ROBERT KELLY with John Yau, David Levi Strauss, and Phong Buiby Phong Bui, David Levi Strauss, and John Yau
On a late Saturday afternoon in August, Publisher Phong Bui and Art Editor John Yau drove up to High Falls, New York, to visit the poet and writer Robert Kelly at Consulting Editor David Levi Strauss’s library to discuss Kelly’s life and work.
Phong Bui: When did you first come to poetry?
Robert Kelly: Pretty late, actually, because I wanted to be a writer. I was reading and I didn’t think of poetry as something that interested me partly thanks to reading in some random Treasury of Best-Loved Poems, where I felt such a sense of artifice, insincerity, sluggishness, and decorativeness. Everything was about closure, when as a child this was the opposite of what I wanted and thought poetry should be: open and expansive. I didn’t know about Pound, Eliot, Joyce in those days—I was still looking for things that opened, and poetry seemed to be so closed. It wasn’t until I read Coleridge that I found poetry opening. The very poem that I first read, “The Kubla Khan,” where his meter and the formal structure seem to break down in urgency, and it ends nowhere in particular—what great beauty! I suddenly saw that there was something else there.
David Levi Strauss: And from Coleridge you found your way to Eliot and Pound.
Kelly: Yes, by the time I was out of high school I found Guide to Kulchur, they called it in those days. The ABC of Reading was up to task. I used to carry the Cantos around. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was particularly helpful to people at my age because it was all about opening and fragmentation. One did not see, or one could see but did not care too much about the deep quest for order and quote, civilization, that lay underneath “The Wasteland.” One could hear the cry but what one saw was this dispersal of images gathered together, or as Eliot said, “These fragments have I shored against my ruin.” That’s a wonderful sense of fragment for children who have not yet ruined the world, to know that after they’ve ruined it they’ll still be able to pull it together and make some kind of beautiful sound out of it.
I was thinking this morning on the way over, just irrelevantly, that this novel of mine, The Book From the Sky, which represents a young boy living in the late 40s to early 50s, who has an experience with a flying saucer and is actually taken away, abducted by it, but as he is being carried away he is also being divided into two people. One of him stays on earth while the other goes off to the Planet X where he lives and learns and carries on. The novel, after describing that division, then spends a lot of time on Planet X describing his training. Then it completely breaks down, abruptly, and goes back to Earth where the boy left behind is now a man in his 40s, a lawyer, in England. The two men later come back together, the two halves, with disastrous results. But it occurred to me this morning that what I was really doing in the novel was talking about leaving Brooklyn, the leaving of the world in which poetry was a closed form leading to a closed world, of course, being a lawyer. Just parenthetically, I went to a Jesuit high school called Brooklyn Prep. (The building is now Medgar Evers Community College on Nostrand Ave., wonderful building, and it still has the statue of Saint Ignatius Loyola in front of it.) But I was a high school drop out—the Jesuits said stay with us and we’ll send you to Fordham and you can become a lawyer, we’ll give you a scholarship. And I said no, no, no. And I went and became what we all became. We went to the Village, were as bad as we could be. This side of prison at least. Then we got over it and we settled down. In any case, what I was writing about in the novel must have been the sense of what I would have been had I gone, as opposed to going off into heaven, i.e. poetry, the world of pure imagination. From which, in the novel, he, I, come back as a kind of prophet. So I make the same mistake again in the opposite direction. Instead of being out in the world of the openness I come back with a religion and I begin to teach the religion.
John Yau: Right, Brother William.
Kelly: And Brother William becoming just as bad as the problem. I give him a lot of wise remarks to make (which are all in boxes in the novel). Most of them are true and good while some of them are absolute nonsense. And so it is with religion in general, I suppose. Just this morning, your coming must have alerted me that I had to know something about the book and I knew all of the sudden that it was a kind of curious, semi-autobiography, like the poet Ted Enslin’s strange new novella called I Benjamin where he construes himself as a strange misfit who becomes a kind of Rip Van Winkle wandering off into the woods and has an experience with some women and some animals, comes back to his town and many years have passed and he’s now an old man. And what he does, in a sense it touched me, because it’s like what happens in my novel, his whole life as a poet is left out and he goes from being a kind of town misfit to being a relatively famous composer at the end of his life without ever passing through poetry. Very strange. Of course, you know, Ted Enslin started out as a composer.
