Michael Ruby: From “Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep”

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:19 AM 0 comments
 with an afterword about the process

Everything else is set up
If this is why I sent you
They’ll come

Four, please
Go on, now it’s gone

The fingers are down
The necks
And we have cereal once a week

I might all of a sudden disappear
The match

Do you want to give yourself up to me?
What the guy was giving up
What did we say about that?
Hang around for which sister?
Who else would want it?
To make sure she won’t forget it

Don’t worry
It very well could be
He’s a great guy

Garrine, do you know?
Stephen Kern

Yell and give me a call
I would let you know

I mean
Did you know his name is Farino?
John Stern is not one of his many friends
Try Kenny

I worked the day before so much
I have far too good friends in this school
That’s one of the problems waiting for you

He comes down last night
Very funny, right
No, no-no-no-no
He didn’t scream
Today, he isn’t screaming

This I heard this morning
You might want to keep it

Wanting space-space-space-space-space
She has New York, hunh?
It is, it is
On my floor

We listened to the music for too long
And Gus and I were playing
It’s on it
Trouble is
The rock, the fly
And the song is
The citation
The thing is, have you ever heard?
Woodlawn Cemetery, please
Outfitters for the rich
I’m gonna give them three
Or one
Or maybe two
The natural, denying messenger type
It seems OK now that it’s almost over
Should be used by crooks
The household business
Not me
Some of it is doubtful
He starred often on the day
I don’t think that’s accurate
I’m sure you know how you’re gonna present this
Could you just tell me?
Why you got to teach?

And he’s partially asleep
The whole score on how to be successful officers
Don’t get upset over coastal puzzles
We had to match so much yesterday at sea
I took some money
I guess they take their money
Four hours a day, how much?
The underwear off
White Plains
I tell ya, if I was six minutes away
Tonight, I’m gonna have some problems
They’re still lookin’ forward to that—
Tell Mrs. Van Eager
June, June, June
The Kings’ argument
You know, we’re just angry at you
Chillmar, Chillmar
Chillin’, Chill
Despite the name, it’s really the first I thought
I don’t know
I don’t know
Grumblers had loads of things to change
I’m just checking if you can feed them

Everybody’s sick and I don’t know what to do
Vision, vision
A different kind of airlift
Three and call
Help the Braves, baby
Closing league
Time and anger
A deal is a deal
I don’t know the situation
In appearances
Yes, I are
Coming down the stretch, they do
This was a big problem
You are
You are us
What you told them
At some deep place
The bond was cracked and the Pomona iced
Together, that amounts to
Now do come back, combatants
To my apartment
These are words deep in your soul
A wood sword episode
Every morning, as you can see
Stand up and—
After Sidney was born
Hopefully, I am loved so much that—
Where in two weeks?
Very strong reasons

About Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep

When I was a senior in college, I took a course devoted to the writings of Sigmund Freud, taught by Prof. Philip Hoffman in the William James building on Kirkland Street in Cambridge, Mass. During that semester, I wrote down my dreams for the first time. I also noticed for the first time that as I was falling asleep, I would briefly hear sentences spoken by different voices, a few of which I recognized, such as my own or my mother’s. Four years later, when I spent a week alone before Christmas on Benefit Street in Providence, R. I., writing experimental poetry for the first time, I learned how to hear the inner voices at will. Lying on the couch, with a view of the Narragansett Electric plant through the bare trees, I would clear my mind of all thoughts and listen for a very particular sound, the sound of sand being poured on sand. The inner voices would begin as soon as I heard that sound. I found that after two or three inner voices, I would invariably fall asleep. To transcribe them, I had to pull myself back from sleep continuously. Edgar Allan Poe, in ‘Marginalia,’ describes a similar process with “visions” seen “only when I am upon the very brink of sleep.”

These are the first inner voices I transcribed:

How hard for it to be done
Oh, I see
7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It’s the way he’s doing that
…take Angela
There’s no room for a boundary—do you know?
You sound optimistic to me, David
After that winter, I transcribed inner voices roughly once a year for the next 15 years. Then, in 1999, I thought it might be worthwhile to transcribe a whole book of inner voices, taking more extensive dictation. I eventually came to view the book as forming the third part of a trilogy with Fleeting Memories and Dreams of the 1990s, documenting three “Varieties of Unconscious Experience.”

