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Michael Rothenberg Interview

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.  



Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.


JS: You write songs as well as poems. Which did you start first: songwriting or poetry?


MR: I started writing what I thought was poetry about 40 years ago. Though it might have been songwriting, I just never tried to set it to music. By the time I hit my teens I had heard Howl, Coney Island of The Mind in recording, and was listening to Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, collecting the Caedmon series of recorded poetry, and reading John Keats. It all seemed about the same to me.


JS: Apart from the obvious differences between songs and poems (namely music) what do you think are each of their relative strengths and weaknesses?

MR: I am confused about the idea that there are “obvious” differences between songs and poems. Over the years it has occurred to me that there are fewer and fewer differences. I tend to want to join the terms, song and poetry, any time I am speaking about this subject. Like “poem/song”. It seems that In The Beginning was the song. What we think about “poetry” today has something to do with the church, the printing press, universities and libraries. If poetry and song, poetry/song fulfills its promise then the strength and weakness of the two ideas should be the same, to carry the news, to spread the word, to tell the stories of the tribe, to heal the sick, raise the dead, to be the prayer and celebration of every aspect of life. One came out of the other and is still the other. Song to Poetry, Poetry to Song.


JS: Perhaps I should clarify my position on poetry and song. I agree with you that historically songs were the original poems, and that what we now call poetry is a later development. And I also agree that there is no intrinsic difference between poetry and song. What I mean by ‘the obvious differences between songs and poems’ is that songs have melodies, the lyric is sung and there is a performance element that (spoken poetry aside) written poems don’t have. I find that of the two mediums (during the past 40 years), it is the song as opposed to the poem that seems to be fulfilling more effectively what you say both should be doing.


MR: I agree with you, song has been doing a better job of doing its job in recent years. Though I invite experimentation, whatever you want to call it, deconstruction, the evolving abstraction and plasticity of much of contemporary poetry, visual poetry, field poetry, whichever and whatever, poetry seems to have gone into being too theoretical or too milk toast (see National Public Radio) too often. The emphasis is on ‘too often’. I want to make sure I am clear in saying that I support the theoretical and experimental relationship the poet has to poetry today. I publish it at Big Bridge. And I think Universities can do good things for poets. Much of the work I publish at Big Bridge is generated through a University environment. But I am worried about heart-connection. There seems to be something being lost in the “process”. Theory becomes theory and MFA’s become careers.


I tend to think of poetry as the “research and development” department of culture. But then there is this other thing that poetry does that is also not hermetic and experimental, telling the story of the tribe, and we poets need to be doing that too. I don’t think we need to pander, or simplify our work to “reach the masses”, but we do need to look across the poetic landscape and make sure we are supporting all of the poetic manifestations, not just our own “Poetic Stronghold”, and make sure we give voice to poetry’s many manifestations, individual voices and styles. We are a very specialized and niche oriented society and we seem to market poetry until it becomes all the same thing, whether it’s the same thing experimental or the same thing workshop.


Over-marketing and homogenization. That goes for the song business as well. Will it play on MTV or VH1 or Top Ten Radio? Now I’m talking about song/poetry. You know you have markets and genres: this University thing, and Iowa thing, and Beat thing. We’re going to kill ourselves and each other, and wound poetry and the reader/listener, if we don’t learn more about each other and what each other is doing, and learn to recognize strength in diversity. Digression.


Anyways, I don’t think poets can be blamed entirely for the dumbing down of the public, the public’s increased inability to read and comprehend outside of the sound-byte and the slogan. What I mean is the new big slogan machine is what the public is hooked on, and they want it in their poetry/song too, the ‘buy this slogan’, the slogan driven to sell product. The career poem/song. The soundtrack poem song selling cars. And here it is important to say that the song, because of its exploitation by the media-industry is in major danger. It has been co-opted to be a product placement accessory, for the sole purpose of selling lifestyle, product attitude and product hipness, and has been whored to death by the music industry and I am sorry to say, by musicians/poets themselves.


Evidence of revolt against this whoring of music can be witnessed in the “Napster Wars” and the increase in bootleg music and the proliferation of independent music production, home studios, and on the road meet and greet distribution. It’s hard to keep music and song down. Likewise, poetry, being the same equation, will rise to the cause, sneak through the cracks of the inbred style clans and publishing authorities and will come back to itself more often, inevitably. I believe that. But I am an idealist, and that’s a whole other problem.


JS: I find that because songs rely to a large extent on music to convey an overall immediate mood or tone, that this gives them a slight advantage over spoken poetry, which normally can only achieve the same result after building-up to it after a number of spoken lines. Is this a fair statement?


MR: Sure, in the conventional sense, you can use a musical prelude or hum a few bars to help set the mood of a song. But then some songs have misleading, somber and reflective preludes and then turn into marching songs. I’m not trying to be contrary here, but I am interested in breaking down the bias of songwriters about poetry and poets about songwriters. When I headed out to Nashville, Los Angeles and New York, some 15 years ago, to learn more about songwriting and to give a try with the music business, I was confronted with two troubling realities. Many poets saw songwriting as an inferior, low, art and the songwriters were absolutely opposed to the idea that a song could be poetry, because it was highbrow and convoluted. I guess this all comes about from territorial imperative and economics. Money for the music business. They didn’t need any more songwriters. And teaching positions in the Ivory Tower for the poets, they didn’t need a bunch of yahoo songwriters, without MFAs or PhDs, muddying up the canon with “clichés”. It gets weirder than that really. But I don’t want to digress unless you want me to.


JS: Phil Ochs has meant a lot to you, and you have said that he was influential in terms of showing you the relationship of poetry to popular song. Could you expand on this?


MR: Phil Ochs embodied the poet I admired as a teen in the 60’s. He was socially engaged and he had a broad Whitmanic view. He spoke to everyman and spoke to the intellectual. He was camp, pop and sweeping in his vision. His lyrics in albums like Pleasure of the Harbor allowed for a complexity of language that is parallel to any contemporary “University” poetry. Like Dylan in Highway 61 or Blond on Blonde, Ochs was working with the image and expansion of the metaphor; he was both abstract and surreal. I know that there are some who preferred early Ochs to later Ochs, and early Dylan to later Dylan but as far as I am concerned they had a body of work that showed elasticity and experimentation, reaching and passion. I did a feature for Phil Ochs at Big Bridge hoping to highlight to Big Bridge readers the parallel and equal ground that Ochs occupied with Dylan or any other songwriter and poet of his day. As I see it, the tribute by many poets in that Big Bridge feature attests to Och’s influence on poetics and poetic vision.


JS: You once said in an interview that ‘There is nothing similar between McClure, Ginsberg, Kerouac, or Snyder . . . they didn’t write alike! Their line constructions, their word uses and voices, were all unique’. Given this, do you think the name “Beat Poetry” is meaningless as a label to lump all these poets together? 


MR: I think the lumping together of all these poets is of temporary use, and maybe more useless than useful. We may be in the third century of the Romantic Movement; we just don’t have much perspective on tendencies and evolution in language and culture because we’re in the middle of it. Marketing is myopic. We are always reaching for names for periods and creative movements, sometimes they last a whole day. What we do know about the Beat writers is they had some common interests and they were friends, but then there were many poets from all around the USA and internationally, who didn’t read at Six Gallery, who were tuned into a similar consciousness, or snapped their fingers to jazz.


Maybe we’re all Surrealists; we just haven’t finished the poem yet. Some want to call me a post-Beat Beat or something like that, but I remember Philip Whalen telling me I was a “contemporary”, even though he was 25 years older. He said, ‘We’re contemporaries. You’re here aren’t you?’ So if we get stuck on Beat as a name then the namers would just have to call me a Beat poet, not a post-Beat poet, and imagine themselves living in another century or millennium looking back on now. Blake and Keats are mostly thought of as Romantic poets, but they had quiet a few years between them. But I don’t know, we can’t just blame literary historians for these names, the poets like them too. It’s a great way to get attention. But mostly, eventually, these terms end up being used to marginalize the writers they are “naming”, and enable gangs of new kids on the block to establish turf. When new tendencies become predominant, you might want to call it some kind of poetry, Blah Blah Poetry, just for the sake of short-hand, an abbreviation, to differentiate. But branding and product placement is all the rage. Eventually the naming becomes a weapon in a class war and doesn’t identify anything.


JS: What do you see as the value of theoretical poetry?


MR: All poetry is theoretical essentially, because it should be waking us up and moving us along in our experience and perception. That’s the magic of theory. And the poetry we have been talking about, like “Language” poetry, are absolutely important because they give us a way of revisiting reality, revisiting construction, or deconstruction, and making new sense. Whether it is political or not, emotional or not, well, I don’t know. I tend to avoid too much theory on theory. I get real lazy in that direction and confused. I could look at a white canvas and tell you I like it, but I can’t tell you whether it is Marxist or not. And then if it is Marxist, how long is it Marxist, socialist, anarchical? I mean after 100 years how revolutionary is Impressionism? I love Impressionist Art, but I’m so tired of seeing Impressionist retrospectives in major and minor galleries that I’d rather go shopping. And I hate shopping.


I guess it’s not the art that bugs me so much, the Impressionist Art, because in itself it is magnificent, but it bugs me to be sold the same curation over and over again by museum institutions, it gets on my nerves. I look for imagination in the artist, curator, editor and museum. Sometimes it seems as if there was nothing else painted in the last hundred years but Impressionism, as if there has been nothing else to look at for ten thousand years. What about a great retrospective on the Pre-Raphaelites? I would travel to that. Or Gustav Moreau? There is just so much to see and learn about. We are caught in the art (see poetry) marketing business to such an extent that esoteric can really just mean unfamiliar. After a while I don’t want to hear “Classic Rock” on the radio. Van Gogh is starting to sound like a nostalgic drinking song. If poetry is as I said, the ‘research and development department’ of culture, informing all art and religion, then poetry is hermetic, and theoretical poetry is hermetic as much as any “street poetry”. It wants to break down and transform language and how we see our reality. So we have to be careful about using the term “theoretical poetry” as much as we do about using the term “Beat Poetry”. In overuse meaning gets lost.


Anything can get inbred and so institutionalized it can lose value. “Theoretical poetry” can eventually become a craft for careerism, a duplication reflection without soul or fire, job hunting, no longer resonating with the community, society or culture. Theoretical poetry must be aware of fooling itself so it can continue to give direction. Just because we’re obscure doesn’t mean we aren’t necessarily deep and meaningful. Same goes for poetry of the everyday. People say I deal with “the extraordinary ordinary” in my journal work. Maybe I am just self-indulgent and boring. We run a risk, the mind gets tired. But again, all poetry is theoretical when it is poetry. What you and I are really complaining about, I suppose, is institutionalization of experimentation, when the social function of the work dies and the reader turns on the TV. Why doesn’t anyone talk about Hart Crane these days?


JS: You have known many writers connected with the Beat movement (such as Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, David Meltzer and Joanne Kyger), and also those not connected to it, such as Ed Dorn, how did you come into contact with them?


MR: Interesting that most of the poets I have met, the ones you mention above, I met through my tropical plant nursery and environmental activism and not through a “poetry scene”. I’ve had bromeliad and orchid nursery, Shelldance, in San Francisco Bay Area for the past 30 years, and have been active in the environmental movement in my town, Pacifica. I was introduced to Joanne Kyger by the journalist Margo Patterson Doss who wrote an article about the nursery, ‘Bromeliad Fever’. Margo was a long time neighbor of Joanne’s and friend and supporter of many writers and the environmental movement. Joanne and I became friends, and eventually she introduced me to Philip Whalen. My ex-wife started sitting zazen with Philip, and before I knew it we were having lunch. We hardly ever spoke about poetry. He came out to the nursery a few times to look at the flowers. He loved the orchids.


An ornithologist, Luis Baptista, brought Michael McClure out to the nursery to see what we were up to. You know McClure has a great interest, understatement, in ecology and the natural world in general. Michael and I became friends like that, visiting or lunch, hiked up to Sweeney Ridge together. I met David Meltzer when I went back to New College of California in San Francisco, for my MA in poetics, as a returning student. I was writing songs then and David had already been down that road with Serpent Power, and so became my friend and mentor, and helped me understand song and poetry in ways I had not imagined but made perfect sense. Interesting thing, David and my friendship really began with the plants again. A friend of mine, Dan Smith, we met at my nursery when Dan was running a flower store in Mill Valley, (Dan was already an old friend of Joanne Kyger and lived in Bolinas and knew many of the poets who lived out there), it was Dan who turned me on to Meltzer. He bought me a Meltzer broadside, ‘The Blackest Rose’ for my birthday fifteen years before I ever met David. I know this is confusing. Dorn, I met at a poetry seminar about Black Mountain at Chapel Hill, NC, where I got my BA in English back in around 1973.


I met Dorn again in San Francisco  when I moved West. But I never really got to be friends with Dorn. My connection with his work had more to do with my interest in his writing, the influence of Gunslinger for instance on my understanding of how language can be cinematic and dramatic and still handy. There’s a lot to say about Dorn but not here, I don’t think. Dorn did have some important suggestions on the nature of the “fragment”, the only thing I could ever write. He gave me hope that the fragment would be adequate. And I think I met Dorn because of the cross-pollination of the Beats and Black Mountain, these people were friends. Sooner or later everybody gets to know everybody because it is a small world and six degrees of separation, and poetry is a smaller world, maybe less than six degrees. Then I heard from Anselm Hollo, who I met at Naropa, that Jennifer Dorn was interested in having me edit Ed’s work for a Penguin selected poems project. I couldn’t resist that idea. Dorn was a very cool genius and essential in keeping me enthusiastic about poetry potential.


JS: Did you know any of the other first generation Beat poets such as Ginsberg or Corso?


MR: Yes, Ginsberg, Corso.


JS: Did you ever meet Ken Kesey?


MR: No.


JS: Although not a member of the Beat Generation in the sense that Ginsberg was, Ken Kesey is considered to be the main link between the Beat Generation and the hippies as far as attitudes to life were concerned. Yet as far as I’m aware, there doesn’t seem to be a literary connection between these two groupings. Was there a thing as “hippie poetry” in the sixties?


MR: This is a complicated question and maybe someone like David Meltzer or Karl Young might have a more complete or accurate reply. I think you could say that Ginsberg, Whalen, Amiri Baraka, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Corso, many others, (I mean what about Burroughs?) like I have tried to say, had a lot to do with hippie life attitudes, concepts, concerns, though Burroughs seems to have been adopted by the “Punksters”, all of them informed the times. These “beat” writers, were writing about the political and economic system, ecology, race, war, peace, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, drugs, a lot of what concerned the “hippies”. I think of Whalen and Ginsberg and McClure as just old hippies. Whalen was experimenting with peyote and writing about social, economic and moral conventions during the 60’s. You can read more about that in Whalen’s letters. The consciousness of all those writers expanded and embraced and propelled the “60’s” mind.


Ginsberg was chanting mantras with a harmonium at rock concerts all around the country. McClure was hanging out with Jim Morrison and Hell’s Angels and digging on ecological concerns and plays like The Beard, nudity, etc. Maybe these were the senior members of the “hippie” sixties period but that idea troubles me. Again the groupings become meaningless when you think about contemporaries. I would be a hippie kid from some perspective and reading McClure’s Meat Science Essay as my introduction to many of the hippie ideas. As time goes on people start to consider me a “baby beat” or post-beat or third generation beat or some such stuff. Time changes these perspectives of movements and cultural evolution. There are a couple of good books on Kesey to read that came out in the last couple of years that might clear this up some, I don’t really think I can detail it here. I just have some trouble with the “link” idea; it’s too cut and dry. Kesey wasn’t much younger than the beat writers and they all hung out. Haven’t you seen the pictures of Ginsberg in long beard and naked? That’s as hippie as you get. Or Whalen on Mount Tamalpais with beads and beard and walking stick. Senior members, junior members, maybe Kesey took more acid than the rest. Maybe he wasn’t from New York or San Francisco. You have to look at regional variations. It’s hard to break this down, at least for me.


There were regional differences between the writers like New York’s Ginsberg and Corso and West Coast Snyder, Whalen, Welch. McClure coming in from Kansas. There was the San Francisco Renaissance and the Berkeley Renaissance, and there were all these people coming together with common interests, like the Black Mountain poets, hanging out and reading—and was Bukowski a beatnik? I have seen that assertion, writing each other. I’ve seen Creeley described as a beatnik poet. It really is a little messy. You have to get over the Six Gallery event as being the “beginning” of the “beat generation” and realize that there were international tendencies at play and Kerouac drove a car and Kesey drove a bus, and beatniks wore black and hippies wore tie-dye, stuff like that, you begin to see that there was more of a milieu, a giant swimming that coalesced. I am sure there are people who would site earlier sources than Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso in New York, as beat. Who was the first to wear a goatee and snap their fingers to jazz. You ought to check out Meltzer’s Beat Thing, to get a sense of the political period that gave birth to the beat thing, also Meltzer’s Interviews with the Beats (published by City Lights). It’s just not that clear.


As a kid growing up I was already wearing beads when I first heard Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, and I thought, oh, I get it, these guys were saying what it was all about. Ferlinghetti does not like to be considered a beatnik. Why not? So the “beatniks” were the philosophers and poets of the time, like Leary and Kesey, etc., they all became hippie leaders for me. The “beatniks” were the poets practicing when I was a teen in the 1960’s. After all, they were young people, in their late 20’s and 30’s, not dead and ancient already like Plato. Hippie poetry? Well these were the same poets, or maybe you could look at the younger generation of poets closely involved with the “prototype beats” or maybe even some younger poets like Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, Brautigan, Meltzer, etc., etc., so many I can’t even begin to list, I don’t want to leave all the beautiful writers out, that were writing then. I was only a teenager then, by the time I started writing in any meaningful sense we were already into the 70’s. But then I was still reading Whalen, Ginsberg, Kyger, Kerouac, Waldman, Corso, Kesey, Brautigan, Creeley, McClure, subjects and density of text was changing, concerns were getting more specific to my baby hippie concerns, I mean these were writers writing about the times, and they were still young, and focusing on the immediate concerns, as say Vietnam became more in focus and ecology issues became clearer then the poetry reflected that more, these writers, the younger and the older “underground” documented a period and continue to do so if they are still around with us. See pictures of Meltzer with Dylan with McClure with Ginsberg hanging out together, young guys. This tells the story in a big way. Or maybe a picture of me sitting with Philip Whalen, eating popcorn and watching The Matrix on TV in San Francisco, 2000.


JS: How do you approach writing poetry? Do you have any particular writing methodology or do you just play it by ear?


MR: Essentially I approach writing poetry as a journal writer. Daily. I mean I have been keeping journals since I was a teenager. I thought this was the best way to make sure that I got something written. You know artists are great procrastinators. I try to get to the page each day, date the page, to know where I am, a kind of “practice” in the meditation sense, and then see what happens, as you say, ‘play it by ear’. But definitely I keep myself disciplined and productive by being there, or here, on the page, daily, as often as I can. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like doing it, looking at the page, even writing the date, but after so many years of practice I usually feel better sitting down to write, writing anything. Writing the date is a big accomplishment sometimes, and then maybe I might write what I had for lunch or snack or a fleeting thought, or some days I write everything, I can hear Joanne Kyger saying, ‘You don’t have to write everything’, too much, my horoscope, monotonous details, you can never tell what this stuff says until you step back and look at it, sometimes a kind of juxtapositional narrative is set up just by your eye moving over your life, something like Whalen calls ‘a continuous nerve movie’. Then I come back, when I get in the mood to look things over, reflect I guess, and check out the journal, when I feel something has happened and maybe is done being said. I don’t know how to explain that.


You know sometimes a cycle of experience and thought or inquiry seems to have become the preoccupation of a period and wants or has completion. So I might title the journal for a week, or a month or two, or as in Unhurried Vision, a year, or Paris Journal, because I was in Paris for a month and the groove changed when I got there and the groove changed when I left. Then I might think of the journal as one complete poem that needs a lot of editing, days deleted, sections of days deleted, lines deleted, words, etc., and even the dates that divide the entries might be deleted, concerns unite when you don’t even know you had a “thematic” concern. Or I might hunt through the journal for a section that is an individual poem, or maybe there are a group of poems in the poem. The journal as poem or hothouse for poems. You know some days, or experiences entirely complete themselves. Some journals are no good for anything because my mind never gels on anything, I realize I have been on automatic pilot and it’s just blah, blah. But you never know and I don’t think you should edit yourself too much while writing. Editing for me comes after. From another perspective, I see it this way, if I go and write everyday it’s like working out in a gym or training for a race, lots of days nothing much happens but I discover and experiment and keep myself warmed up, develop poet muscles, and if something comes down from the muse, the heavens, the back of my mind, some extraordinary detail of daily life comes into my frame of experience that wants noting, then I should be in good shape to take it down. Developing poet muscles, something like that. I remember going through a dry period of writing, and then heading off to USSR, and I was in such bad shape as a writer that I felt totally incapable of writing what I was experiencing. You know, some times, no matter how much you practice you have bad days. But the journal is my way of being ready and in place and discovering.


copyright © Michael Rothenberg & Jeffrey Side