I admire David Shapiro’s poetry very much, and I’m happy to be able to present this interview. His poetry is synaesthetic and hyperkinetic. It begins from the analogies between language and music, language and painting, language and architecture, language and physics; then it finds the fissures in these analogies and, with a keen tragicomic skepticism, pushes them towards or past their breaking point. It is beautiful and useful to watch.
I contacted Shapiro about recording a brief interview on a recent visit to New York, and he very kindly invited me to visit his apartment in Riverdale, the Bronx. He gave me a frenetic tour of the paintings on his walls (by Jasper Johns, John Hejduk, Michael Goldberg, Fairfield Porter, and others), offered me a piece of an immense multicolored Mardi Gras cake (I’m afraid I declined), and showed me dozens of his own collages made mostly from postcards, children’s stickers, and Bedazzle jewels. (One of these, a double portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein, appears below.) Then we sat on a sunny couch and talked for about two hours. When I listened to the recording afterwards (a friend had lent me a very nice digital recorder) I found that, due to an error of my button-pushing finger, I had only recorded the first thirty minutes of the conversation, a sort of epic preamble before I began to ask questions. Thus I offer a torso or severed stem of a lost interview. Over the next few months, I transcribed the recording and sent Shapiro some additional questions, which he answered by email. These appear as footnotes.
David Shapiro: You know, a lot of my poems come out of my dreams, and I don’t like to admit it, but I found, maybe because I was so despondent as a young man, from age four or five giving concerts and practicing, my dream life was very dense, and I would dream poems. I told my son:
“Why don’t you have a poem in your dream every night?”
And he would say, “Oh, you’re Chief Poem-in-a-Dream.”
We loved to write together, and it made being a father even easier—meaning: when you’re a father and you want to do something else, it’s a mistake; so I found something I liked to do with him. We would paint side by side; he would paint things from Sesame Street—or ask me to; he would paint very abstractly.
But one of the things that happened: I started to have what is now called lucid dreams, where I knew what I was getting, and a lot of my poems were gotten in dreams. Kenneth Koch used to warn against “indigestible dream fragments” and I understand, there’s a kind of minor surrealism where you know that it’s a dream—as in a bad poet saying, “It was all a dream.” But I began to get up to about 16 lines that I could memorize, and a lot of the poem called “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” was written in dreams. Fairfield Porter, who’s one of my favorite artists, said to me one day:
“How did you write these poems?”
And I said, “Well I should tell you the truth, a lot of it does come from dreams.”
And he said, “Oh, that accounts for its dreamy quality.”
And I took that as a put-down and began—for a very long time I thought very specifically about the quality of description, which people love to praise in certain poets; for example, Elizabeth Bishop is praised by Paz as having a good descriptive intelligence. But I don’t pass, as she does—it’s a Guy de Maupassant exercise—I don’t pass a tree and think, What’s the one word that would describe this tree better than any other word in the world? I did that when I was about 12 to 15, a lot of that, so I regard that as practicing scales. But if lately I do notice something it’s that, just as there’s a weakness—I spent a my whole life as a kind of red-diaper baby, so politics and the politics of socialism and the history of the Russian revolution and the history of the progressivist movement in America, all that was so close to me, but I do feel it may be a weakness, because I know that a friend once said:
“Oh, I’m not putting you in this political book, David, because your poems are not political.”
And I said, “It’s been my whole life, I was on the FBI lookout list longer than some Language poets have been languaged.”
But it’s true that, I guess obviously, some people might read my work and I sometimes worry that it’s almost too much about obsessive love. I remember a woman said to me:
“There’s not enough sex in your poetry.”
And I said, “I think it’s like math, I think there’s enough sex in mathematics and there’s enough—”
But one wonders whether in this bad century—the last one was called the worst so far, so we can say, but of the last few years it’s pretty bad–one can say, why is it that I seem incapable of something that you see in the Bard, this amazing ability, as in Richard III—I hate Richard III in a certain ways, but Coriolanus I hate so much that I remember loving—Bernard Shaw said, “Shakespeare’s greatest comedy: Coriolanus!” Eliot loved it.
Sam Lohmann: I haven’t read Coriolanus.
DS: Well it’s, at any rate, the genius, the military genius inside Shakespeare is amazing, and it’s amazing to see an entire play with hardly any relaxation into the sweetness—Even in Macbeth you have: “Where they most breed and haunt I have observed / The air is delicate.” There’s this change. So it’s as if you were writing in the same meter for 46 pages, and you were mostly concerned with the politics of an Oedipal complex writ large, murder and honor. At any rate—so I worry.
I once said to my wife, I think that people can write as well, and have, as The Comedy of Errors, but when you get to something like the Winter’s Tale you feel as if Shakespeare has something to contribute that no one else does. I was listening to Pericles the other day and for about three acts I thought, This is just—not very inspiring. But then at about the fourth act or so you get goosebumps and you suddenly think, Oh, someone else is now writing—the greatest writer who ever lived. I mean the end of Pericles is extraordinary, the last two acts.
