Category: China

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler, interviewed by David Garyan


John Brandi

October 9th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

John Brandi, Poet, Artist, Traveler

interviewed by David Garyan

 

John Brandi’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature



DG: I’d like to begin with your most recent book, A Luminous Uplift, Landscape & Memory, a project which spotlights forty years of your writing career. Included in the collection are also new writings. The work is set to be released on October 31st, 2023. Can you give readers a sneak peek? Are the pieces arranged chronologically? How did you choose what to include, what to leave out? In addition, did the compilation/writing of this book cause you to see your experiences in a new light, or perhaps make you remember something you’d long forgotten?

JB: A Luminous Uplift is subtitled Landscape and Memory. Recollection is where it begins. Books, maps, human and physical geography, the idea of walking into a landscape and recording something about it were all part of my early upbringing. The book proceeds into how that background affected my creative focus as an adult. My parents came to Southern California in the early 1930s as Michigan transplants. My father found work as an accountant at the Los Angeles Examiner. Photography was his hobby. His favored camera was a large-format press camera. He and my mother were enthusiastic about their new environment of mountain, desert, and seashore—dad with his camera and wooden tripod, mom as a supportive partner. I was the back-seat kid traveling with them on their road trips. It was they who gave me pencil and paper and asked me to draw whatever impressed me, and to write a line about it: a bear invading our camp, Indian pictographs on a rock, an ocean wave that knocked me down. When the drawings and writings accumulated, my parents gathered them up. “Now you have some pages, all you need is a cover and a title.” So I would do that and they would staple the pages and cover together, and hand them back to me. “Now you have a book.”

Thinking about the many times I told this story when students asked how books became part of my life, I decided I was ready to collect some memories. Luminous Uplift begins with my mother reading from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Treasure Island, the Scribner’s edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Later I was gifted books on natural history, geography, and famous paintings. Often we would peruse scrapbooks of my father’s photos and notes taken while serving as an army private in the India-Burma Theater. Thatched villages, stone temples, saddhus, street markets. In his darkroom I watched magic images—the Taj Mahal, minarets of a mosque, a multi-armed goddess appear as he swirled the paper in a tray of solution. As a teenager I discovered John Muir and Steinbeck after hiking the Sierras and driving the Baja coast. Early college years I was interested in oddball Indian saints, Ramakrishna, and Tagore. A bit later: Watts, Suzuki, Japanese haiku masters, Spanish poets, the American Beats, notebooks of Paul Klee, and all sorts of lost-in-the-shadows renegades who published their poems in mimeographed editions. In South America I read James Agee, Orwell, Baldwin, Graham Greene, Conrad, Gide, Barbara Tuchman, and others packed into a foot-locker the Peace Corps provided to keep you sane in your bamboo hut. Books! No little handheld screen to keep you occupied.

The core of A Luminous Uplift consists of published and unpublished prose. Landscapes that affected me as a poet-painter. A section called “Somewhere in the East” is devoted to haibun sketches, essays published in small mags, excerpts from limited-edition books. The Himalayas, India, Ghalib’s house, Khajuraho, Sikkim, a Balinese trance dance. A second section focuses on the American Southwest: Hopi sky villages, Río Grande Pueblos, Nanao Sakaki, details from homelife in northern New Mexico, my evolving haiku practice.

DG: You were friends with the notable Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. As a walking, wandering writer, there are many stories about him—even that he once walked from California to New York and back. Can you talk about his influence on you, and conversely, to what extent you think the American West influenced his own perception of the Far Eastern culture from which he came?

JB: Nanao was the archetypal planet pilgrim. His address book had no A to Z order of last names. It went by regions, starting with friends in Japan, then Australia, Indonesia, Alaska, Seattle. And so on. Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, New York City, Western Europe, Caucasus, China. Nanao settled in an old school bus below Taos Mountain for awhile, a good base. Once, as I was leaving the bus, he stuck his head out the window: “Come back,” he laughed, “You forgot your footprint!” Nanao was a planetary citizen, but in the unique style of the old Japanese outrider poets Saigyo, Ikkyu, Ryōkan. Creative rule-breakers whose priorities were to get down low, see the world through the eyes of common people. You’d find Nanao talking to a purple gentian on a rocky slope, or singing a Japanese folk song on a New York sidewalk  or along a prehistoric trail in Chaco Canyon. His reputation grew not through a promotional website, clever bio, or a fat list of published books, but by meeting people face to face. No Instagram, Linked In, Facebook. He created dialogue with the likes of bears, humans, dragonflies, and maidenhair ferns. He stood up for threatened landscapes, especially the Okinawa coral reefs.

Nanao was a quintessential drop out. He quit the Japanese mainstream after World War II, organized the Bum Academy, took up communal life on a remote Japanese island with farmers and fisherfolk. When he came to New Mexico, it wasn’t just the unusual topography—mesas, high desert, craggy peaks—that called him. It was the indigenous cultures, their song, poetry, and ritual-drama. Also, the pioneering spirit of the evolving counter-culture that took root in the Sixties. Independent thinkers, especially artists, who had come to live in the rugged mountain valleys. Nanao was at home with the anarchist spirit of northern New Mexico, Indians and Hispanos with a history of standing up to protect their land, water, language, and lifestyles.

DG: You’ve been impressively prolific in the haiku genre, having published almost an equivalent number of books as your poetry collections. Is it an effortless transition, or is poetry all poetry in the end for you?

JB: Poetry, in whatever form the experience, the place, the emotional pitchpoint demands—haiku, prose poem, haibun, enlightened fragments, solitary experience, social experience—is the beginning and the end. An out-of-frame, out-of-time vibration sounded into words. As a poet-painter I have a work space split into an easel room and a desk room. On some days what I can’t write I paint; on others, what I can’t paint I write. Right now I have an exhibit up in Santa Fe, “Wind, Water & Temblor: Geologic Ruminations.” At the opening I’ll do a reading from a just-released haiku collection, The Rain Sweeps Through. Small book, small poems, small adobe gallery that steps down into a little garden. My favorite kind of venue.

DG: Apart from poetry, prose, and translation, you’re also an artist. You’ve held exhibitions in places like the Magpie Gallery in Taos. The work you do is heavily influenced by themes of nature, but the depictions have magical elements to them, especially the collages. Can you speak about the beginning of your artistic journey, your influences, and whether you see art and literature as very much connected, or distinctly separate, specifically in your creative approach?

JB: I’ve already covered some of this, but I could add that I had an early fascination with Wyeth’s illustrations, Ryder’s paintings, Paul Klee’s magically configured kingdoms, old geography books. I loved the contours on topographic maps, following squiggles, copying them, expanding them as an adult, blending the earth’s seismic activity with my own psychic contours. Recently my wife asked me what all the dots and graphite flecks in my drawings were about. First thing that came to mind: “They are particles of air and enthusiasm.”

DG: In your early days, activism was very much at the heart of both your personal and poetic activities. Abroad, you worked with disenfranchised populations, and at home you were well integrated in the counter-culture movement, working with individuals we now consider household names. Do you think those times have anything to teach us about the world we live in today? In other words, would a cultural rediscovery of those ideals, in your view, be beneficial in changing the current world, or do you think we need a new activism—with a new philosophy, or perhaps a hybrid approach?

JB: The Sixties were wide open, a time of loosening, reckoning, opening up, throwing off the old, making new. Michael McClure said it was the very energy that defines poetry. A shifting merge of dream and waking into new structures of verse; new music, new publishing, new ways of living. There’s lots to not just remember, but to reawaken: simple lifestyle; no sell-out to overblown consumerism and corporate sales pitch; absolute resistance to tyrant political rap. A friend active in the drive to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964 reminds me our struggle is even harder now. So-called public debate is infused with mythology like that of the dark ages; politics filled with even more hate and conflict than we faced in the Sixties.

You can step to the side, hide out somewhere. But times have changed. The electronic eyeballs are on us. Wherever we go, we are visible. Better to grow roots in one place, keep things small, base yourself in a circle of progressive individuals, plant a tomato, give away some peaches, maintain a positive attitude. As for the evil voices out there, Lew Welch said you’ve got to have “charms against their rage. If nobody tried to live this way, all the work in the world would be in vain.” He also said “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal Them!”

An artist can disregard social-political commitment and get on with his work. Or regard such commitment as part of his work. In the Sixties I worked with a group of Americans and Ecuadorians to help connect indigenous people who were organizing to take legal action to retrieve their stolen lands. They were Quechua serfs scratching out a living in a visually stunning landscape under the snows of 20,000-foot Chimborazo. Between interviews I began writing poems from notes scribbled in a pocket pad. Some were political rants that ended in the wastebasket. Others brought to the forefront voices of the underdogs, people the media usually kept in the background. Some poems found their way into little mags back home. It was a boost. And I would have missed it had I stayed home like some of my college teachers advised. They said I needed to raise my visibility as an artist, establish an audience. Worthy advice, but I tossed it aside as practical and limiting.

Speaking of small circles, a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert reported on a circle of scientists studying the language of sperm whales, threatened, like most creatures, by climate change. One marine biologist, when asked why research, replied “Inspiration is the key. If we could communicate with animals, ask them questions and receive answers–no matter how simple those questions and answers might turn out to be–the world might soon be moved enough to at least start the process of halting our runaway destruction of life.”

DG: I’d like to speak about your travels in relation to the guiding activities you’ve undertaken with the students you’ve taught. Which fond memories or particularly special experiences do you most treasure?

JB: I loved the outback schools in Alaska where a classroom was more like a living room full of shoes-off students lying about the floor. An extended family. One winter I was bush-piloted into a Yupik village. The fourth graders were out ice fishing along the river. When we got back into the classroom the kids were fresh with the experience of drilling holes, dropping their lines, waiting in the cold, pulling out pike. I had a haiku project in mind. We read wilderness poems of ancient China, then launched into writing haiku while the cafeteria was busy frying up the catch. After we read our poems we had a feast. It was a memorable time!

I got to another Yupik village one weekend, and the men immediately invited me to sweat. Jokes were made about how I was going to be cooked. “You bring d’salt Freddie?” It was a test  to see if I had a sense of humor, a must if you want to hang with Native Americans. When we exited the steam room for the antechamber where we left our clothes, I found my bundle missing. The men smiled and helped me look around. “Don’ see ‘em anywhere, d’you Alex?” I ended hobbling through the snow–a towel around my waist—right into a kitchen where the women and girls were waiting to sweat. Everybody giggled as I stood there dripping. Then one of the men pointed to a kettle of salmon chowder and freshly-baked rolls on the counter. Next to them were my clothes. The laughter was communal. I dressed and sat down to eat with the men while the ladies left to sweat. On Monday morning the same girls who saw me near-naked in the kitchen were still giggling as they entered the classroom for my poetry session.

