JJN: Joel, are you now at the height of your poetic powers?:-)
JC: Jane, If I really felt that I were, I don't think that I'd say or even write that out loud. The last few years have been good ones in terms of producing new writing and having some publications come my way. I attribute most of this to hanging around long enough, aka getting old and not having given up the faith many years ago. I also think that moving to the greater NYC metropolitan area this past decade did energize me in ways that I never suspected.
JJN: A few years ago I was in Tokyo with Jesse Glass, and some of his friends including British born Tokyo poet Philip Rowland, Japanese poet Yoko Danno who writes poetry only in English, and Japanese and Chinese poetry translator Burton Watson. Jesse asked us all lightheartedly if while in the midst of writing a poem we felt like geniuses, and I have to admit during the drafting of a poem in recent years I do often feel something like that;-) I didn't always feel that way; when I started writing poems I felt intrigued but sort of lost often, not sure how to get out of the jams my poems sometimes found themselves in .
A poetry workshop instructor said it took him seven years to write his first good poem. That comment was useful for me.
When I look at some of my earlier work, as in my first two books, I think it was the best I could do at the time but I think I can do better or more now and achieve better results faster with less effort, tho I also see things I still like in the early work. I assume it would be like playing a musical instrument-- an experienced musician I assume could improvise easily and well compared to a beginner for example I would assume.
I remember seeing a really spectacular poem written by Paul Hoover online accompanied by his comment that he wrote it in a few minutes only, and he told me in an interview that he wrote all of the 56 poems in his book Sonnet 56 in a few months etc. Many or most or all? beginners may not be able to do that I reckon !
There is a kind of dopamine rush (one of the courses I am teaching this semester has a bit to do with pop psychology as it turns out and we talked about dopamine recently!) I guess when writing a poem, especially after you have been at it a while and do it with confidence and playfulness versus fear and confusion or something like that --which may make us feel like geniuses--temporarily. Maybe that is what keeps us going?:-) Or the unrequited desire to keep writing the perfect poem. Or because we don't have something more interesting to do (at least, I usually don't:-)
JC: I’d like to follow up on a couple of your ideas. For me, also, there have been changes in how I feel about writing and how I feel during the act of composition. I too write more and more quickly, and I revise much less frequently than ever before. Unlike the younger version of myself, I now have to have more rhythms and words in my head prior to putting anything down on paper or on the screen. You speculate about more “confidence and playfulness” having come into your writing. Playfulness is essential, I agree, and I believe that play has always been a prime motivator for me; when that ceases to be part of the process, I’ll be done or dead. On the other hand, I think that there is a very fine line separating confidence and fear. At the beginning of my seventh decade of life, I work with the certain (confident?) knowledge that the days dwindle down to a precious few(er), and with the simultaneous fear that the creative opportunity window is ineluctably lowering.
Paradoxically, I suppose, I still, more often than not, find it necessary to compose early drafts in longhand, on paper, before going to the keyboard.
JJN: Many interesting points. I also compose by hand! and then type later--The pen I am using, my handwriting that day, the kind of paper I am working with, all influences the poem I later type I think. My husband for example gave me a notebook that was graph paper as a present and it led to some interesting use of space in poems.
I remember some earlier poems where I was feeling gutsy but also thinking--will people actually go for this? You know, like, can I get away with this? But I found the reception to my "weird" work was positive so I think that reception encouraged me to keep sticking my neck out there so to speak... comments have helped sustain me as a poet, as I live in a small town in Japan where English is not used and nobody in my town cares to read my work and nearly all my friends have no interest in poetry, etc. and if I hold a reading in Japan there are not many people to attend, etc., so most of the encouragement I have to keep writing thus comes from emailed comments from poets abroad, many of whom I have never in fact met in person. I don't even think of myself as an applause junkie!, but you know, otherwise I would be writing pretty much to myself after all and there would be no reason to even bother to type my work....even tho the thrill of the writing is what makes us do it, right?, we don't just write it we type it up and send it to journals and so on...and hope it connects with somebody, even a small group of somebodies....
You mentioned NYC-- How do you think NYC has shaped your writing? For me since I live in small town Japan, probably the isolation I feel as a writer of poetry in English is shaping my writing, and my contact with English in surrogate form now so to speak (the English I read and hear but not read/heard locally…).
