CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
An Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop
Poet, translator and publisher, Rosmarie Waldrop has, over the last forty years,
brilliantly aided and abetted the conversations of the avant garde between
America and the European continent. She is the author of seventeen books of
original poetry, including the recent Blindsight (New Directions) and
Love, Like Pronouns (Omnidawn), as well as two novels, The Hanky of
Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/ of Taking/ It All (recently reissued by
Northwestern Press). Waldrop has translated fourteen volumes of Edmond
Jabès work, as well as a memoir about translating Jabès, Lavish
Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, in addition to
translating numerous volumes of French and German poetry. As co-publisher, with
her husband poet and novelist Keith Waldrop, she has presided over the seminal
Burning Deck Press, which has not only published a large number of avant garde
writings in America, but initiated two important translation series, Dichten
and Série d’Ecriture.
MATTHEW COOPERMAN: From the observance of industrial spaces in the early The Road is Everywhere or Stop This Body, to the postcolonial critique of A Key into the Language of America, the presence of American landscape as the site of cultural transaction is always present in your work. Do you think your emigration in the early sixties to America at a particularly vibrant time, both in American and world history, and in your own development, contributed to this awareness?
ROSMARIE WALDROP: I vividly recall my first bus ride on arriving in this country, from New York to Michigan. The feeling of SPACE, of relatively wild space, of woods going on and on was overwhelming to me. Space in Germany is so much more cramped, hemmed in, every inch of ground husbanded. Charles Olson hit home with his statement: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.” You might say it’s a natural site for a poetics of metonymy, of horizontal expansion. Again Olson: the “figure of outward.”
COOPERMAN: You’ve had equally distinguished careers as a poet, a translator and a publisher. Did you set out with these goals in mind, or did it simply unfold from your activity? How has that material practice influenced your activity as a writer?
WALDROP: I wanted to be a poet, but thought it was not possible after I came to the US and “lost” my language. I started writing poetry in German, but had only very tentative efforts by the time I emigrated, nothing that could sustain my writing in German while living in an English-speaking environment. I have wondered how so many expatriate writers have been able to do just that. It followed, I thought, that the way I could work with poetry would be translating (into German) and teaching. It was only gradually that I mustered the courage to attempt poems in English and to translate into English. It came with the realization that the discrepancies between my two languages need not be an obstacle, but could, on the contrary, become a generative force.
Publishing was Keith Waldrop’s initiative. He wanted a poetry magazine and, as we were penniless graduate students, decided the only way was to print it ourselves. The early sixties happened to be the moment when print shops all over the country dumped their letterpresses, so we were able to acquire one with all the accessories for a mere $100. It took a little while to learn to print, but we did. Burning Deck Magazine was slated to come out five times a year. Instead it came out four times in five years. Keeping a fixed publication schedule was clearly too much for us, so we shifted to printing chapbooks of poetry, which would appear whenever we could manage. Full books came later.
But everything feeds into writing. Printing in particular. The extremely slow process of setting type by hand brought home poetry as “slow language.” I haven’t read any poems as thoroughly, with as much intensity, as those I handset. In a more practical sense, hand-setting type made me very aware of any “fat,” any unnecessary word.
The “material practice” was actually a great pleasure, a good counterweight to the more abstract work of writing. Keith felt the same. The pleasure of holding in our hands a book we had physically made is what sustained us through the enormous labor. And there is another pleasure in having a press or magazine: it creates community, puts you in touch with other writers. Perhaps more important for poets in Ann Arbor than in New York, but in any case a good balance to the essentially lonely work of writing.
COOPERMAN: Have you seen Daniel Kane’s book All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene of the 1960s? It offers a fascinating portrait of collaboration and performance between poets, magazines and presses in NYC. You and Keith both talk about the ferment in Michigan at a parallel time. Was there a similar spirit of collaboration there? Can you tell me a little more about the origins of the “Once” festival? And how about Brown? Was the scene there similarly collaborative?
WALDROP: I haven’t seen Kane’s book, though it sounds interesting. There were bristling pockets of collaboration in many places during the times.
First Brown. By the time we got there, in 1968, the academic job situation had gotten very bad, so not a whole lot of collaboration. I think this was due to economic circumstances. The pressure on grad students was enormous. At Michigan, in 1960, we worried that we might have to take a job in some godforsaken place, but we weren’t worried about getting a job at all, as the Brown grad students were. They didn’t feel they had room for play. The “Once” Festival was interesting. In his first year as a grad student in Ann Arbor, in 1958, Keith made friends with Gordon Mumma (a young electronic composer who had walked out of the Music Dept.) and through him with Robert Ashley and other musicians and composers. It was actually Keith who planted the first seed. At some gathering where everybody lamented how difficult a new composer’s life is, he threw out: you need a festival, don’t wait for the university to catch on—and they ran with the idea. It was called “Once” festival because they thought they could make it happen only once! The first festival performed mostly the local avant garde, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Roger Reynolds, George Caccioppo, and Don Scavarda. (I actually played the flute in a couple of pieces.) But it quickly grew into an international avant garde event that brought John Cage, Luciano Berio, Cathy Berberian, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, Merce Cunningham—and Eric Dolphy to Ann Arbor. After 1964 (when we left) it evolved into more theatrical performances. Just this past fall a five-CD set of “Music from the Once Festival” came out from New World Records. The booklet has a good history of the early years by Leta E. Miller.
COOPERMAN: You’ve been called an “avant garde doyenne.” And, with Keith, your involvement with Burning Deck, and with Brown, has placed you at the center of the American avant garde for roughly forty years. Looking back, how do you see experimental poetry evolving, in America and abroad? What particular investigations have most surprised you? Most influenced you?
WALDROP: I never had the feeling that there was any center, let alone that we were at it. There were many little presses and magazines springing up in the sixties. Scattered all over the country. It seemed all ferment and muddling along.
Burning Deck Magazine began as a response to “the war of anthologies” (Donald Allen / Hall-Pack-Simpson). It tried to slice the pie differently and in that represented the inclusive tastes of the editors: Keith Waldrop, James Camp, and Don Hope. I became editorially involved once we switched to chapbooks. We gradually realized that with such limited means as ours a narrower focus on innovative work made more sense.
As to influences, early on it was Rilke, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Dickinson, Pound. Influence is always hard to assess, but certainly Gertrude Stein. She has been an enormous presence for me. I have learned so much from her emphasis on composition, her attention to sound (regardless of spellings) and rhythm, her use of repetition and many other things I’m not thinking of right now. I’ve said in some essay: “In the beginning there is Gertrude Stein!” By the way, Ulla Dydo’s long-awaited book is finally out: Gertrude Stein: the Language that Rises. It’s monumental.
I was also nourished by the Black Mountain poets (esp. Creeley) and the NY School (esp. Ashbery and Guest), not by the Beats (though I liked their energy). But the Once group,Cage, Cunningham, Fluxus, and the German/Austrian avant garde, were at least as formative for me. The Vienna Group, for instance (esp. the younger members, Ernst Jandl & Friederike Mayröcker) and German poets like Helmut Heissenbüttel. Then, in 1970/71 we were in Paris and met Edmond Jabès, Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach (and later Emmanuel Hocquard, Jacques Roubaud). This was the most important encounter for me—for both Keith and me. Jabès was overwhelming through the power of his work, but also his presence, in the way he lived The Book and the constant questioning of his writing. And Claude and Anne-Marie were the first writers our age who we felt really close to, with whom we really talked about writing. These conversations clarified much of what we had been groping toward. I had begun avoiding metaphors in my poems. (More precisely, I pushed them out of the texture into the structure). The sequence “As If We Didn’t Have toTalk” has a double set of analogies as matrix: “You” is to crowd as line is to open space and as utterance is to the code. But this is not stated. It creates a semantic space the poems move in. I had worked at this in an only half-conscious manner. But you can imagine how electrified I was when I saw, in Claude’s Le renversement, smack in the middle, on a page by itself, the sentence “Shall we escape analogy,” without a question mark.
In the US the LANGUAGE school was the first group that I felt close to as a poet. They were also the biggest surprise because they didn’t “muddle,” but had astonishing theoretical clarity. And manifestos, like the Modernist movements had had. I’m thinking specifically of Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” and Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence.”
