artist’s trajectory from beginning to end. For a practicing artist, to appreciate that is to get in tune with the process of creativity itself, not confusing it with the creation of objects, or approaching it only as a student or critic. As a poet I want to see myself looking at the painting too, or listening to the music along with everything I know—I want to see them as if from the inside rather than as an object separate from me. And I keep going until I understand how it was made and then I get completely bored with it, and never want to think about it again.
JC: To see “from the inside rather than as an object separate” sounds like a good description of what Steve Silberman calls “activist scholarship.”
RR: I haven’t read Steve on “activist scholarship,” but I do know that I’m interested in studying anything that’s of use to me as a writer or as a human being. For instance, you and I could go out tonight and see Chaplin’s Modern Times, and we could enjoy it as a funny movie, which it is. But if you look into it a little bit further, its significance changes. The film was made during the Great Depression, and in the first years of the assembly line and modernization. If you know that, then you can better appreciate the film for what it was when it was released, and the predicament when Chaplin finds himself as a tramp. For instance, there’s a scene of him trying to keep up with a steadily accelerating assembly line, and there’s a scene where the owners of the factory design a machine that can feed workers while they continue working so they won’t have to take lunch breaks. And then, if you want, you can go on and learn that films—especially comedies—up until that time were mostly escapist fantasies. Chaplin’s previous film, for instance, was The Gold Rush—a fantasy, more or less, about a distant place and time. So for a comedian of Chaplin’s stature to make an entertaining satire that led people to re-examine their own lives and the inequities of the present social system was a revolutionary act—right down to the title of the film: this film was about modern times, about their actual lives. As time has gone on, that aspect of the film has faded, but you can learn to appreciate it as well if you want to.
Now, you don’t need to know all of that or even be interested at all in all that extra-textual information in order to enjoy the film … or any work of art. Like I say, I have friends who militantly object to the idea of studying a work of art outside of the artwork itself. But as a practicing artist you can also learn a lot by studying how other artists lived their lives and how they made their art. I’ve even worked with filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and photographers like Kai Sibley and spent time with artists like Sarah Chesnutt and Amy Hayes and David Treff and Tree Bernstein and musicians like Jeff Grove and Layne Redmond and Tamra Spivey and Ronnie Pontiac to better understand the way they see the world. Without that, my appreciation for film and photography and art and music would mostly be passive or intellectual. For instance, before I began working with filmmakers, I would see a film mostly in terms of its story. I’m still primarily interested in a film’s story, but now I also watch it as something constructed by the director, the writers, the director of photography, the actors, even the set designer—the film is the product of specific choices and imaginations and skills. I’m still caught up in the story, but I’m also aware of the camera angles and the framing and the lighting and the set design and how music is being used to create a specific mood, and the choices the editors and actors and director are making. Now, I’m not saying it’s better to be aware of all of that, but it’s something that just sort of happens to you as you become more experienced.
I began writing LIT as my attempt to rewrite the Norton anthologies. I felt there was more wisdom in the Norton anthologies than in any bible—that most of what you need to know in order to be fully human is included in the Norton anthologies—but no one reads them any more. They’ve got more about the experience of impermanence than Buddhism, they’ve got more on the different seasons of life than Ecclesiastes or the Tao, they have all you need to know about loss and rebirth and love or anything really important in human life. The experience of trying to rewrite the great poets, one by one, was like becoming part of a conversation with some of the smartest and most articulate people of all time. Western literature would be more interesting if it included more women’s and slave’s voices of course, but I found plenty of anthologies that were filled with the voices of all cultures and times.
By reading the Norton anthologies I also began to get a sense of what survives as literature, and why. Literature survives because it’s saying something really important. Learning what’s really important—and what’s been written about what’s really important—is a poet’s true education in their art. Like Pound said, “Why rewrite in mediocre verse what’s already been written to perfection?” Well, I decided that it was important for me to learn what’s been written to perfection. Now when I begin to write, it’s out of a context of at least being aware of the extent of what’s already been accomplished, not out of ignorance of it. My reading is the foundation I stand on, and it’s from what’s become part of my experience that I stand and look out at the horizon. I can’t help it. It’s just a fact.
There’s also a transformative experience in reading all of the great poetry from every recorded culture throughout time—it’s what they used to call a humanist education or “the liberal arts.” I think of it as the minimum information necessary to become fully human. I can almost separate my friends into political camps based on whether they’ve read The Grapes of Wrath or not.
And it’s not only about what the work is saying, but sometimes a work survives because of what it is. On the Road remains important because it’s about something important, written in an authentic voice that is completely understandable now, but was attacked not only for what it said but how it said it in its time. But the relationship to his life and the mode of experience that Kerouac captured in On the Road remains a possibility for others to discover for themselves because it was actually lived and not just imagined. It’s true. Likewise, when Ulysses was first published, even the most literate readers couldn’t understand what it was saying, because they weren’t aware of their own interior monologues. Now writing from the point of view of the interior monologue is standard in most novels since, say, World War II. In a way Joyce introduced the human race to their own innermost consciousness in Ulysses—as Kerouac did in his own way too—and that’s influenced everyone, whether they’ve read the books or not.
