Thursday, March 15, 2012

An Interview with Jeanne Clark

Jeanne E. Clark

KIRPAL GORDON: Although you were born and raised in Lima, Ohio, you had a long apprenticeship in the undergrad & graduate writing program at Arizona State University before you published yr first book, “Ohio Blue Tips.” Among other moving elements in that collection was your eye to the impact of prison on the human spirit as embodied by Joe. For example: 


The Man said, he's dangerous, Miss.
And Joe smiled,
A yellow-toothed smile, chicken fat yellow.
The Man said, if I take these cuffs off him . . .
And I said, take them off.
When Joe put his two uncuffed hands on my shoulders,
He was laughing like something was really funny,
With the Man saying, he ain't like a human being.
And me saying, what's wrong with him,
And wondering what Joe-now dangerous
Because some woman the state paid
$200 a month to raise him
Kept him seven years in a chicken coop-
What was Joe going to do next?
I'm going to put those cuffs back on,
The Man said, before we all live to regret it.

 Would you say this poem is representative of the book?

JEANNE CLARK: Yes, this is certainly a cornerstone or touchstone poem for the poem.  The worlds of outside & inside the prison collide, & the poem asks what everyone is going to do, I hope.   

Ohio Blue Tips (Akron Series in Poetry) 

KIRPAL GORDON: Most prison literature is male in orientation & direction, yet you've won the Akron Poetry Prize with a book that causes us to re-think gender roles.  What’s up with that?

JEANNE CLARK: One of the things that has been missing for me in prison literature, although I didn't set out to write a book of prison poems, is the ways imprisonment implicates others outside the walls of the institution, in this case a woman who grew up in a "prison town" & who teaches in the prison as an adult.  She needs to support her child, & this is the only job she can get.  So, she works in a dangerous, utterly misogynist environment every day.  She's doing her own kind of time.

KIRPAL GORDON: Gorril’s Orchard, your second collection, came out in 2012 after you moved to Chico, CA, to teach in the English Department at the UC branch.  Did the move further west change your outlook?

JEANNE CLARK: Actually, Chico is a Cal State school rather than a UC school.  That said, every move--from Ohio to the Arizona desert to the almond orchards of Northern California--has changed my outlook & the way I approach the work.  OBT was full of story & narrative, a certain midwesterner determination.  GO is meditative & reflective, lyrical I hope, in the manner of the orchards themselves & their cycles.  What connects these books is that they are love poems to these places, these landscapes.

KIRPAL GORDON: Throughout those landscapes and the writing of those love poems, you have also been a most dedicated teacher of writing and literature.  Do you see comparisons over the last thirty years with your students at ASU & Chico & the inmates in Ohio?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't think you can make much comparison between the teaching of inmates and the teaching of college students. The exigencies for each of these student groups is utterly different. What I'm starting to see in college students is all kind of external pressures--financial, social, educational (in terms of their preparation)--that I didn't see 10 years ago, and which are calling for teachers to learn more about their lives, these pressures, and how to meet them in meaningful ways, ways that will help.  We can't make assumptions about who is walking into our classrooms in profound ways.  In this way, my approach to teaching might be moving toward something like it was when I taught in prison, focusing less of official understandings and having to work in a committed way to learning what is going on with a student or group of students and reinventing my work accordingly. 
I tailor individual reading lists for students, as much as possible.  I work to create lots of different kinds of work for students to do in the classes, so they can find ways that engage them.   

KIRPAL GORDON: Some in your profession see a breakdown in teaching critical thinking to young folks who are not deep readers.  What is your experience?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't believe that young people are not deep readers these days.  I think we have to work harder to follow the trails of their own curiosities and build inquiry and practice around that. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Compare your own education at ASU.

