Wednesday, January 5, 2011
THE MEXICO INTERVIEW
This is a transcript of an extensive interview conducted by expatriate American poet, Charles Hasty, in conversation with Billy Marshall Stoneking, during the latter’s first lengthy sojourn in Mexico in 1994. The two poets met at Hasty’s home in the village of San Miguel de Allende, where Charles resided with his wife, Dorothy. San Miguel's connection with both film and poetry is unusual, even bizarre. As well as being home to several expatriate poets and writers, including W.D. Snodgrass and Alice Denham, it hosts an annual poetry festival that has attracted the likes of Robert Haas and Yusef Komunyakaa. It was also where Kerouac's hero, Neal Cassidy, was run over and killed by a train, and has been used in many film productions as a location, including Disney's The Littlest Outlaw.
At the time of this interview, Charles was editor of the well-known publication, The San Miguel Writer, and Billy was in the midst of researching his play, Eisenstein in Mexico. Hasty is the author of the much acclaimed, Poems of the Long Man, a bi-lingual (English/Spanish) collection of his poetry published by the University of Sinaloa Press.
We join the interview after introductions have been made and the Bloody Marys have been poured...
Charles Hasty: So, how would you describe your primary approach to poetry?
Billy Marshall Stoneking: Listening. Listening to what's going on around me. What others are saying and what I'm saying to them, both verbally and non-verbally. It's amazing what you hear when no one's mouth is open. I am fascinated with the way sounds and silences rub up against one another. If I'm gonna make notes for a poem, this is invariably the source.
CH: And what sort of poetry do these notes produce?
BMS: All sorts. Poetry is the world. Whenever a young or beginning writer asks me, "what can I write about?” I always say: listen to your world... what's going on around you? The so-called everyday and ordinary world that is taken for granted might be very remarkable, even miraculous, to one whose ears are tuned to it. Imagine... poems by mothers writing down what their children say; poems by people who write down what their work-mates complain about on a Monday morning. I know a poet in Melbourne - Grant Caldwell - who’s written a whole group of poems about riding city buses - the interactions between the driver and passengers, between himself and the passengers, between the passengers and one another. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? One just climbs onto a bus or goes to one’s office or workplace and tape records everything that's said, then goes home and transcribes it. But that’s not how it happens. One has to know how to shape the material. If you don’t know WHAT you’re listening to, I mean, if you don’t know HOW to edit it, which means understanding the WHAT and the WHY of it, then you don’t have anything but a whole bunch of tapes with gabbling on them. It’s the editing that stamps it with your own, unique perspective, your own point of view. It's the editing that makes it your own, taking a bit of this, throwing out a bit of that, and here and there your own voice starts coming into it, your own way of breaking up the syntax and making the images resonate. You shape it to your ear, as Pi O, the Melbourne poet, does. As any poet, who really is a poet, does. A poet catches the voices that are all around him and in him.
CH: Isn’t this a major occupation for writers?
BMS: Yes, it’s not that rare a thing, really.
CH: Having written a play about Ezra Pound, would you say he engaged language in such a way?
BMS: Waaall... (laughs)... Yes. Pound definitely. He did it all the time. He’d frequently slip into a kind of folksy idiomatic speech that probably came out of his continuing identification with his backwoods heritage, and listening to people from all sorts of different backgrounds, whose voices interested him. Some were just plain folks, or his notion of plain folks, and some were very powerful politicians, but he frequently gave you the idioms of their voices, rather than simply paraphrase what they were saying. Pound uses lots of voices, lots of language, lots of speech.
CH: In The Cantos, yes, but I’m thinking about Personae. He seemed to be looking for special voices that fit into his concepts of poetic form and plain good writing.
BMS: This was a man who spent his entire life looking for his voice. This is why he made so many experiments with different voices. Personae is an excellent example of this. He’s trying out all these voices. And you know, he’s reading them in the original languages and then making translations. They are attempts to bring into the 20th century the spirit of what those people were saying three, four, five hundred years earlier, as with the troubadours. But in many ways, Pound was as much the editor as he was the poet. Most of his poems, with the exception of the Pisan Cantos, have been rigorously researched. One some times has the impression that he is writing them in the midst of a huge library, delving into the most amazingly esoteric texts, in some cases, hauling out bits of information, reworking them in his own way. It’s the same kind of editing process I was talking about before. If one looks at Pound’s work on Eliot’s Wasteland – I mean, the poem would not be as we know it, would never have been the masterpiece we know, without Pound’s editing.