DG: On your website, you make some of your travel journal available to read for free. One of the many interesting observations you make is about is about the Hindu tradition of Theyyam, best described perhaps, as a mix of ritual, theater, and religion. As you write: “Theyyam performances are remote from the West’s notion of theater on a raised stage. Here, the earth is the platform. Characters roam helterskelter in a courtyard, disappear into the trees, return through the crowd, vanish into mist. As in a Javanese shadow-puppet play, the audience is free to roam. There is no fixed place where one must be …. And that is what lies beneath all Theyyam rituals: unpredictability.” Apart from perhaps the indigenous populations, would you say that there are parallels between Theyyam and any of our artistic traditions, or do you feel that the West, especially, today—with its obsessive need to categorize and rationalize—is much too uncomfortable with unpredictability?

JB: Unpredictability is uncomfortable for all of us. Especially in travel. To get  lost is to become vulnerable. So many of us want it all sorted out before we leave home. No risks. The mythic journey is sabotaged for the rational linear route. In the old days of travel one left home and was gone. No email connect. Hardly a working phone to be found in Mongolia. No web surfing to bring up the next destination. No seeing before going. No checking out rooms online. Travel was a bumpy ride full of conflicts and resolutions. You got lost, had to ask real questions to real people. You floundered and fumbled. Your head got turned around, you came back somebody new. You do the same in poetry. Get lost, fumble, reawaken, find yourself in new territory. Unpredictability drives the poem.

I don’t think I answered your question about parallels between the Theyyam ritual and artistic traditions in the West. In New Mexico the same sacred and profane juxtaposition in the Theyyams—bawdy clowning, serious propitiation of the gods, oracular advice—you find in the Pueblo rituals. During the plaza ceremonies dancers are choreographed into intricate weaves, the women robed and crowned with wooden headdresses, the men in kilts and skins, shaking gourd rattles to call the rain. All the while impersonators of deer, eagle, antelope prance about to a chorus of singers and drummers. Then come the clowns—in breechcloths, bodies earth smeared—hooting, yelling, mirroring bad-mannered humans joking and pointing, refusing to become part of the dance. But soon the clowns begin to see that life is more than fooling around. That is their message for us. They begin to sing with the chorus and learn how to dance from the dancers. And they show compassion. Now and then one will stop to adjust a little boy’s animal skin, or refasten a girl’s headdress.

DG: You’ve amassed a great deal of experiences (both through travel and art). A great deal of experiences, likewise, is yet to be had. Years on the road and words on the page have brought you to the great state of New Mexico, where you’ve settled. Can you talk about the foundation and reasons which made it irresistible for you to choose this road?

JB: Ha, I’d like to get out of answering the question by referring you to the book itself. The final chapter of Luminous Uplift, titled “Finding New Mexico,” was inspired during a phone conversation with Gary Snyder where I found myself complaining that my grandkids had never asked how I got to New Mexico. “Well sometimes you just have to begin telling the story,” he advised. The story begins in 1971 when a friend gave me his pickup and set me on the road. But it really goes back to the first travels with my parents, early discoveries of outriders like Hale Tharpe, a hermit who lived in a fallen redwood. Or meeting poet Eric Barker who had a cabin in the cliffs of the Big Sur. Or Johnny Lovewisdom in the Andes, a writer-philosopher dropout who lived in a stone hut and showed me how to mimeograph my own poems.

DG: In all your travels, what’s the tastiest dish you’ve tried and which New Mexican one would you recommend to a guest from abroad?

JB: I’m trying to come up with something far away and exotic, maybe a jerk chicken on a Jamaican beach; a pulao spiced with pistachios, dried fruit, and saffron at a Kashmiri wedding; a lamb souvlaki in Thessaloniki; or a red curry in the Chiang Rai night market. But my favorite eating experience—one I’d recommend to any world traveler—is right here in New Mexico in the pueblo of Kewa, also known as Santo Domingo. On August 4, the big feast day of dance and ceremony, the villagers open their homes to the public. A communal table is set with food for guests who are called in from a living room decorated with blankets, baskets, pottery, and family photos. At the table you share talk with a dozen strangers between servings of the best slow-cooked red chile with pork, and green chile with beef you’ll ever taste. On the table you also help yourself to bread baked in outdoor adobe ovens, bowls of posole, pinto beans, tamales steamed in corn husks, cheese enchiladas, cold slaw, sautéed squash and corn, melon, strawberry Jell-O topped with Kool Whip, plum pie, and anise cookies called biscochitos.

DG: Apart from getting ready to release your newest book, are you reading or working on anything else at the moment?

JB: Frankly, I need a bit of a break. I’d like to return to Canyon de Chelly for some sketching. There’s also New York, the Nicolas Roerich Museum. And maybe another Aegean island. But with two books out this fall, there is promotion. Plus an archive commitment with UC Berkeley. Let alone the woodpile, planting of garlic, and putting away the garden tools. The first frost happened yesterday, and today’s the annular solar eclipse. So much going on!

14 October 23
Río Arriba, New Mexico



Author Bio:

John Brandi was born in Los Angeles, 1943. Early travels in the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave, and along the Big Sur coast proved to be unshakable experiences from which his world travels grew. After receiving a B.A. from San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), he worked in the Peace Corps with Quechua farmers in the Andean land rights struggle. In South America he began publishing his poems, became an active war protester during the Vietnam era, returned to North America to live in Alaska and Mexico, built a cabin in a remote Southwest canyon, received a National Endowment Poetry Fellowship in 1979, and worked as an itinerant poet in schools, prisons, backland ranching communities, Pueblo and Diné tribal centers, and as a lecturer for students in Mexico, Indonesia, and India. He gave keynote addresses for haiku conferences in Canada and the Punjab, and was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for A House by Itself: Selected Haiku Masaoka Shiki. In 2015 a limited edition of his haibun, Into the Dream Maze, was issued by the Press at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, followed by Planet Pilgrim, his paean to Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki. Two books of poetry and travels appeared in 2019 and 2020: The Great Unrest (White Pine) and The Way to Thorong La (Empty Bowl). As a visual artist, he’s been honored with solo exhibits in San Francisco, Taos, Santa Fe, Houston, and Milwaukee. His papers are at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

The Life and Work of Ruth Langdon Inglis: Neil Langdon Inglis interviewed by David Garyan

Ruth Langdon Inglis (1927-2005)


Neil Langdon Inglis, US General Editor for Interlitq

Neil Langdon Inglis


The Life and Work of Ruth Langdon Inglis:
Neil Langdon Inglis interviewed by David Garyan

October 8th, 2023


DG: Apart from being very much an established writer, your mother, the China-born American author Ruth Inglis (1927-2005) was above all a person dedicated to her family. A flourishing literary career and a devotion to family aren’t easy things to balance. Can you speak about your upbringing and whether there were any aspects that were particularly challenging?

NLI: The quest for work-life balance defined my mother’s life, but in the 1960s her career reigned supreme. Fortunately for me, from my earliest years I found it completely normal to have two parents who were consumed with their work and who spent relatively little time at home. Another child in my place would have thrown almighty tantrums. It never bothered me when my mother was on assignment with NOVA magazine or THE OBSERVER, just as long as I could consult her if I had a problem: once I asked her to take me out of a kindergarten where I was being bullied, and she readily agreed.

My mother counted on our housekeepers and assorted babysitters, with whom I got along and who were reliable (the sole unreliable exception, my mother sacked on the spot). My parents’ marriage endured as long as my father Brian Inglis’s TV career (as presenter of the Granada WW2 documentary series “All Our Yesterdays” continued—and when that program came to an end, my father no longer needed my mother. He had other priorities. So the childhood idyll was shattered, but then the idyll of the 1960s was ended for many, to be replaced by the chaos and upheaval of the 1970s.

DG: Ruth knew or interviewed many of the greatest luminaries of her time—and indeed of all time. John Updike, Anne Sexton, and Roald Dahl are some of the names that come to mind. In addition, she wrote books on various topics related to childcare. In her 1998 book, “The Children’s War,” these efforts overlap: She interviews the adults who at that time were children evacuated during WWII bombings of Britain. What inspired Ruth Inglis’s interest in child development and do you see traces of this interest in other areas of her journalistic career?

NLI: Ruth was an ardent admirer of Dr. Benjamin Spock (another of her interviewees), who urged parents to enjoy their children’s company and not to view parenthood as a chore or nightmare. Just as Spock believed that the parenting experience could be enriched through appropriate resources (such as his own classic guidebook, “Baby and Child Care”), my mother dedicated herself to answering questions and dispelling misconceptions about child development, thanks to her interviews with pioneers in the field and through her own research and attendance at conferences. She looked upon herself as a go-between connecting parents with experts, deciphering obscure technical language in a way that busy working parents could understand.

Ruth appreciated the efforts her own parents had made on her behalf (although her mother was mentally ill and institutionalized for long periods, with the result that Ruth’s father stepped in as single father, supervising Ruth’s education via correspondence courses). For a child of diplomats, endless travel and relocations were the norm, and there were painful moments (including perilous evacuations from war zones), some of which could have been handled more deftly but which provided useful fodder for the future writer.

DG: You’ve just scanned the beginning chapter of Ruth Inglis’s first book, “A Time to Learn,” (pubs. Dial Press 1973: a guide for parents to the new theories in early childhood education) [see appendix for the first chapter]. It may be in your view her finest moment as an author. Can you elaborate on why it’s this book which makes you feel this way?

NLI: It was her first book, and her first major project carried out on a fully independent basis, outside of the shadow cast by her ex-husband.  ATTL was an intensely personal manifesto, describing how periods of loneliness in her youth had been delightfully occupied with books, starting with children’s literature, then graduating to Shakespeare but also modern literature, a lifetime passion. Her conclusion? The child’s «absorbent mind» is an invaluable asset, a future goldmine, sowing the seeds for a lifetime of esthetic and cultural appreciation by a richly furnished intellect. My mother’s gratitude for books manifested itself in her generally receptive and welcoming approach to new writing; she championed the work of up-and-coming authors, for example, her friends Anne Sexton and Jennifer Johnston. She was a staunch advocate for the work of photojournalist Penny Tweedie. These women’s achievements were something to celebrate, without hesitation or equivocation.

DG: Ruth Inglis contributed a great deal of material to NOVA magazine. Indeed, as you’ve written, she described this as “the high-point of her professional career.” You’ve been doing research into those years for some time now. What are some of the insights you’ve gained as a result of this work?

NLI: As the sixties progressed, my mother continued to carve out a niche for herself, separate from her marriage and separate from motherhood. She had been a journalist since graduating from Barnard College in the late 1940s, but I think she always intended to leave a personal legacy that transcended the ephemera of bread-and-butter writing. NOVA magazine (1965-1975) burned brightly in the 1960s firmament in the UK. This was a women’s magazine which did not overlook the traditional topics of cookery, fashion, and maternity, but which also made daring sorties into the controversial issues of the day (Vietnam, contraception, abortion, and changing social mores). The magazine ended up being read covertly by men, a phenomenon of which the proprietors were well-aware (this was referred to as the magazine’s «bisexuality»). My mother joked that NOVA was even more popular with men than with women; this was no laughing matter for the syndicate that published the magazine–which advertisers should they target?

