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
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.
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
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.
there's a side of me that's very envious of the fact that in
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
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
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)...
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
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.
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,
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.
you translated any Debarati Mitra? I’d like to see some of her work. And these
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.
Your e-mail hung me up in the dark brooding clouds above my mirror size cubicle window...it rains so much in Cincinnati dont know why people single out Seattle so much...I went home for lunch today..it has been raining since the last 3 days...I stepped into my latest crazeyard...our garden..two red dwarf dahlias died..my solitary pink gerbera daisy looks as bleak as a primrose...too many insects feasting on the white ones.
Was cooking up a few discordant lines about a garden last night on my way back from the grocery store. In Bengali, the word "garden" could be segmented into two parts, two whole words - the first one would translate "or" and the second part means "song". So this is how my first few line doze off -
a garden holds no tune for us, no song
a garden holds no one, no song
for a few that fly, alight
this garden is not so much ours, its a make-up
for the house with those red-yellow tapestries
of odorless lace at its feet
a garden only holds green but never a green flower
a garden holds none, no god, no song
What you say about women writing today holds good about Bengali too - the one good thing that I see in my language today is that now there are women who are breaking off the continuum - there's an increase in fragmented writing, a single poem is running off in many directions to catch the pulse of time, subjectivity is reduced. It's getting to be more abundantly off-topic, something I enjoy a lot. All this is welcome from my standpoint...women are at least trying to get away from conventional forms of poetry writing. A poem is not about a topic or a theme. A poem is an Iris that grew up to be an Iris.
I like that---
I didn't know that.
Hmmm GARDEN (audio pun on "guardin")
Your email is way more poetic than mine....
I don't know names of flowers
Are primroses pink? Are they PRIM and PROPER roses? (prim is a weird word; i wonder if that's how primroses got their name)
More of a british flower I believe, symbol of a sick (actually convalescing) soul, abound in British poetry - Rosetti, Donne, Byron....etc. Dont know how they got their name, but they are hazy pinkish roses that describe nothing but a faded scene.
oh yeah I always forget about the "flowers-as-symbols" thing. I always think of Ophelia, who was into that. And it makes sense of that Laura Riding poem that ends with "nor are the primroses unwelcome" (I'll have to check on the title of the poem for you.). Someday I should perhaps study this iconography more.
I like real full-blooded
red roses, like we see in
And someday I'll have to
I especially like "odorless lace at its feet"
and the seeming equation of god and song...
"A poem is an iris that grew up to be an iris"
and an iris is a kind of flower (i don't know the name of)
and also part of the eye (i don't know which)....
why are there no flowers called retinas?
or are there?
I am an ignorant man...
What is the relation of "word" and "thing"
or, better, what is the relationship of the word "thing" to reality?
Thank you. This poem is only in the making.
No line has been laid down for good.
Let me see it as it finishes.....
You wrote - why are there no flowers called retinas?
That's curious nuance. Could I "install" this line in my poem ?
Of course you may. The flower goes with the eye (or the nose...ah, but i am allergic! but i don't mind sneezing. in fact, it's close to
orgasm. it's the watery eyes and stuffy throat that bugs...)
Your observation was interesting - that female poets dont tend to discuss feminism with men. My stance is very similar on the subject. My nextbook of poems, which I am yet to title has a section towards the tail end consisting of 16 poems I took 12 years to write. "BimalBimalaa" -is the title of that section. Two names; "Bimal" is a male name - the word means pure or unblemished, "Bimalaa" means the same, but is a female name. The poem-series is about these two asexual individuals and a world seen through their eyes - a world that's genderless in the spirit of observation. Bimal Bimalaa are friends, partners, husband-wife, two gay men, two lesbian women, two 7-year olds, two kings, two queens, two wordcrafters, two singers, two hermaphrodites singing in the streets of Calcutta; so vividly described by Ginsberg in his "Indian Journal"....the asexual is no different from the bisexual to me.
roses..since my daisies are dying
BIMAL/BIMALAA sounds quite fascinating in a mythic way. For me all those interesting questions and thoughts and feelings about the complementarity of male and female and the so called "male and female" principles, whether asexual, autosexual, bisexual, whether solitary or social---the yin and yang interest which I'm very fascinated by, and it sometimes gets into the question of EVIL for me. I mean, if one rejects, or at least severely interrogates the whole "western" philosophical systems of manichean dualism and figures the relation of two forces in the world in a way that's complementary---day (often traditionally linked with male) and night (often traditionally linked with female), life and death, affection and anger, etc--then how does one deal with the question of evil. Evil becomes ignorance. I.E. George W. Bush and Chaney, etc., aren't evil, they are just ignorant, and realize they are not acting in their own self-interest when they accrue lands and money and oil and worldly "power" at the expense of others. Is this a sufficient moral, or ethical stance? Hmmmm....
I like the thematic focus slowly and gradually drifting; sometimes sharply changing like a "jump-cut". But not an array (or disarray ?)of fragmented words. The way poetry has been happening to me over the past 3/4 years is that moments would arrive to me (poetic occassions, as I call them) and I would jot down my thoughts, sometimes even have time to compose a couplet or so. Obviously not the same kind of thought-theme would you expect each day...so when I look back at these fast transcriptions a month later...I notice reflections on several thoughts, motifs..often subjects, visuals, feelings etc. I would scoop out 15-20 lines from that bunch and rewrite them into the body of a single poem. This is natural writing to me as this is exactly how poetry and my thoughts occurred to me. This is exactly how, this supersonic life let's me write poetry. Also, all these multidirectional thoughts are my own, so I do see that invisible thread of continuity amidst those lines. Mind is as random as a weathercock thesedays, but as you can see, I mean the same weathercock.
I APPRECIATE YOUR THOUGHTS ON YOUR PROCESS here. I do that sometimes too, and I didn't mean to sound unsympathetic to the jump-cut jottings of a supersonic life. To me, it's always a matter of the particular poem and the particular mood or needs I have at the moment of reading it. It's why I don't want to be a poetry critic anymore. But what you say makes sense...
Back in India, I lived for about 3 years in a small industrial town called Jamshedpur – fell in love with a group of radical middle age poets - the KAURAB group - KAURAB was the name of the literary mag they published.I edit an online version of that mag today (http://kaurab.tripod.com)
...KAURAB created be a big bang on parallel literary movements that occurred
These poets, then
unaware of Snyder-Kerouac trips to the Big Sur , would
arrange similar poetry camps or poetry trekking events where 3/4 poets would
spend a few days in a remote natural place...read/scream/eat/write new poetry,
dig into each other's poetic preoccupation, discuss poetry from dawn to dawn -
and they did all that they would constantly tape their conversations, or do a
fast transcription. Later KAURAB magazine would publish an edition of such
poetry trekking camps. I would love to do something like that with you at Big
Let me know when you're
here at Big
Its interesting, but really relevant that my name reminded you of the Aryans and thus Hitler. But you know what, The idiot never thought what a sun could do if it burned too long on white Aryan skin.
THE IDIOT also had dark hair didn't he---so by his own programme would have HAD TO EXTERMINATE HIMSELF! If only he did it 10 years earlier! sick sick sick....
Let me throw a few one-liners here that will etch out my first thoughts about your poetry.....
.....they are very different from the kind of poetry I practise
.....I have rarely read a poet like you, who relies so little on visuals
.....you do lure the reader to get into your thinking game
.....your poetry makes few references to the details of contemporary American life, and that adds more translatability to it.
I'm glad to hear these one-liners, especially that you felt lured and that those poems might be more translatable...
...the best wife is usually the third...(courtesy Bach).. has it consciously occurred to you anytime that it is important to point out differences than likeness in your use of metaphors. What makes an image an image ? A metaphor a metaphor ? Do they bind like weed and rock ? is one the other eye beside the right eye ?
As for your third question, YES. Others have also pointed out that my use of metaphor tends to do something different than many other people's use of metaphor. That instead of "yoking disimilars" together that at times my metaphors seem to serve an opposite function. I'm very interested in the possibility of metaphors to be BI-DIRECTIONAL. That a metaphor creates some linkage that wasn't there before and that is greater than the sum of its parts. So, for instance, "love is a rose" or "love is a dog from hell" is not simply defining love in terms of a rose or dog, but also DOING something to the ROSE-DOG, and that tension, that movement by analogy into the ineffable becomes both greater and lesser than literal prose equivalence.
Likewise, image and metaphor sometimes become each other. A lot of this has to do with the question of whether words refer to things or to themselves. In rhetoric and language perhaps many more things are possible than in reality. In language, one can "deconstruct" binaries, prove them "merely rhetorical, but in "real life" one finds them sometimes more recalcitrant.
So, for instance, there's a lot of things in my poetry similar to this line from Ashbery---"you loved cats for the pleasure of letting them out of the bag." In American English, "to let the cat out of the bag" is a rhetorical phrase for which I don't know if there is an equivalent in Bengali--as you may already know, it means, to "give a secret away". But at the same time, it is as much of a real CAT as any other use of the word. At least potentially so---so my language sometimes goes back and forth between the "literal" use of the term and the, er, CULTURAL HISTORY of the word. I try to only use this "device" when I feel it can work both ways. I'm very interested in PUNS and CLICHES, the poetic possibilities of them. Sometimes I've used them not so judiciously. We all have our "clunkers". I don't know if this helps....
At this point I still haven't started any translation yet...just beginning to gather the feathers that'll make the crown....melting ricotta for the cheesecake. I am slow, my poetry mates complain...but I do a much better job than most of them as I believe. One poet a year for translations...and with you ....I seem to have found the self I'd like best on my mirror...so it is taking time.
I have your translation of "fish story" proudly displayed on my office
door, on the off chance that someone who knows Bengali might stop by
Quite a few things to talk about this morning. About "polarized metaphors" first. I think, especially during the mid-eighties and all throughout the nineties up until today many Bengali (and I believe many world poets) poets have tried to explore and renew the world of imagery. As poets, we find a metaphor quintessential and unavoidable. But they can be as choking and restrictive as non-metaphors. Moreover, we always want to mean "more" and mean "new". So there is a struggle to find a new context, a new mode of usage. Some negate it, some stretch their limits, some like me, tend to connect them to other words that are phonetically similar - all we are trying to do here is inform the reader about the many "other" possibilities that exist around a given element.
Yes, as for that approach. Lately, sometimes I find myself needing to check it a little more---it does seem to be often the way I've become habituated to writing and thinking---especially in poetry, or it's "natural." In any event, I do sometimes get a thrill in editing many of those "polarized metaphors" out, and writing something that seems more straightforward. A question for you---why do you think (those) Bengali poets, including yourself, also use that device? What do you think it provides your poetry?
A favorite poet of mine from the fifties, Swadesh Sen, writes -
"Whose van, an empty van runs through the forest department"
" The apple is asleep. Use your teeth, wake him up"
In the first line, he hints at an autumn forest. A visual. The trees are all bare; an empty van from the state forest department make its way through the woods. He takes the van, the forest department, the emptiness, the baldness of autumn and mixes them into a smoothie - the metaphors are all there, like the spice in the curry that can't be identified, felt on its own.
I like the lines you quote from Swadesh Sen, regardless of the fact that I've seen similar "devices" in many poems. While the first is more "modernist" perhaps in its attempt to negotiate an antagonism between "nature" and "technological 'progress'," the second has a slightly different emphasis---more perennial, and perhaps deeper, in a way that it exists in contemporary poetry but also in Zen Koans or things like the Tao-Te Ching. No "technology" but "teeth and imagination here. Both strategies for me can still be very useful for a poet today.
Another poet, Barin Ghosal,writes about a friend, Bijan -
"The name of Bijan's environ is Bijan
The thunder struck, even its lightening mattress
couldn't jolt the friendship
The name of Bijan's environ is Bijan"
Equating the metaphor to itself is another technique. I have seen that a lot in WCW, and I was so much impressed to see someone do that in 1916. WCW, according to me, was quite a phenomenon in american and world poetry. I get really pained when I see people from literary arts who haven't read him or even heard of him. Too bad, that Pound and Elliot overshadowed him. Pound's poetry was long dead, Elliot, quite old-fashioned but WCW can still be a lesson to most young poets of our time. What do you think ?
As for Barin Ghosal's quatrain, the "lightening mattress" image/metaphor, is tweaked to the point of "pun"--and makes me think/feel the difference between "thunder" and "lightning". The repetition (which kind of reminds me of some Stein) of the first line focuses the attention on the profundity of that idea, and in a way provides a kind of "lightening mattress" to the friendship that is evoked in the poem--that this friendship is not firmly grounded, and that Bijan is a remarkable character who understands and acts as if his soul, as Pasternak would say, is in "others" as much as himself. I like the way it achieves that for me.
Yes, I always thought,
of the American modernists, that Williams was more profound and less
backward-looking than Pound and Eliot. of the American
modernists, I also prefer Stevens, Riding, Stein, Moore, Crane, e.e.cummings,
and others, to Pound and to much of Eliot. I think Pound in particular is one
of the most overrated of the 20th century. I also think in some ways
"American Modernism" itself is largely overrated among many American
contemporary poets I know. There have been some notable reactions to it---the