|Randy Roark, photograph by Kai Sibley, 2015|
Kirpal Gordon: I want to ask first how you conceptualize poetry as a prelude to the work. Your books of poems—Awakening Osiris (1996), Mona Lisa’s Veil (2001),
your notebooks of travel writing and poems—The
Convalescence Notebook (2008), Map of the World (2007), What Have I Become
online travel-reportage-with-poems in Newtopia
(2011-2014) not only turn prose into poetry and back
into shimmering prose, they read like manifestations of a larger life project,
one that includes intensive research into poets and movements as well as actual
pilgrimages to ancient, spiritual, and literary locales all over the world.
Randy Roark: Yeah, a little over ten years ago I began to wonder if I had the time and vision for one big work, what would it be? That became The Illustrated Decalogue: A Decade of Removal. I made a list of places I wanted to visit before I died and there was about twenty, and I decided I’d take two trips a year over a decade and write my way through the experience. I thought that’d be something I’d be happy about when I was on my deathbed, that I spent at least a decade of my life exploring what I enjoyed most.
So from March 15 2005 until May 3 2015, I traveled each spring and fall to some destination on my list: Morocco, southern Africa, a couple of trips to India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Peru, the Amazon River basin, a trip up the Rhine from Vienna to Holland, La Routa Maya through four countries in Central America, several trips to Amsterdam, Greece, and Cyprus. And places in the
as well— U.S. and Chicago and Washington
and San Francisco and L.A. . New
Most of my work since my first trip to
Europe in 1990 has been what I’ve
called “research” works. A study of the history of art, of alchemy, of
shamanism, of celtic mythology, surrealism, dada. When I want to learn
something, I use the model of Pound’s Chinese and Adams cantos—I shut up and
let the works speak through me. I call these “history” poems, and also
My first solo traveling writing was done on that 1990-1991 trip, which resulted in DODO, which I published through my Laocoon Press. I’ve just rediscovered some of that writing and even then I was erasing the narrator as much as possible, focusing on my senses, trying to become aware of as much of the important raw data of my actual experience as possible. And I learned that what I wrote about I remembered, because I noted it, then I translated it into words, and later I typed up my notebooks and then read the transcript and edited it and read it many more times until it was published. That imprinted what I wanted to remember pretty firmly in my brain. I also discovered that focusing on just what actually happened rather than what it “meant” to me resulted in more variety and ambiguity in the writing, which was especially pleasurable to me as the book got longer over a decade of writing and editing and rewriting.
Since The San Francisco Notebook in 2002, I’ve been aware that I’m at my best when I’m alone and working on my writing five-six hours every evening. I like the rhythm of it, the focus. I’ve worked on something almost every evening after dinner until it was time for bed since at least 2005.
That rhythm and focus intensified in 2011-2014, when I published forty-two columns from the Decalogue material in Newtopia magazine. Each month I’d send in 5000 words and about a dozen photographs, based on trips to
southern Morocco Africa, ,
India , Nepal
and China . Tibet
The next period in my life—where I’m about to take off to Europe for at least three years and not return to Boulder for at least five—is an attempt to recreate that period of my life by crafting at least one 5000-word piece each month, and then moving on to the next one. I have plans to also write a daily series of mini art essays and a book about what happens over the five years, like what I created for The Decalogue.
The common denominator of all of my “projects” is that I decided decades ago to follow the advice that was carved over the entrance into Apollo’s temple in
Know thyself. Every trip has
eventually become a journey deeper into myself.
What I’ve learned over all these years is that I’m a roamer, not a settler. I’ve learned that—paraphrasing Oliver Sachs—I will always have problems bonding, belonging, and believing. And that’s okay, no matter what anyone thinks. I know that I’m most alive when I’m a stranger on my own in an unfamiliar place, especially when I don’t speak the language. I also know that I like to settle for an extended stay rather than moving around, and that I prefer to be in a walkable city with a lot of culture and history rather than being “on retreat.” And I’ve found that traveling is—for me—the safest and sanest and most productive way to experience that state of continual newness I’m most excited about in an extended and focused way. I also like the way I can be anyone I choose to be when no one knows who I am—and I like who I choose to be in most situations.
So, knowing myself, I’ve designed a future that played to my strengths and interests. For the next five years I will be a wandering art pilgrim. These are going to be my Henry Miller years, where I focus on my life and my writing. I don’t need any more money—more money isn’t going to substantially change my life. But I only have so much time, and I’ve also learned how much time art takes.
So when I realized I had an opportunity to get out of the workforce and wander for the next five years, I was ready and I jumped. Even the part about it being for five years is perfect. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I thought I’d have nothing to come back to.
In addition to finalizing the bulk of The Decalogue, I’m taking my journals and my collected correspondence—which go back to when I was 20, five years before I left Connecticut to apprentice with Allen Ginsberg—and all of my slides and photos with me when I leave on October 31. I’m also bringing along my saved e-mails and my published work, and I’m going to see if can craft some kind of memoir out of them.
KG: So what about your concept of living/writing your life in a kind of classical sequence, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot or Dante Allighieri?
RR: My model for The Decalogue was John Bunyan’s 17-century book-length Christian allegorical poem The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. That’s where I got the name for my column in Newtopia—“A Poet’s Progress”—because the organizing principle of the Decalogue is that I’m testing Bunyan’s theory that each individual life has meaning and that there’s an extra-personal dimension to every life. In other words, for Bunyan, there is a God and there’s a heaven and hell, and every human being has a soul, and the days from their birth to death are filled with challenges, and how they behave during these tests determine the eternal fate of their souls. I no longer believe in heaven and hell, but that still leaves a lot of questions: What’s the most accurate way to understand my life and my relationship with others? Is there a purpose to my joys and suffering? Is each individual life a test, or does “deserve” have no meaning here? Is there an extra-personal or personal path or map or plan I’m following? Is there a portion of my story that’s archetypal—that existed before I was born and will continue to affect others long after I'm gone? Is there a God or a higher power, and are there angels among us? What should I be doing with my time? And the big question, of course, why?
Part of it is probably that I’m getting older and want to be sure I’m making the right decisions for the right reasons. I don’t want to feel at the end of my life that I missed the opportunities I was given, or that I failed to make the right “bigger picture” decisions. I want to feel that I lived my life as fully as I could and missed as few opportunities as possible to learn or to do better. There are some things I've done that I'd like to do over, and I'd like to have as few missed opportunities as possible in my future.
And it was important to me to write my investigation of the possible meaning of my life going forward, not in retrospect. Most of the books that make claims about the meaning of life are written looking backward from a pause on the path. I don’t trust that kind of hindsight. I see my job as focusing on the trees—I’ll leave the forest up to anyone who can find one.
KG: Regarding the urge to living vitally, I quote your opening poem in Map of the World (2007):
The Erotic Heaven
This is the point at which all alchemists
begin, half on water, half on land,
first as pilgrims, then as pilots—
to find everything Other within us,
to know all we are and deny nothing—
as sunlight—mixed with moisture—
flowed into darkness, awakened
flesh from dark matter—that
all mortal and immortal things
arrive in the realm of the visible
subtle and fiery—atoms vibrating
between one state and another.
What a way to open a book of poems! It rolls off the tongue like a prayer, as if what you are observing is none other than the poem’s invocation come to life, its alliteration and economy of language calling me back to read it again.
RR: “The Alchemy Poems” was mostly written on a trip back to
for my father’s funeral. I had transcribed Diane di
Prima’s lectures on “The Language of Alchemy” years earlier, and I still didn’t
understand it. Diane and her students were obviously having a conversation
about some kind of reality they shared, but I couldn’t follow it. It didn’t
describe any reality I’d ever been a part of. Connecticut
Then, as I was packing to return home for my father’s funeral, I impulsively threw a copy of Hermeticism and Alchemy into my bag. It’s a series of alphabetical encyclopedic entries about alchemy, and when I returned to my hotel after supper each evening, I would continue reading the book, making the notes that grew into “The Alchemy Poems.”
It actually wasn’t until much later that I returned to the poems and finally understood what they were about. They were about what dies and what doesn’t. They were about what’s worth saving and what’s best left behind. They were about how change is a transformative process and one thing ceases to be by being transformed into another. For instance, my body will die, but my flesh will continue to live on as soil until I get picked up by a root and become part of a lettuce leaf or something. And then that leaf might get eaten by a rabbit and the rabbit gets eaten and becomes part of another living thing while pieces of it are returned to the earth for another trip.
So if you start to look at things that way, everything that seems so solid, so real—even a mountain or a tree—has been many things before and will be many more things in the future. So which one is the real one? If I identify with my body, I’m going to cease to exist when I die. But if I identify with the continuous story, I’ll be free to know that I can’t help but live forever, in some shape of form, but only once during a few years as this particular person.
So “The Erotic Heaven” was the first poem from my notes, trying to imagine all of the possible permutations of matter I’ve gone through in order to arrive as a human body, and how I might possibly be transforming in the future. It’s an attempt to redefine who I am in a way, to reimagine “me.”
I’m really proud of the three long poems in that book. It was a very special time for me and everything came together in a very iconic way. I had just been discharged from the hospital after having broken my neck. I was alone in a hospital overnight, unable to move my left arm, expecting to have spinal surgery at any moment. But the surgical orders never made it to the floor and I wasn’t prepped when the neurosurgeon arrived the next afternoon. It was impossible to get a second crew in on a Sunday for a non-emergency, so his assistant re-examined me and determined I was no longer a “candidate” for surgery, and they discharged me that afternoon, even though I could barely stand.
In the days after I returned home, after I stopped taking pain medications and my head cleared up, I found a pile of unpublished manuscripts and began to re-read and re-edit them. That’s when my daily writing practice began in earnest, in 2005. It took me about two years to get everything “finalized,” and I ended up with enough material for five books, and one them was Map of the World. I just so happened to have three long unpublished poems that seemed to fit together quite nicely under that title—the alchemy poems, the shaman poems, and poems written in dream language. Each was like a different map of the world.
It was also after being discharged from the hospital that I walked into my basement and saw all of my books as crackling with energy. That’s when I began to sell my library and use the money to travel, while I still could. The books meant nothing to me at that point, and life meant everything.
KG: “The Erotic Heaven” is also a fine example of the poetry side of what you’ve described elsewhere as creative non-fiction or unreach-prune back-simplify. Here’s a much different but equally evocative example from Mona Lisa’s Veil (2001):
The Body Is the Boundary
In the graveyard
shift emergency room
where I undress
the slender 24-year-old,
her body glowing,
heart, or the
drove her Blazer
through a light pole,
smashing her skull
or the mother whose
14-year-old thought it
would be fun
to toss live bullets
into a fire, until
one entered her
scalp through that
tiny blue hole there,
ricocheting through her
brain until it found
where her shoulder
joins the neck.
A very sobering poem. It sounds like you are making excellent use of your day job as an opportunity to use real life events to move us in literary ways.
RR: Yeah, the instructions I give myself when I feel I’m reaching a bit to create or heighten the significance of a piece of writing is to “unreach”—to prune back, to simplify.
I remember that beautiful young girl turning blue. I remember waking up that mother with a middle-of-the-night phonecall that she had to get to the emergency room as quickly as possible. I remember the ambulance crew telling us that there were no skidmarks where that college freshman had driven into the only lightpole on that side of the road for miles. That was all one very long weekend.
I wrote very few poems about my emergency room work because it’s all so loaded, for me and for anyone confronted with a poem like that. Those are all real people, precise nights of my life. Working in the emergency room isn’t all like that, so those big deaths touch me too. And no matter how much I talk about the ultimate reality being alchemy and nothing really dies, the point of that poem is that people do die, every day. And I don’t care if they come back as a lettuce leaf. I don’t care if Layne is in the wind now, I want her body back. The living body is the boundary between being and nothingness for the only ones who remain.
KG: It seems important to you that you “tell it like it is,” even if the truth carries less revelation than metaphor; i.e., fiction.
RR: I keep going back to one particular memory. I was 16 in 1970 and a junior at St. Bernard’s
, run by the Christian Brothers. I loved my Catholic high
school, by the way. I am as much a result of my education there as anything
else. I feel like they taught me how to think, not what to think. That’s where
I discovered Gandhi and Thoreau and Teilhard de Chardin. My senior paper was
“Nietzsche, Kafka, and Hesse: The Man Who Imagined the World, the Man Crushed
by the World, the Man Who Escaped the World.” That was the level of discourse
that was expected. Boys High School
It was also the time of the Vietnam War and they would encourage us to attend anti-war demonstrations. One time they bussed us to
where I stood twenty feet from John Lennon and Yoko Ono,
both in military fatigues and berets, black leather fists in the air, “Power to
the people!” “Right on! Right on!” But first we had to bring in a consent form
signed by our parents. I smoked hash with one of my teachers at his house on
the Long Island Sound and listened to the cast album of “Jacques Brel Is Alive
and Well and Living In Paris” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the first
Leonard Cohen album and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and the album “Bridge
Over Troubled Water.” That’s what we did when we got high—we talked through the
night about art and life. It was a complement to the education we were getting
during the day. New York City
But the memory I keep returning to happened during my junior year, in the Spring of 1970. Several of my friends had gone to NYC for a long weekend organized by something called the Encounter Movement. I was no longer a practicing Catholic and had a very conflicted relationship with the Church, but I liked the effect the weekend had on my friends and I decided to check it out. It turned out to be a mixture of Gestalt Therapy, Esalen, and a 3-day rap session, but with a lot of talk about Jesus and The New Testament. It was a kind of Liberation Theology turned inward.
On day two, one of the presenters—the one everyone liked best; the jovial, down-to-earth guy—gave a talk after lunch. This was probably the third or fourth session of the weekend. He started with something like, “You know, I’ve been listening to everyone talk about their faith and love and desire for a life of Christian compassion over the last two days, and I think I can summarize what I’ve been hearing in a single word.” And he held up a sheet of paper that said, “Bullshit!”
That was a moment of revelation for me at that point in my life because, if I was honest—and even at 16 I had learned not to be—when I heard people talk, I heard two things: I could sense who they were, which was perfectly clear, and then there was what they were saying, which was often confused or opaque, and some times in conflict with what I sensed were their actual beliefs. It was as if everyone was using words to distract others from what they were really feeling.
I was pretty confused too, but not enough to say what I didn’t believe in order to deceive people, so I usually—and still do—kept my mouth shut. There were times where I wondered if this is what growing up was all about, to learn the proper opinions and repeat them, whether or not you personally believed them or could live up to them.
But when I saw and heard the word “bullshit” in that moment, I knew I’d be committing myself to the truth. It was a born-again moment—something changed inside of me. I became certain in a way I never felt before, because I was always surrounded by people who had made me doubt my own feelings and perceptions. But I saw in that moment that when we disagreed, it could be because they were bullshitting! And my intuition, my feelings, my “vision” could be right! That moment changed everything.
Of course, when we broke into small groups, everyone was furious! “How dare he!” “We are not bullshitters!” “Who does he think he is? He’s the bullshitter!” I kept quiet until things slowed down a bit and said, “I kind of agree with him.” And there was a palpable shift of energy in the group, turning their anger toward me.
At some point someone agreed with me, and then slowly, one-by-one, people kind of grudgingly changed positions. But people—it seemed to me—were changing their opinion because the tide had turned, not because they thought or felt differently. Everything was still about the outside, about what’s “right,” what’s acceptable, instead of what’s “true.”
It was through that experience that I changed from someone who always doubted himself when there was a conflict, to someone who took it for granted that when we disagreed that I could be right and everyone else could be bullshitting. I also realized it was okay if people thought I was wrong. And it was clear to me even then that often disagreements won’t be solved until years after all the principles are dead, but that the truth would win out in the end.
So my life and my writing became an attempt at uncovering the truth, and looking for it inside and not outside of me. And once I chose telling the truth over being accepted, I began to enjoy telling my truths in difficult situations, even when I got the same response the guy from the Encounter Movement got—“What an asshole!” Being an outsider is actually the easiest path for me, as someone who has trouble believing, bonding, and belonging in the first place.
Years later, I was living with my wife in Mystic,
, near the Eugene O’Neill Theater of the Deaf. It wasn’t
unusual for their students to attend local parties and I liked to sit with the
deaf kids—often teenage urban African-Americans, the first chance I got to meet
any in rural Connecticut . I never tried learning sign language, but they could lip
read, which means I had to face them and talk slowly and clearly. I was too
impolite to stare at their mouths, so I would look them in the eyes when they
talked. It was a little awkward at first because I felt so exposed, but I began
to really like it, and it began to seem weird to talk to anyone I wasn’t
looking in the eye. Connecticut
One night I was talking to a deaf kid at a Christmas party when a married couple arrived. When they came through the door they were smiling and shouting “Hey,” “Hello,” and “Good to see you!” but when they stopped smiling and turned away from the party, I could see the strain and anger in their faces. It was obvious to me that they had been arguing in the car, and that they were using conversation to hide what was really going on. And I saw people respond to what they were saying, instead of what they were feeling. It was like everyone was actively avoiding seeing through the false words to what was really going on, as if that would be impolite.
I also began to notice how few of the people in the room who weren’t deaf were actually looking at each other as they talked. It was like everyone else was creating big word balloons to hide behind. And in that moment I made another decision, that I would never use words to conceal what I was feeling, even if that meant mostly not saying anything at all.
I also have a very strong memory of the effect it had on me when my father began telling me, “I can see right through you.” The funny thing is that he was usually wrong. But I also feel I can see through people who are lying or exaggerating, or self-aggrandizing, or being manipulative and phony, or lying to themselves. When that happens I feel so embarrassed for them that I try to catch myself before I exaggerate or self-aggrandize or lie myself. But sometimes I get caught up in it too. I often have to get into trouble before I realize what I’m doing. It’s tricky.
So in my writing—especially my “creative non-fiction”—I always go over it in the editing and rewriting phases with an eye toward whether what I’m saying is “true.” And perhaps more important, is it honest? Because the “creative” part of creative non-fiction is making shit up. But I don’t make stuff up to mislead people—I make stuff up because I sense it, right under the surface. That’s why I feel an obligation to be very careful about what I write and how I write, but not about whether something actually happened, or if I found it originally in someone else’s work. I’m creating a mosaic, precisely as it comes to me, before I even understand it myself.
KG: Your notion that the truth is ever changing reveals how the teller is transformed by the experiences he is telling, which seems to be your point of departure. It reminds me of D.T. Suzuki’s idea that the arts—haiku, tea ceremony, landscape painting, calligraphy, ikebana—are the ideal place to express the inexpressible essence of Buddhism. In your "Journal Entry,
, December 1"
in What I Have Become (2007) you write, as if in answer to this notion,
“If you try to create in order to be a creator, you will never be satisfied,
because a creation has limits—and you outgrow them once you accomplish them.
But if you become the source of creation, then everything you see is
transformed. Beauty loses its subjectivity—it’s not yours to give or take away. It isn’t a reflection and it isn’t
personal. It’s a matter of seeing and being skilled enough in your medium to
transfer your vision directly.” You’ve hung hard with
Buddhists in your day job as a producer and editor for Sounds True. How has
that experience shaped your point of view? Istanbul
RR: I worked with a lot of people who woke up every morning and made a vow to save all sentient beings. If I was in a studio working with them, I was the only thing on the menu. But it’s a little like that story about how a pickpocket only sees a great teacher’s pockets. I was trying to get this thing done, trying to record the program, I wasn’t really there for spiritual enlightenment—I was there to do my job as a producer. Later, when I was editing the recording, it’s the same thing: does this make sense, is it clear, is it well organized?
But there are things I learned, sure. Not just from Buddhists. I think I learned at least one thing from every program I worked on, and I produced or edited over 300 programs in the 17 years I worked here.
When I’d prepare for a recording, I would usually work with the author ahead of time to plan and shape the content, and we’d create a program on—say—the Kabbalah one week, and then the next I’d be working with a Christian mystic, and then something on Buddhist psychology or neuroscience. After about fifteen minutes in the studio I’d realize, “Oh, we’re recording a program about what it’s like to be human.” And of course we were. What is a Kabbalist going to be talking about: a different universe than a Christian mystic, another reality than a Buddhist monk or a brain scientist? Most of the really good projects I worked on—it seems to me—were really saying the same things, using a very particular language and set of references. And if you join a particular group, most people spend a lot of time focused on learning that language and set of references as if the answers are there. But I had to learn how to work with everyone, so I learned something joiners don’t learn, which is that every path is more or less the same. And if one isn’t, watch out!
The main thing that interests me about the heavy-duty Buddhists is their humanity. Compassion isn’t just an American thing of course, but the American Buddhists are probably the best at this humble sense of shared humanity. And I hear it in our Buddhist poets too—Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, particularly.
What I mean by “humanity” is that they don’t claim to be any different from who they are. They get angry, they’re greedy, they gossip, they joke, they listen with their full attention, they can be emotionally intimate to a powerful degree. They’re pretty much totally themselves. Plus aware. So they can pretty quickly recognize their anger, and they drop it. They’re aware of their greediness, so when it bursts out, they acknowledge it and move on. I had one lama tell me after a tirade, “I’m sorry. That was my arrogance speaking.” But he didn’t collapse. He didn’t beat himself up. He didn’t try to defend his outburst or pretend it was anything other than what it was. He didn’t try to confuse me about what just happened or what was happening now. It was like a little dramatization of arrogance speaking. And in case I missed it, he explained what just happened. His main concern was that I might misunderstand and assume his response was somehow in response to something I had done. It was so clean. He didn’t hold onto anything—he just owned it, explained it, apologized for it, and moved on!
All I want is to be a human being—this human being—fully me, in this lifetime, while I’m alive. That’s all I’m after. Not to be a great poet or an acknowledged writer. And I’m not interested in powers or siddhis or enlightenment, any of that. It just seems to be a trap to me. I actually feel sorry for people I’ve met who believe they have to convince me they’re powerful and wise and special in order to feel “good enough.”
If my goal is being me, the truth is always right here, it’s never “out there.” It can’t be anywhere else. I ultimately can’t escape myself and although I’m in a constant state of refinement, I can never become anyone else, no matter how much I admire them. But I can always choose to be as big as I can imagine. That’s who I want to discover in this life—the biggest real me.
KG: Regarding your sense of the phony/authentic aspect of the Sounds True teachers you have worked with, what comes to mind is the old dialectic ‘tween philosophies that are actually systems of thought (e.g: Torah, Aristotle/Aquinas, Hegel, Sartre; Veda, Confucius; Islam) and philosophies that remind us that the system of thought has a gaping hole in its bucket (e.g: New Testament, Plato/Augustine, Marx, Kierkegaard; Buddha, Lao Tzu; Sufism). The systematizers say follow the map while the post-systematizers remind us that the map is not the territory. So in this scenario, the examples of Alan Watts’ prodigious scholarship on liberation “systems” along with Krishnamurti’s liberation from Theosophy’s “system” would be celebrated as whistle-blowing to those who would bow to a system instead of opening their hearts or minds. Is it too much to say that you are in the reminder school and that you are exercising-exorcising rites that reveal the limits of systemic thinking, hence your interest in not fictionalizing, pretending or faking it in your own writing, living, recording, witnessing?
RR: I wouldn’t use the word “phony” to describe Krishnamurti, but from what I learned in putting together Truth Is a Pathless Land from his audio archives, I think he quite possibly did some real damage with his hypocrisy; especially hiding his decades-long affair with his best friend’s wife while preaching against “the carnality of the body.” I also found his attacks on other belief systems—including some I’d had training in, like Transcendental Meditation and Christianity—were remarkably ignorant about what was actually being taught. I was also disturbed by his dismissive and repugnant attitudes toward women.
But that’s an interesting idea—that I’m working against the limits of systemic thinking. I’d never heard it expressed that way before, but what jumped out at me is that I do not like most of the works and authors in your “systemic thinking” category except for Sartre—who is a very important touchstone in my life—and I love almost everyone and everything on your “hole in the bucket” list. Sufism is probably my favorite religion, if I had any interest in joining a spiritual community, which I don’t.
I’m actually repulsed by Aristotle and very defensive about Plato. One night Jack Collom suggested we collaborate on a poem celebrating Aristotle’s appreciation of Nature, and attacking Plato and his creation of the Platonic Ideal (which Jack believed allowed people to trash anything in the natural world as not as important as the “ideal”). I shocked even myself by yelling: “I love Plato! I hate Aristotle! Aristotle is the kind of guy who would dissect a duck and pin him to a board. Yeah, but he can’t fly!”
I guess I bristle when someone suggests that they understand the true significance of anything, like Aristotle and Aquinas and Confucius. I find them almost bullies in a way. I don’t want to be presented with a closed system, even the right one. I want one that opens out to include me, that includes wonder and magic, where there’s room for everything I’ve experienced, including large areas of “I don’t know.” I prefer a system that I can step into, look around, see things in a new way, personalize it, and then step back out into the world, blinking. Each of the poems in Map of the World is a mirror that you can step through into a different world for a little while. Each of them returns you to the “world” at the end, where everything is slightly altered but exactly the same.