I now know that my hugely famous father was roped in to contribute to the inaugural issue of NOVA as a way to lend credibility to the fledgling publication [Brian Inglis, «Doctors and Adultery, and the Muddle of Medical Ethics Today,» NOVA, March 1965]. While my mother might have suggested the idea of Brian’s involvement, and may have served as go-between, I suspect she winced internally at the thought of (yet again) being hitched to Brian Inglis’s wagon. Yet she outgrew that ball and chain, and Ruth soon became a star interviewer for NOVA in her own right, particularly under its first editor Denis Hackett, who helmed the magazine during its halcyon days. Ruth may have had her own private thoughts about how the magazine got run into the ground in the mid-1970s (the three-day week and the oil embargo sealed the magazine’s fate).

NOVA was always a critical, not a commercial success: and rival COSMOPOLITAN’s much greater circulation (three times the size) enabled it to weather that decade and to survive and thrive until the present day.  But commercial success in and of itself meant nothing in Ruth’s eyes; so in conclusion, her years with NOVA did indeed represent the apogee of her career. I was proud of her as her child, and as a student of the history of journalism—and I still am.

DG: During her time at NOVA, Ruth Inglis was in many ways a trailblazer, writing courageously about social issues like the legalization of homosexuality, for example. It’s strange to observe, but today’s society is becoming more about the individual, yet, at the same time, also less tolerant of non-conforming individuals. The right-wing waves across Europe and the US are only one sign of this. Are there particular pieces of her writing that might give you a sense of how Ruth Inglis may have responded to all these new developments?

NLI: Excellent question. Ruth was politically liberal but a small-c conservative in some respects (she was partial to Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell). She enjoyed her friends’ eccentricities, but feared that nontraditional behavior would leave her loved ones vulnerable to abuse. Her view on trans women would have aligned with Martina Navratilova’s or JK Rowling’s. Ruth believed that womanhood was a gift, and not something to be trifled with, or opted out of.  As a further example of how she steered a middle course, we see how she was an advocate of «work-life balance» before the term was invented. We now know that she published two long-form journalistic projects (one for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY) in the months following my birth. Ruth battled for her career (and successfully), but she also wanted children (and thus she had my sister Diana and me), but she would not have been content with simply the former or the latter (she would have loved a happy marriage too–but there success eluded her).

Ruth was intrigued by changing social mores and devoted many column inches to the topic of «house husbands,» «single fathers,» and “creative [amicable] divorce.” She was determined to give unorthodox social structures a fair chance, irrespective of whatever personal qualms she might hold about their feasibility, or whatever mixed results these new customs might have achieved. Above all she wanted no limits set upon her own personal or intellectual exploration. The limited opportunities and gender role constraints of the 1940s and 1950s were suffocating for her, and she wished to break free from them and live life in her own way. She was, in essence, the «new kind of woman» that NOVA championed.

DG: What were her strengths as an interviewer?

NLI: Preparation, but also warmth and approachability–I think she was able to disarm people right at the start of the conversation. She wasn’t able to break the ice with everybody (no journalist is), but interviewees remembered my mother with sufficient warmth that they would happily answer her questions and give her usable quotes on subsequent occasions as well—even when they did not have a current project of their own to plug. This was a rare accomplishment, and it meant that my mother’s contact book was the envy of Fleet Street. Beneath that kind and friendly exterior was a considerable vein of inner tension, but the interviewee would not sense that anxiety. Always my mother would be thinking: do I have the necessary time/date/place/purpose of interview information to provide context, have I gathered enough usable quotes, when is the deadline for submission of the article? Deadlines dominated my parents’ lives, just as they have dominated mine (in the very different field of translation).

DG: It’s fair to say you grew up in a very liberal environment. Along with Ruth Inglis’s progressive views, you’ve stated in another interview that your father, Brian Inglis, “signed petitions for the legalization of cannabis, and wrote about the use of psychedelics … his television boss Bill Grundy referred to him half-jokingly as a ‘civil servant in Bohemia.’” As a mother, did Ruth Inglis ever feel anxious about the possibility of you being negatively affected by these views?

NLI: Ruth did, from time to time, try to warn me that our household was not representative of mainstream opinion and that I should not assume that everyone was like us. I don’t recall being bullied because my parents were in the public eye (although their celebrity may have been at the root of the nursery school bullying incident that I mentioned earlier). As the years passed, I began to perceive the downside to my father’s casual attitude toward sexual fidelity, which destroyed my parents’ marriage and left Ruth at an economic disadvantage in the wake of the divorce (although her financial picture improved a little when she joined the staff of THE DAILY EXPRESS in 1976). My father’s very public embrace of idiosyncratic opinions on the paranormal in the 70s and 80s further strained our family life, as I was a skeptic as a teenager—and became more politically conservative than my parents, a development which they treated with patience and indulgence. On social policy issues, Ruth believed in women and children first, so she was very much a European social democrat.

DG: Was she a militant, or an incrementalist?

NLI: In most respects an incrementalist. She liked to win individual battles, but with kindness. A friend of hers at THE DAILY EXPRESS (where she was on staff in the 70s and 80s) belittled women writers, but my mother got her colleague to accept that Emily Dickinson was a genius. My mother was quite strongly pro trade union, speaking warmly of the «union umbrella»; yet it was a leaky umbrella then and now, and at National Union of Journalist meetings she spoke up forcefully for herself, never allowing herself to be hooted down by the brothers’ loud male voices. And she was certainly one of the first women to break the notorious gender barrier at El Vino’s wine club (where historically women were forbidden to order drinks for themselves at the bar); reports suggest that a group of NOVA women took the establishment by storm, and based on her own recollections I believe that Ruth may have been one of their number. Yet she was never a bomb-thrower. I remember how she once told me that she was channel-surfing, watched a news item on the Apollo program on one channel, and a discussion of knitting on another channel. While she would never have said openly that «it’s a man’s world,» that was the conclusion she had drawn from an early age—and she always wanted to be where the action was.

DG: What was the nature of her relationship with Brian Inglis? Did she love him, or was she in competition with him?

NLI: To this day I don’t know if she ever loved him, or he her.  I know that by the late 1950s Ruth wanted to make a completely fresh start, and a move to London to join my father (thus marking a clean break with the USA) gave her that opportunity.  I know that she supported Brian’s career enthusiastically and found his work as editor of THE SPECTATOR inherently fascinating. Furthermore, she must have given him the confidence he needed to make the risky leap to television. In addition to her own professional activities, Ruth was a supportive wife, helped Brian with research and typing, kept the household running smoothly, and was a magnificent hostess (Brian delegated all entertaining responsibilities to her). But did they love one another? Ultimately all her sacrifices didn’t matter, and she was cast aside.

DG: How would Ruth’s career have differed without Brian in her life as her husband?

NLI: I think the fact that our household was so unrepresentative gave my mother various opportunities in terms of having a broad support network, so that she could venture forth into the world secure in the knowledge that her children were taken care of under her overall supervision. Life as a journalist for her would have been harder without all those special resources.

DG: How did she cope with the male chauvinist atmosphere at THE DAILY EXPRESS in the 1980s?

NLI: That she could match her colleagues drink for drink certainly helped (the culture of functional alcoholism has certainly vanished from the newspaper world, or has been sharply modified). She picked her battles.

DG: Ruth Inglis’s final book was “The Window in the Corner” (pubs. Peter Owen, 2003)—»a history and defense of children’s television,” as you write. Another poignant observation, but it seems like children don’t even watch TV anymore. TV is the new radio. Social media the new TV. Do you feel Ruth Inglis would’ve written a similar defense for today’s media, or do you think the content kids are consuming today is entirely different? More different, perhaps, than the radio to the TV?

NLI: I think she would have enjoyed «Peppa Pig.» She was an incurable optimist, but certain aspects of today’s media universe would have been hard for her swallow. Journalism for Ruth meant paid journalism, it was a livelihood, and the current universe in which young writers jostle on the internet for exposure and monetization would have struck her as cruel and undignified. My mother took no pleasure in the exodus from Fleet Street of the old-school tabloids and broadsheets. She would have deplored the disappearance of local newspapers and lamented the destruction of the jobs that vanished with them. My father’s perspective was slightly different; he would have argued that in-house staff journalism was a historical fluke and was bound to come to an end eventually.

DG: At the time of her death, Ruth Inglis was preparing a memoir about her father. Indeed, she always looked back fondly on the exciting lifestyle that her father’s diplomatic career brought. Two questions: Did she recall many stories about her youth and is there a chance that even a part of that memoir might be published?

NLI: As a civil servant myself, I always found it fascinating that Grandpa (US diplomat William Russell Langdon) was more highly regarded by his colleagues in the field than by his supervisors back in Washington DC. My grandmother (performing invaluable yet very unpaid service as a diplomatic spouse) was subjected to rigorous performance evaluation, just as her husband was. Regarding Ruth’s specific reminiscences of her father, I personally thought she was too close to the subject. One of her books that I have had re-released is «The Children’s War» (with Lume Media), which you mentioned earlier. One of the themes in the opening chapter of «A Time to Learn» is the expendability of human life in the global postings where she grew up, due to disease or military conflict: dead bodies everywhere. Her father (a workaholic, as she too later became) allowed my mother to spend a great deal of unsupervised time by herself or with whichever friends she was lucky enough to have at any given moment. Reading filled these gaps, and she developed a rich imaginative world. She would never be bored!

DG: Being a US citizen but having been born in China, along with having spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, did Ruth consider herself more a part of the Old World or New?

NLI: It’s no surprise that she ended up in the UK, she was an Anglophile from an early age. She recalled watching UK movies at an art movie house in Boston (the Exeter Street Theatre). It was only a matter of time before she made the move.

DG: Any other memories, stories, facts about Ruth Inglis you would like to share?

NLI: She was given six months to live in 1994, but managed to soldier on until 2005, writing another book, completing a tour of duty as columnist with NURSERY WORLD—and seeing her family come of age. She lived her life in accordance with her own values and principles. Although she was a celebrity interviewer, social welfare issues provided the deeper tug. Even amidst all the «Swinging London» glitz and high-fashion technicolor in the pages of NOVA magazine, we observe Ruth’s thoughtful May 1973 profile entitled, «Children in Hospital: The body is cared for but what about the mind?» That’s Ruth Inglis personified!



Appendix

A Time To Learn – Chapter 1



About Neil Langdon Inglis

Neil Langdon Inglis, the son of authors, Brian Inglis and Ruth Langdon Inglis, graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a degree in Modern Languages in 1983. He is a translator and literary critic based in the Washington DC area. His book reviews have appeared in many publications including The Tyndale Society JournalFortean Times and Skeptical Inquirer.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists


Willis and Tony Barnstone

July 4th, 2022

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists

interviewed by David Garyan

Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

Click here to read Willis Barnstone’s poems Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

Click here to read Tony Barnstone’s poems in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s begin with a question for Willis: You’ve met and worked with many renowned persons of our time. In 1981, you conducted a lengthy interview with Jorge Luis Borges, where he says: “Personally, I suppose all writers are writing the same book over and over again. But I suspect that every generation rewrites, with very slight variations, what the other generations wrote. I don’t think a man can do much by himself, since after all, he has to use a language, and that language is a tradition. Of course he may change that tradition, but at the same time that tradition takes for granted all that came before it.” In your view, have today’s writers changed literary traditions for better or worse?

WB: You ask me about today’s writers. I have to say that I’m quite old-fashioned. I mean, for me, Hart Crane is a modern poet; in part because I find so much modern poetry to be stunt poetry, meaning it’s an exhibition, and it really doesn’t depend upon language as it depends upon circus, which is fine, but it doesn’t interest me too much. I’d rather read Sappho or Homer.

DG: That’s interesting. Those are strong traditions. So, in your view, modern writers haven’t exactly taken advantage of this tradition in the best possible way?

WB: Well, no, not all writers, but many of the most popular ones. I mean, today, I had a long conversation with my friend Khaled Mattawa, who was my student at Indiana university, and I got his first book published, and he feels the same as I do—that people tend to be on the illiterate side. They don’t read Sappho—if they’ve ever heard of her. I’m a kind of pedant. You know, I don’t mind being pedantic.

DG: Let’s talk about that and about Borges perhaps. You met him in 1968 in New York and the two of you went on to have a long friendship, in which you discussed this literary tradition—

WB: I spent a year in Argentina or so, and I lived exactly across the street from him. I brought him three times to Indiana to give talks. I went around the USA with him. We had a fun thing. When we got to New York, one of the questions from the audience was: “Mr. Borges, you know so many things. When will we ever finish the East Side Highway?” And he said to me: “What’s that woman talking about?”

TB: I remember when Borges was in Indiana, he was on stage, and someone from the audience asked him: “Mr. Borges, I wonder, was there ever a woman who for you was the quintessence of all womanhood, who was your Muse?” And he said: “Yes, in truth there was, but the strange thing is, she kept on changing her face.”

WB: I remember: “She kept changing her face and name.”

TB: And name, yeah.


Jorge Luis Borges with Willis Barnstone

DG: That’s a wonderful story.

WB: Borges also had this theory: He said that Charlie Chaplin was an outsider and had a very distinct view on humor, because he was a Jew, and Jews are on the outside of things, and, therefore, can laugh. Well, the fact is that Charlie Chaplin married two Jews, but he was from a Catholic family—he was self-educated, and brilliant, of course. As an acrobat, he was a master. He wrote the music, everything. But it wasn’t because he was Jewish, it was because he was Charlie Chaplin.

DG: Certainly, dual identities, and navigating that is certainly a tough task—

WB: I think you’re like Borges. You know so many languages—it’s popping out of your ears.

DG: English is my third language. It’s my native language, but it’s not my first one.

WB: It’s good to have a native language. We’re not happy without one, but the problem is when you’re like us—in what language do you dream? For years, I dreamed in Chinese, but always with a dictionary in my hand.

TB: One of my great anxiety dreams is I have to speak Chinese, and often what will happen is that it’ll come out in Chinese and when I forget the words, I’ll switch over to Spanish or Greek—in my dream—and then it’ll be so confusing, I’ll wake myself up.

WB: Tony was very good in Chinese, especially when it came to legalistic stuff, things like how much we have to pay for a room, because everybody was trying to cheat us, alas.

TB: The thing is that we were given special treatment as scholars from the West, as Fulbright Scholars. They gave us “Friends of China” status, which meant that we had what’s called the “white card,” and with a white card you could get Chinese prices as compared to Western prices—which meant sometimes the difference could be—

WB: Almost twice as much.

TB: Could be, yeah, sometimes the difference of a thousand percent in the price. And so, you would go to an expensive hotel and ask for the Chinese price, and first they’d say: “We’ll get you into a room.” But when you showed them the white card, they’d say: “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve just filled up.” And then you’d have to argue. Just to have a place to stay the night. This is a long time ago.

DG: These are idiosyncrasies and peculiarities you can’t read about in books. You can only get them through stories. Let’s shift gears a little and talk about your recent work, Willis, Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation, published in 2017. In the foreword, you wrote: “Bible speech is our atlas and guide to language, literature, and philosophy. The great voices in Genesis, Solomon, Job, and Psalms, and Gospels, Paul, and Revelation keep the biblical fountain flowing with magnificent speech. It continues in contemporary poetry from T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to Joan Baez, John Lennon, Theodore Roethke, and C.K. Williams.” Would you say that declining religiosity might produce poorer literatures, or do you see faith and religious texts as independent things?

WB: Well, I think religiosity is a pejorative word. No, I don’t think that religion helps or hurts. It depends on who you are. If you’re good, you’re good. It doesn’t matter whether you are Catullus, or secular, or Sappho, who certainly was secular. If you’re good, you’re good, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing in Provencal, Italian, English, French, or Inuit language—whatever they write in. I say “whatever” because every twenty miles, it’s slightly different.

TB: Another way of thinking about it is that declining religiosity, or the undermining of the church because of Darwin and science, and so on—without that, you wouldn’t have the essential crises of morality, consciousness, and spirituality that gives us “The Waste Land,” or the terrible sonnets of Hopkins, for example, or the great poems of Matthew Arnold. My point is that the sea change caused even religious people to doubt their own religions, like T.S. Eliot did his childhood Unitarianism. So he converted to a conservative Anglicanism, with some forays into Indian Vedic Literature—The Upanishads, and so on—exploring world spirituality as options to a childhood religiosity, and that transition gave his work an arc, from the early poems of Prufrock, all the way through the Four Quartets. His example shows us the decline of faith, but also the reassertion of a certain necessity for faith in the end.

DG: That’s interesting because it’s this kind of difficulty—the crisis of the modern that makes a lot of this modern poetry possible. It ties in with what Willis said—this idea that it’s about who you are and not the religion itself. And so I’d like use this as a jumping off point: You’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world, and this exposed you to ideas and customs in a direct, tangible way. At the same time, you’re also a man of letters, having studied at the most prestigious institutions such Yale and Bowdoin College. You’ve seen the world through books and travel—the wisdom of experience and the tangible truth of the page. What’s a place and book that made a particularly strong impression on you?

WB: Well, I think the person who influenced me maybe most is Sappho, and she writes in a dialect of Greek—Aeolic Greek, which isn’t that different, if you learn a few consonantal changes. About religion, I think it’s probably done nine-tenths harm and one-tenth good, in terms of painting for example. Except in Greece, where you have the sculpture of Antiquity, which is infinitely beautiful. They rescued so much of it there when they had the 2004 Olympics, because they went underground, and all they found was marble statues. I think if you go to every great museum, about eighty percent of the pictures are religious, until you get into the middle of the 19th century, and it’s so repetitious, but also sometimes marvelous. Most of the time it’s not. And so, I don’t think religion in that sense has helped diversify the stories we can tell.

DG: Indeed, when something follows essentially the same formula, one can get overwhelmed by it.

WB: Much of it is New Testament, and I did a translation of the New Testament. It’s a two-thousand-page book attacking the outsider. And I could go into this at great length. I have lots of essays on it. I wish it were a good book, but Jesus does too much punishing.

DG: That has to be admitted. It’s like that. There’s very little of what you can do and a lot of what you can’t.

WB: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Let’s go back to you, Tony. I would like to ask you about your creative process. Your literary approach is multifaceted, in the sense that you prefer to blend various kinds of media with the written word. With Alexandra Eldridge, for example, you released The Radiant Tarot: Pathway to Creativity. You also wrote a collection of poems, of War From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, which later evolved into Tokyo Burning, an album of songs with John Clinebell and Ariana Hall, part of a duo called Genuine Brandish. Along with a discussion of these projects, what are other ways you’ve mixed literature with different arts, and do you prefer to start with the written word or to draw inspiration from another art form?

TB: The Radiant Tarot came about because I had the idea—what would it be like to publish a book of poems that was actually a deck of cards? A book that didn’t have a page order—a page numbering. You could shuffle the poems, and pull them out, like you might deal cards from a deck. I had the idea it might be interesting—it’s a bit like Rayuela or Hopscotch, the great novel by Julio Cortazar—to choose your own story. Or “The Garden of Bifurcating Paths” by Borges—the idea that you can find your own path through the story, and time, and the universe. And partly I was inspired by “The Waste Land,” where Tarot cards appear. You can think about the different scenes or different voices of “The Waste Land,” many of which could go back to Madam Sosotris’s reading of the cards, the drowning man, and so on, like cards. In this way, “The Waste Land” itself is a kind of shuffled deck, and a lot of that modernist collage from Paterson to The Cantos to The Sound and the Fury, or Ulysses, has that shuffled card effect. That was my interest. Then it slowly evolved, and it ended up being a Tarot deck, not a book of poems. I wrote the book that accompanied a Tarot deck. My friend Alexandra Eldridge made the wonderful art, and it turned into a twelve year journey together—about fifteen years since I started it—in which I delved into the history, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of creativity. So it becomes a Tarot of creativity—a Tarot which tries to get at what makes us creative. And what is the creative process? Without going into much detail, if you think about the four Tarot suits (which have evolved into spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs in the common deck of cards) the Wands, the Pentacles, the Swords, and the Cups are each associated with different mental acts, so that the cups are meditation and dreaming, the prewriting process, and the striking of inspiration, the charging forward, the fire of the creative process is the Wands. The process of revision and cutting back and rationality is the Swords, and the process of giving it all structure and grounding is the Pentacles. So I ended up making this Tarot, which is really for everybody, but especially for creative people. For every card I’ve created a creative prompt—a game, an act, or a journey you could apply to your life. They’re not all about sitting down and writing a poem, or making art. It’s really more about taking the ideas of the card, applying them creatively to your life, with the idea that your life itself could be your artwork, and you could be the creator of your life, just like you’re creating a work of art. That’s The Radiant Tarot in a nutshell.

DG: When you’re reading the work, you’re both discovering the work, but also discovering yourself in a sense. Both for you as an artist, but also the relationship between the reader and the text.

TB: Absolutely true. Think about the Tarot card as a Rorschach. You look at a Rorschach—there’s an old joke. A man goes into a psychologist’s office and says: “Well, I’ve been having all these strange dreams. I don’t know what to make of it.” The psychologist says: “Well, let’s do a little test. Here, look at this picture. It’s called a Rorschach. And what do you see?” The man says: “Well, I see a man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, look at this next one. What do you see here?” The man says: “I see a man and another man and yet another man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Okay. Look at this one. What do you see here?” The man says: “A man and a woman and a dog making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, I think I’ve diagnosed your problem—you’re a sexual addict.” The man says: “You’re calling me a sexual addict after showing me all these dirty pictures?” So, anyways, bad joke, but the point is that so much of what see in the cards comes from what’s in our mind. It’s just like theater exercises or art prompts or creative writing exercises. You drop a line into the unconscious and whatever deep sea fish is swimming around down there will grab the hook. You pull it out and the Tarot card is your fishing line.

DG: This leads into the next question of mindset, and what you feel in any given moment. I would like to ask you, Tony, talking about psychology and this sort of fishing hook into the psyche, there’s a story that you met the pilot of Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima—that must’ve been a pretty big fishing hook into your psyche. What was that meeting like, and for better or worse, what did you learn as a result of the encounter, and how did it change you?

