Category: California

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: David L. Ulin, Writer, Editor, and Professor, interviewed by David Garyan


David L. Ulin

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

David L. Ulin, Writer, Editor, and Professor

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read David L. Ulin’s poems in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: For years, you worked as the book editor for the LA Times, along with having written for some of the most prestigious newspapers and journals. In this respect, is the transition between editor, poet, and writer mostly seamless, or does it take frequent adjustments to calibrate your voice in accordance with each role?

DLU: It’s always felt natural to me to work in a variety of registers — as a critic and a columnist, as an essayist, as a journalist and teacher, as an editor and poet, as a writer of my own books. I think of something Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote in the early 1990s: “I had never planned to be a novelist in the first place. I had planned, from the age of seven, to be a writer. A writer writes anything and everything, just as a composer composes anything—not only sonatas or only nocturnes or only symphonies.” Something similar is true of me. One of the impulses that draws me to writing is the opportunity to be versatile. Why wouldn’t one want to do it all? In that sense, the range of work and activities all feeds into the same central source, which I imagine through the lens of literary production. What I mean is that I’m invested in my own production: the essays and stories and poems and books. But part of that production also means participating in literary community. When I review, in that sense, it’s not separate from but rather grows out of my own work, since those pieces often revolve around related concerns. For me, reviewing is a way of operating as a heightened reader … and my experience of reading informs my aesthetics, which in turn informs everything I write. Something similar is true of editing, which I think of as both a curatorial and an authorial process; my hope is that each issue of any publication I edit will work as a kind of collage narrative in its own right. Presently, I’m editing a literary journal, Air/Light, out of USC, and the goal there is to have an overriding vision, or sensibility, while also having each issue stand alone. It’s a fascinating process not least for its serendipity, the idea that often I don’t know what an issue is going to look like until I start to read submissions and discover what we have. Writing is similarly a serendipitous process for me, in which I don’t start out with a plan per se, but maybe a few loose ideas. Will they hang together? Is there anything there? These questions provoke the process of discovery that is necessary for me to engage with my work.

DG: Along with your professional writing activities, you’re also a Professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. What are the rewards and challenges that present themselves with not just teaching, but teaching writing specifically, and how do these activities ultimately complement your own work?

DLU: There are many things I love about teaching. First, of course, is working with young writers, encouraging their aesthetic journey, creating a space in the classroom where they can take risks, where they can fail, which is an essential aspect of creative work. I want to listen to them, not only to hear their stories, but also to learn the things they know that I don’t know — which is a lot. I find my mind being opened every time I go to class. It’s exhilarating, and it helps create a necessary connection that enlarges the scope of the work we do together, the inquiries we pursue. I’m a firm believer that the classroom is a place of conversation, and when we’re discussing writing, it’s a conversation in which everyone can participate and learn from each other. I hope they learn as much from me as I learn from them. I also love being in a space where we can talk about making art — in those specific terms — without having to throw up scare quotes, or be ironic about our creative aspirations or what anyone else might think of them.

DG: Does university sometimes interfere and might that paradoxically also have its own positives, at least in terms of having to visualize and set priorities accordingly?

DLU: Certainly, universities are complicated places, with bureaucracies and requirements that often have nothing to do with education in any real sense. But I’ve been fortunate to have worked in great departments, with some visionary administrators, who know how to put the classroom first. I tend to set priorities in my classes in conjunction with the students, and to seek to facilitate a spirit of collaboration among all participants. To that end, I don’t give tests and I try to suggest to students — undergraduates especially — that they not worry about grades, at least in my class. That they will be rewarded for writing with ambition, for biting off more than they can chew.

DG: Along with the teaching material you select, how have your students impacted both your writing habits and aesthetic, and how has this changed since the pandemic?

DLU: The students keep me honest. They keep me on my toes. I have to be as engaged and committed to what’s happening in the classroom as they are, which means I have to listen (that word again) and collaborate. What this means practically is that I’m always updating and adjusting syllabi, even in the middle of the semester. I want to keep the conversation alive. As far as the pandemic, it’s a complicated question. I think we did the best we could in a fluid situation where, for the first several months at any rate, no one had any real idea of what was going on. Switching to online was not ideal, but it allowed us to maintain continuity. And it created some flexibility for students who, for instance, may have had to move back home. I’m fortunate that my classes are mostly small — no more than twelve students in a workshop — so that’s more workable through the flat eye of the screen. Again, the key was the conversation: how to foster it and keep it going, which I think we did. Now that we’re back in person, however, I’m viscerally aware of everything we missed during that period, the dimensionality of the room, of sitting together in a shared space, of talking as a group. It reminds me that literature is fundamentally a collective exercise, that it grows out of, and reflects or responds to, community. And yet, that sense of community is also what kept us going during the pandemic, albeit in a different way.

