The Poetry Project

OUT INTO THE WORLD: A Conversation With Jerrold Shiroma

By Chris Chen and Chris Daniels

Jerrold Shiroma is originally from South San Diego. A longtime advocate for translation and small presses, he has been the sole editor of duration press and since 1997. Over the years, duration press has released over two dozen print-chapbooks, and well over 100 freely accessible PDFs of new and archival works. In 2016, he launched Seedings, a somewhat-annual journal dedicated to poetry’s nomadic impulse. He currently lives in California’s Central Valley with his wife and two daughters. He works as an archivist and librarian, and occasionally writes, draws, and sometimes guest lectures on Southern California graffiti and Surrealism.

CD: Jerrold, you’ve been a publisher for 20+ years. In those years, duration has become one of the best literary sites in the US. You’ve been encouraging me for a long time, have published a number of my translations, and have basically opened the site to me and my translations, so of course I’m partial, but I think a lot of people feel the same way about the site. I know for sure that I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the generous work you continue to do.

Before we start talking about duration, how about telling us a little about your life: where were you born and raised, parents, school, finding out about poetry etc.

JS: I grew up in South San Diego, three or so miles from the border. Growing up in SSD, the border plays an incredibly significant role in how the area sees itself. San Diego really doesn’t exist without the border, without Mexico. Culturally, politically, socially, they’re inseparable. Too, the constant presence, in neighborhoods, everywhere in SSD, of the Border Patrol, obviously adds another dynamic.

My family was a pretty typical working class family. My dad did construction, was a welder at a shipyard, stuff like that. My mom worked at Rohr Industries, which was the largest employer in Chula Vista for the longest time. My parents split up when I was five or six. At first I went to live with my mom and younger brother, who moved back in with my grandparents in Mississippi. I eventually went back to San Diego to live with my dad for another year or so. Then my mom came back to San Diego and my brother and I lived with her and my eventual step-dad. The extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins—was really important, too. We all spent a lot of time at my dad's mom's house. As I recall, my dad's mom, or Nana as we all called her, was interned at the Minidoka camp in Idaho. I found out later that Shig Murao of City Lights fame was also interned there. They would have been really close in age.

Growing up, I was obsessed with drawing. At first it was things like comics, stuff like that. As I got older... well, I had an uncle whose nickname was Tokyo, but everyone called him Tōk. Tōk always had issues of Lowrider magazine around, and I used to spend hours looking through those. I was especially drawn to the fan art. There were these great drawings of cars, cholas, that great ornate lettering. I loved it. And sometimes, when Tōk was inside, he would send drawings home to his girlfriend, who was living with us at one time. And these drawings, always in ballpoint pen, that gorgeous stylized prison lettering, I remember internalizing all of that, copying what I could.

When I was a sophomore in high school, around that time, I went with a friend of mine, a graffiti artist who goes by the name Escape, to another writer’s house—he went by SomeOne. We watched the documentary Style Wars, about subway graffiti in New York. I was inspired enough by it all that I decided to get into graffiti. It became my world. Everything was about graffiti. I drew all day, went out just about every night with a can of paint or a marker. Escape and I would take trips to Los Angeles constantly to check out the graffiti. The LA graffiti scene was incredible. They were doing things that were completely changing the complexion of what was possible with a can of spray paint. And while a lot of writers in LA were extending that NYC style and tradition, there were others that were really working to create something distinct, something that could only have come out of LA. They were taking what they wanted from that NYC wildstyle and fusing it with, say, the stylistic gestures of Chicano gang writing. It was really amazing.

But, as in Los Angeles, you really couldn’t avoid gangs down where we were. There was always an overlap, shared circles of friends. It was pretty much unavoidable, really, depending on where you lived. And things started to get a little crazy. There’s a lot I don’t recall very well about those days. After high school, I got hooked on meth for a year and a half, two years. So late 1990-1992, a lot of that is a blur to me. I have small bits and pieces of things that I try to put together to make sense of what happened and when. But it’s largely gone. And during that time, well, what meth does to you is it kind of strips away things about yourself and makes what’s remaining fairly grotesque. So during that time, while I can’t recall too much in the way of specifics, there was this pretty thorough upending of my sense of self. And it took me a long time to figure things out afterwards.