CH: Why do you write poetry?
BMS: Not for money, that’s for sure.
CH: You write mainly for yourself, or for an audience?
BMS: I love audiences but they have very little to do with my writing. Mostly, I write out of myself, for myself. It's my way of revealing myself to myself. It's about self-revelation, self-discovery. "Going where no man has gone before!" (laughs) My experience of living in the desert, for example - four years in Central Australia with tribal Aboriginal people. In the beginning I wasn’t able to write anything; it was all so strange, so foreign. I felt blind, deaf. But after I’d been there for about a year I became more and more restless... I wanted to place my experiences, put them in some kind of shape that would reveal how I was being affected by the place. I had to place myself, to deal with the what and the why. What I am, who I am, HERE!! The people in Papunya wanted their children to learn how to read and write, and so I'd been employed to assist in creating a library, a collection of books written in the local dialect. But all the time I kept thinking about how this was gonna impact upon the culture, and I knew it wasn’t all going to be positive. Of course, I knew that the community had requested it, but I still wondered about the repercussions it might have. And so I was always asking myself these questions. Was I doing enough, or too much? Am I part of the solution or more of the same old problem? And are these even the right questions? If one is "white" in that situation, one cannot morally exist outside of a constant state of doubt. I mean, us whitefellas, we lived liked millionaires compared to how the Aborigines were living. We had air-conditioned houses, and they slept under sheets of corrugated iron, sleeping on the ground. For some one as new and middle class as I was then, these were big questions. So the writing was my way of coming to terms with the contrasts and doubts and my own feelings of displacement... to try to make some kind of sense out of some of the things I was feeling about being there. And they didn’t come easily. The poems, I mean. A lot of the poems I wrote in those early days were absolute crap. They were the sort of thing that you write when you’re not sure what you’re gonna write. When you're not really listening to what's going on around you. The first really good poem I wrote just came out, just fell out, after I'd been there nearly a year and a half. The one called "Wash Day". "Monica and Victor come over to my place to do their laundry, because there’s nothing at their place...". That was a real revelation. The simplicity and matter-of-factness of it took my breath away. It had the same simplicity of speech I found among the people themselves. Simple but unusually eloquent.
CH: I’d like to know your reaction to this kind of presentation. A poem that begins with, say, the sound of birds – as well as human speech can imitate such sounds – but it is put into strict iambic pentameter. Would you consider this sort of practice frivolous?
BMS: It’s all frivolous! That's the glory of poetry and art! Frivolous in terms of the world, I mean. This imitative aspect – it’s great fun, even when metrically exact. And there’s no reason why poetry shouldn’t be fun. In Australia, there’s a whole school or group of poets who are creating what they call "sound poetry", people like Peter Murphy and the late Jas H Duke. This is nothing new, mind you. It's as old as speech. You see children on a sidewalk... I passed a boy in San Miguel the other day that was standing in an open doorway saying "blah-up blah-up blah-up", over and over again. Just making nonsense sounds. He was in a kind of trance and thoroughly enjoying it. Artaud experimented with his own language in making sounds that were very personal to him, but which he felt transcended logic and analysis and struck at the heart of the subconscious. This sort of thing, I think, is very exciting, and extremely evocative. It calls our attention to the fact that meaning is not just an affair of definitions or some kind of logical word order. It is more than syntax and semantics. Meaning is an affair of burps, hiccups and silence. Nonsense syllables have an emotional weight, an emotional value. A baby crying, for example. A lot of poets who write for the page, simply for the page (I’m talking about people who sit in a room with a typewriter or word processor and write a poem silently to themselves) – that’s a very different kind of writing than writing a poem to be read aloud and conscious of the fact that its ultimate manifestation will be the spoken voice. Poems have music; the words and the sound-codes score the voice. And it's all about play, really. I mean, I never realized the meaning of The Cantos until I heard Pound recite two or three of them one night on the radio. Then I realized that hardly anyone knew how to read them. They'll read this word, and that word, and the next word, word after word, but the whole flow of language isn't there. The "sentence sounds" that Frost talks about. The music. When Pound reads he actually sings the poems and, suddenly, they have this entirely different sense about them.
