Kirpal Gordon: Like many who have studied at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, you seem to gravitate as a writer-thinker-activist to Allen Ginsberg, especially the way he “erases the separation” between a political poem and a confessional/objectivist poem. You also seem inspired by Ed Sanders (less his Fugs thing; more his books like Helter Skelter) and his “take a file out on your friends” Investigative Poetics.
Joe Richey: Ginsberg, Sanders, Dorn, Cardenal, los crónistas, the chroniclers, and inventive historical verse or documentary poems have always interested me. And most of my writing life has been involved with non-fiction, whether freelance journalism for print and broadcast media, translating documents, editing academic and small press journals, writing and editing for reference books. So I enjoy innovative non-fiction. I enjoy poetic historians like Howard Zinn and Eduardo Galeano from Uruguay. Colloquial histories like W.E. Woodward's New American History, Studs Terkel of course. History as written by poets or with poetic sensibilities at work.
Kirpal Gordon: The third influence is harder for me to describe. Most ex-pat gringo writers riffing on local flora and fauna reveal that they are tourists whereas your bi-lingual poetic-journalistic coverage of your travels in Central and South America manages to transmit el sabor y la voz de la gente.
Joe Richey: My wife Anne Becher and I were both travel writers for a while. She co-wrote a guidebook to Costa Rica, The New Key to Costa Rica, while I was from writing from Nicaragua. Then after we were married, we moved to Argentina to study Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the Disappeared. We lived in Buenos Aires for a year. We traveled a great portion of Latin America by land, and collected written and graphic material from artists along the way.
We published twelve editions of The Underground Forest - La Selva Subterránea: nine of those were bilingual Spanish and English, one special European edition included work from England, France, Spain and Portugal. Anne was fully fluent in Spanish. And she learned via the whole language method—reading, listening, speaking all being learned at the same time. I learned the slower way—reading, then listening, and finally speaking. When I could haggle and argue with Argentines, my Spanish was suficiente let's say. Anne would go on to become a Hispanic Linguist and Senior Instructor of Spanish at the University of Colorado. I maintain a panamerican Spanish, picking up phrases here and there from Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Cubans, Chileans, Mexicans.
For a while back then we were gringos tropicalizados. In Costa Rica, both Anne and I worked for Costa Rican salaries I had a visiting professor post at La Universidad Nacional Autónoma (La UNA) in Heredia. We lived on Costa Rican salaries but traveled to all corners of the country, and with one, then two kids in tow. So we were entre la gente alright, but we were still Americans. We were part of an American enclave. The numbers of Americans living in Costa Rica are enormous. You might say there's a neocolonial feel to parts of Costa Rica. Even Somerset Maugham observed in the 1940s, "Costa Rica—a sunny place for shady people." The real reason to be there is for the flora, fauna and biological diversity study. But there are some fine poets to be found there too!
Kirpal Gordon: Did your Naropa studies play a part in birthing the idea of The Underground Forest?
Joe Richey: It was really through discovering El corno emplumado, but I probably learned about El corno emplumado through Naropa studies, or through the Center for Constitutional Rights in NYC after Margaret Randall was denied citizenship under the McCarran-Walter Act.
Kirpal Gordon: What about Selva Editions and your interest in journalism and radio?
Joe Richey: Early interest in radio began in the transistor radio era, one small enough to listen to through a pillow or towel. Jean Shepard, E.G. Marshall's Radio Mystery Theater, Malachy McCourt on WOR 710 AM out of New York.
Kirpal Gordon: Where were you born and raised? What was your education like?
Joe Richey: As a boy I lived and played joyfully along the Penn-Central railroad tracks in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I had a loving mother, uncles, and aunts who were quite caring, vocal and animated. I was not unwashed. Still, compared to many kids my age I could seem to be an unfathered, unmothered kid. My biological parents died young. By good fortune I had many mothers and many fathers. I chose ones who were more readerly than my biological parents. My parents were more aural or music oriented. Their songs, embedded in our RCA or my DNA, make me an eternal romantic. Through reading I was led from many unseemly circumstances and bad pop song musical tastes. I was also an avid reader of newspapers: the Elizabeth Daily Journal, the Newark Star Ledger, and then in high school, The New York Times, The Nation Magazine and other periodical literature. I attended an all-boy Catholic high school, and received a good foundation of academic skills which afforded me multi-class accessiblity. But like many orphans, and kids who experience early traumatic loss, there's always a sense of difference and a deep abiding alienation, which in part explains my lifelong interest in poets.
Kirpal Gordon: I have been reading your collection, / Senryu /, from Selva Editions, 2015. I especially like the relaxed way that you use this Japanese form, that is, you delight in surprise and the foibles of our human nature but you are not counting syllables (morae) or too worried about capital letters. For example, these knock me out:
at the zoo
two caged cockatoo
my parents! my childhood!
my wife ain’t dead
just in a stupor
her first colonoscopy
Birth is but a single pang.
More and more to come.
Sitting in an outdoor café
I am gunned down
by Chilean boys w/ sawed off broomsticks
Joe Richey: I studied haiku with Pat Donegan at Naropa, and have kept up the practice, exploring other Japanese forms – haibun and senryu. There is also a modern haiku movement, gendai haiku, that I follow through the work of Richard Gilbert, a haiku critic and also a Naropa grad, who teaches at the University of Kumamoto in Southern Japan.
Kirpal Gordon: I highly admire the way you marry the quotidian with the everlasting, the self and family, the deep idea with the exact detail. You are walking a line of great balance: the radio work with Alternative Radio, making culture, poetry, while being a family man.
Joe Richey: Thanks for the reminder, Kirpal. I appreciate your efforts to maintain poetic community over the years. We have a creative practice that requires a lot of solitude. And while there can be some competitiveness around academic circles, we still feel like a tribe - blessed (or afflicted) with a love for heightened use of language.
The Town I Live In
(after Lewis Allan's The House Live In)
What is Boulder to me? A name, a map, the flap I read.
A certain word – Poetry!
What’s the City of Boulder to me?
The Town I live in
Breathing room to be found
After years beyond the railroad
Buena gente all around
Carpinteros public workers
Curbside recycling on every street
Bike paths all over the city
That's Boulder County.
The hood I live in
Hispanic, white and black
folks who just came here
or from generations back
At the town hall and the soapbox —
the torch of liberty
A home for dogs and children —
That's Boulder County.
The words of old Allen Ginsberg,
Jack Collom, Edward Dorn,
Harry Smith, Anselm Hollo
Great white male poets still unborn.
Dark enchanted witches,
Wenches, wise old crones
Devour all calamity
Skin meat and bones
Our little frigate Concorde
where freedom's fight began
Our Gettysburg our Midway
and the grand old royal scam
For the House I live in,
The goodness everywhere,
a land of wealth and beauty —
enough for all to share.
A land that we call Freedom
the home of Liberty
with its promise for tomorrow
That's Boulder, Colorado
to me . . .