An Interview with Robert Kelly
THIS WAS A SHODDILY PREPARED INTERVIEW that turned out quite structured. Organized an hour before Robert Kelly arrived, it naturally formed into tidy sections, two of which are games. The fourth section Kelly added later, transcribing a dream in which our conversation continued. The italic passages inserted as shoulder notes are answers to questions I wanted to ask after hearing the tape. Such a Platonic touch, idealizing the questioner’s role, made it possible for me to be more on my toes after the fact. Most of the interview, however, is a verbatim transcript of our talk on November 25, last year.
BRADFORD MORROW: The first time I visited you in Annandale, I was struck by the fact that you live not in one house but two. Here was the perfect analogue to the sense I always had of you, a man of enormous appetites and capacities. Your physical size, range of knowledge, the energy to work with equal commitment in poetry and fiction. How did these appetites develop? Are they a blessing or a curse?
ROBERT KELLY: I learned something of their root this past summer. At my parents’ house during the terrible heat wave, their refrigerator was set at the lowest setting, in their very warm apartment. When we cranked it up to where it should be, they were upset and worried for fear the machine would break, or something, the undefined fear of excess, of running above speed. My father was the youngest of a large family that grew up first in affluence in a mansion, and then suddenly, at the death of my grandfather, was stricken into terrible poverty. They went from lots of money to no money at all. I would have thought my father had been born at just the moment when he would have wanted to be assured of supply. Even though he was out of work through the Depression—when I was born—supply was never an issue for him. I once was urging him to move his money from one bank to another to get two percent more interest. And he said, Why would I want more interest? I said, You’d get more money. He said, But I don’t want more money. That is unanswerable. So perhaps my excess is in response to a terrible religion of adequacy with which I grew up, that the least will do. Which was not inflected in a spiritual or homeopathic way like some cogent minimalism; I didn’t grow up in Emmett Williams’s castle. My answer to the adequate is the excessive.
MORROW: I don’t view excess negatively, as such, but excess seems to be your choice, your need fulfilled—the way you needed earlier in your life extra body in order to be Kelly, with physical being again denoting capacity. You read voraciously, write constantly, your workbooks run into hundreds of volumes. How did you begin your career of reading? Was there a library in the house when you grew up?
KELLY: There were twenty-eight books in the house. Most were volumes from a set of World’s Greatest Books that The New York Post gave away back in the twenties. My father subscribed to The Post for six months and got this set. There were some good books in it and some clinkers. Intimate acquaintance with The Last Days of Pompeii and Ben-Hur arose in those days. An early pocketbook, James Hilton’s Lost Horizons, was there. I never read it. The New Testament was there, and scattered volumes of a work called The American Educator Encyclopedia—a small supermarket encyclopedia—I read in it every day.
MORROW: What was the first book you chose for yourself to read?
KELLY: A book from the Brooklyn Public Library, The Stars for Sam, a children’s book on astronomy. I was five. The librarian didn’t know what to make of me. I was told I couldn’t use the real library, but only the children’s book section. There was tremendous sorrow then, since then as now children’s books are not very interesting to children. They are interesting to adults, who want to restrict what children think about.
MORROW: So you developed your own reading list?
KELLY: Oh yes, and still am doing so. What do you get in grammar school besides Tim and Rover and God creating the earth? I just read what I could find. And as you know, the great thing about literature is that it always leads to something else—sometimes it leads to heaven, sometimes to hell. One book always leads to another. There is no book that ends literature, even in an historical sense. Remember the people who thought in 1922 that Ulysses had ended the novel? Would it were so! But it never happens.
MORROW: Specific areas of reading, just in quick order.
KELLY: Science, first, because that’s the quickest vision of the world as-it-is-as-it-should-be—as it is as it should be. The world as-it-is is obviously just politics. Children don’t usually get around to that. The world as-it-is-as-it-should-be, where we learn about what seems real: raindrops and stars, swinging pendulum, interior of the earth, the history of mountains, those things which seem quintessentially real to us so that we still talk about “real as a stone,” or Dr. Johnson kicking the rock, saying, “Thus I refute” (Berkeley was it he had it in for?)—taking a stone as more real than the words we say about it. The child has just gotten into this world and wants to test out the dominant assumption, which seems to be things are as they seem.
MORROW: What moved you to write poetry?
KELLY: That was a long time later. I had no interest in poetry as a child. Poetry seemed to me then a tissue of insincerities. I was naive. I could tell it was insincere because it was so smooth. The first poem I remember liking and being excited by was the Xanadu poem by Coleridge; it was in one of the volumes of that world’s-best-books series.
