February 2005

Adam Travis

features

An Interview with Bill Knott

I knew close to nothing about Bill Knott before we did this interview. The Unsubscriber is his first book in at least a decade, and articles on him are rare.* Yet he seems legendary. In the late sixties he came onto the scene with some fanfare and critical acclaim with a book published under the name Saint Geraud, supposedly a young man who had died two years prior. Eventually the critical acclaim passed (as critical acclaim always does), and until now Knott has had only occasional luck getting his work out with a big press. But he likes it that way. After we did this interview, Knott sent me a few inscribed books: one copy of The Unsubscriber (a beautiful hardcover from FSG, probably the best literary press in the country), and four homemade collections of new and old poems. Never have books of poetry pleased me so much as Knott’s four homemade volumes. Since he started writing in the sixties, Knott has consistently been one of the most interesting American poets. And still is.

Bill Knott answered a few of my questions about poetry, bad guys, and punk rock.

How is American poetry (as institution and art) different now from when you first came to it?

Different? I don't know. Is it just more of the same, numerically. More mags, more venues, more groups/theories. But are they simply exponentials of what was already there in 1960, when I started? Because the big change, assuming there was one, happened in post-war 1945-55: from Mod to PostMod, wasn’t it? Or was it Lowell's Life Studies in 1959? In any case, it was all over before I got there. Luckily.

How has institutionalized “creative writing” changed American literature?

Widened its base from the Ivy League bastions or bastards (to quote W.C. Williams, “There’re a lot of bastards out there!”) who still control it anyway. There’s no escape from their hegemony. But what is “American Literature”? Define it as: Works written in English by citizens of the United States. But what happens to AmerLit when, as demographic projections forecast, most USAs speak and write in Spanish? What happens when the Armada sails up the Thames and burns down the Globe and all its Folios? Lope de Shakespeare Vega.

What occupation, besides poetry, interests you most (i.e. music, business, cartography)?

Like a lot of poets, I fantasize about playwriting, the rehearsal-table, the stage-dust, and above all those endless rows of seats, which the audience (a lynch mob wearing haloes) enters with such exit-excitement.

If you could have grown up a poet of any other time and country, when and where?

I’d rather have been -- would rather be -- a contemporary British poet, because British poets have more freedom in the practice of their art than USA poets. Take one example, Carol Ann Duffy: she’s free to write any kind of poem she wants to, and she does, brilliantly. (She’s the best Brit since Larkin, another poet who proves my point.) But we USAs are bound, constrained to cultivate our own little specialties, to po-hoe our separate plots, each scratched-at piss-patch. What sign appears on every US-Po book? “NO TRESPASSING.” Or to use another metaphor, you buy a six-pack of Coke you don’t want the 4th can to contain Pepsi, you buy a Charles Wright you don’t want to find on page 24 an Olds-type attempt. Buy a Graham, you get Graham, not Levine. Brand names, all of which are carefully quality-controlled by market forces. But somehow the grass is greener in England. They do it better, it seems to me. There the poets aren't locked into straitjacket trademark styles and roles. Think of poor Louise Gluck: imagine her even adumbrating some of Duffy’s different modes. Gluck is stuck. All us USApos are.

What poet, in all history, do you most admire?

Well, any poet who succeeds is admirable. James Tate is admirable: the most naturally gifted poet of my generation, the one of us with the greatest innate genius. What’s most admirable is how he worked harder than anyone to develop those endowments: how his efforts grew until he stands now as the most influential poet of our day, deserving of a Nobel at least. But historically, in all history? One poet? So many were destroyed by history: Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, the list is endless. Any poet whose work survives the cataclysms. Both Brecht and his bete-noire alter ego, Benn. And how can one not admire Plath? If I had to choose one, one only, it would be Plath.

Does contemporary American poetry matter?

It matters to poets, and they're the only ones who matter. But matter itself may be the perpetual question: as Andre Breton always insisted on Surrealism's being a materialist philosophy, insisted on its refutation of the idealist charms of Symbolism. Surrealism in turn caused Paul Valery to declare, "Everything changes except the avant-garde." Change, the transformation of matter, Fermi, Hiroshima, Samuel Johnson kicking a rock to refute Bishop Berkeley, the "dirty bomb,” the "suitcase nuke,” it's all too believable, too real. It matters till nothing does.

Many poets today are just as occupied being critics as they are with the art itself. What, in your opinion, has writing criticism got to do with writing poetry?

It's obviously been for many great poets (from Horace to Basho to Coleridge to Eliot et al) an important part of their engagement with the art.

Do you enjoy poetry readings?

I have on occasion. I prefer to read the poems on the page while listening to the poet.

Do you read mostly novels, poetry, or periodicals?

Mostly poetry, often the same books, the same poems, over and over. Also this past year a lot of plays because I’m trying to write them (I’ve done two, and three others are in process).