Yau: He studied music with Nadia Boulanger.
Kelly: And Stravinsky. Then he came back to America and became a poet. And he’s been writing music recently.
Yau: I guess every novel has to be the story of your fantasy.
Kelly: Not your reality, certainly. Or else, why would a poet write a novel? After all, his novel will make him no more money than his poetry does [laughs].
Bui: At any rate, when you went to City College in the 50s, it was known as a hotbed of political radicalism.
Kelly: That’s why I wanted to go there but by the time I got there, there wasn’t protesting or political debates as there was in the 30s and 40s. It was full of G.I.s who were trying to get educated so they could get jobs. City College had a strange mixture of greatness and utter triviality in those days, thousands of required courses. You know, everybody who worked there wanted to be assured of their own tenure so they had their courses required. Two years of required hygiene and physical activity. Two years of science. So there was very little left for what I wanted, which was Greek, Latin, and German.
Yau: But there you met a number of people who became friends?
Kelly: I certainly did. Some of them are still at City College. But the great ones I met were David Antin and Jack Hirschman, and through them Jerome Rothenberg, who had left City the term before I got there. Rothenberg and I would work a lot together for years thereafter. And Hirschman’s first teaching job was at the University of Indiana, where one of his students was Clayton Eshleman, who discovered poetry through him.
Yau: That’s where the Artaud connection came from, right?
Kelly: That’s right. And Jack’s Artaud anthology published by City Lights Books is how most people got to know Artaud.
Yau: But there were early translations, such as “Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society” that was published in Tiger’s Eye in 1949. I was trying to make connections of when certain people might have learned of Artaud. And there is Edouard Roditi’s translations of Raymond Rousel that appeared in View Magazine in 1943, long before John Ashbery translated him, but it’s Ashbery who makes Roussel become known in America. Those who read View were exposed to French poetry before it was known in America. I remember Charles Henri Ford saying that Jackson Mac Low used to come and hang out in the offices of View and read all that he could.
Kelly: Ted Berrigan also wanted to read everything, even things that were totally removed from his own enterprise.
Yau: I remember Ted talking to me about John McPhee and others who wrote for the New Yorker. And I have two letters from Jackson where he talked about how he knew in high school who Fairfield Porter was. This was because of the Greek Revival house Porter grew up in; it was in Winnetka, and Jackson lived in Chicago. The fact that he knew who Fairfield Porter was that early on just seemed to me like this man had his eyes open very early in his life and paid a lot of attention. You would never put those two people together at all.
Levi Strauss: Like you wouldn’t put Jackson Mac Low and Robert Duncan together either, but there they were among New York and Woodstock’s anarchist circles in the 1940s. And Robin Blaser always said that when he and Spicer and Duncan got together in Berkeley in 1946, Duncan was much more sophisticated, because he’d been to New York and knew View magazine.
Yau: And Philip Lamantia worked for View when he was 17, and met Duncan and Mac Low then. To get back to the notion of The Book of the Sky being semi-autobiographical, and the divided self: William, who becomes the prophet—his body has two squirrels—I mean, there’s this unnerving section, where his body organs are replaced.
Kelly: And he leaves his somatic part on Earth. You gave away the squirrels.
Yau: I’m sorry. But it seemed to me the notion of voice and where it comes from has remained a great mystery. Yes, some come from our childhood, but we don’t necessarily know where the others come from. Freud tries to deal with it by bringing them together, but I thought the book was really wonderful in that you allow those different voices to float around. We’re inside them, they’re inside us, and there’s kind of an occult nature to that.