JEANNE CLARK: I had a wonderfully supportive group of writers and scholars around me, who supported my work.  I took a long time to finish.  And I sat my butt in a chair for many, many hours. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Poetry outside the academy is everywhere these days with open mics & online journals, poet laureates for every county making those old battle lines & poetry wars of the 70s & 80s seem so far off.  Commentaria?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't think--perhaps I'm wrong--that I'm ambitious with regard to my work.  I have dedicated readers in a writing community that I love, and this is such a gift.  I get to do the work I love with students.  I walk my dogs in the orchards.  Those wars have never been my own.   
KIRPAL GORDON: What do you make of the changes in the publishing industry & its impact on poetry?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't know that the changes in publishing make much impact on poetry, as poetry has been on the precarious fringe for a long time.  The changes perhaps press for further changes in practices: reaching out to community audiences, alternative publication venues, the rise of spoken word.  All exciting directions. 

KIRPAL GORDON: What's next?  What's happening with you and dogs?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't know what I'll write next.  I'm in a quiet time. The dogs are anything but quiet.  They're clamoring for what's next, & they intend to play starring roles.   

KIRPAL GORDON: How can GSP readers stay in closer touch with all that you do?  

JEANNE CLARK: I don't blog or have a website.  Readers can stay in touch with the border collie rescue work I do through the website of Border Collie Rescue of Northern California.  The written work shows up on Facebook when something finds its way into print or public performance.  I also teach in the Summer Arts Festival at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska in July.  There's a blog associated with the festival workshop maintained by one of the participants.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Drastic Dislocations: An Interview with Barry Wallenstein

Drastic Dislocations: New and Selected Poems, Barry Wallenstein

KIRPAL GORDON: Your latest book, Drastic Dislocations: New & Selected Poems, is just out from New York Quarterly Books.  I found it very smart the way the material has been collected: each section reprints all seven original poetry book covers followed by your favorite poems from each collection. I particularly enjoyed the new poems, some of which I know from your six jazz-poetry recordings on Cadence Jazz Records. So, are you happy with your new book?  

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: Yes, very happy. The publisher at NYQ Books gave me a year to consider which poems I’d like to reprint, and he set no limit on the number of poems from each of the earlier books. Once I’d made the choices he – Raymond Hammond – went into the books himself and suggested adding a few more poems. That was a welcome surprise.  The “new poems” section is really a separate ms that had been developing over the last decade. Maybe half dozen publishers had turned down different incarnations of what finally became the new poems section. Some of the “new poems” were written just 6 months prior to the book’s publication, and of course, I’m delighted to see them in print.

KIRPAL GORDON:  Regarding Drastic Dislocations, William Matthews wrote, “There is an off-handed canniness of phrasing about these poems, a way of registering both emotional freight and the time it takes to carry it, that identifies a Barry Wallenstein poem right away.  It’s a tribute, I suspect, to his lifelong love of jazz, and the source of both jazz and poetry, the syncopated heart.” 
Talk about the relation of music to the poetry you write and perform. 

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: Well, this is a very kind tribute from the late Bill Matthews, poet and jazz enthusiast.  The connection between music and the way I compose poems or lyrics is fairly clear to me now:  from the beginning – when I began to make up poems at age 12 or so - I always spoke or intoned aloud while putting the words on the page.  Ultimately – generally after many drafts – I hope the poem sounds to the ear as musical and “on the beat” as it might sound in a good oral performance of the poem – with musical accompaniment or not.  My subject matter is rarely about jazz but my style is – partly – what I’ve heard called “jazz inflected.”  I like to combine idiomatic speech with a figurative poetic speech. Performing with musicians is another story.  I accidentally fell into the company of wonderful players at various stages of my growing up and felt inspired by their music, by their presences. Soon, I tried performing with these musicians, and over the past 4 decades at least have been able to put my poetry before audiences that would otherwise not have access to poetry – surely not my poetry.  But I still vote strongly for the experience of reading poetry over listening to “the spoken word.”  Spoken word poetry – poetry as performance, etc. is fun – the release of the ham in most any person/ except for the wisely introverted – but the ultimate value of poetry for me has all to do with what comes out on the page with all the necessary and enlivening music embedded in the words and they way they are combined to make a line and then a stanza, all the while hoping for a unity of effect.  Sorry – I could go on.

