Interview by Terry Hertzler
Steve Kowit was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived on the West Coast for the past 27 years or so. He came of age during the Lower East Side coffee-house poetry-reading scene of the early 1960s, moved to Haight-Ashbury and lived there until the Vietnam War heated up, then fled with his wife to Mexico and parts south. He’s editor and publisher of The Maverick Poets, author of In The Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop and a handful of collections of poetry, most recently The Dumbbell Nebula. He is recipient of a NEA fellowship and Pushcart Prize, as well as other awards. An incorrigible loudmouth and political activist, he founded the first animal rights organization in San Diego in the 80s, and last year wrote the introduction for We The Creatures, an anthology of contemporary animal-rights poetry. His essay on the Xhosa mass suicide in the mid-19th century as a model of collective self-deception, will be published in Skeptic Magazine. He’s taught on the West Coast for the past two decades and lives with his beloved wife, Mary, and several dogs and cats, in the back country hills of San Diego County near the Mexican border. He was interviewed by Terry Hertzler, Vietnam combat veteran, fellow San Diego poet, publisher of Caernarvon Press and an old friend.
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TERRY HERTZLER: You seem to enjoy teaching and are clearly much sought after, your serious students coming back again and again. Your classes are always fun and lively. What is your approach to teaching?
STEVE KOWIT: Yeah, teaching poetry is fun because I’m constantly using models of poems I love and I tend to draw fine students—people whom I have lots of respect for. Many are old friends since people tend to take the class several times. There are people who’ve been studying with me, off and on, for twenty years. When I’m most awake, I know that I really don’t know more than my students about the world, that I haven’t any right to pretend to be superior. They’re my equals and many students sitting in any classroom are brighter than I am and know a great deal more than I do about all sorts of things. I want the environment to be friendly and fun, and I don’t want to play the role of the expert or the teacher. I learned some basic things about teaching from the Church of Scientology, things about communication and listening well and acknowledging the communication coming from the person with whom you’re speaking. I studied Scientology for about three years. Intensively. It was my life for those three years. I have very mixed feelings about much of it. It is not a trustworthy practice; it’s coercive and rather stupidly self-righteous. Hubbard was more than a bit of an ass, and I wouldn’t recommend it—but some of the data is wonderful.
Over all, I think it’s important to love your students, to feel great warmth and affection and friendship for them—I think it’s clear to my students that I respect them as equals and peers, that I love poetry, that I love craft, that I love a phrase or a word that says what needs to be said with precision, that almost audible click I that Yeats talks about—and that I’m delighted to be with them, sharing what little I know. And I make sure they understand that I’m often wrong-headed and they shouldn’t believe everything I say—that there are no rules, only cases. That anyone can write a marvelous poem out of any aesthetic theory. That there’s simply no one right way to do it. I remind them that I am often teaching out of my own prejudices. When my class is working, everyone is laughing and having a good time and feels that this is just where they want to be. I try to do that same thing in my teaching manual In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop. What I think I convey, at least when I’m on, is that the whole thing is gloriously good fun, that it’s nothing but a delectable game, and yet that writing is also, at the same time, a high spiritual exercise. Ultimately, after questions of skill and verbal deftness have been considered, it’s the depth of the spirit, the level of moral and psychological trustworthiness, that writers need. It’s the depth from which the emotions and perceptions spring that counts. Whitman once observed to Horace Traubel that if a writer doesn’t like women or feels he has a right to be waited upon, or has some other meanness or character flaw, it will show up in his poetry. Yes! How deep is the life from which the work springs? That’s the final question.
You know, there are people who naively imagine that you can get rid of ego in poetry by dropping the use of the word ‘I’—that the word ‘I’ presents a problem in contemporary poetry—that confessional or personal poetry is somehow limited because of that ‘I.’ Seems ridiculous. Acknowledging the ‘I’ and using it strategically to say what you want to say has nothing to do with the problem of ego, has nothing whatsoever to do with the problem of the small, self-aggrandizing self getting in the way of the poem and making it smaller, narrower, less generous than it ought to have been. Of course that means I’m interested in what a poem is saying, not just how it’s said. A decidedly anti-modernist altitude. If it marks me as hopelessly out of sync with the times, that’s fine with me too.
T.H.: I know that you’ve been influenced by a number of spiritual teachers, people such as L. Ron Hubbard, whom you just mentioned, as well as Werner Erhard, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and George Gurdjieff, each of whom seems to have had rather questionable aspects to their character. Do those experiences have anything to do with your sense of yourself as a skeptic, a person who—however much you are interested in spiritual issues and meditative paths—is no longer easily captivated by spiritual systems and metaphysical beliefs? I’m thinking, too, of your manuscript concerning collective self-deception. What part does all that play in your poetry?
S.K.: Yes, I suppose it does. I spent six years working on that book about self-deception, a book that might never, at least in its entirety, be published. But I learned a great deal. It crystallized certain feelings I had about the central flaw in the human mind—and why we’re such a fucked-up species. People love to believe! Believe anything! My childhood was in part shaped by the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and the revelations of the Holocaust, those eugenics beliefs that various races were congenitally evil or greedy or murderous or untrustworthy. FDR believed the Japanese were sneaky by nature—exactly the same belief that the German ‘scientists’ had about Jews and Gypsies.
When I was in the 7th grade, way back in the Joe MaCarthy 50s, I refused to pledge my allegiance to the American flag. And around that same time I was shocked to find out that the new ‘beloved’ state of Israel (I come from a big Jewish family), was a state in which Jews had more rights than other people, and I sensed, though I was still a naive kid, that something didn’t smell right about that. I mean if Hitler’s Aryan State was a murderous idea, why was the idea of a Jewish state going to be any better? And, as it turned out, my instincts were right. For more than half a century the U.S. press and government have instructed the populace to believe that the European Jews who stole the Palestinian homeland have a perfect right to what is now called Israel, and that the millions of Palestinians who have been expelled from their homes don’t exist or are subhuman terrorists.
A decade later, in my twenties, I refused to fight in Vietnam. I was in the reserves because the Coney Island Draft Board had refused to allow me to become a conscientious objector, and when I moved to San Francisco in ’67 I sent the Army a letter of resignation telling them I’d never put that uniform on again. The Vietnam War taught me about the horrors of American self-righteousness—and how all the stuff I’d learned about the American love of democracy around the world was nothing but convenient mythology fed to a citizenry willing to believe what they were told—over and over and over. Chomsky says, ‘It is easy to come to believe what we find convenient to believe.’ Amen.
I was wonderfully and woefully disillusioned on several occasions in my spiritual search, and those experiences also helped shape me. As I’ve already suggested, Hubbard and Scientology were not, in the long run, trustworthy, although I learned a tremendous amount from that practice and am very grateful to the Church of Scientology for that. I was in the Gurdjieff work for a few years, but Gurdjieff himself was clearly an aberrant fellow with a puffed-up sense of himself and a lot of his speculative metaphysical stuff seems to me to be laughable nonsense. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal from the Gurdjieff Work, too, and still feel attached to it, and still use the central fourth-way meditation of trying throughout the day to wake up. Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way was a real guide for me as far back as my late teens, long before I entered the Gurdjieff Work.
Werner Erhard’s EST training became enormously useful in my life. I learned a great deal from it, too, and, as I did in Scientology, had some important opening experiences there. Transformative experiences. Whether Werner fondled his daughters one night in a hotel I can’t say. On the other hand some of the EST philosophy was pernicious bullshit. The notion that we’re totally responsible for everything that happens to us. No. Not at all. Gurdjieff was much more correct on that one. He said we lived under the ‘Law of Accident’ and that, in fact, we controlled a great deal less of our decisions and choices and behavior than we imagined. Erhart—who had been a Scientologist for many years—would have us believe that cancer patients somehow induce their own cancer. They have to take responsibility for their cancer. That’s just low-level, new-age mystical malarkey.
I practiced Zen rigorously for several years after I left the Gurdjieff Work. But, as it turns out, my Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, a fine, lovely man, was an alcoholic who had an eye for l3-year-old girls. His senior students finally got him into an alcohol treatment program in San Diego and the teenybopper sex—Jesus, you can go to prison for a long time for that sort of stuff—was hushed up. I think all that pretty much ended my Zen practice. My other wonderful Zen teacher, Thich Thien-An, a marvelous, gentle man, had died in his 50s of a brain tumor a few years before, and in those last months it seemed to me that he was clearly distracted, scared, upset—just like anyone would be in that situation. So it seemed clear that spiritual practice didn’t entirely stave off the suffering, the horrible tragedy, or even the fear of death. But Zen practice, a rigorous daily sitting practice, changed my life. It was wonderful. I don’t recommend half-lotus: it’s bad for the back and awful for the knees. But a daily dose of zazen—shutting up the mind—was wonderful therapy. Perhaps the most transformative experience came as a result of the EST Training. There was a wonderful process late in the training when I was forced to confront eating animals, and what we do to animals every day in order to satisfy our palates, the inexpressible misery that innocent animals suffer, in slaughterhouses and medical laboratories, the vast, unspeakable horrors that we all silently assent to so that we can have our rib roasts and veal cutlets. That was a great shock to my system.
At the time I was working on the opening Koan, Joshu’s Mu, ‘Do dogs have Buddha Nature?’ Oddly, I don’t remember who gave me that Koan. Not Maezumi because he was a Soto Zen teacher. It must have been some Renzai teacher I sat with at one time—I don’t recall. But the practice was powerful—though maybe not in the way intended. What came home to me every day was the casual cruelty of human beings. How could we be in such profound denial? That’s the central issue I guess. Out of that grief and horror I started an Animal Rights organization here in San Diego. That murderous nature, without the slightest guilt, is central to who we are as a species. Even given the vast amount of torture and killing for fun in which U.S. troops indulged in Vietnam, the massive bombing of that country, the bombing of the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our daily war crimes in Iraq, our continual invasion and occupation of other countries, our continual support for right-wing dictatorships and disdain for democratic movements around the world, our very recent overthrow of the Aristide democracy in Haiti—most Americans still imagine their country to be righteous and peace-loving. It’s almost beyond belief, the degree to which people can deceive themselves.
People believe what they want to, evidence or no evidence. Our beloved holy books are blatantly malignant. Yahweh was, generally speaking, a sociopathic deity infatuated with genocide, a partisan of slavery and rape, and his Israelite people were the cruelest, most savage—and sanctimonious—of barbarians. A supremacist, slave-owning, warlike people, intent on stealing the Middle East from its inhabitants. What they bequeathed to Christianity was that sanctimonious, supremacist philosophy. And the Christian Scriptures, ironically, turned the tables and became little more than an anti-Jewish polemic—Jesus curses the Jews as children of the Devil, and the authors of the Gospels have the Jews call down a curse upon their own heads. I don’t know if Mel Gibson is, like his father, an anti-Semite, but the crucifixion as represented in the Gospels is largely an anti-Jewish polemic. Those Christian scriptures lead from St. John Chrysostom and Augustine’s anti-Jewish rants directly to the pogroms of the Middle Ages, the expulsion of the Jews from various countries and finally, to the smokestacks of Auschwitz.
Then too, there are other monstrously destructive elements in Christianity. Jesus says what any spoiled, narcissistic adolescent would say: ‘If you don’t agree with me you will go to hell and suffer eternal torment!’ Threatening eternal suffering to those who don’t agree with you is the single most sadistic philosophy you will find in any religion. If people don’t like what Jesus suffers on the cross in Gibson’s film, imagine what an unbeliever suffers throughout eternity in the Christian hell. This is the god of love? And those two vicious texts are the sacred books of the West! They’re Hitlerian! Both of those malignant books should be discarded, abandoned, forgotten …
You know, Terry, I’ve always had the feeling that monotheism is far more dangerous than polytheism because it says, ‘There is but one God—and we’ve got him!’ Well, I won’t go on. In the end, my sense—my very deep sense—is that we are not who we think we are—the tribal nature of Homo satanicus is murderous. Social animals are the only ones who are capable of warfare and we are, of course, far and away the species with the greatest degree of inter-tribal cooperation. That means the species that is apt to be most warlike. E. O. Wilson says there are ant species that are even more warlike than man, but I have a hard time believing it. Our religions are self-aggrandizing, small-minded reflections of our pitiable congenital meanness and inherent thirst for blood. Somewhere, Simone Weil says she never met a soldier who didn’t relish killing. Man’s impulse for murdering the ‘other’ is an absolutely central part of his nature. It has nothing to do with economic oppression or capitalism. The role of all this in my poetry? I think in the past few years it’s shown up more and more—I write a lot of political poetry these days—though my interest earlier in the silliness of the human ego—a theme that enters into a good deal of my poetry—is suggestive, perhaps, of that direction.
T.H.: You are clearly interested in what a poem is saying, not just how it says it. Some poets and poetry workshop teachers would claim that poetry is subjective and intuitive, and different readers will take entirely different meanings from the same poem—that a poem might be complex, nonlinear, multilayered and difficult, or that an author may not always know what a poem might mean to others—that the meaning a person gets from a poem might even be something of a revelation to the author, that how a poem says what it says, no matter how complex or ambiguous or indeterminate the poem is, is what counts. How do you respond to that?
S.K: Much of that is an excuse for the great self-indulgence of the reigning aesthetic, the idea of the surreal or deep image, the ‘intuitive, just-let-it-happen, trust yourself completely’ sort of poem that wells up, putatively, from so deep a place in the psyche that even the poet doesn’t know what he’s saying. Well, maybe at times that does happen and produces a successful poem. Far more often the poet loses control of his material and his end product comes to nothing but a huge yawn from the hapless reader. The problem is that the image and narrative are too shallow rather than too deep. There’s that wonderfully amusing Billy Collins poem about students wanting to tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it. But in fact, Billy Collins, a superb poet, is almost always deliciously clear to a decent reader. His poems don’t need to be tied to a chair and beaten into a confession. Lots of poems that can mean all sorts of things really don’t mean much of anything. I think, overall, that complex, difficult, multi- layered, nonlinear poetry is a long series of failed experiments.
The question of a poet’s intentions came up in my creative writing class a while ago, a couple of students suggesting how hard it is to separate what they’d intended to say from what the reader gets, because the communication is already fleshed out in the writer’s head. So they had the illusion that they had managed to transfer that information to the page. When they laughed about that insight, a number of their classmates were nodding affirmatively. They’d had the same experience: their poems hadn’t conveyed what they’d thought they had.
It seems to me absolutely essential to let the writers in workshops know how much of their intention in a piece under discussion was realized. What’s the good of having marvelous verbal, musical and imaginative skills if you can’t say what you had wished to—or are deluded into imagining you’ve said something clearly when you’ve left everyone in soporific confusion? Often a poet thinks he’s written a poem about, say, his grandmother and the horrors of war, and eight workshop participants will swear that the poem is about cloud formations, six are certain it’s about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the rest suspect it’s a paean to chopped liver. I would guess that you can go to the authors of more than half the thoroughly incoherent poems published in any collection of literary journals and learn that those writers have no doubt whatsoever that their poems are perfectly intelligible—if only the reader had been more alert, knew a little more about reading serious poetry! Blaming the reader is commonplace among contemporary poets, especially poets of the incoherent persuasion.
T.B.: Speaking of Billy Collins, why do you think there was so much controversy when he was named Poet Laureate of the United States a few years back?
S.K: Collins is a wonderful and wonderfully popular poet. He’s one of the few who’s read by lots of people who aren’t so-called ‘serious students of poetry.’ His books actually sell. He’s completely intelligible and therefore is far outside the mainstream aesthetic which cherishes poems no one can understand, and which the critics and professors can have a field day ‘explicating.’ So Collins, who can be understood by any decent reader—and understood on a first reading, and whose work is amusing and entertaining and fun—is much resented. He’s a threat! Sharon Old was resented fro the same reason when she was a rising star. People read her who didn’t major in literary theory! I’ve actually read poet critics saying explicitly that poems that can be understood on a first reading are not worth reading! My god, no wonder no one reads the stuff!
As far as I’m concerned poetry has to be as readable, as pleasurable, as delightful and as accessible as any other kind of literature—as a good short story or vignette or essay or memoir: Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ might have a few knotty lines, but it is basically perfectly intelligible. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ is perfectly intelligible. Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ and ‘Church Going’ are perfectly intelligible. The early, pre-Patterson Williams is often wonderfully intelligible. Marvelous poetry! So I’m not advocating some sort of simple-minded poetic. Ron Koertge and Billy Collins are as sophisticated as any writers around. Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio, two marvelous contemporaries who are among the very best and most exciting, are ‘complex’ poets, but poets who always make sure they’re intelligible. Mary Oliver, that marvelous poet who comes as close to an enlightened vision as any American of our period, is thoroughly intelligible. Poems that aren’t intelligible seem to me to be flawed in an essential way. They are unlikely to do what literature has to do to be ultimately successful. Hart Crane notwithstanding, the defining characteristic of language, after all, is communicability. By rights, many of the so-called Language Poets should be called Anti-Language Poets. So too the more ‘difficult’ of the academics.
But that doesn’t mean intelligibility is the only criterion of effective poetry. It’s usually a necessary condition but never a sufficient one. There are journals chock full of intelligible poems that are boring, unambitious, self-aggrandizing, poorly crafted, musically inept and uninteresting. The Bukowski school produced untold numbers of would-be Buks and untold numbers of mediocre poems. Most of them about pussy and beer. Adolescent machismo poems. Indeed, Bukowski himself rarely brought off—to my taste—a splendidly memorable poem. He was a terrific talent and in one sense very therapeutic because he insisted on writing intelligibly. He had a fine ear for the American idiom and was a consistently engaging storyteller. I don’t at all mean to demean or dismiss him. In one sense, out of his work, came one branch of the exciting poetry being produced today. He and Ed Field and poets like Ron Koertge helped change the poetic landscape, showed others how to write a kind of poetry that was nothing like the high modernist stuff that was coming out of the Wallace Stevens New Critical sensibility that dominated American poetry for so long. Of course early Williams was terrific in that same sense: he was writing perfectly understandable and marvelously constructed poems in the ordinary language. Poems in which every syllable was just right!
And that’s not to mention Ray Carver, a superb model. When he was at his best he was writing poetry of the highest order. And then there’s Jeffers, a towering figure, too serious to ‘play’ with language. Jeffers represented poetry at its most classical, most serious, most lyrically austere. I love—isn’t it obvious—poets who speak a human language, who have no truck with fashion, who want to speak their piece. Carver said ‘No tricks’ and that’s what he meant: no rhetorical cutenesses, no moves that are merely clever. A poet doesn’t wish to be admired, Cocteau said, but believed.
Back to teaching, just let me say that it’s very therapeutic for a workshop participant to know whether an audience of attentive readers gets what she’s saying. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the issues of intentional ambiguity and thematic complexity, or the fact that images and scenes can resonate widely and encompass a wide spectrum of implications. If a poem can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then it doesn’t mean much of anything. Those workshop participants who are high modernists and postmodernists and don’t want to say anything intelligible in their poems, who don’t want their poems to contain anything so vulgar as a ‘meaning,’ can take heart from such workshop sessions in the realization that their offering remained impenetrably opaque and successfully glazed the eyes of just about everyone who’d managed to remain awake—exactly as they’d intended!
T.R.: What do you think of the popularity of ‘spoken word’ poetry and ‘slam’ poetry—the idea of poetry as competition?
S.K.: Interesting phenomena. Those venues are where the non-white, non-middle class, non-academic poets hang out. It’s a different sound: part street, part rap and hip-hop, all of it feisty and sassy. Maybe too much attitude and too little hard rewriting. But that’s where you hear most of the real political poetry nowadays. Rarely in the pages of the mainstream lit journals or at university poetry readings or in the usual anthologies. The spoken word venues are where the black and Puerto Rican and Hispanic poets of social consciousness are presenting their work. I grew up with the Lower East Side poetry scene in New York and those endless open readings had much the same feel as the spoken word stuff that is being performed today in cities all over the country to rather surprisingly large and enthusiastic live audiences. Lots of excitement. Always a kind of party at those places. The bohemian equivalent of the pick up bar: lots of good-looking young poets on the make. Of course it’s still largely an audience of fellow poets. I’ve only been to one slam, in Phoenix I think it was, and it turned out to be a lot of fun and done very well, done sensitively so that no one got hurt. Of course much of the work isn’t brilliant, and some of it is laughably dreadful and unskilled, but then neither is most of the work coming out of the mainstream particularly luminous or masterful. These scenes have, at least, a raw energy that hasn’t been polished out of existence. My only complaint is that those open readings are endless, often go on for hours, and there’s just so much one can take. But there are fine talents there too. People like Quincy Troupe. I heard Manny Ortiz read his wonderful long political poem ‘A Moment of Silence’ before about 150 people in Claire de Lune, a well-known poetry coffee-house in San Diego last year. Many of the participants are young and learning their craft. Some will become marvelous poets. Wonderful! More power to that scene!
T.R.: You mentioned that much of your current writing addresses politics in one way or another. There was a slogan in the 1960s: Everything Is Political. Do you believe that is true, and if so, how do you think that affects (or should affect) poetry today?
S.K.: I think it was something that poets said who were embarrassed to be writing poems that were not at all political. An easy way to get themselves off the hook. In the past three years we have bombed Afghanistan, killed thousands of innocent people, crippled and wounded tens of thousands, and replaced the Taliban with the despised Northern Alliance. We invaded Iraq, have already killed tens of thousands of innocent people there, put tens of thousands in prison, and pretty much destroyed their society—this after 10 years of illegal bombing—mostly by a Democratic Party administration—bombing that took the lives of well over a million civilians mostly by destroying their water purification facilities. We just invaded Haiti a couple of weeks ago in order to throw out the first democratically elected president of that country—a man who refused to play ball with the U.S. heavy-money agenda. So that we can again control Haiti for the sake of U.S. corporate interests. FRAPH, the right-wing Haitian Death Squad organization was sponsored by the CIA. As soon as the Duvalier dictatorship and the dreaded Tonton Macoutes and their powerful moneyed allies were thrown out and a popular democracy took power (Aristide won, I believe, about 90 percent of the vote), the U.S. stopped all assistance to Haiti and made sure all monies from the International Monetary Fund dried up. So while we were insisting that Afghanistan turn over bin Laden, the U.S. government was refusing to extradite Toto Constant, the head of FRAPH terrorist organization, who’d been indicted for murdering 3000 civilians in Haiti. Of course the last thing we wanted was Constant on trial talking about his CIA connections. So he’s living a cushy life in the States. No one seemed to notice the contradiction and hypocrisy. If we had a right to invade Afghanistan, surely Haiti had a right to bomb the United States.
The U.S. has opposed democracy and overthrown various democracies—Chile, Iran, Haiti and Nicaragua come immediately to mind—always while pretending that we’re in favor of democracy, that we’re champions of democracy. We have underwritten torture regimes and mass-murder regimes, and the American public by and large believes we love democracy and are trying to promote it around the world. Absurd. We are the enemy of progressive forces, of the poor and oppressed all over the world. But you can read 10 American poetry journals without finding a single political poem, a single poem about the horrors of American colonial aggression just as you can read 10 American newspapers without being told the truth about America’s international agenda.
The entire Middle East despises us largely because of our wholesale support for the theft of Palestine and for the ‘transfer’—the ethnic cleansing—of the Palestine people that Israel has been undertaking since 1947, by making life so unbearable that the indigenous population has no choice but to leave. Israel is a savage, racist, militaristic government hellbent on stealing what little of the Palestinian homeland they haven’t yet already expropriated. But that’s still taboo to say out loud in the United States. There was the overthrow of the popular Mossedegh government in Iran, of course; our destruction and occupation of Iraq; and our general racist disdain for the Arab world. You will find almost nothing about America’s role in the world in most contemporary American poetry. There have been three or four anthologies of political poetry published after 9/11 and some readings opposing the war, and that’s all honorable and fine. But the mainstream poetry press doesn’t want poetry dealing with the horrors of the world, and of America’s central role in generating those horrors. Read African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European poetry, and it’s filled with political perception, the devastations of hunger, poverty, war, exploitation, corporate greed. But you’ll find little of it in the American mainstream poetry.
Well, the landlords of the world don’t write about the oppression of their tenants. The landlord-banking class needs to avoid the subject, go into denial, rationalize and put its attention elsewhere. Mainstream white American poets, on the whole, seem to know as little about the role of their country in the world as the ordinary, uneducated population. Human beings have a genius for believing what they find convenient to believe. Qabbani says: ‘What is poetry if it does not declare mutiny? / If it does not topple tyrants .. .’ if it does not ‘dislodge the crown / Worn by the powerful kings of this world.’ Now, Terry, you’re in the minority. You’re a Vietnam vet, and one of those who can’t help but write about those horrors, so you probably have a similar sense of the poetry community’s turning its back on the rest of the world. On the other hand, the poets, or at least some segment of them, are just about the only community of artists in the country who have organized against the horrors of this administration, against the invasions and wars. Against the war crimes. Sam Hamill did a fine job organizing that resistance among poets, and Allen Cohen, Clive Matson, William Heyen and others who put out political anthologies are to be thanked. Poets like yourself, going around giving, politically conscious poetry readings, reminding the audience of the unspeakable horrors of Vietnam, are to be thanked.
T.R.: The last poet whose name most people would probably recognize (even if they had never read him) was Robert Frost, who even appeared on The Tonight Show. The audience at the majority of poetry readings in the U.S. today seems to be mostly other poets.. Why do you think this is? .
S.K.: The 20th century was the age of the novel. Dana Gioia insists that the reason poetry was popular in 19th century America was that poems were published as a matter of course in American newspapers. I’m skeptical of his theory. Lots of American newspapers today publish a poem every week, usually in their book-review section. But many of the poems are unintelligible and reinforce the public’s perception that poetry is boring. Well, a great deal of it is. Edna Millay (a wonderful, much undervalued poet) was popular during her life, and Robinson Jeffers was until his reputation was destroyed by his opposition to the Second World War. I don’t pretend to understand the entire sociology of the thing, but surely the fact that American and British poetry was dominated by poets who were difficult to read helped destroy the potential audience. Eliot, Stevens, and hundreds of utterly opaque, consciously elitist high-modernist poets—two or three generations of them—made certain that the public would find little of interest in modern poetry, so people stopped reading the stuff.
But the huge spoken word scene shows that people crave poetry, that poetry is very much alive. And it’s fiercely political: rants and shouts about oppression, the kind of thing the university poets just don’t have the courage or interest to do. The immense popularity of Rumi in various contemporary translations (I suspect it’s a somewhat sexed-up Rumi) shows that there’s an audience. Maybe that curious musical form we call poetry will never again, in this country, find a mass audience. It still has that broad attraction, that mass audience, in parts of South America and Russia. Qabbani’s love poetry is known all over the Arab world and Neruda remains an international hero. Robert Pinsky was able to turn himself into a national presence when he became poet laureate. Bob Hass did too. Hass turned the laureate into a public figure and should be given a lot of credit for that. And Collins, whom I’ve already yammered about at some length. No, poetry might never become a popular literary form again-though if we return to an aesthetic that includes intelligibility, it might have a shot at it. As an anthologist, I’ve tried to showcase that sort of poetry. The Maverick Poets was the first anthology to showcase America’s brilliant accessible poets. From Ginsberg and the Beats to wonderful poets like AI Zolynas, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Hal Norse and Charles Bukowski. Charles Webb’s recent Stand Up Poetry anthology has tried to do that too—I think very successfully. Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 and Milosz’s Luminous Things and other anthologies I’ve seen recently are trying to do that, too. There are scores of American poets these days writing brilliantly readable and memorable poems. But most of the better-known journals are publishing stuff that seems dull and obtuse and the mainstream, large-distribution anthologies—I’m thinking of those old AI Poulin canonical anthologies and the Best American Poetry anthologies and the recent J. D. McClatchy anthology of American poetry, are not, by and large vibrantly readable and engaging. In just about any of the Best American Poetry anthologies, you’ll find three or four terrific poems, a dozen pretty good ones, and the rest of little or no interest whatsoever. Not that they’re poorly made or amateurish or without skill-but they’re boring-and usually unintelligible. What sane citizen would want to go out and read more of that stuff? What we need are more first-rate anthologies of poems that the common reader can fall in love with—the ‘common reader’ being a term, by the way, that implies the fine, experienced, sensitive reader, the man or woman in love with good books!
Once the public sees that poetry is readable again, that it’s human and touching and insightful and memorable and fun, there might be a shift in the wind and verse might have a shot at becoming a popular art form again. I wish some big-city newspaper or large circulation magazine would hire me to be their poetry editor! I’d do it for free! There are so many wonderful poets writing these days—people who should be read and enjoyed by a large public.
T.R.: Who have you been reading and why? How does what you read affect your own writing?
S.K.: In the past week or two I’ve read Mary Oliver’s new book; Kim Addonizio’s feisty new collection, What Is This Thing Called Love, and Julia Alvarez’s new collection—all three of those books are quite wonderful. I’ve also been reading some of Kafka’s parables because I was teaching them. And a book on the history of Korea by Bruce Cumings. He’s our most reliable Koreanologist (okay, so that’s not exactly the word I’m looking for). And there’s a book I just got out of the library with an essay about the history of Feistinger’s cognitive dissonance theory that I want to get to sometime in the next few days. It’s an essential concept about human dynamics, how we function and why we go into denial, believe those stupid myths and refuse to look reality in the face. And this evening I was reading a wonderful book about the real dynamics of the UN called Calling the Shots, a book about how the U.S. has turned the organization into an instrument of its own foreign policy. I don’t read the high-flown poets, the Poundians and esotericoids. Utterly impossible. I know that when I get lost in line two or three it’s not because I can’t keep up with genius but because they’re either not interested or not capable of real communication. God save us from the avant-garde!
Ah, but those human poets who are speaking English and have something to say. Julia Alvarez I’d never read before, but for an occasional poem here and there. She’s very, very good. Moving and human and authentic. There’s a sweetness and a goodness about her that one doesn’t find often in contemporary poetry. Very trustworthy—intelligent and vulnerable. She’s not protecting anything and she’s not trying to impress her reader. In fact, one has to look closely to see her subtlety and prosodic skill. She’s really writing a loose blank verse, and every poem in this new collection is 30 lines long, divided into three 10-line stanzas. So she’s a formalist! Kim Addonizio loves sonnets and form too. Terrific craft, and she’s always transgressive and provocative and often wonderful.
Mary Oliver is probably the most remarkable poet we have. Now that is really what spiritual presence means. She’s one of those visionaries who has been writing one poem all her life—the formula is as obvious and transparent as possible: she describes some bird or snake or frog or flower, and the world is suddenly luminous and present before her and the reader. And most of her poems are delicious and utterly believable. She has a brilliant ear that almost never errs. And she just, somehow, draws you in and you’re hooked. Our most religious, most visionary contemporary. Like Whitman, she doesn’t really have to work toward the epiphanic, toward the transcendent, because she’s very much there at the poem’s beginning. Luminous stuff!
There are, it seems to me, lots and lots of splendid poets writing these days. We need more anthologies like my old Maverick Poets and Charles Webb’s Stand Up Poetry (which you and I are both in)—anthologies that are showcasing altogether readable and engaging poems.
And of course I read lots of news stuff, especially on-line. News services like Jewish Peace News and International Solidarity and Gush Shalom, so I can keep up with what’s going on in Occupied Palestine—the latest murders and betrayals and nightmares.
The effect on me of my reading? When a poem is wonderful, I always have the urge to write one just like it! An imitation of that writer’s style. Kim Addonizio’s voice appeals to me—she’s my kind of rebel. I constantly learn from Dorianne Laux. Her work is often breathtaking. But these days I’m trying to write lots of political poetry, and there aren’t too many North American models— Ginsberg, an occasional poem here and there. Of course, I spent a couple of years translating Cardenal and a few years translating Neruda’s political poetry, so I’ve been looking at models of that kind of poetry for a long time. Brecht is wonderful at times at that kind of in-your-face, anti-Hitlerian lyrical polemic.
T.B.: What is your advice to someone who is just beginning to write poetry?
S.K.: Of course, as I’ve made clear, I have an agenda—I want poets to do whatever magic they do while honoring their ability to communicate. The cognitive vacuity of post-modern poetry doesn’t appeal to me at all and I would hope that the younger poets writing take their inspiration from those poets—present and past—who had something of use to say, and who wanted to get it said so that the reader would hear it. That means craft at the service of content. ‘Content’ has been something of a dirty word these past many decades. Write as wildly and uninhibitedly as you wish, but make sure you’re bringing the reader with you. Otherwise, you’re just showing off, just spinning your wheels. But my more general advice would be write as much as you can; read as much as you can; read widely not only in the American tradition and the British tradition, but at the fount of world poetry. One can as easily fall in love with Catullus and Villon as with contemporary American poets. Find the poets you love and imitate them—imitate their tones and gestures and ways of getting into a poem. Don’t be afraid that you’ll sound like them or end up being imitative! You will simply end up learning new strategies, new ways to shape your own poetry. Fall in love with as many poems and poets as you can. When you find poems you love, xerox them or scan them into your computer and compile an anthology. That way you can keep handy those poems you most relish! And of course, have lots of fun with poetry. That’s the real, ultimate motivator. It’s a frustrating kind of fun, a hair-pulling-out kind of fun, but mastering anything is difficult and frustrating. The joy of composing, of creating art, is a wonderful kind of joy! Also, study under everyone you can, take as many workshops and sit at the feet of as many poets as you can. Let it all influence you. A point will come when you know what you want out of poetry.
T.H.: Finally, Steve, as we talked about earlier, most people (at least in the U.S.) don’t read poetry. What significance do you think poetry and poets have in the world today?
S.K.: Terry, a few days ago, a poet/teacher friend of mine, Glory Foster, told me something that Nelson Mandela recently said. She was paraphrasing but it went something like this: ‘Poetry cannot stop a bullet, but it can bear witness to oppression and cruelty.’ Yes! Poets—all writers—can bear witness. And I’m not sure poets do this any more or better than do nonfiction writers, memoirists, novelists, essayists and short story writers. All those crafts aspire to the conditions of poetry just as poetry, on some level, aspires to the conditions of music. Since this dreadful invasion and occupation of Iraq, thousands of poets around the country have been writing poems protesting the war, poems of anguish and dissent, and they’ve been giving readings (as you well know since, as a Vietnam vet, you’ve been engaged in anti-war poetry since the 1970s), and making their voices heard. Well, heard as much as poets can be heard above the din of newsspeak and official rhetoric. There have been, as I’ve already mentioned, several anthologies since 9/11 in which American poets voice their concerns, their sorrow and anger. Sam Hamill, when he began editing his antiwar anthology, already had some 13,000 such poems up on his website.
Yesterday I heard a reading by Adrienne Rich and Robert Creeley at the annual Border Voices festival at San Diego State University. Rich, a highly political, socially conscious poet, began with two poems by Muriel Rukeyser, the rust of which was a powerful short poem beginning, ‘I lived in the first century of world wars.’ Creeley, interestingly, began his reading with Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ a way of letting the audience know that this is not the first time by any means that human tribes have slaughtered each other—those ‘ignorant armies’ that ‘clash by night,’ while the poem’s narrator tells his beloved that we must remain faithful to one another, now that the sea of Faith is at its ebb! Of course, the idea of the horror of war being an indication of the breakdown of Christianity is rather fanciful, to say the least, since the inter-Christian wars went on for several hundred years and, in fact, the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland are still fighting. But that sense that the values by which the culture lived has ruptured is, indeed, the feeling that such wars engender.
Arnold captures that sense of despair in that marvelous poem and Creeley, in a discussion later in the day, could only shake his head at the level of hatred in the world, the ease with which we make ‘enemies’ and then go about slaughtering them. That it’s the poets who tell those sorts of terrible truths, and that we find the language for our own insights in the words of those poets who came before us, attest to the power of poets to bear witness.
But I had a more moving experience at that fine poetry reading yesterday. Every year when I go to Border Voices I see old friends, and this time I saw my old friend and colleague from San Diego State University, Minas Savvas. Minas was a professor of comparative literature for many years and is a translator of some of the great contemporary Greek poets and a poet in his own right. I remembered, some 21 years ago, when his son was born, a boy who had, as it turned out, a rare congenital illness that did not permit his muscles to develop normally. The first few years had been full of anxiety for Minas and his wife but things, I take it, had more or less stabilized and had gotten better over the years. Yesterday, Minas and I chatted for several minutes in the rotunda about this and that and then he said to me, ‘You know my son died.’ I was shocked. It had been two years ago. The boy was 19 and had died in his arms. Minas looked out at the grounds around where we were, in Aztec Center, and told me that his boy and he used to walk around that center often. His son loved the bowling alley that was there and had a fondness for that whole part of the campus. Minas said that for the past two years, since his son’s death, it had been difficult for him to go there, to Aztec Center, because the pain was too powerful. ‘He died in my arms,’ he said to me again. And then he asked me if I remembered the Robert Frost poem ‘Out, Out’ about the young boy killed by the buzz saw. That line about them listening to his heart, ‘Little? less? nothing!’ Minas said to me quietly, ‘Now I understand what that means. My boy died in my arms. Little? less? nothing!’ And that was all my old friend could or wanted or needed to say about it. He’d found the language for the unspeakable grief of that death, his son’s final moment, in a poem by Robert Frost.
Okay, just one more thing. I want—by way of answering your question about the significance of poetry, its role in the world—to quote the final lines of a poem about the current Iraq nightmare that was published in one of those recent antiwar anthologies. It’s from a very fine anthology put together by Allen Cohen and Clive Matson called An Eye For An Eye Makes The Whole World Blind, that I mentioned earlier. It’s a poem by a 12-year-old girl named Mariah Erlick. Her poem ends like this: ‘Sunday, Dad and I watched T.V. / We saw the orange jumpsuits of the dead fire-men / who died that they might restore one thread / in the lop-sided web of life and failed. / He said, / It is going to be a big religious war / When I was young it was Vietnam. / Someone should stand up and talk / to say how horrible war is / how terrible hate is / Well, Dad, this is me. / I’m here. / I’m talking.’