We didn't know anything—we were four people
living in a one-bedroom four-plex and they couldn't pay
the Seaboard Finance Company again. We didn't know
what was what. My oldest aunt,
the communist with a purple-silver perm, showed us
a woodblock print and a drawing of Käthe Kollwitz's mothers
and children—the wall the mothers made around their bodies—
we didn't really get it. My own mother's expressions bewildered me.
I remember my father washing the dishes and my mother sitting
at the cutting board drying them, crying and talking about Seaboard,
"Ralph, how the hell are we going to pay Seaboard next month?"
The dishtowel in front of her eyes bunched into fetal curves.
Packets of art reproductions came in the mail. Where did they get money
for that? She kept them in a drawer in the kitchen for my brother: Gaugin,
Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Toulouse-Lautrec. Rembrandt
drowned my eyes with that portrait of himself, of the bottom of his eyes,
at the end. My brother tried to copy it, he was always drawing.
Ma said she could just give him her eyebrow pencil wherever she took
him and he would sit there on the floor and draw people's faces
and women's legs. My brother knew more. When she broke down
he took me out of the kitchen, he covered me, I always had reason
to trust him. He saw more misery than I did. My mother and her
three brothers raised him during the war and for a few years after.
The faces in the Kollwitz drawing and wood block print scared me—
where were the fathers? Familiar mother's big hands
leather covering children.
It was the early fiifties. The dieseled ashes of Germany and more than
Germany were still a fresh part of the soot in the eucalyptus in our yard.
She feared that the eucalyptus would fall on our bedroom and kill us in our
sleep. She had it cut down. We didn’t say a thing. We were four people
living in a one-bedroom fourplex. Years after that—at the old La Brea
Theater—the four of us audibly cried out of our eucalyptus mouths.
We were watching the film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. We didn't know
the book. I read it all in two days when I got it. Kollwitz's mothers showed
on the ash mouths and eyelids of those two mute guys in the book, they
struggled to watch over each other.
I follow it that way in my mind. I can't separately reason that I'm here
feeling this and not back in the Longwood Avenue kitchen
or in the La Brea movie theater lobby with what I felt.
Experience has not nearly increased accuracy enough.
Working with my father in the garage I used to make
boats out of scrap wood and metal. My connection
to assembling things, my connection to accuracy
began there. But I didn't know anything. Some nails
and the hammer, some glue, some blowtorch
did it. We owe a lot to the materials. Every tool lives
in a shrine, every shrine stands in for
the other—it all gets mixed up: the mute lovers
with the ones at the sink, brothers reborn in a mother's towel
with the fragile wall of mothers, with the reborn
eucalyptus, with the ash mouths and eyelids,
with the sheet metal sail.
Always the precise way she put things together, sewed things
together, delight singing in Yiddish and Russian doing it, her wrist pains
doing it—delighting in theirs.
And always her offering more, which was her direct madness—sometimes
endearing, sometimes irritating: her "more." Made patches and sewed
more patches more; cooked for you, refused to let you help more, refused
to let you refuse more, loved you more than you wanted, more than you
asked, more than you feared.
And what a dramatic lover she must've been, whether she meant it or not.
What a liquefying opera she must've surged and spilled over if it was
anything like her singing, and her filling bowls and piling bowls with fruit.
I alternated being welcoming and turning my back to her.
I was never easy, at ease, never the kind of spongy matter I needed to be
to endure or con someone so I might thrive on that attention pouring and
pouring. Maybe some lack. Maybe a panel missing someplace in me.
But I don't give a damn, I'm not the available vacuum, there's a floor
underneath what I contain and receive. What a floor.
And even as I say it, even as I'm backing away from her again, I'm kissing
the lids and brows of my great aunt's eyes, I'm floored by her "more"
whatever she meant by it, whomever she really sought to fill with it,
or empty herself from, keeping her pot roasts and honey cakes flying out
of the oven, her kugels flying sweet enough,
or a little more, "A bisel more?"
piled on the table steaming for you, more?
"Ziskeyt sweetness," more? And leaving the table
with her watering can in the middle of serving,
in the middle of eating, feeding and also singing to her plants,
watering and dusting them and showing how she used to
cut scraps for her two dogs
dead all these years, mimicking the way she pleaded to each
and how they yelped for the brisket dangling from her mouth,
and giving a little more to the smaller, smarter one who
came down from her lap and waited quiet under the table.
Even while she talked about the two dogs, she mixed up nephews
with philodendrons, sister-in-law’s diseases with the purest garlic
and fish broth, mixed up longing and praise for her husband with imported
holiday plates, still talking about her dogs. She wasn't just
talking about dogs, it was always her ritual, her overflowing,
she was talking about her code of more, even in her endearments
praising dogs, it seeped through, the likeness of something else
connecting one ritual of more with another, more than dogs and tailoring,
more than carefully trimmed meat scraps, more than
getting on a downtown bus to find the strongest buttons because you
wouldn't know where to look. More than setting aside more for her
favorite niece, and a little more for the one who hated the favorite.
PREDATORS’ HOUR 2, OPEN ALL NIGHT
Not much on the bombing of Iraq twenty-four hours a day.
Not much on the bombing of military and fictional military
targets, and holiday photographs, religious icons
and peoples' bedrooms like ours—
and bullet factories, soccer balls, equipment
and hospitals, like ours—
the virgin son with a magazine
in the bathroom, the dictator’s retreat,
and the playgrounds like ours,
and the men stacking eggplant crates,
the crates, the olive oil factory workers,
the metal cabinet factory workers,
the workers, infant strollers like ours,
plumbers’ snakes, on fire…
And nothing I recall, nothing on Afghanistan, no reports
on the three-and half million trying to escape to
one of the freezing borders during the bombing, they were
already starving before the attack began; they were already
imprisoned, disappeared, half-burned to the ground from
the Russian invasion before, like ours...
Not a word: Iraqi civilian depleted uranium info bone smoked image dead.
No photojournalism clothes shredded burned-in with skin, making one skin, one melted mixed formed image, one pile of mouths burned shut.
I locked up looking at in my mind
after hearing a student now a vet tell it
through clenched teeth and weeping spit…
Not much on the 87 journalists assassinated since the bombings began.
Not much on our own three-thousand-something dead, so far—thirty-
thousand battle trauma cases, so far—eighteen-nineteen year-old amputees
amputated from our sight…
And not much reported on immigrant Thai Vietnamese Philippine girls
doing it on the factory floor after work, a part of work, or strippers
dancing the shift right through their bleeding periods, or else—and who
figures that in?
Here and there remote articles on who’s butchering the animals at the
speeded-up conveyor belt, but not much on who’s spreading chemical
fertilizer without protective gear—somebody’s there welding tanks two
of my neighbors’ sons died in last year—not much reported
on who’s making our socks, our ties, our transparent bras and panties, our
Victoria’s Secrets, our military uniforms, our kooky Halloween costumes:
Ronald Reagan’s mask, the Wolf man’s rubber claws—someone is
making our false teeth, our false dicks, our imitation nails—someone
is working, piecing together the body in the body-bag….some people
I read the article reporting something documenting 200,000 Jews Baba
Yar massacre, but it’s a language cup
the good-hearted like to sip on and feel
non-anti-Semitic about everything unreported, not tabulating
the one-hundred forty thousand more piled up
in the same region alone—one-hundred forty thousand to the tune
of eleven hundred nine years, just under fourteen thousand per century,
just under a tenth of the last three years
of bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq—
one hundred forty thousand Baba Yarians stabbed, hung, belongings
confiscated, just under a’ hundred and fifty a year stomped unconscious,
de-titted, kidnapped, corn-holed, de-toothed, ears set on fire.
It’s another Absence article
from the absence history—there must be a thriving absence commodity
industry in place of the absent journalists—
I’m going to send my absence subscription
to the Absence Journal and the Absence Newspaper, I wish all
the Absence Writers, all the Absence people in general,
a long absence off a short pier…
The waitress down the counter at my only diner, Nichol’s Diner,
complains to her partner, "that old lady's driving me crazy, she wanted
something different with her egg salad—three times—I took it back—
and you know what it does to your fingers everyday filling pepper mills—
nobody figures that in."
Some people are there...
While I eat my soup they’re smoking as they bomb all night-all day,
then another takes a dump or jerks off and eats malted protein balls
getting ready to bomb while others bomb and smoke—you can smoke up
there—what, you're going to bomb twenty-four hours a day and have
smoking restrictions? I don’t think so.
But I thought
after London-Dresden-Hiroshima-Nagasaki-Tokyo blazes—
I did think
after Mexico City, Kabul, Kent State, Tiananmen Square assassinations—
after the intended invisibilization of Armenians, Gypsies, Afro-everyone
after the bull-dozing of Palestinians,
after three million Vietnamese dead, there,
and a million Cambodians dead, there—
I did think
after supporting the six-time succession of Gestapo Twins in the coup of
Chile, the invasion of Guatemala, the Salvadoran civil war,
that the rulers of everything might begin to spare us the serial killing side
of themselves, man I was wrong—a woman’s hands on the stairs
with the vein roots from each wrist touching the rail, the cinders, the bone
chips of a boy’s shattered something, somebody’s arms, what looks like
arms—at the end of the landing,
a womb and the belly-button portion of the skin splotched on the hood
of a truck—
twenty-four hours a day of bombing, Open All Night,
The New Flat Earth Society,
and you starve in rage over that bloody soup.
-From My Piece Of The Puzzle (Eastern Washington University Press, 2008)
Bio: DOREN ROBBINS has published poetry, prose poetry, short fiction, literary criticism and book reviews in over one hundred journals, including The American Poetry Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Hawaii Review, Indiana Review, International Poetry, Kayak, Onthebus, Paterson Literary Review, Pemmican, Sulfur, New Letters, 5 AM, Willow Springs, and Hayden's Ferry Review. In spring 2008, Eastern Washington University Press published a new book of poems, My Piece of the Puzzle. His previous collection of poetry, Driving Face Down, won the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry. In 2004, Cedar Hill Publications published Parking Lot Mood Swing: Autobiographical Monologues and Prose Poetry. A mixed media artist as well as a writer, two of his works are currently on exhibit at the Crossing Boundaries: Visual Art by Writers exhibit, held at the Paterson Museum in New Jersey. His collage-portrait of Kenneth Rexroth, "Angles with Fissures", appeared in the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center documentary film, Kenneth Rexroth Centennial.
A "Mini-Review" of Doren Robbins's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz
Doren Robbins is a poet whose poetry is at once full of willful, energetic exuberance and, at the same time, precisely controlled. Much of his work has a Beat-like, spontaneous feel to it, and yet the poems we feature this week are clearly the products of careful revision. There is at times a conversational quality to his work, almost as if he has taken an oral history and broken it into lines of verse. In other poems, he moves beyond his own memories and family and attempts to take on some of the worst atrocities in human history. Even in the most serious of his poems, there is a seemingly casual artifice at the heart of his work, and he certainly stands out, even among the wide range of poets featured here on POW, as a unique voice, one with a passion for history and politics in particular.
“Four Family,” recalls the realities of growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in the early fifties, in the aftermath of the Second World War, in a poor Jewish family that worried about how they would pay the rent each month. It explores his relationship with his brother, remembers what it was like watching his parents worry about bills, and recalls looking at artwork from the war and not understanding its true meaning. It invokes the image of ashes several times, and towards the end begins to reflect the speaker’s connection to accuracy (seemingly accuracy of memory) as learned through boat-building. This final meditation revisits the poem’s several most important images in a way that renders them all side by side beautifully, and perhaps suggests that memories and images from the distant past are inextricably linked to those remembered from the near-past and present. The poem also features a number of deftly-placed, subtle rhymes and near-rhymes that give the poem a wonderfully musical quality even in the midst of its less than happy subject matter.
Robbins doesn’t attempt at all to gloss over the less pleasant details of his childhood, and he brings the same honesty to “Dvayda,” an unflinching portrait of the speaker’s great aunt, and her seemingly incessant desire for “more,” of everything. The speaker describes the way she “cooked for you, refused to let you help more, refused // to let you refuse more, loved you more than you wanted, more than you / asked, more than you feared.” The poem even goes so far as to wonder how that “more,” translated in his great aunt’s moments of passion. The speaker goes on to describe his own uneasiness with her constant outpouring of attention, and yet, how he simultaneously loved her for it. Most of the excesses described in the poem revolve around food: pot roasts and honey cakes and kugels. Ultimately, the speaker says, “...it was always her ritual, her overflowing, / she was talking about her code of more,” even when discussing her two dogs “dead all these years.” While the speaker is honest about the way that he was at times uncomfortable with the excesses of his great aunt’s love (and food), and sometimes critical of it, in the final lines he seems to admit that it ultimately endears her to him.
Robbins’ passion for honesty--the honesty of his own country, perhaps--is again on display in “Predators’ Hour 2, Open All Night,” a poem that deals not just with the wars that affected the speaker’s past, but with the wars that affect his present, and draws some connections between the two. It describes how there is “Not much on the bombing of Iraq twenty-four hours a day. / Not much on the bombing of military and fictional military / targets, and holiday photographs, religious icons / and peoples’ bedrooms like ours--...” The poem goes on to repeat “like ours,” and to reinforce the idea that our so-called “enemies,” are, in fact, people just like us. The poem discusses the lack of reporting on a number of ugly truths: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the deaths of almost a hundred journalists; the deaths of over three thousand American soldiers or the trauma cases of over thirty thousand more: “...eighteen-nineteen year-old amputees / amputated from our sight.” He goes on to list and describe other underreported stories: women from Thailand, Vietnam, and the Phillipines who are forced into indentured servitude, sexual slavery, or both; the widespread use of chemicals in farming; the reality of who makes our consumer goods, and the conditions they work in; and connects all of this to the Babi Yar massacres in World War II.
In lamenting the lack of reporting on contemporary and past genocides and war atrocities, the poem condemns the “Absence Journal and the Absence Newspaper,” and wishes “all the Absence people in general, / a long absence off a short pier...” The speaker goes on to invoke the bombings of London, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo, and connect them to more recent outrages in Mexico City, Kabul, Kent State, Tiananmen Square, as well as the “invisibilization of Armenians, Gypsies, Afro-everyone,” and the bulldozing of Palestinians. The list of atrocities goes on to include three million Vietnamese dead and a million Cambodian dead, and American interference in Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador.The speaker says he thought that, after the long litany of atrocities, the “rulers of everything might begin to spare us the serial killing side / of themselves, man I was wrong.” Indeed, he was wrong, and while there is no indication that the speaker (or the poet) sees his art as an antidote to the evil that is in the world, he does seem to see poetry as an opportunity to bring underreported atrocities to our attention, and more importantly, to point out their continual absence from our “news,” services. By invoking such a detailed list of both past and present crimes against humanity, the poem at least suggests there is a connection between history’s frightening ability to repeat itself and the absence of these stories from what ought to be their properly shameful prominence in our history and current news media.
What sets Robbins apart from other poets is the unyieldingly honest gaze he is able to turn upon himself, his family, and his country. He doesn’t attempt to obfuscate or omit difficult truths, but instead addresses them directly, tying the present to his own past, his family’s painful past, and a long view of human history, particularly the historical moments about which we ought to be the most ashamed. While he examines his past, his family, and his country, he speaks truth to power and pulls no punches. And in the midst of it all, even when dealing with the historical subject matter that often challenges the poetic qualities of many poets’ work, he manages to instill rhythmic phrasing and richly musical sounds into each of his poems. His ability to mix such explicitly political subject matter with such a high level of poetic artistry is a rare gift among contemporary poets. And while art alone cannot bring an end to the atrocities of war, one begins to believe when reading his work that, if a few more poets had the courage and vision to tackle the difficult subjects Doren Robbins writes about, such subjects would be less absent from our collective consciousness, and just maybe, history would give him a bit less to write about.
A review of Doren Robbins’ work by Bill Mohr -Mohr’s review appeared in Beyond Baroque Magazine, “A Covenant of Radiant Thirst,” Vol. 26 No. 2, (2004): 50-56
Doren Robbins has published five full-length collections, The Roots and the Towers, Sympathetic Manifesto, The Donkey’s Tale, Dignity in Naples and North Hollywood, and most recently, Driving Face Down. For over a quarter century Robbins has been writing his unique blend of personal protest and ideological critique. His poems make no distinction between big wars and small wars, whether they are the small wars that emerge on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles or the big wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
In "My Pico Boulevard," a six page poem that traverses a half-century of upheaval in Los Angeles, Robbins says, "I'm walking with my own graffiti." This graffiti has a raucous calligraphy, perhaps because he worked for years as a short-order cook and carpenter, and he has seen the desperation of his fellow workers up close. He also knows his own desperation as an unquenchable self-rebuke.
I never wanted a watered-down story
and I still don't. Every denial leads to lobotomy,
everything watered down is a pack of lies.
The worst lie is the way they've set up and advertised
the scarcity of work-so every puppet in the audience
is grateful to have any available job in the system:
paint-scraping puppets, pipe-fitter puppets, part-time
toxic clean-up crew puppets, factories of women puppets
parked and bunched at counters because they can fit more
of their smaller bodies in the factory space-a puppet majority
fits right in.
("Two Puppets in One")
The way in which long hours at a job reduce one's capacity to function in any meaningful sense other than a puppet is not just some theoretical speculation on Robbins' part. His own self-portrait in the title poem of Driving Face Down is as grim and forthright as Jim Daniels' depictions of auto workers.
Now I see myself in that banged-up truck - the dents
in the tail-gate and fenders were the sepal and spathe
I burrowed and sank within. In my work as a carpenter
I beat in the body of that truck, always lugging
too much, always sawing lumber on the hood
or tail-gate pulled down, too tired to set up sawhorses,
too rushed, too packed with materials, too broke
to care. Now I see how - next door to a place I remodeled -
I side-swiped that car, of all cars a '61 T-bird then in '86
already a classic
Art supposedly gives us aesthetic distance. Knowing the limited capacity of art to redeem anybody's suffering, Robbins' poems provide no such obvious safety net. On the other hand, the voice in his poems, with its impeccable contralto of hope and revulsion, reminds us not to accept any limits other than our own resilient skepticism.
My vengeance was the giant
lethargical and strategical
My vengeance was the knife
that could whittle its own handle.
My vengeance had a monkey's
face and a horse's ass.
My vengeance said,
"if a man is destined to drown
he will drown
in a spoon full of water."
My vengeance, how little
I expected you.
Robbins' poetry is part of a chorus of other fearless voices: Tom McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Patchen, Edwin Rolfe, Don Gordon, and especially the Jewish immigrant poet, William Pillin. All half-dozen of the poets just named worked on the West Coast for significant portions of their lives as poetic agitators, the Wobblies of defiant imagination. In poems such as "Marc Chagall and the Male Soul," "Beneath the Jewish Muse," and "The Red Fan," Robbins insists that particular tradition is still alive and vibrant, and capable of inspiring us to join in with the dance:
wild radiance I swayed
and sang to
beside a radio this morning again
alone in a loud room to myself.
An Interview with Doren Robbins by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Four Family" is a poem composed of lengthy, yet very simply constructed declarative sentences, e.g. "We didn't know anything...", "We didn't know / what was what...", "We didn't know / the book. I read it all in two days when I got it." As a result, the poem has a sense of cataloguing to it that gives the poem and the words of the poem an almost drab, vaguely repetitive feel to it. As if the events occurring in the scenes in the poem and, later, in the reflection engaged in by the speaker has all happened before and will happen again. Is this, to some degree, what the poem is about? By happen again, I'm thinking of the way history is said to repeat itself... that notion that our lives and the way we respond to it and reflect on it have a cyclical nature to them... there's no finality, no conclusion... the sense that we grow is perhaps an illusion...Does that make sense?
Doren Robbins: The poem contains a lot of memoir as well as allusions to actual historical events of that period. People that are the children of parents that lived through the Great Depression and World War Two carry some of the unexpressed content of their parents' grief. That is, concerning World War Two there is no way for the Germans, the Jews, the Japanese, the Americans, the Italians, the French, the Koreans, the British and every other country involved in World War Two to absorb and make sense of the barbarism of the bombing, raping, nuking, gassing, torturing that took place in World War Two. W.G. Sebald has written about "the inability of a whole generation of German writers [and people] to describe what they had seen ." But it's an international malady. My father was a vet and he was in his early eighties before he sat next to me weeping about his roommate at the Veterans Hospital. He'd been hit by a flamethrower and was completely bandaged; most of the skin and cartilage was burned off his face and his scalp. He would never let his family up to the room, and would hand my father the phone to talk to his wife whenever she called. How much of the unresolved, damaged, repressed life of parents is unspoken or unexplained that is expressed in other ways that children absorb? The effects of the war were not expressed in the United States beyond our self-righteous do-gooder image, the sentimentality of our leadership, and the unending American Dream propaganda machine. To that extent I identified with the teenage narrator and the mute male couple in McCullers' novel, they symbolize the struggles of literally blameless and vulnerable people born into a mean, unjust, and irrational society. Irrational in the sense that unpleasant or vile experience is rationalized in denial. If you sense that realism when you are a child, and nobody acknowledges or explains the facts that make up the truth, you are subjected to an isolate and irrational frame of reference. So, some aspects of the human condition are repetitious in the sense that the problem-solving methods of leadership are violent and inhumane, but the common characters in the poem "struggle to watch over each other" despite the conditions they find themselves in, and the speaker of the poem like anyone else is powerless in the face of historical oppression. Even though he affirms and celebrates the materials that bring meaning, "it gets mixed-up" within the context of unrelenting struggle. It is a part of his overall experience though "Experience has not nearly increased accuracy enough."
AMK: I really like these long, prose-like couplets. What can you tell us about the couplet? Why do you employ them here?
DR: Because of the content and the long sentences, whenever I use it the couplet method seems natural to the rhythm; both visually on the page and orally as a spoken or recited form. In terms of "ear" or "sound" the oral component, the rhythm corresponding to the temperament of the language, gauges the authenticity of the poem. When you're not working with say a twelve-syllable limit that poets like Robert Haas, Robert Pinsky and others often determine as a marker, the longer prose line forces you to construct lines-sentences where you have to re-imagine grammar and phrasing for the sake of originating sounds through repetition, unusual lists, idiosyncratic imagery, and elliptical arrangements. In recent works I've gone toward a lyrical fragmentation regarding sentences and phrases, not in the sense of creating disjunctive logic, but to modulate sound and affect rhythm. Or, to create momentum:
I'm sitting across from a parking lot, an electric water-pink pistachio tree, an outpouring, a neurotic attachment, a sympathetic breakdown, a leaf with a speaking hole, a betrothal, the imagination, memory's meth lab, him and him, brother-to-brother. (From "Him and Him")
AMK: What do you make of my comment that these long lines are "prosy"? (I think this is true of much of your work and certainly of the poems we're featuring here.) This is the sort of comment that many make in the negative, but I mean it in the positive. Prose is, after all, an incredibly successful form of writing. I don't see any reason to shy away from what we might call a "prose line" in a poem, particularly when the poem is narrative in nature like this one. If not "prosy," how might you describe your long, descriptive lines?
DR: Most of my longer poems are prose-poem monologues , but everything I write includes a variety of poetic elements: repetition, anaphora, images, metaphors, etc. In these poems I use couplets or stanzas as a way to pace the narrative. In the monologue poems, because there is no reliance on meter or syllabics--spacing and sometimes the line-break are crucial, not only in terms of what the reader is left with through employing enjambment but for rhythmic pace. Blake rebuked and abandoned blank verse and "the bondage of rhyming" for his long poems. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," combines poetry, prose poetry, philosophical fantasy, and proverbs. Whitman scholar Betsy Erkkila documented that Rimbaud studied Whitman in translation around the time he began his major work in prose poetry. Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," and several poems by Whitman basically fulfill Baudelaire's desire when he said: "Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations" (Paris Spleen, Le Spleen de Paris). The bridge to a confluence of genres has already been made. What about writers like Francois Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Kenneth Patchen, Thomas Bernhard, Russell Edson, and others ? Academics are obsessed with classification, but there really isn't a firm classification for many writers.
AMK: How did you come up with the repetitive construction of "Dvayda," its central subject matter being the speaker's great aunt but, perhaps more so, her constant offering of more, more, more? I really like how the word more itself takes on the nature of the great aunt but can't imagine how you came up with using repetition to do so.
DR: Only that it is a musical-rhythmic quality that came with the composition.
AMK: A good friend of mine is working toward his PhD in Literature, specifically the poetry of Coolridge who always worked in an established form, like most of the poets before, say, the Modernists. I get really tired of hearing him make the same old argument Frost did, that not writing in a predetermined form is like playing tennis without a net. I'd agree with him if free verse didn't have any sort of form, but your poems clearly do. You create forms organically, forms that fit the function of the poem itself rather than the form itself... This, I think, is the true wonder of free verse, but can also be its downfall considering that so many free verse poets do in fact write without any sort of form that, at least, I can detect.
DR: Olsen, Levertov, Ginsberg, and others talked about line-breaks in reference to extension of the individual poet’s breath or mental and cinematic flow of images and ideas, and these reflections continue to accompany many poets in their formal sense of free verse. Lawrence referred to a need for a “rapid momentaneous association,” that would spring the poem into a fuller dimension of meaning. Poetry without traditional formal structure is an individual intuitive mode of composition. The poets that impressed me with form and content, the poets I turned to after Walt Whitman were Blaise Cendrars, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams (in Spring and All and Kora in Hell: Improvisations, for directions in prose poetry). Cendrars and Ginsberg opened up to a rhythmic monologue form integrating prose. Whitman worked directly out of his journals when composing “Song of Myself.”
But Cendrars has always been at my foundation and Francois Villon. Cendrars’ overall sense of experience, his poetry of the street, his anti-literary tongue, the elliptical style, his fraternal connection with painters and high sense of fantasy––Cendrars’ sense of anti-poetry was really a poetry of liberation for me. I discovered him when I was young after reading Henry Miller. Not always, but when he was, Ginsberg’s variety of poeticisms turned me off.
But Villon for the usual reasons: the down and out, the imperturbable telling it like it is, forthright, the uncurbed sense of irony and elegy, it still inspires, he was never fattened by literary awards, so much of reality is disgusting—especially in the technologically advanced richer countries where abstract literary theory dominates the academic massage parlor, and the suffering of common people, the overall alienation we endure, the corporate plague of nuclear and other energy giants, their armed security forces, union busters and surveillance, state terror and torture or disappearance, microwaves and depersonalization…
I don’t go to Coleridge. Our contemporary condition calls for a language ignition or detonation. There are a few exceptions, but for over two-hundred years emotion has demanded a language conversion that rhyme and meter can not sufficiently contain. I don’t care about him at all, Coleridge. For me, the British poets from that period are Blake and Blake, Keats, Shelley, Blake and Wordsworth. In Germany: Novalis and Holderlin. But there’s nothing in Coleridge for me. The traditional form/free verse argument is academic. I teach students about the forms, and they read Sir Thomas Wyatt, Emily Dickinson, and Frost right along with Ginsberg, Nicanor Parra, Anne Sexton, Yevtushenko, Voznesenski, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Nazim Hiket, Kenneth Patchen, Thomas McGrath, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Blasie Cendrars, and, the truth is, Frost appears quaint to them in the company of these other poets writing mainly in free verse. Besides, the argument is passé. Everyone seems to mind their own business. Closed form/ open form––for me the lines were drawn at the time I read Pound and Williams on Imagism, Kenneth Rexroth’s essay on Pierre Reverdy and cubism, Children of the Mire by Octavo Paz, Robert Bly’s essay on Leaping Poetry, and Jerome Rothenberg’s Revolution of the Word. As a poet I care about the theory and philosophy poets write, the poets that have been to the underworld, to the bottom of their emotional lives, traveled around foreign places, apply associations and layered correspondences, the poets tapping into their vitalities rather than madness, but also madness when it occurs. I don’t care about quarrelsome academic thinking at all. They can stroke their nets and chain-links as much as they like. There is something gutless, not to mention tedious, about relying on predetermined forms. I was going to say predetermined forms are for house-building, but even there I’m drawn toward the improvisational or genre-blending and integrating designs of several creations by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Frank Gehry. The poet needs tools and materials: language (the whole lexicon); and materials: the unexpurgated narrative connected to complex and daring subjects. That’s the uneasy affirmation “Four Family” concludes with. But I now feel it is tame and in some ways conventional compared to other works I am producing.
People adapt to predetermined forms because they are incapable of disobedience, they distrust intuition, they fear rejection, they don’t know themselves, they haven’t discovered what to do with the initial fear of being free and how that fear transforms into a lifetime of complex meditation, and expression.
I’m not saying we aren’t flooded with boring free verse, prose poetry, and experimental poetry. But to worry that authenticity depends on whether something is written in a predetermined form or if it is improvisational and therefore illegitimate is an addiction to empty strife.
AMK: Can you talk a little bit about free verse form as it applies to "Predators'..."?
DR: "Predator's Hour, Open All night" directly responds to the public relations' success of the U.S. government resulting in Media Nothing coverage of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the other permanent war against the working class. It's disgusting to hear veterans say they went to the war to learn how to become electrical engineers or demolition specialists or for money to go to school. That is not a testimony to the desperation of the poor--it is a fact of nationalist internalization, the matter-of-factness of obedience, and simply the desire to murder and for some the possibility for rape. Desperate citizens willing to sign up for armed conflict during a period of unanswered assassination of conscientious journalists is a maintenance corporation achievement of the modern war media slave-labor state. "Free Verse." I'm uncomfortable with the notion of "Free Verse." I would say the poem is a diary, agitated and agitating, a narrative with poetic elements. "Predator's Hour, Open All Night" is an elegy, but it's a frustrated elegy because there is no closure, there is no problem-solving in leadership that will bring an end to the system of Empire-Making. War and working-class oppression is perennial. It's a form of civilized necrophilia. "Predator's Hour, Open all Night," is a documentary, a narration, a poetic mode of dealing with the reality that anyone in the way of the system will not be tolerated.