by David Ayers
David: Robert, 'place' seems to play a significant role in your poetry. By that I mean the poems are generally grounded/take place in what are more-or-less 'real' locations. Real situations. There is also a terrific attention to detaila clear articulation of individual sights and sounds, smells, etc. An individual poem might be an immersion, almost, in the particular world that it presents. This is a very different approach to poetry than I am used to seeingmore 'holistic,' I want to sayso I wonder, where does it all come from?
Robert: Regarding a holistic tendency in my work, the most honest answer I can give is that if it's thereand I hope something like that isit began as an unthought-out by-product of other obsessions. It wasn't something I originally intended to go afterthe idea simply wasn't part of how I looked at things when I was younger. All I knew then was that I wanted to be a writer who "said" something and who had the capacity to impress people with words. But as the years passed and for various reasons those goals became empty for me, I began writing poems that flailed around inside the moment. I became obsessed with the now, its messiness and disorder, I had come to the conclusion that whatever big ideas I thought I had regarding poetry weren't worth shit if they couldn't survive inside disarray.
The first time this hit me in a visceral way was years ago when my son was 4 or 5 years old. He came running through my room and threw a blue rubber ball against the wall while I was typing something on my old Underwood. I was just about to say, "Hey, I'm trying to work here!" when I thought to myselfand this was a culmination of things I'd been mulling over for a while by that timewhat the fuck, I shouldn't be yelling at him and his blue ball I should just stick them into the goddamn poem. Which is what I did. I stuck an image of him and the blue ball right into the middle of the poem. Although at some point years later I tossed out the poem, that blue ball nonetheless remains a turning point in how I looked at writing. A new dare to the world began to enter it, as if I was shouting from inside each poem, "Come on in, reality, see if you can destroy this thing of beauty I'm supposedly working on." The fact was that I was no longer sure what poetry meant to me and so I was looking for ways to test its value. In the course of that process I eventually discovered that, for me anyway, part of the process of writing included constantly acknowledging that maybe poetry means nothing. After all, if art has so much trouble trying to figure out what to do with a disruptive blue ball, it certainly isn't likely to survive very well when faced with human massacres or wars. And maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it doesn't deserve to. So for me each poem contains its little challenge to reality: c'mon, get inside me, take over my synapses, make of me what you will, let's see what happens. That's where this tendency toward what you call holism comes from. It's a sort of bring on the flood attitude. But the word holism itself, that's not really my language. What you call holism I see more as a going after the moment's teemingness, the glut of things, the simultaneity of it all.
David: Yes. I think there's a great example of this in your poem "A Phenomenology of the Simple." You write:
Piled with parts to be machined, a lorry rumbled through the gate
like the end of an old beginning.
In the house adjacent to the factory, someone yelled
while outside mali climbed down the cassia tree
as a dog with a dead chicken in its mouth wandered into a neighbor's yard.
That is a heady, swirling mix. Teeming, as you suggest. But also stark, too, in a way. You have the parts on their way to being machined, the house and the factory, and then the dog comes in with the dead chicken in its mouth. It's evocative I guess of a certain stillnessor fatigue, a fullness at restbeing immersed in that.
Next question. One thing I admire about your poetry is the degree to which your poems are engaged with people, with the emphasis you place on human interaction, on dialogue, and on community. This seems to be true even though your typical speaker might be more of an outsider, a visitor for example, someone not part of the social mainstream. Do you see this perhaps as a metaphor, i.e. does it say something to us about the dual/conflicted role of the artist in society: maybe that he desires the contact, but he also needs to stand apart, to remain detached, objective? Is that something that you've sensed in your own career as a writer?
Robert: What you say about the dual/conflicted role of the artist in societydesiring contact but needing to stand apartis difficult for me to answer. I never consciously set out to deal with that issue in the way you describe it. On the other hand, there's no doubt that from the beginning I personally, as I developed from childhood into my early 20s, felt outside the mainstream. That this eventually infiltrated my writing isn't of course surprising since all of our sensibilities are shaped in part by our pasts and our initial stance, or stances, vis-à-vis the world around us.
Although it's true that when I first started writing I sometimes fell back on the notion of artistic alienation as a way of rationalizing my depressions and social angers and self-consciousness, my feelings of dislocation eventually resulted in a different perspective. In fact, I started turning the notion of artistic alienation on its head. This happened when it became clear to me that I felt no more comfortable among writers and other artists than I did with anyone else. What's more, I often felt more emotional affinity with people outside the world of so-called culture than I did with those within it. This affinity gradually forced some self-questioning on my part, about not only who I was as a person but also what I wanted to say and do as a writer. One consequence of this process was that my poems increasingly emphasized human interaction, dialogue, community.
That this happened was also in keeping, I should point out, with my obsession with getting inside the moment. You don't just have flowers and rivers and skylarks there inside that moment, you also have grocery stores and kids taking ecstasy at raves and an orgasm that blows off the top of your head and Abu Ghraib. That's the mix. It's the place where the melody gets tricky. And intricate.
Let me also quickly say one other thing. None of what I've said so far should be taken to mean that your comment about finding a kind of artistic duality in my poemsa need to be with people and yet also a need to stand apart from themis wrong. It's not. There is this divide, or alienation, between artist and others when the artist is simultaneously immersed in yet also assessing a situation. I have sometimes found this difficult to deal with, feeling that I was objectifying people as a way of using them for my own purposes in my writing. In fact, I've not only felt this, I've actually done it on occasion and it hasn'trightfully somade me look very good in my own eyes or in the eyes of those who know me well enough to gauge accurately what I was doing. My only defense is that as the years have gone on I've done this less and less.
At any rate, it's usually not at the moment of interaction that the divide exists between artist and other, but later when the idea pops into your head that maybe you'll write about some aspect of that interaction. This is the moment of choice. The only moral thing to do at that point is to be as accurate as possible in the writing and hope that your feel for life is such that it will result in a general fairness of approach.
David: Moral. I like that. It's not an adjective that I would normally think about in connection with writing, but maybe I should be thinking about it. Certainly the way you describe it, it makes sense. Fairness, accuracy. These are terms that probably no one would reasonably object to, but when you start thinking about what it is that we're supposed to be fair to, or accurate about, it becomes a little bit more meaningful. Not mere reportage, I don't think. Not that you suggested it was. Maybe more of an 'informed' reportage.
OK, next question. Who, or what, has influenced your writing the most?
Robert: For anyone, influences are usually so varied that to list them accurately seems like an exercise in making a mess. Nonetheless, here goes.
My Uncle Bill was a big storyteller. When I was a kid, he mesmerized me with tales of Rocky Marciano, WW2 Seabees, flamboyant Jimmy Butler who built the Yonkers race track, what it was like to stand on a Yonkers dock at dawn staring at the Hudson and the mysterious cliffs on the far shore, and a whole bunch of other things. He was the one who laid the basis in my head for the idea that all narratives have their roots in oral traditions.
My mother was another influence. Crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and confined early in life to a wheelchair, she was in great pain and often very quiet. I learned from the look in her eyes that silence has its own powerful vocabularies.
Another sensibility-shaper in terms of how I look at writing was more collective in nature: the sounds of so many different voices chattering all around mein the street, in school, in church, in the American Legion, everywherewhen I was growing up. These voices still live inside my head as part of a never-ending dialogue that both inspires me and wears me out. The existence of these voices also eventually became a factor in determining my belief that sometimes one had to vary one's writing style when going from one subject to another in order to discover the proper structure for the new subject.
Another big influence on me wasas it is for all of us my psychological makeup. For whatever reason, from early on I was plagued by a manic frame of mind and depressions that refused to let me take anything for granted.
Since we're talking about literature, I should also mention some of the many writers who've had an impact me. Blake, particularly the lyrics and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, was one. Another was Dickinson. Her death and psychological crisis poems still seem to me some of the most amazing in all of literature. Then there's Whitman. And Sonia Sanchez. And William Carlos Williams, the poet who came as close as anyone to making craft and content indistinguishable. Also there was Richard Wright. I'm thinking here especially about Native Son, which influenced me not just because of what the book's about but also because in the introduction Wright said that as an author he could not write convincingly if he did not write about what is. That "is" is the kicker. Everything and everyone's there inside it: the electronics salesman down the street, the newspaper with the Secretary of Interior's face plastered on page 3, dogshit by the park fountain, heaven in a grain of sand, and, ultimately, a picture of humanity's future in the mind of someone sleeping under a train trestle beyond the reach of the authorities who despise her.
David: I get that sense from your work too. Actually it's a good segue to my next question. Without putting words in your mouth, I think you might agree with me that your work is fairly political. The poems often evince a strong skepticism: about the media, about the way information is gathered and presentedthe 'spin,' if you willand particularly, a skepticism about the Ideology that might be behind that spin, what it might be up to. In your opinion, how might poetry help us see this a little more clearly?
Robert: You're not putting words in my mouth: my work's political. My only problem with the term is that it's often used to deride someone's work as if being political is for some reason "less than" so-called real poetry which is allegedly about more refined or wider-ranging things. I know this isn't what you meant by the term but some people mean precisely this and consequently it's this issue I want to address first because I think the record should be set straight. To do this I'll try to speak concretely about my own work, but nonetheless what I say will also apply to other writers who are referred to as political.
My own willingness to take on political subjectsthe war in Iraq, the nature of government information, etc.grows not out of a narrow approach to subject matter but out of a broad one. Just in the last few days I've written about a man whose daughter died 20 years ago, watching monkeys in a tree, a wedding, a red azalea, a suicide and water scarcity. The truth of the matter is that no one writes about a broader array of subjects than this. But the fact that this list includes the water scarcity topic raises the question of politics, about why I write about such things and choose to be ideological. To me such questions miss the point. I don't write about these things because of some sort of pedantic aesthetic. I write about them because it doesn't make artistic sense not to. Whether we like it or not, we are all part of an ecology of interrelated phenomena in which the crocus and the problem of Guantanamo Bay prisoners coexist in a mutually dependent way at some level. So, the real issue isn't why I or some other poet might mention the Guantanamo Bay problem in a poem, but rather why there are so many poets who are so afraid of the logic of interconnectivity that they self-censor under the pretence that they're keeping their work free of bias or dogma when in reality what they're doing is choosing to write from a far narrower, more constipated perspective than me and other poets who aren't afraid to grapple with political as well as nonpolitical subjects.
Why do you think so many of the poems in so many of the journals these days sound as if they were produced on an assembly line? Of course, in some ways these poems are different from each other, but they all share the same philosophical build, much in the same way that particular General Motors' carsfor instance, the Pontiac G6, Opel Signum, Chevy Malibu and Cadillac BLSlook different than each other but nonetheless share the same engineering architecture or "platform" and are interchangeable in this sense. You see, the essence of mass production isn't that everything looks the same, but rather that specific products are designed to appear distinct from each other while actually being internally quite similar. The so-called writing programs at many universities serve this purposethat is, their function is to manage the industrialization of literary production.
David: What do you think about travelling in particularconsidering the fact that you've probably seen a little more of the world than the average personhow do you think it might influence a person's views?
Robert: At this point in my life, It seems to me fairly self-evident that exposure to different peoples, customs, landscapes, architectures, worldviews and so on helps a person to put their own cultural ways of behaving and thinking into perspective. But I didn't always feel this way. In fact, while growing up and for a number of years after high school, I didn't even think about such issues.
The first time I left the country had nothing to do with a desire to travel. It was the late 1960s and the army assigned me to a base in Germany for awhile. Now that's a nation more similar to ours than a lot of other countries, yet my mind was still yanked beyond itself by the fact that I was a stranger in a place where people spoke a different language and things had meanings that, in my absence of worldly experience, sometimes seemed surreal to me. For instance, once in a park I saw a statue by a Nazi sculptor of a naked male figure that was supposed to represent the Aryan ideal. I didn't so much feel estranged from the statue as I felt overwhelmed by it, as if the artifacts of this place beyond where I was born signaled danger.
I had a similar experience a year later in a crowded Bombay bazaar along Back Bay. It was late afternoon and horribly muggy. Exhausted from too many days with too little sleep, I suddenly felt suffocated by the jostling mob and disoriented by the bazaar's bright primary colors that threatened, it seemed, to fracture my mind.
Of course, these experiences were in many ways just a young man's melodramatics. Still, they were also something more than that. The world was teaching me a lesson, was saying to me, "The things you know and are comfortable with aren't the only realities in the world." Gradually that idea got through my thick skull and I began to look at the world, and my place in it, differently than I had before.
So now, all these years later, I view travel as always potentially liberating. The problem is that travel is also a potential usurpation, a potential attempt to conquer, to take over. If taming what we see isn't our aim, then we have to keep our poise when faced with the unfamiliar. For the westerner this means, as an example, remembering that the red-saried goddess figure in the Mahalaksmi temple in Kohlapur is no more of an example of so-called primitivism than a crucifix is an example of corpse fetishism. To travel from one place to another merely to substitute our fantasies of what is there for what is actually there is certainly an example of a failed journey.
And this raises another point. Although, as I said earlier, travel has the value of exposing us to different peoples and worldviews and so on, it doesn't automatically solve the challenge of trying to see the planet totalistically. Doing that requires a mind-shift that can occur just as well in our own environment. If one can migrate from one's own mind into the mind of an angry, suspicious or disliked neighbor, or into the head of someone of another gender or race on our own street or in another part of our own city, one has taken the biggest step of all and the prototype of all others: the journey into the other.
But the problem of seeing the other isn't confined only to how we view other people and unfamiliar traditions. It also extends to the quality of our relationship with things, of our journey from human self into the nonhuman, even when the journey entails only the distance from the eye to the line of crocuses along the fence in one's own back yard. Those crocuses may legitimately remind us in early spring of how ruggedly stubborn the life-force is, but they nonetheless are in no way genetically designed to symbolize that force or in some other way verify any generalized version of what that life-force is like. The flowers are merely there, they are merely crocuses, that's all. To impose on them something more is to replace what the crocuses are with our preferences for what we think they should be. This is a type of failed travel just as certainly as is going to another country and seeing only our own preconceptions. It is the mind's delusion that it has traveled outward through sight into the world when in fact it's merely created a mirror in which to gaze at itself.
David: Yes, the pathetic fallacy again. It seems amazing to me sometimes that this still occurs. Maybe we are genetically designed, a bit, to want to do it. To see the world as symboliceven if it might not be any more than what it appears to be, as the discoveries of science seem to suggest that it is: more or less 'just there.' Anyway, a little more about influences. Or really, just who do you like. We've already talked a little bit about English and American writers. But what about the rest of the world? Who are your favorite non-American/non-Western writers? What do they bring to your understanding of poetry?
Robert: For the last 8 or 9 years, I've read and reread Anna Akhmatova. Her collected poems contains fragments and jottings as well as finished pieces. This variedness creates a dense psychological feel, as if you're inside her head as she moves in a sometimes dislocated way from focus on one thing to focus on another. From my perspective, anyway, the sometimes fragmentary feel of her life's work only adds to its power. No poet better exemplifies to me the lyrical impulse crashing again and again against the brick wall of an unbudging reality and yet somehow, in spite of this, survivingeven if that survival entails a degree of sobering disfigurement.
C.L.R. James, the social critic who was originally from Trinidad, is also someone whose work I've read closely. I love the rhythm of his thinking, how he moves effortlessly in his writing from cricket to Shakespeare to folk festivals to the history of colonialism to television and on and on. He's one of the many writers from abroad who has helped me to understand how so much of the dividing line that we in the U.S. often place between art and politics exemplifies a willful blindness. Everything exists, everything sheds light in one way or another on everything else. Our goal should be to write about it all, not to find excuses to narrow our range of reference.
There's a whole slew of other non-U.S. writers who've touched me deeply, some of them poets and some not, but all bringing a palpable humanity to their work. There is Kamala Das whose capacity for producing sensuous imagery still stuns me today 30 years after first reading her, Genet the ultimate anti-saint of words, Vandana Shiva the physicist and environmentalist whose totalistic vision gives me hope.
I could give more names but I don't think there's much purpose in going on too long. For me what counts is this: there are people all around the world, some of them known, some of them unknown, who believeand who have sacrificed to pursue this beliefthat engagement (with the azalea and the child's smile and the antique brooch as well as with the political hack) is the crucible in which life's most profound philosophical and psychological rewards can be found. The reality that these people exist, and that I have had the good fortune of being exposed to some of them in one way or another has helped make the difference in my life between depression/defeatism and a more immersion-based or "getting inside the moment" type of existence.
David: OK, swtiching gears a bit. Here's a question I had planned based on the knowledge that you have spent a fair amount of time outside the U.S., in India in particular. So I thought you might have some interesting insights on this. How do you feel about the connection that seems to exist between the exotic/the Other, and what we consider to be lewd, pornographic, etc.? Is it fair? Normal?
Robert: Good question, but tough. There's a lot of overlapping stuff inside of what you ask. I like that.
First, I think there's no doubt there are links between our perceptions of the other and what we consider dirty or lewd. An obvious example is that the nation's historical perception of blacks as an inferior other led to the conclusion that the blues was an unacceptable, obscene music. Some of the excessively moralistic attacks on rap are a continuation of this attitude. Seen in this way, the other always, or at least very frequently, represents a crudeness or vulgarity or lewdness that's defined by the dominant group as beyond the pale. And so mommy and daddy daily remind their little angels, "Don't you dare fucking go there." They don't want little Elsie learning bad habits from Miss Janice on the wrong side of the tracks in White Trashville and they don't want Junior slumming in black North Philly in search of prohibited thrills.
Although what I just said is true, there's a problem with it. It leaves out the fact that dominant group perceptions of the other are often varied, even when those perceptions share the same arrogance of power.
Earlier I mentioned the goddess statue in the Mahalaksmi temple in Kohlapur. I said it was important that the outsider not condescend to it by viewing it as exemplifying a backward ancient belief that has somehow survived into the modern world. What I also could have said but didn't, however, is that condescension isn't the only way to defame such an image. One can also defame it through the process of overly accepting it, of exoticizing it, romanticizing it. This kind of defamation occurs when an outsider displays his/her imperial attitude by celebrating the goddess imageor any other indigenous form or artifactin such a way as to assuage some need within her or himself without understanding exactly how the exoticized thing fits into the local society.
Such behavior, although it fits the mold of the colonists' relationship to the colonized and therefore seems different from what occurs on the national homefront, isn't really that different at all. It's actually just an internationalized version of something I mentioned a minute or so ago: daughter Elsie or son Junior slumming in rundown areas within our own society as they mine these places for the so-called mysterious.
At any rate, getting back to the India example, the U.S. counterculture of the 1960s/70s was famous for such India exoticization, for ripping subcontinent images, clothing styles, musics and philosophies out of context and using them for their own purposes, while simultaneously proclaiming how much they respected the traditions they were plundering. The Theosophists did the same thing in the 19th century, ransacking Indian cultureprimarily its Hindu and Buddhist traditionsin order to come up with a hodgepodge occult philosophy that claimed to display the most serious reverence for those traditions while chronically misinterpreting and commodifying them. As westerners uncomfortable with industrialization in their home countries, many of these theosophists were more than happy to discover in India so-called pre-modern philosophies that satisfied their nostalgia for an allegedly less complicated past.
Alongside such exoticizations of the other, there was also, of course, a grittier side to colonial degradationthat is, the conqueror's relationship to the conquered entailed a complicated intimacy, often sexual in nature.
India's women, for instance, were viewed as totally unacceptable as potential mates for the white male colonizers, yet the British military's lower ranksnot the officerswere officially encourageduntil the spread of venereal disease became too rampantto let off steam by fucking local women who were viewed as laboratories in which the white cock was privileged to experiment with pleasure in any way it wanted without fear of reprisal. At the same time that this was happening, western Indologists glorified the purity of certain female mythological figures like Seta, claiming that these figures represented the "highest moral values."
This disconnect between the colonizers' use of Indian women as convenient fucks and the Indologists rarified commentary on Seta's "nobility and devotion" is a good example of the colonizing mindset's disarray. On the one hand colonialism's leaders vicariously satisfied their own repressed lusts by unleashing their subordinates to fuck whatever local flesh they could lay their hands on, while on the other hand a section of the colonizing group's intelligentsia idealized India's historical conceptions of womanhood. Although the sexual degradation trend might seem more loathsome than the idealization trend, the fact is that they were both triumphalist in the sense that in each case the conqueror decided how the Indian woman should be viewed. The Indian womanand the Indian man for that matterhad no say.
The India of the early 19th century might seem far away, but I think it tells us a lot about one part of your question. I'm referring to when you asked if I thought there was a connection between how we see the other on the one hand, and our cultural assumptions about what is and what isn't lewd and pornographic on the other hand.
The answer is yes, I do see a connection.
From the perspective of the power-holders, the colonized woman is nothing more than a close-up pussy shot in a porno flick. No matter whatever else she might be, for the colonizer she is alsoand fundamentallyan always-available vagina or mouth or anus, depending on the taker's individual preference. Given this, it's impossible not to acknowledge the obvious, that the colonized woman-body is exactly what all pornography is about: the pleasure we're not supposed to have, the pretty little Jewess available to every concentration camp guard, the source of the taboo ejaculation that makes the power-holder shudder in awareness of his Aryan or Caucasian or Male purity. Like the male fantasy of sex as control that drives our own domestic porn industry, the colonial project, no matter how complicated it gets on an economic and bureaucratic scale, never sheds its physicality, its love of the rapist's freedom to act out his power on a conquered body.
All of this, of course, is the fantasy, the deranged melodrama, the idiocy of establishing power. And what for? In the end, no matter what our delusions, the woman or man we define as dirty or animalistic or all flesh and no brain has a brain. And the so-called lewd pleasures we share with them, if, that is, they choose to share pleasure with us, aren't lewd at all and are perfectly healthy because we have decided together to experience them.
To the extent that there are filthy or lewd sexual behaviors, they aren't the behaviors that we often think they are. The sexually obscene has nothing to do with so-called unusual sex acts, not if they're mutually agreed upon. The truly repulsive sexual behavior is sex as an expression of power a forced sexual taking of one kind or another from a person who doesn't want to give whatever it is we take.
As a society, we don't address this issue very well because in general we don't address power issues very well.
David: Do you see poetry as having a role here, potentially? For instance, do you ever feel yourself taking issue with writers who, for whatever reason, refuse to 'go there'?
Robert: The answer to that begins with what I just said: we don't address power issues very well. Poetryat least as it exists in the so-called established poetry journalsis little help in this regard, since, after all the fancy language is translated into real ideas, the poetry establishment tends to reflect the status quo sense of things. I don't mean by this that there aren't established poets who will write poems about the fact that rape or racism are bad; of course, there are poets who do this. But in terms of developing an aesthetics that drives into existence a poetry that organically links all these different things together into a totalistic visionwell, that's not something you find coming, for the most part, from what's usually considered the poetry/writing world. There are exceptions to what I'm sayingSonia Sanchez, Adrienne Rich, othersand I revere them, but I nonetheless stand by what I say.
A few years ago Robert Pinsky, the ex-national poet laureate, wrote a small book titled Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. Since I'm interested in the issues mentioned in the title, I bought the book and read it. The attitude I brought to the book was an open one: I wasn't really interested in whether I ended up agreeing or disagreeing with Pinsky's comments, I just wanted to have some of my thoughts jostled. I hoped to be forced to think outside my own assumptions.
So I read the book. The first thing I noticed was that, page after page, there was little I disagreed with. This continued throughout the whole book. But in the end, this very successthat is, the book's capacity to get me to agree with itwas its failure. The book simply didn't get far enough outside the box to say anything that one might wrestle with. It was, in other words, an exercise in saying something intelligently without saying anything probing.
Too many poets settle for such shallowness. Fortunately, there are others like Sharon Doubiago who don't. Someone like Doubiago is too edgy to succumb to the shallow, too suspicious of the rudiments of communication, too knowledgeable about how so many intellectual and aesthetic forms aren't facilitators of meaning, but killers of meaning. This is why in her 1980s Hard Country, she wrote
I hear the dead in Earth.
Their songs and stories cry to me
beyond all notions of Art and Form,
the poem as a museum piece
where words are molded like human skin to shade the light
like special collections of goldfilled teeth.
Let Pinsky hang out with the Pinsky types. Me, I want to hunt down Doubiago whom I've never met and say, "If vision survives in America, it will be because of people like you."
David: I love that statement. I hope you get a chance to say it to her. Actually, while we're on this subject, I had a related question to ask. Do you see a particular trend developing for the future of poetry?
Robert: I see trends, not one trend. How they eventually intermix and what they'll produce when they do is anybody's guess, although I think there are a few possibilities that at least can be generalized about.
When I read poems by someone like Kristin Abraham in magazines, I say to myself, "Now here's a poet who can't tell the difference between poetry and prose or thinking out loud and thinking in silence." This feeling I have about her work isn't a criticism of it but rather an acknowledgment of its willingness to take technical risks that I admire. One of those risks entails breaking down some of the traditional borders between prose and poetry. Although such experiments aren't new historicallyArtaud and Williams, just to name two, were at it decades agoI think this type of mutant work will become even more common and probably more profound as times goes on. I don't think this breakdown between old distinctions is because the old distinctions were intrinsically flawed, I just don't think those distinctions any longer meet the challenge of trying to capture meaning in a world so changed by technology that real coherence often seems incoherent on first glance because so many perspectives on it are produced simultaneously.
Along with this collapse of old boundaries, there's also the centuries-old debatealways reinvented by each new generationabout high art and low art, refined and unrefined, etc. In the past this debate existed as one or another version of the argument about who exactly had the right to decide, for instance, that a metered sonnet was superior as an artform to the barroom ballad. Today this same debate exists but in updated form. You often hear it echoed in the arrogant putdowns of slam poetry made by those who view literature as primarily a written form and definitely not rap- or street-influenced.
But today's debate between high and low art isn't reducible to just this dispute More than at any time since Guttenberg, communication is being reinvented. The internet's at the center of this reinvention. On the one hand it provides a gigantic, international warehouse of new digitalization methods that allow for, among other things, an art of word/image constructions unlike any ever seen before. The internet also provides an unprecedented space in which artists from all walks of life and all stages of development can interact outside the traditional, more formal venues of interaction. Going beyond those traditional venues is important because far from promoting interaction they often short-circuit it in an effort to reinforce hierarchy and protect the artistic elites from so-called nuisance exchanges with those beneath them. The internet definitely represents an assault on this type of short-circuiting and consequently the net forces greater democracy of dialogue.
But I don't want to romanticize this. The web-based movement toward greater openness of dialogue hasn't yet amounted to a revolutionary stampede in that direction. For instance, it would be misleading not to point out that on many poetry boards and in many ezines, there is an emerging wannabe elitism that aims to mimic that of the nation's current cultural/artistic leaders. Such a phenomenon is obviously less a liberation from an existing problem than a duplication of it. So yes the internet offers hope of becoming a new zone of openness but its efforts to become this are hampered by pitfalls that we can't afford to underestimate.
Back, though, to the computer's strengths. For me, one of the more interesting roles the computer plays is that of the fastest ever disseminator of information, I'm particularly interested in the impact this can have on the process of artistic change and even on certain types of expression reaching critical mass and becoming more of a social/artistic force than had been recognized previously.
Take graffitti as an example. I recently heard an artist on the radio call graffitti "the first truly international language of the people." What he meant by this is that there are images and words that are being spraypainted or stenciled on walls and boarded up windows all over the world, and that these word/image creations are recognized instantaneously by youth and many of the marginalized as being somehow a part of themselves, fragments of their own outcries.
From this perspective, graffitti is a language. And also an actionthe action of finding, and then using, unusual "pages" upon which to leave the appropriate messages.
By using the word action I don't mean to imply that this work is more social activist than artistic in nature. There is that element but the work is also action-based in the sense of Jackson Pollack's idea of action painting.
But what we have here is a differently evolved type of action art than the abstract expressionists' work. No longer, as in Pollack, does the artpiece, its actual texture and dynamicism and organicness, merely reflect the specific tools the artist used and the specific physical movements the artist employed to apply paint to canvas. In the new action art of the graffitist, it is not only the artist's physical movements that are translated through the muscles onto the canvas or page, but also the mind's movements, the mind searching in an alienated society for places to explode into view so its ideas and needs can take shape on walls or streetsigns or whatever. Such art is a blow against the idea that "the streets"where supposedly nothing good happens and mobs of nobodies prey on each other in bestial fashionare empty of civilization. Instead, the graffitist reveals that right here, in these very streets, in this alleged nowhere zone, there is an uncontainable Tom Paine freedom mindset at work and the evidence of it is that people are rising up apparently out of nowhere and scrawling, on any surface they can find, strange anarchic poetries that reverberate with the frustrations of all of the alienated and unseen.
What's interest to me as a poet is that there was a time when such graffitti was doomed to being locally done and locally seen and, at some point, locally scrubbed away or painted over. But the internet and digital cameras now have changed all that. From Sydney to Russia to Cairo, roaming wall artists are leaving their tags everywhere, and then they or strangers take snaps of the work and upload them onto web sites like Artcrimes and SAW. As a result, a lot of these graffitists, like Cha with his "Guerrilha Urbana" project in Brazil, have already developed global reputations, whereas others like BORF, a self-described "vandal/artist" who was arrested in D.C. about a year ago, aren't as well-known but nonetheless have growing reputations because of internet dissemination of their work.
Such explosions of possibility, such extensions of word and image art into places that are supposedly culturally barren, can't help but affect how poets think about their task. I don't mean by this that all poets will soon decide to write graffitti. I'm simply raising the possibility that graffitti may well be in the process of becoming a particular form of poetry just as a sonnet or a villanelle is. Only good can come out of such an evolution as far as I can see, nothing bad. Of course, some people might hear this and accuse me of promoting property damage. But the truth is I've never seen graffitti that actually hurt anything. Hell, if we want to convict somebody of the crime of promoting damage, let's start by jailing the landlords who jack up their rents while letting their buildings rot. Graffitti, even the most vulgar kind, on those walls is almost always an improvement over what it coversat least the graffitti is a form of communication, not a goddamn death trap.
Writing and other kinds of art are mysterious thingsweird, exuberant, unsettlingand what combination of events, feelings and objects a new work, or a new era of work, will arise from is never quite predictable. That's why it's important to be open to everything.
So, where's poetry going? Like I just said, who can be sure? Maybe people will start bolting rusted saw blades to the sides of buildings after engraving on themthe blades, I meanpoems about 18th century woodworkers who built cabinets with the same creative intensity that characterizes the work of today's graffitti artists who collectively are writing the world's history on walls and wherever else they can find the space to do it. Such art isn't going to replace the old art, it's just going to stand shoulder to shoulder with it, an equal. If things go well and the artistic spirit isn't massified into a conformist, neo-industrialized mush in America, then there are going to be more poetic voices and styles, not less, ahead. This, I think, is the bottom line as far as future U.S. literature goes, just as long, as I already mentioned, that the creative spirit isn't factory-ized to death.
David: Do you see similar things happening in your writing?
Robert: Personally, I'll continue to pursue my own writing in ways that seem to me organically related to the writing vision I've pursued for years. This means that my art will remain mostly, although not entirely, word-based and open to the challenge of covering a wide range of interconnected topics. I'll also continue to move back and forth between poetry and prose as I see fit, experimenting with how easy it sometimes is to dissolve one into the other. I have two unpublished poetry manuscripts in journal formthe 21st St. Notebooks: Fragments of the Undone and What the Bird Tattoo Hides: Belgaum Notebooksthat exemplify these poetry/prose efforts. I'll also continue my experiments with producing word-image pieces that I print onto decals and stick as graffitti in various places. I've done graffitti poems on and off since the late 1980s and have begun doing it more regularly again. I used to write directly on walls but in recent years I discovered that the decal idea is better suited for someone like me with lousy handwriting and drawing skills.
David: Those decals are great. I was happy to see them on your website. And it's interesting to me that you mention your hybrid efforts. For one of the things that has always struck me about your poetry is the way you get the prose in. I mean with your poetry in generalit has the descriptive language, the dialogue, the narrative elementsqualities that probably to our detriment as a reading public, we tend to associate 'just' with prose. So it's good to see work like yours which fights this tendency. To cite from "A Phenomenology of the Simple," again:
It was late morning by then but in the house Anand was still upset about the woman in white dress in his dream the night before.
Even though he'd tried to pull free of her because her dress was splattered with blood, she wouldn't let go of his hand and laughed at him when he pleaded to be released.
This is probably not what most people think of when they think 'poetry.' But it's wonderfully evocative writing, and I think, maybe this is the most effective way of conveying the message. Particularly I like the sense of causality, the fluidity of the transitions. And the excessmaybe even a little superfluitywhich I think is perfectly apt when describing a dream. I think with a lot of poets you would see a tendency to weed this out. To streamline it. Which would be a bad thing to methe results would not feel as natural, as immediate.
One final question. Are you ever satisfied with what you've written?
Robert: I'm always satisfied with what I write. For a few minutes. Then I read it again and say, "Oh, shit!" and feel discouraged. After that I either try to fix what's wrong with what I wrote or I start writing something else, then return to the original piece a few hours or a day or a year later. To me the key is to keep writing in spite of the sense of inadequacy that always accompanies a self-review of what's been written. But the writing itself, the act of honing focus as much as possible in order to evoke a horse nettle or a fragment of dialogue or whatever, is an extraordinary feeling that has to do not only with writing but with the very act of being alive in the world, of submerging oneself in the isness of things.
I should also say that in all of my work, especially over the last decade, there is an underlying fear, the fear that maybe writing ultimately doesn't have much value and that possibly the incoherent lies closer to reality than coherence does. I don't know what to say about this feeling other than that it's there. Still I keep writing in the hope that my fears aren't real, or that if they are real I can nonetheless create at least a hint of meaning in the shadow of inevitable failure. Like most people, I'd like to believeand I struggle to do sothat there's some purpose other than self-indulgence in pursuing my aims.
David: Well I believe it. Robert, it's been a real treat to feature your work in this issue, and thanks for answering these questions.