I have always tended to believe the inner voices originate outside me, perhaps as microwave broadcasts picked up by the silver mercury fillings in teeth, as one of my college mentors, the 1950s novelist and conspiracy theorist H. L. “Doc” Humes, used to teach long before the existence of cellphones and wifi. But they might be fragmentary conversations overheard and preserved in the course of life. They might be chatter created by the brain, just as the brain creates dreams. They might be some mixture of the three. They might be something else entirely. Whatever they are, I like the idea that we have this stream of voices flowing deep within us, rarely if ever heard. Each transcription could begin and end with ellipses, a minuscule segment of the continuous stream. More important from the point of view of poetry, the inner voices almost always speak a sentence or a phrase—a line. If the line is the unit of inner voices, then inner voices are a psychic underpinning of poetry; one of the ways poetry is embedded within us. We have this continuous multivocal poem “streaming” within us, only audible in the briefly inhabitable borderland between waking life and sleep.

[NOTE. “Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep,” a 100-page ebook of poetry and psychic research from Argotist Ebooks in the U.K., is available for free at http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/inner-voices-heard-before-sleep/15718071]

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Another Poet in New York, with Dates & Venues

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:30 AM 0 comments

From September 30 through December 27 I will be movingmy field of operations from San Diego to New York – a temporary return tonative grounds and a chance to check the possibilities of working/writing in ahome away from home. I expect during this time that Poems and Poetics will continue without interruption, and my emailaddress – as in the side bar here – will remain in effect.

There will also be a few readings and related eventsalong the way, the following being the ones presently on tap:

Fifty year retrospectivereading, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (Between Houston and Bleecker),with guest readers Bob Holman, PierreJoris, Anne Waldman, Charlie Morrow, Lee Ann Brown & TonyTorn, Anne Tardos, Mark Weiss, & Demosthenes Agrafiotis, October 2, 8:00 p.m. to midnight.                   

Lunch & poetry reading,with Amish Trivedi, at the Arts Cafe, Kelly Writers House, University ofPennsylvania, Philadelphia, October 12 at noon.

Participant, group reading withClayton Eshleman, for Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed, The PoetryProject, 10th Street and 2nd avenue, October 19, 8:00 p.m.

Reading and seminar, ThePoetics Program, SUNY Buffalo, October 25-26, details through Dennis Tedlockand the McNulty Chair.

Group reading for launch ofFrank Kuenstler’s The Enormous Chorus, CUE Art Foundation, 511 West 25 Street, October 27, 6:00 p.m..

Performance, poetry andmusic, with Charlie Morrow at The Stone, corner of avenue C and 2nd street,October 30, 10:00p.m.

Reading & performance,with Judith Malina and Frank London, in “Jewish Art for the New Millennium,” DailyForward series, at The Living Theater, 21 Clinton Street, November 3.

Lecture & reading,“Technicians of the Sacred & the Search for Origins,” Poets House 25thAnniversary Program, 10 River Terrace (at Murray Street), November 8, 7:00 p.m.

80th Birthday all day eventwith numerous guest performers and presenters, The Graduate Center, CityUniversity of New York, December 9; details available from Charles Bernsteinand/or Pierre Joris.

More to follow, as needed.

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                       for Dick Higgins
                                                       in memor I am

[translator’s note.  In 2002 I was asked to contribute to Alec Finlay’s edition of translations by several hands of Paul Celan’s poem “Irisch.”  While working on my translation (which duly appeared in the second volume, Irisch (2), Edinburgh 2002), I began to work on other dimensions of the poem, then of other Celan poems.  The present homeophonic translations are one result.  By homeophonic translation I mean: listening to the sound of the [in this case German] poem until you hear it in English – the result, the poem heard, no doubt “says” a “different” thing from the “original.”  Those quoted words are all questionable, more question than answer, I mean.  So here are some of my hearings of Celan poems.  They are, in effect, translations into Earish.   A reference in italics at the end of each poem identifies those reproduced below as all coming from Celan’s book Fedensonnen here heard heading towards English.]

in the view’stongue
rune theshattered yards hounded a neighbor to rouse
and hay runthick thank him

Feel like it’sa war,
dash here thefreed of twice failed curb’s rock
out tone ― goface them.



