An Interview with Clayton Eshleman
The year 2008 saw many massive tomes with Clayton Eshleman's name emblazoned on the front. First there was The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo, a culmination of 48 years of translating the Peruvian poet. A few months after saw the publication of The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader, which spans his entire writing career. Wesleyan University Press also brought Eshleman's meditation on Upper Paleolithic art Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld back with a second printing the same year.
With such a hectic production schedule, Eshleman nonetheless found time to talk to Bookslut, inviting me to hop on a train for the quick trip from Chicago to Ann Arbor. I met him in his Ypsilanti home and was received warmly, and we settled in for a chat. The transcript of the conversation was later altered by a series of e-mails, expanding and clarifying a few areas, and also rescuing the part of the conversation lost when I forgot to turn the microcassette over. What follows is a collage of those conversations.
We talked in an e-mail about the César Vallejo publisher, University of California Press, and about FSG. I don’t know if you want any of that on record, but I’m interested, since FSG publishes so many of these definitive collected books of 20th century poets, why they expressed no interest in the Vallejo.
I had had a manuscript of my own poetry rejected by Jonathan Galassi in the 1980s. When I tried to approach him the Vallejo proposal, I was shunted off to his assistant, Paul Elie, who said he would look into it, and then never got back to me. I suspect that if the translator had been Mark Strand they would’ve said “Whoopee, let’s go.” They’ve done a huge collected Neruda edited by Ilan Stavans that’s not such a good job.
What didn’t you like about the Neruda?
The book has no central tonal personality in English. Stavans used nearly forty translators, many of whom are not first rate. He also failed to include any work from Neruda’s longest and most controversial poem, “The Grapes and the Wind,” published in 1954 and awarded the first Stalin Prize for Peace. It is a grotesque revelation of Neruda’s Stalinist affiliations and any thorough anthology of his work should include some of it. This is the Neruda who was involved in getting the people who tried to kill Trotsky out of Mexico.
I’m very happy with the University of California Press’s production and marketing of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo, I had three proofreaders. At Wesleyan for Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, I had no proofreaders. The proofs were completely handled by Caryl and me, and we made about 50 to 60 errors. There is now a new edition of the book and it is hopefully error-free.
That’s strange, not to have proofreaders.
It’s a tiny office. Four people, as I recall.
I was reading the “Translation Memoir” in the back of the Vallejo, and I was struck by the conversation you had about which poems were untranslatable. Do you believe that some works just cannot be translated into another language?
Your readers should know that it was the Vallejo widow who asserted, while doing a translation of Vallejo’s poems into French, that certain of his poems were not translatable. There are some that are very, very difficult to get right, but all in all I think his poetry is translatable. However, I think there are books for which you can make an honorable case for untranslatability. For example, Finnegans Wake, which I am sure has been translated in some form or other. But I think there are so many linguistic problems with Finnegans Wake that a reasonable case can be made for its untranslatability.
Then there’s the French writer, Pierre Guyotat, who is the last person to my knowledge to have his work banned in France for obscenity. His novel, Tomb For 500,000 Soldiers, I am told, is so packed with slang handled in “stream of consciousness” writing, that the book is simply awful to translate.
W S Merwin once told me many, many years ago, “Trilce is untranslatable.” Of course, that was one of the great provocations to finally translate it.
When did you start studying Spanish?
I was a student at Indiana University from 1953 to 1961. Around 1958, I took a course in 20th century American poetry with Professor Samuel Yellen and, at the same time, met Jack Hirschman and Mary Ellen Solt. Jack was a graduate student at the time, reading poetry in translation as well as contemporary American poetry, and he introduced me to Rilke, Mayakofsky, St.-John Perse, Lorca and many others. It was as if I pulled on a rope and all these books fell out of the ceiling. A painter friend, Bill Paden, gave me an anthology published by New Directions in 1944 called 20th Century Latin American Poetry. I don’t think it’s ever been reprinted. It’s a pretty good job for the time. It had 75 poets from different Latin American countries. I picked out Vallejo and Neruda as the most interesting poets in this collection. Then I found out there was a translation of Neruda’s Residencia en la Tierra by a man named Angel Flores. I bought it, and I was struck by the fact that the translations were so different from the ones in the New Directions. So I bought a bilingual Spanish-English dictionary…
Always the best way to translate something.
…and sat down and started checking out the translations. I had never studied Spanish up to that point. I’m not sure what exactly led to the trip to Mexico, but within six months I was hitchhiking to Mexico. And began to try to speak Spanish there. After I graduated with a Masters Degree in 1961, I took a job with the University of Maryland teaching military personnel in their Far Eastern division. By the time I went to Japan I had a sketchy, maybe newspaper-level reading ability in Spanish. All self-taught. And of course in no way up to translating Vallejo, but I took a Vallejo anthology with me to Japan and at one point, as I mention in the “Translation Memoir,” I decided I would try to read Poemas Humanos. I was seduced and overwhelmed and quickly decided that I would create an apprenticeship to poetry by translating all the poems in that book. I felt that I would learn something about poetry by doing that that I would not learn by staying with English language poetry. Vallejo had something to teach me that I could not find in Williams or Pound. That was the beginning of this 48 year Vallejo translation saga. There have been lots of gaps in translating his poetry. I figure I’ve probably spent full time maybe 12 years on Vallejo since the late ‘50s to 2005. He’s become my great companion in poetry.
Was it strange, working on a Spanish language translation while living in Japan?
Oh yeah. I had a hard time getting dictionaries. I was always trying to buttonhole Spanish speakers who came through Kyoto. I had these word lists, and a friend of a friend would show up and I’d say, “I have some questions to ask you.” However, unless you’re working with people who are careful readers and honest, in the case of someone like Vallejo you get misled more than you get helped. When people are unsure of what something means, they don’t want to say that they don’t know because hey, they’re the Spanish speaker, so they make something up. In the early years I spent a lot of time dealing with false leads.You’ve done other translation projects, like…
I’ve been translating off and on all my writing life. I worked on Aimé Césaire from 1977 off and on up until 1990. Annette Smith and I co-translated a Collected Poetry of Césaire that the University of California Press published in 1983. We did another collection of early and later Césaire poetry that the University of Virginia Press brought out in 1990. There are about 120 pages left to translate for a “Complete Poetry.” I’d like to finish that. And Artaud, I worked on Artaud for many years. Exact Change published my translation of several hundred pages of Artaud post-Rodez poetry and prose in 1995. Watchfiends & Rack Screams it is called. I also translated a book by a French poet and collagist named Bernard Bador. That was a commissioned work and it came out in English as Sea Urchin Harakiri in 1986. And I did a Selected Poems of Michel Deguy called Given Giving. Caryl and I had a Soros Travel Grant in 1986. We spent several months in Hungary, and I co-translated about 70 pages of contemporary poetry with Gyula Kodolanyi, our host in Budapest. We would work every afternoon for a few hours. Much of that appeared in Sulfur. And there is a long poem by the Czech Vladimir Holan, A Night with Hamlet, that I co-translated with Frantisek Galan and Michael Heim. That’s the main stuff. There is a fine selection of most of this material in The Grindstone of Rapport / A Clayton Eshleman Reader, recently published by Black Widow Press.Do you speak Hungarian at all?
No. [Laughs]. If you have a feel for translation and are constantly translating, and if you work with the right person, you can do very good work without knowing the language. It may sound sort of crazy to say that, but I think it’s true. In Holan’s case, there was an adequate French translation of A Night with Hamlet. So I could read that while I was working with Frantisek and Michael and know pretty much where we were.
Does it just become obvious when you’re reading somebody that you want to be active in a translation of them? How do you choose who you want to spend that much intensive time with?