I no longer think anything valuable can come from the study of others or trying to learn a system of thought other than to understand it as an active part of my own reality. I think it’s all right here, inside me, and that looking “outside” is looking in the wrong direction. I want to understand myself and my experience before it’s all gone. Confirmation or conflict with my own experience based on my interactions with the outer world is not very useful for me. I even believe that accepting any ideas second-hand can contaminate what’s true about it. Lineage is like that too—you don’t choose your lineage, you come to understand it. You can’t recognize your lineage until you discover your place in it, and come to understand the whole idea of lineage as a priori, not ex facto. Like Burroughs said, you can’t learn anything you don’t already know, so you can’t really choose your lineage.
Or maybe lineage is how Ted Berrigan described it, that every poet is picking up the ball from another poet and trying to carry it forward a yard or two. He said Corso was looking back to Shelley, and Allen to Whitman. For Burroughs it was a friend and contemporary: Brion Gysin. And Ted said that he was continuing the poetry of Robert Creeley, who was still very much alive, and whose poetry couldn’t have been less like Creeley’s. Creeley’s was cramped, handwritten, gnarly, sharp. Ted’s was wild, spontaneous, typewritten. Creeley’s was folk art, it was home-spun, it was
Ted’s was urban, impatient, city-wise. But Ted swore his was the same
sensibility as Creeley’s, a generation forward.
Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about my lineage, and I think in the first sense of lineage I’m probably closest to Goethe and Joyce and Tzara in my sensibility, and Ezra Pound in his curiosity (although not at all in Pound’s creativity and genius), and maybe Joan Miro in the sense of not wanting to repeat myself.
But in the second sense, I see myself as trying to carry forward the work of Yeats. I mean, who’s done that? Eliot, a little. Pound a little. But they were both using Yeats as a point of departure, and they’re both long dead now. I think in a way my work goes back to Yeats—as if everything in poetry since then has been a dead end—to pick up a thread and see how far I can carry it forward. What makes it a little less immodest is that I’m not competing with him head-to-head. I’m mostly doing his thing in prose.
My patron saint, though, the one I owe almost everything I am as a person is the one whom I probably identify with the least, poetically. That’s Allen Ginsberg. We disagreed about everything, but I loved him more than my father.
And the one I identify with the most as far as my sensibility is Duchamp. Coming upon his written work in Anselm Hollo’s 1981 Naropa class on dada was another lifechanger for me. It’s from Duchamp that I got the idea that the greatest creation of an artist is his life. It was via my study of Duchamp that I figured out my own way, which was to focus on two things—what is my actual experience pre-thought and conditioning; and how can I use language to say something specific and true? And the sentence from him that has helped me as an artist more than any other is “Sharpen the eye (a method of torture).”
KG: Perhaps Krishnamurti was rejecting what you are rejecting: entitlement, insincerity, elitism and the con game. In his case, that included the hierarchy not only of Theosophy, “advancement on the path” or the New Age racket (a symptom of the American illusion produced by greed that we can purchase satori with a credit card?) but of his own Indian tradition of lineage, succession, caste and religion. TM’s mantra yoga, a well respected practice, is about mind protection. He maybe was trying to get out of what you are trying to get into. In any case, the traditional Sanskrit reminder-response to “I’ve found the final enlightenment,” is “Neti, neti” (neither This, nor That).
RR: I think Krishnamurti was wrong to reject the Hindu practice of (and I’m paraphrasing) catching a child’s attention with a shiny toy. How are you going to lead people out of a lesser understanding to a greater one if you can’t convince them that it exists? First you find out what they are willing to work for and you use that as a lure.
I learned a lot about how to skillfully do this when I was trained as a meditation instructor with Deepak Chopra in 1995-1997. He used to teach a workshop called “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” and he’d start with, “I can teach you how to live forever.” (Very long pause.) “Plant a tree. Teach your children well. Change an unfair law, stand up for a politician you believe in, improve a life, work for a cause you believe in, preserve something beautiful and endangered.” He had another workshop called “Creating Abundance.” He’d start with, “I can teach you how to manifest a Porsche. But it’s not for everyone. You need focus and determination. Do you want me to tell you a foolproof way to manifest a Porsche, using nothing more than focus and determination? Okay, here’s how you do it: 1) Be determined to work as much and as hard as you can, and 2) Focus on saving your money. If you are able to remain focused and determined long enough, you will one day save enough to buy the Porsche. But think back to the last time you achieved a goal like that, something you bought because you thought it would change how you felt about your life. How long did that feeling last? Now think about the last time you achieved an interior goal—like learning meditation or becoming a genuinely more pleasant person to be around. Or imagine being caught acting heroically in a stranger’s benefit. If they sold that feeling at 7-11, the line would be down the street. In fact, that’s probably the feeling you’re trying to get with the Porsche. So let’s examine your goals first and then look closer at how to manifest them. What is this longing and what is it longing for?”
It’s bait and switch, but it’s like baiting them with a Porsche and giving them a shot at the happiness they’re really looking for. He’s pointing out that what they’re looking for is actually inside of them and can only be symbolized by a Porsche, or whatever. What they’re looking for can’t be found outside of the self and it’s always been inside of them and will always be inside them and it will always only be inside of them, because it has to be inside them in order for it to be real for them. So the
really is inside you and will always be inside you and
only inside you. Amen. Kingdom
But I believe in spiritual practice. Emotions and feelings have arisen when I’ve been involved in spiritual practice that are central to how I see myself and others. Spiritual and psychological practices are really about learning who you truly are, and the deeper I come to understand myself, the better I can understand others. I know that my daily meditation practice has changed me, although I can’t point to how, because there’s nothing to compare it to. And the effects of a meditation are subtle and take place over decades. But I can say that it made me more sane and grounded. And it’s made me quieter and more appreciative, more aware. But it’s also made me more agitated at times, and this next five-year trip is really an attempt to escape people. I’m sixty-one, which is traditionally the time of life people in several Asian cultures are expected to retire from their worldly responsibilities and focus on their inner life. I can feel the desire to focus on my inner life tugging at me too. I have to take off. It’s time.