So at any rate—what is this to say? So a lot of my poems are inspired by dreams, sometimes very specifically: a piece of paper will come down . . . Oh, and my son once said:
“Oh my god, I did have a poem in my dream!”(He usually said no.)
And I said, “Oh, what was it?”
And he said, “An angel was in it.”
And I said, “Amazing! Great that you had an angel!”
And he said, “And the angel carried a scroll, you know, like a scroll, dad.”
I said, “Unbelievable, very great, what could be better? And what happened?”
He said, “Well he opened the scroll, and there was a poem on it.”
I said, “Fantastic! So what did it say?”
He said, “I couldn’t read it, it was in cursive.”
But then I said, “It’s good just to have had the dream, to have had an angel who showed you a scroll with an illegible—That’s fine, that’s good.”
So sometimes I’ll get 16 lines, sometimes it’ll just be—like in a poem called “Father Knows Best,” I had the dream, which was a theological version of the TV show, “Father Knows Best.” It was so strange, and I just wrote it out. My wife didn’t like me waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and so I finally decided I could control my dreams; and a psychoanalyst’s son, the poet Larry Wieder, once said to me—not Lawrence Weiner the artist but Larry Wieder the poet—said, “Why would you want to control the one thing that should be uncontrollable, or uncontrolled?” But I used to like waking up with my work done—like I would wake up, write the poem out, and I felt good for the day, that I’d written a poem. Which reminds me that Lou Reed said to Andy Warhol:
“I’ve been working.”
And Andy presumably said, “On what, Lou?”
And Lou Reed said, “I finished a song. Almost two.”
And Andy said, ”Go back home! One or two poems? Ridiculous! You should go back and do ten or fifteen!”
So a lot of poems were written in many many different ways, because I liked a multiplicity of attacks, like writing in the morning and writing in the afternoon and writing in the evening. But also, I believed for a long time that what one should do is read everything in [Ezra Pound’s] TheABC of Reading, as it were, and then read everything he left out. So that was my essential idea, was to read everything that was of a certain perspective. As with art history, I used to think: Just read everything if you can that Meyer Schapiro’s ever read, and then read all the things that he footnotes. But at any rate, I think that with poetry, I’ve learned a lot from dreams because even trying to deal with a simple phrase that may appear in a poem—I think when I was 15 I saw: “The Cuban car door is smashed to bits.” I was never able to use it, but I was sort of inspired—I think it was the end of the world, in those days, in 1962, I was 15.
But I was jealous of Bill Zavatsky, who went to a Jungian and had 5 page dreams, 10 page dreams—enormous dreams are dreamt by Jungians—Jung and Freud joked about, their patients dreamt the dreams of their particular ideology—Freud got Freudian dreams, Jung got Jungian dreams.
And I have a friend, we debate this—Rodger Kamenetz, who wrote The Jew in The Lotusand who just wrote a book on dreams, and he thinks that I’m aestheticizing dreams, and what he wants to do is to show “the truth in dreams,” that is not—though he’s a poet, he doesn’t—I try to say that I don’t see the distinction.
One day I did go to sleep thinking, I never get this “God’s voice” necessarily, or I don’t get these amazing dreams that the Jungians do, snakes and archetypal symbols. That day I had a ten-page dream. It was very upsetting: God spoke, and he said: “There is nothing wrong with the architect.” And when I woke I didn’t know whether he was meaning there’s nothing wrong withme, “The Architect,”the supernal architect, or with my wife, who at that time was studying to be an architect.
Dreams have often amazed me, but I think very much because—since Rimbaud is one of my favorite poets in the entire world.I remember liking Kenneth Koch because he said, “Arthur Rimbaud—perhaps the greatest poet who ever lived.” And later when we were in England (he was visiting me in Cambridge) he said “Ah, Chekhov.” I had just been praising Vanya as my standard. And he said, “Yes, I often think that he’s the greatest writer who ever lived.” And it wasn’t that often that Kenneth was merely audacious with taste. He liked my taste, he said it was perfect, I had influenced him by showing him Shklovsky, Kawabata, Braudel, Benjamin. Shklovsky—he liked a sentence of Shklovsky’s—
SL: That’s pretty good.
DS: —And, etc., etc., etc. And with Kawabata he found a new way to write stories. But he didn’t like anything that I told him that was religious. I would say to him how the Talmud should be read, because it was just like having twenty new books by Kafka. Wouldn’t do it. I told him to read a book that I’d written—and mentioned him in!—with Derrida. He said:
“What’s the title?”
I said, “The Body of Prayer.”
He said: “Nope. Won’t do it.”
Even though he was inside it! He had a great trauma—he grew up among assimilated Jews in Cincinnati. And you feel that amazingly as a weakness when he writes “To My Jewishness.” It’s funny, but it’s also an impossible childhood in which he didn’t—What he wanted to have is what he found in Harvard and New York, and he says it again and again. What he found was a culture that was closer to John Cage than to—and Zen than to—Judaism. One time when I told him I might write a Ph.D. on Job, he said to me, “Oh, you’re not going to become another Jewish intellectual, are you?” (I didn’t do it.)
But I think that what is amazing about dreams, that the surrealists knew, is that—not that it’s a vacation, but that it’s also the everyday. That must be in part what Kamenetz means by saying it’s the truth. There are many different attitudes towards dreams—one of them is Crick, who just said: “It’s just washing the computer out at night, it’s not interesting at all.” And if it was interesting, someone said, and Crick agrees, why would we mostly forget our dreams? That would seem to be an interesting aspect of the meaning of dreams. Freud seems to overdo the absolute determinism of the meaning of dreams. But I’m not so sure—the Jewish religion sometimes says, if you’ve had a bad dream: “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter sealed.” If you’ve had a bad dream, you should do something which is called “The Amelioration of the Dream.” You hire a certain number of people around you from your village, and they give you good interpretations of your dream.
But one of the things that I guess we all wonder about is whether—The dream is so open, but this is what we like in poetry too. As a matter of fact the Talmud mocks those who believe in dreams too much, because you can interpret them—and they give examples—in every possible way, bad or good. On the other hand, there is a kind of Californian kitsch—which is why I didn’t want to mention it to Fairfield—of using it like a tie-dyed batik, because it’s colorful. At its best though—I agree with John Cage who once said to an organist: “Can you play this?” and it was a piece of wood. You should be able to play a dream, in many ways.
But I do think that there are dreams—for example when my mother died, I saw a gigantic pool, and the pool was carved with these words: “Laugh loudly, love, as my voice laughs in the grey water.”And that wasn’t a dream that I could predictably say could be anything, or could be contradictory to itself. It was a mourning dream. It was mournful and it was spectacularly precise. Because my mother had always told me that her father was—not only was he a great singer, but people liked to have him in theaters because he would laugh with an astonishing laugh. So this “Laugh loudly, love, as my voice laughs in the grey water.”—it was sort of—as Eliot said ofOthello—cheering me up. There was a case of a wish and a lie and a dream, or a wish, a truth and a dream.
So I just start with this problem for poets, which is whether you put—as I do sometimes—you put two apples on a table and say: “Treat these without contempt”—which is my negative-capability exercise. Allen Ginsberg came to one of my classes—people said, “Oh my god, that’s Allen Ginsberg!”—and there was his friend, Peter Orlovsky, and they were my students. I said to my wife, “They’re very talented students.” I particularly loved Orlovsky because he was so simple and filled with a kind of maniacal—what would one say?—naiveté, or innocence, or sweetness. But Allen particularly liked that exercise: “Treat something without contempt.” And for me it’s interesting to see people who within seconds—like Keats’s friend who was doing the grasshopper and the cricket said, “Oh little cricket, oh little cousin my cricket, oh little cricket”—it’s filled with contempt. And Keats starts—and this is the great “revisionary ratio” as they say in Yale—for me, it’s amazing that he says: “The poetry of earth is never dead.”I mean, to start with this gigantic thing, it’s sort of like the way—Allen liked the haiku:
climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly.
I mean, that’s treating a snail with the minimum of contempt, and I think that’s what Keats meant by, you know, stay in uncertainties.
You find that people say “The windless building!” or something, to which Kenneth and I used to say, “Well, why should it have wind?” I mean, there are certain kinds of descriptivenesses that are so additional. Fairfield Porter said, of my painting, he said, “Try to be unashamed. Let your color just be a color. Be unashamed like a child.” He said my doodles were better than my paintings, and he put one of my doodles up in his bedroom, I was very happy. But I think people also look for ways out. Like I said to him once:
“Can you teach me foreshortening, the laws of foreshortening?”
And he said, “Of course.”
And I said, “Oh, would you do it?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Tonight.”
And I waited all night as I said like a day student, or I waited all day like a night student, and I got prepared—He said to bring—Oh, he gave—Both of us had a tablet of paper, and I said:
“Okay, what should I do?”
And he said, “Draw what you see.”
And I said, “Okay . . . But you’re gonna teach me foreshortening—“
He said: “Draw what you see.”
And I slowly got the Zen sense that this was him instructing me that there was no easy interpretation of this dream of what you see. There are friends of mine like Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe who think that the optical revolution in impressionism is The Revolution, and that we’ve all been destroyed by the whimsy and irony of conceptualism—let’s say out of Dada and out of Duchamp, but also out of Andy. I respond to that now—I think there’s a lot to be learned from impressionism, and certainly the post-impressionists had a great influence on, for example, the New York School—Bonnard and Larry Rivers were very important allies at some moment, and Fairfield also learned so much about, he said, essentially what painting was: light. He was always going—when he was in a museum with me, or anywhere else, he would say: “Light, light.”
