Robert Kelly is a very great poet as well as an extremely prolific one, with about sixty books of poetry published since 1962 as well as five of fiction. His poetry is marked by an extraordinarily free and generous and flexible responsiveness to the world at large; many of his poems take their occasions from music, paintings, films, other poems, novels, and the religious texts of Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism; they draw on an astonishing knowledge of mythology, philosophy, biology, astrology, anthropology and alchemy, and from a keen attention to the mysteries of everyday human interaction and of the natural and social world. He once wrote that “there is no history,“ but the traces left us by the past are everywhere present to his poems. His work abounds in freshness and surprise, because he approaches his material with an eye not towards representation, description, “self-expression“ or autobiography, but towards discovery—a form emerges from the unpredictable encounter between writer, language and world: “The only book worth writing is the one you don’t know how to write.” This openness to the outside is tempered by a very fine musical ear, a precise eye for life in the world as it is manifested in language. Reading his books one shares the continuous excitement of this, the discovery of what there is to be written in the act of writing. Kelly is important to me as a model for the daily practice of writing as a form of worldly devotion, a way of deeply listening to and participating in the world. His work demonstrates, better than anything else I know, the possibilities of poetry as public dream and as sustained, comprehensive inquiry: that the poem is not an object to be appraised or a statement to be analyzed but an event in language to be freely experienced and responded to.
In spring 2007 I was visiting New York and took the opportunity to get in touch with Kelly. He kindly agreed to meet me on April 23 to record an interview in Rhinebeck, New York, near his home in Annandale-on-Hudson. He met me at the Rhinecliff station and took me to lunch at the Beekman Arms Inn, which purports to be “The Oldest Inn in America” and fairly convincingly looks the part. We sat for nearly two hours and talked into a tape recorder. Before and afterwards we walked around for a while and talked about the poet Gerrit Lansing, the anthropologists Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, the Mayan calendar (it was a day of the day-god Ba‘tz‘, the howler monkey), the Brooklyn Public Library, baseball, the explorer Bartholemew Gosnold, Cuttyhunk Island, H. P. Lovecraft, the pronunciation of “Puyallup,” the poet and dandy Robert de Montesquiou (who was the basis for Proust’s Charlus, and who published a book of poems called The Bats), nettles, the Tibetan Buddhist poet and teacher Milarepa, John Ashbery’s reading style, and Kelly’s curious accent (which originates from the neighborhood in Brooklyn formerly called Northside, and of which he thought he might be the last living speaker—“the Ishi of the Northside accent”).
A week prior to the interview I had e-mailed Kelly some questions for him to mull over beforehand. He brought a copy of these questions along with him to our meeting, and it turned out that his talk to me that day was prompted as much by the written questions, which he glanced over from time to time, as by my spoken questions. So I will reproduce here the e-mailed questions to which the interview makes reference:
You have that great essay in The Brooklyn Rail on Magic and Film, which ends up touching on magical poetry, with Robert Duncan as the primary example. Could you elaborate on magic in poetry—your own, Duncan's, the interaction between the two?
In The Common Shore you wrote “If we ever get rid of the commas / we could make it Hot”; in the poem “Sin” in Lapis you wrote, “A comma is always in the wrong place”; a lot of your recent work uses the comma quite copiously and variously, as node or joint for long, wandering sentences. What is your sense of the comma, and how has it changed (if it has) in the course of your writing? Of punctuation in general? Of the sentence? Of the line? Of the ways line and sentence can interact in a poem?
How does revision work for you? Do you have any good stories to tell about it? How do you teach revision to your students?
Are you really working on a novel about alien abduction? What are the aliens like? And what else are you working on? (Your note in Lapis mentions a collection of essays, and in one of your recent interviews you speak of revising the huge typescript of Parsifal . . .)
Lately a lot of your work has been collaborative, both with living artists and writers and with the dead (Shelley, Crivelli, Clare, Parmenides). This seems only a natural extension of your work's large responsiveness from the beginning. What are the advantages and difficulties of collaboration for you? How do the dead differ from the living? (Is a poet, as Jack Spicer said, trying to be a cup the dead drink from?) What about musical collaboration? Will you ever write an opera libretto? Do you often write while listening to music?
You once said that your personality is the enemy of your writing. What is your personality like, and how does that enmity play itself out in practice (if you can describe this without breaking some spell)?
A lot of my questions take the form “Can you talk about . . .?” If time were a little more boundless than it is I would ask also if you could talk about: translation and homeophonic versioning; your poem in May Day called “Walking to Auschwitz” (did you in fact?); your top five musical recordings for a desert island . . . And what is Mirsuvian?
Robert Kelly: So the first thing I want to talk to you about in your questions is the comma. I think that’s the easiest thing for me to talk about. Gertrude Stein famously, you know, did not like commas, and spoke against them and wrote against them. I’ve always been of several minds about the comma: I love it, that it’s a pause; I love the way the comma is also used—You know in musicology they speak of the Pythagorean comma?
Sam Lohmann: I don’t know the Pythagorean comma.
