Chad Faries and Brent Gohde, interviewers

CF: So since we’re in Milwaukee, where the First International Symposium on Ethnopoetics took place in 1975, at the Center for 20th Century Studies, I thought it appropriate to ask a couple of questions about ethnopoetics. Ethnopoetics has been defined as an attempt to define a primary human potential. Can you elaborate on that?

JR: It comes out of the notion that what we knew about poetry, what we knew about that and a number of other things, had been based, always, on a very partial experience of what existed on a global scale. The tradition of poetry as we knew it in the West was only a small and limited portion of poetry throughout the world. Even written poetry, when looked at on a global scale, represented only a portion of the poetry that ever had existed. Most poetry both in the past and present has been oral rather than written And often very different kinds of poetry from what prevailed with us. It was with understandings like that, assumptions like that, that some of us pulled together to begin to consider what I then named “ethnopoetics.” You know, not a big feat of naming because there had been …

BG: Ethnomusicology…

JR: Ethnomusicology, ethnohistory, ethnolinguistics, ethnoscience … so why not an ethnopoetics? It is not a way of making poetry, but rather a way of talking about poetry, both the practice and the theory of poetry, as it exists in different cultures, with a certain emphasis on cultures without writing or in which oral poetry and poetics seemed to be dominant. And all of this was as much of a challenge to a conservative poetics as was the work of the most radical experimenters among us. It also tied to the quest for “a primary human potential” by allowing us to start with a serious search across the spectrum of cultures.

CF: Right now, or perhaps I should say in this past century, there has been a lot of talk about fragmentation. We even the have the term “schizopoetry” stemming from the work of theorists Deleuze and Guattari. But it seems ethnopoetics seeks some sort of thread… perhaps Ariadne’s thread, which leads us out of the labyrinth to seek some sort of light, maybe an Artaudian light, something strange and cruel. Can you speak to that?

JR: It’s either to seek some sort of light or to sow some version of confusion. That is, if you bring enough items into the mix, if you make it enough of a mix, there is as much – I don’t want to say darkness, that’s not the question – but things don’t easily resolve themselves. So to say that everything we do spreads light may not be an accurate way of calling it. There may also be a need to create confusion, to welcome confusion, to welcome contradiction, and not to try to smooth out everything and make it all the same. (Here I would also call to mind a lovely sentence of John Cage’s: “IF THERE WERE A PART OF LIFE DARK ENOUGH TO KEEP OUT OF IT A LIGHT FROM ART, I WOULD WANT TO BE IN THAT DARKNESS, FUMBLING AROUND IF NECESSARY, BUT ALIVE.”)

CF: I normally wouldn’t chose the term light either, but Artaud, in The Theater and its Double, speaks of an alchemical theatre which will enable us to see a strange, cruel light. I was thinking of that as an illumination, albeit an ambiguous illumination, rather than an easy sort of a light that maybe takes away from some of the intricacies of poetry and culture.

JR: But certainly looking for differences along with resemblances and looking for the multiple ways in which language has been fashioned in the minds of individuals, and how they use that language.

CF: In A Seneca Journal you mention Michael McClure and Noam Chomsky as “the speakers of deep tongues” who point the way to a “universal speech, in which the kingdoms of the world are one” or will become one. But is there a danger of a sort of liquidation of culture, and/or cultural integrity, in advocating such a universalism?

JR: Oh, yes, probably there is. “It’s my universalism, but it’s not your universalism.” [laughs] Well, the poem you mention starts out with a little biographical sketch … you know, how I became a Beaver in 1968. So, having become a Beaver – that is, having been adopted by Richard Johnny John, who was a member of the Senecas’ Beaver clan – led me to meditate and think about what it is to be a beaver, and what connectedness there is between not only different orders of beings and species, different animals, but also different cultures, different people, different languages. So I’m invoking at that point, what seem to me to be two ways of going deeper – what McClure on the one hand, Chomsky on the other, are doing. McClure is asserting a mammal connectedness. “I am a mammal.” Or, “I am a mammal patriot.” So the identification crosses the barrier between human and animal to encompass a mammalian life in common. And Chomsky at the same time is positing a deep grammar or a universal grammar that makes it possible to talk across languages. The surface differences are masking an underlying universal grammar. So Chomsky coming out of linguistics and McClure coming out of poetry and to some degree ecology, are both to my mind “speakers of deep tongues.”