CH: Is it right to simply say someone is writing to the page, somebody sitting alone? What is really wrong with that? I wouldn’t want to throw out a whole bunch of people because they were writing to the page. Dickinson seemed quite alone. Mallarme used the visual aspects, the white spaces on the page and so on...
BMS: Look, I think a poem, a good poem, can have quite a happy and useful life on the page. History proves this. But a good poem lives in both the print and the voice! Only we have forgotten about the voice, mostly. We lived in a print-tyrannized age. The voice is so often neglected, especially in our educational institutions.
BMS: Performance poetry, as it is called, has been neglected by academia for years... Most academics sneer at it, or pay it dismissive lip-service in the guise of doing honour to Homer, etc. One of the reasons for this is because the vast body of performance poetry is bad poetry - just like the vast majority of written poetry is bad. Look, there are a great many poems – bits of writing that are called poems – which don’t work on the page, and no matter how much enthusiasm you put into reading them aloud it’s not gonna make them any better. But if the poem works aloud, if the writer or interpreter of the poem has found how to communicate that poem orally ... if he has made the "what" and the "why" his own ... and if it has emotional impact on the people who listen to it, then I believe that poem has found its full, most direct expression. And you'll be able to find it in the writing as much as in the sounds. The thing I hate is when people come up to poets who have given a great reading and say: "You made those poems sound better than they really are." How many people came up to Shakespeare or Chehkov? I agree, you can make a poem sound worse than it is, through ignorance of the text, or by a lack of skill in recitation, all sorts of ways. But if you are able to make it work, to make it sing, it doesn’t mean that you made it better than it is; it means you have found what it is that works in the poem, made it your own, and given it its full voice.
I’ve seen performance poets get up and you know, they roll their eyeballs and stick out their tongues and blurt out a stream of scatological nonsense, and you just go Ho-Hum – Yawn – Next! No matter how hard they try it’s not gonna work because it’s not in the text. In the conception. You can’t dress up bad writing and you can make good writing sound bad. But the sound of great poetry is music that is more than music.
CH: I know of a quite famous poet who sometimes didn’t bother with presentation. He would mumble his poems. Yet, at the same time, it was considered a successful reading, largely because the audience knew the poems. I think if I truly want to know a poem I do better when I’m alone with it. I’m not referring to Mallarme, graphic verse, or cummings for that matter.
BMS: But you see, Charles, when listening to something... when apprehending a poem orally, you’re getting input from all sorts of things and it’s often easy to confuse extraneous details with the poem. Which may be good or bad. I mean it may enhance the experience or detract from what was possible. All sorts of things – for good or ill – become associated with the experience of that poem. There are millions of things. You’ve had a great day, your stomach is upset; your car’s been stolen; you’ve just come from your lover's bed, whatever. But if you look at how the poem behaves, both orally and on the page, then you can hear and see the mechanics, how it runs, how it is structured. One of the things I don’t think poets do enough is actually sit down and listen closely to poems. Pi O used to host a weekly gathering at his place in Melbourne. A halfa dozen or more poets would turn up and they’d listen to recordings of the world’s greatest poets. He has a collection of about five hundred spoken-word LPs. And they’d listen to one side of the record – no one says a word – no one is allowed to do anything other than make an occasional note on a piece of paper. When the side was over, they’d have coffee or tea and spend an hour or more talking about what they had heard, what worked and what didn’t work and why. Dealing with the poem as an oral phenomenon, examining the way the poems were structured as apprehended by the ears.
CH: Training the ear.
CH: Tell me a little bit more about this. Specifically, what are you referring to when you say structure?
BMS: When something is wrong with a piece of writing, whether it’s a poem or a short story or a screenplay, if there’s a moment when your attention lapses, when you lose the thread, I mean the energy... when the tension leaves the piece and you lapse into something else, there’s a very good chance that the reason you’re doing this is because there is something wrong with the structure. A structure is a shape, oral and visual, musical and denotative, which keeps us moving through the expression of the poem or whatever it is. A reader or listener will go anywhere with you so long as you don’t pretend to be taking him or her on a wild goose chase... the journey has to have a kind of urgency, a sense that you are going some place. A good writer or performance poet doesn’t promise something he can’t deliver, he or she doesn’t lead the audience down a path that goes nowhere or is lost in a tangle of conflicted emotions and ideas. Structure is about preparation, and preparation is the key to dramatic impact.