In the case of the Hungarian and Czech projects, I just fell into them by accident. Here I was in Budapest with not a lot to do every day, and it made sense to sit down and translate with Gyula for a few hours. With the Holan, I read a Selected Poems of his in an English edition and thought, “Boy, this guy is really interesting.” There were a few pages from “A Night with Hamlet,” and I intuited that the English translation was not up to the power of the original. So I began to look around for someone to co-translate it with. I was introduced to Frantisek Galan, a Czech cinema scholar at the University of Texas/Austin, and made several trips there to work with him. We had a good third draft of the poem at one point, but it had a dozen problems that the two of us could not solve, even though Frantisek’s English was excellent. I asked the great Slavic translator Michael Heim if he would help us out, and he flew with me to Austin for a week, and sat between me and Frantisek, our “go-between.” At the end of the week, he blessed our work and told us we had a publishable “Hamlet.”
In the case of Vallejo, Césaire, and Artaud, I determined that I would learn something about poetry that I would not learn elsewhere if I spent time translating or co-translating them, and that I would be able to steal some fire for my own work. Not directly, of course, but via association. That becomes the trade-off: to do versions that were rigorously accurate. In exchange I was psychically working on myself, thinking into, and around, poetry, while translating. I have noticed that I often have very vivid dreams while involved with a translation project, especially in the case of Artaud. Extraordinary. Often I have kept notebooks to write down stuff that occurs to me while translating because I don’t want to let that stuff get into the translation and turn it into a pseudo-Clayton poem. There is a psychic reward from doing translations that test you. I’ve never translated anything that really didn’t interest me. While I don’t think I would have chosen to translate Bernard Bador on my own, I am glad that Bernard involved me in that project. I laughed more translating Bernard with him then during any other project in my life. We became very good friends and I’m pleased with the results of our work.
Do you want to read a Vallejo and talk a little about it?
Is there a poem you’d like me to read?
I always like The Black Heralds.
“The Black Heralds” is the first poem in the book with that title. It’s a very commanding, I think it’s one of the better pieces in the collection.
"The Black Heralds"
There are blows in life, so powerful… I don’t know!
Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,
the undertow of everything suffered
welled up in the soul… I don’t know!
They are few; but they are… They open dark trenches
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attilas;
or the black heralds sent to us by Death.
They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some adored faith blasphemed by Destiny.
Those bloodstained blows are the crackling of
bread burning up at the oven door.
And man… Poor… poor! He turns his eyes, as
when a slap on the shoulder summons us;
turns his crazed eyes, and everything lived
wells up, like a pool of guilt, in his look.
There are blows in life, so powerful… I don’t know!
Efrain Kristal, who wrote the Introduction to The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo makes an interesting comment about the poem. He says, concerning the first line, the full pathos is not in the words that can be recited, but in the silence of the ellipsis between “so powerful” and “I don’t know!” “One feels the breath knocked out of the poetic voice, or at least the poet’s inability to finish the sentence expressing the impotence of the suffering of humanity. This is a world in which love is miserable, and no God can save or console.” It took a lot of nerve and boldness on Vallejo’s part not to finish that sentence. There’s something in the rational mind that wants to finish the sentence, and instead of doing that he breaks off and says, “I don’t know how to respond to this.” What might have been considered by Vallejo as a quandary became a commanding indirect destiny.
I think you can probably hear the quatrains, so in that sense the translation doesn’t drift into free verse. As you must know, there are quite a few American poets who write sonnets that don’t rhyme. There’s a famous book by Ted Berrigan called The Sonnets that are full of lifts from other poets. It seems to me that a sonnet is a little machine of rhythm and sound. Twelve- to 14-line poems in free verse do not, in my opinion, qualify as sonnets. If you spent a day looking into it, you could come up with a dozen American poets who write this kind of free verse and call it “sonnets.”
I really enjoyed the conversation in Grindstone you had with James Hillman about poetry and psychology, about Jung’s two different ideas of art.
