PJ Interview

An interview I gave in 2008 to Belgian poet-scholar Peter Cockelbergh — and which was first published in a shortened Dutch version in the magazine Yang — has now been published in toto & in English in  nY website en tijdschrift voor literatuur, kritiek & amusement. You can read it all here, and an extract is given below.

This interview with Pierre Joris titled ‘Lignes de fugues / Lettres de fuites’ was conducted for the Flemish literary journal yang – now known as nY. It was published in a Dutch translation in issue 2008.2. The interview mixes mail traffic, a live recording in Albany, NY, Skype sessions and MacSpeech dictations.

Peter Cockelbergh: Similar to your mention of Paul Celan in ‘A Short Good-bye to Jacques Derrida,’ I would like to propose Ezra Pound as a first ‘medium of our dialogue,’ a first ‘line of flight’. Poetry, exile, other traditions, internationalism, translation, anthologies, music… all relate you to Ezra Pound, as much as they separate you from him. ‘Collage’, which runs forcefully through A Nomad Poetics (2003) too, is another momentary resting place. While Poundian collage, backed by a modernist aesthetics, reduces or recuperates (part of) its seeming heterogeneity, a lot of your own poetry radically puts to work allusion, quotation and multilingualism. How would you posit your work vis-à-vis Pound, and his use of collage?

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Pierre Joris: If Gertrude Stein is ‘the mother of us all’ then Ezra Pound is our father. A strange couple, for sure, but essential to anyone coming into poetry in the second half of the 20th century with the intention to do more than write the traditional neo-romantic lyric. For me, Pound was there first – or rather right after I had found the Beat writers, Kaufman, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. His importance was immediately immense, and at least twofold. Starting to read the Cantos I realized that poetry was a life’s work of total dedication, not something one could do on rainy weekends when moved by the spirit. Pound also immediately made clear that a learned poetry, a poetry that includes not only history, but also various sets of knowledges, was not necessarily a boring ‘academic’ poetry. The range of his work was liberating. Everything from everywhere could enter the field of writing, to be energized into that multifaceted, multilayered construct called a poem. Amazing!
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There was a further essential dimension of Pound’s undertaking that fascinated me and that appealed directly to my concerns: translation. Not just translation as a useful, enriching transfer of other poetries into a given language – though, obviously, I have practiced that craft for onto 40 years now – but also translation as an essential part of writing itself. Translation is writing, and all writing is always already, as they used to say, a translation (into language). In that sense I was immediately struck by the masterfulness of Canto I, which is an original poem (whatever that may or may not mean), but also, a double translation of a Greek text via Latin into English and, formally speaking, into an adapted Anglo-Saxon form, which, on its turn, is thoroughly modern.
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It is the poem as palimpsest that immediately interested me. That, to come to your original question, was more essential even than the question of collage. Collage, I have said so often enough, is the essential new technique of 20th-century art (not just poetry), and, unavoidably so given the explosive nature of the century, one that lets reality rain down on us as a wide range of fragments – of cultural, political, social, etc. areas. Pound’s tragedy was that his totally accurate perception of an aesthetics of multi-layered fragments, as the only way to get at the world around us without immediately torquing it into a predetermined fictional totality, was coupled with a strong 19th century desire for coherency – for a totality that he was able to locate only in the totalitarian politics of fascism. He lacked what Charles Olson later called upon as a necessary quality for the late 20th-century poet: Keats’s negative capability. It is the ability to be satisfied with the shining fragments, with the shimmering collage they made, with seeing the fracture lines between the fragments as a complex roadmap along which to travel. We can and do travel along those routes, which I have also tried to think of as ‘seams’.
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Ezra Pound started out with a Dantean vision, and he wanted a Paradiso for his century – an impossibility, given the bankruptcy of all such totalizing grand narratives, from the Christian to the Marxist. But Pound’s poetry is much wiser than the man who was given to write it: there is no great single ball to lift, crystal or other, the fact that it ‘does not cohere’ is an accurate description of the facts.

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3 opinions on “PJ Interview”

  1. Sorry, it took awhile to get back to you — but let me just say that no such formulation is ever totally accurate. RS’s construction is useful in that one can have argument with it, i.e. it is a useful counter for further discussion. It is of course conceived from Ron’s very specific stand & focus within contemporary US poetry — & if I, say, were to draw such a picture it would come out markedly different as I come from elsewhere, even if our sense of contemporary poetics, if seen from the vantage of one of the “quietists” would be very similar.

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