INTERVIEW WITH POET RON SILLIMAN ON LINGUAL POETRY
You attended San Francisco State University. What are your experiences with San Francisco Renaissance?
A Berkeley Renaissance did exist in the very late 1940s and early 1950s, centered around Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, but also including Mary Fabilli, Landis Everson, Philip K Dick, Rod McKuen and some others. But the term got imported and translated into San Francisco Renaissance as something of a joke, I think, as well as a means of distinguishing those poets who predated the Beat scene of 1956-7. Jack Gilbert used to joke that the Beat revolution could never had occurred if Robert Duncan had not gone to Majorca during that exact moment, because he would not have allowed it, and Duncan himself certainly concurred. So for several years it meant “pre-Beat” and also to some degree anti-Beat as well. And yet Lawrence Ferlinghetti ends up fitting that pre-Beat definition quite well. But there had been a continuous poetry community dating back to the days of George Sterling and Ina Coolbrith in the 1920s. Kenneth Rexroth, who really was the poet who first made the important connection of San Francisco literary culture with Asian writing, arrived in San Francisco the same week that Sterling died, and the scene that was to become the so-called renaissance really were the writers who were his friends and peers. Kenneth Patchen, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), Madeline Gleason, ruth weiss, Tom Parkinson, and finally this wave of poets from Berkeley drawn by the presence of a scene, as well as by gay bars that had existed since the end of prohibition. By the time I first attended San Francisco State in 1966, the renaissance term had been loosened and broadened to include any non- or anti-academic poet in the San Francisco Area, so someone like Michael McClure — clearly a Beat poet — was always being called that.
Spicer died the year before that happened, and I never met him, although there is a description of a party at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in Spicer’s biography that indicates that he and I must have been in the same room once, although I did not know it at the time. I first learned of him at a memorial reading given the week of his birthday in 1966 at the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Berkeley (it may still have been called the Rambam at the time). Blaser read Book of Magazine Verse, which is still one of the ur-texts of my imagination, but he was already getting ready to move to Vancouver, which he did along with George Stanley and Stan Persky, other key members of the Spicer circle. Before Stanley moved up there I got to know him slightly through Gilbert (who had been a member of Spicer’s Magick Workshop at the San Francisco Public Library, as well as a protege both of Stephen Spender and Gerald Stern.
Duncan and I always had a complicated, somewhat difficult relationship. I am certain that he thought I was presumptuous, and I always felt that he distrusted straight men (albeit with some good reason), but we often had deep conversations, especially during the times when we would ride the old F bus from Berkeley to San Francisco. He was the person who insisted to Richard Baker-roshi that I should run a reading series at the Tassajara Bakery in the Haight, but he also wrote a letter that he read at several public occasions blasting me for suggesting that the arrest and potential trial of Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book
represented an important moment for civil libertarians because here was a text that fully deserved the protections of the US Constitution, but which could not be defended as good or great writing, which was the hedge that had always been played in other literature-as-pornography cases, from Ulysses
On the other hand, there were lots of those writers with whom I had very little interaction. My only conversation with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in my entire life was in Buffalo one day when I was palling around with Robert Creeley and Ferlinghetti also happened to be in town.
Let me also note that while I was at SF State, Spicer’s death was the tragedy that hung over everybody, and that George Stanley’s writing of that period was seen by a lot of those poets as on a par with — maybe even better than — Duncan’s. But folks like Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder were mostly not around (I saw Whalen read a few times but only met him once at McClure’s when we were performing a gagaku music session along with Michael Palmer and the composer Chris Gaynor (whose name I might have mispelled). Snyder and I corresponded a little when I was the editor of the Socialist Review, but the one time we talked in person was at Josephine Miles’ house near the Berkeley conference.
The only one I actually studied with was William Everson, a course on “creativity” that he team-taught with the dancer Anna Halprin and composer Charles Amirkhanian. I still use some of the things Everson said in his class whenever I am teaching.
Form is of interest only to the extent that it empowers liberation.
“Wild form” uses Jack Kerouac. What are your favorite predecessors among SF?
Kerouac was a brilliant, but brief flame and burned himself out very quickly with alcohol. As did Spicer, although Jack’s writing got stronger as it got worse, quite the opposite of Kerouac. Visions of Cody is the key to Kerouac’s work, a systematic reinvention of the novel (not unlike what Kathy Acker would do in the 1970s with her early novels). Spicer’s work from Heads of the Town Up to the Aether to the end of his life is utterly amazing.
Robert Duncan, from The Opening of the Field to Roots & Branches to Bending the Bow was the unquestioned master of poetry in San Francisco, and the other utterly essential figure for me was George Oppen, the Objectivist poet who lived the last decades of his life in the city he had been raised in. And, in this context, I should note also that Michael McClure was a fearless poet, and someone who can be read with great value for both how he uses science in his writing, and also his pacing of detail. Michael Palmer is the only poet I know of who comes anywhere close to that sense of pacing.
You worked as engaged lobbyist do you prefer to see poetry as active form?
The poets who have been important to me, from Pound, Williams, Zukofsky and Oppen to Duncan and many other of the New Americans all have always presumed poetry to be essentially political, in the most literal sense of being addressed to the Polis, the city, by which they mean readers-as-citizens. In this sense, William’s Spring and All and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric are completely agreed.
Could you say something on The Age of Huts [knowing it is produced in swivel years of Language poetry]
In Rousseau’s original model, The Age of Huts is the one that occurs between The Age of Innocence and the Age of Experience. The quartet of poems that begin the lifelong writing that is Ketjak occupy precisely that space in my own life, after the early poems, but before I had arrived at any sense of true maturity as a poet.
Who came up with name of language poets?
It was jointly created by Steve Abbott, an editor of Poetry Flash, and Alan Soldofsky, an academic poet who had been an undergraduate at Iowa City back when Robert Grenier, Bob Perelman, Ray DiPalma and Barrett Watten were all grad students there. Steve wanted to put together a special issue of his tabloid on our writing and Alan needed a name that he could use so that he dismiss us as decadent narcissists. Ironically, we share this feature of having been named from the outside by people with no particular sympathy for our work with such movements as the Beats and the Fauvist painters.
Why exactly language, is it [for] theoretical, or lingual value of poetry. is it break up with
lyrical or light poetry. was the language something new in that moment. (Have you thought that language could replace poetry, by putting language poetry to lyrical poetry
Language is to poetry what sound is to music or paint and light to painting. The original impulse was a materialist one born, I would argue, by our experience collectively coming of age during the Vietnam War. We felt that the illusions that made the American Exceptionalism that could “destroy villages in order to save them” during that conflict was no different, really, from the un-self-critical gush that accommodated far too much of the New American Poetry.
I never felt that even short, self-contained poems by so-called language poets were lyrical in that sense. I do not think of Rae Armantrout as a lyric poet and think it’s a fundamental misreading to take her work that way. It has so many layers of thought and analysis going into it.
I think that your fragments, inner structures, created poetry within the phrase, making lingual poetry possible, and [simply or just] creating lyrics in prose.
Is Universe extension of Alphabet?
The large frame of my project I call Ketjak, of which the first poem in The Age of Huts is just one part. But I think of each section — The Age of Huts, Tjanting, the Alphabet and Universe — as functioning rather like nested Russian dolls. Rather than going from beginning to end, for example as Pound’s numbered Cantos do, it proceeds from inside to outside, toward an ever-expanding arc. Universe in this sense is a verb, not a noun.
With which poets of Language you find most associated
There are too many to really spell this out. Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and David Bromige are all poets without whom my own poetry could not exist.
Have you best friend in Language? What particular work have you co-authored
I used to say that Rae Armantrout was the sister I never had until, at age 50, I suddenly discovered my sister Nancy Bryant. But she is the one with whom I communicate almost every single day. Not long ago, I had an assistant who spent the better part of a summer doing nothing but printing out and organizing some 5,000 emails we had traded over the past 15 or so years.
Engines, in The Alphabet, co-written with Rae, is the one work in my main project that is a collaboration with another.
In the American Tree you use in title : Language, Realism, Thought, why realism? Do you believe in realism in poetry?
Yes, I do. I very much am about reportage and documentation, in the sense, say, of a Charles Reznikoff, But also in the sense of Italian cinema after the Second World War.
Is that realism proactive?
And what is relation of thought to labels and super active society..?
Labels are boxes that can be useful for sorting, but they are only that. The specificity of the material world is not to be denied.
I would like to emphasize The New Sentence, Legend, What, Lit, Sunset Debris you wrote…
You have came up with the concept of new sentence.
Could you explain concept of sentence in poetry?
