Kirpal Gordon: Your experience of Allen Ginsberg reading Reznikoff to you feels like a lineage revelation moment and reminds me of a journal excerpt in your aptly titled travel book, What I Have Become: “When I’m traveling alone and with no obligations—just anonymously moving without agenda and on my own through a city I’ve never been in before, there’s usually a moment when I move ‘inside’ the place, which is like what I imagine walking inside a mirror might be like. I am no longer in the place, but of the place.” You also write, “I think those who really love Rilke are those who have some part of them that only comes to life when they’re alone, something that would cease to exist if it was shared.” Especially in your travel books which bounce back and forth between the zones of solitude and society, you seem also to bounce back and forth between the genres of poetry and prose. For example, from What I Have Become (2007):
He Begins to Enumerate How Things Are and Why
I don’t understand anything that does not whirl and spin
like the burning books in the bonfire scene of “Orphee”—
how Eurydice’s dress is the same blue as their bindings,
the same blue as her eyes, the same blueness in her hair.
How it’s sometimes enough just to write these words
in my head, since I only dream there is some connection
between my memories and experiences, and what I really
want is to write a text transmitting the things themselves—
to say this and then that like a calculating machine
until it all returns to zero—the way leaves turn black
and fall off their dark branches and are swept away
by October’s smoky wind, in Nature’s sleight of hand—
her now you see it, now what’s happened kind of way—
the way the moon’s venetian fingers cut into the room’s
deep shadows until then night is visual beyond all that’s
seen, as my nerves light up my brain, illuminate the page—
the way light enters a room and wanders without haste,
uncovering the details of what I will remember of tonight.
RR: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. That style began with DODO—the transcription of some of notebooks from my first seven-month solo trip to
1990 through January 1991. And it got even more severe in Notebook. In that one there are even poems that just stop and
there’s a seemingly unrelated piece of prose, and then the poem continues as if
it hasn’t been interrupted. I got that form by reproducing the order in which
everything was written. It’s evidence that the mind is discontinuous. It’s
evidence of the evolution of thought and impressions, of memory, of changes through
time, of repeating themes like in music, popping up in different contexts, the
way some part of my brain is always working on stuff below my level of
awareness. San Francisco
And I also try to recognize every form of writing that I become aware of, in the order of its appearance. So there might be the tone of a mini-essay, followed by a conversation between me and a stranger, followed by a letter to an old girlfriend, followed by a piece of overheard conversation and something I remember and something from my reading and something I saw and something I thought and … you know, all of it, tumbling together, just like real life. I want to give a sense of the all-ness of consciousness and its co-dependent origin. Because a book of poems is not like life. Life is not like a collection of essays or even a novel. Life is messier than a biography. Life is made up of a letter, a photograph, a shopping list, an e-mail, a phonecall, all of it. I want to focus on this constant process of changing focus the way I experience it in my daily life, the way Joyce revealed the inner monologue, or Freud revealed the unconscious, or the Impressionists taught us how to see light as well as objects, the way Kerouac will continue to inspire future generations to set off on their own rumspringas.
KG: You speak a lot about the need to have courage, which you certainly manifest plenty of in your travels. I am also intrigued by your chutzpah. What was it like conversing with Pound’s daughter Mary de Rachewiltz and his lover Olga Rudge?
RR: In 1990, Diane di Prima called Julia Connor, who was hosting a Cantos reading group I was involved with in
. She said she’d just learned about a program sponsored by
the Boulder where
students could go and study Pound in his daughter’s castle in University of New
Orleans , where Pound spent the last years of his life. That’s
where Olga and Mary still lived, along with Mary’s son, in a castle belonging
to the Rachewiltz’s—the family Mary married into. Mary’s husband Boris was a
prince and rarely home. I can remember one evening the excitement of the
housekeepers and Mary, trying to get the house ready for one of the prince’s
infrequent returns. Dorf Tirol, Italy
Mary vehemently defended her father. She seemed to have given her whole life to defending her father’s legacy. Olga and Mary argued a lot. Olga was over 90 and slept most of the time.