Yes, that was a lot of fun. He was in Dallas when we did that. That interview is much longer, but we lost about an hour when something happened to his recorder. I edited what we did get for Sulfur and decided to keep it at that. He’s a smart, very informed man. I came upon his work through Robert Duncan and Robert Kelly, both of whom were reading him in the early 1970s. Of all his books, The Dream and the Underworld has been the most useful to me, because it got me thinking about the Underworld as part of my quest to engage the back wall of imagination via Upper Paleolithic cave paintings in southwestern France. I had started the project thinking some of the animals on the wall must have been involved in hunting magic; they painted the animals because they wanted the animals to appear so they could kill it. I began to realize as I was reading Hillman that by looking at it that way I was failing to confront the psychic world that was involved in making a move from no image of the world to an image. It was primarily a psychic or a dream conversion, for one reason because there are no hunting scenes in Upper Paleolithic art. Hillman’s book addresses the European underworld. His back wall is Greek. He’s never engaged in writing the Upper Paleolithic, which I think is curious. At one point I invited him to go as guest lecturer on the cave tour my wife Caryl and I have led yearly for the past two decades. Gary Snyder came one year, as did Robert Creeley, his last long trip before he died. Wade Davis accompanied us in 2007.
When did you first encounter the paintings?
In the spring of 1974.
Were they something you had studied before, or were you just traveling?
When I was a student at Indiana University, I bought for some reason Annette Laming-Emperaire’s Lascaux, Paintings and Engravings, just after its publication in 1959. I looked at it but didn’t read it. Caryl and I went to France in the fall of '73 and lived in Paris for a year. One of the people we had dinner with there was Helen Lane, a well known translator of 20th century Spanish fiction. She was living in the Dordogne. At one point during our meal she said, “Well, are you going to come to southwestern France?” I said no, we’ll probably go back to the States. She said, “You will not have seen France if you don’t come to the Dordogne.” She made a commanding case, and we decided, why not?
We rented sight unseen a furnished apartment in a farmhouse for four months and bought a tiny used French sports car. We were out in the country in the Dordogne, about five miles away from the epicenter of French Upper Paleolithic archeology. There was nothing to do in the Dordogne then, no movie houses. The caves were the whole show. Helen lived in our compound and had a cave book library, so we started reading and visiting the caves. It turned out that in the basement of our house the secretary of H. L. Movius, Jr., was living. Movius was an archaeologist from Harvard, who had been excavating a living site in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, a few miles away from us, for many years. She said that via Movius she could arrange for us to visit the cave of Lascaux, which had been closed to the public since 1963.
Lascaux, as they say, blew my mind, at that time I was beginning to realize that all the writing on this paleo-archeology was done by fairly conservative archaeologists. One non-archeologist, the writer Georges Bataille had done a book on Lascaux, in the early 1950s, which is not bad and has beautiful photographs. Other than Bataille, the Upper Paleolithic commentary on the origin of art via these caves was restricted to academics, so I thought, gee, how interesting it would be to do, in Charles Olson’s words, a “saturation job” on Upper Paleolithic imagination. Thus I began to read about the caves in French and English and to figure out how to get back to France to visit more caves. I realized that I was taking on a realm that was boundless and primary in ways that redefined those words -- or made them meaningless even.
I had not been a very reflective only child. Much of my life had been semi-consciously buried until I started writing poetry in 1958. And then I wrote about myself. Not in the Lowellian sense, but in a way that attempted to look at my present life while I excavated my past life, attempting to make uncommon sense out of my relationship to my parents and Indiana, a place I find very… [shrugs]. I mention this here because when I started to research the caves, suddenly I was facing a totally transpersonal matrix, no alphabet, no historical context. Nothing but what was on a wall or a piece of bone. And I immediately recognized that at one end of the Upper Paleolithic spectrum was crude gouges and, to us, meaningless lines, while at the other end (if such “end” distinctions made any sense here) was work of a sophistication that was as extraordinary as anything by Picasso!
Before I turned on the tape recorder , we were talking about this painting hanging over my head right now, and your writing about it -- Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. What made you start such a large writing project about this painting?
In 1979 I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid and spent half an hour before Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. For the past fifteen years, I have had a framed reproduction of the painting on my workroom wall. I have found it impossible to take in while looking at it on the wall, so it has hung there, a steely challenge. Over the years, I have collected books and articles on Bosch, waiting for the right time to engage his masterpiece. In 2003, I proposed a one month "Bosch project" for a residency at the Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy. My idea was to spend two months going through my materials and then, while at the Study Center, to write into The Garden of Earthly Delights. My residency proposal was accepted, and my wife Caryl and I left for the Center on October 18, 2004.
Once there, I tacked up a reproduction about one-third the size of the nine by seven foot original on the wall of our room. I looked at it five or six hours a day and took over a hundred pages of notes on it. After a couple weeks, I hit the Bosch "wall" that I imagine all serious viewers of the triptych experience: there is no core meaning to uncover. Over the next three years I worked my notes up into at first a seventy-five page poem, and finally into a fifty-five page one, including around thirty-five pages of poetry and twenty pages of short essays. In the final draft, Bosch himself made two brief appearances and spoke to me.
John Tranter is now in the process of producing the poem, with some details of Bosch's triptych, on his online magazine, Jacket #36. I think the poem will be viewable by Christmas. It is called "Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe."
I was reading Ron Silliman’s blog post about The Grindstone of Rapport, and he talked a lot about your essay for students…
“Advice to a Poetry Workshop”
Did you teach English, or writing workshops?
I was hired by Eastern Michigan University in 1986 as a Professor in the English Department. The university is a ten minute walk from here. For 17 years, every semester, I would teach one Literature 101: Introduction to Poetry, with 40 students, along with creative writing workshops in poetry, either on a junior, senior or graduate student level. At first, it was very hard going, especially in the workshops, as Eastern is not a literary-oriented school. I had to accept all students, up to 25, in the junior level poetry workshop regardless of talent. Most took it just out of curiosity, or as an easy elective (someone having told them that “creative writing” was easier than Shakespeare). Most of the students had not read poetry beyond an introductory level and almost none of them were in any way familiar with contemporary American poetry. And here they were, trying to write poetry.
For the first five to six years teaching these workshops was like pulling teeth. What they brought into class was so inept that if I was honest the atmosphere became so morbid none of us could stand it. I realized that I had to figure out some way to enable them to write something worth discussing. I realized that if I walked them through a simple poem by an authentic poet, that they might be able to do an imitation of it that we could discuss relative to the model, and to the other imitations. Short poems by William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder and D.H. Lawrence worked pretty well. As the semester went along, I constantly tried to help the students make a connection between reading a poem and writing one. While many of their attempts were flat-footed, occasionally someone turned in a wonderful imitation. One student, a part-time butcher at Whole Foods market, did a fantastic job on D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake.” I began each workshop with William Carlos Williams’s little poem, “Nantucket,” which is a description of a hotel room, with subtle psychological implications. I would go through the poem, word by word, and then ask the students to take it home, tack it up over their work area, and use it to work with a room they would invent or observe. My best students were young painters, many of whom had a sensual feel for words and were more open than other students to their own life experiences.
In the long run, the most difficult poetry workshops to teach were the ones on a graduate level. I would always have a handful of students in such classes that thought they knew a lot more than they actually did. One class was very bizarre: one woman insisted on writing extremely sexual poems -- some would call them pornographic -- with lines like “Fuck me until I bleed!” I didn’t censor her, and attempted to respond to such work in the same way that I responded to poems by the other students. At the end of the semester, the Chair called me in, and said that he had received four extremely negative letters from both men and women in that class, enraged that I had not stopped the student from writing as she did about sexuality. I then realized why these four students had fallen silent about half way through the semester.