Historically, the defining feature of poetry has been the line, a unit that originally was predicated upon sound, specifically the recurrence of sound or rhyme. Stanzas did not really exist until poetry had a primary existence as a print phenomenon, but print rendered the use of rhyme literally unnecessary, suggesting an obsolescence of the line, which has been increasingly a nostalgic presence in the poem unless organized otherwise. Which is why the line in free verse shortened greatly during the 20th century, and why certain poets — Olson, Duncan, early Dorn, Blackburn — took it upon themselves to create a new, speech-based more complex line. Olson’s longest lines — which almost always take place at the beginning of his poems — are marvels of architecture. But even this is still predicated upon sound, which linguists from Saussure forward have insisted upon as arbitrary from one language to the next. Look at all the variants of a dog’s bark from language to language. But since Baudelaire first had his creative misreading of Arsene Houssaye, the sentence and all the other units of writing (as distinct from speech) have been available to writers. The prose poem is one of the three great poetic innovations of the 19th century — the others being dramatic monologue and free verse. It was my generation’s fortune to note that in English the uses of the prose poem had barely been explored by earlier US poets who had incorporated only one thread of what already was a rich tradition in France. It was as if the whole of French poetry extended from Max Jacob to Max Jacob, with no recognition that the likes of Perse, Ponge, Segalen, Butor or Roubaud ever existed.
Who has right to define verse. Verse is not the purpose, if not the concept, poetry
is purpose. Seeing predefined verse is just as seeing predefined poetry.
Poetry is not technically, or theoretically predefined. Poetry is not prejudice.
Poetry is manner of everything.
You are right, basically. Every community has the obligation — not only the right — to define what poetry can be for them. A poet who keeps her texts to herself in a notebook is every bit as legitimate as somebody who publishes in the New Yorker every year. Once a tradition sinks in roots, it seldom goes away. There are oral poetries specific to the US African-American community, but also to the fishing industry of Oregon and to the last remaining cowboys across the American west. It is much more interesting to examine what the functional terms and conditions of such poetry might be. Is identity an aesthetic, or can it be one? You bet!
Could you define yourself as poet of everything.
That is so global as to sound meaningless to me. More precisely, I try to find those things less often commented upon, the forgotten and unseen. I’ve joked that I’m the poet laureate of lint, of accumulations of dust behind the couch, but in fact I take that joke very seriously. We have just seen what can happen in an election when a large portion of the electorate has become invisible to the elites of the two coasts. I straddle those worlds, which gives me some advantages.
I believe that you created new lingual verse [or logical verse] in poetry
and by that created new kind of poetry, wide and non-formal
poetry of real lingual poem, lingual reality that is liable to poetry.
Reality [that] is not potent to poetry?
I am not sure what you are asking here. In an important sense, I have created nothing other than a number of lines (and paragraphs) of verse. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, so as to be part of something that could only have occurred at the community level. Nobody can take credit for language poetry, so-called, not even Robert Grenier. It was something that occurred in our midst, but it was the collectivity that proved defining.
Poetry is aesthetic style, aesthetic obligation, you agree?
I often think of poetry as philosophy in action, and as something that demands intense training in listening and reading the world.
“American Tree”, is one of the most important contemporary American
anthologies, on what idea and criteria you assorted?
I tried very much to focus on the community aspect of it all. The anthology focused upon three physical communities, in New York, the Bay Area (San Francisco and Berkeley, with a smidgen of Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz), and Washington, DC. I insisted that everybody needed to have appeared in three key publications of the community and not be previously associated with an established school of poetics. And I asked everyone who should be in it as well. There were poets — Larry Eigner, Robert Creeley, Bill Berkson to name three — who would have qualified had they not been identified thoroughly with different schools of poetry. And there three poets who did qualify whom I omitted for various reasons — Curtis Faville and David Gitin had both, at that time, stopped publishing altogether — and I mistook Abigail Child as a film-maker who wrote, which was an obvious (and no doubt sexist) mistake on my part. And I included one poet, Tom Beckett, who really did not fit the criteria because he was not in any of the three geographical communities and had no opportunity to partake of the important face-to-face interactions that most of the other poets took as vital. In a sense, Tom is there really to represent a broader possibility for that writing than could be contained in just three metropoles (already Michael Davidson and Rae Armantrout had moved to San Diego, for example). I have sometimes thought about poets who in those days took themselves very much to be critics of language poetry — Leslie Scalapino, Beverly Dahlen, Jerry Estrin, Joan Rettalack, for example — but who over the decades now seem quite thoroughly within a broader arc of it that would not have been plausible without their own contributions, critical as they were. But I can imagine Jerry Estrin howling at seeing himself characterized as a language poet in his own obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. So in that sense Tom Beckett serves as an important reminder or marking post in that collection — one that I caught a lot of heat for, but which I’ve never regretted.