Monday, April 22, 2024

Chanting in the House of Nabokov: An Interview with Jerome (and Diane) Rothenberg in St. Peterburg, Russia (2002) by Philip Metres



Chanting in the House of Nabokov:

An Interview with Jerome (and Diane) Rothenberg in St. Peterburg, Russia

by Philip Metres

St. Petersburg/Cyberspace, June-July 2002

Published in COMBO


I came to know of you—as perhaps many of us have—principally through your work as an anthologist of such visionary and wildly open anthologies as Technicians of the Sacred and Poems for the Millennium.  How did you come to poetry in the first place?


I came initially into poetry for reasons that are not all that clear now that I try to think it through retrospectively.  The trouble is that when you take a retrospective view of the past — it may not be true but you come to believe it anyway.  So I think now that my coming into poetry had something to do with growing up … not during the Depression so much, though that’s part of it … but during the mid-century and the Second World War.  From where I grew up in the States, we had a sense of the devastation, culminating, building up towards the end of the war: the revelation of the Holocaust and then the role of the United States in those final acts of destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  At the same time, for most people I knew, there was an overwhelming sense of support for the war.  We weren’t in a pacifist milieu, though we were in a kind of leftist environment where I was growing up.  That was in part a matter of family connections — you know, an uncle who was for a long time a communist party member … other relatives … family friends.  There were shifting allegiances … in and out of Russian communism, later called Stalinism, as if to set it apart.  I don’t how that hit the people whom I knew … the 1930s purges and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.  All of that must have put their communism into question, though many of those who were ideologically drawn to it wouldn’t give up the notion that this was a humanistic, a humane revolution.  Then following the invasion of Russia and the American involvement in the War, Russia became the accepted great ally, only to become the great enemy during the Cold War.  But there was also in that a strong antiwar sense.  Part of the position of the Old Left in the postwar period was an antiwar, pro-peace, Picasso Dove perspective.  There was the sense of coming out of the war where 50-60 million people were killed, to a situation of even greater possible devastation, of the atomic bomb and the nuclear apocalypse that went along with that.


So how did poetry enter into the picture?


Well, retrospectively, I came to believe that poetry was involved with a search for an alternative form of language and consciousness, a feeling that our language both semantically and structurally and ideologically was corrupt and implicated in the devastation that we had just come through.  You know, poetry seemed to present a kind of alternative, and if anything, the marginalized quality of poetry underscored that.  Poetry didn’t bring you into the mainstream, it emphasized an opposition to a mainstream with which you didn’t feel comfortable and which you viewed with a great deal of apprehension and even disgust.

I started writing poetry very early, at 14 or 15, immediately after the Second World War, and that’s when I began to — for reasons that I can only reconstruct in ways that I’ve already been describing — at that point I wanted to identify as a poet.

Did you have figures that you particularly admired for their ability to create an alternative consciousness?

The early great attraction was to people like Stein, Cummings, Joyce — people who made alternative languages.

Yes, quite literally, all three seemed to be making their own language.

Yes, language-makers.  Later, other poets started coming into the picture.  As Americans, Pound and Williams.  Of course with Pound, the political question comes up immediately.  The first writing of mine that was published anywhere outside of a high school magazine was a letter to the editor of a New York newspaper: a kind of defense of Pound in relation to the controversy around the Bollingen Prize that he received in 1948.  I also began to read foreign poets — García Lorca early along, others also.  And with Lorca, I suppose, there was also the political inheritance, you know, not so much around the work as around the death.  The death of Lorca taken as the martyrdom of a poet.  And a sense, around that time, of the possibilities of an avant-garde, a kind of revolutionary poetry, not in a political sense only but as the avant-garde – as the avant-garde of language – might have written it.  By transforming the nature of the poetry itself, rather than by booming out political messages in banal language.  We wanted to get away from banal language into another kind of language, to establish a kind of anti-banality – a place of new meaning or of no meaning at all.  And the possibility that the less sense it made the better – getting not sense but intensity back into language.

Did you find ways of connecting with other poets in New York at the time?

I began to know a few poets my own age who were also coming into poetry, principally one who remains a very close friend, David Antin.  We went to college together, City College in New York.  It was the period, locally, of the first large student protests since the 1930s.  The whole school shut down over two professors, one of whom had made anti-Black remarks, and one of whom had made anti-Semitic remarks.  We were all out on strike for about a week. … I can’t remember how it culminated, but it was a time when there were otherwise no student protests.  City College had been a very political, that is to say, a very leftist student body, back into the 1920s and 1930s.  But this was the very early 1950s, and the McCarthy period on top of that, and we were doing it again.  It was also the time of the Korean War, a war with very little resistance, and I got caught up in the Army, for almost two years.  When I came back, Antin had made some connections that became my connections as well: initially Robert Kelly, fleetingly Jack Hirschman, who had also been at City College, and then poets who were forming magazines like the Chelsea Review — which survives today as Chelsea, but with a different range of editors then and probably a different range of poetry.  But there had also been, during our college years, a widespread putting into question of the avant-garde position.  In other words, we were caught in what we later came to think of as the academic situation, in which avant-gardism, experimentalism, was dismissed, in favor of a return to metrics and conventional writing and, to a certain degree, to conventional thinking.  I think that most of the poets my age whom I later got to know were at least temporarily caught up in that.  Maybe it was also a certain kind of training for the writing of poetry.  There were hardly poetry classes to speak of.  I don’t think MFA programs in poetry existed at that point, except in Iowa or some misbegotten place like that.  You learned to write poetry in part because you learned to read poetry.  You learned to write poetry or fiction because you had learned to write and read English.  So one came into poetry through the literature.  One of the problems that I have with what I take to be the general workshop situation is that the emphasis is on writing and not on literature, not on the tradition that the writing comes out of, writing divorced from reading and therefore divorced from other writing.  The experiential possibility, when it was new, when it was an antidote to an earlier, literary extreme, was not without its merits, but once it pushes out the rest, once it becomes mawkishly confessional (but even that in a very limited and mindless way), what results seems to me very lackadaisical, very narcissistic, not wanting to know about what anybody else has written, whether in the distant or near past or in languages outside of your own.  And in so far as it plays down experiment, the approach to the poem through language, that in turn breeds another reaction, to which I also feel some kinship, in the language poetry of the 1980s and 90s.  I think though that it’s the experiential, confessional, mode, however watered down, that dominates the workshops, the current university circuit.