MORROW: Beyond the growth of your interest in reading poetry, can you recall what motivated you to first compose poetry yourself?
MORROW: Why was that poem different?
MORROW: You sent me a poem a year ago, the meaning of which I’m still trying to interpret. Though it was a Christmas gift, and especially kind to me personally, it raised an interesting idea about a group of new fiction writers. Writers tend not to want to school themselves up to now, or manifesto themselves and I was interested to see what you intended by this rubric, American Poetry Now.
20 December 1987
Now I ask this because it is Sunday and snowing
that’s the point, that the energetic thrust of the New
in their potentized differences are, the Way, poetry is, now.
MORROW: Downbeat magazine used to run a feature called “The Blindfold Test” (maybe they still do) in which a jazz artist—say, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter—would listen to a series of new releases without being told who was playing, and would respond to what they heard, guess the musicians from styles, tones, riffs, and discuss the music. So I gathered, relatively randomly—hoping neither to pick nor pick on any given work—some books off my shelves this morning, and wrapped them in brown paper so that you can’t see author or title, and propose we try something similar. Maybe you remember, too, Wyndham Lewis’s Taxicab Driver Test for fiction in which the first paragraph tells us the value of the whole text. What do you make of the first paragraph of this book?
KELLY: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall … For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers …” I don’t think I’d read the second paragraph, because I heard distinctly the pot boiling in the background. I feel uneasy about the use of two “vivid” metaphors. This kind of quizzical play on history interests me—it sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. I’m not sure if I’m reading real history or feigned. Most attractive is the Davenportian modality of is this history or better than history? But the workshop style of the writing offends me; we’re expected to faint with pleasure at that opening. And might, were it not that the explicit simile in the second clause ruins the metonymy of the first.
MORROW: Willfullness or manipulation in writing, then, disturbs you?
KELLY: Portentousness does. That second metaphor—“wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers”—is implausibly literary, a Dostoevskian, Gogolish wind that makes me think Europe, not Indians.
MORROW: Because it mixes abstract with concrete?
KELLY: That can work sometimes. It didn’t work for me here. What is the book?
MORROW: Louise Erdrich’s Tracks. Next exhibit.
KELLY: “Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call …” I’m out by this point. I want my money back. “About four o’clock in the morning one fourteenth of July, Pollo Phoibee—” Oh my God. A better man than this might have said Phoebus Apollo, not Pollo Phoibee. (Reads on.) This is somebody who has a lot of talent but writes carelessly. The first paragraph seems babyish, but very talented, uneasy, doesn’t know how to begin. Needs editing. Pollo Phoibee is like calling Leopold Bloom Leo Lisses; it’s a failure of sensibility.
MORROW: The book is an ambitious one. Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes. Next.
KELLY: “And then say what? Say, ‘Forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem and—’” I don’t know why it’s so clear, but this isn’t by a black writer of any kind, of any degree of skill, or otherwise.
MORROW: Maybe you should try to identify how you know that.
KELLY: Somehow it has to do with the use of the word “cackle” to describe a black person laughing. And the transcription of just that laugh, using this line of type—“Heh-heggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”—doesn’t sound to the eye like anything any black person could be so deaf as to transcribe as human sound, with those letters. That’s part of my bigotry, perhaps, to suppose that black people know more about talk than white people, which isn’t necessarily true. I see that it’s Bonfire of the Vanities.
MORROW: Tom Wolfe. Now try this one out.
KELLY: “It is a long trip. We are the only riders. So that is how we have come to know each other so well that the sound of his voice and his image flickering over the tape recorder are as familiar to me as the movement of my intestines the sound of my breathing the beating of my heart” … Well, this is the best writing I’ve read so far, of the bunch. It reminds me a little bit of McElroy in its particular kind of syntactic imperialism, that he wants to bother you with a sentence, even when he’s not doing anything special—the fascination of the irritation is there. Though irritated by the punctuationlessness, I’d want to continue with this book. I think that leaving out punctuation is a Good Idea that often gets in the way of the text. Ah, ha, it’s Mr. Burroughs—I never read this one, The Ticket that Exploded. I still think the world of The Naked Lunch.
MORROW: Try this.
KELLY: “One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa”—I recognize this, this is a great classic, The Crying of Lot 49, one of the funniest novels of the century in our language. Of his books this I like best, it’s a masterpiece. It’s a kind of pop Harry Mathews—if the Mathews of The Conversions and Tlooth wanted to bring all that weird mystification down to the public, he couldn’t have done better than Pynchon did with this book. It’s in the company of The Dream Life of Balso Snell or A Cool Million.
