I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Forrest Gander Eliot, I was just reading your essay on the poet Gu Cheng in the London Review of Books and thought, after I’d digested the fantastical biography, how curious it is that your work is so often published first outside the US to greater acclaim than you find in your home country. At the Berlin International Literary Festival, where I saw you a couple years ago, the press seemed to have you confused with Kurt Cobain.
Eliot Weinberger More like Sam the Sham …
FG The electronic version of your essay “What I Heard About Iraq” got something like a hundred thousand hits in the first week it was up on the London Review of Books website. Like Poe and Cormac McCarthy (through his fourth book), you’ve been discovered abroad before you’ve been recognized at home. What do you make of that?
EW It’s true that most things I write tend to be translated into lots of languages and appear in newspapers and magazines abroad before they’re published here—if at all in periodical form.
FG It can’t have to do with the subject material, because you write about everything from naked mole rats to histories of racism to the Bush Administration and the aftermath of 9/11.
EW It’s really more about the way I write and the role of the writer. In most countries, literary writers routinely comment on social and political matters—poets often have weekly columns in the newspaper—so they don’t find it strange that I’m writing on current politics. Here, the newspapers are written by journalists and self-proclaimed pundits. My political articles tend to circulate in English via the Internet, and I remember some guy writing me to ask what my credentials were—something he wouldn’t ask Maureen Dowd or David Brooks.
FG Right. I’ve got a friend who asks us all, on his birthday, to respond to whatever he says with “Oh, Brady, that’s so true.” But the notion that only “experts” have valid arguments and the right to weigh in—it’s the Unferths and Rumsfelds of the world who always want the rest of us to cede our capacity to think it through. So your essays …
EW As for literary essays, all the larger-circulation “serious” magazines are locked into their formats and a narrow view of what an essay could be: first-person journalism, memoir, book review, travel article, and so on. Essentially nothing has changed since the 18th century. Most of the other Western languages have gone through an avant-garde of the essay, and you don’t have to write, “I wondered why the whole world loves chocolate, so I drove down to Hershey, Pennsylvania … . ” In other words, I’m utterly routine abroad, but way too idiosyncratic here. I regularly appear in Esquire Russia but would be unimaginable in Esquire USA.
FG Remember Pound—is it in Personae?—writing sardonically in the voice of the major editors of his day that the perfect and final literary style had been achieved circa 1890. Forget about trying to change the style, son.
EW Your essays are in the same boat. Is there anywhere outside tiny literary journals that would touch them?
FG Maybe BOMB or Harper’s. The Nation took my essay on Yasusada for an August issue memorializing the bombing of Hiroshima. And The Nation’s a peculiar case. Sharp, current politics combined with Victorian aesthetics, at least as far as the poetry usually goes.
EW Yeah, after all those articles on the terrible things in the world, you get a Smiley Face poem about my summer cottage in Maine or my Fulbright to Florence. Hard to remember that in the ’60s, when Denise Levertov and Paul Blackburn were the poetry editors, The Nation was the place for the greatest political poems of the day.
FG Brown, where I teach, is maybe an unusually politically active campus. While there haven’t been hokey poetry-against-the-war readings, hundreds of students have repeatedly jammed into a big auditorium for high energy “sessions,” like jazz jams, where various speakers—professors, young soldiers, poets and other students—speak to what they know about the Bush wars, the lies, the cultural and historical contexts.
EW “Political poet” is practically an oxymoron in the US these days. Nearly all the poets are in the universities, and they all have the academic sense of the “political”—maybe Brown is an exception—which largely means identity and gender issues, not politics as it is understood in the rest of the world, where people are killed or get fed because of it. It’s that problem again of both specialization and the total absence of the public intellectual. Twelve thousand poets wrote poems against the war—before the war began, they’ve been pretty quiet since—and sent them to Sam Hamill’s website, but I don’t know of any who thought, “I’m a writer, and therefore I presumably know how to write. Besides my little poem, I could also write an article for the local newspaper.” In Bolivia or Bosnia, only a poet who’s a total recluse would not be voicing his/her opinion on the editorial page.
FG I remember Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, as he’s going off to prison, saying, “This country is going to move so far to the right you’re not going to recognize it.” The editorial pages won’t print our opinions. CD [Wright, Gander’s wife] and I wrote a piece comparing published commentary on the war in Iraq with pornography and couldn’t get it published.