KIRPAL GORDON:  Keep going!  Although you are indeed a poet whose work is meant to be read on the page in the quiet of one’s own world, your poetry readings, both alone and with a band, have plenty of warmth and your delivery very listener-friendly. Regarding the term jazz poet, is that an accurate way to describe what you do and who you are?

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: No – though I’d rather be called that than a lot of other things, an “academic poet” for example, which rarely has a positive connotation.  On the other hand, I’ve been an academic most of my life and began writing poems - seriously – while studying for the PhD in modern poetry.  For 40 years, I’ve talked about poetry in the classroom with graduate and undergraduate students.  I studied and revered the poets of the literary tradition and value it beyond words. Yet my connections to the academy – to a life of serious engagement with a trusted canon of literature – never determined my poems or the way I go about making poems. There were other influences.

At the same time I was embarking on an academic career, I began reciting my poems in public and with jazz artists.  This was not a conscious escape from “high seriousness,” just something that developed out of fortunate meetings with certain jazz artists.  I’ve had a very good time reciting with wonderful players, almost like singing along with the music. This has been going on for more than 35 years.  But none of this history need define me as a “jazz poet.”  Unlike Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, or Steve Dalachinsky, (all identified as jazz-poets) I’ve never written a poem about a jazz figure or a jazz tune.  Only one poem I’ve written takes place at a jazz club – just that one.  So, I don’t know if using such a term sheds any real light on what I do, and since the performer, the one who recites the poems, won’t be here always, the printed text is what one hopes will last. Although I sometimes utilize “street” language or vernacular constructions, I’d be surprised if anyone reading through my poems would say this is jazz poetry.

KIRPAL GORDON: “Jazz inflected” says it best, but you're also alluding to the value of woodshedding in the pursuit of crafting work with precision and skill which reminds that you studied under M.L. Rosenthal in NYU’s grad program.  What was it like being in the same workshops and classes with Charles Simic, Marilyn Hacker and Robert Stone?  You met Ed Sanders in an undergrad program in the Midwest?

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: Yes, Ed and I were at the Univ. of Missouri together – briefly.  I quit after 3 semesters and I think he left around the same time. I went to New Orleans and lived down there for 6 months or so before returning home to NYC.  Ed left from the Midwest for NYC, and we met by chance at NYU.  He published my first poems in Fuck You – a hand printed journal distributed at his Peace Eye Book Store.  He was a stimulating presence from the start; on the LES he was a force.  The others you mention Simic, Stone and M. Hacker –no we were never in workshops together. I don’t remember there being workshops at NYU back then. Maybe one.  Would-be writers – students with some passion about what they were reading and already beginning to write just went about studying literature and working alone or in little cadres of writing activity.  I never took a writing workshop and am now – on and off – appalled at the enormity of the “workshop industry” – employing would-be poets who churn out another generation of teacher-writers….  But the people you mention, and the poet Grace Schulman should be included, all owe a debt to M. L. Rosenthal.  He was a very special and inspirational teacher to undergraduates and graduate students alike.  Mack was a brilliant critic and appreciator of poetry – modern poetry especially, Pound, Williams, Yeats and the younger poets emerging in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  How hip he was to new currents or tendencies in US poetry and sensitive also to European and Lt. American writers!  His affections were infectious.  He was also exacting when reading student work – kind and demanding.

KIRPAL GORDON:  Living and writing those Rosenthal values---hard work, economy of language, distinctive voice, depth of engagement---what are your thoughts on the practice of contemporary poetry today?  You founded and directed CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center from ’72 to ’06, hosting annual readings for NYC grade schools, middle schools, high schools and beyond.  What’s been lost and what’s been gained by the open mic side of poetry?

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: I’m of two minds on this topic. Yes, in 1972 I initiated a poetry festival at CCNY.  I’d been doing poetry workshops at local elementary and junior high schools – a project sponsored by the School of Education.  The festival was initially an outgrowth of that experience working with young students and their teachers.  We organized a high school poetry contest for all of NYCs public schools.  Maybe 45 entries came in that first year and the young poetry writers – those who won prizes – read their poems on Festival Day. Now, as then the day starts with first graders and continues up through the grades, children reading alongside “professional” guest poets.  It’s an exhilarating day, a happy and inspiring time for the hundred plus voices heard at the festival. On May eleventh of this year we’ll celebrate The Spring Poetry Festival’s fortieth anniversary.  It’s the essence of what might be called a democracy of poetry.  

At the same, I see Rosenthal pointing to “the real thing,” the true poem, that rare and demanding performance or creation of language that will possibly live in the collective memory.  City College’s Poetry Festival is about something else.  The poems recited by the young students and then by the many poets of all persuasions – are heard as liberating gestures, often-marvelous expressions of the need to translate raw experience into something graceful or artful.  The “real thing” lies behind all the poems read that day.  Perhaps the same could be said about the spoken word and slam universe of poetry.  There is no questioning the appeal of immediate communication, or connection.  But to address your question of what’s lost: at such moments, frequently at poetry readings – slams and so on – we are applauding a confirmation of our views and beliefs -- in fact the applause is for the person applauding. This is quite the opposite of how true poetry works, which is to bring a person into new territories of feeling and thinking.

KIRPAL GORDON: Is contemporary poetry abandoning Whitman’s democratic vista with its heart's eye on tolerance, understanding, inclusion, fraternity, community and multitudes that contain contradiction as well as the modernist mission to “make it new?” Are we
just accomodating technologies like youtube and ubiquitous open mics or are we returning poetry to its ancient, pre-literate, aural-oral and oracular aspect? Is it less prophecy and more like a virus of mediocrity infecting every human's fifteen minutes of boredom on the bandstand? 
In the Venn diagram where poetry and popular music overlap, do you see via Lenny Bruce, Langston Hughes, Lord Buckley, the Nuyoricans, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Eddie Jefferson, Duke and Count, Woody and Leadbelly, Kenneth Patchen, Johnny Mandel, the Beat Generation, Ntozake Shange, Public Enemy, Babs Gonzalez, the Gershwins, Jon Hendricks, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Cab Calloway, Run DMC and the evolution of these various experiments with word and rhythm, lyric and melody, voice and band as healing a rift in the body politic?  Is there something wonderfully Whitmanlike about the renewed interest in a distinctly oral or music-based literature or is it narcissism gone amok? 

BARRY WALLENSTEIN:  This is a long and involved question, and I’ll try to answer in twice the number of words.  Whitman’s huge influence – from his ideas about “democratic vistas” and the example of his expansive poetry – is alive in the world of poetry today and has been solidly so since mid-twentieth century. The Beat movement, in just a very few years, introduced new approaches to Whitman’s “fraternity, community and multitudes that contain contradiction….”   Contradictions were apparent as early as 1957 when Allan Ginsberg howled “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” – identifying an elite set of friends, Burroughs, Kerouac et al. as “the best.” All others fall into different classes of intellect or spirit, all “holy” but some even despised.  The poem Howl also signals the liberation of poetic structure and content  - long expansive lines, and overt sexual subjects.  So, despite exclusionary aspects of the Beat aesthetic (and community), the idea of a democratic poetry took hold and there is no turning back. 

Though various groups of poets remain lofty (in the best and worse senses of that word) and exclusive in their aesthetics, an overview of US poetry today would reveal a dazzling display of inclusion.  Poetry-writing classes have spilled out of colleges and universities into local libraries, community centers, pubs and theaters.  Some of activity is spontaneous, while much of it is highly organized.

You mention the current technologies – yes, all this rapidity of search and find has helped the poetry industry grow.  For some the overload is too much, bewildering – everything from spoken word and slam to biblical psalms; from the learned verse of today’s Formalists to the word inventions in popular music, it’s all here, “poets” swimming in a deep ocean that can easily be scanned, stored and then, very often, forgotten.