But on the other hand, people have said (you can look this up in a kind of Scientific American manner) that if I scooped out my brain, I would not be able to see better—the mind and the eye are connected. (Not to sound like Leo Steinberg, who says about the same thing.) So, those who thought they could get away with a purely optical revolution—unfortunately the purely optical in impressionism is filled with subject matter. What Meyer Schapiro always showed about the impressionists was that they were dealing with themselves, the middle class on parade. Seurat is not merely little dots, Meyer was always saying; they’re not even little dots, they’re constantly changing shape and they’re part of a humor, and part of what I would call the sort of restless universe, and they’re part of an Egyptian desire for monumentality: and, and, and.
So—I just say in poetry—I’ve been amazed that lately anyone could think that life, so filled with hectic tragedy and right now economic catastrophe—you would think that it would not be a century in which one would think, as many have, that zero degree is the degree, or that poetry should somehow be purified of subject matter. To me, and this is what’s been called maximalism, it just seems as if the joy of poetry for me, and maybe this is not true of everyone, has been liberty. I know people of the Oulipo school who think the joy of poetry is how you deal with rule systems—not that even Oulipo thought that that was the finished work. But, yes, I understand that rules and scales and arpeggios are all rather important. As Goethe said, “In rules lie mastery.” But on the other hand—or something like that: “In . . . measure lies mastery.” Someone like—a poet who will be nameless—well, I think we can name him—Richard Wilbur said that what he likes is that the genie is in the bottle, that’s how he gets his power. But I thought that it’s actually how you explodeout of the bottle, that the genie has a lot of power out of the bottle, not in the bottle.
So, I have to say of certain of the avant-gardes, as I read them—and I don’t feel like complaining directly by name—but there must be hundreds of people that I know who seem to be thinking about a poetry that would be drained of most emotion—you see that actually a white-on-white painter like Ryman has tremendous emotion, so I’m not saying it necessarily happens—but that one of the things that’s happened in our day is a kind of dogmatic dryness.
I know that there are readers—from 1962 there was a lot of reading of sort of grey-on-grey. Well, it was a way to shift attention away from a sort of golden saxophone of Dylan Thomas’s voice. (Jasper Johns the other day said to me: “Oh, you’re not going to attack poor Dylan are you?” I’m not, I love him, but certainly one has gone a very long way from that.)
When I first read Theodore Roethke I loved his poems—very precise about plants. I was about twelve, and I memorized them, and I liked his long poems, like “The Lost Son.” This startled Kenneth Koch when I met him, and Kenneth gave me [John Ashbery’s] The Tennis Court Oath, and I remember in August, 1962, I had this amazing experience of thinking, Oh, this poem seems rather dry, and dried out, and ugly in its own interesting way. And then I thought:
I moved up
I had seen this written out by Kenneth in a review in The Partisan Review, so I knew it, and I had also seen, what I loved about John, in the Allen anthology—“How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher / Of life, my great love?” But anyway, this one seemed to be more the “Huh?” than the pathos. And I thought to myself, He’s using the word I as if it’s any other word in the dictionary. And I thought: Well, that’s interesting. And then I remember just going further, and reading: “You girl / the sea in waves.”And I thought, Well that’s very melodic, that’s as if he’s putting melody inside a lot of static—interesting. I mean I was a violinist and I thought of everything in terms of music, and so I thought—actually I made the mistake of thinking, I must say that a lot of times I thought to myself, A little bit like a Debussy where the melody sort of floats up, and—well, it might’ve been related to gamelan, and thence to John Cage and Morty Feldman, who loved the gamelan. But I was reading this poem, and one of the things is, you know:
To employ her
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
and I thought—And the other thing about it was that it reminded me of this new artist (for me), Robert Rauschenberg. (We were published together in Location magazine, and there was a real cat on a George Segal lover couple . . .) And I thought, It’s really very many-layered.
But anyway, as you can see, I was slowly being converted to this poem. By the end of the hour or two he was my favorite poet. And I often tell my kids, when they’re talking about their taste: “See if you can revolutionize your taste every once in a while.” What if I had stopped with Roethke? Or, one might say,what if I had stopped with Kenneth’s shout out to me, when we were walking to play tennis in 1962, he said to me:
“You’ll see that there is only me, John and Frank.”
And I said, “You mean as great poets?”
He said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Well, what about Martin Buber?”
He said, “W-w-w-what about Martin Buber?”
I said, “What about Martin Buber, for example.”
And he said, “He’s a minor Jewish philosopher, why are we talking about him?”
And I said, “Well sometimes it’s as good to be a minor Jewish philosopher as to be part of a team.”
And I used to write something called “Resentments: The New York School.”From the very beginning I didn’t believe that such a multiple situation could be torn down to a working dogma, it wasn’t something that I liked. And as a matter of fact he was wrong because there was James Schuyler, a pretty amazing poet. At any given moment—
I said to Serra once, “Who do you think is good?”
And he said, “Me. I’m the greatest sculptor.” We were at a wonderful conference of hundreds of sculptors and painters at Documenta, in Marburg, Germany—no, in Kassel, Germany, 1977.
I said, “Nobody that you respect? For example—no one?”
He said, “No, I’m the greatest.”
And I said, “But surely you like Carl Andre, your friend.”
He said, “Yes. Carl and I are the sculptors in America, no one else.”
And I said, “But of course, of course your dead friend, Robert Smithson—my favorite artist in many ways—is also somebody that you respect.”
“Yes: Smithson, Andre, and me, that’s all,” he said, and gave me the sense that things were finished. So it was very interesting being a critic, because you saw as you went from artist to artist that every artist regarded themselves as the center.
De Kooning once said to Elaine de Kooning that he had listed the artists that he respected on a query, but no one had listed him. He said: “What happened?” Well, one of the things that I think has happened in my day, which is fine, is that—Well, there was an intellectual dictator in T.S. Eliot. Then Delmore Schwartz used to say: “Let there be an end to literary dictatorships.” But there’s probably no way, with poetry—there’s such a multiplicity of people calling themselves poets, so—With Judaism, for example—it’s very hard to say what’s Jewish. I met an architect who I thought was very mean to me by saying that if my grandfather had repeated a word, he’d be quote “dead meat in my synagogue.”
Jews don’t have Popes, so I’m used to the concept that there may be a custom in Latvia, but it’s not the custom for people speaking Ladino; or somebody may have a custom that is broken at different times, while someone else has a custom of “Never break with the custom!”—that’s the custom, or the law. I feel as if poetry became therefore—In the ‘60s a lot of it meant liberty. You know, “Has anybody ever looked out the window and seen a painting by Matisse?” is a line by Kenneth Koch, meaning that he wanted fresh air, he wanted something in his own way like a Howl, he wanted something more mad and crazy and open, as the Fauves had been, as the Dadaists had been.
A lot of his quotations were from John Cage. I quote John so much that some kid when he died said to me, at Bennington:
“Oh, Professor Shapiro, that guy you’re always quoting died.”
And I said, “What? Who?” Because I thought, I quote a lot of people.Someone was mocking me on the internet, he said: “Shapiro is finished. We all know what he does. He says: ‘Some famous philosopher would say this about this.’ It’s all over. That’s what he does.” And I thought—I mean it’s true that sometimes you have to watch out for quotation. A great Israeli poet said to me:
“I notice you quote.”
And I said, “Well, that’s our tradition.”
He said, “Yes, but you always quote agreeing. Sometimes you should quote against.”
And I thought that was very brilliant. It was David Avidan, who died, terribly, in Israel, I mean very unsupported. But that was a very good insight.
On the other hand, it’s true that I don’t mind having high standards. Arthur Koeninger, who’s a theologian, said: “No matter what you believe in Judaism, at least you’re getting high standards.” Now high and low standards are interesting too, because I come out of pop art. And I remember when Kenneth once said to me: “Don’t you think Andy’s a little naïve—I mean, pressing a live rat between the pages of a book?” And there was a little distance that some of the people who had actually created pop art—I mean, there was Kenneth who from the fifties had written about Mickey Mouse and other things. He said, “Well, people don’t care about Clytemnestra but they do care about Minnie, and Donald Duck.” But they found it very difficult sometimes to suddenly see [slapping his thigh] the brute simplicity of Andy. And it stirred them up a lot.
I’m just saying that for a certain period in my life I was interested in smashing language, fragmenting language. Someone said that I learned from Joe Ceravolo—no, we were both together, and I felt that we were all, about ten of us—a few more—were interested in this sort of Cubo-Futurism (a word that Kenneth Koch said was so ugly that it would take people away from our work). But I liked the idea that in that way there was something shared. (People ask, is there shared taste?)
I mean, when I first met Frank O’Hara he actually said he hoped I didn’t mind that he had gotten me published in TheFloating Bear. I said of course I didn’t mind, I thought that was very generous. But when that was all over, he also knew a lot about music. When I played for Allen Ginsberg the Nigun of Bloch, he said to me:
“Did you just make that up?”
