The Interview with Jerome Rothenberg Page Two
by Anthony Watkins
AW: You were there for the Beats. I don’t know if you knew them, if you were friends, or if you simply read and listened to what they were saying. Did you consider yourself a Beat poet at the time? Do you still? What do you see as the movement of poetry now? Is there an equivalent to them now?
JR: I certainly was never a Beat poet as such, though my first book (New Young German Poets) was #11 in Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which is usually seen as the Beats’ principal publisher. In retrospect I see them as the most visible part of what I take to have been the second great wave of twentieth-century experimental or avant-garde poetry. As such I found them approachable enough at the time and even formed a few close friendships and collaborations, and in one of my assemblages (anthologies), Poems for the Millennium, I include them among the key movements of that time, international in scope rather than more narrowly North American. Seen as a whole, much of that, I think, has carried into the present, but I would have to be fifty or sixty years younger to fairly judge or name the twenty-first-century equivalents. Still, it’s something I take great pleasure in observing and even feeling myself a vagrant part of.
AW: You have studied and traveled over the years, do you see other areas besides Europe and North America where the cutting edge of poetry can be found? You have spent a good bit of time studying the language and life of Native Americans. It seems like there is slowly an acceptance of fiction written by the First Peoples, but do you see the poetry from this nearly destroyed culture flourishing?
JR: My outlook has been international from the start as well as oddly homegrown, I think, and it certainly touches on Asia and South America and Africa, in so far as I can make contact — the undercurrent or theme for most of the big books that I’ve authored. Ethnopoetics, which I named and have long promoted, is focused above all else on The First Peoples, wherever located. This covers so many cultures and languages that the question of a contemporary flourishing (or not) would involve a great range of divergent answers. For myself I’m now co-editing (composing) with the Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez a big assemblage of North and South American Poetry “from origins to present,” which will set alongside the usual European languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, French) a variety of indigenous poetries, both oral and written. (Under contract to University of California Press and scheduled for some time like 2020.)
AW: I know you have spoken of the deep richness of the poetry throughout all aspects of First People’s lives. Is it bleeding through to the “white culture” of America, or do you see it continuing primarily in a secret parallel world, with only occasionally more enlightened outsiders peeking in?
JR: I’m not sure what “white culture” means here, since there are probably many such, also differing widely from each other. For U.S. culture at large, I don’t imagine that poetry as we understand it has ever meaningfully bled through without being a little watered down, although its influence on more public forms of music and art should also be taken into account. Too much to write about here, but we can get into it elsewhere.
AW: One of my mentors, the late Brenda Black White, a talented regional poet from Texas, told me, when I was in my thirties and writing one or more poems per day, while she was in her sixties and had slowed to write fewer and fewer poems and spent more time rewriting her older ones, that she could not turn out as many because she had written what she had to say. Do you ever feel like you have said everything or nearly everything you have to say? If not, what are you focused on now?
JR: I think we all feel that way from time to time, but for the time being I’m very much into the Americas project I mentioned earlier — plus some other projects — so I won’t know one way or another until I get through those. There is a way though in which what I’m doing now is a continuation of what I did before, so maybe it’s all auto-variations as I move to the end. And there is also a poem of mine from many years ago (“Cokboy” in Poland/1931) that ended on the line “I guess I’ve got nothing left to say,” after which I followed up with more than fifty books of poetry and prose. So, I’m not sure what that means but it must mean something.
AW: I noted somewhere, you are credited for bringing us the first Gunter Grass poetry translated into English, did you know him? I am only familiar with his great novel The Tin Drum, though I am ashamed to say I had his book The Flounder on my bookshelf for a decade or more, but never opened it. What struck you most about his writing, and especially his poetry?
JR: Grass was one of the poets in my first book, New Young German Poets, which I constructed and translated for Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in the late fifties. We were looking to get beyond the limits of what we thought of then as academic or conservative writing, and the young German poets (Paul Celan especially but also Grass and Enzensberger and others) were very helpful in that. I also had just recently gotten back from army duty in Germany, with a chance to get immersed in that language. But it was as a poet that I knew Grass’s work, since he hadn’t yet published The Tin Drum or any other prose that I knew of. I suppose we corresponded a little about the translations, but I think I only met him once, and that was many years later.
AW: You both share a common history of having served in the military, though I hope his being a prisoner of war is more harrowing then your service in post war Germany! Do you think military service shaped your writing? If so, how?
JR: I guess that everything finally shapes our writing, but the big thing for me was that the army let me get out of the States at an early age (much before I could afford to do so on my own) and it brought me in contact with people, not only Europeans but Americans from backgrounds far different from my own, not otherwise in easy reach. My negative feelings about militarism were also reinforced in the process, but with greater understanding, I think, of those caught up in it.
AW: You also were an early self-publisher, well, Mark Twain was earlier, but among modern poets, you seemed braver than most, to strike out with Hawk’s Well Press. What gave you the notion?
JR: I don’t know about being braver, since it was something I actually shared with many others. I’ll say more about that in answer to your next question, but for me it was largely a matter of the zeitgeist, the time and place that we lived in.
AW: I have the sense being a publisher of others as well as your own work in the 1950s wasn’t quite as easy or as acceptable as it is today. I mean I have published a ton of chapbooks and a few hardcover collections of my work, mostly because I doubt anyone else would bother, and because with today’s publishing options, it’s basically free. What was involved in setting up Hawk’s Well Press?
JR: We took pride in the work not being acceptable in some circles but perfectly acceptable among ourselves, and we also began to feel — at times — that the number of those like us was steadily growing. We also had the sense — or I did certainly — that the work we produced, if it wasn’t free (both to make and to sell or distribute), was pretty close to that. For Hawk’s Well Press and some others, the secret was in the postwar international economy, and the strength of the American dollar that made book production incredibly inexpensive when farmed out to places like Barcelona, Ireland, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, and on and on. And we were also not reluctant to print books by available but clearly inferior means of production: mimeograph, xerox, holograph, carbon paper, and other technologies easily available in those offices and institutions where some of us were otherwise working at our day jobs. This was all pre-computer and pre-internet of course, before the existence of the “basically free” production modes you seem to be referring to here. These also seem to me to be the equivalent to what we had going then — a kind of post-marxist seizure in both instances of the means of production, if you get what I mean.
AW: I have read many of your poems, and they tend to be poems I can appreciate without fully understanding, which probably reflects my lack of skill as a reader, certainly not your skills as a poet. I saw a quote on the Poetry Foundation where you said you came to “believe early that poetry and art could make a difference . . . for the world-at-large at our most ambitious.” First, do you still find that to be true? And second, how do you mean it? In what way does art and poetry make a difference? Do you write to make a difference?
JR: Yes, I still find it to be true, but with some present-day differences. Back then — in the 1950s and early 1960s, poetry as a verbal-vocal avant-garde was radical and countercultural at its core, and by being marginalized in relation to the economy, poets could come forward, if they chose to do so, with a sense of being beyond recrimination and penalization, at least in a monetary sense. That gave us the sense also of poetry being what I spoke of later as an “outsider/outside art par excellence” and a vanguard of resistance at a time when others were slower to step forward in the struggles against war and social cruelty in the decade that followed. That the more popular forms of art took on some of these attributes — increasingly after the middle 1960s — has to be acknowledged. Yet poetry, as I understand and value it, goes still further and deeper in re-shaping world and mind, as far as we can take it. Still, it’s more than fifty years now since an avant-garde of poets, even though small in numbers. made real ripples in space-time that reached others; and with the Beats, say, there was even a sense that those numbers were growing.
Jerome Rothenberg, photo credit L. Glaser