CH: So there is a dramatic method involved...
BMS: No! Not for me. I don’t subscribe to methods, though they seem to be everywhere. All those How-To-Do-It writing books by failed writers. Throw them away. Preparation comes from living inside the work you're creating and which is creating you; it comes from listening to the voices that remain after the false voices have been dismissed. Every human being is his own message and messenger, a menagerie of voices and ears. A well-structured poem – like a well-structured story – reflects back on itself, making subtle and often seemingly invisible relationships among its implicit and explicit manifestations. The art resides in what is invisible. If method comes into it at all, for me, it comes after the creation, when one goes round after the birth, cleaning up the dross, disposing of what is no longer essential. Some poets think of the creative act as a dumb intuitive process, and they are right. However, one must also admit that whenever you commit feelings to language you are involved with structures, and these structures are analysable, as it were, after the fact, both on the page and on the stage.
CH: I'd like to go a little further into this idea of picking up on everyday speech and incorporating that speech into poems. What about everyday writing? Letters, for example. I mean there are letters from the past century written by soldiers, farmers, slaves, men and women, from all sorts of backgrounds, which are very moving, genuine statements.
BMS: Indeed. All those wonderful letters. At least the ones I know of... I'm thinking of those that were read on that series, The Civil War... letters and diary entries, and so forth. I always thought, "My god! This is pure poetry!" The language, the emotion! When I thought about it, I realized these people had one thing in common. The King James Version of The Bible. The language of these letters is not what one would expect from farmers and merchants, husbands and sons. But there it is. And it is a language that is very much in the style of that translation. So these ordinary folk from mid-19th century America are the heirs, the direct heirs, of an Elizabethan English. A language they would've heard in their churches. They would've read it or had it read to them, sitting round a table at night. A lot of the soldiers would've had Bibles with them, which they would've read between engagements, waiting for the next battle to happen. Perhaps they believed this was the sort of language you used because it was full of power and emotion. Certainly, they found their own expressions and way of conveying their most profound sentiments, but they must have drawn on the inspiration of the language they found in their Bibles. That's my theory, anyway. The point is, they lived in a far more oral culture than we do. Remember, in those days, there were people going round giving talks; storytellers were very popular. Instead of going to the movies or the video shop, you'd go to the theatre or town hall, and someone would tell a story of their adventures in the West or their travels in Europe. So people were tuned to the conventions of oral presentation.
CH: How significant is the oral dimension generally? I mean for people who simply don't read poetry or actively avoid it?
BMS: Very significant, very important. The problem is: how to translate those black squiggles on the page into meaningful sounds? We talk all the time, all the time, about literacy. We have problems with literacy - literacy this and literacy that. But the big problem is one of translation. You put a text in front of a kid and you get him or her to read it aloud and even though they can read the whole passage with ease, there is nothing in the voice. I mean the child doesn't know that what is going on is more than word identification. It's about SOUNDS as well, and rhythm, and timbre, and all those musical aspects of language that are mute on the page. The big problem is not literacy but oracy - the inability to lift the print - translate the print - into sound, to give it meaningful voice. Reading aloud is, after all, a translation of text - an interpretation of what is written and the skill to reveal it, to create an aural experience, which does justice to the poem, story, or whatever, is being voiced. This is something that is not usually taught in schools, not in Australia at least. My role as a reader of poetry, or a performer of poetry, is to alert people to the fact that there are ways that poetry can actually have an impact on their lives and that a lot of the problems people have with poetry are due to the fact that they just can't HEAR it!
CH: Yet the problem extends to all writing - fiction, plays, journalism...
BMS: Yes, absolutely. Because anything that works in writing - that possesses emotional impact and endures - involves poetry, or at the very least contains poetic elements. You know, language tells you how to use it. If you listen to it. Let's say you have this line in a poem that you really love. You're dedicated to it. It may be the line that started you out on the process of writing that poem. But every time you read the poem aloud, the line falls flat. It doesn't say what you thought it would say. So you listen even harder and take the discomfort seriously. Maybe the line belongs in another place, or maybe it's better in another poem altogether. The language tells you that - the diction, the colouring, the rhythm, whatever. The line itself cries out to be freed or expunged or re-written - it doesn't comfortable in the company of the other lines.