RK: Look it up, it’s a fascinating thing, and you can sort of play it out if you’ve got the right kind of instrument—it’s the difference, in the circle of fifths, if you keep going up a fifth, a fifth, twelve times, you don’t come out precisely in the same place seven octaves up; the microtonal distance between where you should come out by theory and where you actually come out in sound is called the Pythagorean comma. So a comma is not just a gap, a pause, but it’s a meaningful separation. Between expectation and reality. And I like that, that sense of the separation that happens. There are so many ways of separating texts, of which the most obvious is the space itself. In Tibetan, to speak of that—that was in my mind with Milarepa—every syllable is separated from the one next to it by a dot, but the words are not separated from each other by dots, nor are the sentences: there’s a continuous array of syllables. What we would call a paragraph is separated by a thing called a shay, an upright line, but otherwise the whole thing—sentence, or whatever it is—goes on syllable by syllable by syllable by syllable. It’s as if we put all the letters of the words in a sentence together, marked out just by a period between each one, no separation. So reading a Tibetan text requires a certain amount of—almost prophecy of what you might expect to find. So there’s a text that’s curiously missing in interruptions. So: I mean, I love commas in poems, but I feel a difference—and it’s very illegitimate and almost impressionistic of me to feel this distance, and I certainly wouldn’t stress it—a distance actually between a line ending with no punctuation, in the middle of a sentence, and the same line ending with a comma after it: there’s a kind of overdeterminedeness about the comma—but sometimes I like that, sometimes I play with it, and sometimes I mostly like the idea of comma as gap. So: I think that for me, as for many American poets, the most profound musical poetic experience was hearing the way Creeley read, the way Creeley foregrounded the line break, and using that simplest of all devices—a mere interruption, an interruption without any lowering of the voice or falling of the tone or pitch, just—pause, pure pause: “As I sd to my / friend, because I am / always talking, John I / sd”––that: that wonderful sense of pure interruption . . .
The ways in which line and sentence interact in a poem (that’s your question): it hasn’t changed in the life of my writing. It seems to me from the very beginning what’s been most important to me has been exactly that, the interaction of sentence with line, and as long as they’re kept vibrant, and the sentence never becomes just the line, or vice versa, there’s a sliding counterpoint between the line and the proposition—I wouldn’t say “sentence” so much, because that word is so heavy for me with—good things, mostly good things—but “proposition,” which is a neutral and ugly word, like “You proposition a girl when you meet her”; or “You offer a proposition to the voters about stealing money from their pockets to build a new sports arena at the high school”––but proposition, beside that, does have the sense of something being proposed, something being uttered; and therefore, the counterpoint between the proposition and the line—continues to excite me. Somehow it always seems interesting: That in the notion of a notion there is something that is not notional at all but is purely experiential, that the notion being uttered—“The awning is green and white striped”—in that proposition there can be a pause at any point—“The awning is / green / and white / striped”—you can put the pauses in anywhere you like, including nowhere. And in each case the proposition is enriched experientially; it remains the same notion, but the notion is distributed over various physical experiences.
I have to confess to you that right now, at this point in my life, I am very interested in what I have been calling “The Critical Body,” arguing that the one thing that criticism traditionally pays no attention to is ourselves as physical entities reading a text: that we hear a text and it entails certain consequences in our bodies—and by that I mean our bodies. Our minds, our brains are busy interpreting bodily responses, and I want to know more about that. People say, if they hear something that they don’t like at all, “That was disgusting.” “His reading was nauseating.” Someone in fact said, after a lecture given by a distinguished English boffin a few weeks ago at Bard, someone said “It’s disgusting.” And I thought (I wasn’t at the lecture), that’s interesting, to regard it as disgusting. To what extent is there actually a gag reflex, a nausea, a sense of rising bile in the system when one hears that. Why are we so good with metaphors like bile and rage and nausea, so good at those metaphors and so bad at understanding them? So, I’ve been interested in that, that stands in the mind. I’ve gotten a man named Carey Harrison, an English novelist––not at all the boffin of the previous thing—interested in this, and he’s written an article in some magazine he writes for inviting people to get interested in this idea, in which clinical psychology, neuropsych, and ordinary human experience meet, literally, in some—really the experiential is what I’m interested in.
SL: That seems like it goes back to Olson, and to Duncan. And what Zukofsky was doing “translating” Catullus so you could make the same sounds as Catullus in English.
RK: And why those sounds matter—they’re not the same sounds, and they’re not even in a way like it, because—well we don’t know how Latin sounded, but we know how English sounds, and he made something happen in English sounds: “miser Catulle” isn’t the same as “miser Catullus” or “Mr. Catullus” or anything else that it might sound like. I’m interested in that homeophonic way not so much to generate the physical experience of hearing as in seeing how that experience can generate other notional areas—so you find yourself saying things that you never would have thought before.
I’m looking at your questions. . . . I did write an opera libretto once. It displeased me. It was on Cupid and Psyche. It was just for a chamber opera that lasted maybe half an hour. The music didn’t please me very much because it was written by a man who—a colleague at Bard named Elie Yarden, a very lovely man, good musician, but he was in that phase in his development where he was trying to avoid the melody. He was like so many—he’s now well into his eighties—but he was like many composers who were educated in the 50s and 60s of the last century, they were trained in the kind of post-Schönbergian serialist dismissal of melody—that melody was so vile or cheap or something––so they wrote music that was good on paper but didn’t do much for the songful heart, listening to it. So I wrote him stuff that would—I mean, like so many composers he really wanted to be Puccini, he wanted to sing, to be emotional, but he couldn’t let himself, and I was trying to trick him by a very passionate libretto into doing something like that. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t get all the way. But I haven’t otherwise done that—because I don’t write plays. (I have written some plays but it’s not something I think about.) ((Added note September 2007: last month I found myself writing, and did complete, a full play on the Greek scale: Oedipus after Colonus.))
But I do listen to music a lot, and if there were a form I could compose it would be an opera, certainly. And when you asked for my five musical recordings for a desert island I naturally started to answer you. But if the recording were allowed to be a CD-ROM, which you can do now—
SL: Certainly, even on a desert island.
RK: So I have a CD-ROM with all the operas of Wagner on it, and another with all the operas of Strauss. I would take the Strauss with me to the desert island, along with the Bach Partitas for Solo Violin, the Beethoven late quartets, what else did I put down? . . . But I want a CD-ROM that has not yet come out, of all the Bellini operas, and all the Rossini operas, and Mahler’s symphonies. They would keep me happy. I would go on learning from them, I think—but not as much as I would learn from music I don’t like as much. The important thing is to hear music that you don’t like very much. But those would be the things that would console me, they would be my macaroni and cheese music, my soul music. What about you? What would you take with you?
SL: Well that’s a hard question . . .
RK: It’s your question!
SL: I hadn’t thought it out. It is my question. I like Sibelius’s second symphony a lot. I’d want to be able to listen to that. And I like a lot of locally produced pop music from my area.