DG: It seems that the pressures and commitments forced upon us by the modern world are making it increasingly difficult to live the life of a literary citizen. Setting the cliché discussion of technology and its contribution to the decline of literature aside, how have the principles of living as an individual of literature changed from the time you began writing to now?

DLU: To be honest, I’d say I’m more aware of such principles than I was when I started. I’m certainly more outwardly focused than I used to be. I grew up in thrall to the notion of writer as outsider, as maverick (to use a word that’s lost all meaning), as one person against the machine. That sense of mission, if you will, has not so much changed as deepened: As I’ve said, I take it on faith that literature is a community. I didn’t understand that at the beginning. Now, I think I do. That’s not to say I think about readers or anyone else, really, as I’m writing. That would be stifling to me. When I’m working, it’s basically the same as it ever was, myself in conversation with the work at hand, striving to make good sentences, to follow them, to see where the line of the language will lead. Certain approaches have changed; I write much less by hand than I once did, for instance, although I still keep notebooks everywhere. But if there’s been any fundamental shift in my approach, it has to do with … trust is the only word that makes sense. Trust in the material, trust in the process. Trust in the silence of the room. I was never much for outlines; if I know too much about a piece of writing, I lose interest because there’s not enough discovery. But I used to need to know an endpoint, where I was writing toward. Now, I try to avoid any preconceptions. I prefer to make my decisions in the present, to let the text show me what it needs. That’s not to say I’m not constantly percolating, or taking notes as ideas occur to me, just that I’m much more willing to embrace the necessity of serendipity.

DG: Do you miss the days when printed newspapers and journals where the norm, not the exception, or do you think the best days of journalism have yet to arrive?

DLU: I still read a lot of print journals and periodicals, although I also engage with many of those publications through their websites, not least for the online only content there. I recall fondly the primacy of print, and I miss it, but I understand that’s nostalgia, mainly, and I try to stay away from that. Without doubt, we are in the midst of an ongoing shift involving print and digital, but it’s more complicated than an either/or. I want the speed and immediacy of the latter, even as I want to hold the former in my hand. And let’s face it: I edit a digital journal. If it wasn’t for the web, we wouldn’t be able to publish. So I also think it affords a lot of opportunity. Of course, the economic model for literary publications — for all publications, actually — is atrocious, but it was ever thus. Newspapers, though, are different, and we’re still seeing how this plays out. From having worked at the Los Angeles Times, I understand the economics and the financial challenges: not just newsprint and production costs but a dwindling market for print. I subscribe to four newspapers but two of those subscriptions are online only, and as for the other two, Sunday is the only day I read in print. If that’s the case for me, then it suggests how far down this road we’ve gone. At the same time, I don’t think the shift to online is a danger to journalism. The coverage can be equally robust online as in print, and there are enhancements (multimedia elements not least among them) that enlarge a story’s range and scope. The real danger are hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, which currently owns more than 200 papers in the United States, most of which have been effectively stripped for parts. Let’s be clear about this: such a business model and the companies that pursue it are the enemy. Not only of journalism but also of democracy. They degrade the discourse by treating journalism as a commodity. I think there could be great days ahead for journalism, but only if we get the venture capitalists out.

DG: Leaving his atrocious politics aside, Ezra Pound once said that “Literature is news that stays news,” a statement that seems to exalt the former and denigrate the latter, but is this really true? Indeed, there have been countless works of art that have either been forgotten or simply left in the depths of time, while many accounts of the past remain timeless and ever relevant. What are some of the most poignant examples of that in your opinion and do you view perhaps journalism, in that sense, as being imbued with literary and perhaps even poetic qualities?

DLU: If we’re going to look at poetic assessments of literature and news, I prefer William Carlos Williams:

What this means, I think, is that literature aspires to the timeless even as it must be rooted in the specifics of its own moment. That’s not to say art shouldn’t be political. It absolutely should. Even the decision to avoid politics in one’s work (to paraphrase Orwell) is ultimately a political decision. Look at all the astonishing writers who have addressed political conditions and situations, going back to Homer and the Trojan War. As far as the work that is forgotten, I’ve come around to thinking of that as a solace in its way. Think of how many books are published in a year. The vast majority are never even noticed enough to be forgotten. They are essentially released into the void. But isn’t the same true of every one of us? We are all here on a temporary pass. To me, this is humbling, yes — but also exhilarating because it means that we can do whatever we want. If I’m not writing for posterity (and how could I be, really?) then I am free to engage with my own time, my own self, in any way that makes sense to me. I am not writing for everybody or even anybody, but, first and foremost, to express myself; this is true for all of us. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, although there’s a narcissistic streak to every artist, but in the sense that we are free. We can say whatever we need to, as Isak Dinesen once noted, “without hope and without despair.” Journalism is a different matter, although without question, it too is literary and poetic. Whatever else it is, it is a form of storytelling … an art, in other words.