But back when I first started at 19 years old, meditation led me much deeper into life, into my interactions with others. The right answer at one point in your life becomes the exactly wrong thing at another. That’s a big part of it, too. You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open until the end.
I’ve studied mantra under various lineages and I’m not quite sure what “mind protection” means, but the way I see it, I plug my mantra into my otherwise continuous thought process so that my awareness can float free. The way I describe it is, I give my mind something to chew on designed to destroy it. I give my mind a shiny toy to keep it occupied, while I get out of the car and stretch my legs. There are also some teachers who claim that the sound of the mantra is designed to have a specific healing or orienting effect on the mind and body, and I know of no reason why this couldn’t be true. But a brief vacation from my boring repetitive judgmental thoughts is enough of a benefit for me.
I’m encouraged by the desire in human beings that brings them to spiritual practice. Of course that desire is not going to be purified before they start their practice. But the longing alone, I think, will continue to correct their path over the course of their lives, at least somewhat, if they continue to practice. And I think that once you practice, even a little, you do see more opportunities around you to sow peace, to alleviate at least a little suffering while you can. And often the first person’s suffering you need to address is your own.
I do see a difference between someone whose desire is to become enlightened and someone who is motivated by a desire to be a better person. But I support anything that lessens human suffering, and I believe that just about any spiritual practice and any motivation will do that, although with all the scandals in the spiritual communities over the years, it’s sometimes difficult to believe.
I have met teachers I consider phonies or toxic in my work, and I’ve heard too many stories about spiritual teachers who have behaved criminally. When I was in
, the Buddhists were killing the Muslims. But I do believe
that for just about anyone, a daily spiritual practice will help people lessen
their own and others’ suffering. I believe that any spiritual practice—no
matter what bus we get on or what our original destination was—is better than
no spiritual practice. Myanmar
And I totally get the “neti, neti” thing—perhaps too much. The way it manifests in me is self-doubt. When I come to some conclusion, I immediately back away from it, begin to test it, doubt it. Like how I experienced Krishnamurti talking about sex as really creepy. But maybe it’s me who’s creeped out by the sex? They were consenting adults—why do I feel competent to judge them? Or to use the previous example of how I get annoyed by people who pretend to others that they have it all together, maybe it’s me, unable to accept the authority of anyone else? Maybe I’m resentful that it’s not me whom everyone’s treating like a genius? It just goes on and on like that. Sometimes it seems like all day, every day, my thoughts are just judging everything I see. I need an off-switch that stops my thinking, and I found one with mantra.
I’m with Krishnamurti in wanting to get rid of succession, of caste, and I’m not crazy about religion. But discovering you’re part of a lineage and learning what that lineage stands for has been very comforting for me. It’s my sangha, more or less, encompassing the Pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato and Yeats and Pound and Ginsberg and you too, Kirpal.
In a way I think I write in order to help explain and pass along my lineages, and I have several. I have my poetic lineage, my prose lineage, my memoir lineage, my artistic lineage, my spiritual lineage, my philosophical lineage, my traveling lineage, all mixed together. It’s not something that’s been imposed on me, it’s something I’ve discovered. And it’s something that I’m now consciously trying to pass on, to restore, to expand and explore and perhaps renew. To add my voice, my take, my version of it. To make it new, as Pound said.
KG: Regarding your eye to people who think they have it all together and who pose as your betters: what if the humility you express as not-having-it-all-together proved not only to be a universally true reality for all humans but also an effective way to access more truth? What if your “re-sent-ment” is a “re-act-ion” to an untruth that perpetrates the fraud that there are such things as one’s betters? Who would you bet on to be better at being you than you? Your writing reveals you’re a great-grandchild of Father Walt who could not abide any form of condescension. What if you’re revealing that the quest for better-dom is the disguise of the self-loathing? What if your poet-warrior heart is rightly wronged by a system(izer) that bullies, excludes, dominates and denies others’ humanity in the name of liberation? What I’m saying: at its most complimentary level perhaps, these two styles of system and reminder, for all their differences, may be holding hands under the table as both are selling a point of view based upon what’s missing in the other’s point of view. The “authentics” need the artifice of a system to amplify their reminders to be authentic and the “accountants” need the inherent anarchy in the reminder philosophy to validate their need for a system. Consider your poem from What I Have Become (2007):
What Wisdom Has Hidden From Us
The wise know how everything works
and they have all the answers,
and they know better than we do
where everything is headed.
a boy is crying—
he sees monsters under the bridge.
Don’t be silly, his mother yells at him.
There are no monsters here at all.
RR: Oh, I get it now. Yeah, that’s a really good point. Yes, I need someone to push against. But it’s very tricky. First of all, it’s very difficult to put myself in the line of fire because I get triggered so easily, having grown up in an abusive household—either I fall apart when attacked, or I put myself in danger if I think someone is being unfairly attacked. Especially when it’s a woman threatened by a man. Even as a pre-teen I would sometimes physically impose myself between my raging father and my two younger sisters.
Secondly, my experience is that when I think I’m right, I don’t learn anything. I’ve wasted a lot of time defending my opinion rather than expanding it to include new information.
KG: Continuing to probe how your thinking impacts your writing, your insistence on reportage reminded me of Charles Reznikoff and the work of the Objectivists who I am sure you know, yes?
RR: You know, I haven’t really thought of Reznikoff in a long time, but you’re absolutely right. You have this uncanny way of sensing the roots and influences that I’ve assimilated and completely forgotten about.
There’s a story about Allen Ginsberg reading Reznikoff to me on the last day of my apprenticeship that I used as the final passage of “The Object Is to See Clearly,” which was published in the “Naropa Bulletin” in 1981 when I was 27.
It was my first attempt to write a memoir, and it strikes me that even though I keep talking about how much of a discovery my experience of writing The Decalogue was, the entire memoir would fit quite comfortably alongside anything in it. It has no over-arching narration, it doesn’t try to be objective. It’s a collection of real-life events reported in chronological order without commentary, just like real life. [And I’m suddenly reminded rereading it almost 35 years later that I stole much of its style from Tom Pickard’s excellent account of his time apprenticeship with Basil Bunting that I read in an issue of “Peideuma” around this time.]
Our last meeting went long, trying to tie up all the loose ends, and I was burnt out and wanted to go home. But when we finished, Allen put his papers aside and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm, “Well, what did you bring today?” So we tinkered with my poems a bit and then he asked if I knew the work of Charles Reznikoff. I wasn’t very familiar. “I think he’d be a good model for you.”
He went to his bookshelf and pulled a chair beside mine in the dim light of the living room window. He flipped through the first few pages. Then he began to read, looking up occasionally as some line or image or word struck him as important. His voice was clear and his eyes were bright. He was using his speaking voice—the same voice he’d been using in our conversation only a moment ago—but now he was luxuriating on the vowels and chewing on the consonants, but still talking as naturally as any excited stranger might, striking up a conversation in a bar or at a bus stop.
I began to shiver a little. There was something very strange about this. I found I could lean into what he was saying, and when I did I could hear a voice coming from a dark apartment in turn-of-the-century New York City. It was sometimes a young man, sometimes an old man, writing alone at his kitchen table while the family slept. He wrote without hope that what he was writing would one day be read from one poet to another, in a future he never imagined.
When I closed my eyes and leaned forward, I began to feel bursts of energy in my chest and forehead that were unpleasant in the sense that I was afraid of being overwhelmed by them. So I’d lean into what he was reading and ride those waves until it got scary, and then I’d back off. Sometimes I’d be able to go quite deep; other times I wouldn’t get very far before having to back away.
Finally there was a moment when I decided to see how far I could go and I quickly realized I’d gone too far—I’d gone past the point where I could pull my body back under my conscious control, and I was afraid that Allen would notice my hands shaking and my heels tapping the floor, my head dropping forward, and the thought crossed my mind that I was in danger of falling onto the floor. But since Allen had pulled his chair so close to mine, I knew that if I fell it would be right into his lap.
And throughout it all there was the continuity of Allen’s voice and Reznikoff’s poetry of intense internal turmoil, recited in a quiet, understated, almost urban voice: stories of gray and off-white and deep, cracking black.
Allen read for about twenty minutes. During that time everything in the room was calm, clear, and very real: the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read, the coming darkness. Then he stopped and brought the covers of the book together. “Well,” he said, “that’s it.”
There’s one sentence in there where I realized I’ve already accomplished what I’ve been trying to achieve in The Decalogue: “During that time everything in the room was calm, clear, and very real: the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read, the coming darkness.” It’s very precise about things that are not at all precise: “the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read.”
And to counter your statement about fiction being better than non-fiction at revelation through metaphor, I’d hold up “the coming darkness” against anything in fiction. But in order to get there, I felt I had to ground it in reality or it’d just be bullshit. Sentimentality is a form of bullshit. And people only shout when they’re not sure themselves, as if shouting something would make it true.
I haven’t really read Reznikoff in years, but you’re making me see how I’ve borrowed so much from his writing: his use of story as scaffolding rather than poetic forms, his focus on what’s human to the exclusion of all else, his sense of time passing inexorably toward a fast-approaching end, his commitment to understatement and concreteness as he reaches for the universal, his focus on looking out from “in.” I think I don’t read him more because I’m afraid I’ll realize that I’ll always be his inferior.
I’ve forgotten about all of these moments—“bullshit,” the deaf theater kids, my dad, and Reznikoff’s poetry—but these are the things—or some of the things—that have given me a vision of my limitations and interests as a writer—my “field” so to speak—much more than the famous poets I’ve studied with. Or the prose writers who have inspired me and shown me what’s possible. Even Flaubert, who taught me how to write a good sentence (the secret is to have three parts; like this one has).