RK: Seattle used to be the pop capital of the world.
SL: It was briefly, yeah.
RK: Well, if you like Sibelius, I’m sure you would find yourself liking Mahler.
SL: I like Mahler. I haven’t listened to all the symphonies but I like the ninth a lot. There’s something––there’s some humor in there!
RK: Which is not there in Sibelius very much but—
SL: Oh I think there is, it’s there.
RK: But Mahler’s full of that humor and seriousness. Of all the composers I know he’d be most likely—most like me in that sensibility, in that I can’t keep a straight face for very long in my writing. It doesn’t always show on the paper, but I’m usually dissolving in laughter every fourth line or so. It’s not my intention, just my character.
SL: Can you talk a little more about the importance of music that you don’t like?
RK: Well there’s music that I don’t like, and music that is just boring. And I find most pop music, especially of my own childhood, and on into current times, boring—there’s nothing to hold onto, it’s propositional, rhythmic. Every now and again there’s a glimpse of something along the way, but—there’s just nothing for me there, there’s nothing to hold on to. I thought briefly—as Olson did too by the way—that the Beatles were on to something, that they had something. But it didn’t last, and the later music of the Beatles, and each of them, became tiresome pop music again. They had a moment of something.
SL: I guess Basil Bunting liked the Beatles a lot.
RK: Did he? . . .
SL: It’s interesting to imagine him listening—
RK: Basil, listening—You’ve heard recordings of him read?
SL: Yes, I’ve heard recordings of him reading Brigflatts.
RK: Mm-hmm. He was an extraordinary reader. Partly because he was a good reader, but mostly because his accent lent itself to shocking American ears with its antiquity—and he a bit rubbed it in.
SL: Daunse tip-toe, booll . . .
RK: Yes. When he read at Harvard, the one time I heard him live—I happened to be living in Cambridge at the time. Between each poem he read and the next, he caused to be played a Scarlatti piano sonata––played I think on the harpsichord. He had a little tape-recorder with him operated by his assistant, a Lolita-like child sitting at his feet, whose whole function besides being pretty was to press the button to start and stop the Scarlatti––and that’s how he said it, not “Scarlatti” the way we say it but “Scarrllætty.” It’s instructive though, that relationship between the song and the—and Scarlatti is pure song, yes, you know, he never, never stops, his music never becomes lost in its own anxieties or doubts, it’s always moving forward—and that would recommend itself to someone as impatient for life as Bunting was. And I suppose that’s one reason why I find pop music so uninteresting for the most part. I don’t hear anything that’s quite as bad as the pop music I grew up with, I mean that people listened to in the forties and fifties, and there are things that even sound positively hopeful now, the occasional rap and stuff. But mostly not. But the other kind of music, that is what I meant before as music that I don’t like, is music that offends me in some way, by being too this or too that—and that’s what’s instructive: when I find out why I don’t like Delius or why I don’t like Schumann, and then ten years later I’ve come to like them very much, that sort of thing, that’s what you need to deal with. I mean, I liked Verdi the first time I heard him, but I don’t learn much from that—I go on liking him fifty years later, but still, so what? It’s not very hard to like sunshine and pretty flowers, but the taste for rain and cold and wretchedness is maybe harder to acquire. But then I was born with a taste for rain and cold and wretchedness, I like those things.
SL: Where I grew up it’s easy to acquire.
RK: Yes, that’s right. In Seattle . . . One of the loveliest days I can remember was walking in Discovery Park, on a day when it was raining and not raining and sunny and not sunny and windy and not windy, the mountains in the distance and the water below. There’s a headland that you come to if you walk there, I guess northwest from the entrance of the park, you come to a headland overlooking the—I guess it’s the Sound there isn’t it?
SL: I think it might be the lake?
RK: The lake is behind there, on the other side. This is all windy, with all those zillions of islands scattered out there, and the ferries going back and forth.
SL: Somehow I’ve never been able to make a map of Seattle in my mind.
RK: It seemed like a dream city to me, because the buses were free. Incredible: you just got on the bus and went wherever you were going as if it were the city’s business to move its people around—as it certainly is.
. . . [Looking at questions.] No, I did not walk to Auschwitz. The man who did—the poem is dedicated to a man named Carey Harrison, the same man I mentioned before who’s interested in the Critical Body. He did walk there. His grandfather was a Jew from Budapest, and at the end of the war—remember that the Hungarian Jews were the last Jews to be brought under German power; the Hungarian government, though they were Nazis or at least sympathizers with the Nazis, never enforced the Nuremberg laws, and it wasn’t until 1944 that the Germans finally invaded Hungary and took over and made them do it. So the Hungarian Jews had a larger rate of recovery and survival than any other group; they got there at the end, and some of them were only in Auschwitz for a few months before they were released, so they didn’t have time to die of starvation. Carey’s grandfather was one of them, and he was released from Auschwitz—just thrown out of the camp—and they made their way back on foot to Budapest, and I’m not sure whether he died along the way, or whether he got back and then died. Carey decided—Carey is a man in his mid-sixties I guess—he decided he would walk the other way, in the winter. So one Christmas, two years ago, he flew off to Budapest and met his son—like you named Samuel—and they walked from Budapest to Auschwitz—occasionally getting rides or lifts along the way. And I was so moved by his doing that that I wrote that. He’s imagined as the one speaking in the poem, mostly. He’s a good novelist by the way, you should read him if you get a chance.
Speaking of novels, yes, I have by now finished my novel on alien abduction, I’m just revising. The aliens are not very interestingly different from us, they look just like us. And the thrust of the novel is not so much about them: it’s a novel about, really, a man who has lost himself, and it’s dramatized so literally there’s a self with the aliens and another one living on earth, so it’s a “divided-self” story, and they finally come together. It’s more like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae than it is like a sci-fi novel—in one way. I mean, it has all the sci-fi material that you’d want; it is about alien abduction.
