[Today’s post concludes my interview with David Giannini. Jump back to Part One for a brief introduction and a substantial bio-/bibliography of the poet.]
* * *
TPB: Given your inclination toward the poetic sequence and the mixing of verse and prose, do you see yourself as part of the Modernist project? Not to apply labels or anything. Just curious about how you see yourself within “the tribe” that Eliot spoke of….
GIANNINI: No labels, please! We are all living in a post-post-modernist time, but I take no labels to myself except the broad one: poet. I write in range, a ranging of various approaches to poetry, and think of myself as a specialist in general knowledge, a way of coming to grips with the nature of paradox, I suppose.
Mixing poetry and prose, often sequentially, within a single text or book is a very old practice, whether from the Japanese (Haibun may be the most widely known example) or even earlier such as the oldest Veda in Sanskrit, the Rig Veda, and the Campu language from 14th century India. I strongly believe in the interconnectedness of all things and beings, prose and poetry, flamingoes and high-heel shoes, for that matter, but that does not mean I label myself, say, a Buddhist.
TPB: You’ve had several publishers and many chapbooks, 10 of them just in the past two years, plus the two books in Rim/Wave, and the forthcoming full-length books of prosepoems and others pending. What do you think is the difference between “chapbook” and “book”?
GIANNINI: No important difference but in name. I object to a certain academic bias toward the chapbook being treated indecently, as something of fleeting value, lesser somehow, as a pamphlet (as they call it in Britain), as not a book! Chapbooks are books. The first publication of Leaves of Grass contained just 12 poems. Not a book, right? Wrong! Then there are actual pamphlets, and they usually concern topical, fleeting matters, such as current political and/or religious opinions. Occasionally, a pamphlet transgresses time and becomes part of a nation’s literature, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; but once again the exception proves the rule. Chap means trade in Old English. Chapbooks are sold by dealers in the trade of bookselling, whether individuals or bookstores. Bookman has replaced chapman as an individual peddler of books. A cohesive collection of poetry of no matter how few pages, may become a book. To call it a pamphlet is to demean it and the poet. Yet even now, most libraries are, at best, reluctant to buy chapbooks, and most bookstores, increasingly non-independent, won’t stock many, if any. True, the chapbook does not “wear well” in libraries and bookstores where excessive handling can lead to destruction of these outwardly fragile collections. The bias against chapbooks is also due the absurd notion that a book must be of a certain number of pages. That used to be 64 for books of poetry. Absurd! I urge those who order chapbooks to take better care of them, especially since they are often of limited editions and have helped many writers and poets gain ground in public.
TPB: Will you tell me about how you came to create Others’ Lines?
GIANNINI: Best to start at the beginning. I had been collecting dust from around the world since 1975. My Dust Collection or Dust Installation is housed in small bottles labeled with the country and locale of origin for each sample collected by me or sent to me from people around the world. There are 200-300 bottles now, not all that much, considering…. It’s a hobby, I guess, and certainly has a lineage from Dada and Fluxus movements, though not deliberately so. It has been an installation in a movie theatre and arts centers, and it was part of an exhibit at The Yeager Museum in NY. It is whimsical and it becomes a way of laughing at death, at the dust we will all become. The Dust Collection also collects dust. Bottle beside bottle beside bottle means dust from King Tut’s tomb and common house “dust devils,” and dust found on the Great Wall of China (to name just three examples) are juxtaposed. Looking at the collection one day, I somehow got the notion that each labeled bottle was a sort of poem or a line from one. Some first lines from poems began swimming around in my head, just three lines at first, and they were from Delmore Schwartz, Leslie Scalapino, and Wendell Berry. Probably the best thing is to direct you to the Note I wrote for the first and second series of what I came to call, simply, Others’ Lines. Here is the Note:
Tricollage is a new, admittedly minor, form consisting of dynamic triads utilizing only first lines of poems by others. The First Series collages 90 lines, and the Second Series 120 lines, within triadic combinations. Each triad is placed in collegial as well as historical juxtaposition, and every effort has been made to reproduce other poets’ original lines intact (grammatically and syntactically.) All poets’ lines used are identified in indices at the end of the book. Numbers to the left of each triad indicate place in the indices. All quotations used in this work fall under the “fair use” convention, but remain the copyright of the individual authors.
An intuitive or gap narrative unites the work as a whole. There is a sense of storied lives throughout the work. A specific intention is to honor individual poets in new community—a way of linking ‘camps’ and ‘campsites.’ The feeling is always—as the anthropologist [Claude] Lévi-Strauss noted—the intuition that a woodpecker has kinship with a toothache—a sense of myth and mischief, humor, and spiritual dimension.
Sylvester Pollet was the first to publish the original series via his Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series in 1997; then Darrin Daniel of the now-defunct Cityful Press published the First Series as a chapbook in the same year; and Tony Frazier of Shearsman Press later published the Second Series as an e-book at his site. Cid Corman and Ted Enslin really enjoyed Others’ Lines, so did others, but both series have never been published well together! Do you know of a publisher who might be interested?
TPB: I am supremely interested in your prose poems! Will you talk about them?
GIANNINI: I don’t remember a time when I was not also writing prosepoems. I like to spell those words as one word, for the sense of intimacy between them. In the past five years I have been writing them at a furious pace, for some reason. They just keep presenting themselves as what I must naturally be doing. After years spent mainly writing highly compressed short poems, for the most part, I needed a more flexible and expansive approach to that mountain we can call Poetry. The prosepoem is the path I found for myself. Sometimes they betray themselves and become brief stories or what is called “flash fiction” (a term I hate). Attention to musicality, even off-rhymes, that sort of thing, is important to me in writing prosepoetry.
These days, I’m writing what I call vertical prosepoems, that is, ones with narrow justified margins, shaped more like upright slabs or monoliths instead of deckle-like pages or tight square boxes. That’s not to be superficial or tricky. It is a way of visually suggesting the proximity of poetry in the prose and of allowing the internal “form” to take over from there. I am, at heart, a lyric poet, so much of what I write is out of quite personal experience. Some of the works are based on my work with people with major mental illnesses. Much of my work also is tied to the land, the things of the land and air, such as stacking firewood into cairns of various shapes and sizes or noting some viciousness among the starving birds of winter.
Here I would just like to mention Joan and John Digby of Feral Press. A few years ago, the poet, Robin Magowan, said I should introduce myself to them by letter and to include some sample prosepoems, which I did. We immediately made a connection to such an extent that the Digbys have so far published 10 chapbooks of mine, with no end in sight! I am supremely thankful to Robin and to the Digbys. My new book from Feral Press was published in January, a selection from my larger manuscript, Porous Borders, now being considered by one publisher.
TPB: I ran across an interview with the Alaskan poet/lawyer Olena Kalytiak Davis, in which she remarks, “Maybe my ongoing unknowing and lack of agenda is seen as wildness.” This reminded me of Robert Bly’s call for “wildness” in American poetry, which he characterizes as “inwardness” and “revolutionary feeling.” Do you think the wildness factor in current American poetry is … well, let’s put it in terms of heat as Goldilocks experienced it: is it too hot, too cold, or just right?
GIANNINI: Well, there’s the natural wildness we have within us as humans, and it rules us more than we know! Most of how we live is not conscious, I mean our bodily systems as well as subconscious mind rule us most, whether through the autonomic systems or dreams or our reactions while awake. We try to become more conscious, less acutely automatic, more perceptive, and all the while we are being led by our own wilderness within, the “Reptilian” and “Mammalian” wild parts leading us. This recognition is one reason I begin to write each morning around 4:00-5:00, when I am only half-awake—to allow the subconscious material to be present in that half-state that allows the unforced juxtapositions of the sort that may lead to poetry. I don’t mean dream-state exactly, but the state of unencumbered flow, the wild rising of things that are later worked out, shaped, disciplined, re-drafted and may become poems or sequences one believes in keeping. Much of my material for poetry comes of being and working outdoors, with animals, woodpiles, gardens, a depth of feeling for the natural world; and also a lot of my material is drawn from experiences working with chronically and severely mentally ill people, as I did for 31 years, listening to how they speak of what they perceive. Some truly wild stuff there! Smart, Artaud, and numerous other writers and poets were confined in asylums because they were considered to be too wild, and yet we know now to value what they wrote. And it’s interesting to me that a number of neurobiologists think that memory and perception are virtually indistinguishable. Another way of saying that is to think of Yeats’ inseparable dancer—dance combination and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Inside every flaw is its own law. I pay attention to that. And part of any wildness in poetry is allowing the words to come out of their own woods to sense you helping them toward some unknown meaning; at least, that’s how I feel, that’s the spiritual part for me.
TBP: Name a few poets under the age of 40 whose work you read with unalloyed enthusiasm. Say something about why you look forward to reading whatever they write.
GIANNINI: I’m not sure who is “under 40.” Amelia Gray, Ann DeWitt, and Ben Lerner, all writing prosepoetry, come to mind—I believe they are “under 40.” Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Tracy K. Smith and Susan Lewis may also qualify. There are others I could name, but are they “under 40?” I started a reading series and so far over 50 poets and writers have read in it, but I honestly don’t know who is “under 40.” No offense to anyone, it’s just that I find it too difficult to tell these days, probably because I am well beyond that age!
TPB: Do poets have any social/political responsibilities beyond their ordinary duties as citizens? That is, do they have any “obligations” such as Neruda describes in “The Poet’s Obligation”?
GIANNINI: Poetry is always toward freedom, but I don’t think of it as “self expression.” It is an art and not a diarist’s enterprise. Poetry is largely a matter of freshening recurring human (historical) values. That, in itself, is a political view, and with me it is political position, a stance. I’ve marched against war, supported small press publishers by buying books, voted against repressive political positions, railed against the destruction of our planet, that sort of thing. We all know what the deeper human values are, like don’t kill people, be loving, treat the earth better than merely well, etc. I learned a lot from taking care of bees.
Most people seem to get in touch with poetry only at weddings and funerals, not daily, yet often-unrecognized metaphors come up in speech all the time. Just today in the general store in the small town where I live, I heard a man saying that his wife is sometimes a cloud, dark, sometimes brighter. He said it in the most offhand way, and I believe he was referring to his wife’s constant mood-swings since I’ve heard him speak this way before. It seemed the only way he could be “politically correct” in talking about his wife without mentioning that she may be mentally ill, have bipolar disorder. It is how he “sees” her in connection with his surrounding in the natural world.
Okay, that’s politically “micro,” it is not taking a stand against Wall Street. In the “macro” sense of, say, Bly’s “Teeth Mother” or Denise Levertov’s later “political” poetry, most of it ruinously bad, like the poetry I’ve so far seen about the terrible Ferguson incident. Neruda’s political poetry is too often about Neruda. Writing poems of political activism almost always leads to bad poetry. Writing poems of Awareness is another matter, and I certainly believe in the poet as witness. A famous example of this is Howl: ”I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness….” George Evans has written the best, so far as I know, poetry on the Vietnam War, but it is always clear that the art of his poetry is first, not any “diary” aspect. The poem is always more important than the individual writing it.
Another political peeve of mine is that most people have been “killed” for poetry by bad educational practices. After high school and early college years, who reads, never mind attempts to write, poetry? Very few. “The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics,” said Emerson. I taught writing workshops for 18 years, freelance, elementary school through post-graduate classes, but decided to work with very mentally ill people instead of administrators of “education,” ha! Somehow, there are more so-called poets than ever before, it seems, and most often they are assembled as workshop-clone after workshop-clone, etc. You find the clone work published all the time in the magazines and elsewhere. The work isn’t coming out of the lives lived as much as it is following through on the MFA knowledge of “how to write.” They most often become careerists instead of poets. Shakespeare and Issa and Rilke and Hafiz attended such programs, right? Arrrrgh!
TPB: Well, the Dictionary of World Biography says, “Hafiz received a traditional education in Arabic, Koranic studies, science, and literature.” We have no specific knowledge at all about how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, but it’s clear—at least to me—that he was deeply educated. In Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, Makoto Ueda notes that Issa seems to have begun his poetic life by writing maekuzuke (forerunner of senryu) in order to win prizes, then eventually he chose as his career goal to become a haikai master “[who] could receive compensation for correcting his students’ verses either in person or by correspondence.” For all his talk about solitude, Rilke was something of a careerist.
Donald Hall claimed that workshop programs rob poets of ambition by leading them into institutional lives where success is basically unrelated to the quality of their work. But I wonder: So what? If a poet can be ruined by a job, he can be ruined as well by a job as a taxi driver as by a job in higher education. (Philip Levine often remarked that if he’d stayed working for Cadillac in Detroit he might have shriveled up and died as a poet; it was finding support in academia that preserved his poetic spirit.) I guess what I’m saying is this: If a poet can be ruined by a job, then he or she is not really a poet.
GIANNINI: This is exactly the sort of response and poetential (sic) dialog I had hoped to press from anyone reading my sweeping statement re: careerists. My thanks for your response! I can laugh at myself a little for the big sweep and being called on it. Plus, I agree that all real poets, the ones we perceive as really good, “obtain an education,” formal or otherwise (or both)—yes, of course they do, because people do learn, no matter their circumstances, and people seek encouragement, camaraderie, affection, groups, and need “gainful employment,” sometimes finding the latter through teaching (as I did for some years) and often via careers developed through MFA programs. Most of my friends and colleagues have MAs, MSWs, Ph.D.s, or whatever. Let me clear: I’m not being reactive just because I don’t share your or anyone’s degree-track. But being a poet means in spite of, not because of, “formal education.”
A friend of mine, a novelist who teaches at Johns Hopkins, tells me it might take 10 years or more to learn writing techniques one can learn in a couple of years in MFA writing programs (such as his!); but I’m not talking about technique or some Romantic notion of the poet being “born.” I’m talking about living, about physical work and solitude and individual experience, about hard work and innate talent within the discipline of writing leading to the discovery of a new angle under the sun, one’s individual vision. I mean that latter part in the sense of Zeno’s paradox of infinitely dividing slices, with each individual slice both unique and interconnected with all others. I agree with Don Hall, Bly, Wright, and many others (all of whom taught!) that academic jobs are ruinous for most poets and other artists. As usual, the exceptions prove the rule.
You say, “So what?” I’ve seen poets (and other artists) start out as poets-who-teach and then become teachers of poetry and not artists any longer. They—and we all—have to make a living somehow. I’ve seen this again and again and it is unnecessary! Back in the late 1960s I had a letter from old-time poet and writer, Robert Graves, of all people. He advised me to “get a craft” of some sort, but “don’t teach!” Society, academia in particular, doesn’t seem to nurture artists, but to destroy them. I just can’t adopt the attitude of “so what?” in these matters.
As for Willy the Shakes and the others we both mentioned, they did not attend, even within their times, mass education anything like what we have now as MFA (a.k.a. “McDonald’s”) writing programs. And to reiterate a point, they were fine poets in spite of, not because of. Willy the Shakes probably knew at least three languages by the time he was 11, such was schooling then. Issa and Rilke and perhaps Hafiz were all looking for friends, like-minded souls, trying this and that approach, feeling their way and through and then out of competitional situations and needing to earn a living, but sense that none of them did their real work until they stepped outside of what they had formally learned. We all use techniques garnered from others, but how to move beyond is a fundamental quest(ion). Isn’t this true of us all?
* * *
Check out these links to read some of David Giannini’s work online or to order copies of his books: