The Argotist Online
was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and lives in San Francisco. He co-edits
Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions and is on the editorial board for the
Contemporary Poetry Series at UNO Press. From 2000-07 he directed the Humanities
Program at New College of California and currently co-directs the MFA in Writing
Program at the USF. Recent books of his include Evangeline Downs (Ugly
Duckling Presse, 2006), Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Press, 2009), Poems
from the New Winter Palace (Arrow as Aarow, 2010) and Waifs and Strays
(City Lights Books, 2011).
Hi Micah, we totally know each other well, having the writing of poems as just
as much of a bond as skateboarding. We also both live in San Francisco and work
up here at the University of San Francisco. In short, there's a bunch of
circumstantial incidentals we happen to share that enrich our general well being
as individuals with a hand in the practice of writing towards The Poem.
all being said: Is there a purely combustible form of writing? In other words,
do you ever conceive of writing as something that vanishes as soon as it comes
The closest I’ve come to pure combustibility was actually writing the word
“flame” in what was to soon be the last line of a poem. I smelled smoke,
looked out the hallway window, and the whole fence alongside our apartment was
on fire. It was 2 am and before I knew it the windows were cracking and I was on
my hands and knees throwing my books out the door. This was to be the first,
among several occurrences, where the poem actually came alive and set out to
find me before I found it. But that’s another story.
Like the infinite ordering ways within which a collection of poems may come
together. There is no end. As so it goes with individual lines or stanzas of a
poem. There’s always the interchangeable what ifs and unexpected sneaks. Poems
are to be had where you least expect to find them as often as not, the regular
occasion—that is to say, the irregular may be as habitual as any other, given
time and adequate practice.
Indeed, all such Myth/Theory (the two arts of the intellective imagination so often seemingly best left inseparable) is nothing but the gruel-makings of personae. It's those chunks of stuff the poems pick up when you aren't looking and toss around to get your attention, huh? Amazing to realize Olson's "saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you're in forever." Is really no joke?
Yes, that all certainly rings true and is undeniable, particularly, “you’re
in forever.” Circumstantial or otherwise, it really has to do with one’s
wiring, regardless the medium given to work in. And it’s all very narcotic, in
the sense that you can be turned on right away, or it might take years of
dabbling. I’ve never been able to do that with anything, save maybe drawing,
making collages, or printing small books. Even though those seem secondary to
me, they’re actually primary, because they’re habitual and in one way or
another related to the act of writing. They come from the same place and produce
a similar feeling. "Baffling combustions” really are “everywhere” and
are you ready to give yourself over to them regardless the outcome. It's no
different than being blindfolded and walking out onto the plank. How many times
are you willing to go out?
What's the cost for that sailor? Has
many different rings to it, depending who says what to whom, etc. Like if you're
the sailor talking to yourself, for instance.
The steady state of friendship. Friendship as an art, a necessary entailment of the arts. I remember, in the period of minimal employment and low cost of living that was the late 1970s, how much time I spent attending to the details of friendship. It was not simply seeing oneself in an other but a constant contact with the exteriority of being: "Walls break off / where I am met." The much-vaunted ethics of the other would be tested at the limits of the creative act, in the construction of aesthetic community.
from "minimal employment and low cost of living" much of what Watten
says here rings true from my own experiences in San Francisco. Much of which
time involved being with you and others, especially Cedar [Sigo], sitting around
our rooms with the typewriter out, browsing through the always evolving personal
library alongside whatever books or papers each other happened to be toting
about or bringing as gifts to the meeting. And this wasn't "literary"
or anything like that. It was drinks and smokes and talk, lots of talk,
"attending to the details of friendship."
“The Authors are in eternity. / Our eyes reflect / prospects of the whole
radiance / between you and me.”
Is this the end of the interview? O boy… uh oh.
Of course not, I'm just trying to swim back to the ship, and between waves that
lovely Robert Duncan line via Blake came to me. Seems to sum up what you're
talking about. The camaraderie of a shared bloodstream.
Yeah, as far as what are the things which draw one to poetry. Where'd ya get the
itch? That sort of thing. Who's in your hall tonight?
There are so many halls in this little palace that I oftentimes forget which one
I’m in. Well, on the wall directly in front of me is this postcard of Bob
Creeley that Jim Dunn recently sent. He’s with his dog on a beach in 1967.
Then there’s a picture of Frank O’Hara right next to him, the one in
Southampton, circa ’62. I have a beautiful chandelier from the Palais de
Schoenbrunn, Vienna, rising out of his forehead, then there’s half-torn book
cover from this random anthology, Poison
& Vision, that I found on the street. There’s Baudelaire with Rimbaud
to his left and Mallarme to his right and their heads are coming out of this
very ornate mantle. To the right of that is a collage from Will circa ’02 then
a gold framed picture of John Wieners with his back to the countryside. He’s
got a marvelous homemade headband on, complete with stripped white pants, scarf,
and mustache. Right next him is a bust of Jean Genet that Cedar drew for my
Informants or co-racketeers? How easy is it for those who come later to dig in
and not just rehearse the rehashing of what's come before?
Let me get back to your previous question. Poetry presented itself as the
predominant medium to work in when I was around 19. Before that, I had
aspirations to be some type of visual artist. It started in kindergarten when I
was sent home from going to the restroom and painting my face like Gene Simmons
from the band KISS. Lucky enough, the next day my instructor let me design all
of the costumes for our school play!
took art classes all through school. In 10th grade I began writing these long
sentences that would wrap around all of my drawings. I’d also write on the
bottom of my skateboard. Usually song lyrics interspersed with my own
interpretations, and so forth. I didn’t know it then, but it was a terrific
way to gain control of the line, having such a limited space. This manifested
into a later obsession with quatrains, tercets, and couplets. I was astonished
that you could use these forms as little boxes and illustrate them with
first poem I wrote kind of hit me over the head when I was selling clothes in a
department store. There was this mannequin surrounded by these old editions of
English anthologies. They were so alluring that I swiped a few and within a week
was hooked on the Elizabethan poets. But it was the Metaphysical and Cavalier
poets that really got my ear. Next thing you know I’m folding clothes then I
run to the cash register, print out some receipt paper, and out comes this poem
in couplets! I believe it had something to do with the movie Ben-Hur and some
unfortunate grief-stricken lines about lost love. Afterwards I was literally
shaking. I was quite petrified because it was such a rush and so preternatural.
another note, I don’t find it particularly daunting for one to come in and
“make it new.” There are trace elements of others in all of us because
we’re part of this enduring, remarkable lineage. The central thing is
maintaining a willingness to take chances and to remain curious.
of course it helps to trust others when they’ve been generous with their time
and ear. I had a real awakening once, when Bob Creeley wrote to me and
said, “The dilemma is that one gets to that point where the dilemmas of
one's so-called life seem the necessity for being able to writing, having become
its actual sponsor. That I'd try to change, like they say—viz, a la
Blake. You don't have to get sheep or anything, but like Olson (Rimbaud) said,
"Can you afford not to make the magical study that happiness is?"
So, as far as any such "art" of it goes, poetry has presented itself
as a challenge to you? Always informing as it further unfolds? That further
reaching towards a heading? Where after you find yourself located? Is it then
such a spot you might never otherwise have gone?
I’d say the only distraction, rather than challenge, doesn’t lie necessarily
in composition but in the seldom, yet amusingly predacious nature of others. But
even that can be entertaining. We’re all trying to amuse the muses in
whichever way we know how, and we’re all trading seats at the same table,
living lives within the lines of what’s being written, spoken, and read.
found that I have an incessantly inherent trust in wherever a poem wants to take
me, and sometimes, due to an almost self-destructive aptness, am ready to do
whatever’s required to take part in the voyage. And we know the voyage isn’t
just per poem, it’s continuous, in that there’s always the lure and the
luring. I mean, there are sigils and signs everywhere, disappearing
constellations that we follow because everything we come to know derives from
what they reveal.
instance, Sunnylyn and I had just gotten back from New Orleans (she was pregnant
and I believe you were also on that trip with us), and I decided to randomly
pick a book from the shelf. I flipped to “Poem XIV: Upon his seeing a baby
holding the four of hearts for him and another card concealed” in Duncan’s Letters and
there’s a small, red, four of hearts printed on the page. Shortly thereafter I
took a walk to the post office on Geary (where Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple was)
and upon leaving I stepped on this little piece of cardstock. I turned it over
and it was a four of hearts, exactly the same size as the one in the book. It
was like Duncan was saying, “welcome back to San Francisco, the poem’s been
similar occasion occurred years before when we moved into that apartment on
Fillmore. I’d just had this little book out, Absinthian Journal, where
Will did these illustrations of a bottle of Absinthe getting emptier and emptier
and on the last page there was a little skull inside of it. Of course, the day
we move in, the liquor store below had a bottle painted on the wall with a skull
in it. Then carved into the cement by the streetlight were my first and second
names. And one wonders where superstitiousness and paranoia comes from.
any rate, when one’s sensitivities are heightened, in the service of the poem
or otherwise, these types of occurrences seem to frequent on the regular.
They’re invitations, maps, and handshakes, there to further lead one on her
way, when and whatever that way may be. And we needn't be frightened by them, in
fact, we should be thankful, because it gives one a sense of solace, in that the
poem is our agency where things can move close to us and inhabit our psychic
I recently read an interview with Daniel Kane (a critic/scholar of the so-called
New York School) by Jeffrey Side and he asks him: "Do you see
poststructuralist influenced writing practices (and other types of procedural
poetic composition practices) as being generally less preferable than approaches
that are more “organic” or spontaneous?" I'm curious how you'd describe
your own writing practices and any preferences you hold to?
When it comes to methodology, I’m not partial to anything so long as what
needs to be said gets said. Sure, certain techniques, along with aesthetic
preferences, might align one with a particular community, but that’s all
temporary and after the fact. I’m interested in movement, how one gets from
place to place, or portal to portal, because there’s an endless happening
there that’s never the same. It’s fascinating to see drafts of poems,
it’s like you get a free pass, or a trap door into the labyrinth. It’s
similar to reading an autobiography, or listening to outtakes, B-sides of the
poem. And it can be very forensic, watching this thing alchemically discover its
go through periods where I’ll try different procedures, but these are mostly
to challenge myself so I won’t keep painting the same thing on the same
canvas. I usually find myself in this horrible but necessary place after I’ve
finished a number of poems and peeked at them, or after giving a reading. All of
a sudden you see where you’ve been traveling and it’s time to hitchhike
somewhere else. The last time I caught a ride I wound up writing in notebooks
for four months, two pages a day, without looking at what was written. It was
awful because it was such a foreign process (and I’m so damn impatient) but I
managed to get a few longer sequential and serial poems out of it.
the most part, I just like to keep it random. Scraps of paper, napkins, flyers,
whatever’s available, sooner or later get deposited into a notebook. When a
poem begins, it’s usually a group of lines that appear and start a
conversation with one another. Once they’ve worn themselves out, I’ll flip
thru the notebook, grab a few strays, and throw em’ into the mix. This has
been going on for the past three years, taking all the waifs and strays and
making collages held by sound and ulterior narratives that are dictated as the
lines start to communicate.
When it comes to putting a book together, or editing someone else’s, I’m invariably visual. You’ve seen the halls in our apartment lined with pages, or that massive, secret sliding door that goes back into the wall. I tend to think of a book as a suitcase of singular poems that make one long poem, regardless of their disparities. Will the last line of this poem read into the first line of this one? Does the form of this poem flow into the form of the next one? When you tape a manuscript to the wall, you get a birds-eye view of the maze you’ve been in. All the encryptions and codes that lie beneath the lines start to pop out. I might gain a bit of tunnel vision, like they say, and have fun playing around, but in the end it’s what the poems want. Maybe they don’t want to read into one another you know? Well, let me step back from the wall and observe the frequencies.
Is that to say, then, that "the frequencies" between poems in a
book—as those between books—are constantly flickering for you... is there a
strong sense of return then you feel for some of your own work and that of
others? Does this attachment ever extend
geographically for you?
always a magnetic pull to my peers. I say that speaking of Baudelaire to H. D.
to John Wieners to you and an ever-evolving host of others—anyone who writes
towards cosmology. I’ve always had a strong sense of return with John’s
poems, be it 707 Scott Street (the B-sides to The Hotel Wentley Poems)
and even more so, Behind the State Capital or Cincinnati Pike. That book
is like his Cantos. Every time I return to it something is completely different.
Poems that I thought I knew I don’t, then all of a sudden there’s some that
I’ve never seen. It’s like the codes keep changing and there’s a new
orchestration each time the book is opened.
I rarely return to my own work, once it’s suitcased, other than to stare at the cover and try to re-imagine what’s going on inside. I have somewhat of a photographic memory, so I can see all the poems in there, each page, as well as the drafts. It’s like I can feel and hear them all at once, and form them into one ball of discharged energy. I can be all the way across the room, and that’s close enough for me. I’d rather be running to the bookshelf and picking up someone else’s. I do enjoy the company of others, and that’s far more interesting than talking to myself in the mirror.
far as geographic sense of return, I’ve
only noticed that in retrospect. I have to be away from a place to fully
inhabit it. That can take seconds or years. I was quite surprised when I put the
poems in Parish Krewes together, all this Louisiana folklore laced
with Egyptian magic and funerary rites.
And readers also find your work full of resonance with San Francisco as well.
For instance, according to a recent review in Publisher's Weekly your poems demonstrate "the prophetic
concentration of Robert Duncan and the extroversion of the beats."
In regard to categorizing, we’ll what can we do about that? It doesn’t mean
much and it’s not in your hands anyway. At the most, it’s associative,
and rarely about what’s on the page. It’s generally a way to historicize
something by means of cataloging, or summarizing the subject(s) at hand. Like,
okay, you’re over here, and you’re here, let’s put you right there, and so
forth. When what’s really going on is wait, we’re all right ‘here’.
It’s like that everywhere, we’re surrounded by it. I suppose it has its
uses, regardless of its limiting factors. Berkeley Renaissance, SF Renaissance,
Black Mountain, whatever generation of the New York school and so forth.
There’s all these shared lives and friendships intermingled with different yet
appreciated approaches to the poem but due to time, geography, aesthetic s, or
whatever, everyone gets their “place.” It’s great though how it’s
interchangeable and never really lasts, I mean look at Joanne, she exists in
wanted to move to San Francisco since I first visited with my parents in sixth
grade. It was so enchanting and I felt right at home, and I still do. As you
know, SF was the skateboarding mecca for quite some time so I grew up with all
these pictures in my room with people skating in SF. When I finally moved here I
knew (mostly) the whole landscape simply by hanging out in my room 2,000 miles
away. And to stumble upon these underground, legendary spots, still
enthralls me. I was just walking under the “China Banks” on Kearny yesterday
morning and got chills of excitement.
College primarily was a means to get me to SF, although I was contemplating
moving to NYC. I guess SF had that alchemical pull that at the time I was
unaware of. Of course it helped too, as you mentioned, the history of other
poets living here. I mean, what can I say? Being isolated in Louisiana and
reading all these books just wasn’t enough. I wanted to breathe the same air,
walk the same streets, and be in like company. Pretty much the same reason as
everyone else. I will say this, it was extremely intimidating!!
Having the company of maybe two people, then all of a sudden there’s 200! I
feel very lucky though, when I moved here everyone I met was extremely
generous. I was pretty oblivious to the factions and choose still to remain
so. Not to sound overly cliché, but I try not to forget where I’m
from. I can’t believe I still get to meet others who share similar interests,
on and off the page. It’s incredible.
Weren't you at Dalva in the Mission last night? That's a s-t-r-e-t-c-h to get
over to China Banks! Awesome. You got your walk on.
Certainly. You learn to find pleasure in inanimate objects, simple architecture
that society doesn’t really notice. And you project yourself onto these
objects by way of the imagination, and instantly form this mental/physical
relationship with them. Similar to poetry, it’s all on your own, in that
there’s no relying on someone else for you to actually “be there.”
stairs, curbs, banks, hills, etc., perpetually stand out as almost, divine
objects, because we have such a fervid and interminable imaginary relationship
with them. However, what really stands out is that most of them are now “skate
stopped” with all these iron knobs (and sometimes sea-shells for décor).
It’s interesting to see this continuous anti-skateboarding element in society
while at the same time it’s gone completely mainstream with corporate
sponsorship. The same huge conglomerates that now promote skateboarding
“skate-stop” the ledges around their buildings.
Everybody knows there's no money in poetry, yet similar controversial
hypocrisies are always popping up... every ten years or so, somebody has
"gone over," giving up keeping it real, whether for a job or some
other financial security or sometimes just getting published within a certain
crowd even... No longer "on the level" as Berrigan might say.
I think you never know if you’re doing anything “right.” If you are then
you’re probably following some type of agenda used to qualify your existence,
and that’s just too bad. Sure, you can be aware of the mechanics of it all,
how to get from point a to point b and so on, but that should be held as far
away as possible. Things happen on their own accord and it’s worthwhile to
trust the pacing. I think it’s okay to be aware of what’s going on, say,
having just a fingernail in the know, but not your whole arm.
© Micah Ballard & Patrick James Dunagan