with Nina Zivancevic in Paris

Question: Many people have tried to define literature — what is it for you and how much does your approach differ from the traditional approach to it?

Rothenberg: My sense of literature comes basically from poetry, so I won’t broaden that to discuss various forms of fiction which would change the discussion in any number of ways... but possibly not. For me, the turning to poetry came from my need for a different kind of language from what surrounded me in the world in which I was growing up. Poetry had some of that difference, and that it was so often despised only made it that much the better. Ultimately of course the language of poetry — for myself and others — came to be closer and closer to the language that people really use in everyday speech, but different at its best from official language, from authorized language — as we get it in politics, in advertising, in standardized religion — all of that.

So it seems to me that poetry continues to have a sense of otherness about it; so, looking back, it seems to me that what I was engaged in with others of my generation was the search for a new language, another language, over against the language that was taught to us, force-fed to us, in which the values of the society that we would come to question were expressed. So the ‘ other language ’ came to be asscociated in my mind with the language of poetry — whether in my work or in the work of others whom I began to read and who began to influence me. And this was a central point about which the nature of that language — I entered into what seemed to be some sort of discourse, some sort of dialogue.

Was there a desire also to express some sort of a ‘ surpressed ’ language, the one you spoke perhaps at home?

Well, you and I both write primarily in English, though we both have roots that take us elsewhere, I’ve always written in English as far back as I’ve written and you come to the English language at a later point. But, in fact, there was the other language for me in childhood — the Yiddish spoken in my family — and certainly the first language that I spoke as a very young child was Yiddish. So I still have some memories of coming from that first language into the other language when I was maybe two or three years old. And the first language would invade the other — stray words, even somewhat later on.

But then you had to suppress it in school, right?

Well, there was an obvious push toward suppression in school, but there was another push — different and maybe stronger — toward suppression in the street. So from very early on, for most of us who were immigrants — the children of immigrants — there was a movement from the place of the family into the place of the street, and the street took the part, played the part, of the larger society... I don’t know if I was compensating — later on — for the loss of the first language, and I know, looking back, that that first language was never entirely lost. I could still speak with my grandmother and the other people in my family who did not have English as a ready second language. I would speak to them in Yiddish, although over time the Yiddish weakened for me as a language.

Even so I still hear it in a way that I don’t hear any other language besides English. I can speak German when the occasion arises, I can speak French or Spanish when the occasion arises, but I’ve never been in another language otherwise, never to the point where I’m simply speaking the language without something else going on in my mind — a train of thought in English, accompanying the speech of the other language. It doesn’t happen now that I get to speak Yiddish very much, because the older people with whom I spoke it then are dead, but when I do, it comes (so to speak) trippingly on the tongue... it comes automatically...

Have you ever tried writing something in it?

Yeah, occasionaly I’ve let it come into something that I was writing, especially when I was doing something like Poland 1931. Later on in Khurbn, there are brief moments when the language invades a poem, because of what I’m doing there specifically — a response, so to speak, to two visits to Poland (1987 and 1988), with a sense of Holocaust there for the first time — the first time that I let it, that it made me let it, come into the body of a poem. Both the Holocaust and, here and there, the Yiddish. Also, many of the titles in Khurbn, including the title of the book itself, are in Yiddish.

It comes in as some sort of a ‘metatext’?

Yeah, in a manner of speaking. And yet I don’t really think that it exists for me as a presence when I’m otherwise writing in English. But I do take some pleasure from time to time, on those now rare occasions when I come across an individual who really speaks Yiddish, to enter into a conversation. In those circumstances it’s always with somebody who’s a far superior speaker than I am. It’s a nice exercise in language, but not much more.

But as for the poetry, it was more than a language exercise, and the struggle was in English really — my real language. I don’t mean to say that the poetry or that my thinking was separated from the ‘fate of Yiddish,’ but at the same time it related to many other losses that were a central part of what we took to be the human condition in the middle of the century. As I grew aware of those, the poetry became for me, as for many others, an act of defiance, as if all of our languages had been destroyed or lost their meaning. And we thought, rightly or wrongly, that we were in a position to make a new language, an other language, using English as the vehicle for that. It allowed us to say things, to use logic — or illogic — as a way of thinking, a way of talking which was otherwise unacceptable and sometimes disturbing to the society at large...

You mean disturbing in ANY language?

