BILL TREMBLAY is a widely published poet, novelist and critic. Yusef Komunyakaa selected Tremblay’s poem, "The Lost Boy," for inclusion in Best American Poems of 2003, edited by David Lehman and due in September from Scribner's. His books include Crying in the Cheap Seats, The Anarchist Heart (Honorable Mention, the Elliston Book Prize), Home Front, Second Sun: New & Selected Poems, Duhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada, The June Rise: The Apocryphal Letters of Joseph Antoine, and most recently Rainstorm over the Alphabet. He has taught American Literature and Culture at the Universidad Nova de Lisboa on a Fulbright Lectureship and has had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fullbright Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also published over 40 reviews and essays on contemporary poetry. Currently he is at work on a sequence of poems entitled Door of Fire, which presents the turbulent marriage of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He teaches in Colorado State University's MFA program.
William Ryan: For many writers of my generation—I’m fifty-four—the years just before and just after the so-called folk revival hold a kind of mystique, the years between, say, the emergence of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the earliest onset of the counterculture movement. What were you doing in those years? Can you describe the art and music scene, the bohemian scene of the fifties, the influence, if any, of the topical music of the era, or the impact of modern jazz, for example?
Bill Tremblay: What a huge question! I don’t think there’s a short answer.
For a “mystique” to arise there has to be some gap expressed in space, time or absence of light, but inherently conceptual. Sounds like for you it’s a gap in time. For me in the late 1950s, it was a gap in space—no, not a gap, but several gaps, levels—personal, social, and I guess some meta-strata of that space…intellectual, spiritual. It’s like Stevens’ “one of many circles.” Which circles and how many and what relationships between them a person tries to address or invent with is a way of knowing them.
Let me see: what was I doing in those years? I bought a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems at the Central Spa in my home town in Massachusetts, fall, 1958—and there it was—the great, never-ending crucifixion of spirit and flesh, so close to my eighteen-year-old heart yet so far away in San Francisco or New York City where I’d been on a football scholarship at Columbia and where that spring Big Julie Amkraut had lugged his considerable bulk—he was our straight-on field goal kicker—across the Quad and jammed a hardbound copy of On The Road in my hand. “You got to read this guy’s book,” he said. “He’s a Canuck football player from Massachusetts just like you. I think you’ll dig it.” And I did.
WR: What did you dig about it?
BT: I loved the episode where Sal Paradise is sitting in this Iowa diner and a farmer plunks himself down at the counter and asks the waitress to give him something to eat “afore I go to gnawin’ on m’self.” I laughed with delight. It was writing such as I dreamed of when I was 13 and first told this girl I went to school with that I wanted to be a writer. She asked me: “Why write about life, why not just live it?” I tried to explain that I’d taken a trip across America that summer with my parents and what I’d seen filled me with a belief that in all those forests, prairies, mountains and deserts was a beautiful spirit among its people that I felt when I saw The Will Rogers Story movie in the Strand Theatre and practically wept when he said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” I wanted to be a writer who revealed and celebrated the strength and beauty and love and humor of people, like Walt Whitman, the one who said, “Folks expect the poet to show them the path between reality and their souls.” Each of those nouns is a circle, each has its gaps.
WR: So, was she satisfied with this answer to her question?
BT: She said, “You wait, you’ll leave this town, because you hate the people here as much as you love them.” [Laughs.] She really offered me a challenge to develop a dialectical vision, but I didn’t know what to do with it at the time. I had a hard enough time framing my ideals. But my view of the task and the methods up through my first book with the UMass Press, Crying in the Cheap Seats, was imbued with addressing the personal circle and the social circle through a spiritual perspective. “There is only one endless poem,” I wrote, by way of an epigram for the book.
WR: You did leave that town—but you returned. What was that like, returning to small-town America after living in New York City, after classes at Columbia, after more reading?
BT: Five years—high school and freshman year in college—later I was sitting at a lunch counter in the town I had tried to leave for New York reading the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” over and over. I looked at the plastic multi-colored art nouveau jukebox lit up in the corner, and I felt the mushroom cloud rising inside me. How did he think to put those two words together like that? Amazing.
In 1958 there was this immense space I imagined such that even though I dug Kerouac and Ginsberg—different though they were in their opinions about America and similar as they were in their throwing themselves heart and soul into the fires of inspiration and vision—there was this impossible gulf between them and me. I understood what Allen was proposing, but to demand love and forgiveness and credibility and a free lunch as in “A Supermarket in California” for transgressions (homosexuality, I took it, was a metaphor for whatever) meant death, meant being butchered, meant becoming the sacrificial lamb whose flesh and blood was “good to eat, a thousand years.” Kerouac agreed. It was obvious in his writing he was drinking too much. Internal self-immolation. Yet the idea was intoxicatingly Romantic, even Biblical, and very attractive, as long as I didn’t think about it. I admit I didn’t have the chutzpah. In that context, I was already post-Confessional. So sue me.