CF: Chomsky’s assertion that there is some deep language that can be communicated across cultures is a good justification for doing translations. And maybe this is what Mark Strand and Charles Simic proposed in the introduction to Another Republic, when they challenged Frost’s dictum that poetry is what is lost in translation and proclaimed a deep universal language that is in fact naturally retained in translation.

JR: All people are languaged, or, to be totally crude about it, all of us have the wiring for language. It doesn’t matter where in the world we are or what language we happen to be speaking. There are no people, no “normal people”at least – whatever that means – who are born without this capacity for language, and this capacity is then developed through a series of identical stages, no matter the language or culture we’ve been born into, as we grow up into fully languaged people. Yet on the surface of course all these languages appear to be very different from each other. What Chomsky is saying, then, is that the grammar is wired into us – that while the vocabulary and syntax and so on are surface phenomena, the underlying structures are inherently the same for all people.

CF: “All people are languaged” makes me think of Paul Celan. Among many young poets of my generation, those born around 1970, he’s sort of our new master — his translations have been a significant influence. And you were one of the first, if not the first to translate Celan in your first book. Is that correct?

JR: Yeah, I was, I think … or almost the first. There may have been a translation of “Death Fugue” earlier, possibly by the art critic Clement Greenberg. And I found out later that Cid Corman had been both an avid reader and a translator of Celan, going way back, and yet it couldn’t have been much earlier than when I put Celan into New Young German Poets. I was working on the translations in ‘57-’58, and the book came out in ’59. But that was still early Celan – not the great later works. “Death Fugue,” when I first came across it, was something of a revelation. In the earlier poetry, aside from “Death Fugue,” there were still some very overt surrealist gestures. But by ‘58-’59, he was starting to develop into the Celan that has interested a whole generation of poets – not only Language Poets but many others. Poets of all persuasions. For myself, to be perfectly frank, I remember backing away from translating the later poems because they were too much, too deeply into their language, in a good sense I mean. The poetry and language were too specific, and since I admired that quality, I had no desire to mess with it. And then I did meet him – that at a time when I was pondering further translation..

BG: Yes, in your Notebooks you have a moving letter dedicated to him, “How your poems arise in me alive.”

JR: Yeah, a poem more than a letter, written not long after he died. I met him in Paris a few years before the suicide. And there was some notion ... somebody was talking about putting out a selection of Celan’s poems in English, and he and I had a little bit of correspondence going. My wife and I had gone to London in 1967, and I was in touch with him from there. He and I met at the École normale supérieure, where he was teaching, and we went out for lunch together, for drinks, and I had a couple of hours of conversation with him. We spoke in a mixture of broken German on my part and broken English on his part. And at the end, he had been, in a specific way, quizzing me about Jewishness, mine and others’, and was very concerned with that in relation to his various translators. And in the end, I turned to him and said, “Just out of curiosity, do you speak any Yiddish,” and he said yes, but that it had come to him late. And I said it was very curious, wasn’t it – we had been having this sometimes labored conversation – about identity and language largely – and here we might have had a common language, even a Jewish one, at our disposal, but we didn’t use it.

CF: So what is his attraction? Why such a powerful resurgence in the last decade of the century? I’m thinking of John Felstiner’s biography, Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose translations, countless essays, and then I’ve even seen some new recovered Romanian poems.

JR: And Joris’s full and lovely versions, which are very close to me. Well, I think there are a number of things. You mentioned Rosmarie, who is native German, and is of my generation. I think with Celan, to begin with, there is a question of poetry & language. In a sense, he’s a kind of language poet – in the way that any of us are. He’s working with the language – struggling with it really. So at the same time, one knows that there are a number of very profound and moving things at play here. There is a biography, a life behind the poems & language. One knows that that life has come out of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and that coming from there he seems in the process to be raising questions about language – the language that he speaks and the Language underneath all language – and the ability of language, or the lack of the ability, to deal with tragedies like those. I think a lot of that comes to a special focus in Celan. So I can say with some assurance that that configuration of things (the radical language & the push behind the language) was what people were feeling in his work. Of course, you could simply say that he was an extraordinary poet and let it go at that, but I think the greatness of a poet like Celan isn’t apart from where he comes from. It all meshes, works together, though at the same time I wouldn’t bury the poetics (as I think those like Felstiner do) beneath an almost sentimental version of the life.

[Originally published in The Cream City Review, volume 25, numbers 1 & 2, Milwaukee, Summer 2001]

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