Interview with Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris

In the exploration of borders and boundaries of poetry, I can think of no better guides than Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. They both graciously agreed to participate in a discussion of what’s happening in poetry at the moment– poetry as outsidered, what identity can mean, where and why boundaries are erected and dismantled.

Following are excerpts from an email exchange I had with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris that we hope will serve to inspire further conversations. –Betsy Fagin, Poetry Project Newsletter Editor

BF: I originally approached you both in hopes of generating a discussion around international poetry, poetics and poetry communities and I just have a few symbols of what’s happening at the moment that keep coming to mind: wall, border/boundary, refuge. One thing I’m curious about and would like to examine is how the current poetry scene here in the U.S. interacts with or is immune/oblivious to this political moment: border walls (U.S., Gaza Strip, India/Pakistan, Ireland, Cyprus, N./S. Korea, E.U. etc.), efforts to exclude or accept refugees (Syria) and migrants, newly opened boundaries (Cuba).

Maybe we can start off by discussing what these images can mean or represent in relation to the contemporary avant-garde poetry scenes we know and love. What are the borders around poetry right now? Where is refuge? How are boundaries erected and crossed? How seriously do we defend our borders and why? I’m asking what sound like political questions, and they are, but I feel like related, relevant patterns and answers can be reflected in the microcosms of our poetry worlds.

JR: For myself the issue of an international or global poetry came alive in the late 1950s and still more so in the 1960s, while the great event for many of us as poets was the emergence of the “new American poetry,” in which I also played an active if still subsidiary part. For the American side of it we experienced the emergence and assertion of a poetry that drew strength from the culture and language in which we shared most immediately, an American moment that seemed sometimes to obliterate the traces of other contemporary languages and cultures. Being “in the American grain,” as Williams had it, was good enough as far as it went, but for me there was always the wider world, and my roots, like Williams’ for that matter, went back to other places, other times. The disparity, if that’s what it was, was brought home to me, in a conversation with Donald Allen, shortly after his big anthology appeared. What I carried away from that was Allen’s telling me that I was, in contrast to the poets in his book, part of an “international school” of poetry. That description stung at first but I later grew to love it.

PJ: In a strangely or not so strangely inverse movement, I saw myself ab initio as an “international poet” in continuous exile & nowhere at home given that I chose to write in my fourth language & moved from Europe to the US in 1967 (though I did keep on moving, as the song says…). German, French & francophone poetries were there from the start. If in the late sixties I had one aspiration, it was to become an… American poet, and so I intensely studied and tried to imitate Ginsberg & Williams & Olson to enter that “American grain.” Doesn’t seem to have worked out exactly that way — I cannot escape my “native internationalism,” if I’m permitted a punning oxymoron.

I’m in Europe right now, & your mention of “walls” and “borders” immediately resounds: If the major political & cultural effort for the 1/2 century after WW2 was to break down walls & create an open European space, this seems to in great danger right now. The wall between the two Germany’s may have come down in ’89, but meanwhile some 50 new walls have been built: hundreds of miles of them, from the Spanish “possessions” in North Africa to Denmark! Walls & borders are right now an area of investigation for geographers, philosophers, political scientists, economists — & maybe it is time for poets to make thinking about these actual walls reemerge at a time when we also believe ourselves to live & work in the real? fantasy? world of global accessibility via internet & social media.

In the US unhappily it feels right now as if much thinking, or rather, much bickering that passes for thinking, has to do more with identity squabbles, personal, ego-identities using perceived and often imagined walls as fake hindrances to vault over, while neglecting to analyze or engage with actual walls, borders, barriers at the level of a, or of many “we’s,” as they affect communities world-wide. And world-wide has to be the focus; “national(istic)” focus is of little help — either in matters of politics or of culture, including poetry.

In this sense it may be useful to reexamine the very concept of border. Even the word is not unambiguous as a quick etymological tour (something that behoves poets to undertake) tells us: in Spanish and other Latin languages such as French, the word “frontera/frontière” goes back to military vocabulary, i.e. a violent face-to-face, a confrontation. In English the “border / boundary” complex insists more on the markers (boundary stones), concrete incarnations of an abstract border-line, while also calling up the notion of being bound, linked — which puts both sides of the border into play and insists on connectivity rather than on separation.

Today’s borders are not simply separators between countries one crosses with the help of a passport. Borders touch and involve the totality of the territory, not only its edges, i.e. the place where they separate sovereign nation-states. The border thus no longer as fixed (natural or artificial) immaterial line of separation, but as a moving, mobile space that is a mixed territory in and by itself — mixed in that it immediately contradicts what was ab origine its ontological claim: to separate the national/citizen (who belonged inside the border) from the alien/non-citizen (who belonged outside the border.)

