metaphors , images and other possibilities
A dialogue with Chris Stroffolino
Chris Stroffolino, a contemporary North American poet, a pro-Beatnik who teaches Shakespeare, and I, had been talking poetry and alighting on its peripherals in an electronic mode for several months. The following is a recklessly edited version of our pluralistic conversation.
Chris Stroffolino: Born March 20, 1963 (the same day Ginsberg wrote "Death News,"), Stroffolino has published 3 full length book of poetry. OOPS (1994), Stealer's Wheel (1999) and Speculative Primitive (forthcoming 2004). He's also published 4 chapbooks of his poetry, as well as collection of reviews and essays (Spin Cycle, 2001). He co-authored a critical edition of Shakespeare's 12th Night (IDG, 2000) and has played keyboards in various rock bands (Silver Jews, Rising Shotgun, Hudson Bell, Volumen, Crooked Roads). Most recently, he's singer/songwriter in the band Continuous Peasant (www.continuouspeasant.com). He currently lives in San Francisco after spending almost 40 years on the east-coast (Philly, NYC, etc.)
My first exposure to "post-language" poetry was a series of essays Mark Wallace wrote, defining and introducing the term with crippling caution. We got ourselves into a continuing conversation (that obviously went in all directions) that lasted several months. Every time I spoke to Mark on that topic he kept reminding me of the danger of "branding" poetry - I thought I was trying to get an understanding of its traits.
Later, when we were working together on his poems, I have asked the same questions to Peter Gizzi - his reaction was much like yours. At times I get a sense that we often engage in a lot of wasteful , wry theoritization of poetry and poetics which does little to bring a book of poem closer to the heart of the average reader.
I grew up in a state where poetry had a very high public profile - someone like Walt Whitman's picture would hang from the walls in virtually every home that had at least high-school graduates. In the US, it is quite different- most people have never heard of Walt Whitman.
Yes, it's weird about Mark....On one level he felt this need to coin the term and on the other side he warns against it. He just should have never coined it (perhaps he feared that if he didn't someone else would, kind of like WAR-ugh!)
Yes, I totally agree with you about the problem of "theorization." I'd even go further and say it may actually put up a bigger barrier to the appreciation of the poem. I wrote at least one piece of prose that said this. One of these pieces, called "Against Lineage," was originally going to be published in a big academic book Mark was co-editing but then it was nixed for inclusion (by a prominent poet who will remain nameless). I take that as proof that what we are arguing here is rather dangerous to their "profession."
At the same time, I am well aware that much of my own poetry is likely to not be appreciated by the "average reader" at least on the page at first. I also know that when I give readings or performances of my work, I can reach many more people than I can on the page. Somehow hearing the voice, and seeing the performance, allows them to return to the page and appreciate it more at least in my experience.
So yes, there's a side of me that's very envious of the fact that in India poetry can be much more popular than it is in America. It's my understanding that this is somewhat true in Russia too. I talk to Russian immigrants who are very working class and they can quote Pushkin or Pasternak, or cab drivers from the West Indies who can quote Cesaire. I want to try to figure out how to make poetry more popular in America. I also think Bob Dylan is one of the best contemporary poets, and yes I will call him a poet. Did I tell you that I am working on putting out an album of songs--- I play piano and sing, but although I've played with other bands, as a sideman, I've never really tried to finish my own songs until this year (at age 40). I don't think I'm as good as Dylan, and I find it much harder to write songs than to write poetry, but I think it's worth trying. Nor do I think my lyrics are especially challenging (if people want that, they can turn to my other writing). At least my singing voice is a little better than Allen Ginsberg's, in my humble opinion.
I am learning piano too (at 38) along with my 8 year old son. I have never heard Ginsberg sing. Back in the early sixties, when he lived in Calcutta with Orlovski, the latter always carried a guitar with him - he used to be the lyricist often and at times. Allen would lend his voice - later in the eighties I guess Allen and Peter brought out some of their more discreetly charming song-albums - as a friend of mine once described.
Back to the language poetry talk. I wholeheartedly agree with you that branded or bannered poetry movements quite often arise from an identity crisis; although these identification problems are real and important and do help etching out the whole anatomy of new generation writing, but the longer these banners last, the more they plague a healthy criticism of contemporary poetry. I think Surrealism, Dada, the English Romantic Revival, Cubism, Fauvism, post-modern etc have attempted to present a rather dogmatic partisan view of world poetry. Language poetry seems no exception to that. However, it does seem important given the time it emerged and the context. I view Beat poetry with a different perspective though ( I am so fond of them) - Beat poetry seems to present more of a lifestyle and less of a writing style. Corso is so different from Ginsberg, Snyder or Ferlinghetti are so different from either of them. In Bengal in the recent times, newer trends (that clearly bear extended surrealistic traits and also have deep resemblances to American poetry of our generation) are being identified as "postmodern". These trends do remind us loosely of post-modern poetry but have other characteristics that are diverse and discordant. The general feeling that prevailed then, amongst many Bengali poets, was that they saw Paul Hoover's American post-modern poetry anthology as their western poetry bible. Hoover's anthology is "too much of a broadband" - he includes Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Corso and some of the Black Mountain poets there; calls their poetry post-modern.
I agree with you that Beat could be a more useful category than most of the other ones you named (I never figured out Fauvism!) because, yes, it is a lifestyle. In this sense a little more like the later term "punk." I think this is crucial distinction. To be honest, I find myself much more sympathetic to the term "Beat" than I did when I was 30 (though not when I was 20, when the Beats were the first poets I took seriously)-- largely because of their challenge to the sanitized version of the American lifestyle, a lifestyle I tried to live, but find myself alienated from (‘these are not my people’ as Joe South put it)--and thus wanting to champion the alternative ethos of the Beats. My writing style may be much more like Peter Gizzi's (or even, at times, Mark Wallace's)--but I think one crucial difference between Peter and I is that my lifestyle is much more beat-like than his---for better and worse, but I don’t want to be dogmatic about it, for many things could change.
Thanks also for your account of Bengali poetry politics. Yes, it is a fascinating topic, although sometimes I hate myself for wasting too much emotional and mental energy thinking about the more unsavory (corrupt) sides of it all. I like the Hoover anthology much more than the new Norton ‘contemporary’ one or the Douglass Messerli anthology that came out around the same time....in part because of its "broadband" or eclectic qualities (which, in my opinion, is what made that Donald Allen anthology of 1959 so important, and why it hasn't been repeated as the poetry scene has become more balkanized), but I really never got the term "post-modern" in ANY of its usages. It's even more vague and abstract than the other terms you mention (surrealism and lang. po, for instance; at least those terms refer to an actual group of poets who, at least at times, called themselves that). NOBODY agrees on post-modern. One person's "post modern" writer is another's "modern." Some say American"post-modern" is more like European "modernism" and I think there's some truth in that. But then the difference between "modern" and "modernist" (not to mention ‘modernity’) is also vague, and to top it all off, there's many who call Shakespeare "modern" or "early-modern."
I want to stay away from those terms; except in quotes (or as a joke)...
It's interesting to see how other people define those terms. In your case, it seems that the distinction (in Bengali) between "post-modern" and "post-language" is used very differently than it seems to be used in America. In America it seems that those who use the term "post-language" poetry consider it a sub-division of "post-modern" whereas in Bengali, "post-modern" seems to mean "PRE-LANGUAGE" in many ways (correct me if I'm wrong?)
I guess, by this definition, I would probably characterize myself as more "post-modern" than "post-language" so maybe the post-modern group who you are now unpopular with would like my work more. Anyway, in reading YOUR poetry I definitely saw your work as more what in Bengali would probably be called "post-modern" (in a good way) than mere "post-language." There's a wide range and a definite emotional investment which seems to be lacking in much merely "post-language" poetry. I just don't know why they all need to draw lines, with ins and outs, and hope I am not doing it myself in trying to understand their terms.
I see, you dedicated Stealer’s Wheel to your late mother. I'd love to hear more about your mother, your childhood...family...friends...elementary..school...teenage..red baloons…babyteeth..first love ... travel .. trips... bachelor parties...early poetic excursions...sex ...music ...lonely NYC evening walks...and a whole lot more.
My mother would have turned 61 last month. She didn't even make it to 50. I think she had a huge influence on me. I was definitely what one might call a "mama's boy". She was a victim of being poor and female raised in the 1950s and medical ineptitude/incompetence. Ah, America! A long story-- someday I must say more. I don't mind you asking at all.
Does "Stealer's wheel" have a special meaning ?
"Stealer's Wheel" was the name of a rock band that basically had one big hit around 1973 (and a minor follow up) fronted by Gerry "Baker Street" Rafferty (I didn't know they were the same guy until later). The song was called "Stuck In The Middle With You." I wrote the poem ‘Stealer's Wheel’ in 1992 (actually read an early version of it for the first time at a reading I did with Peter the day before my mom died). Originally, the poem was going to be called "Stuck in the Middle" but then I thought that that was not a good title so I changed it to the name of the band that did the song. And then when I was putting together the book and looking for titles it seemed like the best title for the book (as one blurbist comments on the "circular" quality of many of the poems therein), which is kind of funny because a) it's the oldest poem in the book and b) I almost wasn't even going to put that poem in the book-- for various reasons. But the title, to me, aside from the "story behind it" as I've told you here, is interesting to me because it's VERY suggestive I think (and I like the SOUND of it). What IS a Stealer's Wheel? Hmmmm... Maybe it WAS something historically? A torture wheel they put petty thieves on? Maybe, it's like the WHEEL OF KARMA? So, there's a few possibles. I'm sure there's more...
You led me to the poetry of Jennifer Moxley. I have had a rather bewildering time acquainting myself with Moxley's poetry (just a handful by far) and some of her net-essays. In the post-language wake, Moxley must have left the language poets aghast. I find her old-fashioned; sentimentality and romanticism aside, her poetry is too verbose, her language overtly metaphorical......... maybe....actually I'm sure I'm missing something here...need you to help. Is it a possibility that the defiance her reinvented lyric offers to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, sort of catapulted it.
Others have had the same reaction to Moxley that you have had, people who I really respect. I don't quite understand how people like my work and not hers(or, as is probably the case more often, like her work and not like mine). But I don't think I can change anybody's mind about it.I guess what I like is the fact that there's SUBSTANCE in her work(unlike quite a few contemporaries, even some with whom she is associated). Moxley has a lot to say, and doesn't shy away from wrestling with big themes of self-questioning, etc. while others might want to provide easy answers.
I know her work is more "formal" and "high" (or, one could say, "repressed" or "careful") than much of mine, but I get a sense of someone who really loves language, thought and feeling-- and feel much more a kinship with her than others who might more superficially resemble me (Wallace? I don't know....)
I am missing out on the quintessential here. True, however, that I haven't found Moxley's work to mirror yours or vice versa but then I have my own hurdles too. I am no expert at American poetry...just beginning to learn.. sketchily read some Blake, Plath, Frost, Whitman, Cummings in my teens...I have no formal training in literature...like most Bengali poets of my generation...graduated in Mechanical Engineering, did a PhD later on something called Finite Element Analysis....engineering math stuff...not a fluent exponent of the English language either...not to mention American English...still write "labor" with a British "u"....
So you can see I hope...
I look for good poetry from female poets worldwide....all the time...but rarely have I been charmed. Ingeborg Bachman I liked, at one time almost fell in love with the burning, often squeamish sensitivity of Plath's "Ariel"...sniffed at Diane Di Prima and Adrienne Rich- did like some...a bit of Lorde ...barely one or two female poets from Bengali poetry, Debarati Mitra is one, my most favorite.
Have you translated any Debarati Mitra? I’d like to see some of her work. And these days, in America, it seems that in my generation (perhaps for the first time) women seem to have an easier time of publishing and getting more recognized than men do. Of course, I think this is just a fact, and saying it isn’t necessarily incompatible with feminism. The fact that more women get published as poets in the larger scheme of things doesn’t mmean much when poetry itself is so peripheral (it’s like ‘here’s more monopoly money; doesn’t that make you feel good’). But a man isn't supposed to say this (and I don't know if any woman would dare to), and I may come off reactionary I talk about some of this in an interview I did with David Hess in a on-line magazine called "readme". I think some people say women write differently than men, and that a lot of the things that are associated with "avant-garde" (in quotes) female writing, things like fragment, etc., are more suited to a female mode of perception, and that may be true. But I don't care to make such arguments. I don't think this is necessarily true of Moxley, or some of my other favorite female writers in America---yes, Plath, but also Notley, Harryman (who is incredibly relentlessly intellectual---some would say she's not even a poet), Riding. Do you like Emily Dickinson? I do....
I guess given my life situations as a single heterosexual male who is fascinated and frustrated by the female gender, and who believes that one of the most difficult, and challenging, tasks (and hopefully playful too) in life is for the sexes to come to some kind of understanding--since, whether because of nature or culture, we are extremely different, and misunderstandings abound, and I think this is root of many evils, etc. I find myself interested in feminism and in many ways very sympathetic to it, but I also find that not a lot of women are really interested in dialoging with men on it these days...at least in the poetry scene.
--- to be continued ---