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


  1. Excellent...I love the Bill Matthews quote. it's as accurate as it is pleasurable to read. He clearly understands and appreciates Barry Wallenstein's use of language, right down to the fine print.

  2. Thank you Barry and Kirpal for such a deep, rich discussion on poetry. I had the pleasure of meeting you Barry at Kirpal's performance of Speak,Spake Spoke at Cornelia St.. Sorry I missed your performance that followed but thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview. As a visual artist I could not help making similar parallels with the basic visual skills of "seeing" and foundation of drawing; and the development of real content connected to our historic artistic lineage, giving way to subjective, self-indulgent expression by anyone, without skill or training using the technologies e.g. digital photography to instantly capture whatever one sees to make "art". In this area too, democracy of expression is either changing our understanding of art for the better or diluting it to the point where it's potency cannot be recognized anymore. I guess all creative mediums are facing the same challenges. I like that you see these trends yet acknowledge and preserve that which is transcendental, pure and timeless in poetry. I 'm sure your classes are incredible.

    I will get your new book and delve into your writing. Again, thank you for your insights. Well done.