Kelly: That’s what kept me going, the change of voice in each chapter, and still, it’s relatively harmonious. I was thinking of Pierre Klossowski’s novel The Baphomet in which we hear voices floating, literally in the afterlife in a placeless place. Similarly, in my long and still unrevised novel Parsifal, which has 100 chapters and about 2,000 pages, the main character tries to deal with those different voices in his head figuring it out: what are they, who are they, and so on. Actually, I thought of what, in his book Magic as an Experimental Science, [Ludwig] Staudenmaier had done, what ritual magicians do, that is, create contact with external beings. By extrapolating from himself and creating parts of himself which might be his daemons, he was able to summon and converse with 300 and some separate entities, and he would get to know and talk to each of them. Eventually he went, as they say, mad by losing the voice of who he thought he was.
Yau: Well, in Tibet people would go to the cemetery and meditate until they raised up the demon.
Kelly: Oh you never have to raise them up. They’re just waiting for you. You have to welcome them. It’s a matter of giving yourself to them and seeing what happens. And that’s how poetry is. [Laughter.] I mean, when you’re writing a poem, about one-tenth of the time you are yourself, and, if you’re lucky, if I’m lucky, if any of us are lucky, something else is operating which can serve as the amplifier, the transcriber of the dead and the living, so the voices are both from the future, as well as from the present and the past. Who are we to say that my past life is my past life. I mean, I don’t know who that kid was in Brooklyn 50 years ago, or you [Yau] who sat on my porch in 1969.
Levi Strauss: Robert, do you mean to say that it’s not all about “self-expression”?
Kelly: Well, yeah. In the sense that expression is squeezing the self out. Getting rid of it. Espresso? Self-espresso. A barista of your own soul. [Laughs.]
Yau: Philip Guston talked about the people who were in his studio, and in his head, when he was painting. And in the beginning they’re all talking to him; and then one by one they leave, and he said that on a really good day even he got to leave. He was a friend of Morton Feldman and John Cage in the 50s. He turns against abstraction because he felt that it asked too much of the viewer.
Kelly: I can relate to that because I’m too affable to go to abstraction completely.
Yau: This goes back to Duncan who said that you’re a bookish poet. It seems to me that when I first read your work in the late 60s, one could say that you have a bookish side, but there’s this other side that’s not bookish at all. It’s really looking at what’s outside your window. In Convections there’s that wonderful poem, “Fourth October Meditation,” which asks; do I pay attention to the rain or the typewriter. It’s about what’s in front of you, what you’re looking at and hearing, and all sorts of connections come forth. We’ve talked about this before; you don’t have a paradigm. We even talked about this issue in terms of art criticism, when I told you that Hal Foster wrote that poets who write about art “don’t have a paradigm.” And you said, “Oh, well I have a paradigm, it’s just that I can’t fit through the door.” It’s not so much that you’ve written all this work, which some people focus on; it’s that your work is impossible to characterize. That’s one of its strengths because people just can’t get a handle on your work.
Bui: I’m glad that John had brought up Convections, one of my favorites among your work, partly because it covers the wide range of your interests. From mythology, history, religion, science, alchemy, and above all, meditations on life and poetry. It begins with “The Tears of Edmund Burke,” with a rather skeptical tone, which reminds me of one of Blake’s short poems called “Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau.” Then somewhere in the middle appears a sensuous poem, “The Etruscan Sun,” and the book ends with the long, rhapsodic “Orpheus.”
Kelly: The poems in Convections represent maybe a tenth of what I had written at that time, because I never publish all that I write. I’m what Spicer called an abortionist. I expose most of my children on the hillside and a few of them survive. Maybe more should get the same treatment. What John said about it being difficult for people to get a handle on me is part of my strength as a person, it may be a strength of some of the work, but at the same time it’s a tremendous weakness in the world of career in poetry, because nobody knows who I am. My poignant anecdote, which maybe I’ve told you, is of being in London at a literary bar drinking with people and talking, and someone comes up to me and says, “Oh hello, so you’re the one who defeated Erik Mottram,” and I say, “I did no such thing. I love Eric Mottram. He’s a wonderful man.” He says, “No, you defeated him—he tried to write about your work and couldn’t, there was too much of it.” So I poured my drink on my head and left. [Laughter.] Mottram was a man of great comprehension who could grasp the bigness of Duncan, and sense Olson’s struggle towards knowing. Because Olson’s poems look like each other on the page, most readers don’t actually read the words, don’t see the progression—they just see the scatter, as if you couldn’t tell the difference between a Kline and a de Kooning of the late 50s, and that really shocks me. Incidentally, I recognize that the same failure of getting a critical grasp on me as the price I have to pay for the freedom of my own writing, which is not a terrible price to pay. The sun still shines on me. I still have wonderful friends, a wonderful wife, But it is true, if I were asked to present an image of my own work I would be a bit baffled because none of it is mine anymore.
Levi Strauss: How do you feel about The Alchemist to Mercury [an alternate opus: Uncollected Poems 1960-1980] now?
Kelly: I like the red cover like my then red hair. [Laughter.] It was done by the scholar Jed Rasula, who had read a lot of my work and liked my work enough to type up several hundred poems of mine himself in the pre-Xerox days, poems that he felt represented me better than I had represented myself, and in this very direct way he said, “You don’t do your own books right. They should be like this.” I had at times to persuade him to put a couple things in and take a couple things out, but by and large it’s his vision of me, which I don’t disapprove of, and there’s a lot of material in there that’s still important to me, while a few other poems seem just sort of romantic blathering, trying to find my way towards the energy of Eros, especially when I was in my 30s when most of those poems were written—an easy time to get distracted by the evidence rather than the rule of which the evidence is speaking.
Bui: Since the book begins with the poem “The Alchemist,” which is dedicated to Robert Duncan, it inevitably brings up the subject of your lifetime interest in alchemy and the occult. Do you think that your graduate work in Medieval Studies at Columbia may have initiated that interest?
Kelly: It would have been one of the first things I tried to do about it. Yes, I always felt a yearning towards those other realities. Not the other realities in some mystical, far away sense, but rather in the way that I know there’s more to this than this. In other words, this has to begin with this; but this can’t be more than itself until it becomes itself. Maybe a simple way of saying where I come from is that about two years ago I realized that there are only three religions in the world: the religion of the stone, the religion of the tree, and the religion of the human being full-grown. And you’ll find that these religions recur, and every cult that we know (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., if you call them that for the moment) reproduces these things constantly. So Jesus is born, becomes the Son of Man. He is the first figure that is just pure human, but what do they do? They crucify him on a Tree. They push him back into the tree state from which they hide him under the Stone. And then he pushes away the stone and comes out. So in a sense that little parable of the death and resurrection of Jesus tells us a story about those three religions. Islam begins with Mohammed being spoken to, human words, by an angel who takes Human Form. And soon enough they’re revering a Stone on the wall of the Kaaba. Very curious, what happens. Jesus says metaphorically to Peter, whose name means “stone,” “You’ll be my rock and on this rock I’ll build my church.” And soon the whole church becomes the stone. So we’re always drifting back to stone. The Buddhists say that at the end of the world, the kalpa-ending fire, the only thing left will be the stone at Bodh Gaya where the Buddha sat and every Buddha sits. Kalpa after kalpa after kalpa, as if the Stone is always the starting point, and then up grows the Tree of Enlightenment, under which the Man sits. So the three religions, it seems to me, the stone, the tree, and the man, haunt me and I see them constantly recurring. This is the closest I’ve come to being able to say that there are patterns that occur in all of existence, and a child sees these patterns. He does something wrong and something happens. He does something right and something happens. He begins to sense the delicate lines, the tendrils that connect me at this moment with everything in the world. It sounds solipsistic, autistic almost, and yet, until every person becomes totally autistic we will not really be able to love one another. I mean we really have to be able to accept the fact that each of us is entitled to be at the center of that web of discourse. Though, when I began to hear about things like ceremonial magic, the occult—they seemed to be reminding me that there is something about this endless web of discourse in which we are caught where everything causes everything else. Buddhism talks about the interconnected co-origin, which means that everything causes everything else. That no one is ever alone. Once you get the sense that you can’t be lonely anymore, your question of your own sense of agency is called into question, your own sense of free will is challenged, and so on. You don’t know whether you’re talking to him or he’s talking to you. So that’s why I like discourse. That’s the way to the world.
Bui: Duncan, partly because of his adopted parents being devout theosophists, also had a strong invested interest in the occult and magic. When did you meet Duncan?
Kelly: I met him at a moment of grace. It was in 1960, and I had just taken part in a political demonstration in New York, at which point I felt everything I had done in my life was a complete failure, and I was as close to suicide as I had ever been. My work wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t getting published, nothing was happening, and as I was walking into the Figaro coffee shop, in the most depressed state, a man in a chocolate brown suit and an orange necktie came up and said, “You must be Kelly. I’m Robert Duncan.” You see why I call him an angel. Not only did he save my life, but he was the best voice of the poet in our language at that moment. That’s how we became friends. Twenty years later, we got him to come to Bard.
Yau: Which was amazing. I was not at Bard at that time but I came back a couple times just to hear him talk.
Bui: Could you tell us a bit about your involvement from ’58 to ’60 with Chelsea Review and Trobar Magazine, from which the term “Deep Image” sprang?
Kelly: George Economou and I met in Medieval Studies at Columbia. I was interested in the Grail legend; he was interested in late Latin allegory. And right after school I was working as a translator, working mostly from German, some French, and Spanish, mostly papers on petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, including psychotropic agents of one kind or another—which I strangely never had much interest in—they left me yearning for poetry ever more. So
I wanted to start a magazine, talked with George, and then one night had a meeting at the curious International Bookstore run on Greenwich Avenue by one of the oddest men who ever lived in New York.
Yau: Where the women’s prison used to be on the corner.
Kelly: That’s right, other end of the avenue. Joe Kling, who had a cockeye and a funny eyeshade, had lived in Paris in the teens and 20s, and had given Hart Crane his first job on his little magazine The Pagan. Kling told all sorts of wonderful anecdotes, had translated Sholem Aleichem and Moshe Nadir. One day he introduced George and me to two writers whom he knew and thought we would be interested in meeting, Venable Herndon and Ursule Molinaro. And that was how we got together and founded the magazine, which at first I wanted to call Boar’s Head—I wanted that because I felt a kind of affiliation with the wild boar as a totem animal—but Venable and Ursule rightly said that smelled too academic. And since we meet in Chelsea at our headquarters, a Greek communist restaurant called the AP Original Spartacus on 25th Street and 8th Avenue, where we’d go and eat lamb shank every Saturday and do the editorial work in the back of the big room, we decided to call it the Chelsea Review instead. We worked together for five issues. Then as Ursule, who with her French and European connections, was more and more interested in bringing in European writers like Nathalie Sarraute, Raja Rao, and others, while we wanted American contemporary poetry and wanted it now, George and I slipped away after the fifth issue and began Trobar, named in honor of Paul Blackburn’s revivification of the Provençal tradition. And while in the course of putting together the first two issues, Jerome Rothenberg and I had developed the term “Deep Image,” which we both were very skeptical about, but I think we needed a handle of some sort to distinguish what we were doing in relation to the New American poetry. It was an attempt really to explore Surrealism without bringing in all the baggage of Breton and the French. In other words, we were interested in Surrealism but without Surrealist politics and frivolity. We thought the term Deep Image was a playful way of tipping our hat both to Pound and Imagism and to Jungian notions of depth psychology and putting that together and taking away the curse of doctrinaire Marxist Surrealism. But what I did mean with Deep Image, insofar as that word had any meaning, is that it was the gateway of the visible. It’s the book and the flesh as one. One has to be understood from the other. The flesh without the book is dull finally, and the book without the flesh is arid and equally boring. After all, dream is the mediation between the book and the flesh. The image is not just observed or described—it is to be entered.
Yau: Actually, I always felt there is, in your work, a kind of relentless experimentation, or pushing the threads, what you do with a thought and follow it all the ways, wherever it goes. I mean it radiates out from itself and it seems to me that thread is a thought of something you had read. Where does it go, where else does it go; then you have to keep track of it all.
Kelly: It’s similar to what you had said of Guston earlier. No matter where they’re going, you have to follow them. It actually goes back to the Keatsian negative capability. What does the poet know, anyway? He has no education in science, he has no skill except that he’s paid a lot of attention to a lot of different things. And if it pays off, it pays off. And being able to follow those guests as they leave the room, and going, “Where is he going?” or “Isn’t that a rabbit I see over there?” To be free to follow whatever comes to mind.
Yau: That seems to be central to your work. I remember reading A Controversy of Poets, and then I read “Finding the Measure” I felt it was the oracle saying, “Write everything.” And I remember thinking, “Oh no! [Laughs.] What am I getting myself into?” [Laughter.] And then I went ahead anyway and came to Bard.
Bui: Yeah. You had said in the past that every language is a second language, which was demonstrated in the poem “How to Write a Poem,” which appeared in The Time of Voice. So it definitely fit in with what John just described. At any rate, we had spoken earlier about Duncan.
Levi Strauss: I’d thought that you and Duncan had had a falling out. And I wondered if when Duncan invited you to come to the Poetics Program in San Francisco in the early 80s, which was how you and I first met, it was his way to re-connect the friendship.
Kelly: We had always gotten on fairly well, except that he didn’t like my novel The Scorpions because it didn’t have a narrative ending. Therefore I had sinned against story, which I took as a serious accusation. It’s true that I don’t like plot, which is to story as game is to play, but I do love storytelling.
Bui: I thought you gave a very sound defense in your Afterword to the second edition in 1985. [Laughs.]
Kelly: I’m not sure whether he had read it or not before he died in 1988. Otherwise, we never had any conflict whatever in actual presence. I would visit him with pleasure whenever I was in San Francisco, and he happily spent a week in my house here when he came to New York.
Yau: I think that’s interesting, the notion of story being thought from two points of view. That Duncan wanted story and that you didn’t want story. And yet you both are interested in telling from a huge range of sources.
Levi Strauss: And it’s not very far away from Duncan’s The Truth and Life of Myth, where on the one hand you get the demands of the story, and on the other hand you can get into real spiritual trouble, and I think that’s part of what was going on.
Kelly: The more myths you read the more you see that many of them have different contradictory endings. I recently wrote a poem, “The Will of Achilles,” which sets itself up during a moment at the end of the Trojan War when Achilles wanders into Troy and falls in love with Hector’s sister Polyxena and marries her. My freedom with that was, after I’d written the poem I thought, “Do I have the right to say this? What have I done now?” but James George Frazer gave me a beautiful page of tiny print showing all the different endings of Achilles’ life. He died here, he didn’t die at all, he went here, he went there, and so the myths are allowed to proliferate. The most horrifying notion of all to me is that myth ends at a certain time and that we cannot go further. In other words, myth has said it all and we can’t myth anymore. But I think if we end myth, we myth the mark. [Laughs.]
Yau: That’s what you had taught me: there’s no rule in writing, which influences me a lot. There are even times when I think, “Oh, I like all these artists who don’t make sense,” and then I think, “Why should they make sense? What is sense anyway?” I remember talking to John Ashbery about writing once, and I said, “When I get something right, I feel like maybe I should do this more often, but then I don’t want to,” and then he said, “Well, you do get bored easily.” And, contrary to what one is told as a child, he said that it was a good thing; and that’s something I think the two of you share; you don’t want to do the same thing twice.
Levi Strauss: In the case of your work, Robert, this sets up a resistance and projections readers make onto the work. You can project something onto it, but it doesn’t really stick. How does that apply in the case of Olson?
Kelly: Olson did a lot more thinking than he did writing. That gives his thinking, when it gets written, a certain chronological coherence. Not if you look at it all at once but you do have to follow it from beginning to end in order to get the whole picture.
Bui: What do you [Yau and Levi Strauss] think of poets of Robert’s generation who were involved with the image, such as Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and James Wright?