THE STREAKER,salt’s washer, clomb
the wiser
grove’s keynotein dismal
gate andknickers off

Off the shuddersee grass down even
in anchor shotand
naked as numberdares
(ant’s willing)
red sail.


Give me this vague wreck
heave her thecorn’s teacher to die in his laugh
this vaguewreck
heave her downlaugh’s path
this wreck thathis story’s taken on
on hurts hung
more gone.


gone haggled tohill free
the numb unblue
sets out

the glaciermilkcart
the foal vixenagain dour
thus swimmingthe seal
ear herunbearable un-


SPADE.  Unswam eager fetish
buys stitch thesopping fun Christ bomb,

off gay rowedfun
frost spree kin
hipped fromwomb shy noon neck,

day’s fencestar flees off,  where sand rouses,

neat even sobring him
the hovel theresign,

I need cuplasting, a
deep unafraidwalker ―
coaches art oneseeks there, over


DO WARS meandeath
thick Kant Icalled them
weary of all itunfeels


daring she goesfeel install earring

groves shy mastforty
tiles of

milk sweaters


Gay verse etheroak
see, the brief
haughty elf
hoofing tookher:

that the well,the hornet
fern, the milk
knower, when
the mood shetours clock be awayed,
the clock bedumb mood, weed her,

that she nickedoak
then electthrone dear idiot and
speak low, thedottle
for a biter toofor
many take along dying


The unstirredbleak kite’s if a fawn-high hayrick
dame fear themin
den, she’llgird a needle key fixed
her n’t a Leahdish
hinter seekhere.


lock in.  Arm
enter knockedit them
or it.

The lid’s slackreflex averring
the hip begone
tomorrow’s twofor

EDGE LOCKED,edge locked.

When weary atsemester’s veering
blond catsgoing we to malls
allowing goneto Paris, eyeno outgone glued long

though arcticis a steer
came againsprung and
under croonedemit on his sighing horn or
under tease tohis tease to.


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[Originallly published in Fact-Simile, Volume 1, Number 1, Boulder, Spring 2008.]

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jerome Rothenberg, poet, translator and one of the world's leading anthologists. The following conversation took place on July 11, 2007 at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Fact-Simile:  Jerome, I was hoping we could talk today about this latter aspect of your diverse career: the act of compilation.  Shortly after the publication of The New American Poetry, James Laughlin advised Donald Allen "[not to] make a career out of editing anthologies."  Having edited an increasing number of collections yourself, does this strike you as a sound piece of advice? 

Jerome Rothenberg:  Well, I don't know... it may have been a sound piece of advice for Don Allen.  And Don Allen did follow the New American Poetry with -- what was the prose collection called? [The Poetics of the New American Poetry] -- it was a collection of prose pieces, critical pieces, or theoretical pieces by poets.  It was a book that Grove Press, which had published The New American Poetry itself, also put out; and then a good number of years later Allen collaborated with George Butterick on a revised edition of The New American Poetry – the title changed to The Postmoderns..  To my mind it wasn’t revised enough, and it temporarily put the old New American Poetry out of print, which was an even greater shame. They had to make — or they did make — certain sacrifices in order to pull it off ... either cutting down or eliminating the autobiographical notes that made up the back part of the original book.  So the follow-up – the third and final anthology – wasn’t, I would think, a very happy circumstance for Don Allen. 
      For myself, I don't have any real regrets about doing anthologies.  The kickoff for me was in fact my reading of The New American Poetry and the way it blended practice and theory and pretty much limited the theory to the work of practicing poets.  I thought that combination was interesting, and when I set out to make my first anthology, I had something of that structure in mind.  Throughout all of the anthologies I’ve since composed, there’s been this sense of the anthology functioning as a kind of manifesto, a polemical work.  Not what would be called for in a college textbook, but a juxtaposition of poems and commentaries that tries to open up new territories of poetry that, while not necessarily new, have been concealed or less recognized. 
      There's a drawback to anthologies, particularly when you come to an anthology of the present time – an anthology of your own contemporaries -- unless it’s specifically an anthology of works by a group that recognizes itself as a group, that has a limited number of members where everybody that could be included has been included.  Otherwise, you're going to have exclusions and with exclusions comes not only opposition (which can in fact be very good) but recriminations and hostility (which can be very painful).  What came closest to giving me grief of that sort was the second volume of Poems for the Millennium, a volume with many living participants, unlike the first.  I have no regrets about doing it, but because it focused on the contemporary period, I got questions like "Why did you leave out so-and-so?" and "Why did you put him in and leave me out?".  But also, it was the second volume of a two-volume work, and if we were to round out the century it was a book Pierre and I felt we needed to do.