Recently I’m working on a longpoem (currently chapbook length) titled “BLANK CITY” that was begun before the Tohoku incidents but incorporates them but also incorporates the language of American TV etc. and some recent events in the U.S. and Europe, etc. While working on this in moments stolen from university work, I also just finished what I will call minimalist fiction (sort of hybrid) piece titled "invisible bodies" which combines the US and Japan as a setting (though what happens in it could happen anywhere—and I am reminded now of Mallarme’s comment which I think was that poets write in a language that occupies an imaginary country!:-) forthcoming in a journal published here in Japan called Yomimono edited by fiction writer Suzanne Kamata. I think much of what I write has no well-defined place in fact, finally, nor wants to, or is I guess deliberately blurry; the events if any and language come out of various overlapping contexts in terms of geography and history and media. Please, tell me about New York! a far cry from my town of Anjo (in English, "safe castle" and the town name is apt!!!) and how it is impacting your work--
JC: New York―the city that never sleeps and is full of dreams. Forgive me for indulging in Woody Allen-like romanticism at this juncture where I sleep less and dream more than ever. I like to think, and I hope that there is evidence, that the density, energy, and various musics of NYC find their way into my writing. That’s what I strive for, in any case.
JJN: That sounds great to me, Joel! And having read your work....I think so....
One of the courses that I teach is an intro to American poetry for (Japanese of course) undergrads majoring in British and American studies and my students read Langston Hughes the other day (I also played the song "Backlash Blues" co-written by Hughes and Nina Simone, a Hughes recording of him reading his poem "The Weary Blues" and others....for my students...). Sometimes I would describe the poetry I like as complicated/difficult (much of it certainly is that! shall I name names? the list would be too long, but, you know, Scalapino, Waldrop, Lauterbach, etc........) but at the same time there are poets like Hughes or Lucille Clifton who I like a lot too and "complicated" may not be the word that jumps to mind yet--your mentioning NY and the musics of NYC...the musical element of poetry is also of course so much a part of many of the writers I do like and Hughes is an example of that obviously...but interestingly “BLANK CITY” is the flattest sounding thing I have ever written! like an announcement -- But-- So -- there are a great many possible elements of a poem that could attract me...I guess one thing that would turn me off would be unintended predictability (though I love intentional banality, e.g. some of the early Roxy Music lyrics....e.g. the cliche-ridden "Editions of You" -- I find those early songs irresistible! and poems that would do that) or....?! Any comments on this?
JC: It seems to me that any significant poetry challenges readers and thus falls somewhere along a continuum of complexity/difficulty that includes work from any number of so-called schools of writing. So, although currently I do tend to seek out poets that one might label experimental, I also frequently go back to canonic poems, if you will, which always reward rereading because they continually confront me with all of their previous demands as well as marvelous, newly discovered mysteries. And don’t labels quickly become meaningless, anyway? What great writers don’t experiment, don’t play, don’t attempt to soar as high as possible toward that “upper limit of music” that Zukovsky insisted upon? I suppose, then, that a reader might consider any poet’s position not just along a horizontal continuum but simultaneously on a vertical, musical/sound axis. Of course, I mean this only half (or less) seriously; but maybe that sort of metaphorical graphing might be somewhat useful―for a minute or two, at least, before the whole theoretical graph collapses and one falls back to the ground of inarticulation. As you’ve suggested, once one begins to define the particular elements of masterful poetry, the enterprise rather speedily sputters out into silence or, even worse, jargon.
Jane, I’m extremely curious about what you say you’re doing with “BLANK CITY” and its “deliberate flatness”! Can you try to explain and illustrate?
JJN: Thanks for your interest. I will try --and also wish to talk perhaps a little more about the "labels" notion…
About “BLANK CITY”, I would prefer readers judge it on their own of course and tell me what they see / hear in it! but as of now (as we conduct our interview) parts of it have been recently published online in Otoliths journal, the 100,000 poets for change e-anthology on the Fieralingue website, and a new and I think exciting print journal based on the east coast called Haven that asked for topical work.