Do you read any internet journals / magazines / weblogs?

Yes, usually. I look at Poetry Daily, and a website called The Page.

What book(s) are you reading right now?

A biography of Patricia Highsmith; Tom Paulin's new book of verse translations; Clara S., a play by Elfriede Jelinek. Etc.

Who is the worst “bad guy” in all history?

Guys plural: males: the Y chromosome. God. And all His clones.

Who is the worst “bad guy” in all poetry?

Me. (Huh!)

What is your least favorite poem of the 20th century?

You mean my least favorite well-known poem... it has to be "Briggflatts" [by Basil Bunting] which is so bad it could have been written in collaboration by the two worst poets alive, J. H. Prynne and Jane Hirshfield. (The basilisk and the bunter.)

Does rock music interest you at all? If so, what kinds, bands, etc? If not, what music do you listen to?

I don't like music; I try to listen to as little of it as possible. Anybody who reads poetry can see the ubiquitous self-doubts poets evince regarding the validity/value of their art. Compare that to the eternally smug self-satisfied attitudes exhibited by the advocates and practitioners of music. They take it for granted that music is the highest art, the universal art, the only art that transcends all borders and babels. They never question that given assumption. The arrogance of composers and musicians is insufferable. They really believe Pater's dictum that all the other arts are inferior, that all the other arts "aspire towards the condition of music." But every military that ever marched out to murder rape and destroy was led by what art: were those armies fronted by poets extemporizing verse -- by sculptors squeezing clay -- by painters wielding brushes -- actors posing soliloquies? No, the art that led those killers forth, the art whose urgent strident rhythms stirred and spurred their corresponding bloodlust, was the art to which they felt closest, the art that mirrored their evil egos. That's why they have always put music up there at the vanguard of their war-ranks, because not only is it the emblem, the fore-thrust insignia of their purpose, it is their purpose: it is the condition to which they aspire.

Why in 1965, did you publish a book under the name “Saint Geraud”?

It was 1968, and the answer is: Pretentiousness. Stupidity. I justified it to myself at the time by noting that two of my then-favorites (Eluard and Neruda, neither of whom mean much to me now) were pen-named poets. I wanted to emulate them.

What (if anything at all) do tricks, hoaxes, and games have to do with your work?

Nothing. Nothing I'm aware of. If I knew the ways I delude myself, then I wouldn't be self-deluded, theoretically. The fraud I am is evident to everyone but me.

What, in your opinion, is the greatest literary hoax of all time? (interpret “hoax” any way you want.)

I've never been interested enough in them to have an opinion; I haven't read the articles and books. They’re a waste of time, seems to me.

What language has had the greatest influence on your work?

English. I don't know any others.

Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?

I've read some of the former, but none of the latter.

Pound or Eliot?

Eliot.

What, in your work, matters more: sound or meaning?

Paul Valery said that poetry is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. But the argument (the hesitation) goes to the question of intent, or to use the term preferred by Octavio Paz, temptation. We oscillate (according to Paz) between the "religious temptation" and the "revolutionary temptation." If the poem is an autotelic entity, an end-in-itself, then sound is more important. But if it is (if it should try to be) a medium to convey philosophical/spiritual/intellectual/political truths, then obviously meaning is the foremost duty of the poet. It's Benn vs. Brecht. Oh, you got your Heaney who can do both, can reconcile the conflicting polar pulls, can wrestle those welter-threads through his Gordian eyelets and present us with a triumphant "harvest bow." Not me: compared to him, I'm knotless.

For how long did you work on The Unsubscriber?

It's a selection from 2 or 3 book-length manuscripts, from a 10 to12 year period during which those 2 or 3 books were rejected by dozens of publishers. I can provide a list if you’d like.

If anything at all, what does the title of the book mean to you?

My original title was Similar Views, which came from this exchange in Wodehouse (which I've somewhat shortened):
‘ “It is my temperament,” said the poet. “I dislike all dead things. . . . Give me life and joy and beauty.”
“Many sensitive souls in your line of business hold similar views,” Mr. Mulliner assured him.’
(from: The Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court).
(—But SV lacks the hyperbole a title needs; doesn't it?)

How does it feel to have The Unsubscriber brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux?

Many sensitive souls in my line of business hold similar views: we actually prefer to work in low-budget independent films -- that's where the challenging roles are, that's where one can really grow as an artist, and that's why we're always appearing in big-studio blockbusters. But honest I TRIED to get Pitt and Iowa and Rat Vomit Review and Dan Halpern's National Poetry Series and all those other places to publish my book. I entered all their annual contests, or all the ones I could afford. But after their rejections, there was no recourse. I had to lower my hopes and eat crow. None of them would publish it, so I was forced to go with FSG.

* I owe almost everything I know to Meghan O’Rourke’s article on Knott in this month’s (February ’05) issue of Poetry.