FS: You mentioned the Allen anthology as a source of inspiration.  Is that what first drew you to the field?

JR:  From an early time, I had been doing a certain amount of anthologizing in my head:  poems in juxtaposition with other poems.  I had a feeling for that going back a long time.  But then again, I have a sense that most poets carry something like an anthology within them.  The first actual anthology I made was Technicians of the Sacred, and there what was pushing me was not the desire to construct an anthology as such, but that I had been giving close attention to instances of poetry outside of the literary domain – oral poetry, poetry from tribal cultures, poetry that (at the time I was beginning my work) was most often labeled "primitive poetry" – and that I wanted a form in which to present and speak about those instances.  It came from my recognition of the wealth of poetry contained in areas like that.
            In the early 1960s, together with three other poets in New York – David Antin, Rochelle Owens, and Jackson Mac Low – I organized a reading of primitive poetry, of oral poetry.  It was already a pulling together of material I had been collecting, even before xerox, by typing out copies of poems.  So I had a pile of poems from sources like that.  And in particular I was interested in looking for some other poets, other readers for that event.  Jackson was always skeptical of everything, so he was skeptical of that too.  Antin was skeptical of most things but he really went along with the ethnopoetics stuff.  So that was the start for me — in ethnopoetics.  Somebody, I think Paul Blackburn's wife at the time, Sara, made the suggestion that this would make a good anthology.  I thought, why not? 
      I think I first tried going to New Directions, which was not then my publisher, and James Laughlin or somebody over there suggested I speak to Anne Freedgood, one of the senior editors at Doubleday.  So I approached her – this was in the 1960s when commercial publishers were developing an interest and opening up to these things.  When I presented that project to her, she very quickly came through with a contract, and we were off and running  I wasn't a heavily published author at that point, certainly no anthologies or work like that.  So there I was with a contract for an anthology and with an open hand for doing it.  So I thought: what if I were to do something along the lines of the – the very basic lines of – the Donald Allen anthology?  Poems in the front, commentary in the back.  And I plunged ahead, looking for additional material, into whatever libraries were at my disposal.  This was in New York and I was otherwise unconnected, but I got a permit to use the Columbia University library, which was my main source thereafter.  I also worked a little in the New York Public Library reading room, but that one was a little harder to use than Columbia, where I was otherwise free to wander through the stacks and came on many things by chance.  Whatever it was, I began to assemble material.  I did a little bit of re-writing on the material I assembled, where it seemed to be necessary, where the academic translations had a deadening effect. 
       Toward the end Gary Snyder introduced me to the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, who arranged a visit to the Allegany Senecas in upstate New York.  That was a momentous thing for me, that small amount of firsthand knowledge.  Then for some time after that, I certainly disregarded any advice that Laughlin may have given anybody about doing anthologies, because less than two years after Technicians George Quasha approached me to work together on an anthology of American poetry [America a Prophecy] as a radical re-reading from pre-Columbian times to the present.  A part of that, but submerged in the larger book, was a redefining or revival of the avant-garde work of the 1920s and 30s, the period between the two world wars, and I continued that on my own when Kenneth Rexroth introduced me to George Lawler, an editor with Continuum-Seabury, who signed me to do Revolution of the Word.  And Shaking the Pumpkin, the American Indian gathering was also in the works by then.  So it was really a very busy anthology time for me.  I was very clearly hooked.

FS:  What do you see as the primary purpose/importance of anthologizing? 

JR:  As I was saying before: For me it's a form in which I can discover something about the nature of poetry, to speak about it if and when I do, and it also satisfies a need I have for constructing/composing on a larger scale.  So I think — not to put too great an emphasis on my own anthologies  — but for myself I think of anthologizing as a form of assemblage (giving it the French pronunciation) and as a vehicle for discovery, in contrast, say, to the repetitive and definiitive style of textbook anthologies.