A stanza of “BLANK CITY” that appears in the online 100,000 poets for change anthology is:
earn easy typing income. lather, rinse, repeat. in a contest
between truth and beauty money wins every time. model
AF6200 is not as good as last year's but costs more. i may be
iodine. what remains after the tidal wave. go ask Father Nature.
somebody stole my vertebrae. your browsing is history. we
are scientists after all. i worry where my eyes will go next. i would
like to move my hand across that continent but stop myself
Each stanza so far has a similar sense of "style" (a kind of lack of style :-) and sounds much like the one above, similar length and punctuation style, etc. but I have tried to insert a variety of "surprises" (“surfaces”) into each stanza yet keeping the same (flat) tone and with certain overarching themes connecting the entire work to keep it together as one unified interwoven if obviously choppy and faux-linear piece. Whether the work stays chapbook length or grows beyond that of course depends on many factors (my energy level ?)-- tho it's feeling quite done recently.
The parts in the recent Otoliths are the earliest parts, which my sister, a filmmaker, described as an avant-garde film in words...but the work has been morphing in various directions—tho I think maintaining a core.
About labels and what we like in poems--and other things you have brought up that interest me greatly--I too oscillate between reading contemporary "experimental" works by living writers and works from other eras and different genres and styles -- I have a thing for medieval literature also….well, again, broad--Shakespeare, Donne, Chaucer, Anne Bradstreet, Gwendolyn Brooks, the many many great living poets in various countries too, etc…infinite…But as you imply, a lot of poems now considered conventional from previous eras are quite complicated. This would include many of the poems in the textbooks I use in courses -- written long ago. What none of the textbooks do include are works that I would call simplistic even though few if any avant-garde works (unfortunately!) are included in them.
On TV the other day was a documentary about American director John Ford and guests in this film describing his work as deceptively simple whereas actually there were opposing tensions in his films that made them anything but simple (to quote from memory from the documentary). With a poem I / we like too I think the same exists--Some slam poetry and I don't want to dis slam poetry because I have not attended a slam in years and can't discuss it thus, but some I heard had the musical element but not the semantic / semiotic complexity I was looking for --it is many levels working together that finally work for me I suppose, and I have realized there is too an attitude or outlook (on a semantic level) that will either appeal or not as part of any work for me. One person in the Ford documentary said ambiguity was a characteristic of all good art. I thought yes, that is part of it for certain with a poem too--in a letter I received from Kevin Killian he wrote that for him all good poems had a sense of "mystery" to them and perhaps it is that, the thing that allows us to find individually different things and have different experiences on different days with the same works and different works etc. which makes it fascinate us. And the ambiguity keeping the works from becoming authoritative or closed off or simplistic.
Still, some of my favorite poems would include poems like Lucille Clifton's "miss rosie", Thylias Moss' "Rush Hour," Hughes' "Theme for English B"….Marvin Bell's "Ending with a Line from Lear" which is one of my favorite elegies (another favorite is a rock song I heard in my car the other day, "Fire Maple Song" by US hard rock band Everclear…the lyrics of many of the songs on their early albums are like short stories..) certainly a -- deceptively simple? -- work and a musical one and a shorter one! may be easier to recall of course but--certain specific lines or parts from certain so called contemporary "experimental" poems will be easy to recall whereas we could not easily recall a long complex "chaotic" work at will in its entirety—I mention this because “memorable” work is work that is capable of being recalled! Making some great (complicated) works less“memorable”:-).
I have started writing "experimental" poetry in quotes because I feel uncomfortable with the label. Part of my discomfort may be because I have heard the word uttered dismissively by people who don't seem to like it but…another part could be the notion or nuance of something being "only" an experiment like hasty or trivial which I don't think is appropriate here…but, of course -- whatever word I attempt to substitute will be at most fleetingly (if that) satisfactory, like "exploratory" poetics--though at this minute in time on this day I like that expression --is anybody using that? I thought of it on my own tho no doubt others have thought of it already too-- as you said, we could attempt to codify it, let it become jargon, reinvent jargon endlessly…yet I'd rather spend my scant free time writing poems than inventing poetry jargon in essays I suppose finally so…:-) tho could be fun there too--
Julia Kristeva I believe wrote about the "translinguistic" and used the word "semiotic" to mean the effects of meaning irreducible to language or operating outside of language (used I think differently than I learned the word "semiotic" as a grad student majoring in linguistics-- from memory!)--this may be crucial to the practice of reading and writing poems and helpful to illuminate the problem of nomenclature and why it does not "work"―The meanings run away on their own from the words we use….