And then the words from Whitman’s list -- “tolerance, understanding,”  One could surely lament the lack, but I guess this has always been the case; as have the rifts both in the universe of poetry and of course “the body politic.”  With so much activity – so many poetries, from all strata of the culture, how could there not be rifts?  There is even a rift within myself over the notion and practice of this suddenly democratic approach to poetry – where everyone can do it – no matter how deficient in form, originality of expression, control over the basics of the language.  I wrinkle my brow; but the next day I might be encouraging a group of high school or even adults to write poetry.  There is a paradox in all this, which may be “healing” nonetheless.

KIRPAL GORDON:  Regarding your readings and performances with your band, how can GSP readers stay in closer contact with you?

BARRY WALLENSTEIN: Through Facebook.  There are dates of upcoming readings-performances up on my wall.  Also the dates and places are listed on New York Quarterly Books’ website – click on “authors” & I’m on p. 2. 

Barry Wallenstein

Friday, March 9, 2012


KIRPAL GORDON: You're a world traveler presently spending a lot of time in Mexico as well as being a former tennis pro, a photographer-collagist with exhibitions on four continents, a Beat-Generation-in-Mexico scholar, a writer of seven poetry collections, eight plays and the screenwriter-director of the feature film Marrakech. In addition, you've penned a fascinating novel, Time Passes Like Rain, about a group of women trekking through a South American rain forest.  Is this your latest effort and how did your writing of it come to pass?

HARRY BURRUS: I often have several projects going at once.  I’ll work on one for a while and then switch to another.  I’ve found this helps me stay energized.  As I get deeper into a project, my concentration will intensify and I’ll focus primarily on one area.  And sometimes, while working on a project, a new idea will suddenly surface and I will flash forward in a totally new direction.

I have been interested in travel since elementary school.  Family trips were my first adventures—vacations out West; through the South and to Florida and the Keys, and to Nassau—other lands came later.  I’m drawn to journeys and quests.  I like seeing how I’ll respond to a different environment and whatever challenges might be forthcoming from a new place.  I recall when I was 13 playing in a tennis tournament in St. Louis, one of the players had just returned from playing a tournament in Iowa.  Iowa . . . how exotic-sounding that was.  I had to check it out.

I like reading about explorers and learning about other cultures and about journeymen taking chances.  I’ve noticed how many countries as they develop commit the same environmental mistakes as more developed countries (the USA included).  They rape the land for immediate financial gain without regard for the destructive impact.  Vast areas of the world’s rain forests have been destroyed—usually in the name of progress.  Throughout history, the indigenous have been enslaved and conquered by the more powerful.  Look what the USA did to the Native Americans.  I was appalled when I visited several large oases in North Africa where palm groves that had existed for centuries were threatened or dying because water was being pumped to accommodate upscale hotels around the oasis perimeter. 

I tend to favor smart women with strong personalities—George Sand; Tina Modotti; Isak Dinesen; Beryl Markham; Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir; Martha Gellhorn, and Megan Gabel come to mind.  I thought it would be an interesting story for three adventurous women friends (one English, one American, and one Mexican) to go to a third world South American country with designs on exploring the rain forest and seeing how they’d react to what nature throws at them and how they would handle the hot politics they find themselves a part of.  I was curious, too, how their friendship would be affected, if at all.

KIRPAL GORDON: Since you work in so many genres, I wondered what kind of education have you pursued?  Has any of your school learning helped you out in the field?  Would you say that your interest in the visual birthed your interest in the written or vice versa?

HARRY BURRUS: I’m going to pounce on this telepathically; hence, I may jump around some.  To the education portion of your question, I was a drama major as an undergrad—for graduate studies I pursued film, theatre, and writing. 