SL: What’s it called?
RK: The Book from the Sky. Because he comes back to earth with a gospel, and that gospel is interspersed through the novel; I keep putting little quotations from it dropped in boxes through the novel; the story will be interrupted with suddenly a voice screaming a line from the gospel. And every quotation from the gospel begins with the word “Darling,” as if he was whispering in your ear.
SL: Well, are you revising your novel from the seventies, Parsifal?
RK: Yes, well, two students have been busy typing it, I mean keyboarding it, getting a workable file. Because it was written longhand, and even with the typed copy—the typed copy has been revised, and now xeroxed—but it’s so long, its close to 2,000 pages typescript. So it’s taking a long while to get it on an editable file, and I want to edit it there, I don’t want to edit a hard copy, I’ve had enough of that. It was written in the mid-seventies, it’s called Parsifal, and it’s—again, not so different from the alien-abduction book, in that it deals with the essential rigor of the Parsifal image: the man who does not know who he is. And Parsifal usually comes to us in English writing as the Pure Knight, and in the German as the Pure Fool; but mostly, whatever he is, whether he’s naïve or otherwise, he is the child who does not know who he is. And therefore he is all of us, because we haven’t got a clue who we are. In the deep and rather secret Buddhist or Hindu sense, he is someone who doesn’t know who he was: you know, he doesn’t know his past lives. And until you know your past life you don’t really know this life. But you can only know your past lives by the way you live in this one. So if you were to ask a Tibetan Lama, “What was I like in my previous life?”, he would say, “What are you like now?” You are the product of that: if you’re happy, you led a good life, and—each detail of the present they would regard as the exact, correspondent consequence of how you were in the previous life. If you want to know who you will be in the next life you look, not at what you are, but at what you do. And we all know, don’t we, people who are very handsome, beautiful, perfect, well-connected, rich perhaps, and they do nothing with all that. They have everything going for them, but they don’t do anything, they don’t write poems, they don’t give presents, they don’t put sugar in horses’ mouths, nothing. They might play golf or something, screw girls or play tennis or—not that those are bad things, but they don’t—and then at the end of their lives, they’ll be followed by another life in which what they did in this life will be shaped, physically I mean. Something like that, but that’s not what—I mean I’m just generalizing on the notion of identity and knowing who you are. But I think it’s something that we’re not allowed to ask, “Who are you?,” because the answer is given by so many charlatans who stand at every corner. So if you say “Who am I” someone’s bound to tell you, and he’ll be wrong. You can only find out through your own investigations—hence the novel. If you could learn some other way, you could just say “Who am I?,” and I could tell you or you could tell me, and we would be finished, Plato’s dialectic would be achieved: “Who am I?,” Timaeus said to Socrates, and he said, “You tell me,” and then they would discuss it for a while, and then they would each know. But it doesn’t seem to be that way and that’s why we have to write Don Quixote for a thousand pages to explore—or me and my trivial Parsifal—trying to find out, Who is this person? We know that Heraclitus says in that famous gnomic remark, “ethos anthropo daimon”, which is usually translated as “Character is fate,” but more literally means, “How you behave is your destiny.” How you behave is the way your destiny is shaped—which is perfectly, seems self-evident in a way. So that’s Parsifal, and I hope to have it typed so that I can look at it sometime in the next year. And I have a long poem called Fire Exit, which I hope to have finished this summer too—I mean it’s finished, but the revision, the contraction––, and another long poem called Listening Through: Piano Concertos by Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, Called Amadé. That’s a long title, but it’s working through twenty-five Mozart concertos, one by one, writing through them––as a species of collaboration, a different kind from any—that is to say I’m listening to the music and the minute the music starts I have to start writing, and the minute the music ends I have to stop. When Movement One is followed by Movement Two I have to interrupt whatever I’m doing and go on to the second movement. In that sense and only in that sense it’s a collaboration, but it’s a collaboration not so much with Mozart as with whoever was playing the concerto at the time—thus a collaboration with time itself, something like that. Those Listening Through practices (I also did some to Biber, Shostakovich, Bax) were done this past winter. So those, and Fire Exit and the big long novel and the shorter alien-abduction novel are the revision works I have lying in front of me. But I write all the time, and I usually get so interested in what I’m writing today that I forget all this other stuff, which is how a novel as big and obvious as the Parsifal can still linger unfinished––I mean, finished in the sense that I’ve finished the story, but unrevised, for thirty years can sit there. That’s not so good, to do that.
SL: Could you talk a little more about revision, how it works for you and maybe how you try to teach it?
RK: I don’t actually much teach it, but . . . You know William Gaddis, you know his novels? He wrote one called The Recognitions, which is I think one of the great novels in the American tradition. It came out in the early fifties. He didn’t write another for many many years, and then in the seventies began to publish again. He taught at Bard, it was the first school he ever taught at and he was very happy to be there, very graceful, very agreeable man. Very lovely person. In The Recognitions religion plays a huge role; the hero is a kind of—priest, or something like a priest, and those issues are very important: authenticity, apostolic succession, religion, one’s contact with God. Years later he was asked by someone a question in the form of, “In The Recognitions religion plays a huge role, but in your later novels, JR, Carpenter’s Gothic, there’s no reference to it at all, what happened?” He said, “It went away.” I suppose I’ve been waiting all my life for it to go away for me, but it never has gone away, it’s always remained there, it’s always been a part of the invisible other that walks at our side. And if you don’t have an invisible other walking at your side––and you do, you know you do––unless you have that you can never really make sense of any writing or any art, if you just think you’re all alone there. If nothing else you know you have language; language is the usual invisible other for all of us. To tell a story I’ve told perhaps too often: I once invited Ed Dorn to give a poetry reading at Cal Tech where I was teaching briefly—I was poet-in-residence at Cal Tech, strange to say—, and at the end of the reading, which was as usual very short and vivid and wry and ironic and clever and forceful, some kid in the audience said, “Mr. Dorn, what do you believe in?” And there was a very very long pause, and then Ed said: “Language”—and that was enough of an answer. And it silenced the audience that was expecting to hear “Ghosts,” or “God,” or whatever in California they thought about in those days as the object of the verb believe—and the word believe can have many objects. But what I liked was that Ed absorbed the word believe and didn’t quarrel with it, and translated it into a more human kind of verb, unspecified, which could properly have the object, language. Because: one of the problems with our world, and maybe with our sense of religion, is this word belief that has crept into religious practice. If you asked an ancient Greek, or an ancient Roman, or for that matter an ancient Hindu, “What do you believe?,” they would have asked you, “What do you mean believe?” And if you explained for a while the difference between knowing and believing, in our curious sense, they would have said, “Well, I don’t believe anything. I know certain things; I know that Ceres makes the corn grow in the summer, I know that Jupiter thunders in heaven; I don’t have to believe that, I hear the thunder, I taste the corn.” And we would be baffled and say “Oh, you don’t understand; we’re not talking about things that you can see and touch.” And they would say “Why are you talking about such things? What’s the matter with things we can see and touch?” And we would shake our heads and say, “Pagans!”