JC: Thanks for giving me a sample from “BLANK CITY”, Jane. With all due respect, I wonder if, in your characterization of that work’s style as “flat,” you are being unfair to yourself. If you mean flat as a synonym for “unmusical,” then I beg to differ. I hear/feel rhythms and sounds that are highly charged and wonderfully shifting and layered. Keep in mind Ron Silliman’s commentary regarding the potential “measure” of the sentence and of the stanzaic paragraph. Of course, there is a great deal of “prose” that is regrettably flat. But that is certainly not at all true of the section you sent.
Can you clarify your usage of “flat”?
JJN: Thanks! I think the poem is coming to me sometimes in the voice of a 30-something white male (sorry for the stereotype) TV announcer who is bored with his job/life and self-medicates as a result:-) I hear it in my head as monotone -- I do realize admitting publicly that I hear voices and write those down as poems says a lot about me but ...:-) Though that hardly makes me unique. I like to think about where the voices come from and where they will go, what part of the body do they inhabit, how do they travel inside and outside the body, whose body they might enter next….:-).
I am thrilled that you hear something in it (anything at all!). That's what we love I assume about poetry -- not just the dopamine rush of course but the varied experiences that poetry makes possible, and, I absolutely agree with poets (like Spahr I think who is very interesting to me, what she says about poetry...among many other interesting poet-commentators) who say poetry expands their thinking. We must be forming more new neural connections / synapses in our brains I suppose the longer we read and write poems !
Now, Joel, please share with me if you don't mind a snippet of something new or recent you are working on, and comment on how you see it and/or about its or your objectives.....?
JC: In 2010, probably in the aftermath of teaching some sort of grammar lesson, I started thinking about punctuation marks. Not at all strange, right? In any case, I eventually formulated two sentences on the subject of periods, and then I thought I’d try developing a sequence (of course…) of sentences and sentence fragments that all, to one degree or another, had to do with “periods” of different kinds―punctuation marks, durations, chunks of time, menstrual cycles, and so on. I collected sentences from many different sources, and I created/made up close to an equal number. I tried to be very conscious of not only the content of each sentence, whether “gathered” or invented, but also unique rhythmic and other aural elements, even in groups of words that were quite scientific or technical in nature. Then I worked on pairing up these two kinds of sentences, appropriated and original, one of each category of sentence in every pair. I ended up with 100 pairs of sentences. As I developed the sequence, I gave considerable thought to how each word group in each pair resonated/rhymed with its “partner,” and then―ultimately―to the overall order of these 100 units. Since I was composing in what is traditionally called “prose,” it seems to me that much of what I was dealing with in this sequence (entitled PERIODS) overlaps with your creation of BLANK CITY. Here are the first several sections and the very last one from PERIODS:
. Each end-stop contains an infinite number of points.
. For five weeks, he and his gray dropped off mail down through all the northern counties.
. As he thought about his daughter―he desperately wanted her to be happy; she was unhappy, perhaps desperately―he noticed cars from the late-morning train rushing by―orange, black, red: he found no connection.
. Every painting is a step toward the next.
. I spent most of my days at my grandparents’ house, learning the language and absorbing the American culture through television shows.
. Realization: it is now whole cloth―the behaviors; the scandal; the scandal’s history.
. After he failed to close the deal, he sat alone in his bright, empty office and stared at the spot on the desk where his pen-point kept hitting.
. Periods complete sentences, which are complete periods.
As you know, Jeffrey Side recently published roughly the first half of the entire sequence, as part of his Argotist Ebooks series.
JN: Yes, and I enjoyed it immensely.
You have written a lot of chapbooks, Joel! and I haven't myself really. My book notational started as a chapbook titled disappearance (allow me to thank the Anemone Sidecar for publishing disappearance online) but...and perhaps “BLANK CITY” will grow further yet (not sure!) but-- tho maybe it will remain a chapbook-- Is there something about the chapbook length work that appeals to you - -I mean obviously there must be something--what is that something?
JC: In 1978, when I was still maybe six years or so away from putting out my first collection, George Oppen published and I purchased his slim volume entitled PRIMITIVE. I remember the great pleasure of holding that book in hand, of being instantly taken by the haunting simplicity of the cover design, of the actual feel of its letter press texture; it continues to be a joy to handle this literal object that contains within it miraculous Objectivist Poems. Then, yes, the poems themselves. “Only” thirteen poems that accumulate to an immeasurable collective density; each piece possesses an astounding depth. I understood right away that the richness, the profundity of that text has everything to do with its brevity. Its length matters and produces matter that truly matters. So achieving what Oppen does in PRIMITIVE became a (probably impossible) goal for me, early on. And in recent years I’ve tended to think and organize by means of poetic sequences, which lend themselves to chapbook length, for me, at least, because my own attention and scrutiny―and those of most readers, I believe―have a limit, and outer parameter of forty pages, tops.