The triumph of the narcissistic project—that your experience is all you need to share with the world.


Yes, though I don’t think it’s a triumph everywhere – more like a narrowing of the field and not the opening of possibilities of which it might have been a part.  By the middle of the fifties, anyway, most of the people I was close to were coming out of the traditional literary trap and were pushing into new areas – experiential for some, linguistic and formal and performative for others.  As my own writing continued, it was easier to meet other writers, and suddenly the circle of writers became quite large.  And writers, in my experience, were being very responsive to other writers.  It was also very easy at the time to distinguish between the experimental and the academic — that was basically, did you write by the meters, or did you write by the new measure, freed up.  If you did the one, then you were in the one camp; if you did the other, then you were in the other camp.  Later on other distinctions came in.


That was sort of typified by the New American Poetry anthology.


You know, Donald Allen, in consultation with a certain range of poets, had been looking for poets in that period who were not writing as the academics were but were renewing poetry, looking in particular for a new instrument of composition, however named: Williams’ new measure, or Olson’s projective verse, or Duncan’s open field, or Ginsberg’s bop prosody, or simply free verse as a nice old-fashioned but then still loaded term.  Except for Helen Adam, in the original Allen anthology, the old measure doesn’t appear, so it becomes the anthology of people doing new measure at a point when it wasn’t standard.  Now, free verse is the standard, so you can’t make that easy distinction.

[Diane Rothenberg]

It was also the proliferation of easy publication, self-publication, lots of little magazines.  The circle of poets expanded through publication, as well as through poetry readings.  And certainly for Jerry there was a heavy emphasis on translation.

I was interested in translation from early on, and saw a connection between what I was doing as a poet and what I might be doing as a translator.  Although my grasp of other languages was not terrific.  I was not a polyglot, didn’t really have a command of languages outside of English, but I felt the interconnection with other poets living and dead was important, and that there were things that I’d found in other languages — French, Spanish, German — that were missing in English.  So if I was drawn by the attraction of the avant-garde into a consideration of Dada poetry or Surrealist poetry, it had to come into the picture through translation.  To translate a certain poet was to make a statement about poetry, in the same way that doing your own work, your own poetry, was a statement about how poetry might be done.  Not necessarily a statement about how it should be done, but how it might be done.


So were you actively translating, and trying to get this work out at the time?


My first published book was through City Lights, called New Young German Poets.  It was one of those accidental things that have sometimes come up in my life.  I had done some earlier translations, actually rhymed and metrical, of a German poet now largely forgotten named Erich Kaestner, who wrote Emil and the Detectives, a famous children’s book.  And he was, to some degree, a cabaret performer.  It may have been his reputation as a cabaret performer that attracted Lawrence Ferlinghetti to get in touch with me as his translator and to ask me if I would be interested in translating and editing a book of new young German poets – an area of new poetry that had recently been called to his attention. And when I agreed to do that, I ended up being the first English translator of Paul Celan, Günter Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Helmut Heissenbüttel, and others.  These were all postwar poets who had already established themselves in Germany but hadn’t yet been published in the States.  And I thought that their work represented a kind of writing different from that in the States and representing a postwar and even a post-nazi moment, so I tried to make a statement about that in the book as well.  I also did occasional translations of others like Lorca and Neruda along the way, but New Young German Poets was my big work at the time.



Jerry and I had this little publishing company called Hawk’s Well Press.  Jerry and David [Antin] did a translation of a small book by Martin Buber, of his stories. 

Buber was known then for his I and Thou and his big collection called Tales of the Hasidim, and the book that David and I did was called Tales of Angels, Spirits and Demons, a continuation of Buber’s literary work.  We were able to do a press of our own because there were inexpensive means of publishing at the time – mimeograph at one end, foreign printers at another.  For ourselves, we went with the foreign places, because the strong dollar at that time allowed for a professional looking but very manageable publication.  We printed Hawk’s Well Press in Spain and then in Ireland.. 


How did you distribute your books? 


There was already a network of small bookstores throughout the country, and the names were passed around by other poets.  You would send an announcement or a sample copy to a store and they would say “send six books on consignment” or something like that.  Or you would trot around New York City, going into bookstores and looking for a friendly face.



The economy of the whole thing was such that you didn’t expect to get any money back.  It was so cheap to do it.  It could be ninety dollars to print a book.  It was never more than a couple hundred.  And we never did have any kind of system that worked for billing …


If you want to look into publishing from that period, there is a book for which I wrote the introduction a couple of years ago, called A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, tied into an exhibit at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.  It’s a documentary history of magazine and book publication from the 1960s and 1970s.  A tremendous amount of activity on view there, though the organizers were mostly looking at New York, and a little at San Francisco and some other regional outposts, all samizdat work then, so to speak, and all without government financing.  At whatever point the national financing comes in, it skews the enterprise a bit.  You find that you’re publishing at the behest of the state to which many of us were simultaneously in opposition.  And because none of that can be entirely free from censorship or at least coercion, you find yourself fighting with the government over money rather than attending to the real work that you should be doing.  No question, though, that the state financing made things easier.


And when did Technicians come out?


It first came out in 1968.  Before that, obviously I had been writing, publishing poetry, a few books from small presses, including my own.  I had done a little magazine called Poems from the Floating World, and did another magazine with David Antin called some/thing.  I began to think of the magazines as a kind of anthology – an anthologizing process – meaning that I would not only publish absolutely new work but exemplary work that had been published before.  Translation was one way of doing that.  I began also to follow up an interest in what was then called “primitive poetry,” what we spoke of for a while as the poetry of the Fourth World cultures.  I had begun to assemble that and publish it in dribs and drabs.  There was then, as a part of the New York poetry underground, a guy named Jerry Bloedow, a poet and filmmaker who had founded something called the Poets Hardware Theater, where many of us did poetry readings. He suggested doing a reading of that kind of work.  So I put that together and recruited Antin, Jackson Mac Low and Rochelle Owens to join me, and we did a couple of performances of that kind of poetry.  Sarah Blackburn, Paul Blackburn’s then-wife, who worked for Pantheon Books, suggested that I approach someone at Doubleday, Anne Freedgood, to see about the possibility of turning this into a book.  At that time, too, what would come to be called the counterculture, though not a term that I’m in love with, was beginning to surface all over.  Anne jumped at the possibility and gave me unlimited control in putting together the anthology.  And then I had to figure out how to structure it, how to make poems and commentaries fit together.  Because it coincided with the times, it did very well.  As these things go, it sold a lot of copies, and still does, although now from University of California and in a revised edition.  It encouraged me to try another big book, an assemblage or anthology of American Indian Poetry, Shaking the Pumpkin, which appeared a couple of years later.  Not long after, I co-edited still another anthology, America a Prophecy, trying to do a revisioning of American poetry from its pre-Columbian beginnings.  A similar one, called A Big Jewish Book, was a reinterpretation of what Jewish poetry might mean if pushed to its limits — and that was another 600 pages, right there.  Later on, Diane and I did an anthology called Symposium of the Whole, a historical gathering of writings around the idea of an ethnopoetics and published by the University of California Press.  That fills up a good part of the shelf.