MORROW: Does the name Mrs. Oedipa Maas fly where Pollo Phoibee flops because Pynchon’s is comedy where Fuentes’s novel is not?
KELLY: I put up with it here. Oedipa is her first name, Maas the second. They make a possible mix, and a funny one. It tells us that we’re about to read a witty and likely a naughty book. We are winked into the crowd.
MORROW: Try this out.
KELLY: “When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her—” I’m going to take this home and read it, because it’s heart material. This is well written. It almost has the feeling of something that could be masterly. Can I see who it is?
MORROW: It’s John Fowles’s first book, The Collector.
KELLY: That’s interesting. That’s true of him: almost masterly. The Magus was a wonderful book to read until it became clear it would be a disappointment—
MORROW: When the promise of all that mysterious and fantastical power evaporated into just a secular smartness.
KELLY: And when it ran out of form at the end.
MORROW: How does this strike you: “I changed airplanes at Tampa, nodded when the flight attendant, a guy with stiff hair and freckles, told me the DC-3 was the safest thing in the air, and took a seat in the back.” New paragraph. “I was getting away from my divorce … Outside, the coast was shaped like a portrait silhouette—”
KELLY: How do they say it in sports? There’s a new modal auxiliary used in sports broadcasting, it’s the historical-conditional-present-contrary-to-fact, where they say “If he catches this ball—that’s the game!” If I’m reading this book I’m out of it already. Too, too many comparisons, too many socko intentions (I’m gonna catch you in every sentence, buster). I don’t like an author to have his hand on my lapel as much as this author. It would have to be a very sweet hand for me to put up with it. The guy with stiff hair and freckles, the DC-3, the divorce that wasn’t final, all the chat—
MORROW: Frederick Barthelme, Tracer—
KELLY: I don’t want to antagonize or diminish him. He runs a good magazine, Mississippi Review. I’ve read some stories of his I’ve liked.
MORROW: Ignore my pencil lines in this one.
KELLY: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance …” Likable, and oldish. I’m bothered by the adverbial phrases which clutter. It has a nice middle-of-the-road probity that Graham Greene has. I should go on reading for a while. It’s fallen open to reveal that it’s City of Glass by Paul Auster. I’m not surprised that the writing is good. I’m a little surprised at the amateurish adverbials going on there. The writer of this first paragraph has tried to push for a portentousness slightly beyond the reach of his material. A lot of writers do that. That’s what reminded me of Graham Greene, who at times does that with his beginnings.
MORROW: “Love weaves its own tapestry, spins its own golden thread, with its own sweet breath breathes into being its mysteries—bucolic, lusty, gentle as the eyes of daisies or thick with pain. And out of its own music creates the flesh of our lives. If the birds sing, the nudes are not far off. Even the dialogue of the frogs is rapturous.”
KELLY: That’s a fetching beginning. I don’t know what’s the matter with me, Brad, I’m so bothered by a certain inattentiveness in writing, and this too is marked by it. Some very good writers have this problem—Hawkes is prey to it sometimes, sentences I think he really should have thought about a bit longer—
MORROW: This is Hawkes. The Blood Oranges.
KELLY: It’s been a long time since I read it. The latest book, Whistle-jacket, has a similar beginning. Well, Hawkes is a master, but the same order of carelessness can show up there. Something like “gentle as the eye of daisies, or thick with pain” is not deeply written enough. You’ve got to press hard on the burin. “If the birds sing, the nudes are not far off”—that lovely end, that cadence depends on the specific. I love it in Hawkes that he’s willing to easily, deliberately, pile on the adjectives and the adverbs and there’s nothing wrong with that. Workshop people use one neat adjective. “The dialogue of the frogs is rapturous” is an afterthought, and has not earned its place in the paragraph, which truly ends with “the nudes are not far.” But, of course, it’s easy to speak after the fact, for some Me to come hobbling along. Hawkes’s passion, vivid as ever. Wonderful in a man in his sixties to have that indescribably naive passion. Powys keeps his into his eighties! Whistlejacket doesn’t read like an older man remembering boyhood sexuality, it is boyish sexuality that was never limited, never sated, perhaps never used up, and that’s why it’s so fresh. I’ve got this very long novel of my own, you know, that Parsifal, whose opening lasts four hundred pages, literally, and somewhere in those pages is the actual beginning, and the big thing for me is going to be to find that beginning moment—so I’m being severe about all these beginnings because beginning is a problem, one of the hardest things to do.
MORROW: See what you get from this.
KELLY: “She arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late, but the children, Jimmy and Bitsy, are still eating supper, and their parents are not ready to go yet. From other rooms come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind) …” Looking at the page I love the sprinkle, the scatter looks like Lydia Davis, that’s her page look. We write pages. That’s the clearest thing we’ve learned from the French—one writes a page before anything else. I don’t know what this is. The second passage seems artful, a little unclear. The first paragraph I liked a lot. I don’t know. I don’t get a strong impression. It is something that isn’t very distinctive. It seems as if it came from a genre, a whole school of such writing.
MORROW: I’m going to cheat. Having established the rules, I think it’s come time to break them. Here’s another book by the same writer. Try this out.
KELLY: Good grief, really? This is Coover, isn’t it?
MORROW: Yes, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.
KELLY: What was the first? Pricksongs? I haven’t read all the Pricksongs so perhaps I failed that exam because I hadn’t prepared. Coover’s intentions were so fertile that they tend to have vanished into all their descendants, the “sudden fictions,” I call them, that have made up such an important part of this decade’s work. So I forget the original—shame on me.
MORROW: Here’s the next one: “Harsh homeland, the falsest, most miserable imaginable, I shall never return to you: with eyes still closed, it is there before you, enveloped in a blurry ubiquity of sleep and thus invisible, but nonetheless cleverly and subtly suggested, foreshortened and far in the distance …”
KELLY: I’ll buy it. I want to read more. Good detail. Lovely prose rhythm. Wonderful use of adverbs. Who does this? Who is this? A long sustained address. Good writing, good writing. The sustained prose rhythm that allows it to open up to alleyways of sentences and phrases. An honest use of adjectives.
MORROW: How do you determine whether an adjective is honest?
KELLY: It finds its place, doesn’t show off. The simplicity of the word “miserable”—felt, nothing fancy faked for.
MORROW: This is Juan Goytisolo. Count Julian.
KELLY: I don’t know Goytisolo. I’m surprised that this is a translation. It’s beautiful, sounds native, a rare effect to get, like William Weaver’s beautiful handling of Eco—more than translating—englishing, as they used to say.
MORROW: This is the beginning of a story. “This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even.”
KELLY: I recently read a lot of stories as a judge for the General Electric awards in fiction; dozens of them began in exactly this way, with orthodox paratactic break in the first sentence, the quick identifying of characters with vernacular names like Bud or Chico or Jack. Something interesting might happen in such a story—you can never tell with the narrative. But it made me sad, and mad, to see them all, because it’s the old philistine trick come back again, the deep anxiety that art is inadequate. These people go on the assumption that literature is a second-rate kind of thing that gets its only validation by imitating “real life”—which is where the money is, I guess—that is, the unimagined, the received idea, the clichés of perception and feeling which are far more sinister than the mere clichés of expression. And when it comes to language, the writers of these stories talk what they think is real American—the corollary of the Aristotelian imitation theory they implicitly hold. But it isn’t real, and it isn’t American. Read Ed Dorn for real American. It’s the usual literary/workshop style turned round. The opposite of style is not the natural—it’s just another style, a kind of academical condescending tone, to teach workers how they ought to speak.
MORROW: The author is Raymond Carver.
KELLY: He earned his right to write, God knows, honest workman that he was. But he fell for the big limiter, the devil that tells a man to silence his imagination and accept the apparent as the real. He was successful, Carver was, but look at the people who imitate him, and the people who read him and them: a bunch of postliberal yuppies who are uneasy about the workingman. They want to take seriously now the things they grew up laughing at on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and feel they ought to have some sort of contact within the commonplace, but themselves don’t want such contact. It makes them feel they understand, thus need not fear, the workingman, the NRA. Carver is popular in schools the way Boucher was at Versailles—feeding a doomed elite an unthreatening picture of the class struggle.
MORROW: “Cousin Iris from Philadelphia. She was a nurse. Cousin Isabel from Des Moines. She owned a florist shop. … Cousin Winifred from Edmonton, a lady accountant. Maiden ladies, they were called. … In those days it seemed to be the thing for women’s bodies to swell and ripen to a good size twenty—”
KELLY: This must be Morrow himself!
MORROW: “… then, according to class and aspirations, they would either sag and loosen, go wobbly as custard under pale print dresses and damp aprons… .”
KELLY: That’s pretty good.
MORROW: Thank you, but it’s not mine.
KELLY: You wouldn’t have said “custard.” Have I insulted you? This has all the detail that the Carver story wants to get in, but it’s done so playfully, you don’t object to it. That Rabelaisian list helped out by Flora from Winnipeg a teacher, Winifred from Edmonton. A good ear. Who is this? I’m going to look. Alice Munro. I don’t know her work. But you see how you yourself could have an affinity with this kind of writing. What I thought was especially like you: “Old maids was too thin a term, it would not cover them.” You have many a sentence like that.