JJN: I like what you say about the "feel" of the book. One book from the past for me that felt a certain way (nappy!) in my hand that I liked, and almost fit the size of my large hands, and looked a certain way outside on the covers and inside by the choice of arrangement of words that is stuck in my head forever for some reason I don't know was/is Tom Clark's book SMACK. There are so many great poetry publishers now making the most beautiful handmade books too--too many to name but--
So we have all developed ADHD (I include myself)...that's interesting, Joel. I myself have gone the same way, to start thinking and writing in sequences. My first little book did not come about that way at all, I hand picked a variety of poems over years of publishing that I thought worked together and thought hard about how to organize them and order them etc. but I think ever since the short series "evil nature" or in more recent years I started working much more with concepts and series like you say. I wonder if this career trajectory is common to many other poets?
JC: The process of selecting and organizing your first book is precisely the one I employed in putting together collections at the beginning of my own publishing “career,” if I may be allowed to use such a term. But if I broaden, loosen, the definition of “sequence,” I can argue that even in those early books there are sections or in some cases long poems that are sequential in nature. For the past two decades or more, I’ve thought, planned, and composed serially, very intentionally and in ways that now seem natural if not habitual. Your question regarding the commonality of such writing, in the work of other poets, prompted me to take a look at my bookshelves. In no particular order, and basing my little survey on my expanded notion of what a sequence might be, these names presented themselves: Spicer, Stevens, Reznikoff, Haryette Mullen, Notley, Silliman, Scalapino, Oppen, W.C. Williams, Whitman, DuPlessis, Osman, Taggart, Clifton, Duncan, Rukeyser, Pound. Sequence (of one sort or another) after sequence. The issue of a common “trajectory” is less open to generalization, I think. However, serial vision and overall structure is quite undeniable in the work of major poetic voices.
JJN: What you say makes sense. There are also poets who seem to experiment with more styles and genres throughout their careers than others.
I think "evil nature" is the first consciously serial work I wrote, and it was only four or five not so long parts (appearing in my 2nd and 3rd books) and when I got to my 3rd book, that book is a kind of almost two series running concurrently, a series of poems written in boxy shapes similar to prose poems but I think hybrid or what to call them debatable, and then non-boxy tabloidy poems (written mostly later) that make many references to American pop culture but in a few cases also Japanese pop culture and Japanese literature. I hoped putting the two strands together in the same book would create an interesting result but…
My 4th book (The Meditations) is a series of poems that appear pretty much in the order I wrote them, so like one long diverse poem with some common threads and "refrains". The fifth book I wrote came about from a desire to try to write a book that was mostly in form, especially after the longish mostly free verse Meds (those poems were medicine for me; I was messed up with a back injury during a lot of the writing of that book, and unlike what I am working on now that book’s sources are largely bookish); the poems do not appear precisely in the order written but I set out with a plan to write a sonnet, sestina, ghazal, pantoum, villanelle etc. and to see if I could make a book based on different forms, which is what happened. notational as I mentioned started out as a chapbook, with a central thematic concept that I extended and made into the longer book and now “BLANK CITY" is a serial work, working with the non-literary (the language of the everyday) as my material, an attempt to make the non-literary literary.