I wanted to ask you about the process and your thinking about anthologies, because what becomes immediately clear when one opens your anthology, one feels the way in which there is a quality of openness to it.  As much as you’re doing selection, there is also a feeling of opening doors. …  One of the things I really loved about Poems for the Millennium, was that Eliot is mentioned, and The Waste Land is described, and then you write that you can find the poem elsewhere.


Yes.  We say that and we don’t print the poem as such.  But the true reason for that is economic.  When confronted by Faber and Faber in England, who were asking us for what would have effectively been one-third of all the money that was given to us for permissions, Pierre Joris and I looked at each other and said why reprint The Waste Land?  It’s enough to position it within the book.  But sadly, another one that we had to do that with was the Welsh poet David Jones, who is hardly so available.  That was stupid, finally, but we weren’t able to give them what they asked for.


What were your models for putting together the anthologies?


There were a couple of anthologies that were models or paradigms.  One was Donald Allen’s New American Poetry.   What that opened up was the possibility of including both poetry and statements about poetry.  So that gave me the idea of including the poems up front and the commentaries in the back.  It also raised the possibility that the anthology — which was a form of book that I really was not crazy for except in rare instances — that the anthology could function as a large manifesto.  That it could be pointed towards opening possibilities of poetry that had been closed before then.  So the anthology as a manifesto.  And second, but perhaps even more important, the anthology as a kind of long poem.


As a big chorus almost, of different voices …


In working as a poet, finding a space for different voices is probably at the center of what I think I’m doing in poetry.  So translations are an arena of voicings, anthologies are an arena of voicings, found poetry and collage are an arena of voicings.  And there are all sorts of other voices going on inside my head.  When I’m feeling good about these things, what I sense from myself, is a continuum between the poetry in the New Directions format (where my twelfth book of poems for them is soon coming out) — these small books of one’s own poetry — and then the large books of anthologies and translations. Instead of seeing these as different activities, I would like to see them as forming one large continuum.  For me, that’s been a way that I could think of myself as working out in the open, rather than in the sinkhole of cri de coeur poetry.  Although I do all sorts …  I’m drawn to do all sorts of poetry.


In terms of your ideas of translation, one of the unique things that you’re doing is incorporating the context in which these texts would have appeared, to decenter our reading of these as simply Eliotic poems but as actually as scripts that would somehow already incorporate that ineffable thing that is outside of the words themselves.


Yes, with the ethnopoetic anthologies anyway.  There, where possible, I did want to show the language part within a context of performance and accompanying activities, with a feeling that most of the poetry came out of that kind of multimedia work of performance and ritual and ceremony.  But I couldn’t put everything into a scenario, and the commentaries were a way of indicating how the works were used.  You know, I may have gotten fanciful from time to time with the commentaries, a tendency to look for a good story rather than to worry about being absolutely accurate in what I said, though I should stress too that I wasn’t trying to be inaccurate.


Did you take any heat for that project? Did people wonder about the ethics of dealing in otherness?


Yes, the answer is yes.  I didn’t anticipate that there would be that sort of response from certain quarters.  This was certainly not the only response to it, but it stopped me short, and something that I had to think through, and continue to think through to the present.

There were different responses—issues of translation, the politics of it, the claims of shamanism.  I think Shaking the Pumpkin generated more heat … the problematic there was that it was moving into Indian territory at a point when Indians had become openly assertive – defensive and aggressive – about the right to control that territory.   Which is perfectly understandable, but it was a difficult thing to deal with, and I don’t think I ever dealt with it to my entire satisfaction.  But when it came right down to it, I didn’t get that much flack, considering what was possible.  And at this point, looking back, the biggest regret I have is that I didn’t do more.


The question of incorporating the performative segues into my question about how you saw poetry being used during the Vietnam War era, as a response to the war, as a way of speaking about the war.  What sorts of things did people do with poems, and what did you think was particularly successful?


At the beginning of the Vietnam War, poets and other artists working from relatively marginal positions felt themselves able, at least locally, to engage in active opposition to the war.  So by 1965, when the war was heating up, the coffee shop reading, the art gallery, the poetry-in-the-park kind of reading, had been going on for some years and had spread out of New York and San Francisco to other places as well.  I think that a very large percentage of people doing that kind of poetry performance found themselves in opposition to the war.  Among people that I worked with, in fact, there was nobody who wasn’t, in one way or another, opposed to the war.  So that was our network to start with, and we could come together within that and could mount our own demonstrations or use the alternative presses that we had set up as vehicles for demonstration against the war.  It became a bigger thing for poets than even the Civil Rights movement, in which poets black and white were not necessarily playing that kind of public performance role as poets, at least not early on.  That is, I don’t know if the Bus Riders down South, say, were being accompanied by poets reading poetry – not that I remember anyway.  But the war seemed like a natural occasion for that, and it became possible to do it for larger and larger audiences – at the edge of big city rallies and be-ins or at universities once students had mobilized in opposition.  And once it got going we felt as if we were being joined by writers and artists in the popular arts who were clearly more publicly placed than we were.  Poetry readings against the war continued through the whole war period, but played less of a role toward the end when there was so much other opposition.  In that I was a very small player compared to some, but everyone I knew – every poet I knew – was in it.  And when it was over I don’t know how many people were left in a kind of vacuum, wondering what kind of public action, what kind of visible opposition, was now possible.  Presumably that happens after major events, major acts of participation throughout history.