At the back of the classroom at Lockwood Elementary in Webster Groves (St. Louis), there was a small library.  Early on, I started going through the books.  I particularly enjoyed the novels by Joseph Altsheler.  I read his Young Trailer Series, e.g., Eyes of the Woods; The Scouts of the Valley; and his French and Indian War Series (e.g., The Masters of the Peaks; The Rulers of the Lakes, etc.).  Another writer I was keen on was Jack London. Only two books of his were in the classroom library:  Call of the Wild and White Fang.  But I rode my bike to the Webster Groves Library to read more of his work.  Two other writers I read during this early period were Mark Twain and Stephen Crane.  After reading Huckleberry Finn, I named an island in Deer Creek, a block from my house, Jackson’s Island and Donald Stemmerman and I had our pockets full and the place to ourselves.

In third grade, I wrote a few short pieces—four to ten pages long—about settlers finding a good place (water, fertile land, and trees) to build a home and their efforts at farming, surviving the winters, and their relationship with the Indians.  Simultaneously during this period, I was seeing a lot of movies—an interest that continues to this day.  Every week my sister and I would go to the Saturday matinees, primarily hitting the Richmond, Maplewood, and Ozark theatres. This soon expanded to seeing movies on Friday nights at the Esquire, Fox, Ivanhoe, Tivoli, and HI-Pointe theatres.

There was a period where I eagerly awaited the next film by Bergman, Godard, Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, Resnais, Losey, Visconti, Costa-Gavras, and Buñuel.  I’d notice how they handled rhythm and pacing as it impacted character, the variation of intensity levels from scene to scene and how they approached their subject matter.  This eagerness to see a group of directors’ new work no longer happens.  The slate is drastically smaller.

From elementary through high school, our family had tickets to the Muny Opera.  This is a large outdoor theatre that operates during the summer.  This was my first exposure to the performances of Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, Kismet, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, Flower Drum Song, Camelot, and Guys and Dolls.  I was always intrigued by the sets and how movement and dramatic action was presented.  I also checked out the spectators . . . noting what they were wearing and talking about before the performance and during intermission.

Another spoke in my early wheel of adventure was sports.  First swimming, followed by softball, tennis, and basketball.  Not only did I enjoy participating, I also enjoyed watching the visuals and the aesthetics of the sports.  Much of it was like moving sculpture.

During elementary and through high school I was interested in drawing and painting.  These pursuits continued through my formal educational years and beyond.

I don’t think my interest in visuals segued into writing, nor did writing lead me to creating visuals.  I didn’t give it much thought . . . then or now.  It strikes me they existed simultaneously.  Now, they were not equally weighted at all times.  Emphasis varied.  I will say being out in the field, I picked up more than in school which follows because one is in academics for a relatively short time, unless, of course, one teaches—which I did for a while.  However, with teaching I felt I was always taking from the well and didn’t have time to replenish it.  College and grad school provided an overview, introducing me to various genres, perhaps establishing a foundation of sorts and I’d decide upon which areas I wanted to pursue, if any.

I learn by watching and reading others.  With tennis I’d study good players and if there was a sequence or combination of strokes they used effectively, I’d analyze that and see how I could incorporate it into my game and make it mine.  Likewise, while reading (or viewing), if I noticed a particularly unique move (be it in theatre, fiction, film, poetry, or some other form of art) that I thought was pretty neat I’d see how I could add that to my palette—not only to make it new, to follow Pound’s dictum, but to make it new and interesting.

I began writing poetry my sophomore year in high school—although I can’t say I thought of it as poetry; I was just writing things down.  I didn’t enjoy my first exposure to poetry and I doubt if any of my high school teachers were familiar with any contemporary poets and, if they knew any, they were never presented to us in class. 

Travel and film (domestic and foreign) and a few individuals provided exposure and introductions and this often led me to new areas of literature and art.  I always shot a lot of film during these explorations and this, too, opened new areas for me.

KIRPAL GORDON: How can GSP readers stay in closer touch with what you do?

HARRY BURRUS: Now that is a nice thought.  GSP readers staying in touch with my pursuits.  Best way would be to connect to my web page to see what is going on:

For Marrakech to see a clip and a trailer:

For Time Passes Like Rain: