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