FS:  Along those same lines, what, if anything, do you consider to be the socio-cultural responsibility of the anthologist?

JR:  You know, I think of myself as basically a socially responsible person and I have some confidence that what I do in and about poetry is informed by that ... even, say, when I move into transgressive territory.  But if I do make those moves, I think it's with the intention to change things for the better.  There is, for me, some notion about the arts, that poetry, that poets can and often do invest themselves in an effort to set things right (and maybe mostly make a mess of it).  For me, I hate putting it in terms of  a word like responsibility.  Values, certainly, but ...

FS:  How does the act of editorial compilation inform or relate to your own poetry and translations?  Is there an interplay at work there?

JR:  Well, I think that in a number of different ways, yes, there is.  First of all, most of the anthologies involve a considerable degree of writing.  When I speak about commentaries, each poet brought into the mix, each section on a poet or a group of poets has a commentary attached to it.  That's an area of writing for me.  I can write about poetry through the figure of the poet in question.  That's with a sense, then, of trying to make some point, not only about that poet, but some point about poetry, about the possibilities of poetry.  Then there’s your other question, does that come back into my own poetry?  Well, I think, in a sense, that the poetry and the anthologies, the gatherings, relate in that both involve a sense of communality in the work we do as poets.  Ultimately, there's a kind of communal or collective effort that goes into both or from which both draw.  So, I think the concern with other voices, other beings, comes into the poetry as it does into the anthologies.  I don't find a great separation between them.  Though clearly I know when I'm making poetry and when I'm assembling anthologies.  You know, I wouldn't feel the same about doing the anthologies if I wasn't coming at them as a poet.

[to be continued]

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[Reprinted from Power’s introduction to his collection of eight interviews conducted in the mid-1970s as a mapping of American poetry during the second great awakening of twentieth-century poetry & art.  Published earlier this year by Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press and available also through SPD Books.]

I recall Robert Creeley writing somewhere that ‘truth is what happens,’ a kind of sediment that accumulates from the flow and the consequences of experience: the natural outpouring. Well, I guess it is and here are eight occasions!

These conversations took place in the early 1970s – even if some of them were not published until the ’80s – when I was studying in Buffalo and Berkeley on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, an impressively obscure entity that gave very generous allowances. I was working on a thesis for the Sorbonne concerning the relationship between poetry and painting in postmodern American poetry and I hoped to be able to talk to some of the poets directly involved with painters or with what was going on in American art.

The bulk of the conversations deal with that aspect (Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Bill Berkson, David Meltzer) and the other three are concerned with aspects of American poetry that particularly appealed to me, Jerry Rothenberg’s ‘deep image’ and his concerns with the primitive and ethnopoetry, Robert Bly’s subjective verse and the myth-related ideas that abound in his poetry, and George Oppen’s lyrical philosophy and his Objectivist poetics.

They were all part of a prolific range of American writing that was opening up new possibilities for poetry and poetics: literally exciting times. It provided me with what proved to be the major stepping stone in my education, in terms of ideas and of defining what Olson termed a ‘stance towards reality’: a way of feeling and being in the world.

I can still recall Duncan’s torrential brilliance and Creeley’s careful precision (care, that he saw as the essential definition of love). We can all recall these things. They were immense and generous and their energies spilt over.

I can also recall the warm domesticity of these occasions, the Oppens’ kitchen where I talked to George and Mary as if one voice, a shared life, a tide that had turned but stayed young, a life full of Sartrian engagement but softened and brought to focus through what he called a consuming clarity, through his attention to discrete particulars and at this stage of his life to the oncoming ‘brilliance of shipwreck.’ His work provides sightings that have helped to mark my own way of crossing a life.

These were easy relaxed encounters and particularly meaningful to someone who was still trying to find his way through much of this material. I am thinking, for example, of Bill Berkson, sitting at what I recall as a wooden table in Bolinas and generously willing to talk about others, especially about his associations with a whole range of painters, such as Philip Guston, Joe Brainard, and Larry Rivers, and especially about his collaborations and friendship with Frank O’Hara (one of the anchor stones of my projected thesis); and David Meltzer similarly taking me through a series of reflections and reminiscences of Wallace Berman and George Herms, of Semina and the Assemblage Movement, in the sitting room of his home in the suburbs.