EW You should have sent it to Bosnia—they’ll welcome you. That’s what I do. It’s funny. I’ve been proofreading the galleys of Bush Chronicles, which collects all my political articles of the last four years, and it turns out that nothing I wrote has been proven to be wrong. In the first week of the Bush Administration, January 2001, I said their first order of business would be the invasion of Iraq. What do I know? I’m just a guy who reads the New York Times. But if you’re used to the silences in poetry, all that is unsaid in the newspaper is not so hard to figure out. That’s why the OSS and the early CIA used to get their best recruits from the Yale English Department.
FG I think a lot of the so-called dread of contemporary poetry has to do with that silence. I was in the waiting room of the hospital in Providence last week. Middle of the afternoon, one other guy there who looked like he was in the cast of Goodfellas. Chunky, two-day beard, 55 or 60. Leather jacket. Tough guy. And the TV was loud, a soap opera he obviously wasn’t watching. Had his head in his hands. So I asked him if he’d mind if I turned it off. And he looked up at me like I was out of my mind. Growled, “I don’t want to feel like I’m in a funeral parlor, know what I mean?”
EW I guess that’s why poets seem to prefer Buddhism to evangelical Christianity, which can’t seem to stop talking, in tongues or in harangues.
FG Maybe the issue of form isn’t so separate a topic. I wonder if the structures of your essays make them suspiciously poetic to American readers. Like the way “What I Heard About Iraq” delivers that relentless anaphora, each sentence beginning with “I heard.” You dress them uniformly and march them out in direct subject-verb-object syntactical order, and they not only build an incantatory power but they remind us of military phalanxes. Or in “Naked Mole Rats,” you’ve got all these short little paragraphs bumping into each other until, in the last two sentences, you use the body of the mole rat as a prop, standing it on its hind legs to suddenly connect its world to ours.
EW I just took all this stuff I learned about poetry and applied it to writing essays. The essay strikes me as completely unexplored territory in English. Almost nobody is writing them, outside the usual genres—which is bizarre, considering the overdevelopment, the sprawl, in all the other art forms. I start with one rule: all the information is verifiable, nothing is made up. Then I see where it goes—sometimes toward narrative, sometimes into a kind of prose poetry.
FG It made me think, when I first started reading your essays, that the essay was in about the same place that poetry was just before Pound and company gave iambic pentameter the heave-ho. Or Eliot saying it wasn’t a rejection of form, it was a rejection of dead form.
EW Totally. “What I Heard About Iraq” was an interesting case. At one end, The Nationrejected it—presumably because it was neither investigative journalism nor a thumbsucker. At the other end, a well-known poetry blogger complained that it was not a great antiwar poem like Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or Duncan’s “War Passages”—which of course that essay never pretended to be. But it apparently wasn’t a problem for all those people who put it up on their websites—they just read it.
Getting back to poetry, what’s surprising to me is that, with all these things in the world, American poets are mainly preoccupied with autobiographical anecdotes, or pomo ironic skating on the “surface” of language. Every man is an island in the sea of information. You’re an obvious exception, in that, almost unbelievably, you’re the first poet in English since Hugh MacDiarmid and Muriel Rukeyser and Kenneth Rexroth to talk about scientific matters—to bring the hard facts and increasing enigmas of science into the poem.
FG For me, besides a lifelong interest in rocks and fossils and a degree in geology, it’s Oppen’s proposal of inquiry into “what we stand on,” in the combined mineral and ethical sense, that matters. Sure, there’s a level of gratification in reading a story-poem that draws a moral lesson. Everything’s familiar, the form, the voice, the humor or irony, but no significant art celebrates presumed values or situates its morality outside the work’s structure. That’s why translations send tremors through the ground we stand on and why, especially during times controlled by conservative discourses, work from other languages can be so revelatory. A good part of my own new book of essays, A Faithful Existence, has to do with translation. What happens when translations inject new images, rhythms, perceptions, etc. into the muscular arm of the language of power.
EW Oh yeah, I always thought of translation as heroin, in that it gives you and your national culture reveries you wouldn’t otherwise have. Also like MacDiarmid, your vocabulary, in the poems, is vast. Are you a dictionary reader? Do you collect words like rocks?