TB: At that time, I was married to my college girlfriend, Ayame Fukuda, who was born in Japan, later naturalized as an American citizen, parents also born in Japan, and I was very close with my in-laws, my Japanese-American family, knowing that the children I thought we were going to have were going to be Eurasian, so sitting down at the dinner table with the man who dropped an atom bomb on a non-military target—creating a chain-reaction explosion that with the power of twenty-thousand tons of dynamite killed 130,000 people in an instant, plus all the people who died of radiation poisoning afterwards—it was a challenging moral moment for me. I felt I couldn’t just sit silently and be polite and have good dinner conversation with this “honored guest” who was brought to the college. I had to ask the question: “What do you think about these revisionist historians who question the morality of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima?” And his response was: “If you could’ve seen the patriotism we felt—if you had seen our sincerity, you would never have asked that question. The days of knights meeting out on the field in one to one fighting, that’s long over. In total war, everyone is guilty, and everyone deserves to die.” Now, that’s a moral stance. That’s a very strong moral stance. You asked the question: “How did that make me feel?” Well, I mean, obviously I didn’t have much to say. I wasn’t going to argue with our distinguished guest, right? I did, at least, ask the question, and I got his response, and it made me really understand something key, which is that maybe the atom bomb sped up the end of the war, although some argue that, in fact, it didn’t—depends on the historian. If my father, for example, had gone off—he was of the age—to Japan and fought, well a million Americans, they say, would’ve died in the invasion of the home islands, and there is a good chance that I would never have been born. On the other hand, I was married to a Japanese American—my mother-in-law was from an old Samurai family, and it’s a complex mix of feelings. In some sense, I was on both sides of the war. It felt a bit like the perspectivism of Santayana and Nietzsche—this idea that your morality depends on your perspective. There’s the African proverb: «Until the lions learn to speak, the hunters will always be the heroes of the story.» And so, this launched me into the Tongue of War book, because I began to ask: “Well, what would Oppenheimer say? What would Gandhi say? What would Truman say? What would a Chinese prisoner of war say? What would a Japanese Kamikaze pilot say? What would they all say about these aspects of the war—the dropping of the bomb, the Rape of Nanjing, and so on. What would a prisoner of war who found himself released because the war had ended—what would the people in America who were dancing in the streets and celebrating after the dropping of the bomb, because finally this war is going to be over—say? What would a child walking through the streets of Hiroshima— watching people walking with their arms stretched out because their skin had been burned black, it chafed too much, it hurt too much for the skin to touch skin because their skin had been charred like a roast in an oven—say? What would all those people say? And so, this one perspective—this very intense perspective of Paul Tibbets launched me on this journey.

DG: A lot of people feel it was a necessary act, but it was truly courageous of you to ask that question, because, really, necessary for whom? That’s ultimately what we’re talking about. It certainly wasn’t necessary for the innocent Japanese people who had nothing to do with the war.

TB: Do you know why they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki?

DG: I know they dropped the bomb because it was a way of deterring the Soviets—

TB: From seizing more of the islands, because they understood the next conflict was going to be with the Soviet Union, but more specifically, why Nagasaki? Because the first two targets—

DG: Ah, yes, I know this story.

TB: You know the story?

DG: There was the cloud cover—

TB: That’s right.

DG: They moved the target and dropped the bomb on another city—I don’t remember which city they were initially supposed to drop it on—but they moved the target because the original city had been covered by clouds. And that’s fate for you.

TB: That’s fate. The clouds opened up just in time for them to drop the bomb. If the clouds had not opened up, 80,000 people in Nagasaki wouldn’t have died.

DG: And we’re talking about religion. Is this an act of God?

WB: I was with the Quakers—I’m not a Quaker, but I went to a Quaker school, and I worked for the American Friends Service Committee in many countries, especially Mexico, Spain, parts of Latin America, and so forth. I happened to be in an Indian village called Miacatlán. The only people who spoke Spanish were the doctor and the pharmacist. The rest spoke Aztec or Nahuatl—the ancient language—and it came over the radio that the bomb had dropped and the war was over. Most of people whom I was with were Quakers, but not the kind in the East, who were rich and sophisticated, but Central American, who didn’t believe in dancing or going to the movies, and all of them got on the table, and they sent me down to get Tequila, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs: “La bomba ha caído. Termina la Guerra.” “The bomb has dropped. The war is over”—in English and Spanish, and any language we could figure. So, it was a magnificent day for the rest of us. As far as the bomb goes, it’s a long story, as many people had been killed in Tokyo with all the radiation—

TB: In the firebombing of Tokyo, 100,000 people were burned to death in a firestorm.

WB: And the Japanese had tried to have poison gas blown to America so that all the people on the West Coast would die; unfortunately, the winds changed and blew it back on Japan, so they quickly got rid of it. I mean it was a ruthless war on all sides.

DG: Let’s hope we won’t have another—

WB: Hopefully there won’t be major ones, because the world will disappear. Look what’s going on right now. By the way, I just got this book—it’s a beautiful translation of Baudelaire, whom I’ve translated also, the complete poems. It’s by Aaron Poochigian.

DG: Ah, yes, I’ve heard of him. He’s posting on social media about that for some time. It’s such a pleasure to know that you have it, Willis. He’s working incredibly hard on that.

WB: Yes, yes.

DG: He’ll be glad to know that you have it.

TB: He’s a wonderful translator and he’s done many of the great classics.

DG: Willis, let’s transition back to China. You were in China during the Cultural Revolution and even translated some of Mao’s poetry before arriving. In a 2015 NY Times interview you stated that “Mao was an excellent poet behind the gibberish translation. It was the worst kind of Chinglish. If you are a writer, you can see the writing behind even a bad version. Most of his poems have a political element, but he never forgets to bring the classical gods in.” It’s also interesting that China—a country with such an ancient history—should have a language whose grammatical structure accommodates only the present. With respect to the past, how does Mao’s poetry measure up to the great historical voices of Du Fu or Su Dongpo, for example?

WB: Mao had an interesting life. He was a laundry man, of all things, poor. He slept in a bed with eight other people. When they wanted to turn, they had to give a message, and they’d all turn at once, or they’d all fall on the floor, kind of ridiculous. I thought he was a very good poet. I haven’t looked at his work in recent years, but I hold to that. The works are all political, and they refer to ancient Chinese gods, and they’re all based on ancient tradition.

DG: That’s interesting because this is an aspect of his life that many people don’t really know about—the fact that he did write poetry, and, like you said, his poetry isn’t actually that bad. One more question for you, Willis, before we transition back to Tony. So, Chinese poetry and actually Asian authors in general are largely ignored by Western academics—

WB: I don’t think so. On the contrary. It was Pound, Amy Lowell, the whole Bloomsbury group that discovered Chinese poetry, and Japanese, which gave them Imagism, and a whole new way of expressing picture poems in verse. No, I think Chinese poetry had an immense effect on Western poetry, in particular English poetry. I mention Amy Lowell and so forth, and Pound, of course.

DG: What I mean is that, of course, Chinese literature did influence many individual writers, especially those you mention, but what I’m saying is that the academy doesn’t study it often. We don’t really read translations of Chinese poets, for example, in an MFA program, or even Comparative Literature programs—

WB: That depends on which one it is. They certainly did in mine.

DG: So times have changed, then? When I was a teaching assistant at the comparative literature program at Cal State Long Beach, most of that was very Eurocentric, but it seems like in the past there was this emphasis, like you say—there was a focus on Eastern authors as well, yes?

WB: It’s not only Eastern authors, but also “Eastern” authors also in Europe, like Mayakovsky, and a whole gang of other marvelous poets, including Greek poets. I think in the 20th century—this is a generalization, but I stand by it—the greatest poetry, apart from English, was written by the Greeks and the Spaniards (Lorca, Jimenez). They had more Nobel Prizes than America has had, but America has never had a Nobel Prize in Poetry—

TB: Well, with the exception of Bob Dylan, because that’s songwriting, of course. And, actually, Louise Glück just won.

WB: That’s right!

TB: Now we have two.

DG: Times are a-changin’ and so I agree with you, Willis, it depends on where you are and who you’re studying with, but there should be more emphasis in general on Eastern literature, because it’s just as good, if not better sometimes. Let’s come back to you, Tony, but let’s stay with China. With your father, you spent one year in Beijing translating the work of Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Can you talk about those experiences, what you learned, and not just about translation but the overall culture in which you were situated, and how the approach in translating Chinese poetry differs from other translations? In other words, how close can an English version, for example, get to what you’ve called “the poem behind the poem?”

TB: It would help to define my terms a little bit. When I talk about the “poem behind the poem,” I go back to an idea that was prevalent in modernism—that, as Le Corbusier said, “a house is a machine for living in,” and a book is also a machine for understanding. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “a poem is a machine made out of words.” Well, if it’s a machine, it does work, and it does a particular kind of work. And if you translate a poem without translating the work that the poem does, then what ends up happening is you haven’t really translated what the poem’s function is, like for example, let’s say you translate the poem’s meaning—meaning by meaning, not just word by word, but meaning by meaning, phrase by phrase, image by image, and you get that all across in your English, but maybe the poem was really not about any of those things. Maybe the poem was really a sound poem, or maybe the poem was a formal poem in which the rhyme is really essential, or maybe like “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight,” by Li Bai for example, it’s a poem about the moon, but the word “moon” only appears once or twice in the poem, but the moon radical—Chinese characters are made up of radicals put together, like little pictograms—appears several times throughout the poem. And so, the poem has moonlight shining all the way through it. That’s the poem behind the poem. So, your job isn’t just to figure out what the poem says—that’s what CliffsNotes does to literature; it says: Here’s what you can write your paper about. So, it’s not just what the poem says, but what the poem does. If you’re translating the poem behind poem, that’s what you’re translating. When you come to Chinese poetry, that’s particularly hard, because compared to English, Chinese is immensely ambiguous, especially classical Chinese poetry. You often don’t know the number of things. Is it one crow and one tree, or is it many crows and many trees, or many crows and one tree? We don’t know, right? And so, there’s an incredible ambiguity—you can drop the pronouns, it can almost be just pure language in the five characters, or seven characters, or four characters of the line. It might be largely nouns, verbs, and adjectives—power words—with maybe a preposition or so, but these connectives that give it specificity in English are dropped out for a more precise, more intense vision in the poem. So, what do you do in English? How much of that ambiguity do you bring across without losing the poem’s meaning? Another question—is this really what the poem’s work is? Is this really what the machine of the poem is trying do? So, in the sense, the deeper question to ask yourself is: How can I translate the machine of the poem? And from Chinese to English it’s really hard as compared to, say, Spanish to English, where there’s so many cognates, and where the structure of the language is so similar.

DG: Indeed, the whole concept of the machine of the poem, not just the meaning, but what it’s doing, the process itself of the poem—it has many parts and they come together and it’s important not just to translate the parts, as you say, but what all the parts do—

TB: I’ll give you one quick example. There’s a poem by Su Dongpo that is a poem which can be read beginning to end, or end to beginning. Now, when you’re translating that poem, you better damn well make sure that your translation can be read the same way.

DG: That’s going to be quite a challenge.

TB: It’s a challenge. It’s a big challenge, but if you don’t live up to that challenge, you haven’t really translated the poem.