One of the most interesting things Mary said was that the silence that everyone talks about in Pound’s last years was actually much more importantly in evidence in the years he spent giving his voice over to the Adams letters and Chinese history.
There were only eight students in our group. John Gery, of the
, was our
teacher. One was a young woman from University of New
Orleans who had never been out of her country. I found her
interest in Pound surprising, but she was the one who really understood the Chinese
cantos, how Pound was selecting from the full story to tell a very idiosyncratic
version of Chinese history. One of the students has remained a friend for 25
years now, the author of the definitive history of China Harlem for Grove Press,
The students slept in an outbuilding and we’d meet for classes during the day in what was left of Pound’s library. Over the four weeks, we read all of Pound’s poetry including the Cantos and a big chunk of his criticism. In the evenings I would read the Cantos aloud with whomever was interested. It’s one of my favorite accomplishments, hearing the entire work read aloud.
Pound made the bookshelves of his library. There were two rows—each about twelve feet wide and maybe ten feet high, and they were several rows deep. There was a huge American flag hanging as a kind of dust covering over one of the shelves, and around the walls were displayed Pound’s tennis racquets and photos and some furniture he made.
In Pound’s study I found Pound’s source for the Chinese cantos—a multiple-volume history of
written in French and bound in red leather. You could see
Pound’s handwritten pencil markings on the endpapers, mostly page references. I
also found Pound’s blue-bound first edition of Ulysses, with Joyce’s tiny handwriting thanking Pound for helping
to get it published. We went to China over a long weekend and tracked down where Pound lived and
many of the references in his poems. Venice
One of the most amazing things for me about Dorf Tirol is that it’s on a mountainside above the city of
, which has a spa that’s been active at least since the 15th
century. Kafka came to recuperate from tuberculosis at the spa in 1914. From
the spa you can easily see Schloss Tirol—the Tirolian Castle—on the top of the
mountain, directly above Bolzano . The trail that goes to the two castles travels through
tiered grapevines, and it has severe and very long and winding switchbacks. I
decided to walk to Schloss Tirol from Brunnenberg Castle , which seemed close enough to reach in about half an hour.
But, after half a day of walking, I seemed to be no closer. I spent more than
half of my time walking away from the castle, often out of sight of the castle
completely. Or the path would suddenly head upward and I’d get excited—yes, I’m
definitely getting closer—and then the path would plunge down and away from the
castle and I would seem to be farther away than ever, and continuing to move
even farther away. Anyone who’s read The
Castle knows what I’m talking about. Brunnenberg Castle
KP: What of your Yeats-Pound ruminations at Stone Cottage where Yeats’ Silentia Lunae and A Vision were born? I ask after the latter work particularly as it’s one of the strangest honeymoon accounts ever written. The notion that astral guides had come to give Yeats metaphors for his poetry strikes me as the kind of non-fiction you could relate to as an author. Your earlier remarks on your “anima mundi” experience with your neck (The Convalescence Notebook, 2008) suggested as much.
RR: When I write about some of the weirdo things that have happened to me, I feel a need to focus precisely on the facts—on what happened and what I remember—and not draw any conclusions. That explains The Convalescence Notebook. I wrote that whole book as the events were unfolding, so all of the details are there. But I’m not about to make any great claims because I don’t understand the whys or the hows. I’m just going to be grateful to whatever forces are protecting me and making decisions for me. My entire life—all of it—is by their efforts and grace. If it was all up to me, my life would have been over long ago. I’ve definitely lucked out in the guardian angel department.
Anyway, in order to be able to graduate on schedule for my MFA at Naropa, I had to write my thesis before I returned home. So after the Pound studies ended, I took a two-day train trip from
, in northeastern Bolzano , to Lisboa, where food and lodging were cheap. I would
spend my days inside the art museums, or wander around town, and in the
evenings I would read and write in my hotel room. That became my pattern for
that whole trip, and most of my future travels as well. I read Joyce in the
evenings and the next day would walk through Italy to find all the places mentioned in the books. On that
trip alone I read Flaubert in Dublin , Proust in Paris, Dante in Rouen , the Greek dramatists in the theater at the base of the
Acropolis, Synge on the Florence Aran
Islands, Yeats in Sligo and
Gort, Beckett on the P&O Ferries. When I got home, the woman I was living
with had piled all of the books I had sent home and they were taller than I
I wrote about the relationship between Pound and Yeats at the Stone Cottage, 1913-1916. Everyone always talks about how Pound modernized Yeats over those summers—a debt that was acknowledged by Yeats himself—but I could only find one person who had written about the changes Yeats’ mysticism and arcane spiritual readings had on Pound. Pound talks about spirits and sprites and goddesses especially in his last poems, but he always does it in a context that undermines the otherworldliness that Yeats embraced. For Pound they were no less real, I argued. He turned them into metaphors and symbols of natural forces, but they’re there.
KG: There it is again: systematizer (Yeats’s spirit world) and reminder (ol’ Ez’s nature metaphor). If these Modernists could be called rock stars of their day, how did traveling the
British Isles with real rock
stars, Fairport Convention, compare?
This was my first trip to
Richard Thompson joined us for a couple of evenings and outings and bus rides.
used to book McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Nancy , where she’d once booked Allen Ginsberg, whose singing she
declared was “dreadful”—adding quickly, “But he had a cold.” “Is it true,”
Richard asked me, “that Allen Ginsberg is a hypochondriac?” “Sort of,” I said,
a little taken aback. “But I doubt that’s his defining characteristic.” Santa Monica
KP: And meeting with James Joyce’s nephew in
? How did that happen? Dublin
RR: My original plan had been to spend a couple of days in Dublin, and then head west to Sligo and Galway and Gort for an extended study of Yeats in the places where much of his work was written or written about, but I ended up staying for a couple of weeks when I unexpectedly met Joyce’s nephew.
On my first day there, I went to the
He led a 90-minute walking tour of downtown
pointing out places in Joyce’s life and books. We’d visit the grammar school in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,
the post office and the tunnel where Bloom picks up and later reads his love
letter, the general store where he bought some lemon soap. (“Doin’ the tour?” asked
the clerk as he rang up the same brand of lemon soap that Bloom buys in Ulysses.) Davy Byrnes’ Pub is still in
business, and there’s the Ha’Penny Bridge and Gresham Hotel. We went into
Trinity College Library, visited the houses and neighborhoods where Joyce grew
up. We also visited the house where Joyce set “The Dead.” The front of the
house is visible in the exterior shots in John Huston’s film, and since the
short story is also based on a real evening, the door that Joyce opened that
evening, the door he describes in the story, the door we see in the film, and
the door I stood in front of were all the same door. Dublin
I found things in Ken’s files that no biographer at the time had mentioned, including the only known interview with Joyce. Ken had hundreds of photos, transcripts, interviews, letters, all haphazardly filed. He even had paintings of Joyce, dusty and torn and yellowing, propped up against a wall.
Ken’s hope was to start a museum in
his collection, and he eventually did open the James Joyce Centre. I looked it
up on-line just now and the homepage quotes from a Yelp review that says it was
taken over by the city after having been run “haphazardly” by Joyce’s nephew
for its first few years. The Centre’s homepage doesn’t even mention his name. Dublin
I read all of Joyce during the evenings in
(except Finnegans Wake, which I had
read a couple of months before) and spent my mornings investigating the places
mentioned by Joyce and my afternoons with Ken. Dublin
I had always been afraid of the challenges I expected in Ulysses, but I loved the book! There were times I was laughing so hard that I was afraid the people next door would call the front desk. Each chapter in Ulysses is written in a different literary style and that’s been an influence on The Decalogue too, in that I’m choosing to allow for a variety of styles and voices as opposed to homogeneity.
I learned something I’ve never known any Joyce scholar to mention. To the south of the Liffey is the
where the book begins. Mortello Tower
were built along the seacoasts of the Mortello Towers British isles
following the French Revolution.
To the north of Liffey is the Hill of Howth, where Joyce and Nora Barnacle had sex for the first time (on June 16th, the date of Ulysses). When I walked to the top of Howth Head, I discovered there was a
there too, that’s only visible if you climb to the very top. The book ends with Molly masturbating and fantasizing
about the first time she (Nora) and Bloom (Joyce) had sex, in the bushes at the
top of the Howth Head: “yes I said yes I will Yes.” So Ulysses begins and ends at a Mortello Tower . Mortello
One of my biggest regrets is that I told Ken—just to make conversation—that William Burroughs told me that Finnegans Wake was a writer’s worst nightmare—a masterwork that’s unreadable. And I told him that Burroughs said the book’s denseness was evidence of the perseveration common in late-term alcoholism. That really hurt Ken, and I left quickly and never saw him again, never even to say goodbye or to thank him.
KG: In the books these travel adventures read like a hybrid vigor uniting the personal, poetic and immediate sensory take with the longer eye of the scholarly and the historical. The result is very engaging, but your chutzpah doesn’t end there. You describe real people and their actual behavior in these scenes—girlfriends, guides, fellow travelers, literary contemporaries, teachers both alive and dead—as well as in the poems! You write them into the work with their real names! I wonder if you’ve taken any flack for that. In fiction one must be always mindful of the possibility of getting sued, but non-fiction runs the additional risk/challenge of writing folks from your life that really do need an introduction as to why they are there.
RR: I can’t be the only one who writes about his life using real names, but I won’t publish anything unless I can turn it into literature. That means the people in my stories are characters who I usually refer to by their first names only. Anything dodgy gets assigned to someone with a made-up name, and some people I refer to only by their first initial. Historical personages get their full name if I think the story is fair and honest. I’m pretty sensitive about not disclosing personal information. A couple of people I’ve written about don’t think I’ve been discrete enough. I have other friends and relatives who are upset that I haven’t written more about the time I’ve spent with them.
The person in my writing who is most exposed, who is always the butt of the joke, the guy who gets his comeuppance over and over again, is always me. I tend not to waste time transcribing my bitterest, angriest writings. If I do, I usually jettison them pretty early in the editorial process. Maybe it felt good writing them down, but it doesn’t feel good typing them or reading them over.
The first memoir I wrote was the one about apprenticing with Allen that we talked about in the first part of this interview. That set the template for the rest of my non-fiction writing. It doesn’t attempt to be impartial—it’s my story, and Allen is a character in my story. I was worried before it was published because not all of it was complimentary, but Allen never complained about anything I wrote about him, and that made me even bolder.
I have had exes complain about some of my published writings. I even got fired once because of something I’d written. Interviews have caused me problems as well. The woman I identify as Xi in The Decalogue sometimes says in response to one of my columns “I don’t remember that” or “I remember it differently.”
KG: What of writing a celebrity or literary figure into the work that a reader might have some (mis)information on? Is there a public self and a private self and is a writer obliged to protect and not expose real people’s behavior or their web of relationships? What, for example, should a reader make of “for Anne Waldman/My muse since 1977” to introduce The San Francisco Notebook or “For My Daughter Maelle”/“And for anyone else I’ve damaged or taken advantage of in an attempt to get out” on the dedication page of Awakening Osiris?
RR: I think an undedicated book is a missed opportunity to acknowledge someone still alive, or to bring to mind someone who is here no longer.
The San Francisco Notebook was written on a visit to perform at Philip Whalen’s memorial reading, and I’m almost certain it’s Anne who got me invited, because she couldn’t make it. So, in my dedication I’m acknowledging to myself and Anne that this book comes from her efforts to get me invited. The muse part acknowledges that I came to
because of an article I read about her in 1977. Boulder
My daughter is a more complicated situation. We’ve had no contact since she graduated high school. That’s her choice, not mine. I partially see my work like the diaries of Anais Nin, which she wrote so her absent father would know what happened while he was away. My work is partially a father writing to his absent daughter, so that if she wants to get to know him some day, she can.
KP: Sometimes I am not sure if the motive is to underline that it’s true, it happened just like this or if the scaffolding of dedications, lit quotes at the top of poems and words from and references to these “characters” is an attempt to marry narrative non-fiction with poetic interludes.
RR: What’s happened since The San Francisco Notebook is that each “book” of mine is usually a document of a particular trip or event or something I’ve been studying. I start each adventure or project with an empty pocket notebook and I collect written sketches in it, without editing. When I get home I turn these notes into a manuscript. I see each piece is part of this larger thing, the book. I literally do not write individual poems any more.
The quotes are from my readings at the time—newspapers, books, whatever. I find the quotes to be distancing devices that locate the book in a larger, impersonal context. It’s also the lineage thing again. It’s evidence that my sensibility is having a conversation that exists out-of-time. It also gives some insight into what I was reading at the time.
There are a lot more quotations—and poetry—in the full manuscript than the excerpts I’ve published in “Newtopia.” Quotes and poetry don’t work well in the column, but I most definitely see them as an important part of the larger arc of the complete text.
I’ve found that the prose in The Decalogue is generally more successful than the poetry. That was an eye opener. In Dodo and San Francisco Notebook, for instance, I think the poetry is stronger than the prose.
The travel notebooks more or less reflect the order in which the items were written as a way to capture my awareness’ moving through time. Very much a part of that design is that each piece is written from a slightly different angle with a slightly different format and voice. I want it to include as many different points of view and forms and voices and structures and variety as possible.
When I started, I had absolutely no idea how long the project would last. I’m surprised I made it to ten years. When I had a book at the end of the first year that felt like a real book—with a beginning, middle, and end—I doubted I’d be able to do it again. After the second year, I relaxed, and I think it was around the third or fourth year when I felt confident that life would supply the beginnings, middles, and ends for my books much better than I could.
I think of The Decalogue as a deck of cards—each piece standing alone, yet each piece part of a larger constellation or network when seen from a higher vantage point. Each card a tree in a grove, and the whole ten-volume collection a forest.
KG: The Decalogue, begun in 2006 and displayed at the NewtopiaMagazine.com site, delivers a tangible you-are-there experience and opens with you in Fez, a city in Morocco perhaps best described as strange, beautiful. After a short history, you have choice photographs (objective correlatives) and a wide collection of both local music and internationally known bandleaders like Fela Kute and King Sunny Ade. There’s an insightful essay on Yorubaland and its spirit guides, and then it’s on to Rabat, Casablanca, the Sahara Desert, Ourika Valley and the Marjana Argan Cooperative with more photos, poems, music, history, conversations and observations of the local flora and fauna over seven more journal entries. The North African tour is followed by ten entries on
, including South Africa , Zambia , the Okavonga Delta, the Shona and the
Ngamo, safaris, music and ideas. Next up is six entries on India which include
travel to Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi and Kathmandu, but by the latest entries—six
in China, including Beijing, the Forbidden City and Hong Kong; and two more
from Lhasa, Tibet—it’s clear you have gotten a lot more involved with the
people in the places, most especially your guide, Xi. What was the evolution of
your reportage like from the Botswana entries to your deeper investigations in Morocco ? These could all be considered endangered
ancient places, and I wonder if part of the adventure is a kind of time travel
to locales that have resisted the homogenization of culture like in the Tibet . Is it fair to ask you what have been your
favorite places and where are you headed next? USA
RR: The Decalogue has been more or less my attempt to capture what I want to remember about my trips. My hope is that it will amount to something when it’s finished. It’s already much more than I had any reason to expect.
There is a real desperation in my travels. The world is changing as fast as the icecaps are melting. I want to see the rawest places as soon as possible. It’s too late for so much already. In the
Sahara desert the
camel-kids have smart phones and Crocs and try to exchange e-mail addresses
with American girls. I’ve been friended on Facebook by kids in an orphanage I
visited in .
It’s not that I want to keep these cultures simple so I can feel nostalgic, or
that I think that I’m seeing anything authentic in terms of even a generation
ago, but I enjoy sitting with someone as different from me as possible and finding
out that we share something, even if we don’t speak the same language. It’s
like being with those deaf kids in Myanmar .