So I guess I did not get into more "serial" writing till I got to a 3rd or 4th book. But before putting together a first book, a process which at the time made me very nervous but now is something I find, fortunately, fun!, I was just writing poems and sending them to journals and not thinking of books. That is still true to an extent now but…
You mentioned the physical appearance of the Oppen book. After moving to Japan I probably became even more attentive generally to the properties of material objects, than before as a person who naturally gravitated to the abstract more than the concrete from childhood and was one of those people who called not "observant"…e.g. you could have repainted the living room and i did not notice..I was even dumped by a poet who I had hoped for a longer romantic relationship with when living in Chicago allegedly due to my lack of fashion sense--yes I mean clothing! i heard he did not like being seen with somebody so unstylish—he gave up poetry BTW!;-) because of the (Japanese) culture being so "visual" in certain special ways. So in terms of recent and much older books where the look and feel of them stay much in mind for some reasons, other than SMACK by Tom Clark (All men should make pink books! I love Gurly Man though to me it's not so Gurly...I think Gary Sullivan has a pink book...PPL in a Depot? I parodied “The Ballad of the Gurly Man” in a poem in incidental music...) another is Hoover's Sonnet 56 and Chernoff's Among the Names with that sculpture on the cover….the O Books War and Peace series of anthology covers…of course there are a lot of interesting poetry-visual art collaborative books with art inside--too many to list for now--and poets doing visual and concrete poetry in all kinds of ways now--and, so many great handmade books like that Tinfish, Yo yo labs / Portable press and so many others putting out, I have a real thing for the small handmade book, the poetry art object.
When I lived in Chicago I often had Frank O'Hara in my lap (his work I mean obviously! he died before I was born…! :-) on the train and re-read Meditations in an Emergency so many times the cover is present in my mind even now--
I mentioned my sister is a filmmaker and she also BTW did the cover art for my first two books as a big sisterly gesture. I've been lucky in that for all the books I've done so far I was given the privilege of being able to view and select art by a number of artists whose work I admire and connects I think in important ways to the poetry I had written and the kindness / cooperativeness of poetry publishers to make it all work as a book and contribute their ideas and design time etc.--that has made putting out books much more interesting for me; I'm very grateful to the artists and the publishers, beyond what I can say in words but I'd like to mention that here. Because their work is part of course of the collaborative element in the books--that the books would not exist as they are of course without the artists and the book designers and publishers etc. so--
In a certain sense I think every poem individually is a collaboration of course even if written alone because it is built upon the work of others that consciously and unconsciously influences it. As far as collaborative poem writing where two or more poets contribute different lines or stanzas etc., I've done very very little of that recently tho I did some Japanese style "renshi" with some poets recently (the result of one such "renshi" will be published in Shampoo this year—as writers we were/are all very diverse so it was quite interesting for me to work with writers whose styles vary but came together for the project)…Do you have any thoughts you would like to share on the topic of "collaborations"? and/or the influence of visual art, philosophy or music in your work--
JC: Yes, all writers, whether consciously or not and to varying degrees of intentionality, are citizens of an ever-expanding community of other authors that influence and inspire. To deny that is both foolish and prideful. As far as more direct collaboration goes, I have done very little. A few years ago, I was invited to collaborate on a series of poems. I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember who the other poet was. I ended up being unhappy about the results, and I’m more than willing to accept the blame for that. I really was not very good at the whole enterprise, and I admit that I’ve not, to this point at least, been at all enthused by the whole concept. Now, I hope that is not evidence of an unhealthy self-centering or exclusive absorption in my own compositional endeavors. I’d rather spin it all this way: I have more than enough difficulty collaborating/getting along with my own self, so to suck any other innocent authorial victim into the ongoing struggle strikes me as unfair if not downright criminal! There has been, however, one collaborative relationship that I have genuinely appreciated. A former teaching colleague and visual artist, Kristy Higby, has created several small “books-as-art-objects” that feature cut-outs from some of my poems. She sought my permission to engage in this venture, and the results are, thanks to her, wonderfully complex and gratifying.
Music in my writing? My father was a professional jazz trombonist and vocalist. Like Shakespeare’s Miranda, I grew up with music as an element in the air. Long before I was gripped by the powers of poetry, I knew that I wanted to learn all I could about that incredible music and to reach the point where I could at least hold my own as a player. I had the great fortune, a blessing really, of apprenticing with my father and his older jazz musician colleagues; they were all extremely experienced, wise, and, thankfully, generous and forgiving of all my blunders. Eventually, I played keyboards professionally, full-time, with a jazz quartet (Compass), in the early-mid 70’s. And it was during that time that I was beginning to be serious about poetry and wanting to write. So, in ways that are almost impossible to trace, I am convinced that music/jazz informed my writing from the start. (That probably worked the other way, also, but would be even harder to articulate). One of the many weaknesses of my early poetry was my inability to bring effective musical elements into the language I was making. As I’ve continued writing, I’ve learned more―from others and by practice―about word-music and have tried to be much more intentional, savvy, and diverse in working with these elements. As I say, I’ve tried, and I do hope that my efforts have yielded some positive results.