And I said, “Well, it’s called ‘Improvisation by Bloch.’” I teased him, because I thought: He must be a fool to think that I’ve just improvised one of the great ten-page pieces by Bloch! Whereas Frank O’Hara called a friend and said: “Who’s the violinist who you think is playing this, Grumiaux or someone else?” In other words, not only did he know it, but he knew it, he liked it, he knew how I played, he was interested in music from the beginning to the end. Well, that just sounds, if not hyperbolic, certainly that sounds condescending on my part. But what I found was that from the second I met Frank I thought he was a genius, and I did think this at other times in my life. But I never saw him as tabooing something. Sometimes he just thought that something was silly—like he asked me which were my favorite paintings in MoMA, and I made the silly statement that I liked Hide-and-Go-Seek by Tchelitchew. And he said: “Why?” Which taught me a lot, as Pound said about—somebody laughed at Pound, and he said, “It saved me three years.” I think it was Ford Madox Ford, or Hueffer.
SL: Yeah, rolling on the floor.
DS: Yeah. As Williams’s father said: “What are you talking about with these gold things?”
“The backs of books.”
“Then why didn’t you say it?” It’s not as if it is so easy to say it, but—
Two things that I thought about Frank, was that he said: “Anyway, I don’t think you need much criticism, since, let’s face it, most criticism”—this is in a letter to me in ‘62—“most criticism is just what the critic prefers to your work.” In other words, I think he very quickly was a kind of student of [William] James, who talks about: There are two people who walk down the hill, Jack and Jill; we think they’re idiots; they love each other. Who knows more about them—we, who don’t really know them at all, and think they’re silly, or they, who think they’re really doing something?
At any rate, this is to say I thought there were wonderful things happening in Joe Ceravolo’s poetry, and in Frank Lima’s poetry which was very different—Frank was writing about the streets, was influenced by Lowell and—a lot of different things were happening in him, like Villon. You don’t expect Joe Ceravolo to suddenly have the tone of an angry jailbird, you know—he had the tone of a dignified engineer, who was lofted into outer space by Reverdy.
But one of the things that you can really say about my poetry is that, yes, it’s Jewish, and it’s Russian. For people who say that I’m just a disciple of John Ashbery—it’s not true, because the first thing that I was influenced by was Pasternak and Russian poets who were recited to me in my home, and also Hebrew prayer. Also, because I’m a classical violinist, I’m influenced more by Mozart than by anyone! Also, if you don’t believe in “the other arts”—as Harold Bloom once didn’t—influencing the other arts, there are a lot of things in my work which are not close to the perfect pastel taste and reticence of John Ashbery.
SL: “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” is a very long and complicated work to have been composed in dreams. What sort of process did you go through to construct it as a poem?
DS: I tried to build up a sonata that might resemble the extremely eccentric Tartini “Devil's Trill Sonata.” I think, by bizarre association, I thought also of the “Devil's Trill,” a caprice by Paganini in his 24 caprices. So I had a theme of the extreme musician, who is thought to be inspired by the devil. I think I end with the Dante line to reinforce this violin-mythology. But what I wanted most of all was the possibility of a poem that could include all the cartoon characters of the world and also Hamlet and Ophelia. I had thought a long poem might be like a reduction in such books as children buy that give them plots of novels and nothing else. I was inspired by the emptiness of the idea of plot. I was going through personal grumbles as Eliot said and wasn't sure this poem would signify socially anything to anyone, but I was mad to do it. I wanted the changes of tempi as in Tartini and sometimes thought to pattern the poem very directly, bar by bar, on the sonata. It wasn’t pleasant to be lost in such nightmares, though, and I meant it to be terrifying. Yes, I received lines from dreams: “Be mute for me, contemplative violin,” I received in Corbière's French, which is logical since it is a caricature of his “Be mute for me, contemplative idol.” Of course, I think of other poets as masters of a monotony that I get too impatient to continue. Though I have dreamt of a poem as La-Merish as Morty Feldman's endless triads, I'm not sure I am ever going to be a master of minimalism. Let's call what I do anything, even maximalism. Meyer Schapiro told me “They want more meat,” as a conclusion to a discussion of why many had lost sympathy in the 70's for abstract minimalist work. I'm not prescribing anything. Sometimes, however, as Jakobson said to me, some diets do not seem fulfilling. Mustard is not enough, even for our Kruchenykh zaum poems.
SL: What are some ways in which this sense of politics appears in your poetry?
DS: I am a red diaper adult. I can't imagine myself not wrapped in the melodrama of justice and even that quaint idea of revolution. Of course I am old for a socialist and older still for an anarchist. I render onto Caesar as little as I have to render, not in the way of taxes, where I am a lamb, but in the realm of lions and civil arguments and resistance as poet and friend. I tend to be very mawkish where Tolstoyan pacifism is concerned. Though I no longer think I am the perfect pacifist, it takes a very strong cascade of argument for me to budge towards militarism. All of my books are political and social, but I hope they also keep away from piety. Koch said to me, “Can't you be a revolutionary and keep your sense of humor?” I tried, I try. Early poems were published in South Africa against apartheid. “A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel” is a long mini-waste-moraine, as Joanna Fuhrman calls her works, in the sense that I am trying architecturally to make a melancholy incline. I may sometimes attack this problem too directly, as when Haldeman and Erlichman are hallucinated on the stage of my poetry. But I am pleased sometimes to be as simple as my Jan Palach odes, set to architecture as it were by Hejduk and dedicated by Havel. To me, that was an example of a poem that traveled, that reached a kind of destination.
