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Interview With The Poet:

Interview With The Poet: image Interview With The Poet: image Interview With The Poet: image Interview With The Poet: image
Parent Issue
Month
December
Year
1994
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Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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ClaytonEshleman's poetry has been publislied by Black Sparrow Press since 1968. His 11 books include Ivs most recent 'Vnder World Arrest" (1994). In 1991, Black Sparrow also published Paul Christensen's book-lengthstudy of Eshleman's poetry, "MindingtlieUnderworkL Clayton Eshleman and Late Postmodemism." Between 1979 and 1 986 Eslileman was a regular reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, contribuüngöl aruclesonboolvsbyRilke, Whitman, Bisliop, Olson, Ashbery, etc. He is the main American translator of César Vallejo (witii José Rubia Barcia) andojAiméCésaire (withAnnetteSmitli). He has also translated books by Pablo NeruáxAntoninArtaud, Vladimir Holán, Michel Deguy and Bernard Bador. Between 1967 and the present Eshleman hasfounded and edited tivo ofthemosthighly-reganiedlilemrymagazines of the period. Twenty issues of Caterpülarmagazineappearedbetween 1 967 and 1 973, and in 1981 Eshleman founded Sulfur magazine, which tías received lONationalEndowmentforthe Arts grants and is now based at Eastem Michigan University where lie has been a Professor in the English Department since 1986. Eslileman's poetry hos appeared in numerous anthologies, most recently "American Poetry Since 1 950" and over 400 magazines, inchiding Wie Partisan Review, GrancLStreet The Paris Review, andTheKenyonReview. Therecipientof tiie NationalBookAward in 1 979 for liis co-translation of César VaUejo's "Complete Posthumoits Poetry, " he hos also received a Giiggenheim Fellowship in Poeüy, twofeüowshipsfmmthe National Endowmentfor the Arts, twojeüowships from the National Endowmentfor the Humanities and several researchfeUowshipsfrom EMU. AGENDA: You have edited two literaiy magazines, Caterpillar, from 1967 to 1 973. and Sulfur, which began in 198 1 and is now in its 35th issue. In what way are the writing communities different between then and now? ESHLEMAN: Quite different. When Caterpillar began, the Vietnam Warwas going full-tilt and there was an organized artist resistance to the war, meaning sit-ins, street demonstratlons, even going to jail. The student rebellions of the 60s led to an inclusión of poetry as part of various alternaüve curriculums, meaning, for example, that college students then went to poetry readings like they would now go to hear music. In the late 60s, the experimental writing scène was extremely active and potent, underwritten by the Beat Generation, the Black Mountain affiliated writers, and by the San Francisco Renaissance. When I starled Caterpillar, it looked as if experimental American writing might become "the" American writing. It was thus an exciüng time to start amagazine that proposed to include the "new" here in an international postmodernist context Notonlyweresuch poets asCharles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov at their peak, there was a great deal of translation going on: such poets as Nathaniel Tarn, Cid Corman, Jerry Rothenberg and myself regarded translating as part ofourworkfortheliterarycornmunityat large. Thus the political, the experimental, and the international, were in heady exchange. Then the 70s occurred and by the beginning of the 80s - when I started Sulfur to retrieve some of the energy that seemed to have died with the death of Olson and the Manson murders in the early 70s - the scène was much, much different. Language Poetry which abstracted out the spiritual and political momentum of the 60s had come in as "the" avant-garde position in a kind of quasi-oppositon to the other new kid on the block, the post-Lowellian "sensitivity" writing emanating from the creative writing programs. Students were writing instead of reading. By the early 80s there were a couple of hundred universities offering degree programs in atlve writing. At this point there must be 500. So on one hand, the new had become so abstract as to preclude content and story, and on the other, bearing a diminuation of the despair one finds in the "confessional" writing of Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, and Wakoski, workshops were tuming out hundreds of writers each year whose goals had to include degrees and jobs. A new phenomenon: the professor-poet, or the poet as part of middle class income structure. While I did not publish much creatlve writing class poetry in Sulfur, 1 did include a significant amount of Language Poetry. For whether 1 really liked it or not, I had to acknowledge that it was the most recent defense of the strange and the new. However, in my opinión, both Language Poetry and university writing lack the range of experience out in the real world that one finds in the writers I menüoned associated with the 60s. AGENDA: In an interview in "Antiphonal Swing: Selected Prose 1962-1987," you said: "English Departments engender, in the name of tradiüon, dependence on a body of criücism to read a poem - to such an extent