WR: What was your life like at the time? What were you doing?
BT: I was living in a mill town, working in a factory, trying to save money for tuition, feeling a million miles away from New York since I’d dropped out of Columbia because even with a football scholarship I just couldn’t afford an Ivy League college. I was reading a lot, and like any other young guy trying to live with my hormones, drinking, hanging out with my high school buddies who didn’t read, listening to a lot of jazz on my portable stereo, reading the Sunday Times, trying to keep alive.
WR: At the time had you read earlier American poetry, the World War II generation, for example? What did you make of Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox” in relation to the post-war poetry?
BT: In the immediate post-war era there were poets still writing from the 1930s, a formalist position, a ‘Fugitives’ position. The poetry behaved as if the horrors of World War II had never happened, as if we could just go on in this pastoral phase. The key idea of “tension” in the poems was its saving grace, but it was clear that this stuff was over. That’s why Ginsberg once remarked that the “academic poets,” I guess he meant the Brooks and Warren poets, “wouldn’t know a poem if it buggered them in broad daylight.” I took it that Ginsberg meant a poem that lets things in, not keeps things out for the sake of the poet’s and the reader’s serenity.
What I read, among the younger post-World War II generation, was an immense urgency. An emergency. Apocalyptic. The atomic bomb, the Death Camps, the fact that the Germans and the scientific geniuses of the United States had created this condition where the only two choices were transcendence or annihilation, this sense that humanity’s leaders had already abandoned individual moral choice, had abdicated to a systematic machinery, what I call the global Operating System—isn’t that kind of what Ginsberg meant by “Moloch”?—for making decisions, because what person with a shred of conscience could live with the incalculable horrors attendant on thermonuclear war? So, there was already this end of days feeling. Poetry, art in general, had to speak honestly in favor of life. Or shut up.
Beat and Confessional poetry sprang from this either/or, from this sense of being crushed by history. It was everywhere. Albert Camus and other European intellectuals and artists were dead, many by their own hand. Charley Parker was dead from throwing himself heart and soul into the fires of inspiration and vision. Jackson Pollock was doing it in painting. There was passion as in passion play, ending in early death perhaps because after all the millions of deaths in the 20th Century what was one more? You made your Faustian bargain with whatever alembic or poison that buttered your bread, and you took the consequences. What else could a good Existentialist do and not be in “bad faith,” as Sartre had said. So as we listened to be-bop or went blind trying to follow Pollock’s strings of colored light, it was with astonishment and worshipful dread.
WR: Leap forward now, if you would, to the years of the folk revival.
BT: Five years and a college degree later in 1963 Cynthia and I were married and driving to P-town for a weekend when we heard Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.” We were stunned! We couldn’t believe that lyrics that good were being played on a top-40 station. Again, here was poetry as personal testament to a world we already knew was unspeakably cruel to the aspirations of not only the young, but also have-nots of any generation, any race, any gender. Both our families were factory workers. Unions were as natural as water. Pete Seeger and Joan Baez weren’t saying anything we hadn’t already thought about, a lot. Race relations in the United States were [and still are] horrible.
What was the difference between the folk-revival early 60s and the be-bop Beat 50s? For me it was like a shift from tragedy to comedy. The Beats—not just the writers but everyone they represented—knew the Operating System they were up against was huge and unbeatable. That was one meaning of beat, whipped. All they could do was maintain their individuality and their critical stance against the O.S. by being stubborn and—from the point of view of making it—self-defeating because like Bartlebys they would “prefer not” to sell out. Meanwhile, they could try Buddhism as a way of meditating on something larger than society.
But the counter-culture people—Hippies, Woodstock Nation, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the commune people—they thought they could win!—not only end the war but revolutionize the Operating System such that they could collectivize and still be individuals. But it didn’t work that way. I’ve watched this process for decades, the gradual shift from not trusting the government because it lied about Vietnam to not trusting the government, period. So I guess I’ve got my distance from both Beat and Hippie. In fact, I’ve always thought I was just a skosh too young to be a Beat and too old to be a Hippie. Rimbaud talked about flying into the gaps between the taxonomies of thought. I fell into them, by accident.
WR: What does one perceive from between classifications of thought? For you, was there a writer who wrote from these gaps?