DS: I think Kenneth always found the humor in Lucretius. “Happy is he who watches others’ ships go down at sea,” for example. In Benjamin he found flexible wit. But Shklovsky is transparently witty. I loved his Letters Not about Loveand of course all the theoretical essays, vivid as vectors. The sentence was something that I almost recall: It is easy to be unhappy in love; all it takes is for one not to love. The point is that Kenneth appreciated the clear cartoonish La Rochefoucauld wit of the Russians. He loved the lowness of Pasternak’s similes: “as hot as the top level of a Turkish steam bath.
SL: I know that you sometimes use traditional forms such as the villanelle, and also that you admire John Cage. Do you ever use chance methods or other constraints as part of your writing process? Do you ever see collage methods as a form of liberating constraint?
DS: I have been inspired by the painters of my time. Of course, this includes Manet, Braque's collages, Johns’s lightbulbs, Fairfield Porter’s shrewd observations and anomalous lines. I don't like to be dragged into a reactionary argument, but as a violinist of course I believe in practice. However, I have known teachers who can use concerti excerpts as well as scales to learn to play a note cleanly and clearly. I fell in love with forms I think through Pound's curriculum. Because of music and even listening to Caedmon records in childhood (Stevens, Cummings, Frost, Eliot, etc.) I loved to imitate voices, as in a shower of tones. I could “do” Gielgud, Sandburg, Vanya, Antigone. I love to imitate, and anyway Aristotle has defended imitation as humane many thousands of years ago. I found doing l00 villanelles very funny practice. I have never written a good sestina, a Platonically clear sestina, except once when I saw lines of color as sestinas after my mother’s death. I started to paint sestinas of simple lines for a year. Collages with stickers are my comical way of adjusting to my wife's antipathy to me ruining the floor with oil. I don’t have a studio, and though I dream of being able to paint without ceasing except to write without ceasing, I take it that this is my fate. Sometimes I go for too long without serious drawing, but I don't think poetry is a pencil and I do think poetry can strive to be a hand or voice or pen. I'm not in love with Michaux’s painting, but the idea of it I love. I was raised by Victor Hugo and his inky techniques and wonder. I do love Artaud when he agitates a portrait. I don’t love Ernst or Magritte as poets, but I am moved by Braque's statements, Redon’s notes, Gaugin’s lies, Van Gogh’s letters of course most of all, Delacroix’s intimacies and nobility. Anyway, I have had the good or bad fortune to have been raised in a country (my parents’ imaginary living room) where poetry, painting, music, even dance (my sisters had a school for others), and philosophical political argument were “one.” Like a tree in which there are thirteen arts, all sisters. I grew up in what Hölderlin might call the lap of the gods or the lap of the humans, and certainly with good luck I admired the spinning dynamic of all the arts. My father was a doctor who most loved sculpting and playing viola and listening and political argument. My mother was a pianist, a singer, and a very fine teacher of children. She taught me years of Hebrew in a few weeks. She was a genius, it has kept my feminism authentic. At any rate, this is what I love in the works of Meyer Schapiro—the tremendous devotion to all the axes of the aesthetic. And he regretted, he said, the failure of socialism in his time.
DS: As soon as I met Kenneth Koch, I had agreements and disagreements, and we knew it till the day he died and one might say, I too died a lot. He loved humor, and I also loved tragedy. He loved good humor, and I sometimes appreciated self-pity too much and masochism that he hated in Frank O’Hara too. I took it for granted that I was part of the Jewish circulation of things; he had an allergy to the very word God. Nothing could stop him from being as Jewish as he actually was—a lover of surrealist zaniness. Black humor when he finally unleashed an ode about his army days. Black humor where he really loved to impeach bad poets—see Pleasures of Peacefor a caricature of anti-war arts. Kenneth led me to keep a kind of essay in which I distanced myself from some of that a bit. Everyone keeps his distances if he or she wants to grow. Brancusi said this of keeping away from Rodin. I too had to become something that was not a mere mascot version of the NY School. I don't like being called second generation or 18th generation either. There are two volumes about my work, by Thomas Fink and by Fink with Joseph Lease, but most of all I appreciate those who see that I have had a distinct tone since I was 9 or at least 13. This may be a unique flaw in me. Someone at a reading pointed out this seeming homogeneity of all my poetry. It is not true that I write one poem, except in a Borgesian sense that that is all we ever can do. However, I try to revolutionize myself sans cesse. The essay, which I can't find, was one of the exercises that one makes to underline a position or location. I wrote for example very cubo-futurist works for a few years, among other things, so I have never been very impressed by the cubo-futurisms of 1970’s and onwards. I have hundreds nay thousands of poems in boxes and bins and storage and warehouse, in desks and file cabinets, but I don't want to bring out things just to prove a stylistic point: “I am more linguistic than thou.” But I am filled with the glory of language as much as anyone it has been my good fortune to meet. Kenneth on our first walk said I would see there were only a few poets alive: Kenneth himself, O’Hara and Ashbery. I said, “What about Martin Buber?” That conversation never ended. Kenneth is like a syncretistic mix of Pop art and its hardness, ab ex and its wildness and delirium, and a classical desire for clarity as in Ovid and Ariosto. He was born to write plays, born for humor as resistance, born for satire and for sexuality and love. He told me: “Being in love makes me clear.”