DG: What are your thoughts on the current state of literature? In comparison to the past, do you enjoy most of what you read today, or only a little, and what are some recent books you would recommend?

DLU: I think the current state of literature is astonishing. So much good work, so many great writers, so many essential narratives, so much talent on the page. I feel like I’m in a constant state of discovery. In a way, it reminds me of when I first started reading seriously, as if I’m discovering the territory anew. This was an impetus for starting Air/Light, the desire to create a venue that could give space and attention to all this astonishing work. In our first six issues, the writers we have published — Daniel Alarcon, Chris Abani, Matthew Zapruder, Susan Straight, Diane Mehta, Carribean Fragoza, Abigail Thomas, Alex Espinoza, Lynne Thompson, Lilliam Rivera, Pam Houston, to name just a few — are those with whom I’m essentially engaged. I like work that blurs the line. I like work that challenges our expectations. I think of Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Hari Kunzru. I think of the sensational Annie Ernaux. I think of Sophie Calle, who is not a writer per se but includes text as part of her work. I think of the publisher Lisa Pearson, whose press, Siglio, has published three of Calle’s books in the United States.

DG: As an editor, poet, writer, critic, and professor, you have many obligations and deadlines. It’s hard to imagine that you can simply wait for inspiration or even write when you want to, but if you could, when and where would the ideal time be, and, in a perfect world, what would a typical working day look like for you?

DLU: For me, what makes the work-day typical is that it is never typical. Each day brings its own challenges and necessities. I will say that I like to do a lot of things. I like to be busy because it keeps me from getting in my own way. My daily practice has changed throughout my writing life because of shifting necessities. I was, for a long time, a night owl, a night writer, sleep in and write all night. That changed when we had children and I had to be attuned to their schedules. It changed again when I took the job at the Los Angeles Times; I had to write in the morning, before I went to work. It changed once more during the pandemic when I took to getting up very early to walk. To accommodate that, I found myself going to sleep earlier, often before 10 pm. Now I am very firmly a writer of the morning and early afternoon; 9:30 to 3, let’s say. Depending on the project or other factors, I might write shorter or longer on a given day, and there are days I don’t write at all. But a typical day generally includes a mix of writing and reading and editing, of conversations with colleagues via email or phone or Zoom. I read in the late afternoons or early evenings, and heavily so on the weekends. And depending what I’m working on or thinking about, I take notes throughout the day.

DG: Did the pandemic offer more opportunities to write, or, on the contrary, far less, and why?

DLU: It offered both to me at various points, and a return to various modes of expression I thought I had set aside. In the early days of the pandemic, I found myself writing short essays about the experience of living in a plague time: writing almost as a way of reckoning. I had been working on a book when COVID hit, but I very quickly understood that this wasn’t going to be useful, at least in the short term; the book is a memoir, a memory book, and I couldn’t do that work in the present tense atmosphere of the early days. So I set it aside (I went back to it last summer) and wrote first the essays before moving into other territories. One of these was a novel, which I had worked on a few years earlier, until I hit a wall. A few months into lockdown, I had the thought to re-read those pages, and in that process, I began to see where the book might go. I returned to it in September 2020 and finished a draft in January 2021. It was an unlikely balm to work on an invented narrative — not autobiographical, in a world where COVID hadn’t taken place. The three or four hours a day I spent writing were like a retreat. And yet, the book also took on many of the issues that I, like everyone, was facing: isolation, alienation, loneliness, fear. I also began writing songs again in late 2020. This was perhaps the most unexpected turn in my writing; I’d done a lot of that sort of work in my twenties but it had been more than thirty years. I can’t say why exactly I went down this rabbit hole, except that I’d started playing music again during lockdown, as well. And that experience led to a few stray riffs or verses, which eventually coalesced into something more coherent and complete.

DG: What are you reading and or working on at the moment?

DLU: Currently, I am doing final edits on the novel, which will be coming out in the fall of 2023. I’m also back to the memoir, and of course, I continue to write op-eds and reviews and other essays, as I have regularly done. As for reading, there are books stacked all over this house in various stages of completion, but the two with which I’m occupied at present are Claire Dederer’s book-length work of criticism, Monsters, and Percival Everett’s new novel Doctor No. Both are exquisitely written and deftly rendered, and both are full of fascinating and provocative ideas.

 

About David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and Ucross Foundation. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he is a professor of English at the University of Southern California, where he edits the literary journal Air/Light. Most recently, he has edited Didion: The 1960s and 70s and Didion: The 1980s and 90s, for Library of America.

Oliver Harris, President of EBSN, Professor of American Literature, Keele University, interviewed by David Garyan


Oliver Harris (left) with Eric Andersen at the 2017 EBSN Conference, Paris France

Interlitq’s Featured Interview:

Oliver Harris, President of EBSN, Professor of American Literature, Keele University

interviewed by David Garyan

 

DG: Running an organization like the European Beat Studies Network is a challenging yet rewarding task. Fortunately you have a great team to make it all happen. At the same time, you’re all busy individuals with careers and other responsibilities. How do each of your professional activities inform what everyone does for EBSN and vice versa?

OH: Like all the best ideas, we didn’t initially think it through, let alone worry what might happen if the endeavor succeeded, or worked too well …. At times, it has felt like we’ve set ourselves up for limitless commitments. Ultimately, it’s hard to manage expectations, including your own … and so, it was shortly after the 2009 NL@50 events that I helped co-organize in Paris (which succeeded in the most beautiful way) that Polina MacKay suggested we create the EBSN; it sounded like such an obvious idea—so self-evidently necessary—and because nobody had thought of it before, we had to be the ones. In the decade since then, I think everyone involved has had to balance out their level of commitment. We never wanted it to feel like an obligation—something which was getting in the way. The whole point was that we wanted this. Yet there were times when I was putting in at least a day a week—a full day every week—and that wasn’t sustainable, at least not with a busy day job and family commitments, along with the need to sleep every so often. Having said that, the major pinch points are the conferences, which are the heart and soul of the EBSN; they require a ton of work for those directly involved. In that sense, going to Murcia last year was for me a holiday, but I knew from experience just how much effort it had taken, just how hard the organisers had worked to make it feel effortless—to make it enjoyable as well as invaluable.

DG: Since its foundation in 2010, EBSN has organized ten annual conferences, with the most recent, the eleventh—in Murcia, Spain—in September 2022. It would be interesting to hear a little about the organizational process. In other words, how are locations chosen, who reviews papers/topics, and who are the key figures ensuring that things run smoothly on the ground?

OH: The process was a little haphazard to begin with; however, nothing on such a scale happens without planning! Each event has been unique and even though we realized the process and guidelines needed to be clear—along with the frameworks for conferences that we post on our website—the template is deliberately very open. The one thing we’ve insisted upon is that we don’t do standard academic events, where you just have a series of panels with 20-minute papers that people mainly read out-loud, starting at 9 am, typically hosted in massive chain hotels. We have had conferences in such venues—the Hotel Chellah in Tangier—but this was a very special location and had a fabulous atmosphere. We’ve also held conferences in a community arts centre in Manchester, with cabaret-style layout of tables, along with candles and incense. So, in a way, our conferences give new organisers permission to think outside the academic box, just as I hope we’ve also inspired individuals, especially young academics, to sneak out of the Procrustean bed of academia and, well, enjoy their work. And it definitely helps that we’re a multi-national organization. We benefit from not just having so many creative and smart people involved, but people from different language-communities and cultures. I think that might also account for why the atmosphere is not competitive but cooperative. In this way, it adds up to a complex organism—and to keep it healthy we’ve needed intelligent oversight, along with dedicated people at the top. I won’t single any one out, as it’s been a genuine team effort with everyone playing to their strengths and doing it because we want to, not because it goes with The Day Job.

DG: From your perspective, what was the highlight of this year’s conference?

OH: If may speak selfishly, it was a pleasure visiting a lovely city in Spain and being in the company of interesting people. I really needed that; in this sense, the timing and atmosphere were perfect for me. And it was all so nicely organized by Estíblaliz and her colleagues. If I had to pick out one highlight, it would be on the last night when we’d been at a bar having readings and performances. I walked out with Eric Andersen (who has been there from the start of the EBSN—kind of the soundtrack to the organization) when Gerry Nicosia was leaving the bar at the same time. Gerry had been one of the keynotes in Murcia—full of passion and insight as always—but it was late and he wanted to leave. And I was ready to go too. The three of us stood in the street and none of us could stop talking. I have a lovely photograph (below) of Eric and Gerry, each gesticulating and trying to get a word in. Hilarious.


Gerry Nicosia (right) with Eric Andersen

DG: Let’s shift to your own work and talk about Burroughs. You’ve done extensive research on him, including major editorial projects on his letters and journals. Many have said that writers are really two people—the actual person and the myth. As someone who has studied Burroughs closely and read a great deal of his personal writing, to what extent (aside from accidentally shooting his wife) did the excesses contained within his work correspond to the reality of his life?

OH: That’s such a great question! I’m reminded of a telephone interview from the late 1980s when Burroughs was asked how he saw the relationship between his public image, his body of work, and himself, the actual man—and Burroughs replied: “There is no actual man ….” Another way of putting it is that he was acutely aware that identity is fictional, that we make up who we are, that there is no single stable self inside of us—that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, he knew that we have no idea why we behave the way we do—that we seem to have been given a script to play. And yet, as you know, I’m not a biographer, so for me the answers aren’t in the man but in the work, which I prefer. I recall vividly when I first met him out in Lawrence, Kansas, and wondering at the strangeness of it, that I was drawn to someone so utterly different, incomprehensibly different to myself. I projected a lot onto him, and I knew it wasn’t really based on any insights into what made him who he was. That’s why I feel more comfortable interpreting his work, I think. And over the years, I find myself enjoying it more and more. That might sound surprising—it surprises me. It reminds me of Michael De-la-Noy, the biographer of Denton Welch, who would ask each time we met, “Are you still working on Burroughs?” That was 30 years ago! But yes, I am still working on Burroughs. In part because he’s just so endlessly interesting, an inexhaustible cabinet of curiosities to explore, and it has introduced me to so many remarkable people, some of whom I have collaborated with creatively. And in part, it’s because I’ve accepted a certain obligation. When James Grauerholz gave me my first break, nearly 40 years ago now, I knew I wanted to repay that trust. And also because I came to a decision a long time ago that I didn’t really care for “literary studies,” or for the life of an intellectual. It’s just not me. In this sense, it seemed to simplify everything—to stick with Burroughs and occasionally, very occasionally, cheat on him. Actually, the piece of my own scholarship I rate as the best is not on Burroughs but something I researched on Hemingway—his incomparable short story “The Killers.” There are other things like that I’ll write along the way, but I have no regrets about being the bride of Burroughs ….

DG: Let’s talk about the Beats in general. Though the movement originated in the US, many of its most prominent members were very much inspired by European traditions—Ginsberg’s fondness for Blake, for example, or the fact that Burrough’s famous “cut-up” technique can probably be traced back to early 20th century avant-garde movements in Europe. In this age of increasing nationalism, the preference for isolationism (at best), and downright hostility to anything foreign (at worst), why is the Beat aesthetic especially important, and do you think it’s possible, perhaps, we’ll see the resurgence of some movement akin to what the world experienced in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

OH: That’s such an interesting possibility, and of course it goes to the heart of the EBSN—its internationalism. In academic terms, it’s already happened: there’s plenty of work done from European, global, transnational perspectives. The internet has of course facilitated that, albeit mainly on Anglophone terms. More broadly, it’s pretty obvious that the planet is at a tipping point, that a cataclysm is unfolding, and that the only real question is whether we go through the darkness to emerge renewed—whether we transcend the humanity that has got us into this mess—or not. Central to the Beat movement were writers committed to worldviews along these lines, knowing that an end was looming and offering wildly different takes on the future: Burroughs’ apocalypticism is not at all the same as Ginsberg’s, or McClure’s, or Snyder’s, or Anne Waldman’s, and so on.

DG: Apart from Burroughs, who are some Beat writers you particularly enjoy, and who is one writer outside that tradition you would call a big influence?

OH: The one writer I’d single out is Diane di Prima. I especially love her Revolutionary Letters. Her voice is so direct, so tough, so tender, so alive. But as I said, I really don’t read very widely. My time is entirely taken up with Burroughs and my children, my cat, my partner, and the EBSN (not necessarily in that order).

DG: Let’s briefly return to the organization. In true Beat fashion, membership is inclusive, open to all. Members come from all walks of life and may freely choose how much of their time to contribute to the project. Are there any members you’d like to recognize for their involvement/contribution to not only EBSN, but Beat culture in general.

OH: I’ll add that membership is free. That’s something which has seemed fundamental to me. Even a small fee can be off-putting. There were times recently for me when an annual membership fee for something was really hard to justify, so I don’t want money to exclude anyone. As before, I’d rather not name names: I’ve been fortunate to work with such lovely people, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out.

DG: You’ve now concluded the conference in Murcia. What are your projects for the future? Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

OH: Reading? Mmm. Having just said that I don’t read widely, I realise I must do without realizing it, as I’ve enjoyed several good books this year. I’d single out three: Music For Erotomaniacs by my good friend Keith Seward, and Brainspotting by Andrew Lees, and The Master, by TH White, which is actually teenage fiction, a book I wanted to re-read for pure nostalgia. As for projects, I’m now in the swing of planning the cut-up conference for Paris in September 2023. This is a version of the events cancelled due to Covid in 2020. I doubt I’ll organize another big conference after this one, so I want it to be beautiful. Being held in Paris, how could it not be? And there’ll be such a crowd of interesting people. So the cut-ups@23 conference is going to keep me busy, and I’m also aiming to finish a new book by the spring to launch at the conference. Alongside that I have other Burroughs projects on the go—a big co-edited critical book, a consultancy on a forthcoming Burroughs film adaptation—I’m not very good at saying “no” to anything, and of course, I know what a privilege it is to be in this position.

 

About Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris is Professor of American Literature at Keele University, and the editor of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959 (1993), Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (2003), The Yage Letters Redux (2006), Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs (2008), and Queer: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (2010), and The Soft Machine: The Restored Text (2014), Nova Express: The Restored Text (2014), and The Ticket That Exploded: The Restored Text (2014). See here for a review of the Cut-Up Trilogy. In 2019, he introduced a new edition of Blade Runner, followed by new editions of four cut-up works: Minutes to Go Redux, The Exterminator Redux, BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS and Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text (all 2020).

In addition to the book William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003) and the collection Naked Lunch @ 50 (2009), co-edited with Ian MacFadyen, he has published numerous articles on Burroughs, as well as essays on film noir, Hemingway, the epistolary, the exquisite corpse game, and the Beat Generation more broadly. He has been a regular contributor to the Burroughs website Reality Studio and his most recent journal articles include “Minute Particulars of the Counter-Culture: Time, Life, and the Photo-poetics of Allen Ginsberg” in Comparative American Studies (2012) and “Burroughs’ Cut-Ups Lost and Found in Translation” in L’Esprit Créateur (2018)

Oliver has co-organized as well as contributed to numerous conferences, including the 2009 NL@50 events in Paris and New York, and has contributed to several documentary films, including The Beat Hotel (2012) and Paul Bowles: the Cage Door is Always Open (2013).

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Part 5 Published

The fifth part of Interlitq’s Feature on Californian Poets — (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) — has been published. Below are the names that will appear. To read the work of those who’ve previously published, click on their names.

Part 5

Arthur Sze
Brendan Constantine
Carol Moldaw
Charles Upton
Cole Swensen
Connie Post
David Garyan
Gary Soto
Glenna Luschei
In Memoriam – Scott Wannberg
Jacqueline Berger
James Cagney
James Cushing
Jeremy Radin
Jim Natal
John Brandi
Judith Pacht
Judy Juanita
Kim Dower
Kim Addonizio
Kosrof Chantikian
Luis J. Rodriguez
Marjorie R. Becker
Millicent Borges Accardi
Paul Lieber
Rick Lupert
Sarah Maclay
Troy Jollimore
Valentina Gnup

 

Part 4

Alicia Elkort
Boris Dralyuk
Brenda Hillman
Cathie Sandstrom
Christopher Buckley
Clive Matson
Dana Gioia
devorah major
Donna Hilbert
Ellen Bass
Frank X. Gaspar
Gary Young
Glenna Luschei
Harry Northup
Holly Prado (In Memoriam)
K. Silem Mohammad
Kate Gale
Mariano Zaro
Mary Fitzpatrick
Michael C. Ford
Mike Sonksen
Neeli Cherkovski
Pam Ward
Phoebe MacAdams
Rusty Morrison
S.A. Griffin
Shelley Scott (In Memoriam)
Sholeh Wolpé
Shotsie Gorman
Tony Barnstone
Willis Barnstone

Part 3

Alexis Rhone Fancher
Charles Jensen
Clint Margrave
Corrinne Hales
David L. Ulin
Eloise Klein Healy
Glenna Luschei
Henry Morro
Jonathan Yungkans
Laure-Anne Bosselaar
Laurel Anne Bogen
Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis
Lucille Lang Day
Marsha de la O
Michelle Bitting
Phil Taggart

 

Part 2

Carine Topal
Cecilia Woloch
Elena Karina Byrne
Glenna Luschei
Grant Hier
Kim Shuck
liz gonzalez
Lois P. Jones
Lynne Thompson
Maw Shein Win
Patty Seyburn
Rooja Mohassessy
Ron Koertge
Susan Rogers

 

Part 1

Amy Uyematsu
Bart Edelman
Bill Mohr
Bruce Willard
Charles Harper Webb
D.A. Powell
David Garyan
Gail Wronsky
Glenna Luschei
Paul Vangelisti
Rae Armantrout
Suzanne Lummis

 

The Editors

Peter Robertson, Founder of Interlitq
David Garyan, Italy Editor at Interlitq

Alex Gildzen Audio Interview by Henry Jeannerot

Alex Gildzen Audio Interview
conducted by Henry Jeannerot

 

 

About Alex Gildzen

Alex Gildzen, born April 25, 1943 in Monterey, California, is a poet, mail artist, and blogger who is best known for his autobiography Alex in Movieland, an experiment in list poems. Gildzen grew up in Elyria, Ohio, graduating from Elyria High School in 1961. He then enrolled at Kent State University, earning a BA in journalism and an MA in English in 1966. Gildzen then took a position with the University News Service department, covering the university’s cultural scene. He was on the Commons on May 4, 1970 when four students were killed by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration. After that event, Gildzen decided to make a career change and was hired by then-Curator Dean Keller to assist him in the university library’s Special Collections Department in 1971.

Gildzen’s first book, Into the Sea, was published by Abraxas Press in 1969. His selected poems The Avalanche of Time was published by North Atlantic Books in 1986. He became involved in mail art in the 1970s and produced a number of works, notably Postcard Memoirs. He visited Santa Fe for the first time at the end of 1990; he moved there four years later. During the 1990s, Gildzen produced a pop music concert and AIDS benefit and had two of his plays produced. Since his retirement, he has continued a robust career as a poet and mail artist, particularly utilizing the Internet as a medium. His blog is “Arroyo Chamisa” and he appears on You Tube in videos reading his work. He resides in Palm Springs California since the year 2016 where he is present in the arts circles.

About Henry Jeannerot

Henry Jeannerot, born August 27th 1976 in Quilmes, Buenos Aires, is an actor, singer, and media producer. Henry’s acting credits include the realms of theater, musicals, theater T.V., radio, and film. He has also been practicing photography since 2014. In 2011, Henry moved to Los Angeles, California.

How I Came to Admire Mainstream Poets, an Essay by Clive Matson


Clive Matson

12/07/2022

How I Came to Admire Mainstream Poets:

an Essay by Clive Matson

 

A Czech student asked about “mainstream poetry” yesterday, before I left for the mountains. Somehow I neglected to explain how, these days, I admire those poets. This morning, at the trailhead at 8500 feet altitude, instead of putting on my boots and heading out, I’m setting the record straight. I’ll write on the unprinted side of a sheaf of my poems, with the sleeping bag draped around my shoulders.

I spent years trying to identify what mainstream poetry is. I would read poems to my classes and, while students were analyzing, say, the meditative reflections in Hirshfield’s work, or Levine’s, or Gilbert’s, or Hass’s, or Olds’s, or Ashberry’s, or you name them, I’d be wondering, what is their secret? I’d listen to my students’ observations, hoping they’d ferret out the answer.

That didn’t work. All those fresh, uncontaminated minds couldn’t locate the thread that makes mainstream poems mainstream. I gave up. I decided “mainstream” must be a marketing term. If poets are labeled mainstream, more readers buy their books. And those poets get press, give readings in colleges, land jobs as poets-in-residence. One day, though, standing in my local bookstore before a wall of books, I understood I was putting the cart before the horse. Those poets must be doing something very well. First. Before earning the label “mainstream.”

I changed tactics. Maybe our Poet Laureates could provide a clue. One glance at the names, though, reveals a problem. What could possibly be common to a super-intelligent, minimalist, self-reflective poet; to a stand-up comedian; to a meditative memoirist from a subculture; and to a careful, rigorously substantiated academic? They’re all interesting, but a common thread? We don’t have to add a country-wise, exacting poet in the tradition of William Carlos Williams to know there’s no thread. None whatsoever.

Still, this approach has to be a gold mine. If I back off and look at the poems from a distance, whatever is common must stand out like a shiny stringer. Okay, there’s nothing in their styles, strategies, minds, or traditions — these are all over the map! So there’s jack in the poems. But in my responses there’s a general evenness: the poems elicit intrigue and only a modest sense of engagement. Little real power, when what I want is to be moved.

Could my lukewarm response be the clue? The poems are rarely anything I’d stop someone on the street about, or print out and slip under a neighbor’s door, or post on Facebook. Then yesterday, trying to figure out what toothpaste to put in my pack, I happened on the source of their brilliance.

They know. For crissake, they know just how much buzz to put in a poem. How much trouble, how much uncertain emotion, how much passion. Much more difficult than deciding between a one-inch tube of toothpaste and a three-inch tube! They know how much authenticity the reader needs. Less and we no longer inhabit the same universe. More and the poems scare off those with hesitant emotions.