COOPERMAN: Contemporary American poetry seems riven by the problem of definition, or the lack of one when considering what its ostensible “project” should be. That could suggest a genuine pluralism, but more often than not the contemporary just seems murky. One would assume the avant garde would have a clearer goal, but that too seems ambiguous. Witness the rather vague definitions of “elliptical poetry,” New Brutalism, etc. In our post-Language moment, what direction is the avant garde pointed? What would clarify the project or projects?
WALDROP: Who knows! Steve Evans tried to be a catalyst of such a clarification, to stir up “position-takings” in his Third Factory. But I couldn’t see any clarification coming out of the exchanges. As Charles Bernstein always insists, there are American poetries. There are avant gardes. It seems we’re back to “muddling.”
As Gertrude Stein says, “nobody knows what contemporariness is. In other words, they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.” Some good books are being published. New small presses are springing up. There seems to be energy—and an awful lot of dross, as always.
Keith holds that for the last several centuries in English poetry there were about thirty “centripetal” years early in each century, where the purpose seemed fairly clear, followed by seventy “centrifugal” years, years of scatter. If this pattern continues things ought to jell soon!
COOPERMAN: On that note Evans says “At present, a surprising number of people seem confused as to which way the grain runs and the odds are stacked. Some are passively confused, waiting out the ambiguities of the moment with varying degrees of curiosity. Others are passionately confused, recognizing in the ambiguities an opportunity for self-advancement.” His critique is focused on Fence magazine as symptomatic of this avant garde confusion. Do you agree with this characterization? Is the careerism or ambition, if we want to call it that, of Fence, or perhaps more accurately the MFA phenomenon, debilitating the attentions of American poetry, particularly its more experimental leanings?
WALDROP: Evans is right about the confusion. I think he overrates the importance of clear theoretical positions for writing. But then he’s not really talking about writing but about “careers.”
All these are mixed affairs. Fence had a glib editorial, but its attempt to break down boundaries between aesthetic camps is not necessarily commercial and contemptible. Burning Deck Magazine tried it too, putting Zukofsky and X. J. Kennedy between the same covers! MFA programs produce a lot of dullness, but also help some poets—whether by teaching craft, making writing-time available, or by showing what to rebel against.
It’s hard to keep consideration of short-term rewards like prizes, jobs etc. out of these discussions. Most of what little money there is available for poetry goes to support dullness. On the other hand, it puzzles me how many avant garde poets are incensed that those establishment rewards don’t come to them. Surely we can’t have it both ways.
COOPERMAN: To switch subjects, your work as a translator of Jabès holds a central space in your career. As Holocaust literature, and perhaps the Holocaust poetry, Jabès rescues humanity from an abyss, and so offers a profound moral and ethical witness to both depravity and survival. Your translations extend that ethical paradigm, and so offer a kind of model of practice. You talk quite movingly about this in Lavish Absence, but how has translating Jabès concentrated the moral and ethical agency of poetry for you?
WALDROP: Jabès would be very amused at the idea that he “rescues humanity from an abyss!” Would that he could!
I have difficulties combining poetry and “moral/ethical.” Poetry and “agency” likewise, if we mean the same thing by the word. For me, poetry, all art, takes place in what Winnicott calls a “holding environment,” the intermediate zone between individual and society, self and world, internal and external experience. It is an area of play, of make-belief, and of negative capability—without any irritable reaching after certainties and solutions—ethical ones included.
What I can see is a poet’s obligation to her craft on the one hand and, on the other, to be open and responsive to what goes on in her time, to try to see it truly, because poetry is always a witness to its time.
Curiously, Joan Retallack (in her essay “Blue Notes on the Know Ledge,” The Poethical Wager) defines her “poethics” rather as an obligation to be innovative: “a rash and presumptious affirmation and assertion–affirmation of form, assertion of meaning withheld, affirmation and assertion of silent unintelledgeabilities—a strangely potent agency.”
She seems to see “agency” as having an effect on the history of the art. I take it you mean it in social terms. There, the “agency” of poetry that I can see is that it keeps our language and our sense perceptions (hence our thinking) alive, keeps them from ossifying. You could call that an existential agency, but hardly moral or ethical.