SL: On the other hand, you must have learned from Ceravolo, as he must have learned from you, simply by knowing each other for years and writing together. What do you think you learned from each other?
DS: I think Joe and I were more like pals, copains, than teachers and students with each other. I found him depressed and anxious about work and family, when I had little interest in work and family, being 15. But I also found him endlessly strange, as if he were inside his own eclipse. I loved that purity in him, and those wide expanses between letters and words: "Oak oak." I felt annoyed when his friends treated him as a saint and me as a Jewish intellectual tramp. What helped us all was the other glue of our friend Frank Lima, who completes a strange trio of us. Lima had all the Catholic twists that came like my Jewish-Russian background. We were all slightly inebriated with the idea of language, but Lima and I were also confessional and angry, and Joe was purist and a kind of St. Francis of poetry: “I want to give my food to a stranger / I want to be taken / I am thinking about my friend.” I think Joe found it hard to deal with my “mixed” poems. He kept to a single great tone of grey-blue, a conceptual grey-blue as in Cézanne (Rubin’s insight here.) The struggle in all of us was how to wreck narrative, unburden our lines from mere confession, strike through syntax, uncouple grammar and coherence, and end up however with an effect as powerful as Moore, H.D., Pound or Reverdy or Apollinaire. Ted Berrigan sometimes seemed to me to lack the pluralism of understanding us all three. But it was a difficulty to dogmatists, and even pluralists can be dogmatically monist about their pluralism. Ted loved Joe, and so did I, but I saw in Joe an endless discipline of engineering poetry, as in his “day job.” Joe also had no pretense except the highest. It is hard to imagine this homo religiosus not being friends with everyone and everything. He and Frank loved each other despite enormous differentia. I loved his long poems and his ambition for the tiny world of bugs and lyrics. We need more complete works of Lima, Ceravolo. A lot of literary history is simply false because of some expungings or what Silliman has called disappearances. Lima and Ceravolo, “precious pair of poets, genius in both, but what is genius?” It would take a long essay to build up a sense of the sociology of those moments. I did find it amusing that Ron Silliman picked up or was picked up hitchhiking by David Melnick, and I had spent all of a summer l967 preaching to David about Ashbery and Roussel. David told Ron evidently that I was his favorite poet with Ashbery, but Silliman never mentioned this till very recently. A lot of the techniques of the “Language” group, I must say, came from this contagion with another set of poets. When I met Melnick, he was reading Sartre every day like a worshipper. After our months-long conversation, David was writing false translations as I told him to, triply acoherent rounds and much else out of Roussel and even myself. And so we find a great link in which I turn out to be a comrade or paternal, as I often think, toward the Language school. And I am about to say my most arrogant comment: I have never seen anything since my cubist youth that was to me technically amazing or new. Clark Coolidge I was anthologizing in extremis in my NY School [An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Shapiro and Ron Padgett] and also Bernadette Mayer. What in these seemed pre-linguistic? Ceravolo's long acoherent odes—what has gone beyond them in formal shattering and vividness of simple shifters? Dubito, dubito. And yet all poets compete and don't compete, the “more angels the more room.” But in art, one can hardly claim to have done something new in drips, if they looked done by Pollock in 1947, a snowy day in which I was born at the moment of the first all-over. Let me say that I often find critics and academics who haven't read Dick Gallup in C Magazine—a long poem called “Life in Darkness” that would be accepted as a poem written tomorrow by 99 percent of those thinking of themselves as innovators. Yes, this saddens, angers me. But Ron Padgett says wisely also: “We are lucky to be writing and getting our work out at all.” But the thick lived life of poetry is sometimes expunged by false canons. I really have this as ressentiments, a lover’s quarrel with poets. Or a loveless quarrel with critics. Now let's say something cheerful, like: “I breathe slowly and I rarely dance.”—Satie! The author of the endless Vexations knew how to be humble in a bar of pianists and poets.
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