that the act of reading is replaced by a kind of career analysis." Now that you are in an English Department yourself, how do you feel about these matters? ESHLEMAN: When I carne to Eastem Michigan University in 1986, I was 51. and at 5 1 , a poet is a hopeless case. That is, for better or for worse, I was formed, and I do not think that the university enviroment has in any way improved or weakened my writing. I left Indiana University with a Master"s Degree in 1961, andoverthenext25years, livedinJapan, Korea, Taiwan, Bloomington (Indiana), Lima (Peru), New York City, Los Angeles, Mexico, and France. I came here mainly to give Sulfur magazine a home and for some sense of financial security. What I am against is writers never leaving the university enviroment - such weakens American literature and tends to turn poets into carpenter ants, encouraging them to live in other writers' furniture, at best drilling new tunnels in other peoples' constructions. AGENDA: Why do you feel the universities tend to ignore the experimental and diverse poetry of the 20th Century? ESHLEMAN: I don't think it is fair to expect traditional English Departments to be up on contemporary writing and to actively support experiment. It's not their job. Most English Departments are engaged by a range of poetry that begins with Chaucer and comes up to the early modernists, like Eliot and Pound. If you take a person whose life commitment as a scholar is to Wordsworth, say, you can't expect him or her to also really know, for example, Aimé Césaire, Peter Redgrove, and Robert Kelly. While many English Departments have relaxed, as it were, becoming Departments of English and American Literature, and supporting theses on writers who are alive today, there is a sense in which the English Department should be suspicious of the new and address what it has determined to be the canon. We might evoke William Blake"s distinction of the prolific and the devouring here, and recall that Blake also says that these two forces should continue to be at mental war and that whoever tries to reconcile them attempts to destroy what Blake takes to be a meaningful sense of existence. On the other hand, I think it is also important to acknowledge that poets are often involved in research and self, as well as social criücism, and that a capable poet practices, in his poem, significant aspects of scholarship and dissection. And that scholarship, in the right hands, can be commandingly creaüve. Without Northrop Frye's "Fearful Symmetry," I would never have gotten through the late Blake I was reading in Kyoto in the early 60s; and I have spent as much time with the writing of Mikhail Bahktin and N.O. Brown as with many of the poetries I cherish. The present, for everyone, is ahvays, always the hardest "text" to read. Look at poetry anthologies. The best are on sure grounds with the great dead, but neariy all peter out when it comes to locating the finest contemporary writers. The Norton anthologies, for example, try to solve this problem by loading their cabooses with minority writers, and the irony here is that most of the included minority writers have been through the creative writing workshop mili and have lost most of the sharp edges that contour the lives of minority peoples. I see that I have come back to the dilemma degree-writing workshops pose. Let me put it slightly diflerenüy. If my goal is to get a job, what I turn out must win prizes, be endorsed by currently "important" poets, get into mainstream magazines that are known in the academie profession. In short, I must conform and not try to shake things up. A piece of fiction in the staid New Yorker may mean the difierence between a tenure-trackjob and no job at all. But as usual, there is another side to this: The presence of writers in universities also means more poetry readings, contact between living writers and students, and quite significantly over the past several decades, the purchase by university libraries of living writers' archives. There is thus an irreconcilable conflict in the lives of most writers between the desire to know oneself in one's own way in one's writing and the need to do so in decent circumstances and with the possibility of a readership of some soit. Gertrude Stein once said that if she created 100 readers of her work during her lifetime, her work would continue to live after her death. AGENDA: Would you talk a little, for those who are not familiar with your work, about the role of the Peruvian poet, César Vallejo, in it? And say something about his book, 'Trilce7' ESHLEMAN: Thafs agood quesüon, and I would like to respond in such a way that I can offer a useful altemative to unending university nurture for a writer. I think it was Charles Olson who once wrote that a young poet should do a big job on another writer, that is, leam everything about one other writer and to believe, in doing so, that there would be a gain otherwise not available through reading bits and pieces of many writers. Olibn backed up this notion by a deep involvement for many years in the life and writings of Melville. Olson's first book, "Cali Me Ishmael," is in this regard his bridge out of Melville onto his own to-bediscovered continent. I apprenticed myself to the European poetry, written between 1923 and 1938. ofVallejo, havingdecidedwhileinKyotoin 1963, that Icouldlearn something essential about poetry by doing accurate and readable versions of these 1 10 poems. I had no idea, of course, at the time, that I was setting myself up for 16yearsofwork, involving a dreadful year in Lima, Peru, attempting to get the poet's utterly uncooperative widow to allow me access to the worksheets for these poems (which had not been published in Vallejo's lifetime, had been left in typed and heavily-corrected manuscripts, etc.). As it turned out, Vallejo became my real university experience, or 1 should say, I learned off Vallejo what no professor could give me. For in going to Vallejo on my own, I was in one way initiating myself into poetry off of not only Vallej o but off of myself. This was an active engagement, and it ended up involving not only pulling some American poetry through Vallejo's clenched Peruvian jaws, but research, scholarship, annotation, etc. I might menüon here that I had never assimilated the word "apprenticeship" before spending several years in Japan. One day in Kyoto, Will Petersen, an Ameri(SEE NEXT PAGE) Interview With The Poet: The Diverse Poetics of Clayton Eshleman (FROM PREVIOUS PAGE) can lithographer, dropped by my house and mentioned that he had just come from the workshop of a bonsai apprentíce. 1 asked. "How old is he7' Wül replied, "In his early 60s," and then added that this man was now nearing the end of his apprenüceship and would soon be outthereonhisown! Mymindimmediatelyraced back tomydesiretowrite real poems almost as soon as I discovered poetry at all. I gulped, as what should be in store for me, were I to take the art of poetry "seriously," seeped through me. So my apprenüceship to Vallejo is now in "The Complete Posthumous Poetry," co-translated with José Rubia Barcia, and published by University of California Press in 1978. I had published the first complete version of these poems with Grove Press in 1968, as "Human Poems" (a title for the collecüon that tumed out to be inaccurate, and imposed on the bookby Vallejo's widow) . In the early 70s I became dissatisfied with my work in "Human Poems" and teamed up with Barcia who knew much more about the Spanish language than I did. Over sixyears, we redid everything. You ask about 'Trüce," an earlier book by Vallejo, published in 1922. Trilce" may be the most difficult collection of poetry ever to have been published in the Spanish language, and unül the late 1 98Os I had only sniffed at it, walking around it as if it were a wrecked spaceship from planet Trilce. While the book had been translated and published in 1973, this translation was superficial and inadequate, andthesame thing could also be said about the Spanish and English language scholarship on the book. I guess I decided that as a Vallejo devotee I had a responsibility to do thebest I could with "Trilce." I worked for fouryears on the translation, and it was published by Marsilio in 1992. AGENDA: Your own poetry seems to deal with animal nature on one hand and the human capacity for reason on the other. Could you comment on this? ESHLEMAN: I think that animal nature is exactly what humankind lost in the process of discovering what we might cali today the autonomous imagination, or art. As I see it, at around 35,000 BCE, EuropeansknownasCro-Magnon (from the rock shelter in the town of Les Eyzies in southwestern France where skeletal remainswere discovered in 1868) began to project their difference from animáis, as the animality they were losing, onto cave walls along, with many (to us, today) incomprehensible lines and signs. In this sense, the beginnings of art is a kind of animal undressing, and this bss, as it were, is embedded, at a very deep layer, in the nature of art. In fact, I'd say that the loss of animal spontaneity, which mustbe involved with the animal's unawareness of its own death, is feit by poets in the abyssal space between desire and the imaginative fulfillment of desire. What you refer to as "animal nature" in my poetry, I'd cali the extent to which my own image-making is tied into my ceaseless hauntedness over the out-prisoningof my animal nature, which I feel that I have only been able to contact as a person, in extreme, emoü'onal agitaUon, such as fear, or sexual orgasm. I am haunted by this image that in love-making as one approaches orgasm, it is as if one is inching up a wall surrounding paradise and the sensation is that at the moment of orgasm one will be catapulted over the wall and BE HOME- out as most of us know, this never happens. Man and woman penétrate this sacred precinct - and I can honestly say that I have feit it rush through me - but paradise, as home without outside, is, even when it is closest, at an imaginaüve remove, and while we can imagine it via other imaginations, the abyss between desire and the fulfillment of desire seems to be bottomless. Of course certain people have clever ways of denying the absoluteness of this abyss - putting bars over it, or wallpapering the bars, or splitting its size between heaven and heil, and so on - but I think that the poet must be the one (and here I am thinking of all artists as poets) who lives this abyss and who is not afraid to allow it to show through his imagination. 1 should add here that my comments on the origins of image-making come from my research on what I cali "Paleolithic imagination and the construction oftheunderworld." Since 1974, mywife Caryl - who edits all of my work - and I have been revisiting the decorated caves in southwestern France. The caves are the arena of my second big research project after my earlier apprenticeship to Vallejo. AGENDA: In the first poem in your new collecü'on, "UnderWorld Arrest'you write: Begin with this: the world has no origin. We encircle the moment, lovers who, encircling each other, steep in the fantasy: now we know the mean ing of life. Would you care to comment on these lines? ESHLEMAN: The paradox: One is ahvays beginning anew, yet one is never at origin . The foetus disappears into a speek disappears into cosmos. We are haunted - that word again - by our seeking to be originators, to be instrumental, make things happen, to be as vital as Van Gqgh, say, inhistwelve-candled hatunderthestarry infinite, drawing the infinite into his own tiny grid so that it might implode in me, the viewer - and which, of course, as viewer I want to assimilate, compost, lose in my own energy, turn that moment he has offered me into my own. Thus artgoes on and on, avastdaisy-chain, each artist willynilly linked to others in something that is probably deeper than sexual connection. At this point, critics such as Harold Bloom teil us we are all helplessly belated. Origin is something that happened out of sight, blinded from mind. I find this kind of thinking to be onedimensional, and only critica], in that its intenüon appears to be to trap me and shut down my workshop. If my poetry is only a faint, faint evocation of some original imaginaüve leap, why bother to write at all? So, going back to the poem whose opening lines you have quoted, I prefer to get rid of origin ai the same timethat work with its splintered resplendence. One may sense the truth of a moment, but "the meaning of life" is at once so absurd, painful, joyous, and strange as to be ineffable. And if, fora moment, we take origin and belatedness seriously, we realize that Cro-Magnon alone was original. We are all, Dante and Shakespeare included, in a towering Juggemaut of pickabacks, standing on the shouldersof those who made the incredible breakthrough from no image of the world to an image. I just recalled that Cari Jung once defined the meaning of life as a good companion, and that I used this statement as the epigram to a collection of poems - dedicated to my wife. AGENDA: In the Preface to "Under World Arrest" you speak of placing yourself underworld arrest and refusing to release yourself. Could you elabórate on this? ESHLEMAN: Well, I go ahead to say, in the same Preface, that "whatever depth these poems have, whatever primary sources they may evoke, they attempt to press themselves to the surfaces and edges of present reality, to assimilate it in its full intensity. One must be under world arrest, for to my mind there is no exit, no escape from human peril here or now or ever." And then I quote from tlie Germán archetypal pyschologist, WolfgangGiegerich, on meaning and destiny. Yourquestion, ofcourse, evokessome notions that press about being under world arrest. To refuse to leave the world, in poetry, can also mean a desire to curtail escape from the world on the part of the reader. All art, on one level, is an escape from what one feels and knows of ones actual situaüon. Much art is little more than diversion, a pseudo-sophisticated form of entertainment. Yet while we are in our seats, drinking champagne and watching the can-can, we are aware that the beggars are freezing outside the night club, and if we look closely at the chorus line, we can see some of the lineaments of the actual lives of the women who have signed up for this basically humiliaüng work to pay their rent Which ís to say that in my poetry I want included the street and the beggars, and the condition of these womens' lives, in the dance of the imagination. I must insist on the dance, because to only describe or plea on behalf of the beggars is to abandon the imagination as a forcé that enables one to see the thing and to see through it, around it, and to place it in an individual context, as a sharable aspect of my imagination. Plus this: We live in the age of the death of etemity, in the age of mortal sky , mortal ocean, mortal earth. From the Tang Dynasty to late English Romanticism, artists, in spite of the never-ending terror of so-called Mother Nature, have sought refuge in a fantasy of the impermanent permanent, supported by the feeling that in spite of our almost weightless impermanence, such was underwritten by "something" that would always be - cali it God, earth, or even etemal night. I place myself under world arrest because that is where I really am, where all of us really are. I have tried to adopt a viewpoint that iscongruentwith my fix, and then to work from that perspecüve, to imagine it and in that way to affirm it. I believe that what is left of life is worth living, but I want to test this afïïrmation against as much negation as my writing can accomodate.

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