Philosophy? As an undergraduate at Colgate University, I majored in philosophy and religion. Maybe I didn’t read the right philosophers or translations, but I did become weary of the philosophical texts I was examining, because, as fascinating as certain ideas, questions, and arguments were, the language, the writing itself, seemed mediocre, dry, and banal. There are, of course, notable exceptions―Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Leslie Scalapino and Joan Retallack are two major authors who have restored my faith in the possibilities and really the necessities of philosophical inquiry. Scalapino posits that poets are the new philosophers, and she herself is probably the outstanding exemplar of a writer who uses startlingly exploratory language―syntax and broader structures―to advance astounding ideas about how we can see and try to understand and change ourselves and our world.
JN: That is interesting what you write about collaboration. Some people have told me they want to obliterate the self, through collaboration or other activities (like computer generated and found texts etc. and certainly I also "find" and use texts--and, after all, I did not invent the English language :-) -- but I want at this point in my life to guard against that thing to some extent -- to be obliterated, to lose the self I have, and that self appears more genuinely despite artifice in poems than other areas of life (yes even when I am writing down the voice of an imaginary white male! :-) I also wrote a sestina some years back that came to me in the voice of a British older male...and some poems are female etc.) maybe where in other areas of life I may feel a need to please others etc. and since my poem has no "market" -- There are so many opportunities to get lost in the group in my life but very often if always? not in a positive way, in a way where something beyond all of us takes over --something not good and canceling out what is genuine in us and making forget our purposes in life. Because I currently live in a “group-oriented” society I think I have experienced both the pros and cons of so called collectivism particularly in a work setting.
The "renshi" I referred to I would not have participated in had it not been led by such a capable knowledgeable and affable person (Jeffrey Angles an expert of Japanese literature and a wonderful and of course also extremely talented person) and done in a proscribed (Japanese) way where my role was only to provide a verse when it was my turn and I did not have to edit or comment on other people's work (or lead the whole thing). Also, I knew personally / had met in person everybody but one participant (tho I got to know and like that participant via emails and book exchanges etc and had / have a warm feeling about him...). A worry I would have about any collaboration is a sort of domination happening I guess. (Japan as a group-oriented society is not of course always democratic...not that I view as a whole allegedly democratic societies around the globe as such....topic for another day...and I worked in top-down companies in the US while a college and grad student but-- but my need to write /read poetry is not only related to my ADHD but my PTSD that comes from being . . . "awake"?….:-) Stafford used the word “awake” as a necessary condition for poetry -- But I hope to learn how to collaborate successfully, I'm very interested in it...I’ve certainly learned useful tools for collaborating while in Japan that I may not have learned otherwise.
I envy your musical background! in that I could not live without music but play no instrument nor do I sing yet music is crucial to my daily life. As with poetry, my tastes have broadened over the years; the other day I was listening to Japanese "enka" (sentimental songs, kind of like US country music) in the car part of the day, later in the afternoon to Western classical music, after that hard rock (I like guitar solos from the 70s:-) etc. in the same day etc. This appreciation of diversity of styles has come with age for me I think more and more…tho may always have been there to some extent.
I minored in philosophy, majored in literature at a Catholic university in Chicago before transferring to art school to major in poetry writing as an undergrad, completing my BA at the art school. I did my grad work as I mentioned in linguistics. This was actually just before all those master's in creative writing programs proliferated in the US, but at the time I was concerned if I majored in literature I would end up with the kind of many (but not all) lit classes I had at the Catholic uni, where the teacher lectured the whole time and my task as a student was to listen carefully and emulate the teacher's way of thinking in order to receive a respectable grade etc. In any case mainly because of the somewhat negative experiences in many but not all lit courses and because I was equally interested in linguistics I ended up majoring in linguistics--which ended up in part bringing me to Japan but--
About those lit courses--One teacher in particular who taught many of the lit courses at the one uni seemed to me to present literature (not poetry actually this was fiction mostly) as a kind of game in which the author cleverly inserted a lot of symbols and the reader's task if s/he was smart enough was to find and figure them out. Now that I teach poetry I realize a lot of my students have that very idea and it's my task to try to dispel them of that thought—this is not an easy task I’ve learned! Because they think they have won when they have "properly" decoded the poem and lost when they were not bright enough to do so! (as Susan Schultz describes in her book A Poetics of Impasse). It's no wonder some people don't like poems or feel intimidated by poetry. I was on a local (Japan) electronic newsgroup the other day where somebody referred to poetry as a high brow activity. Personally I don't think of myself in the past or now or tomorrow as highbrow (anything but; in fact before moving to Japan I did an internship at an Ivy League school where I worried pre-departure that I would not fit in socially well enough – I figured I had the smarts but not the “breeding”), poetry is just something that attracted me early on like music, something that became an obsession over time. One of the first poets I remember becoming obsessive about was e. e. cummings (I would have been in my teens), and also Plath... Maybe those poets encountered early will always occupy a special place…
Scalapino who we both love is one of the most original writers ever IMHO and has had had an influence on how I read poetry I think.