But in fact this question of belief haunts contemporary religion so desperately—“What do you believe?,” how does a Catholic differ from a Protestant—obviously it’s a financial, social difference in Northern Ireland, it has nothing to do with belief, and yet by introducing the notion of belief the thing becomes deeply complicated. Anyway: in Ed’s saying “Language” he was pointing to what I call “the invisible other” that is always present with us. And there are many invisible others, I think, not just language.
SL: Well, I’m glad that religion got mixed up with revision, which was what I was actually asking about, but I wanted to ask about religion as well.
RK: Oh, really? You did say “revision”? Revision! Now you’re talking about my religion! That comes close to it. I love revision, I believe in revision. No poem is worth very much to me if it hasn’t been revised—every now and then I write something that’s just so “good” that I can’t revise it, and that’s in a way disappointing because—he who revises becomes, in one sense or another, a master of time. I write this now—get up every morning and write for a while, or in the evening or whenever I write—and at a later day, usually a week or two later, I type that up—in a very formal way—I keep everything chronological, and each month I have several files going to which things are added bit by bit. And in that typing up I’m no longer in the same moment of having written the poem. And then once it’s typed it goes into a notebook where I keep it, again very chronologically organized, month after month—so a year is this long, two years is this—Anyway: predictably, then the revision comes. So a year later I might be asked for a book, or somebody wants a poem, so I go back and look through them, and then the real encounter comes: What is this thing I’ve written? And then: What is this thing? And I try to find what it is. As—I think you ask a question somewhere in here about personality–how can I liberate this poem from whatever I was thinking about when I was writing it, and let it be itself more? Now while that’s a dualistic notion of Self and Other Self, it’s a contenting one for me; that is, it makes me feel contented to realize that difference but also it’s full of content, namely that there is something in the poem that isn’t in me to begin with. That’s a lovely thing to believe, that for me, for any poet, there’s something in the poem that isn’t in the poet. There’s the invisible other again, ever at their side. You don’t have to call that an angel or a muse or anything like that; languages, and the neurological condition of our human situation, those are the things we have to explain it, if you need a rational explanation. We are not, as individuals, we are not aware of our neurology. I don’t know what my neurological condition is at the moment; I mean, I’m talking, I’m looking at you, we’re eating, we’re happy, the sun is shining; I don’t know everything that’s going on, I don’t know the leprosy that’s going to strike me tomorrow, or strike you tomorrow, we don’t know any of that stuff, but there’s something going on constantly, we’re not aware of it. And just as we’re not aware of that which is happening in us all the time, always and ever, while we go to expensive and indifferent doctors and sit in the office for eight whole minutes, so they can tell us who we really are, and they can’t and they don’t and they won’t and they, et cetera, you know—in that sense that which is so close to us it’s our own body, our own tummies, our own bloodstream, our own nervous system, we know nothing about that. From time to time, every now and again they impinge upon us, and then we get scared because we’ve had a fit of some sort. How can we ever think that there is not an invisible other? It’s us. Well: I don’t want to think of that purely in rationalist terms, but one can do so. And that has a lot to do with revision: What was the invisible other doing while I was doing this? So, without revision I would feel as if I were always standing around at parties saying the first thing that comes into my mind. I remember a friend years ago—we were having an argument—said to me, in the most withering way—though I didn’t wither, I’m too strong to wither—that day I was too strong—said to me: “What gives you the right to say the first thing that comes to you?” That’s a good question. That’s the only question that could really— almost—unnerve me. Because poetry is really always about the first thing that comes into your head, it begins with that, and I think just from having read that one lovely suite of pieces that was in the back of the Peaches and Bats, that you proceed in that way too: from what you heard in Part One you developed Part Two, and as the poem goes along, things come out of it in the awareness of what you’re doing—that awareness makes awareness, which is the fundamental thing that we’re seeking in Buddhism, and most decent religions I think, to become aware of our own awareness: when awareness becomes aware of itself we’re rescued—“saved” would be another word, but rescued is a simpler word. Does this make any sense, what I’m saying?
SL: Makes a lot of sense. What you said about that argument reminds me of that poem in Lapis, “The Lost Chord,” which seems almost a dialogue between the urge to say everything and the questioning of that urge.
RK: Fortunately in the end I’ve never really questioned the urge too much, I’ve always strived to say everything; but it’s almost always the case that I’ll take out the beginning of a poem (maybe that’s revealing too much, but why not?). The typical thing that happens in revision to me is not addition but subtraction. Very seldom do I write anything into it, very often I’ll take things out. And the most typically removed thing is the very beginning. So the very starting point, that I’m always praising and playing to and all that, the first word, the divine, that’s one of the things that disappear. Either because I fumbled it or because it led me to something better. And then the next most common thing to disappear is the end. So very often what appears as the poem is really the middle seven eighths or so. That’s telling too much I guess.