MORROW: The Moons of Jupiter. Try this.
KELLY: “We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t even look at her. The fights came when I thought she broke a promise. She said there’d be an Indian reservation. She said that we’d see buffalo in Texas. My mother said a lot of things. We were driving from Bay City, Wisconsin, to California, so I could be a child star while I was still a child.” It seems to me I’ve read ten thousand times this story. Yet it’s distinctively told. The voice is immediately believable, believable at the cost of speaking ill of itself. I like its irritable honesty.
MORROW: Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here.
KELLY: She makes lovely use of a mean streak.
MORROW: “Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. … The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cotton-house at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.”
KELLY: How can you have a paragraph that ends as wonderfully as that and begins with “straight as a plumb-line”? Is the writer truly naive?—A question one can only answer after reading more. It’s nicely seen. This writer sees better than he thinks.
MORROW: There you go, right on the money. Our author might even have agreed with you. It’s William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
KELLY: Look, let me go on record for once, with all the formality of that, about this question of excess, Excess. Excess is a holy word, Blake tells us it leads to the Palace of Wisdom (but what is that?), excess is that Übermass Rilke warms the hearts of lovers and angels with. But I don’t think I’m entitled to the word.
INTERLOCUTOR: Why not? The fifty books, the notorious flesh, the never-ending conversations, the appetites … aren’t they excessive?
KELLY: Because all my life I’ve been struggling just to do enough. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished even the bare outline of what is proposed.
INTERLOCUTOR: Proposed? So you have intentions too, even though you’re always speaking against intentions in the artist and in the work of art?
KELLY: Honestly, it’s not so much intention as recognition. It’s what I understand I must do. Let me get into it. Anybody who knows me and my work at all has probably learned that I spent my early life, that is from early childhood on, under the explicit medical prophecy (or assurance) that I would not live beyond thirty-five. As you can imagine, that gave me motivation enough. But why the motivation shoved me along towards writing (rather than just eating a lot and watching baseball and basking in the presences of women—or rather than addressing the desperate state of my soul, as I supposed it then) has to be discussed. Nobody ever asks me that, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m so abandoned to writing that they know perfectly well I couldn’t do anything else.
INTERLOCUTOR: Speaking of that, what other kind of career could you have followed? When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
KELLY: I was pretty confident I wanted to be a doctor—whether of body, mind, or soul wasn’t always so clear. So medicine, psychiatry, and the priesthood were the earliest fixes. After writing came along (about the age of fourteen) as a possible projection of the ego into the world, and a casting away of it into the world, I no longer wanted to be anything else. And I saw that being a writer had a natural relationship with teaching—teachers, whatever their science or discipline, have only one thing to teach, and that is reading. I too could teach them to read, to read the signs inscribed. I imagined that’s how I would make my living. As usual, we get what we imagine.
INTERLOCUTOR: Are you slipping away from the Issue of Excess?
KELLY: Enough that the stuff about dying young gave motivation to work hard, or else to give up altogether. But why writing? All through that same life dawning there kept getting clearer and clearer a vision, too fancy a word, a sense, just a sense of what I was to do with my energies. And it had to do with the violation of boundaries, with a reaching out toward the totality of human feeling and knowing and wanting, turning that transgression into a structure of its own. See, I can almost say it easily now.
INTERLOCUTOR: In your essay “A Plucked Flue,” you say something like poetry is feeling thinking itself along, poetry is thinking feeling itself along. Is that the sort of thing you mean?
KELLY: Exactly that. But not just feeling and thinking—which, you understand, anybody who like me grew up in the forties and fifties was taught to regard as hopelessly irreconcilable. And the great shots of our early guns—Gaddis especially, Barth comes to mind—were exactly aimed at the heartless dichotomy.
KELLY: A great moment for me came when I was studying Chinese, coming across the word hsin, which I knew from Pound—heart + mind, heartmind, an image of the physical heart, but understood by the Chinese as the seat or site of reason. There is thinking/feeling in one red organ. So I craved to make a body of work with heart, in this sense. Thus my constant vigilance against my own sentimentality (which would cancel reason), and my own rather cold and logical mental process (which needs all the warm hands it can get). The political needs the mystical—even Mao knew that.
INTERLOCUTOR: Does it seem to you, as it just at this moment seems to me, that what you’ve just said explains a lot of your writing, or at least divides it into categories—and in our time, categories might be explanation enough. I mean, your work might be made up of two kinds of failures: the sentimental (too narrative) and the abstract (too experimental to enjoy) and then a central domain of successes, where the two faculties are coincident.
KELLY: That’s probably just right—except that I insist on this, that there are not two faculties, but one: heartmind, whose breath is speech and whose landscape is body. This unity is what all my work has been after.
INTERLOCUTOR: And where does that leave excess?
KELLY: What I’m trying to say is something like this: As I grew into writing, I began to understand what I could do and what I had to do: I had to write each day as if it were the last as well it might have been—and might be. And this writing was not to be the mere accumulation of artifact and commodity—the world does not lack for pieces of paper with puzzling inscriptions. What I had to write is what I understand: that there are all the human domains within the single faculty I speak of, that language is adequate to reach out. That I can say. (The earliest novel project I had, in college, was to be called The Moment of Saying. The title meant both time and momentum, and understood, or confused, the saying with the said, the woman with the word. The woman is the word.) It took me years to learn that what-I-say is not the language of “I” but the language of language.
INTERLOCUTOR: How do you feel when you hear a phrase like “Language Poet”?
KELLY: Happy indeed that someone has at last gotten it straight. That’s the only kind of poet there is, and the best of the so-called Language Poets (I guess you spell it l=a=n … etc.) like Bernstein and Andrews and Silliman restore to us the ancient druidry of poetry, the sheer power of language to achieve the instauration of a new world. I’m an American. Every poet should be Columbus.
INTERLOCUTOR: I don’t think they’d be very happy to include you in their canon, though.
KELLY: Perhaps not, but it’s closer to where I belong than anywhere else. Fortunately, one can live without a school. What school does Jackson Mac Low belong to, or Clark Coolidge, or Kenneth Irby, or Nathaniel Tarn—the school of inconspicuous exile? I’m there too.
INTERLOCUTOR: Forgive the skeptical tone now, but when I hear you say Language, it sounds a little like the name of a religion, or a proposition. Is this common noun after all enough of an answer? William Carlos Williams keeps saying, “The language, the language!” in Paterson, but doesn’t say much about it. Are you using it that way, sort of a divine name to intone?
KELLY: No, I mean it in a more or less economical, anthropological or human sense. Language is the ocean in which humans swim. It is the relationship between us, whether close or far, and it is the air we breathe that keeps the living in touch with the dead. Nothing is lost. It is the ground we move on, the contour map by which even our desires are inflected, shaped, expressed. Sea, air, land: Language is all. By experimental operations conducted in language—i.e., poems—we have some hope of operating on the world that language makes by describing. Here the political hope and the spiritual hope of poetry become one. Language is aspiration.
INTERLOCUTOR: It still sounds mystical to me. Or are you just excited?
KELLY: Mae West asked, “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are ya jus’ glad to see me?” Both are true, always. We are armed, and we are horny. The whole—there is no point, no merit, no sense, in trying to achieve less than the whole.
INTERLOCUTOR: Is that your famous WRITE EVERYTHING! oracle?
KELLY: Yes, the only oracle worth attending to. But notice that Write Everything! is not the same as, is in fact the strict opposite of, Write Anything! Write Everything means: Devote yourself steadily to language to express the whole.
INTERLOCUTOR: What is the whole? It sounds Platonic, as you say it.
KELLY: I’ll use it as an adjective, then, not as a noun. The whole capacity of human perception, the whole faculty of human expression, the whole infinity of human aspiration. As simply as I can say it: to deny no aspect of human enterprise. To violate all the decorums that tell me things like: “Only the real.” “Only the imagined.” “Art is spirit.” “Art is flesh.” To make room for the spiritual bluster of Tolstoy and the intellectual sinuosity of Baudelaire both, to silence des Esseintes again with even more numerous senses, to welcome Whitman’s orgasmic whispers under the broad nonsense of his proclamations, to free Pound from the need of naming any enemies other than human greed, to recall the keen skepticism of Blake and the credulity of Newton the alchemist.
INTERLOCUTOR: You’re raving a bit.
KELLY: Raving is permitted. So is drollness, acuity, measure, sarcasm, sentiment, hope. So is precise knowledge, the names of persons and cities. Dead languages and living women. So is hope.
INTERLOCUTOR: So your excess is an excess of aspiration, it sounds like. When it comes down to it, what really does it compel you to do?
KELLY: To say everything I can. I want to say everything that language can. What else is there to say?
MORROW: In your prefatory note to Doctor of Silence you write, “The alternate form (or allomorph) of any story is an animal. Any time you see an animal, be aware of narrative.” I’d like to continue in the vein of discussing other writers’ work as a way of defining your own sense of writing and being a writer. I thought I might ask you to assign animal allomorphs, or zoomorphs, to work of different writers, or the writers themselves. Start with a morph for Robert Duncan.
KELLY: An owl is an only bird of poetry, he said, but I would shift it. Once I went with Duncan to the Bronx Zoo, where he got into a very special relationship—as they used to say in the sixties—with an eagle. As you know, Duncan was cock-eyed, and an eagle is cock-eyed, and here were these two cock-eyed, noble, aquiline characters not quite looking at each other. We stayed there a long time.
MORROW: What about Duncan’s work, do you see that as aquiline?
KELLY: Very much so. In the Veiled Tradition the eagle and scorpion are close connected as opposite but not contradictory aspects of something, deep, burrowing, and the scorpion has wings, too, in a way, and flies to the side. Its venom flies up inside. The eagle in Duncan, though, is the soaring, the mastery, the looking at the world with one eye at a time from high above it. No one in our language in our day has written so much from above. De haut en bas towards the world, not written like one of us, but from one of them.
KELLY: An accumulator, but a neat one. Reclusive, delicate, imaginative, veiled. What does that sound like? Deeply aggressive. I would say a woodpecker, the smaller one, not the pileated—some Jovian, picus, with scarlet cap?
MORROW: The downy, I think you mean. Louis Zukofsky.
KELLY: The cicada. The perennial song, the song that never ceases. Constant variation, high, clearest voice. Homer heard the cicada in the talk of the old men on the walls of Troy in Book III of the Iliad. The Greeks liked such songs best.
KELLY: Gaddis is a kind of an Airedale, a big, polite Protestant dog. Immigrants never have Airedales. Big, big, strong. But tamed—
MORROW: Gaddis, tamed?!
KELLY: He’s not a Doberman that’s going to kill you. An Airedale is a big, strong dog that is nonetheless completely refined. You don’t hear about Airedales killing children. The Airedale is a working dog, and Gaddis is a worker, all his life, hardworking. Like Tolstoy.
MORROW: The Airedale suggests sophistication, too.
KELLY: An upper-class dog, but not a borzoi, not a splashy, flashy dog.
KELLY: Avian. More bird than most, a gatherer, weaver, a bowerbird—no, that’s too exotic for him. I’ll go with one of my really favorite birds for him: the crow. He was noisy, announced things, an annunciator, was consistently present at the mornings of things.
MORROW: The crow is also a carrion picker.
KELLY: Well, he did like French literature!
MORROW: Charles Olson.
KELLY: We used to call him, playfully, out of Amos and Andy, Kingfish. He was more human than most people I’ve ever known, a fully incarnate human being without much animal trace—is an angel an animal? For all his last-decade questing for angels, Olson was always able to write convincingly as a man without ever drifting into the animal paradigm. So I would guess Homo sapiens would be his animal.
MORROW: Lorine Niedecker.
KELLY: Cheetah. Fast and elegant and quiet.
MORROW: Who would be the chameleon?
KELLY: I don’t know. Who would you pick the chameleon to be?
MORROW: Coover, maybe, though Coover’s more armored than the chameleon. Bowles, Burroughs, Vollmann even—the chameleon being less a mimic than an infiltrator or invisible man.
KELLY: I’d pick the sidewinder for Coover.
MORROW: But a sidewinder that may change colors at will. Coover could be one of the mythical beasts. Nabokov. He’s no butterfly.
KELLY: No butterfly at all. A large and floppy animal, perhaps doggish, big—
MORROW: Bigger than the Airedale?
KELLY: Yes, a danelike dog but less tonus, there’s little tonus in Nabokov. Not a Saint Bernard. A wolf, a boulevardier …
MORROW: Oceanic?—octopus, sea crow, lobster?
KELLY: There’s sprawl about Nabokov, the indirection of the lobster is there … I don’t know. A crocodile.
MORROW: John Donne.
KELLY: Pure snake. Not poisonous, but the pure snake of will, deviousness, fitting into every orifice. The snake that lies in the sun, hides in the shade, lurks in the grass, is at home everywhere. The garter snake.
MORROW: Jane Austen?
KELLY: She’s Olson’s wife, the only properly evolved human woman.
MORROW: What about John Cowper Powys?
KELLY: Owly character—a large, smelly, memorious owl. I like his work a lot.
KELLY: The ram, or sheep—a man of extreme gentleness and curiosity, but with a weak chest. A sheep will walk in a straight line off a cliff if necessary, and I think the Virgo of Lawrence had that quality.
MORROW: What about Laurence Sterne?
KELLY: The finest monkeyshines—show-off, wild, can’t keep his hands off anything, the tendency to grasp but not maintain, the omnivorous quality of being able to use everything. Everything is drawn into the narrative.
KELLY: The horse. Partly because he has carried so many people. He has been kinder to the world than any other English poet. He’s supported actors, teachers, filmmakers, critics, scholars—all have ridden on his back. He has probably supported tens of thousands of human beings, and very few writers have been that kind, in the simple sense of kindness. He’s given lifetime careers to thousands of total strangers. What a philanthropist. The horse, then. Beautiful, serviceable, perhaps the most useful animal man has had except the cow.
MORROW: What about Chaucer?
KELLY: Well, there’s the cow. Chaucer showed us all the ways—high artifice along with “natural” language, the visionary (as in The Book of the Duchess) along with the worldly (the tales), the subtle psychological (“Troilus and Criseyde”) along with the fabliaux, the folktale. He is closest to our all-poet. And since the universe is a cow, he is ours.
MORROW: Zooming back to now through Sterne: Samuel Beckett?
KELLY: Samuel Beckett. I think the eel. A very Irish animal, the Irish are fond of eating eels. The difference between an elver and an eel is immense, just as the difference between the youthful and elder Beckett is considerable. Elegant, not slimy, a dry eel.
MORROW: Do you know Thomas Bernhard’s work?
KELLY: I know Correction and I get the sense from him of a near-sighted animal, like the woodchuck. Heavy-bodied, smallish, feeble-visioned Alpine marmot.
MORROW: T. S. Eliot.
KELLY: Invasive, unforgettable, apostolic—a missionary bird. The sparrow.
MORROW: The sparrow brings Lesbia to mind. Catullus.
KELLY: The wonderful, bright, glittery lizard of Italy, gleaming in the sun, golden and green, runs fast, very elegant.
MORROW: Is there a wombat writer?
KELLY: I would say Trollope is a wombat, interminably digging, pleasant.
MORROW: Henry James.
KELLY: Mais, Henry James est un dieu! A cathedral, perhaps. People would want to say an elephant, because of his largeness, vastness of design. But his attention is so meticulous, and he’s such a singer, so musical. So what is big and unexpectedly musical, as if the ostrich could sing?
MORROW: Well, the whale, I suppose.
KELLY: That’s good, the humpback whale.
KELLY: Once you start thinking of animals you never know where you’re going to wind up, and I would think of Proust, because of the kinds of detail in his work, as the cat. The house cat, not the tiger. Patience, alertness, insomnia. Coughing up his intricate hairballs. Or is it rarest ambergris?
MORROW: What would you say of Melville?
KELLY: Simian. Years ago I spent a little while at a game farm looking at a colony of baboons. The master, older baboon was clearly the chief of this colony. That’s the image I have of Melville. Someone immensely wise, immensely detached, sitting there knowing all about everything they’ll ever know. Quiet and in his very body, in his very resemblance to all the young scampering baboons, expressive of the fact that everything they have done, he has done, run up all the rocks, fucked all the girls, fucked all the boys, done all the things one can do. And sitting there seeing a terrifying and terribly sorrowful silence coming to the end of the world. It was so obvious that the baboons were talking, discoursing, had laws, public relations, polity, had a Hobbesian economic-political system built around just this aged individual who sat there swatting flies away and sometimes patting younger baboons encouragingly.
MORROW: You would like to be a baboon too?
MORROW: What kind of animal would you be, Robert?
KELLY: I’ve left out all the nice animals so that I’d have a good selection to choose from if you asked me that. I would imagine that Robert Kelly the writer, not Kelly the bad friend, the snake in the grass, would be the elephant. Indian elephant. Useful, carries things people don’t want to. They are big, gentle—gentle out of strength not weakness. That’s my favorite image of myself: I’m constantly amused at myself for being so strong and therefore free to act so weakly in so many situations. I have so much strength I don’t bother exercising it most of the time.
MORROW: Do you think you’re a diffident person?
KELLY: Not unconfident, not timid; somewhat shy, but not to a fault; more an indifferent person than a diffident one. A bit veiled for an exhibitionist.
MORROW: Do you care what other people think of your work, Robert?
MORROW: Do you feel neglected at all?
KELLY: I do until I start looking at what gets published, and when I see the writers who are celebrated I don’t feel neglected because I realize that they are doing something different, something I’m not doing and don’t want to do. They supply the public with a commodity I don’t want to supply. It’s foolish of me to expect public acclamation for doing something other than what the public wants. The only time I get a little uneasy is when people whose work is just as demanding and difficult as mine get for some reason a good deal of attention.