I came to poetry in a roundabout way. I had read nothing, really, other than comics until my early twenties. There was this horror anthology, tho, called Taboo. It was edited and published by Stephen Bissette, of Swamp Thing fame, and which anthologized things like From Hell. So, Taboo was anthologizing the story Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, and in an introduction to one of the segments, Moore started naming a bunch of other authors whom he thought Lost Girls fit with in a kind of tradition. One of the authors named was Henry Miller. So, I read a bunch of Miller books, and eventually came to his book on Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins. I then read A Season in Hell, the Louise Varèse translation that was published by New Directions, and that was that. It was all about poetry from then on out. But what I think is important, to me, is that my discovering of this came as I was coming out of those two lost years. I think that experience with meth erased a lot of things, made me unsure of what I was really all about. So coming into poetry seemed like a kind of revelation, as something that might help fill those holes. Then, Rimbaud led me to Surrealism. Surrealism led to other French moderns, Reverdy and Char in particular. And that was that. Everything was about poetry. And, specifically, poetry in translation.

During this time I was taking classes at Southwestern Community College down in Chula Vista. I had bounced around some art classes initially, but eventually started taking some English classes. My time there, at Southwestern, was unquestionably the most important educational experience in my life. My first poetry teacher, Steve Kowit, always had the most spot on recommendations for me. He turned me on to folks like César Vallejo, Paul Celan, Ernesto Cardenal. Of all the teachers I’ve had over the years, he changed my life more than anyone. He died a few years ago, and I still miss him terribly.

CD: When did you start duration? I remember meeting you in the very late 90s, and you were already making those great chapbooks. What was the first thing you published?

JS: I'd have to say that the official start date of duration press was in the Fall of 1997. That's when I first decided to start a chapbook press. Over the next year and a half, I spent a lot of time talking to people, soliciting work for the series, and learning how to typeset a book. I had long conversations with Ben Hollander about publishing. I wrote a letter out of the blue to Michael Palmer and had some conversations with him. In terms of numbering sequence, the first chapbook was Keith Waldrop's Spit-Curls, which was a little collection of his Oulipian poems. But, since I had offered the chapbooks in a series, there were four other titles that were released at the same time: Transit Rock by George Albon, The Right Wall of the Heart Effaced by Claude Royet-Journoud (in Keith Waldrop's translation), Rush Mats by Hiroya Takagai (in Eric Selland's translation), and Nature's Maw Gives and Gives by Mary Burger. Those were the first five, and they came out in early 1999.

CD: I still have them all, in storage. When and why did you decide to go fully PDF?

JS: I had launched the duration website the same year the first chapbooks came out, in 1999. At first, I just thought that it would be a place to showcase the chapbooks and such. But then I started to add original content to the site. I think the first PDF I put together was a single issue of a mag. It was a bit too much work to do that alongside the chapbooks, so I didn’t bother with a second. But I decided that I liked the PDF format. It gave me the control over typography, form, etc., that wasn’t possible with HTML. So PDFs stuck with me, just not the idea of a mag. I think a driving factor was the ease with which someone could download a PDF onto their computer, print it out, and read it. I did, however, want to do something in addition to the chapbook series. I wanted to bring more things out into the world. I decided on trying something like an e-chapbook series. But as a PDF. So I started an e-chapbook series (again in 1999). The first was a book by Patrick Durgin called Sorter.

This led to doing out of print books in PDF. Above all, it was all about getting work out into the world. That’s always been the most important thing. Early on, tho, I wasn’t doing scans of actual books. I was actually transcribing the texts and typesetting them. Remember, this was the late 90s. There was no broadband. Everything was on dial-up. So I had to make sure that the file sizes were small enough for people to engage with. These days, we have scans of the physical objects. Back then, that wouldn’t have been realistic.

There were only a few other websites doing PDFs with poetry at that time. Brian Kim Stefans’s was one. hadn’t taken up PDFs yet, nor the EPC. Everyone was doing HTML. As a file format PDFs weren’t being used much. They were, if I remember rightly, largely used by government offices for reports, and such. But I ran with it. Eventually, after five years and a couple dozen chapbooks, I just ran out of steam with doing things in print. This was in 2005. By then, tho, PDFs had become a central piece of the press. So I switched to that format completely.

CD: You’ve published a lot of translations. Was this something you wanted to do from the start?

JS: Like I mentioned, I came into poetry through works in translation. And, really, the poets who have, and continue to have, the most importance to me, it’s all in translation. So my thought of what poetry is and can be can’t be separated from that. In fact, I came to American poetry via translations. I was reading Reverdy, for example, and that led me to Rexroth. Things like that. I should also mention the influence that the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium had on me. So, when I first started thinking about a chapbook press, it was never a question that it had to include translations. Maybe not include, but prioritize. So, yes, translation has been there from the get-go.

CD: When I was a kid, it was almost expected that poets would translate. That’s why I got interested in translating. It was a given, for me, anyway. For a long time, nobody was doing much here in the US, but now there’s a lot more translation going on, which makes me hopeful. Have you done any translation work?

JS: I don’t speak or read fluently any language other than English, unfortunately. I can stumble-read my way through French in short spurts. But I’ve done some things here and there translating with a dictionary word by word. The fact that I have trouble learning languages, and depend so much on translations, has a lot to do with how much translation means to me as a reader.

CD: Laura Jaramillo said that translation helps the language not suck. I love that!

JS: It absolutely helps the language not suck!

CD: I have to ask you about comics. I don’t know what to ask, really. We’re both very fond of Vaughn Bodē and George Herriman, and you’ve turned me on to some tremendously good stuff, like Yvan Alagbé and Edmond Baudoin. They do extraordinary work. I’m gonna have to learn a little more French, so I can hack through their books.

I’ve seen your drawings on Facebook. I guess I’m wondering if you draw a lot, and if you wanted to be a cartoonist at some point in your life! I’m curious to know if your appreciation for sequential art informs your work as a publisher and writer.

JS: I don’t draw nearly as much as I’d like to these days. It’s like my writing. I’m terrible at actually getting to it. But, I love comics. I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid. And, like most fans of comics, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I even sent in some art one time to this comics school, The Joe Kubert School of Comics and Graphic Art, and received some feedback on what I sent in (they basically said, in the nicest way possible, that I wasn’t any good). Another time, Escape and I displayed our work at the art auction at the San Diego Comic-Con. This was back in 1989, I think. Escape, whose work, by the way, I used as the cover of the first issue of Seedings, did this graffiti canvas, and I did this pen and ink graffiti drawing that was basically a “fuck the police” piece. I remember, too, having a chat with Mark Bodē, Vaughn’s son, about graffiti at that Con. But, yeah, my love of Bodē comes out of graffiti. I mean, he’s the great wellspring of graffiti characters.

And, yes, I do really enjoy trying to discover comics from other countries. It opens so many possibilities for what comics can be. Alagbé, Baudoin, yes, they do really wonderful work. I can just get lost in a Hugo Pratt drawing. Alberto Breccia is brilliant. Moebius. There’s so much wonderful stuff out there.

One of the things that I love about comics culture is how much self-publishing is accepted and encouraged. It’s something that’s largely vanished from poetry culture. Maybe it’s a by-product of the workshop culture that poetry can’t get out of, this idea that your work has to be vetted by someone else. I mean, I’m completely hands off as an “editor.” I never make edits to things I publish. I’m of the mind that it’s your work, I trust your work, and let’s get it out into the world. This is probably tied to my experience with graffiti. Graffiti is all about getting your work into the world, warts and all. But you’re doing the work. You’re putting in the time. And that’s what it’s all about. Comics people understand this, I think.

CD: You’re so right about workshop culture, and the vetting by gatekeepers in the academy and publishing, especially academic publishing. The little awards and all that. The easiest way to get published by the usual suspects is to write a previously approved kind of poetry. This impoverishing of poetic language in the US has been going on for decades.

Self-publishing is crucial. You can get your (and other’s) work into the world on its (and your) own terms, and direct it to people you respect and whose opinions you trust. You may be marginal, but you can be yourself, completely. Ben Hollander used to say that he wanted complete strangers to stumble onto his work and maybe get something out of it.

Anyway, I’m pretty much DIY all the way these days, though of course I’m not always gonna refuse when an editor asks to see work. It all depends.

Have you thought about epub as a platform? It’s got its problems (typography is not very precise, so you can’t get too creative with it), but it’s easy to produce, and can be read on almost anything. There are epub readers for smartphones.

JS: That’s funny about Ben saying that. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I didn’t know any poets. The first reading I went to was a reading in Marin that featured Barbara Guest and Norma Cole. I was sitting outside before the reading, having a cigarette, and this guy walked up and asked me if I was here for the reading. He introduced himself as Ben Hollander. I said, oh yeah, I just finished reading your book The Book of Who Are Was. He seemed pretty shocked by that. So Ben was the first poet I met in the Bay.

One thing I think about sometimes is what you lose when that impulse to do it yourself is lost. When everything is about reading periods, reading fees, and contests, and all the mechanisms of, I don’t know, sanitation. [CD: LOL] It impoverishes the language, yes. It also impoverishes the life of it all. It’s that marginality, that you mention, that I think plays into it a lot. There is, in a lot of places, the pressure of curating your legacy. As if that’s something anyone has control over. But I’ve seen poets explicitly talk about worrying about their legacy, which strikes me as so odd. Maybe I get this from graffiti, where impermanence is built into what you do, but the idea of worrying about a legacy while you’re doing your thing doesn’t make any sense to me. So maybe there’s the idea that if you have these official routes, these established routes, that somehow that increases the probability of you being remembered.

But, yes, I really do think that DIY needs to make a comeback. People need to print things out at home, staple it together, and call it a book. People need to send PDFs to each other and call that a book, too. It’s dispiriting when I see poets asking the question “what page length constitutes a book?” I mean, a book is what you want it to be. It has nothing to do with spine width, or page count.

I haven’t played around with epub’s yet. I probably should at some point, just to make everything more accessible.

CC: I’ve really appreciated your ongoing desire to direct attention to relatively neglected books of poetry in translation. I’ve seen the poetry of René Char pop up on more than one occasion, and I just wanted to ask about what speaks to you about his writing. I think Char is a tremendous and in the US at least a tremendously underread antifascist poet, but I was curious about your thoughts.

JS: Yes. Char has been an incredibly important poet to me for a really long time, and in a lot of ways he becomes even more important as time goes on. But, it’s strange, given his immense stature in France, how under-translated he is in the US. That resistance that you mention, obviously in the way he lived his life, but also in the demands he makes for poetry, have been incredibly meaningful to me. And it's certainly something that speaks very profoundly to our current moment. I made my first trip to France in 2016, and I made sure that we would spend part of our trip in Provence. More so, I wanted to spend time in Char's world, in the Vaucluse. Gustaf Sobin wrote that Char said to him, if you love my poetry, you must visit Provence. So we stayed at an inn in Fontaine de Vaucluse, near the source of the Sorgue river, and near Char's hometown of L'Isle sur la Sorgue. We took several hikes around the area during the week we were there. Through the Petit Luberon, and through the valleys, and up along the side of Mont Ventoux to the summit. During these hikes, I experienced something I've never experienced before. I could read Char's language in the landscape, his words rumbling beneath my feet. It was a pretty extraordinary feeling.

More generally, I think the push to direct attention to works that have fallen out of public view is part of asking why they have fallen? Perhaps it’s a way of canon-unbuilding. Perhaps, too, it’s about trying to shake up expectations of how things can be read alongside each other. I think I took a lot of that way of thinking from Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies. I already mentioned the Millennium anthologies, but his Technicians of the Sacred, and other anthologies have been great teachers for me. I even lifted the name Seedings from one of his books of poetry. But there is so much out there in the world. So many things to pay attention to and learn from. Opening oneself to things that have been neglected can only help to disrupt one’s reading habits, one’s habits of thinking. Also, American poetry has an unhealthy tendency to lapse into a kind of nationalist provincialism. It’s important to do what we can to counter that.

So, yeah, I’ve tried to recover some things with the press, and with Seedings in particular. The first person that comes to mind for me is René Depestre. How is it possible that this brilliant, indispensable Haitian poet is so under-translated and underread? When I was first collecting work for the first issue of Seedings, I inquired about possibly doing a digital version of the translation of his masterpiece A Rainbow for the Christian West. Understandably, the translator, Colin Dayan, was hopeful that the entire book could be brought back into print somehow, so we settled on an excerpt. I was thrilled to include the poems in the journal.

CC: You’ve decided to keep going with duration over the years, and over that time there have been persistent criticisms of the whiteness of contemporary avant-gardes but we’re in a moment where it seems like there have been significant moves to render “official verse culture” more inclusive in ways that have seemed to abandon the distinction between mainstream and experimental writing by non-white poets. How do you feel about the category of experimental and avant-garde poetry now?

JS: I’ve never been convinced of the idea that there’s been a singular avant-garde. There’s always been a plurality of avant-garde or experimental traditions. The problem has been how a couple strands have dominated the landscape. The centrality of a few, predominately white, avant-garde traditions has been consciously promoted, taught, anthologized, and prioritized by white avant-gardists and white critics. But, over the years, there has been a lot of crucial work done to elevate these other, non-white, traditions, or if not complete traditions, then the work of individual, innovative practitioners. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that great conference in San Francisco that Renee Gladman and giovanni singleton organized in 2000, “Expanding the Repertoire.” But, also the work of Aldon Nielsen, the critical work of Nathaniel Mackey, and, too, the work that Mark Nowak does, both with his journal XCP and his other editing projects, among many, many others. So the continuing, and expanding, of this kind of work has certainly been one of the more positive things I’ve noticed since I’ve been paying attention.

Before I decided to do a journal like Seedings, I had proposed starting a journal dedicated to surfacing the work of experimental, non-white poets (contemporary and historical) and traditions. I was hoping that such a venue might provide a space beyond social media where works could be gathered, ideas shared, that might in some way provide a counter-narrative to the white avant-garde narrative that's so predominant. So I put out a call for work to a couple of dozen people that I thought might be interested in such a thing. Unfortunately, I only received two responses. So, I decided to scrap that idea and went ahead with what eventually became Seedings.

Anyway, while there have been moves to do so, I’m not sure if “official verse culture” has been rendered any more inclusive, or more welcoming on a substantial level, to non-white, innovative poetries. It all seems incredibly superficial. So while various organizations are being confronted by their restrictive publishing histories and habits, and public relations might release nice statements every once and a while, these same organizations can’t seem to help themselves by constantly publishing and promoting ridiculous things. It wouldn’t take much to convince me that the majority of established, “official” poetry organizations are beyond repair, and that attempts to reform them, I guess, are a waste of energy that could be better spent on building new cooperative networks and resources of support.

CD: That is precisely what we should be doing. There’s nothing to be gained in trying to reform the unreformable.

JS: As for the category of experimental or avant-garde and what it might mean now, I’d say it certainly has changed. Obviously there are still poets who are interested in defining themselves according to where they feel they fit in those lineages, but, personally, I’m less concerned with them these days. Too, and I hope that this has come across in the work that duration press has done over the years, I’ve always been more interested in how international traditions and trajectories criss-cross across countries, across borders, and, too, across time. I think this comes across in something like Seedings, which I’m very proud of, and might very well be the perfect example of what I’ve always hoped the press might represent. In all of this, I should add, Pierre Joris’ work, and his A Nomad Poetics, has meant a lot to me.

CD: The best piece of encouraging advice I ever got was from Pierre Joris. He said: “Just keep going, and eventually they’ll catch up to you.”

His lifelong Celan translation project alone is a huge inspiration to me, and he’s done so much more (you also mentioned Poems for the Millennium). Breathturn knocked me for a loop in the mid-90s, helped me get through a truly horrible time (along with Winnetou Old, his long poem), got me going, and set a powerful example of a translator’s right to work simultaneously with absolute creative freedom and absolute love, respect, minute attention, courage, and stubborn perseverance. For what it’s worth, my translations of Josely Vianna Baptista and Orides Fontela owe a lot to his work. Of course, he's not the only one (Norma Cole, Barbara Wright, Nathaniel Tarn, Erin Moure, Post Apollo, so many others...), but I hope he sees this.

CC: You moved to Merced recently. How is it there?

JS: Merced is a mixed bag. In a radius of a couple of blocks from my house you’ll find “Blue Lives Matter” flags, a State of Jefferson bumper sticker, and a Rainbow Pride flag. Even pre-pandemic it had a fairly high unemployment rate. It’s also an incredibly segregated town, economically and racially. It’s like a lot of towns in the Central Valley, I suppose. And, yes, the distrust, if not outright disdain, of coastal liberals is very real. In all fairness, tho, it’s an area that a lot of people do ignore. It is an area that probably has the right to feel that money is allocated to unfairly benefit the larger cities on the coast. The economies of the Valley are driven by agriculture and the prison system, which probably contributes to the lack of attention paid to the area by those outside of it.

There are a lot of people living in abject poverty in the Valley, but you wouldn’t really notice unless you took the Amtrak from Sacramento to Bakersfield, or decided to get off the 99 and explore. You’ll find scores of pockets of families living in single-walled shacks in the middle of giant dirt fields. A lot of which is a by-product of the mechanization of the farming industry. For decades people migrated to the Valley looking for farm work, a good portion of whom were trying to escape from the Jim Crow South and tenant farming systems. But industrial farming wiped out the jobs. A lot of people were able to migrate further to the coastal cities, but many stayed. So you have these communities with no infrastructure, no roads, no running water. And, of course, the effects of that are still very present all over the Valley.

There are very large immigrant communities—people from Southeast Asia, from Latin America. So it’s certainly much more than the right-wing, white farmland that it tends to get painted as. I do wish that more attention, serious attention, was paid to the region.

CD: Thank you so much for doing this, Jerrold. To wrap things up, how about recommending some comics you admire?

JS: The Cage, Martin Vaughn-James
The Eternaut, Héctor Germán Oesterheld & Francisco Solano-Lopez
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures, Yvan Alagbé
Mort Cinder, Héctor Germán Oesterheld & Alberto Breccia
Piero, Edmond Baudoin
Interiorae, Gabriella Giandelli
Garlandia, Lorenzo Mattotti
Epileptic, David B.
Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo
Just about anything by Moebius

#262 — Fall 2020