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Remembering the Future

Who knows the laws of hot stars in crowded masses
                    – William Shakespeare

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
                    – Emily Dickinson

I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars
                    – Walt Whitman

The center is everywhere
                    – Black Elk

Bernadette Mayer's poetry has been praised by John Ashbery as “magnificent.” Ed Sanders calls her a “wonderful visual gestalt.” Brenda Coultas heralds her as a master of “devastating wit.” Throughout the 1980s she was the Director of the Poetry Project in New York City and she has taught there and at the New School, and also at Naropa Institute Summer Writing Program. She is the author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, the most recent being Poetry State Forest published by New Directions, 2008. Bernadette’s latest project (made possible by a grant from Creative Capital) is The Faces That Launched A Thousand Ships; a book of poetry and photographs featuring women named Helen from the city of Troy, New York inspired by Bernadette’s own knowledge of ancient Greece and the mythic character Helen of Troy.

Indeed, many prominent scholars, estheticians, and peers consider Bernadette to be one of the most visionary and profound minds working in letters today, leaving little wiggle room to doubt she is among the all-time greats ever to put words to page.

Yet while I assent wholeheartedly to all of the accolades accorded her, perhaps the two things which endear me most to Bernadette, and her works, are her dogged, no bullshit, give-no-quarter attitude; and her undaunted, steadfast devotion as a ‘professional human being’ to the vocation of poetry; inestimable traits to my mind, particularly these days, when oftentimes it seems as we’re edging ever closer to what the future astronomers of dusty earth might coin as the ‘Bleak Ages’ of humankind.

Another important side note I’d like to mention here, and very few people talk about this anymore, is Bernadette suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994, entered a coma, and was even pronounced dead at one point. The same condition did prove fatal for her father, Theodore Mayer, whose life ended at an early age, when Bernadette was twelve years old. That being said, I daresay there’s no good sense to question her resolve when it comes to all matters poetry and otherwise.

Finally let me say that each quote leading-off this preface was chosen quite deliberately in terms of what I believe cuts to the core of what Bernadette’s about; especially the first one by WS, which is more of a directive than it is a question; with the upshot being, however mysterious, one of Bernadette’s highest imperatives over the course of her experiments and investigations in letters spanning more than half of a century; my own appreciations and search for which I owe in great measure to hers.

Currently Bernadette lives in rural Upstate New York on the historic acreage between Kinderhook and Tsatsawassa creeks in the Upper Hudson Valley region; which is where I had the great pleasure of sitting down with her once again for another of our many chats, and happily in the company of another wonderful poet and friend these many years, Jamey Jones.

Interview with Bernadette Mayer
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[The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Dave Brinks, Bernadette Mayer, and Jamey Jones which took place mid-morning on Friday, July 3, 2009 near a small clearing in the woods overlooking the Tsatsawassa and Kinderhook creeks behind Mayer’s home in East Nassau, New York. FYI: Tsatsawassa, pronounced Tah’-sa  wah’-sa, translates from the Native American as “cup of water”; and is most likely of Mahican origin.]

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[Bernadette Mayer and Dave Brinks, photo by Philip Good]

Brinks:  So here we are at the Tsatsawassa and Kinderhook creeks just behind Bernadette’s house in East Nassau, New York; one of her absolute favorite places to hang out with her dog Hector; and an area frequented by many great birds including the common merganser and the blue heron.

Mayer:  I refuse to answer any questions. (laughter)

Brinks:  One thing I love most about your works Bernadette, and I rarely find this in any other poet’s works, is whenever I’m listening to you read a poem, I often suddenly feel like I’ve beautifully misheard something; but then I discover it’s exactly as you’ve written it.

Mayer:  Yes, I’ve taken care of that. (laughter)

Brinks:  Which leads me to my next question, which is actually my first question; but based on your idea of Utopia, how is our sitting here any different than our non-waking state?

Mayer:  I refuse to answer that question. (laughter)

Jones:  Bernadette, I wanted to ask you about poet Hannah Weiner. You and she were close friends. What would Hannah think of the Kinderhook and Tsatsawassa creeks, and this place, the Poetry State Forest, where you live?

Mayer:  Well, she’s probably here. (laughter)

Brinks:  Yes, that is a good question. I’d like to add something to that, especially for those who didn’t know Hannah, and who might mistakenly assume that she was just a poet who suffered from severe neurosis. Maybe her mind just worked in ways which were altogether different from our current understanding of how the mind works. For instance, what if someone was born today with a brain that had abilities which humans generally don’t have, like echo-location in whales or bats?

Mayer:  I had this dream I don’t think I’ve told either of you yet. It happened just after I was recovering from this feeling of trying to find the right hospital for Hannah. She was staying at my loft and her brother Moe, who’s a rabbi, came over and he was really coming on to me. He told me Hannah couldn’t stay with us because our house wasn’t a proper house. Hannah was very skinny at that time, so I said okay; and I started looking for a hospital for her. Then one morning I woke up from this dream and I started seeing letters all over the room. I thought to myself, oh my god, just what I’d always feared, to be inside Hannah’s head. I looked at the letters on the walls and even though I was awake I couldn’t make them disappear. I had a real moment of panic. Then finally I got my shit together because I knew the letters wouldn’t go away unless I left the room. So I left the room and the letters obviously disappeared. But I was really afraid that they were going to be there forever. You know when Hannah was alive I always had this feeling that she had some kind of special powers, and that could be creepy sometimes. This was definitely one of those instances.

Brinks:  Well, this is just my opinion, and it probably has to do with my experiences of having epilepsy; but if it were more commonplace for people to see letters like it was for Hannah, then surely people who didn’t see letters would be thought of as suffering from some bizarre condition.

Mayer:  Did you ever see Robert Smithson’s photograph of an upside down tree?

Brinks:  That’s really strange. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. About three years ago I first came across the image of an upside down tree suspended in mid air in one of my dreams, and I found it extremely unsettling. Another thing that really bothered me was that somehow I knew this kind of tree had eyes, a pair of eyes. But as I continued to think about it, especially now, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really do wish trees could exist in this way. It seems more connected and peaceful. I know this sounds crazy but I do imagine this kind of tree as being related to first sound or first feeling; sort of proto-totemic, but in the visual way of thinking about things. It definitely unblocks a lot of stuff.

Jones:  People are really unsettled by being unblocked. It disturbs people. I think that’s why so many people have a problem with poetry. (laughter)

Mayer:  Jamey, you should write a poem called “The Fun of Being Blocked.” (laughter)

Brinks:  Bernadette, tell me more about John Lilly’s book on dolphins (Lilly on Dolphins by John C. Lilly, M. D., Anchor Books 1975). I’ve always been interested in the fact that dolphins’ brains are always half asleep and half awake; in other words, while one half is sleeping, the other half is awake, and then it shifts.

Mayer:  Well it’s kind of astonishing because it was the first time I ever read that there were so many parts of the human brain that are never used; and perhaps dolphins, like whales, have a memory of the future. That’s something we definitely haven’t mastered, and I’d like to be able to do that. (laughter)

Brinks:  Which is entirely different from being able to tell the future, right?

Mayer:  Yes, it has nothing to do with being able to foretell the future.

Jones:  Well then how do we know we know?

Brinks:  You know I think this has a lot to do with our conversation earlier this morning when we were talking about memory and erasure, and about the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; but also particularly in terms of what poet Phil Good says in Oblek magazine (No. 12, Spring/Fall 1993, p.70): “Environment shapes thought as does the time including the future that might be visiting us now.” Yes, both of those things, combined with a line from one of Bernadette’s poems: “A moving boat is a squeezed boat.”

Mayer:  Well that’s a scientific fact.

Brinks:  Yikes, this is getting dangerously close to inviting people to embrace poetry as scientific fact.

Mayer:  You could do it though.

Brinks:  No way. I’d rather be a stick fish. (laughter)

Mayer:  You mean a trout.

Brinks:  Yeah, because a trout always has an out. (laughter)

Mayer:  I bought this children’s book called Trout Are Made of Trees (Charlesbridge Publishing 2008) and it talks about the [indecipherable] nature of how the trees become the trout. But I think I bought it because I just liked the title so much.

Jones:  That’s a great title. I think you should definitely take up fishing. (laughter)

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[Jamey Jones, photo by Dave Brinks]

Brinks:  Bernadette, here’s another thing I wanted to ask which I don’t find with most other poet’s works. Yesterday you showed me that manuscript which is the first book of poems you ever put together. You said you found it recently by accident in your file cabinet while looking for something else. It’s called The Old Style Is Finding Out Something About a Whole New Set of Possibilities. This manuscript has been misplaced for nearly 40 years; but clearly aesthetic-wise, and everything else-wise, the poems read and feel as though they might’ve been written last month. The poems stand shoulder-to-shoulder easily with even your current work in-progress, The Faces That Launched A Thousand Ships. The same point can be made with many of your major works: Story (0 to 9 Press, 1968), Moving (Angel Hair, 1971), Studying Hunger (Big Sky, 1976), Memory (North Atlantic Books, 1976), Midwinter Day (Turtle Island Foundation, 1982), Sonnets (Tender Buttons, 1989), Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 2008), and Ethics of Sleep (Trembling Pillow Press 2009). None ever seem to get stuck in the time in which they are written. Obviously the edge of what you were doing then is exactly the edge of what you’re doing now; which is apparently what you’ve always been doing, and I can only guess, what you might be doing later. That’s truly amazing to me.

Mayer:  What are you saying, that I have a memory of the future? (laughter)

Brinks:  Well, that does seem to be evidenced by your work. There doesn’t seem to be any specific point where someone can say oh, here’s where Bernadette starts throwing monkey wrenches into the syntax, everything’s becoming more reflexive, the images are more verbal, blah blah blah blah blah. Your books don’t have that kind of linearity. To my mind they emanate from a locus similar to a circle. They’re concentrically oriented. One doesn’t lead into the next, leading into the next, and so on.

Mayer:  You mean a progression?

Brinks:  Yeah, that’s never been the case. In fact, I’d say your works have always been kind of anti-that.

Mayer:  I like to go backwards. (laughter)

Brinks:  But not unnecessarily by design. (laughter)

Mayer:  I really want you to read that angry review this person wrote about my new book Poetry State Forest (New Directions 2008).

Brinks:  Oh yes, I do want to read that too; but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written by someone who was just experiencing the initial struggles of finding their own way of talking and writing about poetry at the same time. Truthfully I would discourage anyone to begin with your work who doesn’t want to feel frustrated as far as writing reviews; and not because your works are difficult, because they’re not; but simply because your works have too many delights which just aren’t easily pinned down.

Mayer:  One thing I always think that’s crazy is to distinguish a poet’s work as “early poems” or “middle poems” or “late poems.” It just doesn’t make any sense to me; I mean, how long does a person live, one person; not long enough to have early, middle, and late periods. (laughter)

Brinks:  Yes, that’s true; and that probably has a lot to do with that wonderful line Ted Berrigan uses in The Sonnets (Penguin 2000), which he stole from John Ashbery: “How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine…”

Mayer:  “Sepulchre…”

Brinks:  “Sepulchre…” Yes, of course, let’s not leave out the most important part. Actually, wait a second, I would like to change that now: “How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divigating Sepulchre.” (laughter)

Mayer:  Oh no, I much prefer “The Digressive Sepulchre.” (laughter)

Brinks:  Perfect, then at one point later a person comes along named Bernadette who says, “You don’t aggressively soothe the butter”. (laughter)

Mayer:  Well, I was always amazed that those hypnagogic sentences and states never really led anywhere.

Brinks:  Don’t they though?

Mayer:  Well to me they do; but for others, I don’t feel as they ever did. I never got any feedback about that.

Brinks:  They definitely steered me in the wrong direction quite well. Actually, I don’t recall or imagine things ever being any other way. Seriously though, one thing I definitely do feel they do is alter consciousness in a way that allows a person to be fully present, backwards and forwards; so in one sense, maybe it doesn’t lead anywhere, except to this very point, here, where we are right now, this moment.

Mayer:  Or the point right before this...or the point right after. (laughter)

Jones:  Then what’s the difference?

Mayer:  Well, I don’t know. Here’s a good question: is there a progression of things? Because as a human being, you get this illusion that there is. But probably there isn’t.

Brinks:  Okay let’s forget all the beautiful math here for a second. This might be getting at the very heart of what you allude to in one of your poems where you say: “an incoherent whole”. Or you just as well could say the opposite of that too, “a coherent hole”…

Mayer:  That’s crazy Dave! (laughter)

Brinks:  And if you have enough coherent holes with an “h”, you can create an entire incoherent whole with a “w”…

Jones:  And then just keep thinking of donut holes, and how they’re not holes at all.

Mayer:  Yeah, exactly… (laughter)

Brinks:  The absence of a hole… (laughter)

Jones:  is what created the hole. We should just call them donut balls. (laughter)

Mayer:  Exactly. (laughter)

Jones:  So to think that there’s a progression… Maybe that’s what’s wrong with humanity.

Mayer:  Well, you know whose fault it is, it’s Aristotle’s. Aristotle is to blame for all these matters. The whole cause and effect idea comes from Aristotle. I hate Aristotle. A lot of what he said is totally nonsense. It’s a whole way of thinking that a lot of people in the western world have adopted. It does nothing but harm. It’s the reason for wars. It’s the reason for patriarchy. It’s annoying. Whenever anybody says why, I get that all the time, why, that’s Aristotle.

Brinks:  Another problem is that, for instance, people who think in this way are not thinking in the round; because with Aristotelian logic the syllogism is always this + this, therefore

MayerTherefore, that’s definitely an Aristotelian word, heretofore. (laughter)

Brinks:  But Socratic dialogue, which is not that kind of rhetoric, is much more on the case; particularly in relation to the open-ended haikuness of eastern thinking. John Cage definitely knows all about that: “All answers are answers to all questions.” Regrettably, Aristotelian logic is just an older form of New World thinking a la Columbus; i.e. we’ve just discovered the world isn’t flat, so let’s claim all undiscovered lands for the Queen of Spain.

Mayer:  Did you know that there’s this park near here in Schodack where you can walk through the woods for a very brief period of time, and there’s a lot of trees, and all of a sudden you’re at the Hudson river? It’s amazing. Every time I go there I think about when the Indians first saw Columbus’ ships, and how the Indians didn’t expect to see them, and so they didn’t. Interesting right? (laughter)

Jones:  This makes me think of school also, and the idea of schooling, and having been a teacher for four years, and playing that whole game. The whole idea of institutional education is just bullshit.

Mayer:  Yeah, right. (laughter)

Jones:  I realized quickly that I was learning so much in this role as teacher; hokey as it sounds, because we’re all teachers and students at the same time. Really it just involves communication. It’s not like I was the great wise one.

Mayer:  Well, that’s definitely a patriarchal ideal – that the teacher knows more than the student.

Jones:  Yeah, I never assumed that. I never believed that. At first when I started teaching I thought, oh my god, how am I here; but my students really picked up on that, and we had a good time in my class. It wasn’t only about the curriculum. Of course you have things that you’re supposed to cover, and we covered them; but it was more about the relationship, every day, everybody bringing in their own baggage, whatever was going on in their lives, gathering in one room.

Brinks:  In your teaching experience, have you ever come across a roomful of students who expected that formula where the teacher is supposed to know everything and the students don’t want to say anything?

Jones:  No, not really, but definitely individuals. There were some kids who expected that formula and were probably quite thrown off when they didn't get it from me. They're the same ones who have a difficult time free-writing, or just writing whatever comes to mind without worrying about ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It blows their minds to have a little bit of freedom.

Mayer:  I’d just like to say one more thing about the high school I went to. Although it was catholic, and horrible in that sense; and although it was full of Aristotelian logic, it was great to have all the people I went to high school with, and that I see now, and they all have the same kind of memory that I do every time we mention a name of someone we went to high school with. For instance, somebody says “Constance Provenzale” and then everybody remembers exactly who she was, what she looked like, and what we thought of her at the time. So to be in a class with a lot of girls who have memories like that; and to be in a room with them now, and to hear someone’s name mentioned, and to watch everyone listening so intently; it’s kind of amazing if you think about it. (laughter)

Brinks:  So memory really is an upside down tree with its roots in the air.

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[Poesy, Dave Brinks, collage 2009]

Mayer:  Why isn’t it a sideways tree? (laughter)

Brinks:  Well, that would be a tree in a storm. (laughter)

Mayer:  Or maybe a tree floating down a creek… Actually, if you go that way (pointing downriver), you wind up in Valatie; and in Valatie there’s a big waterfall where trees get stuck.

Brinks:  Look, you know what, this thing about the incoherent whole, this is it, right here (bird sounds in background); this little area of branches bobbing just above the water’s surface and below it; and everywhere you look it’s completely full of lilac bushes; and you can see the exact meeting point of two creeks (Kinderhook and Tsatsawassa) which forms a large, but not so dangerous whirlpool; and there’s a lot of upriver things floating downriver; unheretofore, it’s a beautiful incoherent whole! (laughter)

Jones:  This reminds me, one time my class and I were outside the cafeteria, and we were waiting to go back down the hall so we could get back into our classroom after they had cleared out all the trash; and I was just standing there looking up for a moment, and one of my students said, “Are you looking down again Mr. Jones?” I sort of laughed. Then my student said, “Remember what you said to us?”; and I said, “What did I say?” My student said, “Well, one day when somebody in the classroom was pointing up, you said that ‘up’ doesn’t always necessarily mean up; and it could just as easily mean down.” Then I said to my student, “Are you sure I said that?” But I do remember saying that; and it’s true, because if you jump up, even if it’s just for a moment, there is no up or down. You’re not standing on the earth. You don’t actually have a point of reference; other than being surrounded by space, which eliminates up and down.

Brinks:  Yes, I’m with you on that. The idea that there’s any fixed point is something that really bothers me too. It throws me out of balance. It’s not natural for me to think like that. When my thoughts come out like that, it feels like I’m playing a trick on myself, which is okay only so long as I remember it’s a trick. But when it comes right down to it, my entire being says that’s definitely not true. What is true is there’s an unbroken thread of moving…like a hummingbird. (laughter)

Mayer:  Diving down at 90 miles an hour… (laughter)

Brinks:  Ah, there’s something, if a poem could be a hummingbird diving down at 90 miles an hour to mate with its reader. But that’s already been done, right, thanks to you? (laughter)

Mayer:  Well yes, but the male hummingbird is the one who dives down at 90 miles an hour to impress the female so they can possibly mate.

Brinks:  Then the point here, between the hummingbird and the reader, is how do we consummate the poem?