I was very glad to retire in 2003.
I think it’s a wonderful idea for writers to be in universities, but I think they should teach literature. And that students who are writing poetry or fiction should spend all their class time reading literature, and take a special class with a writer in which they would go in to his or her office once a month and spend several hours going over their writing. I don’t think the students learn much from each other. Too much of a poetry workshop, in my experience, is taken up with psychological shadow-boxing.
It does seem like the writing workshop and the MFA is becoming an industry within publishing, it’s almost like people think it’s a prerequisite to writing.
People are now becoming writers for one reason: because they believe an MFA degree will result in a university job. For those who get books published and can build a dossier with letters from well-known writers, I suppose this works out. Of course there are a lot of MFA degreed “writers” driving taxis and working in bookstores. I have not had much direct experience with this system since the university in which I taught for 17 years did not have an MFA program and most of the graduate students in the English Department were doing old-fashioned Masters Degrees. When I discovered poetry and began to try to write it in the late 1950s it seemed to me that the people who wrote poetry were obsessed with it and driven to write it, and were not preoccupied with any kind of ultimate commercial use of it beyond getting books published. The only writing program, as such, at that time, I think, was at University of Iowa.
The question arises as to what kind of effect the university writing degree programs have had on American poetry. They have certainly created many more people who call themselves poets than did in the 1950s, a ten-fold increase I would guess. But my hunch is there are no more major white male figures now than in 1959. There are certainly more major women and black figures now than in 1959 -- for sociological reasons. And the Establishment itself pretty much remains the same. There are always a handful of poets who write intelligent, entertaining verse that is as easy to read as mainstream fiction and does not confront or upset readers. Generation after generation, such writers get most of the review and award attention. There are of course exceptions to this: for example, Gary Snyder and Adrienne Rich are both accessible and very substantial writers and both of them have a real following. But the poet Robert Kelly, who is just as substantial as Snyder and Rich, is hardly reviewed, mainly, I think, because his work is very demanding and almost impossible to summarize.
I went to three of the year AWP conferences in 2002, 2003, and 2004. I enjoyed the first one in New Orleans (probably because I was invited to read at a half-dozen universities the following year). Over the next two years I lost most of my interest in attending them. I found that I was only wanted to attend, literally, two or three of some two hundred panels and none of the keynote presentations. It was fun to sit at the Wesleyan table and occasionally sign one of my books for someone but the overall atmosphere was deadening. It is at these AWP conferences that the “po-biz” dimension of American poetry today gets through to you.
Do you think the programs make poets better writers?
No. I think a poet has to educate himself, or as Artaud put it, has to initiate himself off himself. He has to discover those poets from whom he can learn primary things about the art of poetry and he has to figure out the few poets in his generation that he wants to be in touch with, his “generation,” so to speak. And what to read. Given the fact that it is not possible to read more than a tiny fraction of what has been written and published, in my own case I decided, while still a student, that I did not have time for entertainment reading (travel, crime, humor etc) nor did I have time for fiction. Well, I have to qualify the last: I have read Lawrence, Kafka, Miller, and a few other major 20th century figures, but that is about it. I have never read a novel by Mailer, Vidal, or Roth, for example. All of my non-poetry reading has been in depth psychology, archeology, and art -- areas that I have assimilated and mined for poetry. None of the poets that today mean the most to me were even mentioned in the literature classes at Indiana University -- possibly Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are exceptions here. And as I mentioned earlier, Jack Hirschman introduced me to 20th century European poetry and my painter friend Bill Paden gave me the New Directions anthology in which I discovered Neruda and Vallejo. Had I depended on the Indiana University English Department for sources I would be a lost soul today.
Some years ago, a graduate student in the University of Michigan MFA program called me up. He had discovered one of my Black Sparrow Press books in an Ann Arbor bookstore, liked what he read in it and found that I was living 6 miles away, in Ypsilanti. So I invited him over. He had been in the Michigan program for two years. I quickly discovered he had never heard of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Jackson Mac Low, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, César Vallejo, Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, Paul Celan, or people like Kelly and Rothenberg in my generation. At a certain point, he was sitting in our living room, madly writing down names and increasingly upset that he had to come to Ypsilanti to hear about them!
Would you like to read something from The Grindstone of Rapport?
How about “Nightcrawlers”?
Last night it was not Ophelia but Nora Jaffe crawling the Milky Way, her cloud body shredding like Nancy Spero’s image of a mutilated Salvadoran woman crawling the dirt on which she had been assaulted – and I thought of Rigoberta Menchu’s mother crawling tethered to a tree, of Charles Olson describing himself as a “tireless Intichiuma eater & crawler of my own ground,” of Gary Snyder off the trail crawling “on the crunchy Manzanita leaf clover… around between the trunks” –
as I continued to dream and reflect, I saw all these crawlers, one below the other, moving in parallel rhythm, some agonized, some studiously inspecting – all seemed to be returning to their totem, their ototama or ototeman, to their animal brothers or sisters, this nearly-destroyed blood-covenant between the human and the animal –
our night crawl through Le Tuc d’Audoubert, past bear skulls and viper skeletons, to the sculpted bison 700 meters inside the cave, made a vulva-like loop, a coming turning going, with the mating animals as the center –
and then there is the story my Indian friend in Bloomington told me in 1960: how on his first night there, having come directly to Indiana from India, he walked past a house on which there was a sign: Nightcrawlers. He was touched by what he thought was the kindness of Americans: hotels for drunks that stayed open all night long –
there are now other kinds of nightcrawlers, big tough ones moving across darkened Michigan firing ranges, toward targets of silhouette men, the heart areas blown out. Upright around their smoking barbecues, my fellow Americans are singing, “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life!”
That piece was written in 1995. It began with the parallel crawlers of the first stanza. I became aware one day that I had all these unrelated images of crawlers in mind, and I thought gee, what would happen if I just wrote all these down? I wrote down the first stanza and then began to ask myself: do these people have anything in common? The image of the animal, or crawling back into the context of which the animal was part of action or presence, of course, in my case, evoked the Upper Paleolithic. Then I remembered that drole little story that I was told by an Indian graduate student at Indiana University in 1960. The final image came from having heard about evangelical rock… they have bands and songs and concerts, with wild, unbelievable lyrics. I turned one of the lines I heard into the last line of the poem.
It’s a very memorable line. I noticed you only have a small section called “The Early Poems,” and it covers a lot of years.
I wanted to include in an opening section some poems that presented the kind of life and background problems and sightings that by being worked through gave me a kind of base as a young poet. The rant against my father would be hard for me to read today because it’s so different from the way I write now. It’s a piece I continue to be proud of because by writing it I not only released myself from what I would call “the parent power,” but from a good deal of the self-censorship that can plague imagination. “The Dragon Rat Tail” is a meditation on the flurries of Hydra-headed mental blockades that sprung into being when I would sit down in Kyoto, in 1963 and 1964 and try to work on a poem. While I was a student at Indiana University and starting to try to write poetry I assumed that I had found my life path. I was going to become a poet. As a student I got some satisfaction out of writing superficial, clever poems. Once I was in Kyoto, out on my own, studying and translating Vallejo, reading Origin magazine and seeing Cid Corman one night a week in The Muse coffeeshop downtown, my life began to crash in on me. I suddenly found myself utterly disorganized, not knowing how to be myself in language, really, at my wit’s end. It is very compelling to me today that I went through this in Kyoto which I experienced at once as utterly strange and very human. Even though I was married to my first wife there, and in touch with people like Corman and Gary Snyder, I was alone like I had never been before or after. I would sit cross-legged on the tatami, before the short-legged desk with my typewriter and stare at a blank page in it for hours. One of the reasons I worked so much on the Vallejo was because I didn’t know how to proceed in my own writing. Gary told me I was spending too much time on Vallejo and not enough on Eshleman. At least with Vallejo I was doing something! The one poem that I did complete to some satisfaction and am still quite proud of is “The Book of Yorunomado.” It is the first poem in The Grindstone of Rapport, and the last poem in that collection, “The Tjurunga,” is a summation piece that ties together, into a kind of navigational code, those figures and forces that during those two years in Kyoto I wrestled soul out of.
As for the “Ode to Reich” in that first section: Wilhelm Reich was very important to me in the late 1960s. I completed Reichian therapy with Dr. Sidney Handelman in a year and a half while living in New York City and doing so has made a significant difference in my life. While I was in therapy I read eight or nine of Reich’s books. Reading The Function of the Orgasm was an extraordinary experience.
How long were you in Kyoto?
Two and a half years. Gary Snyder came through Tokyo in the fall of 1961 on his way to meet Allen Ginsberg in India, and stayed with us for a couple of days. He saw how unhappy I was teaching literature and composition to U.S. military personnel for the University of Maryland’s Overseas Division, and said, “You don’t have to live this way, you can come to Kyoto and make a living teaching English as a second language. All the Japanese want to learn English now!” Gary was right, as the Japanese had recently discovered that their Japanese English instructors could not pronounce English and that therefore they were not learning how to speak. They were desperate for Americans and English to speak with. Walking downtown in Kyoto, students would often come up to you and beg you to have a cup of coffee or a beer with them so they could practice a little of their (usually miserable) English. My first wife Barbara and I both taught English as a second language for about two and a half years. I made around $9 an hour (a very good salary in Japan in the early 1960s) teaching three late afternoons a week at the Matsushita Corporation between Kyoto and Osaka. We lived in two Japanese houses while in Kyoto, moving to the Ibuki home after the first year because it was $15 a month compared to $25 at the Okumura home. I had a motorcycle, which Gary taught me how to ride. And for about a year and a half I studied judo in a neighborhood dojo (which at one point Gary joined). No one spoke English at the dojo. I’m sure I was their first foreign student. At my first workout, the sensei had me stand at the edge of the mat and communicated to me that I was to fall flat on my face without catching myself. I quickly got the message that it was do this or leave. So I did it. The largest foreign population I had any contact with in Kyoto in those days consisted of Australian potters. Pottery is a major art in Japan. They have pottery museums in the way we have fine arts museums.
You mentioned earlier that you’d be releasing a book a year with Black Widow press, the publisher for Grindstone. How did your relationship come about?
Black Sparrow Press ended in 2000. A book of mine, and several others, were scheduled for publication in 2002. As many people know, John Martin sold Bukowski and Fante to Ecco Press, and sent 85,000 books to David Godine, as a way of offering him some book income for hopefully taking some of the rest of us on. There was no contract that I know of with Godine. Godine hired Chris Carduff to handle the new Black Sparrow/Godine authors, and the Black Sparrow Press books scheduled for 2002 did come out in 2004, including my book, My Devotion. However, these books to my knowledge were hardly publicized and very few review copies were sent out. I sensed that, as they say, the writing was on the wall, and started looking around for a new publisher.
An old friend Mark Polizzotti, a translator and biographer of André Breton, mentioned that a new press had started up in Boston, reprinting some of Mary Ann Caws' translations of French Surrealist poets. Mark thought this press, Black Widow, might be interested in my work. So I sent the manuscript for An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire to Joe Phillips there, and he accepted it a week later. Jeff Clark designed the book, and it was published in 2006, and then followed by a collection of interviews, essays, and prose poems, Archaic Design, in 2007. And as you know, The Grindstone of Rapport, in
2008. Joe has been great to work with and I feel lucky, in my 70s, to have connected with a fine new alternative press.