FG Couldn’t imagine doing that. Just a reader. And since I’m congenitally incapable of remembering people’s names, that region of my brain is free for lexical runoff.
EW It’s often said that you’re a rarity as an “experimental” or “avant-gardist” Southern poet. Why do you think the South tends to produce innovative fiction writers and conservative poets? Why is one model Allen Tate and the other Faulkner?
FG I’ve got an essay about just that in Faithful Existence. Can’t spoil it here, but I’d say it has to do with the determining physiologies of Southerners, i.e., how they variously metabolize heavy doses of kudzu, romanticism for lost causes (most severe among the ilk with Scots blood), White Castle hamburgers, furrowed fields, and Evan Williams bourbon. Which reminds me, a minute ago you mentioned national culture. Do you think there is one or that what you do is part of it?
EW The word American, when applied to anything except government policy, is almost always meaningless—there are too many exceptions. I’m supposedly an American, but I’m a first-generation New Yorker, born in a city where half of the inhabitants come from other countries, and most of the other half is their children. So why should I feel closer to Emerson than to Chuang Tzu?
It is astonishing, though, that the US is the only country on earth that takes no nationalistic pride in its cultural producers. Practically the only nation without a Ministry of Culture and—unless you’re a big cheese from a small town—no monuments or street names. In Mexico, the president traditionally inaugurates every major art exhibition. In Bogotá, a cabdriver was bragging to me that the Colombian poet Alvaro Mutis had just won some prize in Spain. This is normal everywhere in the world except here; not that everyone is reading the poets, but they know who they are. How many members of Congress—or lawyers or doctors—could name a single living American poet?
FG It’s symptomatic that the LA Times and the New York Times review so little poetry. The sense that poetry no longer speaks to regular people is sustained by pure nostalgia. Like someone who loves 19th-century allegorical painting and won’t be dragged to see Warhol or Twombly, and so won’t get Fischl either. They’re afraid to let the conversation expand beyond what they already know. The word poetry comes up in the paper all the time: in descriptions of music, baseball, dance, in reviews of fiction, everywhere but in reference to the source. You know, when I lived in the Ozarks, there was a Passion Play advertised on billboards as “More Authentic than the Original.” For newspapers, references to the poetic are more authentic the further they veer from poetry.
EW But that’s “poetic” as in “arty” or “dreamy.” The problem is that, for most of the reading public in the US, poetry has nothing to do with life, and the intellectual and cultural life of the country. Poetry is something that gets written and read—or more exactly, unread—in the creative writing schools. Or it’s a vehicle for therapy. To take Pound’s old formula, it’s neither news, nor will it stay news. Poetry doesn’t have to be about your divorce, or the meaninglessness of language. Traditionally it’s the repository for mythology and history, theology, philosophy, and science, as well as the enduring human emotions—everything a society knows about itself, as well as a way to talk to the dead and to listen to yourself.
FG But I think one reason you think most of the reading public doesn’t connect poetry to their lives is because our culture has honed all the various ways that language has always been used in every culture we know anything about. Honed it into one particular mode of language, what we use to find out who killed whom, what we use for commerce and information. The visionary, the incantatory, the heuristic, all the kinds of language that are more subtle and complex and less determined but important to full human experience, that’s been filtered out. But that’s why I think people continue to be drawn back to poetry.
EW We have a climate where everything said by the government, and almost everything said on television and in the newspapers, is a lie. On the other side, all visible forms of iconoclasm, in all the arts, are mainly a marketing tool. All those bad boys and girls of music, the visual arts, fiction, etc. have zillion-dollar contracts from corporations or zillion-dollar sales from corporate collectors. It’s why the most popular novel among teenagers—maybe the onlypopular novel—is On the Road. You or I might find it hopelessly dated, but they see it as an artifact from a Golden Age of Authenticity, when the real was really real.
FG Man, I tried to reread that a few years ago. It was hard to get past the porkiness to that rush I remembered of Neil Cassady hitting the chaos of those Mexican glorietas in pure traffic ecstasy. Well, I see poetry as one kind of provision for the faltering experience of meaning and value that is created by our aggressively non-contemplative culture. And that fundamentalists see Jesus providing. How politicians can go on bugling their Christianity while cutting social programs to the poor and cutting taxes for the rich, that’s more mysterious to me than the Marfa lights.