Yau: Well, Wright was still under the influence of Frost when Lowell, who began to be influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Williams, broke free from traditional meter in Life Studies in 1959 and For The Union Dead in 1964. They too felt like they had to break free from a certain kind of writing, so they took to Spanish Surrealism, rather than French Surrealism. It’s easier to fall in love with Lorca than with Andre Breton. In spite of Lorca being a tragic figure, and his deep roots in Spanish culture, his poems are quite soft, whereas what I love about Breton is that he wrote unreadable poetry. He kept stirring the pot. Such poets as Miguel Hernandez, Blas de Otero, Vicente Aleixandre, whose works I read in the 60s—at some point I thought some of their works were very good, but they often became predictable. I think Wright had a deep feeling and sympathy for the place he came from—depressed, industrial Ohio—and there are poems of his that I still read. But at 17 you are just discovering, so most of everything is wonderful, new, and fresh, and you don’t quite understand the same differences. With Robert’s work, which I began to read when I was 17, if anything, it’s gained rather than lost its power. I remember saying to you [Robert] back then that I didn’t want to belong to any club that says, “This is right and this is wrong” and you saying, “If I have to write everything, I have to read everything.” [Laughter.]
Kelly: You remember the Surrealist Manifesto, which printed the list of people you should read and the people you shouldn’t read.
Yau: Ahh, the list of dos and don’ts. Yes, there is that side of Surrealism, which people point to. Franklin Rosemont had some of that. And there’s the academic notion that Surrealism ended in the 20s, 30s, 40s (take your pick), but then if you think of Henri Michaux after World War II and the examples of Philip Lamantia, Unica Zürn, Will Alexander, and Andrew Joron, or a young poet I just started reading, Michael Leong, it is clear that Surrealism did not lose its energy; in very different ways, they transformed it into something else and kept it—the dream of freedom—going.
Kelly: Then it goes to South America with [César] Vallejo and [Vicente] Huidobro, and a few others who Clayton [Eshelman] picked up on. He has spent 30 or more years translating Vallejo and there’s yet another complete Vallejo coming out yet they seem so totally different as people. I envision Vallejo as a shriveled sort of man and Clayton is so large and rambunctious to deal with him and his life’s work.
Bui: One last question: Since most of your work is invested in multitudes of images that evoke a visual sensibility, why haven’t you written art criticism?
Kelly: Instead of writing about art, I’ve done some collaborations with artists. The last one I did was with an Italian artist, Brigitte Mahlknecht, in a book entitled The Garden of Distances, which brought me great pleasure. Just this afternoon, I was talking with the artist Sherry Williams who has done some pictures that move me very much and I found myself writing poems to the pictures. For me, pictures always come first, and I think of it not as writing about it but illustrating the pictures the way in the old days pictures illustrated poems or stories. If you look at say, the illustrations that went with the Sherlock Holmes stories when they were first published, often there isn’t even any kind of close connection between the picture and the story. It will say, “A man with aquiline visage, tall and commanding, threatened her with a knife.” And you’ll see a picture with a perfectly ordinary looking, aged, blunt nose, holding a hat. There’s no attempt to be a veridical illustration of the story because the story illustrates itself. I’m very interested in poetry that responds to visual work, which is now usually regarded as unfashionable, though some strong young writers are interested in the Ekphrasis: the energy of describing or responding to the visual.
I think that we will enter more of paradise when we’re allowed to speak to each other as when people will be able to write music from a picture. I was talking to a dancer the other day and I think she understood me when I said that we have to be able to dance from poetry not song. You have to be able to dance from somebody talking to you. I never did see how the dancers performed in response to Jackson Mac Low’s signal work “The Pronouns” at the old Judson Church, but I could imagine how fantastic it is, the ways that the body can sway to language that it hears. And since I want the reader of my poems to dance, if not with me, then with the poem, I would similarly want to be able to dance with the picture and let it take me wherever it takes me. Recently I wrote “A Tangle,” a mixed-form response to recent work by Philip Taaffe. Sometimes, as you can imagine, painters might be a little uneasy about where it might take them. Still I think that this is something that we should be doing all the time. How could you ever have writer's block if there are pictures in the world?
Robert Kelly has received an Award for Distinction from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has taught at Wagner College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and as the Tufts University Visiting Professor of Modern Poetry. He has also served as Poet in Residence at Yale University (Calhoun College), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Kansas University, Dickinson College, California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California.
He currently serves as Asher B. Edelman Professor of Literature and Co-Director of the Program in Written Arts at Bard College, where he has taught since 1961. His Homepage.
His forthcoming book, The Language of Eden will be published by The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Edition in the Spring of 2010.