. . . [Looking at questions.] Ah. Mirsuvian! The secret of Mirsuvian. I’ll try to make it very short, it’s so unimportant, and yet it’s cute. Years ago when I was published by Black Sparrow Press, and Black Sparrow was in California and it was published by John Martin, he had the custom for all of his writers to bring out for each new book a special limited edition of 25 or 50 or 100—depending—copies. He used to like to get his authors to make drawings or special inscriptions in each of these limited-edition copies. And I did that for a few books and then I ran out of interest in drawing pictures of things that I could master the images of—I wasn’t Robert Duncan, who drew naturally and fluently—I don’t draw that way; I could compose some pictures that didn’t displease me, but it wasn’t something I did flowingly. So I turned instead to writing poems. For each new book I would write Mirsuvian poems, and Mirsuvian meant this: I would take a calligraphic pen or brush, and write what looked like Japanese “grass script,” or Mongolian script, or various kinds of Asian scripts, but just looked like them; and as my hand made these curious linear and curving and curvilinear motions, my mind would read them as words. I was hearing my hands, understanding that muscular movement and its track on the paper as language. So by the time I had finished writing four lines of Mirsuvian script I understood what they had said, and I wrote them down in English underneath them, as if translating them. Mirsuvia meant to me a mythical kingdom more or less around Odessa in the Ukraine, on the Black Sea—Mirsuvia was one ancient name for that place, Mingrelia is another one. The princess Medea, whom Jason sought and won the hand of and then later betrayed (in the Argonautika), was a princess of Mingrelia. So she was the classical Mirsuvian princess. So my imagination was that just as the Mongols had writing for many hundreds of years that nobody else read, or the Hungarians, when they were still in Central Asia, had their own runes, so the Mirsuvians, people around the Black Sea, had their own unique script which they continued to write, on through the ages of the Russian empire and the Soviets they went on writing it—that was the conceit on which I operated. So I guess four or five books had Mirsuvian inscriptions in them, and there must be several hundred Mirsuvian poems in existence, which someone could gather someday if they wanted—they’re rather pretty, I did them in colored inks. [Tape Break.] . . . Li Po and Tu Fu and the Chinese poets would sit drinking at night and writing poems and throwing them into the river, it would carry them away, and Mirsuvia was a little like that. I never saw those poems again, except—some of them I have xeroxes of, but not of the colors.
Are you conscious of my having evaded any of your questions? I don’t mean the ones on the page, but the ones in conversation?
SL: No—well, I was curious about how you teach revision, if that’s something you can do.
RK: Well, in a way it’s easier to talk about because—you don’t have to teach people how to revise, you just have to teach them to revise. That is, you have to remind them that it can be done. And once they see you doing it—well, maybe a practical answer to your question is . . . What I do is revise their own poems, I guess that’s the answer to your question. Whenever they give me their own poems I revise them. I say to them, “I’m treating this poem as if it were mine, please forgive me; the only way I can tell you how I’m reading you is by treating this as if I had written it.” So I revise their poems and give them back to them, sometimes they say “That’s wonderful!,” sometimes they frown and say, “How dare you touch my poem?”—some combination of these things too—just as you or I would feel if someone did that to you. But there is a clarity and a quickness in that method, just to do it and let them see it. Even if they hate the revision, even if they think I’ve spoiled it, they can still appreciate the fact that changes make some difference. But I do insist on their revising, and I do try often to get them to revise one another’s work, by taking a workshop and simply having them—I think every workshop does this, I don’t know. I’ve heard of workshops which so respect the integrity of the original work that they just discuss it as if it were some ancient text in stone no longer open for discussion, and I would hate that because I can’t look at my own work that way. When I give readings I change poems as I’m reading them, if they feel better if I change them. I don’t believe in stone that way. Maybe even stone itself is a questionable commodity. I have a little pamphlet that I have started to write, called “The Three Religions,” which argues that there are basically in the human world only three religions: the worship of the Stone, the worship of the Tree, and the worship of the Human; and that in every phase in history, and in every culture, these phases succeed one another, and the Stone is always trying to come back. The Stone is always trying to win. For example, the Christian story begins on Easter, when it stops being the Jewish story of a rabbi who was killed for presumption and becomes the Christian story of a resurrected man—no longer a rabbi but a resurrected man—who rolls away the stone. The very image with which Christianity as such begins is the rejection of the Stone. Yet Peter says, “No, no; I am the stone on which the church is built. God told me that.” So that contradicting the risen Christ, who rolls away the stone, you have the Vatican built of stone on which the organized and institutional church still to this day reposes. So Stone is always in dialectic with Tree. Of course Tree is that on which Christ suffered. I’m putting it in the obvious Christian western terms, but you can see this in every religion—trying to drag the Human back, crucify him; trying to turn the Tree back into a Stone. Mystics in every religion—like the Sufis in Islam—have their own genius for trying to recover the human. Getting to the human is the main point—not in “human-ism,” I don’t mean it that way.