I met Bob Creeley at SUNY Buffalo in 1970 and sat in on some of his classes. He invariably had his office door open in the narrow corridor of the mizzen hut that housed the English Department; walking down this short passageway was an educational experience in itself: Charles Altieri, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight MacDonald, Hollis Frampton, Eric Bentley, Albert Cook, Martin Pops, and Jerome Mazzaro before he moved over to Romance Studies. It was a good place to be. I remember Creeley coming over with Ruthven Todd and Bill Merwin, linked by their stays in Mallorca and their friendship with Carl Gay, the librarian of the Special Poetry Collection. The times were easy and the relationships fluid. We did the interview at his home in, if I recall correctly, a couple of sessions. He talked of Black Mountain College, of Olson, of Pollock, of the way he used bebop as a structuring form for his poetry. Years later, Penelope, Bob, and myself would go to Mallorca together. For Bob it was an intimate occasion, full of meaningful memories, since it was in Mallorca that he had written The Island, published the The Black Mt. Review, and founded the Divers Press that published texts by Duncan, Zukofsky, Douglas Woolf, &c.

We went back and found the press. It was closed but I went back later on another visit and they still had a few copies of the Review and Woolf’s Hypocritic Days. During Creeley’s stay we went out to the village, Bañalbufar, where he had lived. A flamboyant English investor and magnate, whose name I can’t recall, had bought a whole chunk of coast that stretched eastwards from the village, but otherwise much was unchanged except there was now an asphalt road that plunged down from the main highway. Almost immediately after Creeley’s departure I was invited back to the village to talk about him and his life in Mallorca. There were only six or eight of us present: a typically modest Creeley occasion. I read some of his poems, talked about the man and his contribution to American literature. Most of the people in the audience had known him, they had come for that simple reason, and they were surprised that the young coñac drinker had left such a mark on his culture. The Mayor had been engaged in a town-hall meeting during my chat but he invited us to take wine and tapas later in the evening in his bar that served as the social hub of the village and he wanted to name a street after Mr Creeley. I recall one question from this small audience from his taxi driver who frequently drove him back from Palma after lengthy sessions in the bars and whose daughter had been a frequent playmate of Bob’s children. He simply wanted to know if he really was that important!

Duncan had gone there to see him. René Laubiès and Martin Seymour Smith were also on the island. Creeley had gone there from France because it was cheap. Kitaj had a house on the Costa Brava on the mainland opposite.

As a small homage, kindly supported by Sa Nostra, we were able to publish in Catalan not only the poems that he written had whilst living on the island but also the novel The Island that traced the break-up of his first marriage, and a series of lectures by Charles Bernstein, Anselm Hollo, and Creeley himself. Spain, it hardly needs saying, remains blissfully ignorant as to the massive contribution American poetry has made to the last century: wretchedly enclosed in what is frequently a terrifying lost rhetoric of prepotency.

Bob became a friend, as did Jerry Rothenberg, across the same span of years. I met Jerry whilst he was living on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, not too far from Buffalo, passionately engaged in the publication of Alcheringa along with his wife Diane and Dennis Tedlock. He is one of the warmest men I know and his contribution across these years has been immense. Unfortunately, we don’t see each other that much but when we do they are invariably moments of real affection. Jerry introduced me to Ian Tyson with whom he has collaborated on many occasions. I don’t have to say that Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin have been revolutionary and fundamental anthologies of the last part of the 20th century – the extensive footnotes that lead us towards comparisons that most of us have not thought about; his oral readings that once again take up the tradition of a musical beat as an accompaniment to the measures and rhythms of his reading; his endless fascination with the Modernist masters from Gertrude Stein (an interest that links him to Duncan) to a whole list of forgotten names that have allowed him to revive, critically challenge, and reread the American tradition: an effective rephrasing of a continent; Poland/1931, a wondrous saga full of humor built on the lintel stones that lead us into his domestic memories of a Jewish childhood in America and a history of the Diaspora. Autobiography, says Creeley, is life tracing itself, and Jerry’s work has done just that, following the meanders of his life and the pattern of interests that have moved his writing!

My conversation with Michael McClure took place in his flat — his previous one having been in the same building where Jay de Feo lived. Wesley Tanner and Alastair Johnston had printed some of his small books and Wolf Eyes of his then-wife Joanna at the Arif Press in Berkeley. He had abandoned the Beat scene, the Abstract Expressionist outpourings of The New Book/A Book of Torture, the wild energies of Freewheelin’ Frank, and was deeply engaged with the work of Francis Crick, Stirling Bunnell, Gary Odum, and Ramon Margalef or, to put it another way, in the life of the organism that produced an equally explosive poetry centred on what he called mammal man that would pour out in Hail Thee Who Play and Man of Moderation, or in the Wolf Net essay in the Biopoesis issue of Io.

I had read Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields along with James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break at the end of the ’60s in London and was interested in the relationship between Bly’s subjective image and Rothenberg’s deep image and I was able to talk to him after a reading in Buffalo where he had floated across the stage in a white woven cloak. Bly carries us over into Jacob Boehme’s writings and also, of course, into the protest movement against the American presence in the Vietnam War, particularly through The Teeth Mother Naked at Last that was published by City Lights Books a few months before we talked.

Alastair Johnston has been a friend since these years and I can only thank him for giving me the opportunity to bring these conversations together in a single volume and I thank once again the poets for their words and for the corrections made wherever necessary in the transcriptions.

[NOTE.  Aspects of Kevin Power’s interaction & meticulous understanding of American poetry & poets are clear from his introduction to Where You’re At & even more so in his role as interlocutor in the interviews themselves.  For some years after these interviews were conducted he held the Chair of American Literature at the University of Alicante in Spain & was also Deputy Director of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.  He now works as a critic & writer from his home in a cabin in the mountains behind Santander in Cantabria.]

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from Stephen Fredman’s Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art (Stanford University Press, 2010), in which Fredman brings together Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Poetry and Reznikoff’s Testimony

assemblage as archaeology and history
. . . . .
        In the sixties, many of the singers in the Anthology of American Folk Music and all of the Objectivist poets, of whom Reznikoff was one, were rediscovered and lionized as touchstones of authenticity by the Baby Boom generation, to whom they seemed oracular voices speaking from beyond the grave. Although their voices had mostly fallen silent in the forties and fifties, the singers and poets were still very much alive. As the singers began touring nationally and internationally and recording again and the poets began giving readings and interviews and publishing once again, this perceived quality of authenticity lent them a prophetic mantle. Testimony and the Anthology remain quite canny, though, about the fact that the aura of authenticity is imparted, paradoxically, by the grace of mechanical reproduction. Without the court reporters and the West Publishing Company, the voices heard in Reznikoff’s Testimony would be lost. In addition, as Michael Davidson points out, the rules of the legal system determined for Reznikoff’s poem both what can be said and how it is said, and the organization of the West series provides the geographical categories that structure the entire poem. The recording of the singers whom Smith gathered in the Anthology transmuted a mundane and unremarkable social practice that was part of the background of life in the South into the high romance of the radio, the phonograph, and the movies. As Greil Marcus notes, “Many copies of these records were bought by people without phonographs. They bought the discs as talismans of their own existence; they could hold these objects in their hands and feel their own lives dramatized. In such an act, people discovered the modern world: the thrill of mechanical reproduction." The voices of a Dock Boggs or a Blind Lemon Jefferson sounded “old” to ears in the sixties because of abrasive, nasal, or guttural vocal styles and because of the primitive recording techniques that can be heard on the Anthology. For a generation raised on television there were two archaic qualities that made these songs sound as if they were intoned from beyond the grave: first, the singing styles, modal melodies, and verses whose imagery appeared to be drawn from the unconscious depths of American culture; and second, the technology, outmoded by several removes, that thus conveyed a sense of unbridgeable distance. In this way, both the voices and the soundscapes operate as objets trouvés for the assemblage that Smith composes.
Not only do these works of assemblage history call into question the category of authenticity by focusing attention on the opposing poles of rawness and mediation, they also play havoc with commonsense notions of authority and authorship. With regard to authority, each of these works implicitly challenges professional and disciplinary norms. Smith confounds folklorists by both ascribing to and undermining their conventions. With remarkable thoroughness, he adopts every feature of musicological methodology, noting for each song its title (including the Child number for the ballads), singers, instrumentation, date of recording, original issue number, and supplying a précis of all known historical facts about its content; he also provides for each song a discography of the performers and a bibliography and then compiles for the project as a whole an exhaustive index of artists, titles, subjects, and instruments. Working against this professional decorum, though, is a contextual practice, which operates at two different levels—that of the “handbook” that accompanies the discs and that of the arrangement of the songs. Visually, the mysterious handbook has a bumptious, pastiche quality that makes it hard to decide whether it is a magical synthesis or a joke. Robert Cantwell summarizes well the visual domains from which Smith draws in order to create his assemblage: 