EW Imagine what America would be like if it really were a Christian country: love thy neighbor, help the poor, turn the other cheek. The problem is how to be a writer in America and not hate yourself, or shoot yourself. American poetry tends to thrive in moments when the poets are escaping the country, or the dominant culture. In the first decades of the 20th century, going to London or Paris. In the ’50s and ’60s, going to Latin America or India or Japan, or escaping into hallucinogens, or generally finding a place somewhere in the counterculture. (These years, not coincidentally, great periods for translation.) In the Bush Era, the way out is the Internet.
While the mass media is Pravda dressed in Prada, the Internet is our only source of genuine news and opposition opinion. It’s also the way for like-minded souls with minority interests—like readers of poetry—to find each other. (A little mag on the web has many thousands more readers than a printed version.) And of course it knows no national boundaries. The problem, though, is that it is an entirely cerebral Bohemia—a Bohemia without bodies in the street or bodies in bed.
I sent my political articles out as emails to friends, which seems to me the ideal way to publish. The readers vote with their forward buttons—if they like it, they send it on. The Internet has created a previously unimaginably democratic Republic of Letters. Everyone can have their own newspaper or magazine or press. Of course, much, or most, of it is junk—but most of anything is junk. So what?
FG And of course that changes the role of the writer. There are no longer four giant figures buttressed by two major critics and celebrated by the three literary venues that count. Instead, constellations of writers and readers and venues, and the intrepid find their way to them. But that confuses anyone used to depending on a hierarchical system to cut the cards and deal out four jacks and call them the aces.
EW On the other hand, in the endless production of everything, it’s impossible to know what’s going on. I’m from the last generation that essentially knew everything that was happening in American poetry. Not that I had read every book, but I was certainly aware of everyone, and had probably read at least something by everyone. Now, if two aficionados of American poetry (or of anything else) get together, it’s probable they haven’t read the same books. They have no common ground. And the flip side is that it takes a long time to have any impact. When Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology came out in 1960, all those poets—Creeley, Ginsberg, Snyder, (then) Leroi Jones, et al.—were all in their twenties or early thirties, yet they were fully on the poetry map. Today, a “young” poet, in terms of visibility, is in his/her fifties. Which I guess makes you a teen poet.
FG Somehow that image seems grotesque. A geriatric teenager. I thought the romance of dying young was to have a good-looking corpse.
EW Yeah, “Knock on Any Door”: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” It was my motto, but I failed miserably on all counts. So, Dorian, how does one make one’s way through the territory?
FG Presses are a way of locating what’s happening. Flood Editions, OmniDawn, U of CA, Shoemaker & Hoard, and New Directions are exemplary. ND has always championed an international conversation. What, in the new catalogue there are translations from the Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese (contemporary and classical), Spanish, French, new books by Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, Bei Dao.
EW Yes, our saintly publisher, New Directions, can’t be compared with the others you mention—or any other publishers for that matter. I think everyone knows that they were the first American publisher of most of the great world writers of the 20th century. When I was a kid, I’d buy any ND book, whether or not I’d heard of the author, because I knew that if ND published it, it was something I had to read. But I don’t think people realize that ND is livelier than ever, and still the primary source for world lit. And of course, from a writer’s point of view, they are paradise. They’re still independent; they’re a small office where everyone reads and loves the books they publish; and they still follow the wisdom of their founder, James Laughlin, that it takes 20 years for a book to be recognized. So they keep the books in print forever.
FG It’s funny, I did the same thing. I keep one wall of bookshelf for New Directions. People look at it and don’t notice at first it’s one publisher. It just looks like a big, choice selection of great books. I’m curious, Eliot. How’d you come to know James Laughlin?
EW Oh, I Was a Teenage Translator—you remember that movie? The first Paz book I did, when I was a hippie dropout, was a book of prose poems Eagle or Sun? for a short-lived publisher called October House. After they collapsed, New Directions wanted to reprint it. (In a familiar story, in 1943 New Directions was the first to publish Paz in translation anywhere.) The translation was so bad, I chucked it out and started over. That was in 1975, so I first met Jay around then. A great man, underappreciated both as a person (few could see past the money) and as a poet (few could see past the publishing company). I always thought of New Directions as the Temple of Literature, and my only literary dream in life was to have a book with them. Miraculously, this happened pretty early, so since then I only worry about whether the work is any good. I stay out of the loop of prizes, grants, reading circuits, writing schools, etc., and I never send out unsolicited manuscripts. It’s the old Oppen “ground to stand on,” as you mentioned, and I learned it from him.
FG When do your Bush Chronicles come out, and what will you use for the cover?
EW It’ll be out by the time this conversation appears. The cover was my idea, and it was executed by the wonderful New Directions book designer Semadar Megged. I was inspired by Georg Baselitz. Never much cared for his work, but then shortly after 9/11 I saw a huge wall of his paintings in Berlin, and suddenly all those upside-down figures became incredibly moving. So I sort of did a Baselitz on the Statue of Liberty and inverted it so that’s it’s falling from the top of the book. It’s New Directions’ first political book—not sure if one should count The ABC of Economics—and they think of it as an expression of their collective outrage.
I think your Eye to Eye comes out at the same time. So what did you put on the cover? And what’s inside? Don’t you have some sort of collaboration with Sally Mann?
FG There’s a sequence of poems paired with her recent and really quite radical landscape photographs. She’s using warped lenses and chemical dribbles and developing techniques that animate the landscapes so they’re haunted with traces of movement and suggestions of presence. A carbonized sun, a listing horizon. It’s like seeing into a place, through the flicker of everything that ever happened there. In other poems I’m trying to shape a lyric rhythm tensile and quick enough to match the multifaceted surge of the present. I want it to be centripetal, the energy pressing inward. Does that make sense? Not isolating but connecting the erotic, political, historical. And so maybe inducing the reader to drop sequential expectations. Then again, what does Thelonious Monk say?—Just how to use notes differently, that’s it.
EW The one poem I’ve read from the book is the long sequence “Mission Thief,” which takes a tiny anecdote—your intervention in the attempted theft of a bicycle in San Francisco—and spins it into a meditation on just about everything. I can’t think of anything quite like it since William Carlos Williams’s “Desert Music.”
FG And actually, come to think of it, you’ve got an essay called “The Desert Music,” but it’s not about Williams, it’s about the origin of those lines across the Nazca plateau in Peru. I believe you had a take on them slightly different from the one I recall reading in Chariots of the Gods.
EW Really? I loved the idea that the Nazca lines were runway markers for UFOs. Otherwise those super-advanced aliens could never have landed their spaceships in a desert. Von-Whatsits aside, the reality in the Andes was stranger than any Close Encounter. In their isolation, they evolved a geometrical way of thinking and of writing, completely different from anywhere else. It may well be that those stone walls of the Inca are themselves stories.
FG Up through that book of yours—was it Works on Paper?—you were often focused on Latin America. In fact, I saw you pinned with the medal of the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest honor, a few years ago. But recently, you’ve spent more time in Iceland, Germany, even Albania, than you have in Mexico. And you’ve translated Bei Dao’s Mandarin in a way that suddenly brought that work home to a lot of English language readers.
EW Well, my exoticism was always the South—Latin America, and India, where I spent a year. Then some years ago I discovered another exoticism, the North, and I started hanging out in Iceland and Greenland. I try to go to a wilderness as often as I can—the last was New Zealand—and one city, Berlin, which seems to me the liveliest in the West these days.
As for China, that’s always been my imaginary kingdom, other than a few weeks in Hong Kong before the handover. In my twenties I studied Chinese pretty seriously for about seven years, but unlike most other languages, you either devote your life to it or you don’t. I was too much of a dilettante, so I gave it up. Now that I’m finally on the way there—and with you, as invitees to a poetry festival in Sichuan—it will either be a dream realized or a dream shattered, but either way I want to get back to the language, which is always the artificial paradise.
FG It’s a long flight. If we’re seated next to each other, I’m looking forward to telling you the history of my skin problems. Otherwise, see you in Chengdu.
EW Yeah, we haven’t even gotten to my childhood. Meanwhile: Yi lu ping an. Chinese bon voyage: One road smooth and peaceful.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee