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ROCKPILE Pre-tour Interview with David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg by Jake Berry 



David Meltzer: Alter kaker. Born in 1937. Raised in Brooklyn during the war years w/ commies, anarchists, socialists, & eccentrics from all over Europa. Responsible for too many trees dying to become paper for too many books of poetry, agit-smut, anthologies, & blurbs. Last book: David's Copy: Selected Poems, edited by Michael Rothenberg (Penguin Poets). Forthcoming: When I Was a Poet (City Lights).


Michael Rothenberg is a poet, songwriter, and editor and publisher of Big Bridge magazine. His poems have been published widely in small press publications, including Berkeley Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Milk, Golden Handcuffs Review, Jacket, Prague Literary Review, Tricycle, and Zen Monster. His poetry books include Man/Woman, a collaboration with Joanne Kyger, The Paris Journals (Fish Drum Press), Monk Daddy (Blue Press), Unhurried Vision (La Alameda/University of New Mexico Press), and most recently CHOOSE, Selected Poems (Big Bridge Press). He is also author of the novel Punk Rockwell (Tropical Press). Michael Rothenberg has edited the selected works of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer and Ed Dorn (Penguin Books) and the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book of poems, My Youth As A Train, will be published in Fall 2010 by Foothills Publishing.


Jake Berry  is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.

Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and, a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.




JB: You've brought together an amazing group of musicians at every location of the tour. Were the musicians eager to work with poetry and be a part of this kind of collaboration? 

DM: Everyone's an improviser & eager to collaborate, trying to weave the different sounds together in moment to moment.


MR: Yes, musicians were totally into it but sometimes a little anxious about how it would all work together. Most of them had never worked with poets before so how the poetry and music would weave together was an unknown. Also many of the musicians were working together for the first time so they didn’t know what to expect of each other. You know sometimes music is a backdrop to poetry and other times the poetry/poet is another instrument. And some people think blues and jazz and rock are incompatible. But we know that’s not true. But everyone was excited to try it out.

JB: Since poetry was originally sung not read is this project a way of returning to the source? Do you find working with poetry as music a more organic medium than poetry as text? 

DM: You're right. Poetry was song, it was in the air, it brought people together; it was the news, the mysteries, the histories.


MR: I don’t know if the collaboration is a more “organic” medium, it depends on the poetry I suppose. These performances are very much in the moment and out of a tradition. Is that organic?

JB: Do the audiences for a music and poetry collaboration respond differently than audiences for a “conventional” poetry reading where the poet simply reads from a text? Are they more inclined to respond audibly during the performance as well as applaud at the end? 

DM: Absolutely. Though there are many terrific poets who read magnificently & musically--& there's a great wave of oral poets emerging at slams & performance spaces. & let's not forget the powerhouse of contemporary poetry: hip-hop. We're more "page" poets now singing off that space & interacting w/ the musicians interacting w/ out words. Both Michael & I have had some experience in music: I was a singer-songwriter in the '60s & Michael wrote songs for a publishing house in Nashville for a couple of years.


MR: My personal experience has been that audiences at these collaboration performance tend to feel they don’t have to “understand” everything, that they can just enjoy the experience of the performance. You can get as intellectual as you want or not. I’ve never seen people dance to poetry before but in New Orleans they danced to the Dirty Dozen and David’s “Red Shoes”

JB: There is much talk these days of a resurgence of poetry. Due to the internet poetry of all kinds seems to be available from all over the world. Have you noticed a renewed enthusiasm for poetry or do you think the internet has only made us aware of poetry and poets that were previously working isolated from the rest of the world? 

DM: I think all of your observations are on spot. The net universe makes Whitman's proclamation of 'I contain multitudes' self-evident.


MR: I see it the way David sees it. I don’t know if this enthusiasm is renewed so much that all the street corners and cafes of the world have a chance to gather in new communal spaces online.

JB: Increasingly we receive information in the form of image and sound. We still read and poets still publish books, but poets, as well as novelists, even non-fiction writers, are pressured to make their work public as sound and image. One would expect poets to embrace this shift, but some poets prefer text, the voice in the mind rather than the voice in the ear. Are these performances a way of encouraging poets to adapt, does it have an agenda in that sense, or are you merely doing what you have been doing all along? 

DM: Like I said earlier, we're returning to the roots of poetry, the oral tradition, the poem/song as performance & sometimes ritual.


MR: I don’t feel we are on a missionary course, though yes, as David says, we’re returning to the roots. If I have any message here it is to enjoy yourself, don’t take the whole thing so seriously. Out of your head and into your body

JB: What, if any, are the differences between poetry and song? Is there a hard distinction or is it something more like a continuum? 

DM: That's always a tough question. I like your sense of "continuum." 


MR: David and I have been having that discussion from the day we met. I was a returning student at New College of California where David was teaching. He gave me my MA in poetry and popular song. I was headed to Nashville to work with songwriters there and David’s experience with Serpent Power was a great perspective. Continuum sounds good but I a not so sure. Somewhere along the line some poetry seems to have jumped the track and I can’t tell what it is or related to. . .




copyright © David Meltzer, Michael Rothenberg & Jake Berry