The Java Interview: on the nature & fate of ethnopoetics

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:08 AM
[Interview by Yves Di Manno for Java magazine in Paris 1999, which would lead to the complete French translation of Technicians of the Sacred in 2008]

1 If you’re looking back, how do you place – historically – ethnopoetics in the American poetic “revolution” – and tradition?

It seems to me that in the century now ending one of the principal allures of poetry —even or (maybe) especially for many of our most “experimental” poets — has been the sense of engaging in a process — a way of thinking & of saying — that has until very recently been universal both in space & time. The time factor is a measure of its oldness, and the emergence of a “new” poetry over the last hundred or two hundred years has almost always been accompanied by declarations of “re”covery / “re”discovery at the heart of every new invention. This is clear enough in U.S. poetry, where someone like Ezra Pound, whom we take as radical — structurally radical — from The Cantos on, insists on pushing the time frame back & expanding it horizontally or culturally to a range of earlier initiating moments: first Anglo-Saxon rhythms merged with Homeric shaman journeys down among the shades in Canto One; then in his other & his later writings with the Chinese Book of Songs, the African “Gassire’s Lute” as given by Frobenius, erotic poems of ancient Egypt, re-castings of neglected Provencal and Roman poets. This was what put him in conflict with Marinetti and the Futurists – a “tale of the tribe,” as he named it, but curiously – in that fascist mind – a greater tribe than privileged race & nation might have led us to expect.

The same spirit of newness & transformation with relation to the past & present (what I used to speak of as "an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present") infused the work of many of us in post-World War II America – Olson, Duncan, Snyder, Kelly, Waldman, Schwerner, among the major ones from my perspective. And there were others too, outside of the U.S. as such – Tzara with his projected gathering of African and South Pacific poems; the Surrealists who set up their bureau (under Artaud!) of “research” aimed in that direction; and the French Negritude poets & their counterparts in the Spanish “new world.” All of this – and more – was the underlying basis for what I came to call ethnopoetics, and it encouraged me and others to declare that a poetics without an accompanying ethnopoetics was not capable of engaging the full possibility of poetry that our time allowed us.

2 To what extent has this concept (and practice) influenced your “own” work? And is it still central to you NOW?

It was impossible for me to get as engaged as I did and for it not to have an influence on the work that I was doing. A part of that work of course was directly connected with the opening of such a field as ethnopoetics. My own work had followed others in the use of collage and appropriation as a way of opening our individual or personal poetry to the presence of other voices and other visions besides our own. I came to think of all of that – appropriation, collage, translation – in ideological terms. Long before our time, Whitman in Leaves of Grass had set the task very plainly:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

This was in the section of Leaves of Grass called “Song of Myself” – that great bringing together of the individual voice with the sense of a total and suppressed humanity. And it was reborn for us, for me certainly, in Olson’s rant, say, against “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” or in Duncan’s call for a new “symposium of the whole,” a new “totality” – among my immediate predecessors and near contemporaries.

Where it turns up in my “own” work most clearly, assuming it is my “own” work, is in the acts of translation that are an underpinning for the anthologies. It was there that I could let rip for the first time with those voices and find myself absorbing – thrillingly – something that was far more than myself. And the translation led me also to an interplay with poets more of my own time – Schwitters, Lorca, Nezval, among those I’ve recently done in abundance – and now, surprisingly to me, Picasso. For me too the big books were a kind of assemblage and collage, very much like the translations in terms of what they allowed me to do or to be. And all of that also led me to the possibility of Poland/1931, which I was clear about from the start when I spoke of it as “an attempt to write an ancestral poetry of my own – in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.” (Look back at Whitman’s list of the “many long dumb voices” to get a sense of that; or Duncan's “totality” in which “all the old excluded orders must be included ... [:] the female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and the failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”)

So, yes, it remains central to me – the ethnopoetics, I mean – but only along with these other suppositions and the legitimate acts of “othering” which are fundamental to this project. In The Lorca Variations, which you know quite well, I took a step beyond translation by writing with Lorca (or my translations of Lorca) as my source; and in Gematria I used a traditional Jewish form of connecting words by numerological methods, to make a poetry in either instance that I thought was both personal to me and was created by means that shared in what Blake saw as “the most sublime act ... [:] to set another before you.”

As for the ethnopoetics itself, it remains a central part of Poems for the Millennium, the most recent of the big anthologies, in which Pierre Joris and I try to show the poetry of the last hundred years as incorporating within it the work of all preceding millennia, so that “all times” will again be, as Pound once had it, “contemporaneous in the human mind.” And I would hope too that it hasn’t left my own poetry either – the work that I’m doing NOW. The most recent book is called A Paradise of Poets, and the most recent longer work is a series of several hundred one to three-line poems called Autobiography and proceeding with a sense of incorporation that I hope can put identity in question.

3 Do you think this approach (its cultural openness and implication) has had some effects in the U.S. on the “new” poetic generations?

Others assure me that it has, though not always, it seems to me, in the ways that I most wanted. There was always an apprehension in my mind, say, that the poetics of the project would be overshadowed by the ethnos, the factor of ethnicity that looms so large in our current political and cultural thinking. While this is an issue of considerable importance – in America certainly but in France as well – for me the freeing up of poetry and language was the end – the principal end – toward which I thought my own means as a poet could be best directed. At the same time I recognize in many of the poetries associated with ethnic identity a push to call the language of the dominating culture into question – in favor, say, of what Kamau Brathwaite, a poet and thinker whom I greatly admire, talks about as “nation language.” And in many Black writers in America – more than with other poets working in an ethnic mode – I find the impulse to transform through language at an interestingly high pitch. All of this is also part of the great push toward the demotic that Joris and I marked as a central thrust (but also a problematic) of the century now passing.

So, yes, I think that this approach did have some effect on the “new” or present generation of U.S. poets. And beyond the multiculturalism – or the less widely recognized interculturalism – it contributed to an increased sense of the performance side of poetry – experimental and ritualized from my perspective, popular and drawing on familiar prosodies from the perspective of some others. Similarly it encouraged – as it was meant to – a crossover with the other arts: a point we emphasized in talking of the “total performance” or “total theater” quality in so many tribal/oral cultures. For all of this I’m told that Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin served as instigations – directly for the generation in which they first appeared, more indirectly for the one(s) that followed. When (so-called) Language Poetry first appeared in the U.S. – even before it had taken a name like Language Poetry – I encouraged its entry into Alcheringa, the magazine of ethnopoetics I was then editing with Dennis Tedlock. Ron Silliman prepared a sampling for me and shared, I thought, a sense of practices in common. And Charles Bernstein, who came along later, has always had ethnopoetics as a solid presence behind his work. Still more directly magazines and publishing ventures like Mark Novak’s X-Cultural (Cross-Cultural) Poetics have carried on and extended the work of Alcheringa, which has otherwise become part of those generally acceptable assumptions about poetry and culture that are often separate from a heightened sense of the possibilities of poetry – not only what can be imagined but what has already been put in practice by human beings somewhere in the world.

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