I read philosophy but when reading some works I think of Reginald Shepard's comment--about poetry--that some of the things that have influenced him most he cannot claim to understand. When I read philosophy I have an understanding of it, but I don't know how dissimilar my understanding is to the author's or other reader's understandings, and some philosophical works may depend a lot on an understanding of other works that I don’t know well enough. Overall I feel like I don't know enough philosophy to claim to know much about it (though I've read enough poetry now, since high school, to feel I know more than a little about poetry, and since I practice it myself...you learn a lot from doing of course...). As far as philosophers, however, I have been attracted perhaps especially to French writers who write both philosophical and literary works and blur the distinctions between those--e.g. Irigaray, Sartre, Cixous, Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari...but also to Kierkegaard because his work is so passionate and ethics-oriented...
I think Wittgenstein said all philosophy should be read as poetry? (I wouldn't know how else to read it!!!) -- I think all poems should be considered philosophical statements. I think Derrida may have said in an interview that only a half dozen people, probably poets!, in the world likely understood his work! Well, nice for us if so, eh?
So, we've been influenced by music philosophy and other poets. For me visual art forms including painting film and sculpture, even dance, etc. it seems all of those become more and more influential to me and then my work but so is CNN Japan news etc., the internet, the people in my daily life...
(The online) Here Comes Everybody asks poets who are some of their favorite non-Anglo-American writers. Tho much is made of multiculturalism these days, the notion hardly seems novel to artists. It’s a good question to ask I think however. A huge number of African American writers' works have been and are on me a huge influence, too many too list--Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge, but sooo many others ...Chinese writers like Bei Dao, many French writers like Reverdy, Baudelaire, Rimbaud...French writers still alive today whose work I struggle to read in my intermediate French..the first Japanese poet I remember encountering in Japanese was the concrete poet Niikuni Seiichi--before I came to Japan I studied French not Japanese so I learned Japanese in Japan by watching TV with a dictionary in my lap, listening to Japanese pop songs, then reading children's books and then finding easier to read in Japanese poets like Tanikawa Shuntaro and Ishigaki Rin, then attempting more difficult poems / poets in Japanese --I have recently been interested particularly in the poets Tamura Ryuichi and Ito Hiromi among others....I am still learning about Japanese poetry and have much yet to learn. I often buy anthologies which are translations from a variety of languages such as Black Dog Black Night (Vietnamese), Ambers Aglow (poems by Polish female poets), Dreaming the Actual (fiction and poetry by Israeli women) as some that I particularly enjoyed...and have been re-reading Burton Watson's translation of the Late Poems of Lu You. I’ve also recently been re-reading a book by Octavio Paz.
Would you like to say anything about upcoming projects?
JC: This summer, 2011, I hope to make progress with a play script that has been sitting around and frustrating me for a couple of years. This is the fourth script I’ve attempted. I am fascinated by theater and all that it can do, all that makes it unique. Two of my plays have been given staged readings in Manhattan. So far, producers are not banging at my door, but I’ll keep at this, along with my poetry, and we’ll see what happens.
JJN: That sounds really great Joel. I’d love to see your work on a stage. And Joel, thanks so much for collaborating on this interview with me! :-)
JC: The exchange has been a true pleasure!
JOEL CHACE has published more than a dozen print and electronic collections of poetry. He lives in New Providence, New Jersey. Email is joel dot chace at gmail dot com.
JANE JORITZ-NAKAGAWA is the author of six books of poetry and numerous prose works. She lives in a small city in central Japan. Email is welcome at janenakagawa at yahoo dot com.