CH: Tell me more about getting more sense out of The Cantos after hearing Pound recite them.
BMS: Pound is full of ideas. He's constantly pushing ideas and asking for our indulgence and sympathy. But the thing that I respond to is his meticulousness. The genius of Pound is that he approximated in the music of his language what it was he was trying to express intellectually in the poem. His language - its music - creates an emotional subtext of the meaning expressed in the denotation and connotation of the words. And it takes you on an emotional journey whether you understand his ideas or not. How many people listen to a Beethoven symphony and don't understand what he's saying?!! There's something you get just from the sound that says things to you, and Pound was a master of that. He taught lots of people how to do it. And most of them, well a lot of them, never acknowledged the influence.
CH: Let's turn to Aboriginal culture. I think the first thing I would like to know about is the famous "walkabout"... what exactly is this?
BMS: The walkabout is associated with initiations, initiation ceremonies. The walkabout, the coming-of-age ceremony - the making of men and women - is only the first important phase. An initiate goes on a journey into his own country, his own, totemic landscape, to commune with the ancestors and learn about the land, which nourishes both his body and his spirit. Often, an aunt or uncle will teach the boy or girl, showing them various places or sites associated with their dreaming. This includes going to one's "borning place", and the borning places of one's father and mother. One learns to "read" the country, and becomes familiar with those places and spirits one is associated with - one's totem places. The songs or stories, which recount the adventures, which occurred in these places, have even greater power owing to initiate's firsthand experience of various places he has visited. He has been there, he has seen that. It is part of him, or her. And this process - this walkabout - can go on and on throughout one's life, depending on how much that person wants to know, how deeply he or she wants to enter into the inner landscape of Aboriginal myth and spirituality. The initiation process can go well beyond the coming-of-age ceremonies. Like in our own culture. We go to primary school, junior high, college, and so on... we can elect to stop with a high-school diploma or go all the way to a doctorate. Like this, there are different degrees of initiation among tribal Aboriginal people as well.
CH: You are saying that our education has been a walkabout?
BMS: Metaphorically, yes. Education is always a walkabout. The difference between our walkabout and the one the Aborigines experience has to do with the manner in which it occurs. In our culture, so much of what we know and understand is based on what we have read or someone has told us. Our experiences are so vicarious. Alfred North Whitehead was lamenting this fact when he wrote about the second handedness of the learned world. He saw it as the source of mediocrity. But in Aboriginal culture, most of the traditional wisdom and skills are learned firsthand. There are no books to tell you how to track kangaroo or make a fire and find water. One must watch and listen and do. Listening is very important. Most of what is learned about Aboriginal law is learned through the ears. As a matter of fact, the Aboriginal word for "understanding " is exactly the same word as the word "to hear" - kurlinu. The most abusive thing you say about an Aboriginal person is to insult their ears or their ability to hear. Pinakuya (bad ears) or Pinakuna (shit ears) are highly offensive insults. In our culture we say, "I see", when we understand something. In Aboriginal culture and other indigenous cultures they say "I hear you. I hear."
CH: What about the "dreaming". When Aboriginal people talk about the Dreamtime, what are they referring to?
BMS: "Dreamtime" is a very bad translation of the Aranda word, "alcheringa". A better translation of the word is "creation" or "creation times". Creation is something which is dreamed, which is imagined, hence the German to English translation of Dreamtime. It signifies that momentless moment, the timeless time, the eternal solitariness, which knows nothing but freedom, the unbound imagination out of which the countless becomes countable. In Christian theology it is associated with the Fall. The Aborigines' belief is that before creation times, before the dreaming, the world was like an egg. Featureless. Void. The ancestral spirits - which the desert people refer to as "Tingarri" - at the beginning of creation times emerged from the earth. These beings broke through the eggshell and ranged over the land, and every place they went they threw up bits of clay and earth, leaving the marks of their activities behind. Here us where two Tingarri had a fight. The earth is now a clay pan where they wrestled and rolled about. At other place, another Tingarri man dragged his victim back to camp, and in the process carved out a creek bed. Another, exploding from the earth, made a rock hole. At first, these ancestral spirits looked just like people, but slowly they metamorphosed into other beings, either through violence or contact of one sort or another with other Tingarri beings. Some changed in order to escape danger; others in order to attract attention, and so on. They turned into what are now plants and animals. Some of them solidified into stone. So the whole landscape is like a composite signature, written by the exploits of the Tingarri. Now, the interesting thing is that the creation times, this Dreamtime, did not happen in the distant past, way back there where we hardly remember. According to the Aborigines the creation times have just happened, right NOW. We live, as it were, on the nub. The immediate ashes of the actual experience of creation. Which is another way of saying we all live in the past because creation always happens now, in the unknown and unknowable. Through the ceremony, through the songs, we can, as it were, step back to that moment of creation which is outside time, that self-forgetting moment of pure spontaneity uninterrupted by the machinations of the cerebral cortex, in which we become totally what we are, which is spirit, invisible, non-material.
CH: And what about sacred sites?
BMS: There are places, as I've said in the Pound play (Sixteen Words for Water), places one identifies with, full of power and light. Places where we feel at home, where we feel whole. Not necessarily a house, but a location that resonates with our very being. Sites are sacred to Aborigines for the same reason they become sacred to us, and I'm not talking about money and real estate. I'm talking about the power of the land, a focus, a sense of familiarity. One enters a part of the forest or camps out on a particular stretch of river and in those special, sacred places a contentment, a release and sense of eternity, which teaches one about the universe and about oneself. These places, these outward manifestations of the inner sources of personal power are the sites declared sacred by any people who have not totally forsaken their tribal roots.
CH: But Aboriginal culture is not free of problems. You're not saying that.
CH: So how do they go about dealing with the problems they facing?
BMS: It's difficult because "white" culture - the dominant culture - finds it almost impossible to accommodate Aboriginal law and concepts. And so you have two laws, and much misunderstanding and fear.
CH: You seem to have been quite influenced by the years spent living among the Aboriginal people of Central Australia. Apart from the fact that you have written numerous poems about your experiences there, how have Aborigines and ideas affected your life?
BMS: More than I could ever explain. If nothing else they helped make a storyteller out of me. I learned from them, almost everything that is worth knowing about the art of storytelling. And that is what poetry is, essentially - the most succinct form of the story.
CH: Oral poetry - or performance poetry - seems to be quite an important force within the Australian literary scene. What exactly is going on there? What kind of impact are the performance poets having?
BMS: Most of them - most of the ones I know - hate that tag, "performance poet". When Nigel Roberts, Terry Whitebeach and I went to America on the infamous America Walkabout Tour, we found that what we were doing really connected with the people, everywhere we read. It was great because Nigel and I, if not Terry, felt we were representing something much larger than our own work. I mean, we were also performing other people's stuff. We were presenting a sampling of nearly twenty years of work by a group of poets who have been roundly ignored by academia in Australia. Even now, Pi O and eric beach are finding difficult to get into the major anthologies, despite the fact that they have both had many books published and had a presence in major little magazines for twenty or twenty-five years. I don't know why. It is a constant battle. I mean, my book of poems, Singing the Snake, was doing the rounds for nearly ten years before the company that had already turned it down twice published it. When you look at the poets who are having the most influence among younger writers, it is usually the so-called performance poets who head the pack. And this is significant I think. If you are not influencing the language, and those who use it, if you're not actively working to create a climate in which people are experimenting with the language, well... you die and that's it. In other words, you are not part of what is moving the whole language forward. The academics represent dead ends. But they are safe dead ends. Everything neat and tidy and nailed down. Nailed to irrelevancy. When we toured the States in the 90s, a lot of American poets would come up after our readings to talk to us. They all had the same question. Where's the energy coming from? Somehow, saying it was in the poetry wasn't good enough for them. And I guess there was also the fact that we were performing with two Aboriginal song men, so there was also this kind of cross-fertilization going on as well. You know, feeding off each other, pushing each other, inspiring one another. It was surprising to Americans to discover just how much poetry was going on "down under".
CH: So poetry is very much alive and well.
BMS: Poetry always is. It's only what masquerades as poetry that is sick, dying or dead.