The BTS Interview with Ron Silliman

BTS: Personally I am constantly frustrated with my own ignorance even though I am learning and studying as best I can but I'm not sure as you put in a recent comment how much the impact of today's MFA is destroying poetry. 

Maybe 30 million or 100 million people, like myself, who can rhyme moon with June and spoon or can tell you have black the night is or how much whiskey they can drink or how much they love their mother, or whatever. Are they creating poetry? Are they “moving the ball”? Is there even a ball, or even a game? Does it have goal posts?

I'm in no position to say but I'm very curious, and I think of all the people I know, you might be in the best position to look at the whole spectrum and make suggestions and corrections and improvement or encourage those of us who are lost to find “the way”? I don’t mean a specific way to write a poem, but more what the heck are we doing.

RS: The reality is that in the US, and to a lesser extent other English-speaking countries, there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of people writing poetry. In the US, there are something akin to 40,000 publishing poets, and quite a few more who don't publish. When I was getting started in the mid-1960s, that number was closer to 2,000 and I've never seen an estimate of the number for the 1950s that was above 100 (although that's nonsense -- just count the number of people who show up in magazines and you realize that the number was over 1,000). That expansion has really changed the social structure of poetry, so that what it means to have a career, to create a readership, to link up to a tradition, all those things are radically different now than they were before 1990 even. And I think that everyone right is pretty much trying to figure it out as they go along.

BTS: How did you end up in the middle of a movement? Did you know it was a poetry movement at the time, or was it a case of someone, like Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones stumbling in and asking what was going on?

RS: To begin with, I had done a lot of reading and thinking about movements, so-called. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I got the microfiche version of Pound's correspondence and read all of it, and so much of his importance was him just saying you should meet this person, they're interesting, very basic social networking. And I was interested in Black Mountain, which didn't exist really by the time I came along, but had had a very militant orientation towards collective and collaborative activity just 10 years earlier. The New York School had a softer version of that, and the Beats used the idea to various ends (for Ginsberg and to some extent Kerouac it was partly a deflective move, a chance to take some of the glare of the spotlight off of them, while for others it was a road in to attention that they might not have otherwise had). So when I saw Bob Grenier telescoping his poems at Berkeley down to the absolute minimum, and saw how he combined the work of Creeley, Zukofsky and Stein, a combination that had not previously been put together, it made perfect sense intuitively. As I think it did to other people as well. 

BTS: You have had a long and successful career and over time your style and format has evolved.

An extremely intelligent Modpoer asked me to pass this question along: 

Is there a parallel between Dadaism in art and "the new sentence" in poetry?

RS: Not so much Dada, but I think you could argue that Eisenstein's sense of montage and editing in cinema has some serious correlation to it. Or the use of juxtapositions you find in collage, which really grew up around Cubism.  

BTS: I went back and listened to you reading and your friends discussing your poetry in Poem Talk.

Can you take us a little further on Pronouns, or non narrative poetry?

And non-hierarchical structure? Of poetry? Of reading poetry? I have, like probably lots of other people, been writing poetry since age 5, but only really started reading much besides Poe, Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the last 5 years? Is there a best way to read a poem, especially if you aren’t educated as either a poet or a reader of poetry?


RS: Regardless of how you go about it, I think every poet has to educate themselves, in school or not. I remember noting sometime in the 1970s that one could read a poem the way one walked through a gallery in a museum, for example, only to have some people like Bev Dahlen come up to me to say that they thought they were the only ones who were doing that. My half-brother, whom I did not meet until I was fifty, and who worked as a gardener in Charleston, told me that reading my works very much reminded him of a walk in a garden, you notice this rose, then that hydrangea, then the dogwood overhead, and I thought that was a very sympathetic and reasonably accurate way of  how I think of it as well. 

 BTS: I understand you have been writing longer poems since the 1960s, but I understand, for the last few decades, you have primarily written book length poems, or more exactly a three volume poem. I have listened to you read portions and read others of nearly 1000 page The Alphabet. How do you hold focus, not only for 1000 pages, but for a decade or more?


RS: I have always known that I was more interested in poetry than in poems, always gotten more of a charge reading Maximus than discrete poems. The way Robert Duncan weaves Passages into his overall work is very attractive to me, and when I was at Berkeley, I took a one-on-one course with Robert Grenier where we looked at Zukofsky's "A" and I came away with a sense that Zukofsky had really figured out the part:whole question in a way that Pound and Olson had not, I think that's part of what you get with Duncan also. So I was worrying over these questions when I was still quite young. I recall thinking that I was preparing to write a long poem but did not realize that I started until I got into Ketjak in 1974, yet there is some work in Universe that really takes off from stuff I was thinking about even before that. 

BTS: Given the depth and scope of your life’s work, I have certainly failed to ask an important question, possibly the most important question of questions. What else should our readers know or want to know from one of America’s greatest living poets?


RS: Not to imagine that there is such a thing as a "greatest living poet," to begin with. Any poet, like any painter, dancer, musician, whatever, has their work. It's not really about the construction of discrete little projects unless that specifically is your thing. That's why I've never been attracted to the idea of writing a novel. I can envision beginning, and writing, but the idea of creating a narrative tourniquet to close it off into a book qua book strikes me as profoundly unreal and not terribly interesting. I think it is fabulous that there are people who like to read my work, but I would still be doing it if I had no readers whatsoever. For me, the payoff is not in what comes after, but in the process itself.  The purpose of writing is to write.

The following is a previously unpublished poem by Ron Silliman from American Songbook, which in turn is (or will be) the 89th degree of Universe. Three degrees have been published thus far in book form (Revelator, Northern Soul, and Against Conceptual Poetry) and another 10 right now are in various stages of completion or preparation of the eventual 360.

Each item in J is for Juvenile is or relates to a childhood object belonging to Marianne Moore owned by the Rosenbach Museum of the Philadelphia Free Library. The Rosenbach, a little gem of an American museum, also owns most of the archives of Maurice Sendak, which explains the formal homage in the first stanza.

One other section of American Songbook has appeared in the anthology Resist Much, Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance, edited by Michael Rothenberg et al. 

J is for Juvenile


This April eve
you do deceive
with a sign of youth
as an open mouth

or a book laid wide
& a wish supplied
anonymous as a stare
that cried “I was there”

with my silver boat
& a mouth my moat
so never mourn
the boy his horn

one stroke to score
his battledoor



From American Songbook
°89 of Universe