I didn’t translate Jabès’s work because of its Holocaust matrix, but because it is a great work of art—though, once again, we can’t perhaps separate things this neatly.
COOPERMAN: Jabès is an interesting choice for you, given your childhood in Nazi Germany. Did the translating effect an emotional and psychic excavation of childhood?
WALDROP: That excavation happened rather through the writing of my novel, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. Which I began in 1975 when I was living in Germany again for more than a few weeks of family visit. It was a project I had always felt I had to do some day. But I had started translating Jabès in 1969. It is more than likely that his work helped make available modes in which to tackle impossible and overwhelming subjects.
COOPERMAN: Speaking of your childhood, how did being witness to such a cataclysm contribute to your sense of the socially conscripting force of language?
WALDROP: I write of that briefly in “Ceci n’est pas Rosmarie.” Coming out of the cellar after my home town was bombed in 1943 and seeing rubble where a street had been was the first drastic change of my world. But: “A second followed in 1945, a not exactly Nietzschean revaluation of all values. ‘Our leader’ turned into ‘the criminal,’ ‘the enemy’ into ‘Amis’ [abbreviation of ‘Amerikaner’], ‘surrender’ into ‘liberation.’ This went deeper. And took years to understand.”
COOPERMAN: This suggests, to me, dimensions of the “poetry of witness.” Your work with Jabès immediately comes to mind. I was moved profoundly by The Book of Questions; it just opened me up, made me consider my own vaguely Jewish story, and its manifestations as a writerly inheritance. Your translations are a major contribution. What does his work mean to you as an articulation of the Shoah?
WALDROP: Where Zukofsky posits poetry between “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” Jabès’s work posits it between Lower limit scream / Upper limit silence. The scream is the presence of the Shoah. The Shoah is not so much articulated as it is the matrix of the work. Jabès himself called the actual Holocaust story of the first three volumes a “pre-text.” both an occasion for the text and before it. The story is not told, it is assumed. It is referred to and commented on.
The Book of Questions opens with: “Mark the first page of the book with a red marker for in the beginning the wound is invisible.” The wound is certainly the wound of the Jewish people, but Jabès almost immediately widens it to the wound of the human condition. He sees the Jew’s “otherness” as exemplary for the condition of individuation. We are all “other” than the rest of creation and, as individuals, “other” than our fellow humans. Let us not forget, he says in Le Livre de l’hospitalité, that “if we say ‘I’ we already say difference.” And he goes as far as having a character say: “You’re all Jews, even the antisemites!” In other words, “Judaism” is as much a metaphor in these books as “God” is.
“God” is Jabès’s metaphor for the other limit: the silence of what is inhuman, what threatens us creatures of language, the undecipherable, ultimate otherness, death, nothingness.
Between these two limits lies the word, the book, and our life in and through them. Our lives are books: “You are the one who writes and the one who is written.” And the third volume ends with: “Man does not exist. God does not exist. The world alone exists through God and man in the open book.”
Jabès locates Jewish identity in the Jew’s relationship to the word and the book—and again makes it exemplary for humankind in as far as it is mindful of these. Hence “the writer and the Jew are one” because both make their home in the book. Jabès engages, through the almost infinite space of language, in a dialogue with its negatives which are also our final limits as human beings: the silence of God or void and the scream. The books are more than an articulation of the Shoah. They articulate the condition of being human, of being a language-animal.
COOPERMAN: One of the things I’m exploring in this book of interviews is the question of witness. If you were to employ that figure as a measure of your poetic activity, what would it mean? Is it a useful term for you?
WALDROP: No, or only in the sense I used it already, that poetry is always, willy nilly, a witness of its time.
I don’t usually start with “content,” but with something formal, a pattern, a sequence of sounds, a particular phrase, a rhythm. The “content” will come in obliquely.
I have difficulties with what’s called “poetry of witness.” The main one is that most often there is no room for questioning. The lines are drawn from the start, both intellectually and emotionally. The “I hate evil—don’t you?” syndrome. I don’t deny the need for witness in the face of “extremity,” but I prefer documentary approaches (Reznikoff’s Testimony or Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After). Or, if possible, political action.