So that’s one real possibility for writing—to change the experience of what it is to be human. Or in the visual arts, to change the way we see. Educated art critics literally couldn’t identify the subjects of Impressionist paintings when they were first exhibited, but now the Impressionists are probably the most popular and influential art movement in history. But it’s even stranger than that. What we now consider the Impressionists’ pretty pictures were actually revolutionary subjects at the time—train stations and prostitutes and barmaids and beggars and drug addicts and alcoholics. One of the early reviewers even spat at one of the paintings. The “Impressionists” was originally meant as a derogatory term, describing their paintings as unfinished, as no more than sketches. They were the first to paint in plein air solely because tubes of paint were invented in their lifetimes. While they were painting some of their best known works, most of Paris was eating rats and straw because they had just lost a war with the Prussians, and what followed was the Commune, which was even worse. Renoir grew up in a slum and his family was made homeless when Napoleon III tore up his neighborhood to build the Champs Elysees. “Old Paris” was literally disappearing and “Modern Paris” was being born around them as they walked to their studios and cafes over makeshift wooden planks. Everything that is old to us now was once new, and if it’s lasted long enough to become quaint, it was probably revolutionary in its time. Andy Warhol was often considered a non-artist when he was alive, but now his style is probably the most imitated in the world. Last week alone I saw grids of the same photograph silkscreened in different colors in a Chinese restaurant, a travel advertisement, and a film made in modern India.
What becomes immediately clear in the study of art history is that the artist discovers the truly new work of art only in the process of creating it—it can’t be something you already know before you begin painting, because it doesn’t exist yet. Another thing you learn is that if you make art in the hope that it will make you happy, that’s a bad bet, but if you make art because it makes you happy, then you can’t lose.
Another thing you learn is that the best artists have a capacity to turn adversity into passion. In fact, I have a theory that the best art—like early Wordsworth, or the paintings of Van Gogh, or the first few Velvet Underground albums—were created in an atmosphere of outright hostility, and that friction with your audience files away all but the strongest parts of your work, the way a grindstone sharpens a knife. And if the culture isn’t receptive, it’s more likely that you’ll end up talking to eternity. It’s when Whitman began writing to poets a hundred years hence that he became eternal. That’s us, literally, that’s our generation. For others it’s more like Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey, where the artist is banished from his home town for being “different,” and wanders through the unknown and discovers something while in exile that the town needs, and when he returns he brings the knowledge necessary to heal the whole tribe. And for others it’s more like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where you go in search of something and discover too late that you’re in the wrong place for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.
Emerson thought that the universal mark of genius is being misunderstood. He traces it back through not only the arts but in science and philosophy and religion as well, including Socrates and Jesus and Copernicus and Galileo. Sometimes when I get discouraged with my own work, or begin to think that it’s mostly nonsense, I’ll remember that it’s not whether anyone picks up on what I’m doing while I’m still alive or if I’ve really done anything at all. It’s that this is what I’ve decided to do with my life. At the same time it’s clear to me that I am no more in control of my work than I am in control of my life, and that one comes directly from the other. It’s like what Burroughs said about Kerouac: he was a writer because he wrote. It’s not a judgment, it’s a fact.
JC: It’s well known to anyone with knowledge of Kerouac School history that you transcribed over 28,000 pages of Allen Ginsberg lectures from his years at Naropa. Recently (July 3, 2009––ed.), you were invited to give a talk at an Allen Ginsberg Memorial in which you reflected upon eight pillars of Allen’s teachings. As the person perhaps best qualified to comment on Allen Ginsberg as a teacher, from the perspective of activist scholarship, would you elaborate on that meditation you presented?
RR: I spoke on Allen Ginsberg as a teacher, about what I called his “Eight Pillars of Poetics.” The first pillar was complete honesty. Complete honesty is something much deeper and more complex than what people usually mean by being honest—it’s about an uncompromising look beyond the surface of what you would like to believe is true to the deeper truth beneath it, which is usually something that you are hiding from, something that only strikes you when your defense mechanisms have broken down, usually through extreme forms of emotion, like love or grief. In order to persevere to get to that point, you have to be uncommonly dedicated to the truth, or beaten down to it.
The second pillar was a belief in the ability of poetry to transmit actual states of consciousness. In Allen’s case, those were primarily the states of consciousness he experienced in Buddhist meditation. If you’re not aware of that aspect of Allen’s writing, you’re missing an essential element in his poetry, especially the poems written in the second half of his life. In fact, he believed that poetry honestly written while experiencing any genuine emotion would automatically result in a text that transmitted that experience to others, mostly through the specific breathing patterns that are characteristic of certain strong emotions such as ecstasy and despair—preserved mostly through punctuation and line breaks and white space.
The third pillar was a belief in the power of spontaneous utterance—that the most powerful poetry was spoken in complete alignment with the emotional, physical, and intellectual experience of the moment, including an awareness of the audience and an historical sense of all that has gone before, as well as the moment’s deepest significance and possibilities. As such it brings the whole room’s focus into the present moment and place rather than taking it somewhere else, which is what most poetry does. It’s not that every poem has to be that, it’s just that that happens to be the most powerful form of utterance, and anything you say will be measured against that.
The fourth pillar was his belief that to divorce poetry from music was a big mistake, and that Zukofsky was right when he said that poetry’s lower limit was speech and its upper limit was music. That’s why Allen loved to play the songs of Richard Rabbit Brown and Bessie Smith in his poetry classes. In the same way he taught that much of the poetry of the past was actually written as lyrics to music that is now forgotten—like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience or the Child ballads or the poems of Campion and Marlowe, or he’d compare a Shakespeare lyric to a Dylan song without the music.
The fifth pillar was Allen’s respect for the poetry preserved in the “Norton Anthology of Poetry”—especially pre-19th-century poetry. For most of his time as a poetry teacher, Allen chose to teach out of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry—and not only that, but out of the first half of it, in order to concentrate on the craft of poetry. He taught that it was necessary to understand the history of poetry because modern poetry was written out of that tradition, and that if you don’t know Shakespeare as thoroughly as Kerouac did you can’t really understand Kerouac, or you would appreciate him for the wrong reasons. In the same way if you didn’t know Shelley, you couldn’t really appreciate Gregory Corso. Each semester he would begin with a survey of the various meters—like the iamb and spondee and dactyl—and then would have us write poems in our own language in classic forms like Sapphics and iambic pentameter and hendecasyllables and 12-bar blues and English hymns and ballads. What that practice does is it begins to shape your thought into musical meters and forms, and you develop an elegance of thought.
The sixth pillar was that a lot of important poetry was written in other languages and in other cultures and times, and if you’re only familiar with the poetry of your own language or era you’re missing some of the greatest poetry ever written, and the inspiration for poets such as Yeats and Eliot and Pound. When Allen put together his anthology of “Expansive Poetry,” four-fifths of it was from other languages and cultures. And he himself occasionally wrote in forms he borrowed from other cultures and times, including Elizabethan lyrics, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese forms, rap lyrics, calypso, the blues of course, and some forms he learned from Australian Aborigines.
The seventh pillar was that poetry actually had a medicinal value, and that a poet could heal social and psychological ills by writing and performing poetry. He also believed that the poet had a social function as well as a literary one—that there was a community of poets throughout time, and this community included your elders and your peers and the next generation as well, and that you especially needed to take care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves because they might be the most important poets of all.
The final pillar was something I re-learned when I was traveling with the percussionist Layne Redmond to Cyprus in 2009. She also brought Mary Rockford Lane, who has written books on shamanism, and Nathan Ells, the lead singer of a “shred” band called The Human Abstract, another rock and roll band with a name from William Blake. Layne was there to return ancient drumming practices to the Cypriot women, and late one night we four Americans got carried away, making plans to return the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Greeks in a cave on the island on Tinos, and the audacity of the idea was so huge that we were a little bit embarrassed, until Nathan shouted out “Go big or go home!” Living so close to Allen, I had to forget how important he was. But, looking back, I can see how he chose to “live large,” in both his writing and his life. And he took on the poets in the Norton anthologies and rose to their level of intensity by pitching his voice there. In a broader social and cultural sense he became one of Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the human race—he took on governments and institutions with his voice alone, and by his example moved others to live lives that were more humane and just.
JC: Having absorbed any number of poetic traditions, what poems have you written that both carry forward the poetics you found useful and also strike you as significant works of art in their own right? Of particular interest to me, in light of your mentioning Ginsberg’s interest in the Norton Anthology, is your recent book of poems LIT.
RR: There are basically three different threads that I’ve been working on in my writing. The first began in 1980 when I was talking with Ted Berrigan and told him that Dylan had written “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” out of the first lines of all the songs he didn’t think he’d have the time to write before he died, and Ted suggested I do something similar with my own work—take the best lines in all of my unsuccessful poems and paste them together into new poems. That began a project that lasted almost two years that has become part of my process ever since. I go through my old poems and delete everything except what still interests me. Later I re-read those pages of stray lines and begin to craft poems out of them. I was never happy with just randomly arranging them into 14-line sonnets like Ted suggested, but I began to see poems in them, or I’d see things I’d like to say but had never thought of before. I developed a process I call “over-writing,” which is to writing what Max Ernst called “fromage,” where he’d put a plank of wood under a canvas and run a black crayon over it and then paint over whatever design resulted. I start with pages of bits of my own writing and sometimes the writings from others and rewrite them until they no longer resemble the originals at all.
The first thing I learned by working in this way was that the poems I assembled randomly from stray lines were a lot more mysterious and interesting than the poems that came directly from my intellect, and to read one of them in public was a very different experience. It was often like reading a poem written by someone else. This freed me from identifying with my work, so the poem wasn’t about me, it was a separate object. I would work on it until it became a meaningful dramatic monologue from a character who was not me, and it freed the dramatist in me, and writing and performing became interesting to me again. I wasn’t satisfied until the poem sounded like “a real poem” and made literal sense, but they were less dry than when I tried writing out of my intellect—there was a lot more room in them, a lot more space. That’s something I’ve written about as “ending the tyranny of the I.”
The biggest part of that is merely temperament, certainly. In order for me to be happy, I have to be involved in something that I don’t control, because otherwise I get bored too easily. Duchamp got bored with making art too, and quit painting at barely thirty. What if art is something that’s happening around you all the time and to grab at one moment and spend months trying to recreate it in a studio so you can put your name on the bottom is to miss out on all the others? Duchamp became a chess player and played the game as a sculpture that moved through time, and he was good enough to become a member of the French national team. At the end of his life he would light a fire in his studio and sit in front of it all day, and said he would only begin to make art again if he could create something as interesting as fire.
It was in working in this way that I began to be able to concentrate for long periods of time in order to create bigger and bigger works, and I found a way where I could work for hours every night, night after night, rather than waiting to become inspired with some upsurge of feeling or thought. And what’s really ironic is that it’s only when I began to work with collage and montage and pastiche and fromage and incorporate overheard conversations and quotations from my reading and became more aware of the room I was reading in and thought less about me that I found my self onstage.
Another thing I learned from this process happened when I started getting interested in why I kept certain lines or phrases or images and not others. When I looked over the lines I had chosen to keep, it quickly became clear that they roughly fell into the categories that Pound identified as the three elements of poetry—phanopoeia, or the casting of images upon the mind’s eye; melopoeia, or the melodic phrase; and logopoeia, or the dance of intellect among words. I ended up with nine categories altogether, but they could all be more or less subsumed under those three. And this sensitivity to what was memorable about language made me begin to notice it more often—certain strings of words had an inherent musical quality in them, or I could “see” what they meant, or they were the kind of witty comments that I copied down in my notebook. And I just had to capture them, I didn’t have to conjure them up. It was something I could actually do. I couldn’t write novels, a good poem was a rare thing, but I could turn it into a craft. I had plenty of time. The art comes from making, as Yeats put it, “an hour’s work seem a moment’s thought.”
So that’s the first thread—beginning to think of poetry as something constructed and created, not something necessarily written. One of the unexpected benefits of this change was that I began to write less autobiographical poetry, and began to put all of that emotion and passion into my real life, which is where it belongs.
The attitude toward writing as something constructed and not necessarily written directly led to the next step, which was to continue working with my own words in this way but at the same to incorporate words I read or overheard. That began in 1990, when I went to Europe for the first time. I had just finished my last three MFA credits in Dorf Tirol, Italy, studying the work of Ezra Pound with his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz and her mother—and Pound’s long-time mistress—Olga Rudge, at Brunnenberg Castle, where a lot of Pound’s handmade furniture and tennis rackets and papers and library have been preserved. I sat at his writing desk and looked through the red 20-volume leather-bound French history of China from which he wrote the Chinese Cantos, with Pound’s delicate penciled references written in orderly columns in the endpapers, and opened his jacketless blue presentation copy of the first printing of Ulysses with Joyce’s tiny handwritten dedication to Pound on the title page.
Anyway, when my studies were over, I continued traveling through Europe for another six months alone. And at one point during this trip I went to stay on the Isle of Iona, off the western coast of England, because that was where the Western tradition had been preserved during the Viking invasions. By the time the Vikings arrived on Iona, the monks had constructed these tall stone towers with one door at the top, and they stored as much water and food and supplies as they could and rolled up the rope ladders when the Vikings landed and lowered them after they’d left. It’s because of those monks that most of the western tradition was preserved—much of Aristotle and Plato and the Greek playwrights, Cicero and the Latin poets, plus the illuminated bibles of the monks themselves. And I found it charming that the monks were instructed by their Orders to preach the word of God, but who would they preach to, since they were all monks? Well, they’d row out on Sunday mornings and preach to the seals sunning themselves on the rocks in the harbor near Fingal’s Cave.
So I made a pilgrimage to Iona to honor those monks. But—after I took a boat out to visit the descendants of the seals the monks preached to, and explored the ruins of the stone towers and the churches and the monk’s quarters, and walked through the graveyards and took photos of the Celtic crosses—there was very little to do on the island. There were a few books in the church’s gift shop, but none that interested me until I came across a book called “The Myths and Legends of the Irish Race,” which was published in 1904 or so. Later that night I began to read it, and quickly realized that it wasn’t very interesting at all, but I had nothing else to do so I continued reading and occasionally I’d read an odd phrase or construction or image that intrigued me and I began to underline them, without really knowing why, much like what I had done with my own work. Later, when I got home, I unpacked the book and began reading through the underlined phrases and they were interesting enough that I typed them up and began to work the lone phrases into a series of short poems called “The Myth of the Irish Race.” That began a process that I still use today that I call “collapsing” a text. The title poem of Mona Lisa’s Veil—my history of art—came from that process, as did the three collections that appear in Map of the World—one a collection of poems written from my study of alchemy, one from my study of dreams, and one from my study of shamanism. LIT came largely from that “collapsing” process as well. With Mona Lisa’s Veil, I collapsed an art textbook and also attempted to mimic the evolution of the history of art in the form of the poem itself. And in my first published book—a book-length poem called “Awakening Osiris”—I attempted to create an incantation modeled on the rites of Isis described by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, where each spring the tribe gathers at night and attempts to recite the 1001 names of the Goddess. It’s a bit like hunting Easter eggs—you have to be able to recognize the face of the Goddess underneath her 1001 disguises. And if you’re successful—and they usually were—the Great Goddess Herself would appear at sunrise. Most of the information in that poem came from collapsing a Jungian text on the Great Mother archetype by Erich Naumann published by Bollingen in the forties or fifties.
The third thread in my work is my attempt to break down the barriers between the different forms of writing in order to create something that is more like life as it’s actually lived. You can’t fit all of life into a collection of poems, or a collection of letters, or essays and interviews, but what if I mixed them all together?
This began as something of a surprise when I was typing up my journals from that first trip to Europe. I transcribed the writings exactly as they appeared so there would be a poem and then a prose piece and then a letter and then an essay and then a journal entry and then a dream and then a quote from something from my reading and then a set piece and then a snippet from an overheard conversation, all collected over a very diverse period of time. And there was one particular section from my time in England when I was simultaneously studying several different subjects at the same time, including the letters of Heloise and Abelard, the relationship between Edward Burne-Jones and the other Pre-Raphaelites and their lovers and wives, the poet Emmy Hennings and her husband Hugo Ball, and following traces of the Beatles in Liverpool and London. As I was typing up my notes, I decided I would do the organizing later, but when I read the transcript I was surprised by how the interweaving of these distinct stories suggested several real or possible comparisons, heightened by the jumping back and forth between stories. It was definitely more interesting than separating out the individual pieces of reportage that it was made from. And this added significance was created solely by chance, not by my conscious mind, and it was much smarter than my conscious mind, which wasn’t even aware of what I was really writing at the time. I eventually took this section out of the manuscript and published it separately with all of the art and photography it described as Ekphrasis and Cathexis in 1991.
But this mixing up of the arts didn’t stop there. After I published DODO—which was the complete notebooks from my European travels except for Ekphrasis and Cathexis—I decided to retire from poetry, for a variety of reasons. But then in 1995, Tom Peters caught me off-guard by asking me to read at Penny Lane, and I impulsively said yes, and then panicked because I quickly realized I had nothing to read. The only piece I had that I wanted to read was Ekphrasis and Cathexis but I couldn’t imagine how it could be performed because so much of it relied on being able to see the photographs and paintings as I described them. Then one day while I was out running I had an idea—I had recently been part of a hospital relief mission to rebuild an orphanage in Mante, Mexico, and take medicine into the mountains, which was the kind of thing I wanted to concentrate on after I’d retired from writing. There I met Kai Sibley, who was with a church group from Boulder to help with the rebuilding, and she mentioned that she had been an art photographer when she was in college and wanted to get back to it. After saying goodbye to her, probably forever, in a Boulder parking lot, I was happy a couple of days later to have a reason to call her, and I asked if she could shoot slides of some paintings and photographs and project them while I read. Taking those slides turned out to be a lot more complicated than I realized, but she had a macro lens and a projector and a friend who knew American Sign Language—Barbara Jean Slopey—so at my reading I set up a chair with a booklight on the right front of the stage, and Kai projected her slides on a screen at the back of the stage, and Barbara Jean signed the text live from the left of the stage. Wagner writes a lot about the gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art. He envisioned his operas as weaving together the best possible music, poetry, drama, painting, and dance into a single experience. We didn’t go that far, but it was the most fun I’d ever had onstage. It turned out that I could really ham it up as long as people weren’t staring at me.
Then I began working for about five years with Kai, creating more than two dozen of these slide-and-text performances, and at the same time I began Dangerous And Difficult Art Productions in order to create public collaborative experiences with other writers and musicians and artists, and restarted FRICTION (magazine––ed.) and Laocoon Press, and began the monthly on-line mag for immediate release with NYC poet Jackie Sheeler to give us some outlets. The next five years are far and away my most public and productive years. Creating art with others and then performing it together was a lot more fun than sitting in my living room working on a piece of writing. Plus having to read forced me to finish things, or to create new things to fit the theme of the event.
Around this time Richard Wilmarth saw a performance of Hymns—one of my collaborations with Kai—and asked if he could publish it. He had limited funds, and I wanted to publish it with Kai’s photographs or not at all, so I took over the production and handed the design over to the artist Amy Hayes, so that book is really a collaboration between Kai, Amy, and myself. And then I gave Tree Bernstein a poem I’d written called “one night” and she turned it into something that was as much a work of art as a book.
It was at the end of this period that I met Katie Bowler and we began a series of spontaneous collaborative writings that became Over Large Stars. One version of that manuscript even includes our e-mails, letters, artwork, non-collaborative poems, photographs, postcards, matchbooks, brochures from our travels, and whatever else we collected during our time together that could be represented on the page. That was probably the closest I’ve ever come to creating a gesamtkunstwerk. And it was the excitement of creating something with that level of multiplicity that completely killed what little interest I still had in creating collections of poetry.
But that was more or less the end of my collaborative phase for some reason. Much later, Tree Bernstein came up with the idea for us to write a series of ghazals via the internet as she traveled around the world, which we published as Away.
In 2002, I was invited to read at Philip Whalen’s memorial in San Francisco, which I turned into a mini art vacation, and I came home with the text of San Francisco Notebook. What’s ironic is that I’d decided not to bring any books or do any writing while I was there. I was going to leave my addictions to reading and writing at home and just be where I really was for once, but on the way to the airport I found an empty pocket notebook at the bus stop and had the funny idea that I could write a book in it while I was in San Francisco. It was a funny idea because I hadn’t written enough to fill a notebook of that size in the twelve years since I’d gotten back from Europe. But it was the first time I carried a pocket notebook at all times and I found I wrote a lot more when I could just easily jot something down without trying to turn it into a poem. By the time I returned, I’d filled almost the entire notebook, and I typed it up in chronological order, so like DODO a poem would be followed by a piece of prose or a letter and a journal piece and a mini-essay, broken up with quotes from my readings at the time, which were mostly from the poems of Rilke.
But somewhere in the middle of this process of typing them up I also began to experiment with taking the poems that didn’t quite make it and turning them into prose by erasing the linebreaks, or keeping the kind of linebreaks that are forced on prose when you’re writing in a notebook so it looked like a poem. Or I’d float a bit of poetry in the middle of an essay, or continue the form of the poem through a long section of prose so the form would be in conflict with the content, or I’d go quickly back and forth between poetry and prose until you weren’t sure if you were reading a prose piece interrupted by a poem or the other way around.
It’s about this time that I also began to reuse lines or images whenever I repeated myself in my notes. At one point in that collection I describe the same incident in a poem, a letter, and a journal piece. I thought I’d choose the best one and take out the repetitions in the editing process, but in re-reading the transcript they were like the reappearance of motifs and themes in music, and I could understand what Gertrude Stein meant when she said there is no such thing as repetition—that by the time you get to the third rose in “a rose is a rose is a rose” it’s no longer the same rose.
And for the first time I began to write pieces in other voices. I wrote an autobiographical piece in the voice of Rilke, and a poem in the voice of Ellsworth Kelly, and a series of poems in the voice of Yoko Ono, who had a full floor at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at the time. Once that collection was published by Andy Hoffmann’s Elik Books, I thought of it pretty much as a one-time thing, but as I continued to travel these “notebook” works started to accumulate. In 2008, I published a collection of them as What Have I Become, and at the same time I published a collection of whatever stray works I had left over as Happiness, which will probably be my last non-notebook collection of work.
For the last ten years or so I mostly write only when I travel, so I refer to most of my collections as my “travel notebooks.” But on March 15th 2007, I began a year-long project that had its name before I’d even written a word: A Year in Remove. I was flirting with going to Europe for a year, transitioning out of my job into something I could do as I traveled, and mentally preparing to empty my house and rent it out, leaving everything behind. Since I wanted to scale back on my traveling until then, I decided to create a project I could do without traveling. I live within 40 minutes of the Rocky Mountain National Park and I decided that I would drive there once a week and between visits I would read books about the park—books about the geology or the Ute Indians or accounts by the early settlers or guidebooks on the wildlife and wildflowers. That project only lasted until the tourists showed up in mid-June, and very little of that early writing survives in the final manuscript, but the idea of writing for a year had taken hold, so I continued until March 15th 2008, and was surprised to find that I’d written a book by the end of the year. So I immediately began another one, and that’s continued right up until the present moment, where I’m almost finished with my third year-long collection, and I already see it as a four- or five-year project, if not longer. At some point during that process I also began to study the history of art and poetry in as many cultures and museums as I could, and that’s become the focus of the series now—what I wrote during this particular time while I studied world poetry and art and whatever else happened to me during that time.
I think it’s important to say that none of this evolution in my writing was planned. I would just get interested in something and pursue it, without really knowing where I was going. Looking back, there are definitely precedents. Lots of people have used cut-ups—from William Burroughs to John Cage to Ted Berrigan—and there have been others who made poems out of other texts—including Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky and John Ashbery. But I was never comfortable passing off another’s work as my own. So, if it’s worth quoting, I put it in quotes and source it. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, observing what I was comfortable with and what I wasn’t when using the written works of others, and I realized there was a huge difference between taking somebody’s words and taking their ideas. If I take some of their words—say the title “The Myths and Legends of the Irish Race”—and change them to “The Myth of the Irish Race,” I feel the meaning has been altered enough to create a new idea, and most of my work is a lot more changed than that. That’s something Ted impressed upon me too. He once wrote a poem out of words he cut out of an essay in the New York Times by James Dickey. He said he knew there was a poem in there somewhere but Dickey hadn’t captured it. But, Ted insisted, you had to end up with something that even the original author wouldn’t recognize as their own work. I didn’t quite believe that was possible until I wrote a poem from the words of a local art critic and gave him a copy, telling him where I’d gotten the words, and he refused to believe me because he didn’t agree with anything the poem said. So, now, if a reader finds the original text I’m writing from, and I sincerely hope they do, they’ll better understand what I’m getting at and will uncover the invisible poem that exists somewhere between the original and what I’ve made from it. But I publish knowing that almost no one ever will, so if it doesn’t stand on its own, or if it doesn’t make any sense, or if it’s too hermetic, or if there’s no pleasure in it at all without knowledge of what I’m writing from, then I take it out.
The idea of reproducing the random contents of a notebook as a poem probably begins with Philip Whalen’s “Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” But I think more important to me as a model for writing poetry is his statement in New American Poetry that his poetry is “a graph of the mind moving.” That hooked in with Allen’s defense of Ezra Pound—that his writings are a chart of the evolution of his obsessions over time. That hooks into Anselm Hollo’s comment about it all being one poem. So now I see my writings as the record of my mind moving over time, including my studies and whatever I’m thinking about and seeing and doing at the time.
And as I’ve gotten older I’ve also noticed that what I write about is what I remember. It’s like photographs—I end up remembering not the actual moment I was trying to capture, but the photo itself. Once I realized that what I wrote about is what I remember, I began to write about what I wanted to remember. A poem in that way is one particular moment that becomes crystallized into an object that would otherwise disappear.
But the real explanation for any evolution in my writing was best summed up by the poet Mark DuCharme when I asked him what he was up to and he said, “Trying to find new reasons for writing.” That’s it, really. It’s mostly a matter of trying to stay interested in writing because writing and rewriting is so exhausting and time-consuming. I must have retired from writing half a dozen times because I don’t want to spend my life alone at a computer, writing. It’s like what Dylan said about writing his autobiography—when you’re writing about your life you’re not living it. But the fact is that if I’m not writing, I’m not happy.
You were the one who gave me the final piece. You said that people like us don’t really understand our lives except through the process of writing. The act of translating the events of our lives into words helps us to come to understand our lives a little, which are otherwise chaotic and unfinished and unplanned. By arranging and shaping our feelings and experiences on the page, they become part of the process we use to make sense of our lives—making what the neuroscientist Dan Siegel describes as “coherent” rather than an “incoherent” narratives. A poem is a point of focus that suggests coherence. It’s what I mean when I say “the poem is elsewhere.” Even this interview is a narrative created by selecting and attributing significance to certain elements and ignoring vast amounts of contradictory information into a story that aspires toward coherence. But it’s not life as it’s actually lived.
JC: The thing I always love about a poetry interview is how the poet always goes back to specific poems that are the real knowing eye of an explication on whatever the subject is. I really failed you in this by not encouraging more mention of specific poems that may illustrate your discussion by showing as a poet how you may have expressed the same thing as a poem. Isn’t that the reverse test in a way?
RR: Well, that’s probably my fault, mostly. I tend to shy away from talking about specific poems, except in a general way. Once I read a poem by Lee Ann Brown in The World Anthology and I told her that it was my favorite poem of all time, and she thought I’d enjoy knowing how it was made. It came from a class assignment where she was asked to focus on one particular sense in each line, and then add a sixth line that didn’t come from her senses but commented on them instead. When I reread the poem with that information, it completely ruined it for me. It’s like the opposite of my wanting to know everything about the works of art and artists that interest me. Anyway, I’m afraid to do that with one of my own poems. In a general way I’ve already talked about how some of my poems—like “Myths of the Irish Race” and the poems in LIT and Maps and Awakening Osiris—were created, but I can include one poem that’s both an example of my process and an explanation of it at the same time. It answers your question without my having to comment on the poem at all.