I’ve almost always found something that connects us. New London
My favorite trip was
and China ,
because that’s where I met Xi. I know it’s popular to hate Tibet
these days, but—not withstanding the government’s treatment of the Tibetan
people and culture, and a great deal of its history under Mao—I came away with a
deep admiration for the country and its people. So much of what I’d been taught
proved untrue. My other favorite trip was going on safari in China Africa.
(Not a hunting safari, I might add.)
KG: No other guide or character has appeared in The Decalogue like Xi. Her own struggles as a woman and an artist and a thinker seem to mirror the struggles of the nation she represents while also serving as a mirror upon which your own struggles as a man-artist-thinker can be better understood.
RR: The woman I call Xi in the book helped me choose her name. I knew I’d be writing a lot about her, and a lot of it would be very personal, so I wanted her approval up front. Her name is pronounced “shee,” and so she becomes something of the archetype of “girl/woman” in the book. The writings from
and China currently
unbalance the book, for sure. Tibet
I like your idea about us two mirroring each other. There was definitely a very deep and lasting connection made. We still write e-mails back and forth. She’s a wife and mother now, and still working as a tour guide. We’re hoping to meet up again at some point. I wish I could live as freshly and wisely as she does!
KG: That leads me to bemusement over a central paradox in your oeuvre. On the one hand, your purposefulness, dedication to truth, heavy work load, commitment to craft, sequence of projects, apprenticeship to certain ideals and aesthetics with a sense of tradition and lineage have paid off. On the other hand, you write poems of such whimsy and metaphysical wit. For example, from Map of the World (2007):
Man Must in His Imagination Enter into Death
To dream of a death within this dream
is to ascend into the brilliance of the sun
from where this life and its days are dreams
and the finite vegetable world a shadow—
and yet it is also the point through which
the future and the present plunge into the past.
The world and time has placed me at their center
to enjoy and suffer the elements of my dreaming,
this mystery through which I have become
one who was born in order to unravel.
RR: Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’m the purposeful hard worker—dedicated to truth and committed to craft—who named his production company DADA Productions. And his publishing company Laocoon Press. And when I was at Naropa I named my literary magazine FRICTION, because I wanted to start some. Sure. It’s complicated.
KG: Regarding your line, “to enjoy and suffer the elements of my dreaming,” talk about your relationship to dreams, your “dream self” and your poetry.
RR: One of the long poems in Map of the World is written in what I call “dream language.” I don’t often remember my dreams, but I did have a dream that I wrote down shortly after we began this interview that has some interesting things to add to the ideas we’ve discussed above.
In this dream I was trying to contain everything I knew about poetry in one image. And I said that a poet gathers eggs—living things not yet born, sheltered in a shell. There are thousands of eggs, I said, and each one has not only an individual creature inside it, but any of thousands of species could be inside each one. It could be a bluebird, a chicken, a crocodile. And the way to find the rarest eggs is to travel farther and farther away from civilization. And the greatest poets travel the farthest, and bring back mysterious eggs no human has ever seen before.
Poets gather these eggs and use them for food. But then five days, fifteen years later, something flies out of their mouths when they’re sleeping, and when the poet awakes, a whippoorwill or a dinosaur, a cobra or a condor, is sitting in the room with them, and poets think it’s something that has landed here, not knowing that it is something that they themselves have given birth. The lyrics of a song can appear like that, or a passage in a novel, a film, a painting.
And that’s the poetry of poetry, really: following a path without really knowing why until you come upon something of value. Their love transforms what they’ve found into a poem, which is like another egg—sustenance contained inside a shell. Someday someone will be hungry, following his or her own mysterious path, and come upon your egg. And even if you’re long-dead, the living thing inside the shell comes to life again in a way you couldn’t have imagined, like Allen reading Reznikoff’s poetry to me as his apprentice. That’s how poets keep the world alive, even without knowing it.
|Randy Roark teaching photography to Maya in Lima, Peru, 2014|