Hmm . . . [Looking at questions.] Robert Duncan and magic. . . . Film was very important for me growing up, the way it is for most Americans of my era. I used to go to the movies every day, sometimes twice a day. There were lots of movies in the city; there were five movie theaters within walking-distance of my house. One of them (the Kinema) showed Italian movies—I seldom went there; there was a Jewish movie theater—I never went there because I didn’t know any Yiddish when I was a kid—but the other four English-language movie-houses I went to all the time, and I think that that was a very wonderful preparation for me to understand the way in which images are constantly being—the visible other, so to speak, that walks with us. But the kids of my generation really did believe deeply in what they saw in the films—they didn’t have TV yet, I was thirteen or fourteen before TV came to be commercially commanding––we ourselves didn’t have a set –a walnut cabinet whose double doors opened to show a Freed-Eisenman TV—till I was fifteen. So the dominant images were those of newspapers and magazines—Life magazine with its wonderful insistence on lots of photos—and movies. And the image-world that we have begun in the past twenty or thirty years to question more deeply—through the Structuralists, through the critical-theory people, but more than that through the magical folks. The work that Couliano did with Bruno—do you know his work? A wonderful Romanian scholar who was the protégé of Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion at the University of Chicago who wrote all those books that the 60s and 70s and 80s read constantly, when they weren’t reading Joseph Campbell, about yoga and the rest of it, alchemy. Couliano was his protégé, who wrote an extraordinary book about Giordano Bruno and the cult of visual images in the Renaissance. Bruno’s notion—and it’s that as much as anything else that got him burnt at the stake—was that we are controlled by the images, and in a very literal sense we can be controlled by them; that the business of government, of society, is to control the population through images. And once you begin thinking this it doesn’t take you long to think of all the ways in which that’s true—“What should you marry?” “I should marry a beautiful woman.” “What does a beautiful woman look like?” “She looks like, that, that, that . . .” and the way in which the cult of images imposes itself upon the individual, becoming this sinister other presence that lives with us. Peter Lamborn Wilson writes a lot about this. And a poet who was a very close friend of Robert Duncan, David Levi Strauss—no connection with the French guy—writes interesting things about this, books on images; he’s been working on the Abu Ghraib pictures lately. But the domination of our political presence, political acts, economic, everything, by images, is something that Bruno begins to discuss in the 1580s and 1590s. It goes underground, treated only by magicians and magical theorists—Crowley and Yeats and so on at the beginning of the twentieth century were talking about it in one way or another—and now we’re talking about it again. That conference that you read that paper from was very much about that. Another talk given in that series was given by Levi Strauss. I think that same issue of the Brooklyn Rail has Levi Strauss’s talk on this same subject, and more specifically about the political and less about the filmic.
I’m glad you found the Crivelli piece. Isn’t he wonderful, that painting?
SL: I haven’t found a physical picture of it, I’ve only seen that picture that’s on the internet with your poem.
RK: I think it’s an enlargement maybe, I’m not sure. He’s very hard to find. I remember when Charlotte and I were in Venice, maybe five years ago—she’d been there before but I had never been there, and I was thinking “Oh boy, now I can see a lot of Crivelli”—because he was a Venetian. And I marched in and I asked people, “Crivelli? Crivelli?” No soap. They didn’t know him, they didn’t think about him. Turned out most of his paintings were in some other city out there, but he was a Venetian. And I did finally find, just in a kind of street bookstore in Venice, an album of his pictures that I carried away. It’s extraordinary, that painting. I have the feeling that I got about one percent of what was going on in that picture. Do you know a book of mine called The Garden of Distances, have you seen that?
SL: No, I know of it but I haven’t seen it.
RK: I think you’d find that interesting. That’s a collaboration with a woman named Brigitte Mahlknecht, who is, despite her name, an Italian painter. I met her very casually in New York, where she was—I thought the girlfriend of a friend, but she was just living in his apartment, a boarder; anyway, it was one of those—“What do you do?” “I’m a painter.” “Oh, what are your pictures like?” And for the first and only time in my life this happened: she reached into her pocket and handed me fifty snapshots of her painting. And I thought it was so wonderful that someone would do that. Usually, if you’ve ever asked a painter what their work is like, you get nothing, or else the vaguest buzz-off kind of response. And I liked the work, so we began to collaborate on a text. We didn’t meet again for several years, we never saw each other again after that moment—it was just a moment like this in a restaurant, with half a dozen other people around—but we had the idea of collaborating, so: she would send me a picture and I would translate it into language and send that back to her, and she would write a picture based on my poem, so it went back and forth by fax. And it went on for about a year, and then we met in Vienna, in a wonderful happenstance we were both in Vienna, and we sat down in a room this size and laid out the pictures and the poems on the ground and formed the book.
SL: Would you talk a little more about what happens when you’re looking at an image and it’s turning into language?
RK: I think it’s a matter of size, to begin with. I said when I was a kid I went to the movies every day, and the reason I did is that my family had fallen into the clutches of a curious ophthalmologist, or oculist, or maybe he was just an optometrist, who had his own ideas about how to treat eye problems. My eye problem then, like now, was simply myopia, just shortsightedness, nearsightedness. He felt, however, that it shouldn’t be treated by glasses, and my mother didn’t want it treated by glasses—my people had strange ideas about health—everybody has strange ideas about health, everybody’s odd in that. Anyway, his method of treating me was to send me to the movies every day, and I was to sit in the front row. So I would be forced to look around me—above, to the side, down—so I had to be in the image, so to speak. That was wonderful. I didn’t like all the movies; I naturally liked movies best that had adventure in them and not romance. But when you’re very close, even a twenty-foot high romantic embrace can be interesting, its planes and shapes—though I didn’t see very well, everything was fuzzy. I’m answering the question this way because I just now am realizing that that’s probably why this is, I’m discovering this answer. Essentially when I look at an image I want to be inside it; I want it to be as large as those were when I was a kid, I want to look at it close up. So when I see the Crivelli, all I want to do is enter it, be in it, feel the brick, feel the light, the shade in the alleyway, etc. I like all that. And the first thing I think an image does for me is to express itself as an environment into which I can come.
SL: So, in that essay on “Magic and Film” you at the end touch on “magical poetry,” and you use Robert Duncan as your big example. It’s a bit of a teaser because you don’t really elaborate, so—
RK: I’m trying to remember what I said—I should have looked at it, you gave me fair warning. Did I allude to Duncan as a poet of magic or as different from magic? Was I including him or—
SL: I think you were including him. Do you normally think of him as a poet of magic?