About a decade ago you wrote a letter to tell me that you were bewildered and disappointed by my current poetry, that you no longer understood what I was trying to say or do in my work. I took that as a challenge and decided to answer your question by writing a poem that explained what I was doing and at the same time was an example of what I was doing. So the poem includes assemblage, montage, collage, pastiche, cut-up, fromage, bits of overheard conversations, and notes from what I was reading and listening to at the time. I won’t assassinate the poem for you, but I will insert it here. It’s called “Deus Ex Camera,” or “God is in the room,” which is the name of a medieval theological argument that God is present in the here and now, not removed from us in heaven or wherever—and that we can’t find Him or Her because we’re looking in the wrong direction.
Deus Ex Camera (for Jim Cohn)
The death of a child by fire
like Brueghel’s Icarus the boy falling
into the sea, and there’s a ship and
anxiety and the thin veil of the real
here, the place, the coordinates of
everything I’ve counted on,
all of these things
until I no longer know
where I am—
and wonder if
behind these veils
and the black hole of all
my fears and
operative chance, too.
For people who are
not heavenly bent
the fabric of reality
is big but it’s still
there’s the logic
of dream and music,
or to move along as melody
with no particular need
to go anywhere specific
but to delight in sudden
Or how poems have in mind
suggestions, but the extent of
one’s particular language creates the
picture or suggestion—while music is
happy to be no one—to have
nothing to answer.
How can anyone imagine
a poem like that and then
add all the other words—
all the other lines
that fill the page with
how it might go—
a perception translated into language
one can get lost in,
you just go on.
How the limits aren’t in
the statement or even its
themes but the limits are
in the words themselves,
Do you see that
as a way of writing,
going into and out of abstraction—
a completely ordinary sentence
but not the whole sentence?
Of course the weather continues—
the same weather every day
and so cold now it just continues—
the same weather every day
returning, and going on about that.
How the symphonic draws figures
aimlessly within the possibilities of
limitless gesture and the vanity
of everything, and how it happens
quick—how the sound—the tone of it
—changes the meaning—tremors
and a kind of nervousness in the voice—
or sometimes too fast—a fault
in the reading, the sense of passing
mind—snowflake fashion—how none of it
adds up but arrives and continues
Or more silence than you’re
accustomed to. Or sometimes a little
inner laugh—sly humor or eye humor.
But it’s pathetic, getting up and not
feeling that way—even when everyone
laughs or even when you laugh.
Or Auden—how over-irony-ized
irony is a way of not shooting straight—
of indirection somehow, lack of direction, lost direction.
And then the other thing, others being too
present in the writing while writing—
a multiplicity of readers and their sense of it—
or the sense of oneself, myself, anyone
like Frank O’Hara or whomever
against the corporate self—or that
“distant” you or we or I that we have
here—and sometimes a them or a he
that’s a multiple he.
Someone who can write a poem like that—
all of the various hes and shes and theys of it.
Or the words all frontal until you’re
conscious only of reading words, and
sometimes they’re sentences and
sometimes they’re syntax and sometimes
they’re rhetoric and sometimes they’re
ordinary prose—all these long, long
What are they? Associations?
all these things you know and I know
in common, where words are words
first with emphasis upon them—
or where words are physical in the sense of
physics and have weight and shape and
their own values—and then in this—
in this—in this–to include
what we know as human.
A place for it.
A voice that says even this much
in this way of continually speaking
to oneself while elsewhere—as if
one can think of it and it will be here—
Can you hear me over all this machine noise?
Lick, lack, luck, lock, lake, black
Latin roots, rare and archaic words are
monsters in a way.
Or rhetoric—what is it?
Or how always thinking
about thinking adds a
feeling of sadness or
danger in the sense
of what if you get
lost inside it
or don’t know
where you are or
how it’s gotten so
all these things
in all this
as some way of
Or where the poem comes from—
the source—where the energy is—
how persuasive the voice. The
emotional light of Pindar,
or even the voice in Eliot—
in the “Four Quartets” or whatever—
the character—and that there are
people speaking who are
still more Eliot than not—
or a sense of who you’re talking to or who’s talking or
Valery who thought about poems for 20 years,
not writing poems and then
not writing poems written by
anyone other than their author—
or the “other” in the sense of
oracle or medium through whom
these words come, refusing to say
specific things in order
to give the rational mind
something to chew on
designed to destroy it.
Or something oracular in the way of
intention, of incantation—
But then what’s left?
And all I had was music and
no sense of how to make it music, but
That these poems were beautiful—
That they shimmered and shimmied—
That they leapt fearlessly in that direction.