This means that one is never inside “safe” borders, one is always on territory that is both familiar and foreign, with signs, signals, languages we know and don’t know, i.e. with an ongoing need to learn to read new signs & languages. That is where we live, the territory we live in and on and which we can simplify, reduce to one common parlance or language only if willing to falsify the real to create a comforing fiction. Now poetry, I would suggest, has always been a foreign language and thus one of its core invitations has been to push the reader into learning a, or many, new ways to read & discover other, stranger world(view)s. In this sense, much harm has been done by an approach to poetry that insists primarily on its perceived role in locating and fixing identity — which too often becomes a solipsistic reinforcement of sameness and excludes otherness, or better, othernessess, by creating or recreating real or imaginary borders between self and others. To avoid this it may be useful to rethink the concept of borders, to realize (& a quick glance at the real borders, at the multidimensionality reality of borders will help) that borders are:

  1. always porous: by definition they have holes in them to go through, or they can be vaulted or circumnavigated;
  2. They are not abstract lines but actual spaces; they are territories in themselves (at times even specific ecosystems: see the rabbits and plant-life between the German walls);
  3. They are mostly mobile: which means they are everywhere inside a given “national” territory (& why not, inside a given “mental” territory) and not only at its edges. This characteristic, as Anne-Laude Amilhat Szary suggests in her book Qu’est-ce qu’une frontière aujourd’hui, makes them into “violent spaces, because one can find oneself as if imprisoned in this intermediate space, the crossing/traversing of which never ends.”

Now, this may be personal to my own history and development while being theoretically core to the “nomadic” poetics I developed in various essays, but I believe it is also central to Jerry’s project in his writing, translating and anthologizing. I think that we would both agree that it is this cultural richness that can and does renew poetry in a day and age when poetry is all too easily shoved into the margins of the socius. The violence Amilhat Szary speaks of is both the actual violence against the “other” in the various nation-states — essential thus to support an organization like Black Lives Matter, or the various pro-refugee movements in Europe & elsewhere — and also the cultural violence implied by necessarily complex identities.

It is too easy to think of internationalism as an interest in or liking of “foreign” books, poets, etc. We have to move beyond the idea that we’ve done our job by importing a few foreign masterpieces, translated into accessible English, and that in fact do little more than satisfy a need for exoticism, i.e. internationalism as a peeping Tom titillation to see how the neighbors are doing it.

Earlier I criticized identity politics of/in US poetry and I confess that it is somewhat distressing to see how unaware many current young practitioners seem to be of much of the boundary-breaking work done by the 2 or 3 previous generations. Be that in terms of the recent discussions on conceptual poetries, where the fact that this kind of work is at least a century old and was not recently invented in NY or LA goes mainly unnoticed. Or, just as surprising to me is the neglect or ignorance of the amazing work done toward a “multicultural” (maybe better the “internal international”) poetry going back to, say, someone as radical as Gloria Anzaldúa, who 40 years ago defined herself as a “Shiva, a many-armed and legged body with one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man’s world, the women’s, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds.”

Anybody writing today, anybody trying to come into a poetry that wants to go deeper than the toxic MFA-mix of identity & confessional, should be familiar with the term and concept she promoted: Nepantla, the Nahuatl word for the in-betweenness, for being in the middle of different things, languages, cultures, etc. As Maria Fránquiz put it: “The world is in a constant state of Nepantla.” Or looking beyond America, the Arabic word I used as title of my latest collection of poems, “Barzakh” points to the same realm of in-between-ness, of uncertainty, of multiplicity, of non-unity. It would be very instructive right now to reread or read for the first time the vast oeuvre of Edouard Glissant, both the poetry and the essays as an insightful correction to over-simplified nationalist identities. Here’s a quote: “Fixed identities prove harmful to the sensibilities of contemporary humans involved as they are in a chaos-world and living in creolized societies. A relational identity or a rhizomatic identity, as Gilles Deleuze called it, seems more adapted to the situation. Difficult to admit, but it fills us with anxiety to question the unity of our identity, the hard and unbreachable core of our personhood, an identity closed on itself, afraid of otherness, associated to one language, one nation, one religion, at times to one, race, tribe, clan, one well-defined entity with which one identifies. But we have to change our outlook on identity, as we have to change our relation to the other.”

JR: What Pierre does here is to provide some specific markers for the circumstances in which we find ourselves right now – the latest installments in what has been for many of us an ongoing struggle. For myself “the real work,” as Gary Snyder named it, began in the late 1960s when I was given a free hand (by a commercial publisher no less) to compose Technicians of the Sacred as an assemblage of traditional and outsidered poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, and to put those in the context of the newest and most experimental poetry that we ourselves were then creating. I thought of poetry – the most inbred and localized of languages or language arts – as the field in which I could provide a difference, taking nothing for granted and opening my mind – and ours – to everything. But the real trick here was also to keep my own doings open to question. The major steps in the overall project went from Shaking the Pumpkin (traditional American Indian poetry) to A Big Jewish Book (“from tribal times to present”) to the Poems for the Millennium series that Pierre and I launched in the middle 1990s. As the work expanded my name for it evolved from ethnopoetics and the domain of the oral and indigenous to what I’m now calling omnipoetics, as a grand assemblage or collage of “everything.” My latest workings in that regard are Barbaric Vast & Wild, just published as volume 5 of Poems for the Millennium, and an expanded version of Technicians of the Sacred (in progress) along the lines I’ve just described.

This interview appears in the December 2015/January 2016 Poetry Project Newsletter, Issue #245.