DG: Very interesting. Let’s stay with one more question for you and then we’ll jump back to Willis. Given all the fascinating things you’ve said about Chinese poetry, I’d like to talk about your anthology of Chinese poetry, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, covering 3000 years of literary tradition from the Book of Songs composed during the Zhou Dynasty to the Swiss-Chinese poet, Yang Lian. In the introduction, you write: “We have also attempted to adjust the canon, here and there, to shine a spotlight on fine poets whose work is often overlooked, and especially to make room for the poems of Chinese women.” Along with the difficult process of selecting, compiling, and editing this anthology, can you talk about how the activity of bringing less recognized Chinese writers to the forefront helped shape your own understanding the literary tradition, and how is their writing either stylistically different or similar to the more well-known names in the anthology?

TB: I think of the Chinese tradition in contrast to that of Japan, where sexism made the mainstream of Japanese literature female versus male. In Japan the male writers were so caught up in Chinese culture that they often wrote in Chinese, as a literary language—in the way that many writers through Milton and onward would write in Latin in addition to writing in English, but the real language of literature was supposed to be in Latin. Or like those Greeks who would write in the artificial language of Katharevousa versus Dimotiki (Demotic Greek), the clean, cleansed language of newspapers and politicians in which you couldn’t really write good poetry—so many examples of that. In Japan, because the women were often not educated in Chinese they wrote in Japanese, and because they were writing in their home language they wrote better literature, and they’re now remembered when a lot of the men are forgotten, so fascinating. But in China, a lot of women were not educated. Sometimes scholars would educate their daughters, and so on, but it was—remember that education in the arts in China was the high road to political promotion, because it was part of the Confucian classics that you had to study, the memorization of The Book of Songs, imperial anthologies, calligraphy, and musical ability, this is what in the West we would call the “renaissance man,” but in China it was a necessary part of passing your imperial exams in order to be promoted up in the government—not something that women could do, unless you happened to be the empress and the emperor died in which case you could run the country as the Empress Dowager, but that was rare. So, therefore, women’s literature wasn’t preserved; it was often written but not preserved in the way that men’s literature was. I’ll give you an example: There’s the Nüshu, the woman’s writing, where women in the west of China created their own language, and would write in this women’s language poems of love, poems of friendship, elegies, and so on, that were so important to them that knowing they would never be published, never be part of the literary tradition, they often would take their books of poetry and ask to be buried with them or burned with them upon their death. So there’s a great literature in China—a great women’s literature in China, and guess where it is? It’s ash in the sky. It’s rotting in the ground, underground. Yet some women’s literature still does survive. It may be that Li Qingzhao only has fifty or some poems that survive versus Lu You who has over a couple thousand, but every one of her poems is better than every one of his. So, I’m happy to emphasize her work over his, even though fewer of hers survive.

DG: That’s fascinating. Talking about women, we spoke about Sappho as well. Much of her work is just fragments, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Only God knows how much better she would be if we had the complete collection, all the work?

WB: We still have enough to make her the best of all, the best we ever had and have.

TB: It’s a process of literary reconstruction, right, Willis? You work with the fragments and fill in the gaps.

WB: If you have any knowledge of Greek, you can save so many poems, as I did.

DG: You have to recover as much as you can.

WB: One thing, however. If you have a son as smart as Tony, you better watch out. You’re in trouble.

DG: Aha, but this competition is a healthy competition. It leads to a lot of positive creative developments and breakthroughs, so this is quite good. Let’s come back to you, Willis, and go to a different continent now, Africa, where you also traveled extensively. You spent a lot of time in Kenya, for example, and your sequence of poems, African Bestiary, contains sonnets as well as invented forms. Can you talk about your travels throughout Africa, the uniqueness of this land, how it influenced the poems you wrote, and some of the forms you invented for this particular sequence?

WB: Well, I first began going to North Africa, back in 1951, and I kept going to Tangier, which is a fascinating city where the exiles of former kings and counts—from Eastern Europe, especially, but also some from Western Europe, French—went because they had no taxation, so they could make as much money, inherit as much money, and not give anything back. I loved being there. I loved the meals, everything. Later, Tony came up with the idea of going to Africa, and he said you have about twenty minutes to decide, and so we went. It was the most magnificent experience. We saw not only Kenya in the end. We also saw Tanzania. We went down as far as Zanzibar. We were in the middle of the Indian Sea, and a boat came by with about fifty or a hundred college girls, and Tony went off, saying: “See you soon, Willis.” And fortunately, I had—

TB: I don’t remember that.

WB: I had rubber fins to keep me floating because we had been towed up by a motorboat—it was impossible to get back to shore on my own. And I thought: “What a wonderful way to die out here in the sea.” But after a few hours or so Tony came back, and we had a great time. We continued, and I hope he had a good time with the women. I don’t think he ever told me, but Tony—

TB: I don’t remember any of that, but I do remember going to the island that we swam to and seeing the giant sea tortoises there.

WB: Yeah.

TB: I remember that.

WB: He must have been intoxicated—totally intoxicated by the lovely, young American women.

TB: I think Willis had an erotic dream and placed me in it.

DG: Aha! You’re still here, Willis. You made it through all of it. You’ve been everywhere and lived to tell about it all. You wrote about it, so you’ve truly seen and done everything there’s to do.

WB: I’ve never been to the South Pole—

DG: There’s still time, Willis. There’s still time. God willing—

TB: One quick thing about Africa. When we went to Kenya and Tanzania, and especially in Kenya, we did an extensive amount of touring of the game parks, along with birding at Lake Baringo, as well. So we would be in our truck, our Jeep, and we would be driving along with our guide through the Savannah—who was named Moses, which was appropriate. And so, Moses would be taking us along, and I would be like: “Look, Willis, a rhinoceros. Look, Willis, a leopard. Look, Willis, an ostrich.” And Willis would be writing sonnets in his notebook. He would look at the animal and then look away from the animal to write it all down. He spent his whole time writing, but he enjoyed it too. This book came very much out of his focus to write a bestiary.

DG: There was a poem about a hippo that you sent me, Willis, with your illustration that was quite nice. I like that poem, and now I know where all the inspiration came from. Tony was directing your inspiration there.

WB: We had a marvelous time. I remember in Zanzibar we each bought shoes to go on our rough feet. I think we paid about a dollar or fifty cents for them. They were lousy but at least we had something to protect our feet. The Africans were so sweet. They were poor. They ate too much meat. When we left, they treated us to a big free meal at a restaurant called something like—

TB: It was called Carnivore. It was a place where you would go to eat unusual animals, like ostrich, or crocodile.

WB: Crocodile tongue.

TB: Crocodile, or wildebeest, yeah.

DG: Truly an experience. This is not something you can get from books. You can only get it from people who’ve been there, like you. And so, I want to ask you, Willis, would you say you learned more about the world through your travels or books. If you had to have one or the other—is travel more essential to the human experience or books?

WB: I think it’s an unfair question because—

DG: It is. It is. I admit: It’s an unfair question, but you’re the perfect person for it. You’re both well-read, and you’re also well-traveled.

WB: If you’re not well-read, you can’t do anything with travel, and if you haven’t traveled what you read isn’t necessarily superficial, but it lacks a lot of very emotional and pictorial truths, which you only get by being there.

DG: That’s a perfect answer. I agree with you, because you miss much of the context in which that literature is written.

WB: The Romantics had—I mean Keats was marvelous but he hadn’t been to many of the places he wrote about. At least he ended up in Rome, and sadly died so young.

DG: Shelley, on the other hand, didn’t make it.

WB: The wind was too strong. He drowned.

DG: One more question for you, Willis. We’re basically at the end. We’ve done a good job.

WB: We’ve gone so fast through an hour? Is there no way of expanding time?

DG: Time is time. We can neither shorten nor lengthen it. Let’s go to the last frontier. Let’s go to the New World. Let’s go to America. I would like to talk about something quintessentially American. So from Africa we jump to America and Babe Ruth. It seems like you knew him. Did you really live in the same building, and do you have any interesting stories?

WB: I did live in the same building, on 90th and Riverside, which went from 90th to 89th. He lived on the 89th street side, and what happened was I was ten years old, and the doorman said: “Hey, kid, we’re going up to the Babe’s.” We crossed the little place there, the courtyard, we go up to the 18th floor. He had the penthouse up there, in a very big place. And when I went in, there were twenty or thirty photographers. It was 1939, just before the war started, and he had been an orphan himself. Very poor as he started out. He had sympathy for the poor, believe it or not, even though he was one of the richest baseball players. He loved women. He loved alcohol—

DG: And cigars.

WB: So, anyway, they took the picture, and it appeared on the front pages of most newspapers, and so I became famous for a day. When I got back to the World’s Fair (1939-1940), we picked up Pepsi and Coke bottles and sold them for two cents each at the local grocery, so we could get rich and pay our way back on the trains. It was great fun in those days.


(Willis Barnstone, left, with Babe Ruth)

 

From Willis Barnstone’s STICKBALL ON 88TH STREET

The Building

Babe Ruth lives on the other
side of the court. His brother-in-law

jumped from the 18th
story into the handball

area where play until tenants
got angry. I heard the thump

when I was in
bed. The Babe gave

me a baseball diploma. The same
elevatorman, Joe, who slapped for

not being nice to
Jerry (it wasn’t true)

took me upstairs to the Babe’s
for the photos in the Daily News.

Sunday afternoon we hear
Father Coughlin and Hitler

live, shrieking on the radio. Everyone
hates Hitler. Comes a strike, new

men keep billy clubs
by the doors. I

like the scabs same as Ruddy
and Joe outside to whom we

bring sandwiches. I heard
Ruddy got hit trying to

bust in. They almost broke
his head. It’s funny for men

to ride me up
the elevator. I always

run downstairs. They slow me down
as I race for the outside

into the north pole
wind and the gully.

But often I spend the afternoon
in a corner of the elevator,

going up and down
in the tired coffin.

When no one else is riding,
they let me close the brass

gate. I do it
like a grown man.

 

DG: Indeed. These stories are equal to the ones you and Tony told about Africa, and they’re quintessentially American. Thank you for that. Let’s transition back to you now, Tony. In staying with the American theme, I’d like to talk about your 2006 collection, Golem of Los Angeles, which won Red Hen’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and contains a powerful poem, “Parable in Praise of Violence,” featuring the following epigraph by H. Rap Brown: “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Throughout the poem you sarcastically give thanks for all the greatness and depravity produced on these shores, but the fourth stanza is especially powerful: “My life is like a loaded gun, and when I aim it at you / I hope to take off the top of your head, / no safety on, no playing nice, just the spark, / the flash, the damage, just red American / cherry pie violence.” Did you compose the poem as a response to something specific or was it more a state of mind back then, and how do you feel about all that today, when things aren’t exactly improving—do you manage to retain a sense of optimism?

TB: Part of it, of course, is the reference to the Dickinson poem—“my life was like a loaded gun,” a very interesting poem. But for me, it also goes back to the idea of the poem being a machine made out of words. And one kind of machine, of course, is the gun. Like the gun, like the violence of the gun, the poem itself, as a machine, may not take off the top off your heads—»I know it’s poetry if it takes off the top off my head,” as Dickinson writes. It may not actually take off the top of your head, but it can give you that sense of almost violent ecstasy. The poem can ravish you emotionally. For me, from the very beginning, I wanted my poetry to do something, not just be polite—nice, domestic poetry that didn’t actually move the emotions and challenge you intellectually. So, there’s that. But on the other side of the question is the way in which, at that time and especially today, the American obsession with violence—particularly with guns and using guns as part of our revolutionary consciousness—permeates so many levels of society. I think we have been a sold a story of America, one story of America, whereas there are many stories of America that could be told—as can be seen with the current debate about critical race theory. But one story of America is that it was an enlightenment project, a revolutionary project against the order of absolute monarchs, or limited monarchy such as in England, and of despotic rule, culminating in a move towards the democratic representation of the people that started out with only white males of a certain economic level who could vote, and slowly that expanded to the rest of Americans, except for children, of course. Yet, that story of the Revolution, that story of the justifiable revolution against the father country, against the king, where we take up arms against oppression, has so permeated American consciousness, it has so become our “rebel without a cause,” not to mention the “movies” that are constantly sold to us about these violent men who create Second Amendment solutions to social problems, who are basically, if you think about it, no different in their own way than those men who put on white hoods and lynched African Americans, Jews, and others they considered undesirable—the lynchings in the Old South—that vigilante justice is at the core of the story Americans tell about themselves, and especially how it ties into our idea that the three hundred or so million guns owned by Americans are a bulwark against an oppressive government. And what’s happening right now, sadly, is that because of the pervasive propaganda, the disinformation of right-wing media has sold Americans a story that their government has been taken away from them, and they need to threaten death against election workers, politicians—they need to be ready to take up arms, as they did on January 6th, and storm Congress to take back America, just like the American Revolutionaries had to do against King George. That story is being told to us. It’s all a lie. But Americans sadly enough, if they get their news from the wrong place, they will get that propaganda, and they will believe it’s true, and they’ll be willing to kill each other. That’s why violence is as American as cherry pie. It’s our essential story. We need to take up violence, take up guns, take up arms, against oppression, even if that oppression doesn’t exist, even if the people we’re taking up arms against are, in fact, the victims. So, sadly enough—obviously I’m worked up about this—we’re in a bad place in America. We might be at the end of democracy. And I hope not.

WB: I don’t think that’s true. I mean it’s something that anyone who went to junior high school should know, but the notion of the Second Amendment giving people the right to have guns is not in the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment was written because—I think it was in 1812 or 1810 that they thought the English were going to attack again and try to reconquer the States, or America, whatever you want to call it. And it said they could have militias—it did not say people could have guns, and it was only for a special purpose of fighting the British, and so this misleading idea that it gave single people the right to have guns is just nonsense.

TB: And the supposedly originalist Supreme Court justices who said we have to go back to the context in which the laws were written ignore that history, because it doesn’t fit with their preferred story.

DG: I agree. The laws were written for a certain time. We can’t apply the standards of one time onto another.

WB: Right, and it isn’t only that it didn’t say that—it didn’t even say that because it doesn’t deal with the question of personal ownership. It doesn’t say you can’t have guns. It only says you can form militias.

TB: Dark image to end the interview on. Do you want to ask another question, so we end on something lighter?

DG: I have two more questions. For you and Willis. Are you reading or working on anything at the moment, Willis? What are you up to these days?

WB: I’m up to about three books. I did a book on Apollinaire—a translation with many illustrations. I finished my Baudelaire translation, again with paintings, and right now I am just tuning up with Tony’s help to make it all stay in place—these are big books—a 656-page book called Magic Couplets: Portraits of Poets

TB: Beautiful paintings he made, and with couplets.

DG: Yeah, the stuff you’ve been sending me, Willis, the illustrations, the poems—you’re incredibly active. You work on every level—

WB: I’m only 94 years old—give me a break.

DG: You work like you’re 55. That’s what I’m trying to say. You’re incredible. The energy you have. The vitality with which you produce the work is just incredible. May we all reach that point. May we all have a little bit of the blessing that you’ve had. Keep on going, Willis. All the power to you. You will write more books. You may even make it to Antarctica. Who knows?

WB: I’ll tell you a funny story, if there’s time for it. When I was 20, I went to spend a year in the Doctoral Program at the Sorbonne. At 21, I went to Greece, and Louis MacNeice, the poet, was then head of the British Institute. And in those days, everybody knew everybody. The world was small. If you wanted to get in touch with Camus, you wrote him a letter, and he answered you within twenty-four hours. I had wonderful correspondence with everybody. And so, MacNeice, said: “Willis, you know, I’m here, head of the British Institute. I taught Greek history and translated plays from Ancient Greek all my life, and here we are, and I’ve never climbed the fucking Acropolis.” In those days, they didn’t have roads to go up there, because they didn’t want the Turks to bring their big guns up top again. So it was a farce, this thing—MacNeice was a man of about 6’3 or 4, handsome guy, and we’re walking together, and he trips and falls. His head is full of blood. He takes his handkerchief—there’s a huge smile on his face. He takes his handkerchief out of his—in those days, you know, everyone who climbed the Acropolis had a three-piece suit on, and so he takes his handkerchief, wipes the blood of his face, and he says: “I’ve come to Greece. I’ve climbed the Acropolis. And bathed myself in blood and marble.” The image of blood and marble is memorable.

TB: Let me tell a very fast anecdote. I was walking through the streets of Athens with my ex-girlfriend and her nephew. He was six years old at the time. And we look through the streets, and up the hill we see on top of the hill—the child says: “Look, look, over there, you can see the apocalypse!”

WB: He was a Bible scholar, obviously …. Heaven is described terribly in the New Testament. I translated the New Testament—2000 pages—and you know, there’s nothing to eat up there, because the walls are made of diamonds, the floors of gold, etc. You can’t get much food growing in pure, rich, wealth of stones. It doesn’t work, so better go to Hell where you can roast things—you can roast lousy hamburgers on the fire, unless you’re with Dante.

TB: It’s like an old joke, but I won’t tell the joke, but it’s like an old joke I could tell you.

DG: Well, well, guys, we’ve come a long way. I’d like to ask you the same question, Tony: What are you working on? You’re helping Willis, and it would also be nice to hear something about your own projects. This is a nice note to end on.

TB: Sure. Four things right now, which is actually less than normal. Usually, I’m working on about fifteen, but a lot of them have come to fruition. One: I just published a translation of the Urdu ghazals of the great Kashmiri poet, Ghalib, and that just came out with White Pine Press. That took a good fifteen years or so. I’m really happy to have that out—

DG: Congratulations.

TB: Thank you. My co-translation is with Bilal Shaw—a good friend of mine. I’m writing children’s poetry. I’ve written a book of children’s poetry. I’m collaborating with my niece, Maya Barnstone, who’s a wonderful young artist who lives in Sydney Australia, and so that’s going to be a really exciting project. We hope to get the book illustrated within a year and start sending it out. Here’s one poem:

I’ve also written an ABC of animals that I illustrated myself. Here is «N is the Nightingale»:

The other thing I’m working on—a very large critical book about William Carlos Williams that uses Williams as a lens to open up modernism, within the question of how the arts and humanities relate to technoscience, and the battle for authority between, let’s say, science and technology on the one hand, and poetry, art, and philosophy on the other hand. And the ways in which they began to—you know, the machine made out of words. When Williams talks about that, he’s appropriating the language. He’s doing the intellectual appropriation of technology, so as to give poetry the aura of the machine. Poetry in the machine age, or the authority of science. It’s a long story and a big book that starts with Bacon and goes all the way through the atom bomb. It’s a big project.

WB: What are you working on?

DG: I’m living in Italy, Willis. I’m working on interviews. I’m having fun interviewing incredible people like you. I’m focused on my writing and teaching English here to Italians. It’s all going well. Thank you so much for asking, Willis. It’s going well. It’s going about as well as it can.

WB: Yes.

TB: There’s a lot of room for good translations of contemporary Italian poets.

DG: There is. There is. I just have to pick up the language a little bit more. I’m not quite at that level.

TB: Indeed. Oh, I did want to mention one other project I forgot to mention.

DG: Sure.

TB: The other last project I’m working on—I’ve finished a book of new poems. And as you could probably hear from what I was saying before, it’s very much a response to where are in the current moment politically, to four years of Trump, and the certain rhetoric of violence, the decline of democratic norms, the fear of the end of democracy that we seem to be spinning towards, the era of climate change, environmental degradation and disaster. “Look, you can see the apocalypse!” Right? That sense of difficult times that we’re living through right now, and that’s really what the book’s premise is about.

DG: That’s fascinating, Tony. Probably the Greeks—they would’ve perhaps had better solutions. They’re an ancient people, but, in a sense, perhaps, they would’ve been more in tune, more in touch with how to solve these problems because they had a complete education. They focused on the whole individual. They didn’t just focus on the so-called mental aspect of education—they cared for the spiritual, the physical side of the individual, which are things we neglect, and perhaps this is why we’re in the state we’re in today. We are focused on science, but we neglect the spiritual side of our own being, and that’s maybe why have these disasters—COVID is a product of science. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to the question. All I know is that we have to try and get out of this conundrum.

TB: It could be that we’re living inside a Greek tragedy.

DG: Maybe. Maybe. Yeah, like Huxley said: Maybe this world is another planet’s hell. Who knows? No one really knows, but somehow we have to persevere and make do. We have to stay positive. Thank you so much. It’s truly been a pleasure, Tony, Willis. With immense gratitude from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate it. This has been an incredibly positive experience for me. I wish you, Tony, all the best with your projects. Willis, likewise. I wish you all the best. I look forward to seeing more of your poems, more of your illustrations, more of your books. I’m sure that will happen.

TB: Thank you, David. Thank you for all that you do.

DG: Be well.

WB: And as I say to my good friends: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

DG: I won’t, Willis. I won’t.

 

 

About Willis Barnstone

About Tony Barnstone

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Gary Young, Poet, Editor, Printer, and Translator, interviewed by David Ga...


Gary Young (photo credit: Jim MacKenzie)

December 11th, 2021

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Gary Young, Poet, Editor, Printer, and Translator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Gary Young’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: In 2018, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran an article about you, and the first sentence of it was “Gary Young may be one man, but he is several artists.” Indeed, you’re very well known as a poet and editor, but your work as an essayist, translator, and visual artist has received less attention. Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve done in this capacity, and how visual art, translation, and non-fiction ultimately affect the writing of your poetry?

GY: I was almost fifty when I first started teaching full time. Before that, I made my living as a visual artist selling prints and artist’s books and enjoying the occasional poetry prize or fellowship. My work is represented in collections around the country and throughout the world: The Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Museum, The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, the The Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques-Doucet in Paris to name just a few. For years, most institutions and private collectors interested in my print work were completely disinterested in my efforts as a poet, and the same can be said of those interested in my poetry: most were indifferent to my work as an artist. It may seem to outsiders that my creative life has been bifurcated, but in truth my work as an artist has informed my work as a poet, and my poetry drives my efforts to create books, broadsides, and other typographic efforts that synthesize these two sides of my artistic practice. The Geography of Home, an early artist’s book of relief prints inspired me to adopt the prose poem as my primary form when I printed a poetic essay in a single line for almost 100 pages on the backs of the prints. My edition of D. J. Waldie’s translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice made me acutely aware of the need for silence around my poems. This list could go on; I don’t think that I’ve printed a single book that didn’t influence my poems in one way or another.