Jones:  Yeah, to make sure everybody gets off. (laughter)

Mayer:  I think it would be great if somebody would make a movie of all these animals, hummingbirds, and insects fucking. Wouldn’t that be a great movie? (laughter)

Brinks:  Wait a second, I do remember reading about this female director who was in the process of putting together a documentary which might be similar to what you’re talking about. I can’t remember her name…

[Note: Recently Isabella Rossellini was commissioned by the Sundance Channel to shoot a series of short films entitled Green Porno. Specifically created for the internet, Green Porno has had over two-million views on the Sundance Channel website, along with screenings at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals in 2008. In the first batch of Green Porno, Rossellini explores and enacts the sex lives of a variety of insects and invertebrates, including the fly, the spider, the earthworm and praying mantis. In the second batch, Rossellini turns her attentions to aquatic life, featuring the mating habits of marine animals, including the shrimp, squid, anchovy, barnacle, limpet, starfish, elephant seal, angler fish and Right whale. Additionally, Green Porno: A Book and Short Films by Isabella Rossellini is scheduled to be released by Rossellini’s publisher HarperStudio, September 22, 2009].

Mayer:  There’s also another film, Life in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough, about the small world of insects, which is absolutely amazing.

Jones:  Yes, I think I did see that one. He’s a British documentarian right? Attenborough is really great.

Brinks:  Isn’t it great too that only humans fornicate, and not insects, since insects aren’t aware of the Invisible Bearded One living in the sky?

Mayer:  What Invisible Bearded One? I didn’t know there was some invisible bearded person somewhere up there. I hope he drowns. (laughter)

Jones:  Speaking of insects, Bernadette, did you read Barbara Henning’s You, Me, and the Insects (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005)? Henning describes it as sort of a journal while she was living in India at the time. She’s also big into teaching Yoga.

Mayer:  Yeah I started it, and I still have it by my bedside table. It’s pretty interesting so far.

Jones:  I do like Henning a lot. I’m really fond of her.

Mayer:  The last time I saw Barbara she was so skinny. She told me this story about how she was only eating grapes, and how she would slice them in half and study the insides.

Brinks:  Well, I like grapes for obvious reasons so I’ll no doubt like Barbara too. I haven’t read her yet but I’m going to now.

Mayer:  Hmm… Hector’s (Bernadette’s dog) thinking why are you guys still sitting here? Hector also gets freaked out when Phil & I sit at the table after we’ve eaten dinner because there’s no food left on the table, so why are we still sitting there, right? I mean you can see the confusion in his eyes. (laughter)

Brinks:  I guess Hector isn’t suffering from any Aristotelian logic either…

Mayer:  No, he never was….

Brinks:  No cause and effect. Everything’s immediate. Maybe he’s Taoist. Maybe he’s just waiting for actionless action…wu-wei, wu-wei, woof-ruff, woof-ruff. (laughter)

Mayer:  Down with Aristotle!

Jones:  Refuse to cooperate!

BrinksOl’ Man River ... he don't plant cotton ... he don’t plant taters ... he don't say nothin' ... Ol’ Man River ... he must know somepin’ ... he just keeps rollin’ ... he just keeps rollin’ along

Mayer:  Did you know that creeks, lakes and rivers on the earth’s surface are only one percent of the water? The other ninety-nine percent is in the oceans.

Picking Up the Mask and Dropping It
by Dave Brinks

Interview with Bill Zavatsky

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Bill Zavatsky is a poet, teacher, translator, jazz pianist, publisher, editor-in-chief of SUN press and SUN magazine and master practitioner of the American idiom. He currently lives in New York City.

[The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Dave Brinks and Bill Zavatsky which took place during the afternoon of Saturday, March 23, 2009 on the porch at Brinks’ residence in New Orleans]

Brinks:  Your latest book of poetry is Where X Marks the Spot (Hanging Loose 2006), and it’s truly an amazing collection; and of course your collaborations with legendary pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland are beautifully represented in the recent edition of the jazz literary magazine Brilliant Corners (Winter 2008). But I was hoping you might talk a little about the extraordinary work you’ve done as a translator; particularly in collaboration with poet Zack Rogow as both of you worked together over a period of ten years translating into English some of the poems of French poet André Breton. How did you start to translate?

Zavatsky:  The first translation I did was in college, when I was reading the Latin poet Horace. It was one of his Odes. The professor brought in a translation of an ode that we had been working on and read it. I was sitting in the back of the class, I guess with some kind of smirk on my face, and the professor said, “Mr. Zavastky, what is it? You have a funny look on your face.” This was a Jesuit college. I said, “You know, Father, I think I can do a better translation of this poem.” He said, “Oh you do, do you? Well, why don’t you just go ahead and do that.” (laughter) And I went home and worked very hard on it. When I brought the translation to class, the good Father asked me to read it. His response was: “That’s pretty good.” Which I considered a high compliment. That was the seed. Then I started translating Baudelaire, a handful of poems. I love Baudelaire. Then I translated a bunch of Rimbaud poems. My goal is to translate twenty of them. I think I’ve translated about twelve. Maybe some day I’ll do a little book called Twenty Poems of Arthur Rimbaud. A little later, when I started to find out about the French surrealists, I thought I had found the key to heaven. I was a student at Columbia University at the time, and was very lucky to find two mentors: Serge Gavronsky, a fine poet himself, a novelist, and translator, who’s just brought out a book of translations of French poet Joyce Mansour (Essential Poems and Writings of Joyce Mansour, Black Widow Press 2008). My second was another wonderful professor, LeRoy Breunig. Breunig was a great Guillaume Appollinaire scholar as well as an extraordinary human being. That sort of got me going on translating. I was obsessed with the poetic image and had done a study of the Imagist school--T. E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, H.D., and then Pound. I made a beeline for the surrealist poets because I wanted to discover their secret. What had they discovered? Because they were exploding extraordinary images all over the place, not only in their poetry; it was happening in the surrealist paintings, too. I guess that’s what finally led me to translating André Breton with my friend the poet Zack Rogow (Earthlight trans. by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Green Integer 2004). He had been doing marvelous translations of Breton, and I suggested that we get together. If I’m going to do a serious translation project, I try to find a collaborator, since two heads are better than one. Another reason to collaborate is because every translation is also an interpretation, so you have to understand as best as you can what the poem means. With somebody like André Breton, that can be a daunting experience. He’s very, very difficult. But I’m very glad we did it. I think we did it justice.

Brinks:  Let’s talk a little about this beautiful mind-meld between you and poet Ron Padgett. You joined forces and translated the Poems of A. O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud, bringing that stunning collection of poetry into the American literary canon. It was recently published by Joe Phillips and Black Widow Press (2008), and is yet another remarkable tour-de-force book of early 20th century French poetry.

Zavatsky:  Well, it’s funny, Ron and I edited a book together called The Whole World Catalogue 2 which was published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative (1977). It’s a handbook of creative writing ideas for students and teachers. And we found that we worked quite well together. We were shooting the breeze one day and I said to Ron, “What are you reading?” Or maybe it was, “What are you translating? ” (I had long been an admirer of his Blaise Cendrars translations. Oh, hell, I admire everything that Ron does!) He said, “I’m on to this guy Valery Larbaud; did you ever hear of him?” And I said, “Jesus, I’ve just started to translate some of his poems!” So we decided to divvy up Larbaud’s poems and work on them. I’d do a draft and Ron would do a draft. We’d meet every week at a little sandwich shop in my neighborhood, or we’d meet downtown where he lives, and we’d go over the poems until we had them to the point where we said okay, now we’ve got to have the native speakers look at them. The first edition of our Larbaud translations came out in 1977 from a wonderful press in Japan called Mushinsha, published by Eric Sackheim. (Ron asked his friend Joe Brainard to do the cover and tint some vintage postcards for the limited edition.) It was a pleasure to be published by Sackheim because the books were so beautiful. Then many years went by – ′87, ′97 – and I guess somewhere around ′07 I said to Ron, “You know, we should get this Larbaud book out again.”

Brinks:  All those years with 7’s...the chakras. (laughter)

Zavatsky:  Yeah, exactly, the 7 Chakras of translation, or somesuch craziness. That’s when we found Joe Phillips at Black Widow Press. We revised the translations. We worked quite hard at it. We made some first-rate improvements. It was a great thrill to get the book out again.

Brinks:  Tell me this, loosely considering it in these terms: poet Ted Berrigan says in Ron Mann’s film Poetry In Motion (1982), “You can’t know me any more by knowing me, than you can by reading my poems.” Through your work with Ron over these many years, and getting at Valery Larbaud, and through those poems – who is he, who is Larbaud to you? And also this persona, A. O. Barnabooth, which is a creation of Larbaud’s?

Zavatsky:  That was fun, too, because there were two of us, and there were two of Larbaud in a way--Larbaud himself and the imaginary Barnabooth that he created (laughter). You know how it works: that guy on the page is Dave Brinks, but he’s not Dave Brinks; or that guy on the page is Bill Zavatsky, but he’s also some kind of creation of Bill Zavatsky’s. The persona is always there, the mask that the poet or translator is wearing. Larbaud has a beautiful poem (“The Mask”) in which he says: “I always write with a mask upon my face. . . .”  Ron and I could play with that on and off the page, the “two heads are better than one” approach.

Brinks:  So what did you finally come away with about Larbaud, and who this other guy is (A. O. Barnabooth)?

Zavatsky:  Well, Ron might use other language, so you’ll have to ask him that. But to me, A. O. Barnabooth is a spiritual seeker; he’s a mutli-millionaire who can go anywhere. Take the fastest, finest trains. He can sail his yacht around the world. He goes to Spain. He goes to London. He’s in France. He goes to Portugal. And what is he looking for? He’s looking for himself. And what do we find when we do that? Well, I’ll use me as an example. I came down here to New Orleans, and what am I finding? I’m finding myself; I’m finding the great piano players that I love; I’m finding nice people to meet and become friends with; and I’m going down to the bayou country, and I’m learning something about being a Cajun, and that music, and that language. In any adventure you find out more about yourself as you open yourself to new experiences and the possibility of change. That’s what Larbaud was doing, constantly searching. It’s corny but it’s true: “Seek and ye shall find.”

Brinks:  Connecting the dots behind the mask?

Zavatsky:  Yes. Barnabooth is also looking for love. From his hotel window he sees people embracing, and he wonders about himself in the Burlington Arcade in London as he eyeballs strangers. Larbaud had a difficult time in his own life. He came from extraordinary wealth, like Barnabooth. His mother was the powerful figure in the family and pretty much had a grip on him for a long time until finally he became involved with a woman. I believe she became his mistress, and maybe they married, I can’t remember. But he had a struggle there: the endless process of trying to become something or somebody or to unbecome something or somebody. For instance, I love how in traditional Hindu society they talk about the four stages of life. First you’re a student and you hit the books. Then you marry, you build your household, and you have children. Then you become an established person in middle life, and you help everybody, you make sure your kids are getting an education and finding jobs. Then in the last stage of life, you walk away from all of it. You become a mendicant and you have only the clothes on your back, maybe a little bit of money, and you wander around. Of course, this used to be the tradition in Japan. We see so many of the poets that we love, like Issa, sleeping in little roadside huts set up for the traveling spiritual seeker. Because finally, after you get everything together, your house, your garden, your business, your work, your writing, your books, there comes a time when you have to pull back from all of it. You unbecome, in a sense. You drop the persona. You put down the pen. You throw away the mask to discover what you always were.

Poems of A. O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud; translated by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky (Black Widow Press 2008) ISBN-13: 978-0-9795137-9-4, French, English 225pgs., $19.95, .
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I always write with a mask upon my face,
Yes, a mask in the old Venetian style,
Long, with a low forehead,
Like a big muzzle of white satin.
Seated at my desk and raising my head
I look at myself in the mirror opposite
Me and three-quarters turned, I see me there,
That childish bestial profile that I love.
Oh, that some reader, my brother, to whom I speak
Through this pale and shining mask,
Might come and place a slow and heavy kiss
On this low forehead and cheek so pale,
All the more to press upon my face
That other face, hollow and perfumed.

Turning People On
by Dave Brinks

Interview with John Sinclair

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Photo of John Sinclair courtesy of Jacques Morial – John Sinclair at his headquarters in Amsterdam broadcasting live on The John Sinclair Show.

[The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Dave Brinks and John Sinclair which took place on the evening of Saturday, February 28, 2009 above the Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter, New Orleans]

Brinks:  There’s about eight hundred things I’ve always wanted to ask you, but one thing that really jumps into my head, as we were talking about poet Robert Creeley a minute ago, and as Creeley was putting together that book of poetry by Paul Blackburn, which was made after Paul died, called Against the Silences, and how Creeley was thinking of Paul’s documentary efforts of course, and his poetry, and how all that’s just one bag, and in the preface to that book, Creeley states “It’s a very real life.  The honor, then, is that one live it.”

So, that’s pretty heavy, right, but then in 1964, you’re 23 yrs old, and on November 1st you founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, and about six months later you’re headed off to the now legendary Berkeley Poetry Conference of July 1965 where Ginsberg introduces you there as one of four “Young American Poets,” and in great company, with poets Ed Sanders, Ted Berrigan, and Lenore Kandel; and you bring fresh-off-the-press copies with you of that first issue of your magazine Work, and your first book This Is Our Music--so my question is two words actually, aside from everything , and still today, because the conversation continues: why poetry?

Sinclair:  I’ll say it like Lenny Bruce said it, “Why not?”  Lenny would say, Why use narcotics? Why not?  I don’t know man, I mean, poetry--Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, those were the first ones I read, and Kerouac’s prose where poets were glorified, and I mean, the idea of being a poet was not something that was out there on the table, you had to find that one.

And that’s probably the same question my mother had, “Why poetry?”  John, couldn’t you just write some songs or something you might get paid for?  No, mom, you don’t understand.  But it was a noble cause.  You felt these guys, once Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti had City Lights Books going, waving the flag, they were there--they got these little books out, they were like 75 cents, there was Kora in Hell by William Carlos Williams, there was Gasoline by Gregory Corso, Paroles by Jacques Prévert, I can see those things, and Howl, Kaddish, Pictures of the Gone World, they were just fucking perfect: Iconically, textually, visually.

Yeah, they put poetry--it wasn’t like Robert Frost, or these cornballs I couldn’t stand--it was a manly endeavor.  These guys were also hanging out at night clubs with black people, listening to jazz, or smoking marijuana, following these narcotics addicts like Charlie Parker.  It was just so appealing.  And I got it listening to jazz right exactly at the same time.  It came as a package to me.

It was life in a different part of the social order from anything that had been proposed.  They were actually creating poetry readings where they had a lot of fun.  Fucking unbelievable, with Gary Snyder reading from what would become Riprap, and Michael McClure reading his incredible odes.  That was just very, very attractive to me.

And the more you looked into to it, the more you found.  And then you get to Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.  And that was the twin towers, real poetry.  Not to say Ginsberg isn’t real poetry because he is.  But I mean Charles Olson is real poetry man, and he’s a real poet.  That was his identity and that was what he did.

And the idea of that was overwhelming, that you would be a poet, and what would you do--you would write poems, and you would study it, and you would learn about things you were interested in, and then your poems would say what you had to say.

And they would also provide thrills--rhythmic and intellectual and emotive thrills, ya know.  It was like an R & B record, or a Soul record, but it was heavier in a way.  It was farther out.  It didn’t rhyme.  And there wasn’t anyone who was going to play it on the radio.  You had to type up stencils and run them off the mimeograph machine to disseminate these works.  Those times were so exciting to pursue.

Brinks:  I’d like to talk about your magazine Work and those early days, and also the whole idea of that title Work, but specifically in the Creeley aspect of things, that work is something that happens between people; and also with the knowledge of humanness which comes specifically from Olson’s thinking.

Sinclair:  It was also an exhortative: You work.  It was a way of life.  It was a concept that we were committed to.  And this stuff was work, it wasn’t just bullshit, it wasn’t frivolous--I mean writing, it’s work.  And the Detroit Artists Workshop was where you did the work.  And you did it together in a communal setting, or in a cooperative setting that was communal at best; and we also lived together, so we had to do that too.

And like I said before we started, we sealed our fate in a way, and stated our intention, when we put the notice on our publications: COPYRIGHT IS OBSOLETE.  We really believed that.  And part of it was, ya know, there wasn’t really any concept that you would ever be compensated for this.  That was part of the work--that you would do this work, despite the fact that unlike regular work, you wouldn’t get paid, and it would be its own reward.

And you would turn people on, not so much to your works, but to a concept of work that they could adopt and give meaning to their lives.  That was the exciting part--not so much that someone was reading one of your poems, although of course this gave you a certain satisfaction to get a response from an audience.  But it was really about the whole experience, and everybody involved, and the fact that we were making something in life in America that wasn’t like what it was supposed to be.  It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about career advancement.  It was about doing the work, and doing it together, and having fun doing it, making it happen--that was fun shit.

We did poetry readings every Sunday.  We were like second-lines in New Orleans.  On Sunday afternoon you went to the Artists Workshop, then there was a poetry reading, and some musicians played, and whatever books you had, you would bring, like Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka (who went by LeRoi Jones at the time) and Diane di Prima--people who were your role models.  You would want to have their books so the other people could have access to this, so they could be as elated by it as you were.

Turning people on was the core value of our whole thing really.  We wanted to turn people on.  We just wanted to turn ‘em on to art, poetry, and jazz.  Then we started taking acid, ya know--regularly, and in groups.  And then you developed this messianic feeling: you wanted to turn everyone on to everything.  And you’d say, man, this works, you know, you might really like to try this.  What a trip that was.

You see, we were so far out on the edge of the social order.  And in those days at the Artists Workshop, we had already basically written off the idea that any regular people could get to any of this. We felt that the only people who were really qualified to accept and enjoy this work were people who had already made some sort of commitment to a bohemian approach to life.

We used to run our own flyers off for our Sunday afternoon Artists Workshop events.  We’d stand on the corner on the campus of Wayne State, and we’d only give them to people who had moustaches.  You wanted to get people that were coming out of the same matrix as yourself, because maybe they would get some of this, and at the very least, they would have a good time with it ‘cause they weren’t looking for--I don’t know, the Beach Boys.  We were on a search and destroy mission, ha ha.  I guess it’s arrogant in a way, but I mean, arrogance was probably a big part of our epic ambiguity.

It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader by John Sinclair; 320 pgs. ISBN-13: 978-1900486682 Headpress, 2009; includes Cd; .
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