RK: Yes, yes, very much so. I think of him as the poet of magic, and his career in a way suffered because of it. I think of Olson’s attack on him—do you know that essay of his, it’s called “Against Wisdom as Such”? And there are others who felt the same way about him, people who rejected his magical interests. At the same time, Duncan was not himself a magician. (I guess that’s what’s delaying me, maybe I’m a little annoyed with myself for using that word to describe him.) Magic in the sense of mageia, the Renaissance sense of magic, magic as—I’ll offer a definition—magic as an articulated, coherent understanding of the relationship of the world through all its parts. That sounds like science, doesn’t it? But science has not yet begun to deal with anything like all the parts of the world—notably all the parts of human emotional experience, which is what we mostly know about anything; we mostly know what we feel about things. Even in stuff like the hard sciences, we are dominated by the way we feel about it: I don’t feel like studying physics, I kind of like biology, I kind of like botany, that sort of—Why are you a botanist rather than a physicist or a statistician? Feeling leads us, and that’s what we don’t know, we don’t understand anything about that. Magic in that sense is that complete grasping of the whole through all of its parts. Magic believes in correspondences—you know the Baudelaire poem that speaks of that a little bit, or the Rimbaud famous “Vowels” with the colors for the letters. The notion that “correspondences” are the signatures that the world writes in each part of itself. You know when you break the Sanguinaria a little red sap comes out—that lovely white flower in spring in these parts, do you have that out there? Bloodroot they call it, and when you break the delicate little stem out comes something that looks very like blood. So naturally one would use that for afflictions of the blood. So: those basic signatures in things. I meant that by magic: Robert was always aware of the relationship—he didn’t write a lot, that’s the thing about Duncan, compared not just to me or Enslin or any other people who did really write a lot, even compared to Olson he didn’t write so much—so much poetry that is; the H. D. Book is very big, and many other things, he wrote, but he didn’t write all that many poems. You could fit all of his poetry in a book the size of, say, Zukofsky’s “A”. But he wrote with such an attention to this lateral connectedness. I’ve never known a poet more aware of that. Even with Olson: you could stop Olson at a word in a poem and say, “Ah! that’s interesting because of blah over here,” and he would say “I never thought of that; I don’t mean that; forget that; that’s irrelevant; I’m going this way, don’t go that way.” Whereas Duncan never resisted the lateral disposition of words to reach out for meaning—meanings often beyond our own intention. There was not simply a line that had to be followed. And I with my love for gapping and interruption and pause, and all the stuff that happens at the pause—I should say, there is a Tibetan word, so.ma., which sounds like but is not connected at all to the drug of the ancients or the Greek word for body—which is in Greek actually the word for a dead body not a living one, soma is a corpse—but so.ma. in Tibetan means, I guess can be best translated as “freshness,” and it’s understood and talked about as the space between one thought and the next. It’s the nothing that separates somethings; without that the series of somethings would just become an incomprehensible mush, like all the instruments of the orchestra playing all the notes at the same moment, Klang. But so.ma. is the interruption, the gap. So: the longer I write poetry and the longer I think about poetry, or talk or anything else, the more I think that interruption is the essence of our—drama. Which is why I come back so gratefully to Robert Creeley’s exploration of sheer gapping, as this genesis of music. Music is all-important to me in writing, I mean I write musically, I write because I hear it, I write to hear it. The ideas I’m expressing are more or less trivial most of the time––who can be sure of being other than trivial ever?—but the actual musical event may not be trivial.
So, in calling Duncan magical that’s what I mean, the renaissance magic. And his work is seldom concerned–though sometimes it is concerned––with proper magicians. He has that poem called “Sonneries of the Rose Cross,” on the basis of that exalted Erik Satie piano composition—Satie had been connected with this French magus named Joséphin Péladan, who called himself Sar Péladan, does that ring a bell for you?
SL: I only know it from the Duncan poem.
RK: Péladan is an interesting character who worked with Stanislas de Guaita to create this magical order that has a lot to do with the Golden Dawn that came after it. I find that whole world curious and interesting, but not—I would not have joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, for example. I would’ve gone to some of their meetings once in a while, I would’ve nudged or pinched some of my brethren in the order to tell me more about them. But the systematic way in which they approached, there’s something right about that, magic must be systematic. Because it aims at all, it aims at everything, it doesn’t aim at simple transmutations, it’s not a simple office. . . .
I should say about Duncan and magic that at the time I knew Duncan in California I was often visiting out there to stay with a man named Harvey Bialy, who was at that time a young poet—he’s still in business, he makes very beautiful artwork now, very remarkable kaleidoscopic imagery. I used to visit Bialy, and the reason I mention him is that he was a very sedulous student of Crowleyite magic, he was a friend, a disciple, of Kenneth Anger; he and his then wife Timotha were very involved in actual magical practices of one kind or another, which I thought were interesting and appealing and I felt supportive of that, but participated not at all, because I’m not that kind of fellow. We would often see Duncan all together, and Duncan’s attitude was one similar to mine, of affectionate curiosity but––“I don’t do that.” And a lovely story that I can tell about that is one you may have heard before: When Kenneth Anger, who was very close to Duncan––[interrupted by a siren going by]—See, it is the real world, it isn’t just magic, there are fire engines and motorcycles!—Brakhage once said that what he had against Duncan was that he would never get off the trolley car at Reality Street if he could help it. But that’s not true; Duncan had a very real sense of reality, a very vivid sense. When Kenneth Anger had to leave San Francisco at one point he asked Robert if he could store some of his magical gear at Robert’s house. And Robert said (I think with some reluctance) “All right.” So they gave him an empty closet, and he threw all the stuff in and closed the door and walked away. And Duncan and Jess began to worry about it. They’d sit there talking about it in the evening—“What’s in there? What’s going on in that closet”—you know. So it wasn’t long before they opened the closet door and nailed a crucifix on the back side of the door, and let Christ take care of the issue, and that calmed it down. So, they, who were not Christians, still had a sense of—magic’s natural antagonist would be the Crucified. Every magician, even though they should know better, seems to be madder at Christ than at any other figure in the world. I never quite understood that; I can see being angry at Rome, but why be angry at a man hanging on a cross, that’s difficult to understand. Anyway: Duncan had I think approximately the same attitude towards magic that I have: fascination with its furthest reach and its highest form, and—rather—suspicion of it in actual practice.