Do the poets teach each other this sleight-of-hand? This morning, I think yes, they teach each other by example. While I contemplate this, I hear my poetry buddy John Paige complain, “It’s more random than that, Matson. You’re way out on a limb.” And instantly I know he’s right. The poets, and their approving editors, are fumbling around and, every now and then, they fit the cultural trance. All their temperaments match. I have to give up admiring the poets for manipulating words for the public with a wily, wickedly accurate intelligence. It’s happenstance.

Other friends, especially those who love these poets, will surely complain that I’m not constructing a good case. They’re right. I’m not building anything, I’m putting up a sign at the crossroads, at a crossroads that already exists. Pointing toward a poetry that’s energetic enough to engage me. And maybe energetic enough to engage someone else.

An enlightened teacher uses the prompt, “Write what makes you most uncomfortable.” I would much rather play basketball, pair off in a table tennis match, read a good book, meditate – should I go on? Romance my sweetheart, go back-packing, teach a class. But face my heart’s concern? That’s tough. Look at Shakespeare, Sappho, Rumi, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Wieners, Van Buskirk, Neruda, and you see what’s central: the heart’s concern.

What this culture enshrines in mainstream poets is a similar level of avoidance. Or of cowardice, I can’t distinguish which. Here are some fine, incandescent bits of the heart’s ache, all quotes from Laureates. “Mouth opened around a cry that no one heard,” “tear drops cover his chamber window,” “the atoms of each meaningless lie are weighed,” “thin wire of grief,” and “the dark wind crossing the wide spaces between us.” These are beautiful, suggestive, intriguing lines. But these bits are presented without the poets engaging further. They’re not truly present. They give a nod toward heartfelt concerns and then turn away. “Direct treatment of the topic, whether subjective or objective,” Ezra Pound wrote in 1912. He must be shaking his finger, “Shame, shame.”

The Czech student grew up with the Bolshevik judgment that capitalist writing is decadent. Does this apply? You could say our culture is degraded, since the media and corporate sales prefer intellectuals who don’t quite show us the truth. If we believe these poets, we can agree the emperor has clothes. When he does not. This mindset might now be global, and that’s dreadful. What’s happening to our beloved art? Is this modest but astonishing high-wire act so very captivating? Even if it’s happenstance? To glance at the heart and then spin away!

I can’t do that. I’m terrible at it. Even when I have every bit of denial in place. Look at me, I drove up to a pluton and put up my tent, following an urge to find the cleft where, so my mineral buddies tell me, there may be three-inch amethyst crystals. And I brought Edvard Munch’s biography to read, if I get lazy.

But this morning I woke up feeling guilty that I hadn’t answered my student. My boots are still outside the tent. And, writing on that sheaf of poems, I’ve gotten warmed up. I’ll turn the sheaf over and do some writing that concerns me.

 

About Clive Matson

As a young poet I hung in New York City in the 1960s with Beat Generation writers. My second father was Herb Huncke, who taught me how to buy a pair of pants and how to talk to people. My love of John Wieners and Alden Van Buskirk immersed me in streams of passionate intensity that run through us all. I write from the itch in my body and, as best I can, with full engagement of body, heart, and mind. I bow to the creative unconscious, as defined in the tutorial Let the Crazy Child Write! (1998) and presented in our web site WordSwell, currently under construction.

That itch is a ceanothus bush on the banks of the creative unconscious, whose torrential flow and unpredictability is hardly contained anywhere. I returned to school in 1987 to earn an MFA at Columbia University, which offered two priceless gifts. One, irrefutable evidence that poetry has lost its moorings in the labyrinths of elite, intellectual fashion. And two, that my background in pre-Modernism, as taught by di Prima and Ginsberg, is more than enough: wipe the lens clear and begin from there.

I taught creative writing at U.C. Berkeley Extension from 1985 to 2018 and, over time, I’ve given more than 3,000 workshops in the States and internationally. I was honored with the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles National Literary Award in 2003, the City of Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2012, and a Lifetime Beat Poet Laureate award in 2021 by the National Beat Poetry Foundation. Of nine volumes of poetry, amazingly my seventh, Squish Boots (2002), was placed in John Wieners’ coffin.

A 2015 backpacking trip into the southern Sierra plunged me into grief and guilt over the dying of our planet – scum-rimmed lakes, drought-stricken trees, a layer of wildfire smoke on the horizon, and no snow pack even at thirteen thousand feet. I began writing Hello, Paradise. Paradise, Goodbye, a record of what attitudes further destruction and a tearful, gritty litany of what, in Paradise, we must do.

Today I aspire to find images that identify and convey what we, as a people, are experiencing. I am challenged to read the climate of our corroding times, challenged by my own writing and by a revisioning of di Prima’s “The only war that matters is the war to [reclaim] our imagination.” And to reclaim our honor as human beings.

Visit Clive at www.matsonpoet.com and Wikipedia.