COOPERMAN: I have difficulty with the term too. But it offers a useful pivot. In foregrounding “witness” I’m interested in opening the term up as a highly various description of poetic activity. A poet is witness to what interests them qua language; as you say, “a witness of [one’s] time.” I’m tempted to characterize your efforts as “lavish absence.” The title to your “Recalling and Rereading Jabès” collection, it also evokes your witness of the book, its materiality, its questions/your questions/Jabès’ questions, the unanswerable presence that is only experienced going away; that you are witness to the book’s exquisite recording of that absence. In this way you resist the prophetic stance of witness on the one hand, or the overtly political frame of “extremity,” as Carolyn Forché has defined it, on the other.
WALDROP: When I read the question about my work as “lavish absence” I thought you were kidding and meant my work is absent from the field of “witness” in a lavish way! But it seems you’re serious. Well, yes, Absence is the great generator. I sometimes wonder, are most poems lastly elegies?
Jabès holds that we speak, comment, write because we cannot bear silence, which is lastly the absence of an “original word” lost in the breakage of the first Tablets of the Law. But that it is also this silence that allows us to speak, read, write. “Writing is an act of silence, allowing itself to be read in its entirety.” And we must “rather than to sense, hold on to the silence that has formed the word.”
I’ve worked with absences, esp. in Lawn of Excluded Middle: absence of center, empty center, the womb, the resonating space of a musical instrument, the space between words that makes them words, words carrying absence as a sea shell carries the roar of the sea: “words shelling the echo of absence onto the dry land,” or “the empty space I place at the center of each poems to allow penetration.” But as for the "metaphysical presence" I have no experience of it.
Silence and elision figure in many poets’ work. Almost by definition: every line of verse at its end turns toward silence, toward the white of the page, toward what is not. (It is one of the challenges of the prose poem to preserve this silence once there is no white space at the end of a line because there is no line. It has to be displaced into syntactical/grammatical “turns.” Or semantic shifts. Recently I have created silence inside the sentence by using periods rhythmically where they don’t belong grammatically).
One could also say that white space, while it interrupts the text nevertheless is the larger continuity, and that the poem rests on this continuity, on this silence that is present in the white of the page.
Silence in conversation is a different matter. I am happy that Edmond and I were comfortable enough with one another not to get fidgety with silence. It sometimes proved the silence of a thought forming that later could be communicated. But other times not.
Ortega y Gasset has a very interesting passage on this phenomenon:
When we converse, we live within a society; when we think, we remain alone.
But in this kind [of true interchange], we do both at once … we pay attention
to what is being said with almost melodramatic emotion and at the same
time we become more and more immersed in the solitary well of our meditation.
This increasing dissociation cannot be sustained in a permanent balance. For
this reason, such conversations characteristically reach a point when they suffer
a paralysis and lapse into a heavy silence. Each speaker is self-absorbed. Simply
as a result of thinking, he isn’t able to talk. Dialogue has given birth to silence, and
the initial social contact has fallen into states of solitude.
COOPERMAN: Similarly Wittgenstein tells us, roughly, “That which we do not understand we must pass over in silence.” Assuming the absence of god, what is that silence? While removing the question of transcendence, and so a metaphysics, can language still attain to a spiritual condition in your formulation?
WALDROP: Actually, he says “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen,” which Pears & McGuinness render as “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” This is elegant, but it doesn’t get at what intrigues me most in this statement. The preposition changes from von to
If we can yank this into an (admittedly unholy!) conjunction with Heidegger who says that we experience language as language exactly when it fails us (“Then we leave unspoken what we have in mind and, without rightly giving it thought, undergo moments in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its essential being”)—then Wittgenstein’s active “being silent about” would be a “showing” of language through the very acknowledgment of its limits, rather than only a no to metaphysics.
The rest of your question I don’t quite understand. Except that it reminds me of the beautiful Jewish tradition that everything is contained in the name of god. Which can easily be translated into secular thinking: Everything is contained in language.
COOPERMAN: I think I’m intrigued with the generative possibilities of silence, a silence that, paradoxically, annihilates the writer. As you say, quoting Blanchot at the beginning of The Book of Margins, “for dying is a manner of seeing the invisible.”
WALDROP: Annihilation of the author is a basic experience in writing. Though it doesn’t need to look like the rapturous frenzy that made Plato uneasy. When writing is going well it takes you out of yourself. Montaigne speaks of an “apprenticeship of death” because “study can draw our soul out of us and keep it busy outside the body.” In writing you open yourself to language, and it takes over and makes you say things you hadn’t dreamed of saying. In the process of writing, language is the Other.
COOPERMAN: If annihilation, also exile? Your early poem “Between” suggests the exilic character is your given: “I’m not quite at home / on either side of the Atlantic”; and “I’m nowhere / I stand securely in a liquid pane / touched on all sides / to change your country / doesn’t make you / grow (a German doll / into an image of America?)” Is the sentiment still true? How has your feeling of displacement changed over the intervening years?
WALDROP: I think “not belonging” is a condition of the artist. A fundamental lack as generative power. One wouldn’t have to be a literal exile. The distance is built into the act of creation, the questioning, the constructing of “counter-worlds.”
I still feel I’m located somewhere in mid-Atlantic! But that poem ends: “a creature with gills and lungs/ I live in shallow water/ but/ when it rains/ I inherit the land.” So even then I felt the “between” two languages, two countries, two elements as a positive state. It is fluid (watery!) rather than rigid. And there will be moments of triumph when the fluidity takes over.
Less metaphorically, I like my built-in distance, it gives me perspective.
COOPERMAN: In a conversation with Mark C. Taylor, Jabès once said, “As I probed more deeply I began to realize that Judaism is an extended lesson in reading, which involves an endless questioning of the writer. Adorno once said that after Auschwitz we can no longer write poetry. I say after Auschwitz we must write poetry, but with wounded words.” The Adorno quote is quite famous, and has engendered, ironically, an enormous response. As a child of Nazi Germany, I wonder what your response is to the injunction?
WALDROP: Obviously I side with Jabès. Adorno’s statement is uncharacteristically unintelligent. I understand the emotion behind it, but it betrays a shallow conception of poetry. I don’t think Adorno’s later recanting is to the point either: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” “Right to expression” is not the point. We must write poetry because we must pay attention to language because it constitutes our identity as human beings. But we must write with “wounded words:” we must be aware of—and responsive to—the horrors as well as the beauties. We must not sequester ourselves.
COOPERMAN: Jabès also provides a model for intertextuality. His books interleave so many texts, both real and imagined, actual other authors, and the imagined rabbinical voice of history. It’s a concept of reading and writing that again is essentially dialogic. How has translating him so extensively, of hearing his voice or a voice among many voices influenced your work as a citational practice?
WALDROP: My practice derives more likely from the earlier Modernist poets, Pound, Marianne Moore, Williams, Benn, but even more from Picasso, Braque, Schwitters, Rauschenberg.
I would not actually call what I do “citational.” In a citation, as I would define it, you want to bring the author and his/her authority into your text along with the citation. Whereas I mostly collage unidentified fragments and use them for texture the way Picasso or Schwitters tore a piece of newspaper and glued it in, the way Rauschenberg will work in a piece of a reproduction of a painting.
Keith has said that Schwitters’ collages, unlike Max Ernst’s, do not fit their elements into a story or “picture.” Hence “the elements remain formally suspended, visually in place while in most other ways out of place.”
This is more what I am after: elements formally suspended to form a new composition.
COOPERMAN: In the Talisman interview with Ed Foster you say, “language is the one available transcendence.” That implies, obviously, the absence of god, but it also suggests a metaphysical possibility, or at the very least a wager on presence. I find your poetry, and Keith’s, phenomenologically abundant, celebratory even. Yours certainly doesn’t strike me as a deconstructionist poetics. Is it simply a question of a bad binary? Or how do you reconcile the belief in language’s transcendence with the lack of an underwriting “real presence,” to use George Steiner?
WALDROP: I must have said “available to me.” Yes, I do have an “oceanic feeling” about language.