Were there readings that broke down the traditional dichotomy of poet speaking and audience listening; were there situations in which that dynamic was decentered? I’m thinking of Mac Low’s “Jail Break,” and even Ginsberg’s mantras in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where the texts were designed for people to speak the parts of the poems.


Mac Low would certainly recruit people, usually other poets, to join him in certain of the performance pieces, though in general I can’t recall him pulling people out of the audience.  But groups like The Living Theater would go into the audience, would bring the audience into performances.  The Living Theater had a number of other agendas besides ending the war.  They started out as an experimental repertory theater in New York and began to develop new plays and to politicize, beginning with “The Brig” and “The Connection” and moving into large scale epical works like “Paradise Now.”  One essay about the French protests in 1968 suggests that the presence of the Living Theater in Nanterre helped initiate the protests.  Those who worked in theater and music (the rock and folk musicians in particular) were more adept at playing the audience than the poets were, though someone like Allen [Ginsberg] certainly had that down.  (I remember him leading an audience through a choral recitation of Shelley’s “West Wind” for a series that I was mc’ing in Minneapolis – not strictly political but with a great sense of interactivity.)  And the breakdown of the distinction between audience and artist was at the heart of so much early performance art and happenings, what we thought was returning us to ritual and ceremony in a big way.  These were rarely political in any agit-prop sense, but convertible, like the poetry readings, to political action and protest.


With the readings, the bigger events were group readings against the war, and those seemed to be going on everywhere.  One notable one, from my perspective, was a poetry reading in New York, in a Second Avenue theater more recently known for rock and roll extravaganzas, in which we did a “Three Penny Reading Against the War in Vietnam” and brought a lot of poets into it.  (Poets of different persuasions, by the way.)  If we didn’t break the audience-performer dichotomy (except when Piero Heliczer, I think it was, tossed what we took to be a bucket of piss into the front rows), we managed to bring together, to make a united front of so-called academics and so-called experimentalists.  We also managed to rope in the Russian poet, Voznesensky, to get him to join us.  This was very interesting politically in a way that we couldn’t then talk about.  Andrei was visiting the United States, staying at the Hotel Chelsea in New York, and we sent up a delegation to ask him to join us in our protest.  We all got loosened up on vodka, and Andrei finally agreed and even said he would write a poem for the occasion.  So it’s the evening of the reading and Andrei is somewhat late in turning up.  He finally arrives and says, “I’m in a lot of trouble.”  Because the Soviet position was to lay off the Americans and the war.  They may have been backing the North Vietnamese, but they were not making a show out of it, and apparently they didn’t appreciate Voznesenky coming in and making a show out of it for them.  He said, “I promised you that I would make a poem, and I’ll do that.”  He did, and  I think he even had it memorized though it must have been written that day or maybe the day before.  But for him the upshot was that he couldn’t leave Russia for another year or so.  The next time we saw him he let us know that it was the result of that reading – something for which none of the rest of us had to pay.

The biggest poetry event, though, or poet-led event, was the famous raising of the Pentagon in 1967.  I wasn’t there for that but I think of it largely in connection with Ed Sanders, who had edged into the musical scene with The Fugs, but was perennially and wonderfully a poet.  That kind of large demonstration was a form of theater and ritual, of big-scale performance, performance art – at least it was taken for that but especially so when it involved the work of poets and artists to give it a shape and dimension.

Your reading in the Nabokov House began and ended with a sung recitation of a Native chant.  Is performance, for you, a kind of ceremonial, even religious act (broadly conceived), as much as it is an aesthetic one?  I am particularly thinking about how you connect your Jewish roots and experience of religious ceremony to these other traditions.

For me all poetry – maybe all art as well – has behind it a ceremonial, even religious presence, something that goes back to its beginnings and, given an awareness of those beginnings, something that persists into present day forms, which I think of and cherish as inherently secular.  That anyway is my personal paradox as a poet.  I think of revealed religion as inadequate, even ridiculous, in the face of this awesome and probably limitless universe that goes on for billions of years in duration and billions of light-years in space.  But the language of religion and the language of poetry come together somewhere – not in the voice of institutionalized religion but, where it works, in that of mystics and shamans.  I found this particularly the case for those religious forms that I’ve chronicled in the anthologies – a mine of poetry and charged and heated language.  That such language – even in modes that resemble the oneiric language of surrealism or the abstract languages of zaum and dada – exists as a central value in a range of cultures or in the heterodox fringes of others, is something that I can’t easily cast aside.  And I’m saying this though close friends and fellow poets – I’m thinking here of Antin and Charles Bernstein but there are others – prefer to distance themselves from any such notions of the sacred.  My preference is to write as if poetry were still what Breton called it – “a sacred act” – while holding to my disbelief and my disdain for forms of religion that I find increasingly inimical and threatening in the world in which we live.  It’s either a question of separating wheat from chaff or of walking through a minefield – probably a little of both.

 About your other question, I don’t know how much my experiences of Jewish ceremony, which were fairly limited, influenced my later thinking.  I sometimes think that my relation to that – the institutionalized religion, anyway – was like that of lapsed Catholics to the Church.  Certainly very negative on the institutional side and beyond that to the idea of the all-powerful but absurdly limited monotheistic god.  I came to like the ceremonies on their own and then the heterodox and mystical side of the religion once I got tuned in to it.  But that was also because it brought so many other things into question – a denial in that sense of orthodoxy and the narrowly fundamentalist and rigid views that continue to spook us in all of the “great monotheistic religions.”  Or to say it again, what I was looking for was the poetry. 

Final question.  What projects are you working on now, and where do you see yourself in the coming years?

 I’m waiting at the moment for New Directions to publish another book of my poems (this should be out in April of oh-three) and in the meantime I’ve been running ahead of myself with a number of poems, actually several short series of poems.  Some of those have come out of recent travels – Russia, China – and where I once thought that I didn’t write out of that kind of experience, I now find that I do.  I’ve also edited a book of and by the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina that University of California Press will publish later in 2003, one of the first two in a series that Pierre and I are editing as a sequel to Poems for the Millennium.  (The other one is on André Breton.)  Then there are the collected poems of Picasso that Pierre and I finished a while ago but that Exact Change has been slow in getting out.  And in 2004 Wesleyan will be publishing a book of my selected translations, but something more than that – translations plus other kinds of writing that take off from the work of other poets.  Different forms of collage and appropriation, along with commentaries that give a context to the work, including my personal relation to any of it.  Aside from that, Steve Clay of Granary Books is going to work with me on a selected prose book – essays and things like that – as a sequel to Pre-Faces & Other Writings, which New Directions published a number of years ago.  And, finally, I’ve been developing and will continue to develop a web site dedicated to ethnopoetics, but with a capacity this time to bring in audio and visual elements and freely to keep it changing as I move along.  It will function as a part of Kenny Goldsmith’s magnificent “ubuweb,” which is a generous compendium of avant-garde work through the range of twentieth and twenty-first century modernisms.  (The URL, just to get it in, is


When I think of what I want to do otherwise, I find it hard to believe that I don’t have that much time ahead of me, so I go ahead as I always have and figure I’ll get done whatever I manage to and will let it go at that.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Year in Review (2023)

Though the great song return no more
There’s keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
--W.B. Yeats

Last year went down the drain
They all do really
Why complain
Drink a cup of kindness (yet)
And say goodbye to our regrets
--Scrawl, "11:59: It's January"

Mostly, I've been heartbroken. Summer firesmoke from Canada as a whole country of trees burned, fall horrors in Israel and genocide in Gaza, ongoing family health nightmares. 

Still plodded on. Joyful, in the despite. 

Also--our ongoing peacebuilding program in Ireland, met the Pope in Rome, went to the south of France and walked in Van Gogh's footsteps in Arles. Shared poems and traded words everywhere.  

Grateful for family, friends, comrades, editors, and readers. 

And these pieces published this year (poems, translations, essays, interview):

·         “Poetic Mapping: A Conversation with Philip Metres by Carol Fadda.” Diode 16.3. Fall 2023.

·         “I drink dusty water,” “A ship hovers…,” “Sonnet,” “Stanzas,” “How dirty and spongy…” by Dimitri Psurtsev (translation). Diode. 16.3. Fall 2023.

·         “Why the Russian Protest Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky Still Matter (A Homeland Made of Words).” Lit Hub, October 2023.

·         “More Than Just a Pretty Hat: On Titles.” Writer’s Chronicle. September 2023.

·         “Let Us Be Attentive! How Wondering Leads to Justice-Seeking.” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education. Fall 2023.

·          “To Y.K.” by Sergey Gandlevsky (translation). Adroit. 46. 4023.

·         “The Forecast for Cleveland,” “Thrown,” “Ode to the Uilleann.” Schlag. 6. August 2023.  

·         “Prayer.” The Slowdown Show. Minnesota Public Radio. July 2023.

·          “Disparate Impacts.” Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country (2023)

·          “Disparate Impacts.” What Things Cost: An Anthology for the People. Lexington: U of Kentucky Press, 2023.

·         “Letters I Must Wait to Open: Revising ‘Ashberries: Letters.’” The Art of Revising Poetry: 21 US Poets on their Drafts, Craft, and Process. Ed. Kim Stafford and Charles Finn. Bloomsbury, 2023.

·         “Poetry Kinship: Zach Thomas and the Writers in Residence Program.” Adroit Journal. 45. June 2023.

·         “The Paradise of Danez Smith’s ‘Summer, Somewhere.’” Cincinnati Review. Spring 2023.

·         “Dreaming the Total Poem, Assembling the Counterarchive, Writing the Refuge.”

Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2023).

·         “Wind/ode.” The Margins. April 2023.

·          “Qasida for Abdel…” and “Explanation.” The Journal. 2023.

·          “Map the Not Answer.” Pleiades. 2023.

·         “I’ve never drunk tea,” “God, your clouds,” “Like God’s grace,” “How tired…” by Dimitri Psurtsev. Translations. The Dodge. January 2023. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

Fugitive/Refuge (2024) coming soon!

Coming soon! 

In Fugitive/Refuge, Philip Metres follows the journey of his refugee ancestors—from Lebanon to Mexico to the United States—in a vivid exploration of what it means to long for home. A book-length qasida, the collection draws on ancient poetic traditions and invents new forms—odes and arabics, sonnets and close-ups, prayers and documentary voicings, heroic couplets and homophonic translations—to confront the perils of our age: forced migration, climate change, and toxic nationalism.

Fugitive/Refuge pronounces the urge both to remember the past and to forge new ways of being in language. In one section, Metres meditates on the Arabic greeting “ahlan wa sahlan,” framing these older forms of welcome as generous, embodied ways to respond to the digital alienation and mass migration of postmodern societies. In another section, he dialogues with Dante to inform new ways of understanding ancestral and modern migrations and the injustices that have burdened them. Ultimately, Metres uses movement to create a new place—one to home and dream in—for all those who seek shelter.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Home Front Practices: a dialogue with E.J. McAdams and Philip Metres



a dialogue with E.J. McAdams and Philip Metres

 This interview took place on a road trip from Woodstock, CT to Hartford, CT on April 24, 2015 to visit activist and Holy Cross graduate, Chris Doucot, at the Catholic Worker house on Clark Street. The night before, Metres had given a poetry reading with poet William Wenthe in honor of poet Robert Cording, who was our mentor when we were students at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. The topic of the conversation was focused on Metres’s 2015 book Sand Opera.


E. J. McAdams (EJM):  Last night, you were giving a reading at Holy Cross where you went to college and got started as a poet. When did you feel like you wrote your first poem and that you were a poet?  Can you remember a poem or a verse that you felt like was the beginning?

Philip Metres (PM): You know, I just had to give a speech to a high school assembly, and one of the things that I had to do was make an argument for English and creative writing as something  worthy of study. I wanted to reach them where they were in their own lives as high school students, because that's where poetry started for me.

I distinctly remember reading T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school when I was a senior in my AP English class, and wondering how the hell this guy knew how I was thinking about things. I totally mind-melded with that dramatization of a person sort of locked in self-consciousness, unable to act: “Do I dare descend the stair?  Do I dare eat a peach?  Do I dare disturb the universe?”  There was something that really appealed to me and my sense of confused masculinity. At that age, you're just raging with hormones. And I was at an all-boys school, and had no way of dealing with this seethe. Prufrock was this invitation to feeling that I wasn't so alone. In my aloneness, I wasn't alone.

That was something that others had struggled with. And I think I've always found in literature, these echoes. Sometimes paralleling my experience. Sometimes very different. But feeling like, in the process of reading, and then writing, that I was not so much…not alone, not in exile. Prufrock, I think, was this, really important poem for me. You know there are other moments too….

EJM: But what about as a writer of poems? 

PM: Yeah, yeah. So I think that like literally after reading that and “The Waste Land,” and some other things, I just started fancying myself a poet. My mom had a Masters in English and loved Wordsworth. So, when I would come home and talk about the stuff I was studying she was totally into it. She was very supportive, and she loved the romance of the poet as an idea, as a myth. And I did too. [LAUGH] I mean it was a way that I could identify myself that would make sense of the very things that made me feel so much an outsider.
I didn't really know what to do with that so literally I just started writing madly. I was numbering them when I started—hundreds of poems. Right around the same time, we went on a vacation and visited the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza and that totally blew my mind. It made me think of “Ozymandias,” which I had just read. The sources for me, the one's that first started making me write, were the classics. I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful girl that my sister knew. My grandfather died, and then I went to Mexico. So, the great primal themes—love, death, encountering otherness, travel, whatever. So I was writing all these poems that were probably terrible, but they were enthused by language. Once you find this kind of medium it's such a beautifully empowering, primitive thing—to be able to use language and have language use you. It was a great organizer of all the chaos that I was feeling inside and outside, not a simple ordering, but a way of making it into music, the way that music is just organized sound. In the same way, poems were organizing all sorts of things for me and giving them sense.

So your question was when do I feel like I really wrote a poem?  I don't know. [LAUGH]  Maybe it took years. I mean every time you're writing a poem, you think this is it—this is the best fucking thing I've ever written.


PM: And I mean if you're doing it right—you know some days it doesn't feel that way—but if you're in the groove, it's the most beautiful trance. Then, of course, the heat cools and you have to deal with its gnarly-ness or it's incompletion or whatever.


If I were ever to write a selected poems, I think the first poem would be “Ashberries.”—probably because it took me so goddamn long to write. And I feel like it says so much…it captures so much that I was unable to capture. The poem literally took me almost a decade to finish. I arrived in Russia in 1992 and was absolutely entranced by the place. Immediately I started working on a bunch of poems, and this was one of them. I had three of the four sections written within a month of being there. It's an epistolary set of poems about encountering this strange place, but there was something missing. Every year, I would bang away on it again and see what could be done. About eight years later, I realized that the terror of the experience wasn't there. The third section of “Ashberries,” which was dealing with that terror, finally came to me and everything came together like iron filings to a magnet.


EJM: One of the things that Bill (Wenthe) said last night that I thought was interesting was that it's really important for a poet to know another poet who takes their poetry seriously. You talked about how your mother did that. Who was the first poet to take you seriously?  Do you even think it's important? 

PM: My first workshop at Holy Cross was with Cyrus Cassells. That was a great experience for me because I needed to share my work. Poetry was becoming too much a kind of self-congratulatory act. It is dangerous when you write like that. A workshop is still a really good way of making sure that you're not just jerking off. You want a poem to be a conversation, a dialogue. You want it to be this medium by which we encounter the other in ourselves and the others outside of ourselves. I distinctly recall and still have all the drafts where he wrote in red pen that I was being sentimental. Like every one of them has the word “sentimental” on it. I felt a little burned by his critiques and I knew that he favored other poets in the class, which hurt my ego. But itwas not necessarily a bad thing because I saw actually how good the others were, how they were light years ahead of me.

But Bob, Bob Cording, obviously. Cording was the one who took—I mean it was the most beautiful, generous thing—he took my work seriously and took me seriously. And so what Bill said exactly was my experience. When I think about the poems that I was giving Bob, it kind of astounds me that he was able—not to just simply put them in a drawer and say, okay, these aren't very good [LAUGH] you need to write a lot more and a lot sharper than this, but he didn't, he just said this is what I think this poem is about, this is what I think it's doing, this is what I think it needs to do. I'll never forget that great grace that he gave of just being a listener and taking my work seriously.


EJM: So I want you to talk about Sand Opera, which I have seen gestating over the years. How did you get to the point where you knew Sand Opera was in the right form and that you were ready to publish it?  Because it took a while.


PM: It was definitely stages. People like to disparage the idea of poetry projects and they say, “Oh, the poem is a thing,” but I think both ways of exploring poetry are beautiful and important and necessary. I oscillate between them. I have some big general ideas of something I'd like to do, and then there's just these individual things that happen, these individual kind of moments which are poems.

I'm not sure chronologically what the first stuff I wrote for Sand Opera actually is, but I know that  working with the Abu Ghraib testimonies of 2007 was the most important start. I was working through the various drafts that began with testimonies, and then started to work with the Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedure manual. Finally, I began appropriating the language of the testimonies of the US military personnel. When all of that started to come together that was a thing. In a way that is itself a little opera and so that was the thing I felt most strongly about. So almost every summer, I had a different thing that I'd start getting obsessed with.

There were these poems that were told from an Arab-American point of view about 9/11, those are the Home Front poems. I am fascinated by the possibilities of the dialogic. I always like to see poems having conversations with other poems. Instead of just having these Home Front poems be on their own, I put them alongside the testimonies of a guy who was rendered at a black site. It created a nice friction. By then, I had enough poems that it seemed like something, but it went through a lot of permutations—I'm embarrassed to say how many drafts. [LAUGH]


So after it was accepted, I actually pulled out a section and put in two other sections. The editor had one comment, just one comment about the whole book which was that the sequence “Instants” (which I love and I want to put in another book) seems like an odd man out in the collection and I wanted to figure out what to do if I took it out. So I just said okay, I'm going to see what happens if I take it out—the reason it was in there in the first place is it's a poem meditating on lots of the same issues, on the optics of domination and our desire to control our  and the sexual component that's related to that. It tells the story of Edward Muybridge. So there are many reasons why it does connect, but because so many of the other poems were so topically connected, this one just seemed a little off so I took it out. I looked at all the other stuff that I had written and decided that I wanted to do some things that hadn't been done in the book. I wanted to have a greater diversity of points of view and voices and to work with some Iraqi voices that weren't necessarily about the war. Poems like “The Iraqi Curator’s Power Point” is really important to me because it's about this guy who loves this artistic patrimony of Iraq and is devastated by its plunder. There was another poem for Nawal Nasrallah, who's a friend of (my wife) Amy (Breau) and me, called “A Toast” that I wrote for her beautiful cooking.

And there was another poem quoting a poet’s letter to me. She had just read the book in manuscript, and said she was having a hard time responding to it; she had a friend at Indiana University who was working for the State Department who committed suicide. Her letter shows that there are a lot of people affected by these wars, a lot of people who experience a crisis of conscience. We don't really know why he did it and …

EJM: Well, there's a sense of something nefarious.


PM: Yeah.

EJM: That he didn't do it.

PM: Right.

EJM: Someone did it to him.

PM: Right, yeah.

EJM: Going back through what you've talked about today, it seems like you're often looking for what's missing. Do you think that that's a fair characterization, not only in terms of what's missing from the book, but a real sense of which is the voice that's missing? Is this what drew you in general to the Sand Opera project?


PM: Absolutely. You immediately made me smile because there's something there. I could say a couple of things about that. One is that I'm very interested in works of art that are dialogical in the Bahktinian sense, for example, what Tolstoy does in War and Peace where you see how all these different characters see things from these very different points of view. Everyone talks about Dostoyevsky's dialogism, but I think that Tolstoy is really fascinating too. What has drawn me to poetry is just listening to voices, listening to the still, small voice as they call it or Michael Stipe's singing, “Could it be that one small voice doesn't count in the room?” “Shaking Through” is the song. And when I heard that, I was like yeah, why does one small voice not count? I had an ambition that I wanted the book to be bigger than a protest. The arias were able to do that. I felt like I'm responding to the coherence of this as a work of art, not simply as a response to the Abu Ghraib torture. And so, I always feel like that you know a work of art is getting close to being where it needs to be when it seems way smarter than you are.



PM: Sometimes I read a poem of mine – like I did last night – and think “Who the fuck wrote this?” Literally I was reading it but I couldn’t remember writing it. You know?  I literally don't. I'm like wow, that's a pretty good sentence, a pretty good line.


PM: So I'm sure there's always this feeling, and there are ones that you don't like, but I think that the way the work arrives mysteriously, and if it continues to be a little mysterious too, I think that that's probably a good thing. I love that anecdote, in Dean Young’s book of poetics called The Art of Recklessness. He says that he had a conversation the other day with Robert Hass  in which Hass said that he still really doesn't feel like he knows what he's doing. And then Dean Young says, if Robert Hass says he doesn't know what he's doing, then we need to figure out how to be better at not knowing what we're doing.


PM: And I think that, to me, that's true. That just was such a relief. Because I think of Hass as this sort of encyclopedic mind whose work just seems so deft and magical.

EJM: One of the things that you said just now is that you didn't see this as a pure protest. And, what that makes me think is that I know you study both the tradition of war poetry and the poetry of the resistance to war. You gesture towards what a poetry of peace might be. In particular, your idea of the home front feels like something new in poetry, or at least a place for exploration in our conversation. This past year I read Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad: Or the Poem of Force,” and your poems are exploring force and forces, and how they're put on people's bodies but also how they're put on you at home. We, at home—we're not in the battle. We're not always in the protest. We're at home, and we're moved. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you've been thinking about force and the home front? 

PM: Yeah. Well, that sequence of poems is called “Home Front/Removes.” I wanted to think about the space in which I found myself, in which we find ourselves, which is very often distant from the scene of battle. There's a reflex gesture, in our culture, to celebrate the authenticity of the first person narrative, and that has meant, in our culture, that the soldier's view is the one that is most authoritative and exciting, and closest to the action. But in the process of writing my book Behind the Lines, I wanted to create a critical space and see how poets dealt with this, in a sense, bias. This rejection of the imagination is part of our culture. We are ingrained with a fear of the imagination. Rukyeser talks about that in The Life of Poetry very eloquently.

“Home Front/Removes” is setting alongside each other the domestic and the global. This domestic experience of 9/11 filtered through an Arab American point of view, which is basically my point of view. I just want to say a word about the Removes, though. I was really interested in Mohamed Bashmilah's story, this Yemeni national who was detained and rendered to black sites. I was thinking about the way in which the story that he was telling was weirdly, hauntingly echoing a text that I used to teach in a “Major American Writers” class: Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, an American settler who got captured by Native Americans and was taken from place to place. But it's a book that's a testimony to her keeping the faith amongst these “savages.” And reading this guy's story, I thought, he's Mary Rowlandson, you know?  We're doing exactly what this narrative is militating against and so that's why it's called removes. It's also that she, the reason why I use the word “removes” is that Mary Rowlandson refers to each of her displacements, as removes, which has a kind of geographic and also theological register. I was fascinated by that idea. And also, of course, we are removed in all sorts of ways, so it just seemed like a really interesting kind of binary with home front. Okay, so back to the home front.

EJM: One section of your book is called “Home Front/Removes,” but let me throw out that I think there is an element of the whole book that might be called a “home front practice.” I know on your blog
Behind the Lines: Poetry, War, & Peacemaking you have wrestled with the question of, what can a poem do?  what can a book do? what can a poet do?  And I felt like there was a gesture in the book to almost embody a kind of home front practice or a way that we could all position ourselves toward the violence and oppression in our world. Is that fair?  Do you see the other poems at all fitting into a kind of home front practice? 

PM: Oh absolutely. The first poem is an invocation. It is a kind of prayer and then we move right into the arias. But then the next section, it begins with a poem which is sort of a classic American depiction of the domestic scene in which a guy is picking up the newspaper outside who sees an image of this woman, this Iraqi woman mourning in the paper. And I really self-consciously wanted to move us to that space which is where most of us find ourselves most of the time: we're encountering war through a newspaper or something online. And so that was a really explicit attempt to acknowledge my place-ness on the home front.

And just as a term, it goes back to that thing that Paul Virilio says which is that the real war is the endless preparation for war, which he gets actually from William James, who, in his essay, The Moral Equivalent of War from 1910, which we read in Professor Michael True's class at Holy Cross, says the exact same thing. James was saying at that time that we need to think about where the war is starting and where it's permeating. Because we live in this society where a huge percentage of our taxes is going to not only defense but security, and then paying down interest on our excessive expenditures, and, quote unquote, defense and security. We need to think of the home front as a site of, as a part of, it's a part of battle space, really. I mean, not just the political battle, but all the ways in which we're constantly being interpolated into a kind of imperial subjectivity.


I listen to NPR, where you can hear multiple sides of stories and critiques, but the energy and the social force of the project of so much of journalism has maintained the cold war consensus about how we talk about what it is that the United States is. We're constantly being immersed in it. Because I'm interested in the Middle East and have this Saidian critique of Orientalism, it's so obvious. You start to see the ways in which there's some kind of little gesture pandering toward these other points-of-view, but ultimately, it often feels self-congratulatory – “We're interested in you,” you know?  “You representative of all you other, you know, brown people.” 

EJM: So that's interesting. Someone could in a very surface way read your book like that. Talk a little bit about what you are doing that's undermining that potential to pander.

PM: I think that that's the thing that I wrestled with the most, ethically. The most primitive version of this question is: are you benefiting in some way, from writing about the suffering of others? And are you positioning yourself as an authority on speaking about those others? Those are the most important questions to ask. That's what Spivak was asking in “Can the Subaltern Speak.” She's saying, you liberals who think that you are representing unrepresented positions, you think you're giving voice to people but you're doing what she calls epistemic violence to them. You are not representing them. You are—I don't think she says benefiting from them, but you're missing the target. You're not hearing what you need to hear. And what I love about where she's coming from is this Derridian ethics that's basically saying there's a certain impossibility to the project of representation. You're constantly either relying on a transcendent thing, or you're cutting something out. I think that's a fair criticism of the work. I mean, any time you start representing, you can be engaging in epistemic violence. It's the question of the frame.

EJM: When I read your book, epistemic violence is not what's coming across to me.

PM: Well, that’s good.

EJM: Clearly, from what you just said, you wrestled with the questions that Spivak raised. So how do you think that ethics and framing comes across at the level of the writing, at the level of language, at the level of the page. How did you challenge facile readings?  Because it seems very successful.

PM: [LAUGH]   Well, one thing is that the book employs what we would call investigative poetics, or documentary poetic kinds of approaches which enable you to start thinking about focusing on the dominant, official narrative that's doing erasure.

There was this interesting thing, I don't know if it even exists anymore, called White Studies or Whiteness Studies. The idea there was basically what African-Americans during the Black Power phase of the Civil Rights movement and we're saying, why don't you fucking talk to your community instead of trying to hang out with us?  Hey, get your own shit straight. So I think that that's one of the things that's happening. Have you seen this redneck on YouTube talking about white supremacy?  He does these little YouTube videos and he's literally talking to white people about starting to confront the racism. White supremacy in the dominant culture, and it's just hilarious and awesome. And it's just an anecdote to say that we need to look at.

I remember when I was in grad school Barbara Harlow said that instead of studying literature we should be reading the NAFTA agreement because that is going to really change everything. This was in the 90's. This piece of legislation is going to utterly change the lives of millions of people in ways we don't really know exactly. It's part of globalization: building these highways, these vertical highways between Canada and Latin America. And we need to look at it very carefully. That's one approach, you know this is like, Look at what people are saying, test it out. See what it reveals to us. It's representing the marginalized voices. You just look at what's out there, and, take it on its terms like what Zizek said about moving through the fantasy. What is this really saying about us?  And showing that mirror, which is a classic enlightenment idea of what art does. So that's one way.


By virtue of some of my relationships and I think working with the text of those voices was something that in the Abu Ghraib part and the removes say something about how the art should be changing. It should be changing you in some way. And I feel like I found reading those things really, really hard. I saw myself as trying to carry those, the fragments of those things, rather than trying to show them to others to prove something. It was like I was just kind of trying to be with those voices that could I have no geographical access to. And I don't know if that makes any difference at all but, I, I knew that it was affecting me and I thought that in light of how much objectification of those bodies was happening that having those voices is, as part of a retelling, important.

EJM: This provides a good transition as I want to ask your about the recurring focus on the eye in sight, the focus on the ear in hearing, and the focus on the body in sensing and feeling. The problem with being on the home front is that the things you are bringing forward in the book are happening in the world but they're hard to feel, right? First they're hard to see – they're missing – they're removed, but then they're very hard to feel too. You seem to work with the material in the poems to try to feel, and then to bring that feeling across to the readers. Please talk about how you see sight and hearing and the body? 

PM: No. Right, right, right. I'm just thinking about if you go to the epigraphs that there's St. Paul’s “if the body were an eye, where would the hearing be.” I'm aware of what Laura Mulvey calls our “scopophilia.” She describes how we're creatures dominated by our sight biologically and culturally. Specifically she talks about the male gaze and the cinema, and how our sight is part of an individual, as well as a cultural-political, optics of organizing, ordering, control and domination. Obviously I was not saying we should all pluck out our eyes or anything; however, if we only focus on, for example, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the photos themselves were part of the torture. The fact that they're taken, and the fact they were disseminated, was part of the abuse of these men's bodies. And that was all happening on the level of optics. Something that I've had to learn over and over again in my life is how hard it is to listen to other people. I am amazed how flawed I am at this. True listening is really an act of genuine, radical openness and love. Levinas' ethics of the face to face isnot just about the apprehension of the face, but it's also about engagement with this person's voice, their stories, their reality. And that's what I think the book is trying to do. I called it, you know, the sound of my listening. I was inspired by Harvey Hix who wrote this book called God Bless in which he took the speeches of Bush and Bin Laden and worked with them. I got obsessed with his listening, how he was listening carefully again to what Bush was saying and what Bin Laden was saying and worked with them and made them into poems. I just thought there was something really beautiful about it – and he was doing what a good citizen would do, a good person would do, which was listening to what my president is saying and asking, “What does this mean exactly?” And this is what our enemy is saying and what does it mean exactly? One of the observations that he made which I thought was the most profound was that Bush professed to never listen to what Bin Laden was saying, but it's clear all of Bin Laden's speeches were directly related to what Bush had said. How weird that is. I went into poetry to express my own voice but I've gotten much more interested in what everybody else was saying.