I have published many essays over the years—investigations of fine printing and book arts, essays on prose poetry, and innumerable essays and reviews of books of poetry and essays on various poets. My translation work grew out of my own poetry practice, my interest in Zen Buddhism, and in the poetry of China and Japan. They’re all of a piece.

DG: One of your biggest inspirations is the San Francisco Renaissance poet William Everson, who, aside from being a poet, was also a literary critic and small press printer; indeed, he saw the latter skill as the ultimate realization of what it means to be poet—in the most complete sense. Everson wrote the following in The Poem as Icon—Reflections on Printing as a Fine Art: “My whole attempt in a pluralistic age is to give the book a sacral, holistic character, to recover time with it.” Along with a discussion of how Everson influenced your work, how do you see the future of printmaking in an increasingly digital age, and how, in your view, will this affect the creative psyche of poets?

GY: I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a student in 1969, and Bill Everson showed up around a year later and served as poet-in-residence at Kresge College. Bill started up his Lime Kiln Press in the University Library, and he taught a remarkable class titled «Birth of a Poet.» Bill stalked the stage, lecturing extemporaneously, occasionally bellowing exhortations, and often falling into uneasy and prolonged silences. The class dealt with poetic vocation, and it had a profound influence on me. It’s interesting in retrospect that I did not study with Bill at the press but came to printing in my own circuitous way. I had started a literary magazine while a graduate student at UC Irvine, and I took a night class at the high school to learn how to print when I returned to Santa Cruz after receiving my degree. I quickly learned the ins-and-outs of offset printing, then I started playing with an old Chandler and Price platen press. Fifty years later I’m still printing letterpress, and teaching others to print as well. My students are drawn to printmaking and to letterpress printing in part because it is a haptic enterprise as opposed to a virtual, digital experience. It’s impossible to ignore digital production (I’ve designed dozens of books on the computer), but the smell of ink and solvent, and the touch of metal type or a carved woodblock rings bells in the psyches of young artists that virtual production can’t hope to duplicate.

I didn’t consciously use Bill as a model, but we became good friends, and I’ve somehow taken on his role as printer and poet at UCSC. I feel his spirit always in my work. Twenty-five years ago, I published an essay, «The Books That Should Be Written,» that addresses in detail my debt to Everson. Here are two paragraphs that give a taste:

«Everson believed that a poem is fundamentally for the ear, and that fine printing creates a poetry for the eye. As an aesthetic creation, the printed poem does sing on the page like a poem in recitation, but it is the body of the poem that concerns me. Incarnation is my true design. Each time I set a poem in type and feel the weight of it in my hand, I realize a consubstantiation, the word made flesh.

As a poet and a printer, I am challenged to integrate contemplation and action. My efforts have been no more than a search for equivalence—poetic utterance and printed page, image and text, body and soul. I approach each book as I would a poem, a sublime articulation.» (Quarry West 32, 1995.)

DG: What’s one achievement you’re particularly proud of as a printer, and one as a poet?

GY: It’s hard to know how to answer your question; pride is an emotion that rarely visits me. I do experience great satisfaction when I’ve created something that I think is working well, or better yet, something that surprises me. The greatest pleasure for me as an artist is when I look at an image that I’ve made, or read a poem that I’ve written, and I ask myself, where did that come from? Who did that? Ego is useful for remembering to put on our pants before leaving the house in the morning, but I think it’s generally a trap for any artist.

The printed book that I’m most fond of is The Geography of Home, which I’ve already mentioned. As for my books of poetry, Days is the one that will always be my favorite. It was my third book, but my first book of prose poems. Most significantly, it was the first book I’d written that felt totally mine; a book that no one else could have written, for better or worse. For that, I feel more gratitude than pride.

DG: You’re well-versed in writers and poets of the Western Canon: Philip Levine, Czesław Miłosz, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Crane, Arthur Rimbaud, and so on; the work of these poets is special and wildly diverging, but nevertheless uniquely Western. At the same time, you also have an affinity for Japanese and Chinese writers. In 2017, Ninja Press published your collection In Japan, written, according to this UC Santa Cruz article, when you were “working on a book of translations of the calligraphy of the Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa.” With Yanwen Xu, you’ve also translated Chinese poets of the Song and Tang dynasties that were published in The American Journal of Poetry. In this respect, how do the sensibilities and structure of Eastern poetry fundamentally differ from those of the West, but also how are they similar, and what can each respective culture learn from being exposed to each other’s poetry?

GY: Perhaps naïvely, I think that the impulse to poetry is universal, and though every age, every language, and every culture spices the soup according to their particular tastes, we’re all sipping from the same cup.

For me, the biggest distinction between the sensibilities of Eastern and Western poetry involves the relative position of the self in relation to the world and to others. Beginning with Homer and manifested later in early English poems such as Beowolf and Gawain and the Green Knight, the individual is paramount. We see this later in the Romantics and again with the Beats. In the East, the individual takes a back seat to society and family, to the landscape, and to history. These different sensibilities are surely a reflection of the differences between Christianity in the West, and Buddhism and Daoism in the East. These distinctions may be breaking down a bit as cultures mix and merge in our own times, but I think they are still manifested in the way that poets position themselves in their poems.

Structurally, the poetry of the East and the West are only superficially different. The West has the sonnet; the Chinese have the shih; the Japanese the haiku and tanka. Each culture has its urtexts and preferred forms, but each tries to capture in language what most moves them.

DG: Chinese and Japanese poets have an affinity for nature and their descriptions of it are poignant, subtle, and powerful. As a California writer living in Santa Cruz, can you talk about one Chinese writer, for example, whose sensibilities you feel would’ve been particularly well suited to the landscape and character of California?

GY: As someone who’s lived for over forty years in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I often think of the Chinese poets who retreated to the mountains to live and to write. Han Shan is probably the most well-known to Americans, but Yang Wanli wrote wonderful poems that celebrate nature and landscape, and no doubt he would have felt at home here. Li Bai certainly would have enjoyed the laid-back Californian attitude (to say nothing of the wineries and brew pubs), but I think the Tang poet Du Mu would have found life here most convivial. Du wrote shih, but also sensual fu—poetic prose—, and though his poems are tinged with melancholy, I think he would have fit in quite well:

Traveling Through the Mountains

by Du Mu

Climbing a cold, stone path in the mountains,
Houses can be seen faintly through the clouds.
Late in the evening, I stop my cart to look at the maples,
More brilliant than any flower in spring.

(from Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, White Pine Press, 2022.)

DG: Which poem about California would you say has affected you most profoundly, both personally and creatively, and why?

GY: There are so many wonderful poems about California—picking just one would be like picking my favorite child, so I’ll give you two. ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass captures beautifully the physical glories of California, but it also taps into the philosophical and eschatological pressure that comes from living at the edge of a continent, the edge of the world. The other poem that has always affected me greatly is ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers. He also extols the wild beauty of California, then reflects on our human intrusion and suggests that “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little. . .” Jeffers allows for our participation in the beauty of our environment, but he puts us in our place.

DG: In your 2012 collection, Even So: New and Selected Poems, there’s a powerful poem which starts in the following way: “This tumor is smaller than the last one, he said. I’m going to cut it out, and then do my best to stitch you back together.” The work is highly personal—indeed autobiographical—as you’ve stated in another interview. How did this near-death experience affect you creatively, and did your writing habits/sensibilities change as a result? Do you find, also, that in terms of volume, you wrote more, less, or just about the same afterwards?

GY: My appearance was altered quite a bit by the extensive surgery required to remove my first tumor and the surrounding muscle, skin, and flesh, so not only was I forced to confront my own mortality, but I also had to accept that I was not the person that I had been before the surgery. In Waiting for God, Simone Weil says, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Without warning, I had become that ugly woman, and I was forced to discover and accept who I really was. It turned out to be a gift, one that I would have turned down if I’d had the opportunity, but a gift, nonetheless.

Naturally, this experience changed my perspective on life. I had to confront life’s brevity and its tenuousness, and I was also forced to make choices about how I would spend the little time I might have left. I decided to simply continue with the things that moved me most: writing poems, and printing books. I have never written on any set schedule, and in fact, I seem to work in spurts that have no real pattern. My wife says that I complain about not writing when I’m busy with a printing project, and that I complain that I’m not making art when I’m busy writing poems. That’s a character flaw, I confess, but a modest one.

DG: Your two sons, Jake and Cooper, have both published their own collections of poetry. In a Good Times article you say the following about their work: “They don’t have similar styles, except insofar as they both adhere to the belief that poems should not be puzzles, and that you should be able to understand a poem. I’m sure they’ve heard me rail against the ‘put it in a blender and throw it against the wall’ school of poetry their whole lives. So, they have that aesthetic in common.” Two questions: Along with discussing how they ultimately arrived at poetry, do you find yourself often seeking their advice on a poem, and, likewise, do they sometimes ask you to look at something now and then?

GY: My oldest son, Jake, has always been interested in writing. Even before he started school, he wrote and illustrated stories in my studio while I worked. He even published a book with Chronical Books when he was still in kindergarten. Later, he studied literature and philosophy in college, received an MFA in poetry, and completed his PhD in English and Poetry. He is an extraordinarily good poet and critic, and if I can take any credit for his talent, I’m happy to do so. He just published his third book of poems, All I Wanted. Jake’s younger brother, Cooper, is a mathematician, but he started getting curious about what Jake and I were up to when he was in high school, and so asked me for a few poetry books to read. I gave him books by Rexroth, Snyder, Dickinson, and others, and he got hooked. He received a certificate in poetry at Princeton where he majored in math, spent two months following Bashō’s route through Japan as described in Bashō’s Journey to the Deep North, and published the book he wrote on that trip, Sacred Grounds. He’s finished another manuscript and seems to have no problem combining his mathematics with his poetry.

We do look at each other’s work, and I’m always grateful when the boys give me the benefit of their wisdom.

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

GY: I’m currently working on a new book of poems, American Analects. Loosely inspired by The Analects of Confucius, the book revolves around my dear friend and mentor, Gene Holtan, who died about five years ago. I’m preparing a book of translations, Taken to Heart—70 Poems from the Chinese, which White Pine Press will publish next year. I’m also at work printing a few broadsides, and I am putting the final touches on Brad Crenshaw’s Memphis Shoals, an epic poem that I’ll send off to the printers in just a few days.

 

About Gary Young

Gary Young is the author of several collections of poetry. His most recent books are That’s What I Thought, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Booksand Precious Mirror, translations from the Japanese. His books include Even So: New and Selected Poems; Pleasure; No Other Life, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Braver Deeds, winner of the Peregrine Smith Poetry PrizeThe Dream of a Moral Life which won the James D. Phelan Award; and Hands. He has received a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Vogelstein Foundation among others. In 2009 he received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches creative writing and directs the Cowell Press at UC Santa Cruz.