I see our relation to language very much like our relation to God. We invented language, as we invented God, but in both cases the invention transcends the inventor. Just think how the infinite potential of language exceeds our grasp, no matter how thoroughly we analyze systems of grammar and vocabulary or how extensive our study of instances of embodiment, or parole. But most of all, even though we clearly created it, language defines us, creates us. Just as the God we created creates us. Here I mean that the being that can conceive of God is different from a being that has no such transcendent ideas.
I see no need for an “underwriting real presence.” The pattern is circular like any good paradox. A circle spinning into a spiral.
COOPERMAN: It’s interesting that you invoke Negative Capability in describing the translator’s art. That’s also an articulation of presence and absence, as well as a dialogic imagination. It reminds me, oddly, of Steinbeck’s theory of “non- teleological thinking.” Is that a useful way of talking about form and content? Is it accurate to say your own poetry seeks to inhabit that provisionally liminal zone?
WALDROP: Keats’ “negative capability,” this capability of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” describes a poet’s ideal mindset. The poems that are able to hold in suspension uncertainties and even contradictions are the richer for it. They are among those we go back to again and again.
I’m surprised, though, that I invoked this concept in regard to translation because there one is so often forced to opt for one single meaning when one would prefer to keep an ambiguity or a multiple meaning of the original. Let me give you one example: Jabès’s “Je suis le livre” means both “I am the book” and “I follow the book.” Both meanings are wanted. No way of doing that in English. Putting both words would not have the same effect at all. The first time I encountered this problem I cowardly put: “I follow the book.” Later I regretted my choice because I found so many instances of identifying the human being with word or book: “I have been this word.” “I took you in as a word. ‘I’ is the book.” And most unambiguously in Le Parcours:
What is a writer? What is a Jew?
Neither Jew nor writer has any self-image to brandish. They are the book.
The third person plural used is sont, not suivent.
I suppose I talked about artistic form as not rigid, as preserving an element of fluidity, which makes a dialogue with the reader/viewer possible. “Non-teleological thinking” is an excellent term. I prefer calling it “form and discontent.” Valéry has a beautiful description of exactly this in his “Discourse on Aesthetics:”
Poets enter the enchanted forest of Language with the express purpose of
getting lost, getting high on being lost, looking for crossroads of significance,
unforeseen echoes, stranger encounters; they fear neither detours, nor
surprises, nor the dark. But the man who comes here excitedly running
after “truth,” following one single and continuous road...not wanting to lose
either his way or the road already covered, risks capturing only his own
shadow. Gigantic sometimes, but still just a shadow.
COOPERMAN: I enjoyed your translations, along with Harriet Watts, of The Vienna Group. I’m particularly fond of the Jandl, and I found your translation of Mayröcker’s Heiligenanstalt very rich in her parataxical experiments. Besides Mayröcker, are you engaged in any other translation projects with the group?
WALDROP: I’ve recently translated a larger selection of Gerhard Rühm for Burning Deck’s German series, “Dichten.” The volume is called I MY FEET and came out in 2004.
As for the Vienna Group, I’ve been thinking, and occasionally translating some of, H. C. Artmann’s whimsical verse. But right now I am working on two younger German writers, Barbara Köhler and Ulf Stolterfoht. Barbara Köhler grew up in East Germany and is one of the most Wittgensteinian and linguistically oriented of German poets. She’s very interested in oscillating meanings, sliding sentences whose grammar becomes undecidable. She has recently translated Tender Buttons into German. Ulf Stolterfoht’s poems are very violent in comparison. He always establishes a metrical feel (though not altogether regular), and within this quasi-classical matrix tears apart words and phrases. I still don’t know if I can make this work in English, but I love the challenge.
COOPERMAN: If I might circle back, Shorter American Memory (1988) marks a turn in your work towards the more overtly comedic. The puns and mistranslations of code and voice are great fun, as well as being a trenchant critique of American history and thought. What’s the role of the comedic in your work?
WALDROP: I hope there is a comedic element all through my work, at least in places, in the texture. I think of it as a necessary ingredient, a matter of perspective, of not getting ponderous about anything. Part of the high art of being serious and not serious at the same time.
Shorter American Memory is unusual in that it is not a mix of my own lines with found, quoted material. It is strictly a manipulation of the texts in Henry Beston’s anthology, American Memory. By a variety of methods (“Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence” is a loose S+7, “Shorter American Memory of the American Character” alphabetizes the beginning of Santayana’s essay, many chapters collage two or more pieces, some jumble beginning and end of a passage etc.)
COOPERMAN: You explore America’s colonial enterprise in various places, but beginning in Peculiar Motions, or more explicitly in “Unpredicted Particles,” the engagement becomes more emphatic. This culminates in the remarkable A Key Into the Language of America. Has your identity as a German expatriate provided a particular impetus to your fascination with American history and its linguistic inheritances? How did A Key get started?
WALDROP: It’s not so much my Germanness as that I am an immigrant. That I’m part of those waves and waves of Europeans washing up against the American coast. Conquerors, settlers, refugees, no matter. C. O. Sauer (whom Charles Olson led me to read) has this image, which has stayed with me. It seems natural to explore the new place and explore its history.
It was after moving to Rhode Island that I tried to find out something about the local tribe, the Narragansetts. And found Roger Williams’ book, A Key Into the Language of America—from which everything followed. But of course I bring my past and cultural heritage with me into my reading. A “chameleon poet,” I identify with both sides of the conflict.
COOPERMAN: Critic Lynn Keller has called A Key a kind of feminist bildüngsroman. It seems a little odd, but what do you think of that characterization?
WALDROP: It wouldn’t have occurred to me. There is a kind of development narrative in the italicized sections, in the woman’s voice. Maybe that’s what she meant. But three fourths of every chapter are rather about culture clash and the destruction of the Indian culture.
COOPERMAN: I wonder if you might expand on the “turn against images” you allude to in your autobiography, and which you’ve mentioned earlier in our discussion. You talk about the war as an impetus, and about a reaction to Pound. Was that a structural reaction as well? And did your meeting Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journoud have something to do with it as well?
WALDROP: When I worked on my thesis, Against Language?, in the sixties, I noticed a move away from metaphor (and “expressiveness”) toward the horizontal dimension of contiguity, composition, syntax in contemporary poets like Charles Olson and the German Helmut Heissenbüttel, with Gertrude Stein as probably the earliest example.
This was the beginning of a reaction, not only against Imagism and Pound (or against Surrealism and Expressionism in Europe), but against the credo of “organic form” with its reliance on metaphor to express “inner” states, the credo that had defined poetry ever since the Romantics.
I began to experiment in this direction by avoiding literal metaphors in my poems, but in an intuitive way, whereas Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet- Journoud had a fully conscious, explicit program. A manifesto: “shall we escape analogy”—without question mark.
That the war experience of our childhood played some role in this is just a hunch. It is easier to see such a role in our emphasis on fragmentation, interruption, disjunctiveness, blank space. But I might say that in war you experience such crushing force from the outside that it is hard to see the world in terms of analogy to inner states—or divine design.
COOPERMAN: Blindsight (New Directions) and Love, Like Pronouns (Omnidawn) both came out in 2003. They’re lovely, searching books, continuing, among other things, your a-syntactic experiments with punctuation and the sentence, and the rather comic surprises those experiments produce. Love is particularly interesting in its at times overtly political tone, or its topical address to political events. Two questions. What’s next? And has the rather bleak political climate of the Bush Administration, or of the world in general, influenced the direction, or question of “subject” for your poetry?
WALDROP: I’m working on a long sequence on the increasing abstraction in thinking that the introduction of zero, the alphabet, paper money etc. has produced. This is going very slowly.
As to the second question, the most obvious effect the Bush administration has had on me is to make me more politically active than I’ve ever been. The combination of power and lack of accountability is too scary. How it affects my writing is harder to pin down, except that war vocabulary has certainly come into my poems. Clearly we’re all writing “in a matrix of war,” as Michael Palmer has said. And it’s a vast war, not only against a large part of the population of Iraq, but against the Bill of Rights, international law, the earth, non- Christians, the poor, and, if the Social Security “Reform” should be adopted, against the old. Poetry, like philosophy, leaves everything as it is. But in spite of this, when your government consistently lies through its teeth, it just may be very important to pay attention to words in the way poetry does.