BT: Samuel Beckett seems now to be most prophetic, because in his plays he asked: OK, so you come to the edge of death every second, but you’re not dead, the clock ticks on, so what do you do now, how do you proceed, by what strategies, even though you know there’s nothing, no clear choice, no metaphysics, no nothing? “You go on. You can’t go on. You go on.”
It’s as if we’re all still waiting for Godot. We sense we’re at the end of something, and we have no idea what’s next, or even if we’re ever going to get out of the “No Exit” feeling we seem to be in right now, in the contracting birth canal of the new millennium.
His is a more mature perspective, beyond the urgent dilemmas of the Beat era, beyond the shallow optimism of the 60s. He asks us to think of everyone, including those who supposedly run the global Operating System, as facing the same problems. In other words, it does no good to merely identify good guys and bad guys, tempting though that is. If we don’t try to understand those Bob Dylan called “the Masters of War,” there's no chance we'll see anything but the S.O.S., the Same Operating System.
WR: I’ve thought of your work as éngagé, and, though your work is not topical, not direct social commentary, in my thinking I’ve included it among art of social protest and critique. In your estimation, how has the strategy of éngagé art changed since the direct statements of protest poetry of earlier eras? I’m thinking of the general tendency we can gauge in all of the arts to shift from content as vehicle of meaning—or social comment or protest—to form and style as vehicle of meaning. How have your efforts to make social comment, to make meaning itself, changed over the decades, and—while you’re at it—what might have necessitated these strategic adjustments?
BT: That’s what my latest book, Rainstorm Over the Alphabet, is about—a shift from the presentation of content to thinking out loud in the poems about different strategies of presenting content, although I never leave content—by which I refer to experience, not just real but imagined and dreamed [check how many poem titles have the word dream in them, to the point where even for me it’s hard not to think of John Berryman, only a recovering alcoholic and I hope non-suicidal Berryman]—since, as I think I’ve already indicated, meaning making for me is the creation of relationships between the personal, the social, the natural, the supernatural, even the hitherto inconceivable, “creating the path,” as Whitman said.
The poems in the first section of the book try to create a context for re-examining what Stevens calls “the motive for metaphor” as well as such issues as inspiration, originality—especially that idea Jane Hirshfield talks about in her wonderful book, Nine Gates—a well-spring, a point of uprising, in the self, in the other, in language, the medium—a threshold which begins in questions—What is the self? Is there a self? What is the other? What is language? And are these useful questions? Perhaps we have come to a point where we no longer believe we know what we thought we knew. We have come to another beginning. We begin looking for what we didn’t know we knew. We peer into the gaps.
Why do we ask meta-questions except that the language we’ve been using is not enough? For instance, at the end of Crying in the Cheap Seats, I wrote: “I’m going to write about the spirit I know is there in man/and find a way to be happy and loving/and let the old crap of the past go at last/and live free.” It didn’t take very long for me to realize how earnest and naïve that statement was. How embarrassing! Indeed, the very fact that it was a statement was part of its naiveté. That’s somewhat addressed in “Summer of Love” where I make another declaration of intention: “I’ll write myself out of this/pickle, use only infinitives, stop/passing the virus.” But now the tone is ironic. I hope my reader will sense the emerging form of the poem is a caveat to such declarations. Indeed, I try to suggest that I’d need a “stroke” of aphasia, “a rainstorm over the alphabet,” to pull out all the bad wiring in my linguistic repertoire in order to find a more adequate diction. People come up to me at the end of my readings, and one person will say, “Rainstorm, that’s ominous,” and another person will say, “Rainstorm, what an image of fertility and hope.” All I can do is smile to each.
So that’s a meta-question you’ve asked, not metaphysics, but as you say, strategy. The idea is that content and the expressions used to represent that content are so mutually intimate they can’t be separated. I like that balance. It doesn’t subordinate one to the other. It doesn’t say like Creeley that “form is never more than an extension of content,” nor does it take a more Skinnerian behaviorist view that if you start behaving verbally in one way or another that the rest of your psyche will follow suit.
That’s what I’m trying to suggest at the end of “Looking for Inspiration.” I think the lines are: “They say if you pierce/your nipples with rings and yank,/the rest of you will follow.” Most people in audiences when I read that poem laugh and wince at the same time because I’m trying to indicate the violence we do to ourselves when we believe a bill of goods we’ve been sold about technique.
I’m suspicious of the claims that have been made about technique or technology, whether it be in society and politics, self-help or poetry workshops. I don’t think it’s useful to consider technique narrowly or separately from why it is you need it, as if you could escape yourself by only considering formal strategies, as if you could say with a straight face, “This is not about me but about the order in which information is given about a word in the dictionary.”
As an offsetting example, let’s say you believe in the goal of reaching inside your characters, human or not. If content is only the substance of events, then how can a poet get inside the events in such a way that characters can become registers of feelings about and ways of understanding those events? A straight descriptive-narrative technique can’t get you there. So, you invent the techniques you use as you go along. The other way leads to an applied orthodoxy, which then calls itself “experimental.”
If you look at all the books—from Crying in the Cheap Seats to The Anarchist Heart, Home Front, Second Sun, Duhamel, Rainstorm Over the Alphabet, and the forthcoming Door of Fire—I think you’ll see a trajectory from almost pure narrative—where the power is tied to content—to increasingly lyrical meditations on human character and event. Right now, for instance, I’m obsessed with pursuing the implications of a phrase I’ve put together, lyrical exposition. There’s a concrete language of descriptive-narration and another, more abstract language of exposition of ideas, feelings, values, aesthetics. And often what happens is that in a poem those two languages fail to find integration.
An example: I have a poem I’m revising in Door of Fire where Diego Rivera goes one night in 1939 to see for himself whether the rumor he’s heard—that a German luxury liner named The Columbus is taking on barrels of crude oil secretly being sold by the Mexican government to the Third Reich—is true. Obviously, and again, I feel the need to revise because the descriptive-narrative is not enough to satisfy my desire to get inside my character. But I hit upon this phrase, “one drop of Jewish blood,” and in my revision I make Diego the speaker, the persona, of the poem; I have him address, in the strategy of an apostrophe, his own “drop of Jewish blood,” something that’s driving him, that is putting him at risk from the vicious guard-dogs the security forces are using to keep people from finding out that also hidden in the ship is a cargo of European Jews who are being transported back to the death camps. “O little drop of Jewish blood,” he says, “if I am only a man with his brains between his legs, why am I here on the docks of Vera Cruz…” and so on.
But to go back to the "general tendency" section of your question. This is my recollection: the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights and women's movements generated some poetry of "social comment or protest" in the form of "direct statement." There was a feeling, though, that a lot of bad poetry, a poetry of simplistic hurling of epithets and angry, judgmental statements was being tolerated as poetry because people liked the politics. I think that's what Robert Pinsky was inveighing against, at least in part, in his 1978 book, The Situation of Poetry. That was a turning-point. Also, some essays by Stanley Plumly published in The American Poetry Review at around the same time added to the sense that a reaction had set in not only against “protest poetry” but also “Deep Image” poetry, particularly against the Jungian Depth psychology Robert Bly had brought to an understanding of the Vietnam war as being the result of a sickness in the American soul. As I recall it, I thought then that Plumly’s argument was specious in that he attacked Deep Image poetics for aspiring toward, I think he said, “the condition of silence,” which was ridiculous, he said, because that would be the end of poetry, indeed all speech. But that in itself was a ridiculous charge. It was a straw man. Speech without silence is the Tower of Babel. There has to be silence and there has to be speech. I keep coming back to that.
But the “general tendency” intellectually, culturally, among poets has been to look for root causes, not just effects. War is an effect. Unexamined assumptions are a cause. The nature of language itself. What is the meaning of “meaning”? In part, the discovery and/or invention of relationships, of how one thing and/or person is connected to another thing and/or person, the changing of what can be changed and the letting-go and keeping at the same time of what can’t be changed. Death. Talk about a deep image. Talk about something we don’t want to talk about, don’t want to know about, create “gaps” in our own body-knowledge to protect ourselves from.
WR: Vis à vis “the nature of language itself” that you’ve just mentioned, what’s your opinion of the trend toward a kind of non-objective poetry, the influence of Ashbery, in part, on a younger generation of poets, the outgrowth of LANGUAGE poetry, poetry about the failure of language, etc.? How do you feel about much of the recent innovation in contemporary poetry, innovations in which understanding and relevance seem no longer to matter, innovations that seem to strip the poetic skills from the act of composition?
BT: John Ashbery. Several years ago I got a chance to hear him read in Amherst. Talk about meta-poetics! He had all of us in the audience falling out of our chairs laughing. I don’t remember the titles of the poems he read or which book he was reading from; I don’t think he even mentioned that. But what I remember is that he was doing genres—the detective novel, for instance, as a genre—and he was hilarious in his ability to create a situation usually so complicated but finally so accessible to the mechanics of rationality that every “clue” became, as the language kept flowing, a deeper and deeper enigma such that what John was doing was exposing why people love to read murder mysteries. It isn’t because of the mysteries but because of the murders and the fact that later rather than sooner by crude devices called “suspense” people have their conventional views of reality reinforced. It’s comforting
But Ashbery is anything but comforting. I remember way back reading Self-Portrait in A Convex Mirror, which I took to be about the idea of “transcending the ego.” What he kept saying to me as I read on and on was that there’s no way to prove that a claim that one has transcended the ego is anything but self-delusion. From a subjective point-of-view, what is not the ego? I’ve read a few other things by him, most recently Flow Chart, which holds together for me on an emotional level because I keep seeing him come back to the theme of love.
So, let’s look at the phenomenon or the problem of how one takes an influence like John Ashbery’s and deals with it. One way of dealing with it is to try to “top” Ashbery, to take certain tendencies in his sensibility and intensify them, not just to question language about its failures and limits but to turn a destructive, even a nihilistic, eye on it.
Language Poetry. The name itself seems a tautology, a redundancy, as if one were to say, “wooden tree.” Yet I think I agree with a lot of the politics of Language poets because unlike so many others they actually address the Operating System, which they are trying to throw a monkey-wrench into because they’re sick of the way language is used to put a “spin” on everything, on the narratizing of current events, such that one can conclude, along with William Burroughs, that language is a “virus,” a scourge upon mankind which has to be disrupted, its signals from the Tower of Babel jammed with weapons of mass deconstruction.
But the thing is that the project itself seems naïve, even though the word “naïve” is the favorite weapon of “theorists” and the like. How are you going to stop “spin”? How are you going to claim that what you say isn’t spin, itself, a different spin, but spin nevertheless?
I agree with the diagnosis, but not the treatment. It doesn’t make sense to me to face the possibility of annihilation by treating it homeopathically with linguistic nihilism, with a program of syntactic disjunction, as if you were a sailor punching holes in your life-raft with an ice-pick because you’re afraid of the sea, or as if your real guru is not Charles Bernstein but David Byrne singing, “Stop making sense!”
The problem with the solution to the problem is that it becomes an orthodoxy with its own nomenclature, which soon becomes a jargon, such that everything becomes describable in terms of “socially-constructed” this and that, or “transgressive” or “disjunctive.” The very jargon itself makes the movement topical, makes it just another thing that’s temporary, soon to be regarded as obsolete. I especially don’t believe that the attempt to understand and to mean something—not so much to intend something as to question and thereby discover or invent something—in your writing indicates that you’re a fascist. All writing, as Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is an “imposition.” The question is whether it’s a beautiful, compelling imposition.
WR: Are you suggesting that that’s the way to go, then?
BT: By way of indirectly addressing that question … I went to a lecture on “art and politics” given by Robert Morgan, an art critic—actually a slide-presentation which he said was “a parallel form of discourse” with the text of his speech. Turns out that by politics he meant “the art market,” a term I translated into the Operating System, this trope I’ve been borrowing from computer terms. He used the jargon of post-structural analytic discourse, including the term, “slippage,” by which he was referring to the observed phenomenon that “signifiers” seem to change their references all the time, i.e. that not only the artist’s purchase on “meaning” seems to be a slippery item but that “signifiers” can be manipulated either by the Art Market or by the artists who think they can play that game and win.
He said that what sells especially to investors is “a sure thing” and that can be manufactured. You don’t invest in “art,” you invest in an Andy Warhol or a Jasper Johns. Once you—or the Artist Formerly Known as You—have been reified in that way, you aren’t who you are but what the market says you are. You may go on living and producing, but the art market has cloned the saleable part of you.
In a direct appeal to the art students in the audience, he said two things: 1) that the postmodernist attitude and techniques such as a program of complete ambiguity by “disjunction” and other forms of undercutting any assertion of a signifier which results in no one being able to come to closure about what your art is proposing is—as perhaps an unintended consequence—only going to reinforce the tactics and outcomes of the Art Market, since it avoids having to take the responsibility for the possibly illegal, immoral, and unjustifiable actions it believes it must take to maintain its position of control by cynically questioning what “illegal” and “immoral” and “unjustified” mean (i.e. deconstruction); thus, postmodernism and its methods become a weird, even perverse, imitation of the very means of its own oppression...I think he was referencing Fredric Jameson here...and it involves the self-delusion for postmodernists that they are engaging in resistance, whereas they are participants in their own dehumanization, engaged in a secret prayer to the void for a new Dark Age as the only hope, and speaking to an audience they believe is either hip enough to like their message or dehumanized; and 2) that whether art to the artists in the audience is narrative or more abstractly the exploration of the media and languages of art or issues of representation, they should recognize that the reading of Art News to figure out how they can manipulate to sell themselves and their art products through “slippage” is futile since the Art Market holds all the cards; and it is a matter of terrible “good luck” whether an artist is going to be “at the right place at the right time” and thus selected to be made rich, famous and cloned, stripped of all intrinsic value and then rewired and sold.
For me this connects back to the subject of the Beats and the jazz of the 1940s and 50s because it’s clear that at least at the outset Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al. understood consciously that they were going to practice voluntary poverty, living in low-rent districts, buying clothes at charity stores, working a job where they could trade hours of writing-time for materialistic gain.
I wish Morgan had been more plain-spoken, but his message to the artists in the audience was that they should pursue art-for-art’s-sake, not politics—again, the Art Market and its manipulations. I don’t think he intended the term “art-for-art’s-sake” to be an encouragement toward some hyper-avant-garde dilettantism. Instead, he was recommending that they walk away from considerations of the Art Market and make a bee-line for whatever gives them personal satisfaction, whatever emerges from the questioning interaction of their needs and their environment. To that extent, the artist makes a political statement, he said.
And if I don’t disremember, isn’t that what you say, Bill, in that editor’s note in your second issue of turnrow when you’re talking about Carlos Rodríquez, that he lived and wrote in utter obscurity and that that’s the way it should be, that the problem is the assumption that there should be more poets who are better known, famous, influential?
But there’s a difference between taking such an ironic view of the place of the artist in the world and promulgating a view of society in which your fellow human beings are like the monsters in human bodies that we remember from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There you’re alienated from everyone—even and especially those who might be your friends, lovers, allies. Some people are such ardent advocates of their world-view and their techniques that they argue as if they have to convert everybody to their beliefs or face the possibility that they could be wrong. You know, “You’re with us or you’re against us.” Who does that sound like?
What I’m trying to formulate here—I mean today, throughout this entire discussion today—is not an either/or but a both/and. Yes, there is an Art Market, but even so you have to keep fighting your impulse to deal from your fear of it. Other possibilities exist.You can instead move toward your curiosity about and love of the world and other living beings and what we can be, even though I grant it’s hard sometimes. Poetry can embody a sensibility which enacts the artist’s ways of investigating the universe, a poetry that is inspiring and useful both, and sets a formal agenda, if by formal agenda you mean something like the protocols of your inquiry, a poetry that shares with the reader a process of generating better questions.
I think of Blake’s idea that there are Daughters of Memory and Daughters of Imagination. The Daughters of Memory are useful when you want to measure or deconstruct the dimensions of your prison—or misprision—cell; but when you start thinking about a way out, then you have to shift from description to imagination. This is not to say that the imagination can’t be conscripted into the service of a view that the world is lethally dangerous and ugly in the extreme. But other possibilities exist.
Oddly enough, that brings me back to another way into the issue of a poetry of “social protest.” You can shake your fist and make statements and hurl epithets at the Operating System because it is so unjust, unfair, divisive, seemingly based on hate. Or you can create a poem which enacts what human beings are capable of when their creativity is engaged in the arts of peace. That’s another context for the word, éngagé.
WR: Éngagé—a French word that makes me remember that your people came down to live and work in Massachusetts from French Canada, didn’t they?
BT: Yes. As far as I know. That’s a big gap for me. A daunting challenge. An opportunity. All I know is what my Aunt Lil told me when I was a kid. She and my mother, their maiden-name was Fontaine. She would laugh and give me the impression that she was making some of it up, like when she’d talk about le Comte de Fontaine. She said he was the captain of a pirate ship on the St. Lawrence River. Yes, black eye-patch, parrot on his shoulder, only he wasn’t saying, “Arrrggghhh, young mister ‘Awrkins,” but “Heh-heh-heh!” like a cartoon version of Lucky Pierre.
Apparently her family and my father’s family were farmers in Quebec who got involved in a Quebecois separatist uprising in the 1880s. The English government in Ottawa sent a small army out. They put down my family’s rebellion and confiscated their property, unhouseling them. And if it weren’t for this jobber who was driving around in a buggy passing out handbills for factory jobs in Massachusetts they might’ve starved. Instead, they put all the belongings they could carry on their backs and walked the 300 hundred miles to a new home and a new life.
WR: And you sometimes write about your hometown, the place where your parents’ parents found a livelihood and a new community. Your memories of it seem rich with textural detail, memorable people, almost nostalgia for a kind of community life. But, as you’ve already said, you left as soon as you were able. You’ve lived in Colorado for about 30 years now. Like many of the writers I talk to, you live far from where you grew up. Do you experience a feeling of dislocation or rootlessness or longing? Do you think it’s a major theme in American poetry?
BT: It’s a major theme in American history, world history, in fact, since most Americans are the sons and daughters of immigrants. I remember talking about that in the 1970s with my friend, Wayne Ude, not long after trekking west to Colorado on US 80 in a blue van with my wife Cynthia, our three sons, all our worldly possessions in a UHaul, and a little grey cat in an orange crate. I told him I imagined us in some kind of mechanized replay of the American pioneer experience.
Wayne tweaked his lower lip with thumb and forefinger and said, “Well, y’know, the people who came out West in the 1900s, they were the most ornery folks. They didn’t like New England, too many people. So they moved on out to Ohio. And then the most ornery of them moved on out to Colorado and Montana. So what you’ve got out here is a double self-selected bunch of porcupines that’ll poke you with quills if you come too close.” It was a typical Wayne Ude rap—funny and disturbing.
Alienation and the longing for home, for community, clash and play off one another, and somewhere in there the sense arises that to move is a metaphor for redemption, not with a capital “R,” not in any ultimate sense, but in a limited, contingent sense, an existential sense, with a small “e.”
The alienation doesn’t have to result from “sin.” As I say in this poem called “Somnambulist Dawn,” “It’s not that I’ve sinned, exactly…/I just have a different aesthetic.” I told that story in Duhamel: Ideas of Order In Little Canada, using the title character as a guy living in a factory town who wants to be a painter. The people in his neighborhood feel he’s an arrogant bastard who thinks he’s better than everybody who works in a factory. So he feels this alienation from them, but he stubbornly persists in living off his common-law wife while painting the very people who think he’s a bum. In this “stained glass” technique he’s experimenting with, he paints these really loving portraits of men and women dragging themselves home to their tenement apartments through the coalyard, exhausted from another day at the factory. One of his paintings is shown in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but the people they’re about never see it.
In my own case, I wanted an education, which my parents had no context for, they were so much inside the world of factory life. When I showed them the letter from Columbia saying I got a football scholarship, they said, “But why would you do that? You could have a good job in the factory.” At that moment, I felt vertigo, like I was in free-fall, because what I wanted to do with my life was simply not within my parent’s world. I mean, I hadn’t done anything, they hadn’t done anything, but everything was changed between us.
But, no matter what happens to make you feel that alienation, in America you can always pack up, move, try to regain your innocence, and realize you have to change not only your address but your way of looking at life.
WR: Where in contemporary American poetry did you find this theme?
BT: The American poets I get that combination of feelings most from are Robert Frost and Theodore Roethke, and James Wright and Richard Hugo, especially that idea of a “triggering town.” I get it from plenty of women, too, from Adrienne Rich to Mary Oliver to Sandra Cisneros. Frost can’t even look the night watchman in the eye he’s so alone and “acquainted with the night.” Roethke leaves his native Michigan and relocates out to the Pacific Northwest where he writes “The North American Sequence” in which he keeps finding, and losing, this vision of a spiritual home in the great river valleys, mountains, and forests of the state of Washington. Wright is even more out front about a feeling that he’s been driven out and exiled from the Paradise of Ohio into the purgatory he describes from a drunk tank in Minneapolis, and so many of his poems are momentary glimpses of Heaven as he gazes at horses grazing in a pasture in Minnesota, for one example. And, Hugo, in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” when he describes this down-on-its-luck mining town then turns to the reader and asks, “Isn’t this your life?” Man, that went right through me like a missile. Voom! Same thing with Adrienne Rich. Her husband asks her if she thinks he’s responsible for 10,000 years of women’s oppression, and she says, “I don’t know. Let me look in your eyes.” Wow. More “right now” poets where I find those themes are Charles Wright, Tess Gallagher, Robert Wrigley.
Place is the “open sesame” for entering the secret treasuries of the imagination for a lot of American poets. Not just place but people. I think of a recent graduate of the program I teach in, his name is Aaron Abeyta. He comes from a small town in south central Colorado called Antonito. His poems show how lovingly and in what glowing detail he has observed the people in this rural valley, with what care, so that his poems change you because there’s such forgiving wisdom about human foibles and such myth-making admiration for human greatness among humble people, sheep herders and the like.
WR: I know that town a little. When I lived in Colorado, I used to stop there monthly on business trips to New Mexico. The area always interested me, the clear feeling of the arid high plateau, the Chicano community, the apparent idleness and the relative isolation. I used to visit that tiny church outside of town, said to be the oldest church in Colorado. But speaking of forgiving wisdom about human foibles and myth-making admiration, I think of this bartender I’d visit there named Richard, a wonderfully eccentric and sometimes cantankerous person with lots of stories. Sometimes he’d sip too much of the profits and wind up in the pokey. The sheriff locked him up so he wouldn’t hurt himself, and the regulars would walk over in the morning to get him out so he could open the bar. Now, that’s community.
BT: In America and in some American poetry, there’s both this cantankerous spirit of resisting all attempts to smooth out your eccentricities—which you can call alienation—and there’s an equally powerful longing for community. And along that continuum there are moments of poetry that Emily Dickinson describes as taking off the top of your head. I get it from her poem where she talks about this dead child as her “Mouldering Playmate.”
I think she’s talking about when you feel something inside you change. It seems to express itself as a change in your body. You may not even know what it is. You may find yourself reading and re-reading a poem, trying to articulate just what it is that has changed inside you from reading that poem, a moment like James Wright’s body bursting into bloom as he enters the field to be with those horses that love each other, a moment that’s unavoidably lyrical. On the other hand, there are poets these days who write in this flat, discursive style, and justify their lack of song with the doubt that lyric poetry can express the sadness of our times, as if they think that beauty is mere prettiness, a way of euphemizing the ugly truths they want to dwell on.
Jonathan Holden back in the 80s said that a poem only begins to approach greatness when it stops narrating an experience and starts offering what a poet knows about a category of experiences. But my emphasis here is not so much on strategy on the whole-poem level but strategy in the poetic line, a metamorphosis, a category shift like the way “The lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir” becomes everything Dick Hugo can’t have, the way the human body becomes a blooming flower in James Wright, the way a kiss becomes a skull in Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, or this bumper sticker I just saw that hit my funny bone saying, “Don’t judge a book by its movie.” It’s a phrase, involving a category shift, a change triggered in the body of a reader that can engender a new perspective—a poet’s response to another poet’s call. Isn’t that what Whitman is talking about at the end of “Song of Myself” when he addresses the poets of the future as if they were his real family?
WR: Do we have a family, here in the future?
BT: Back in the sixties and early seventies there was for a brief time a sense of a national poetry family because so many poets were opposed to the Vietnam War. Someone from that era could feel a terrific nostalgia for that momentary sense of unity as a metaphor for a home, a kind of Camelot.
As that urgency flew apart like helicopters lifting off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, it seemed that poetry became balkanized. That’s one way of interpreting Bly’s phrase about “little islands of the saved.” You could look at a map of America and from a literary point-of-view you could identify—like with colored push-pins—places where poetry was surviving, even thriving, right up to today, mostly college towns—Amherst, Ann Arbor, Bloomington, et cetera—and, to continue the metaphor, surviving and thriving as writing communities, as groves of Academe, where poetry can find a home, where poets can learn. I think Richard Hugo said that writing poetry can’t be taught but it must be learned.
WR: At a Q & A after lecture by an esteemed professor emeritus a person in the audience asked: If you had to limit it to a single idea, what would you say literature has been about since the end of World War II? He replied, “The failure of the transcendent moment.” What do you think the professor was trying to get at?
BT: Well, first off, I would say it’s the failure of people to believe in themselves. Maybe that’s the same thing. We have the spectacle of “fail-safe” defense systems. We invent these ruthless Operating Systems, and then we set them in motion to rule over us, perhaps because we can’t trust ourselves not to give in to the promptings of compassion. I’m not trying to set up an “us” and “them” situation here. I’m saying that “them” are “us,” only externalized, projected, and then programmed not to be further programmed.
Back in the late 19th Century Doestoevsky wrote in “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov that people are always looking to give up their freedom because they can’t bear up under the weight of the responsibility freedom brings along with it. So we get to a point of “virtual reality” where we don’t have lives, we have lifestyles. How demeaning to human dignity is that? Instead, I believe the Gospel of St. Thomas where Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is not something you can work yourself into, rather it’s all around us and we do not see it.
I believe in poetry, too. Like any belief what is important is not my fears but my faith. Some people take poetry to be a kind of pusillanimous escapism, but really who are the escapists? I can sympathize with the people who don’t know if they want to see change, who feel in their guts like Cassandra that whatever it will be it will be catastrophic. Rilke famously said, “You must change your life.” Poetry can bring about internal changes. The gravity of contemporary poetry as well as its levity emanates from the gap between our personal lives and our history. As I said, we’re in this gap.