Photostatically reproduced, strongly reminiscent of the organs of transient or marginal political coalitions . . ., the handbook is at once a catalogue, like the republished antique Sears-Roebuck catalogues, a discography, a manual, a scrapbook, a sort of stamp or coupon book, a sort of official document, like a passport, as well as a tabloid newspaper: a bricolage of printed ephemera that like junk sculpture incorporates many alien forms, each set off in its own character against all the others and against the whole. 

As assemblagist and editor, providing not only an introduction to the collection but also a comic headline summary for each song, Smith undermines the authority of musicological and folklorist conventions by taking on some of the functions of an author. This role is especially evident in the way he orders the songs by number rather than by any known method of classification. Eschewing generic, sub-regional, and, especially, racial classifications (which were ubiquitous not only when the recordings were made but also when Smith edited his anthology), his juxtaposition of the songs proceeds by an occult, serial logic based upon stylistic features or subject matter. For example, Smith’s headline summaries of songs 19-24 hint at thematic connections among “Stackalee” by Frank Hutchison, “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, “Frankie” by Mississippi John Hurt, “When That Great Ship Went Down” by William and Versey Smith, “Engine One-Forty-Three” by the Carter Family, and “Kassie Jones” by Furry Lewis:


Out of the murders, assassinations, and wrecks portrayed in these songs, Smith highlights themes of class warfare, obsessive affection, family grief, and the mysterious temptress Alice Fry. By summarizing the contents of the songs as headlines or telegrams, Smith foregrounds thematic continuities, tying the disparate lyrics into a sustained assemblage that chronicles a broad swath of American history as seen from the bottom up. In Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus shows how Dylan has mined repeatedly the American history chronicled in Smith’s Anthology. Another practitioner of highly mediated historiography in the early sixties, Andy Warhol, uses his Disasters series of photo-silkscreens to chronicle executions, suicides, auto and plane wrecks, and the iconic figures, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, whose public confrontations with death turned them instantly into legendary characters.
If Smith imparts an authorial stamp to the Anthology by framing and ordering the songs in his own way and undermining through his summaries of song contents the professional norms he invokes in his careful annotations, Reznikoff does something similar in his redaction of courtroom testimony. Like Smith, Reznikoff was at home in the world of scholarship. In fact, history was a lifelong preoccupation, which Reznikoff pursued in verse, fiction, and actual historiography, and its conventions provide the norms that Testimony implicitly challenges. In flaunting these norms, Reznikoff joins William Carlos Williams, whose highly partisan history, In the American Grain, had appeared in 1925. Like Williams, Reznikoff endeavors in Testimony to let the language of the subjects speak for itself. He differs, though, by choosing unknown subjects who tell of experiences both commonplace and extreme, rather than ventriloquizing, as Williams does, famous actors in history. And unlike Williams, Reznikoff does not appoint heroes and villains, for he remains leery of ideologies buried in historical narratives—whether the schoolbook narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphalism or the personal forms of coherence given to history by poets like Pound, Zukofsky, and Olson in their epic collages. Testimony undermines notions like progress or decline just as it undermines ideologies of all stripes. It displays social strife as often unmotivated (and unbearable) and then implicitly challenges the reader to make sense of it and do something about it. To bring home this challenge, Reznikoff has subtle ways of involving the reader, as in this short poem from the “MACHINE AGE” section of the 1891-1900 division of the book:

           The storm came up suddenly
           and lightning
           struck a telephone pole, splitting it
           and sending electricity along the wires.
           A quarter of a mile away
           a doctor was sitting in his house
           quietly reading a book under his telephone—
           and was found in his chair
           dead, his hair on fire
           and red lines along his neck, chest and side.

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