Yes, any language would suffice. I assume anyway that something like that was going on for some number of poets, not only at the time of the Second World War, but going back far earlier than that. There were poets who were writing in French, writing in German, at both ends of the century — poets to whom this would apply. Certainly someone like Paul Celan, whom one takes as a prime example of that kind of situation — a situation in which the German language had not only failed him but was so clearly identified as the language of the oppressor. (This has been said many times about Celan, and still it’s absolutely true.) So, as his poetry, his language, develops, he builds it up of course out of German, but it’s a German that’s post-Holocaust, the German of a post-Holocaust writer and a witness. It’s fair to say that it becomes a kind of counter-German, a German that contradicts, and yet it’s all the more German for being that, the way the actual features of the parent language become exaggerated and distorted in the writing.

The point is that you don’t escape from it — the language as the base of what you do: for Celan German, for me English. Some poets of course have gone beyond that, and their experiments have been of interest to me though I don’t think they’ve always been successful in dropping the normal, ordinary or specific language out of the writing... in the attempt, that is, to develop forms of sound poetry, a poetry without recognizable words. This is something that was clearly present with the Dadaists, as with the Futurists, both Italian and Russian, around the time of the first world war, and it began to take new and very dynamic forms after the second war.

I think the war connection had something to do with that: the renewal of an attempt to get beyond what Hugo Ball in 1916 described as ‘the garbage that clings to language,’ something that was later reiterated by Artaud and others and that came into prominence again with the post-World War Two makers of sound poetry, poésie sonore, particularly those who combined it with some political stance or, otherwise, with what Olson called ‘stance toward reality. ’

So, would you say that the stress was primarily on the quest and investigation of a sacred language?

That too — at least for the early ones who had mystical/spiritual ambitions like their counterparts among the early abstract painters. For myself, I became aware and interested in so called ‘sacred languages’ sometime in the 1950s. At the time it was possible to think that what we were doing in the present was an ‘othering’ of language, the making of a language that, while it was rooted in the specific spoken language we grew up with, transformed that language in a variety of ways — some deeply meaningful, some not.

It also became clear to me that in the past, conceivably for other reasons, certain religious poets had used language in the context of religion and mysticism that was also — like the work of the experimental modernists — a transformation of ordinary language. So, sound poetry and other such extreme contemporary forms had their counterparts in traditional cultures in which — not as a matter of avant-garde experimentation, but as a matter of trying to understand what were taken to be powerful forces and presences in the world — the performers spoke, chanted, sang without words but using sounds that resembled words, speaking in tongues as that was called in Christian tradition. (Or writing in tongues, in the sense that we were speaking of it before.)

This is a phenomenon that turns up in many parts of the world, in Sufism, for instance, in traditional Jewish nigunim, or in Tantric practices — the mantras which begin to depart from ordinary language, the syllable by syllable repetition of words and sounds.

As I was looking into those areas everywhere, I began to find very much the same practices in traditional American Indian songs and chants — what I took be a basis for a traditional poetry on the American continent. And I’ve explored that as well.

Well, is there anything that you can find in so called ‘oral’ or tribal verse that you can’t find in contemporary poetry of today? In other words, was there something bothering you or some sort of absence in the contemporary poetry of your day that made you go back to the traditional oral verse?

Yes, but let me see how I’m going to answer that question... When I started doing books like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin what was bothering me was possibly the absence of a reason for doing what we were doing. I could explain it in the terms that I’ve been using here — a sense of the struggle between a new language and a debased older language — but what struck me most about the old poetries was a resemblance to what the experimental poets of our own time were doing, but at the same time rooted in tradition — a poetry in which, even when one departed from obvious meaning, so to speak, into what the anthropolgists and ethnomusicologists used to call the ‘nonsense’ syllables, the resultant work — the poetry — was deeply deeply involved with meaning, and furthermore the poetry seemed to exist at the very center of the culture from which it came.

So, I think the question of context became very attractive, although I have little hope that one can transfer that, or that our own experiments were really leading in the direction of putting back that kind of poetry at the center of the experience of people in our time.

Occasionally I was more encouraged in that belief, but over all I tended to feel that this was not going to happen, and that, you know, was an uncomfortable conclusion to come to, and I would rather have felt that we were really coming back into the center with all of that. But it was interesting to me that whatever I took to be the most radical, the most experimental work in our own time seemed, as I looked back at it, to have a counterpart somewhere in the world.

The sound poetry is one example, the one that comes most easily to mind, but there are also forms of visualisation, forms of visual poetry, whether it’s pictograms or forms of writing that many cultures use to form calligrams or to combine with numbers, as in the Hebrew kabbalistic traditions. Things that would have seemed new when they came through Oulipo or other experimental movements had counterparts in activities that went back very deeply into human experience, and it seemed to me that in some way this proved or gave a sense of the humanity of what we were doing.

[Originally published in Jacket 16, March 2002 (http://jacketmagazine.com/16/ziva-iv-roth.html)]

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