INTERVIEWED BY KIRPAL GORDON
Kirpal Gordon is the author of New York at Twilight; Round Earth, Open Sky; Go Ride the Music and Eros in Sanskrit with its companion CD, Speak-Spake-Spoke. Kirpal interviews artists and activists at http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/, teaches college writing and ghostwrites nonfiction books. Visit www.KirpalG.com for more on his work and shows.
Kirpal Gordon: Regarding the urge to living vitally, I quote your opening poem in Map of the World (2007):
The Erotic Heaven
This is where all alchemists
begin, half on water, half on land,
first as pilgrims, then as pilots—
to find everything Other within us,
to know all we are and deny nothing—
how sunlight mixed with moisture
flowed down into darkness
and awakened us with yeast,
and even today how all mortal
and immortal things arrive
in the realm of the visible
their subtle and fiery atoms
between one state and another.
What a way to open a book of poems! It rolls off the tongue like a prayer, as if what you are observing is none other than the poem’s invocation come to life, its alliteration and economy of language calling me back to read it again.
Randy Roark: The Alchemy Poems were mostly written on a trip back to Connecticut for my father’s funeral. I was doing some work for Diane di Prima, including transcribing her lectures on “The Language of Alchemy,” and I still didn’t get it. Diane and the class were obviously discussing some understanding they shared, but I couldn’t follow the conversation. Then years later, as I was packing to return home for my father’s funeral, I picked up a copy of Alchemy & Mysticism [by Alexander Roob (ed.)], which I’d kept on my coffee table for almost a year, and threw it into my bag.
Things at home were tense over differing opinions on what to do about my father’s funeral. So after dinner I would escape to my hotel room and read Alchemy & Mysticism and take notes until I fell asleep. There were no distractions. It was the only book I brought. I didn’t even bring any music.
When I got back to Boulder, I typed up my notebooks and called it The Alchemy Poems and tossed it on a pile with all the other manuscripts that were gathering dust on my desk. I was writing a lot then, and my plan was to write until I ran out of writing and then finish everything during a future writing slump. This writing streak began in 1998, when I was hospitalized after herniating a disk. When I was discharged, I began a habit of turning everything off at 8:30 and working on my writing until I went to bed. I had no idea how long I’d be able to keep this up, so I decided to make good use of it while it lasted. I had no idea it would last until 2005, when I was hospitalized with a broken neck.
This time when I got out, I picked up the manuscript for The Alchemy Poems and read it as if it was written by someone else, which was how it was feeling. Even though I had written the poems and rewritten them several times as well, I felt like I understood them for the first time. They were about what dies and what doesn’t die. They were about what’s worth saving, and what’s better left behind. They were about how life is a transformative process and one living thing ceases to be by becoming part of something new. Yesterday is gone in a temporal sense but in a larger sense it’s still here in what it has been transformed into—today. Or my body will die, but my flesh will continue to live on as soil, until I get picked up by a root and become part of a lettuce leaf or something. And then that leaf might get eaten by a cow and that cow might get eaten by a human. The cycle of life.
So which in this eternal parade is the real “me”? If I identify with my body, I’m going to fall to pieces when I die. But if I identify with the creative force that brought me into being, I will live forever, just not as “me” for more than a handful of years.
And the poems were about how everything in the universe—from the sun to a bee’s wing—is made out of varying combinations and recombinations of the same 118 elements. And that even fauna and flora aren’t that different. One of a human’s closest
relatives—genetically—is a mushroom.
So “The Erotic Heaven” was the introduction to the collection, trying to imagine the what and how I’ve gone through already to get here—as a human being—and how I might possibly be transforming in the future. It’s an attempt to redefine who I am in a way, to reimagine “me.”
So I rewrote and reorganized the poems—based on this clearer vision—and combined it with two other long-form poems—“Shaman,” and “A Distant Landscape”—and that became Map of the World. And then I put together my travel notebooks (What Have I Become, 2007), and my distillation of the Norton anthologies (LIT, 2007), and then what will probably be my last collection of miscellaneous pieces (Happiness, 2007). And then there was The Convalescence Notebook (2008), which is the story of my broken neck and after, written in a single sitting. Later I learned that the steroid they had me on for my broken neck—dexamethosone—has a similar effect to amphetamine. That explains a lot. This was also the time I went into my basement and saw all of my books as snakes, as coiled energy, trying to get out. Wanting to be released. That’s when I started selling my library and began traveling.
KG: “The Erotic Heaven” is also a fine example of the poetry side of what you’ve described elsewhere as creative non-fiction or unreach-prune back-simplify. Here’s a much different but equally evocative example from Mona Lisa’s Veil (2001):
The Body Is the Boundary
In the graveyard shift
emergency room where I
undress the slender
24-year-old, her body
blue, the heroin
heart, or the
drove her Blazer
through a light pole,
smashing her skull
or the mother whose
14-year-old thought it
would be cool to toss
into a fire, until a
bullet entered her
scalp through that
tiny blue hole there,
ricocheting through her
brain until it found
that tiny purple
above her scapula,
where her shoulder
joins her neck.
A very sobering poem. It sounds like you are making excellent use of your day job as an opportunity to use real life events to move us in literary ways.
RR: I remember that beautiful young girl turning blue. She had this perfect, tiny, pale body and she’d slipped out of it, left it like trash. I remember the mother screaming when she realized her daughter was dead. I remember there was no one in the car with the girl in her Blazer and she drove straight into one of the few solid objects on a backroad at a crazy-fast speed. There were no skid marks and she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. It’s a common way for people to kill themselves without looking like they’d killed themselves.
I wrote very few poems about my emergency room work—and I think that’s the only one I published—because it’s all so loaded, for me and for anyone confronted with a poem like that. And I was worried about exploiting the real human beings involved, using their tragedy as fodder for poems. Now, I don’t know. I wish I’d written more. There are probably some stories in my journals and letters from those days. The Emergency Room Notebooks.
But it’s problematic. Working in the emergency room isn’t all like that, so those dramatic deaths affect me too. Do I want to marinate in that? And it’s the same situation I have in The Decalogue—these aren’t only moments in my life, these are real people. I have a responsibility to at least not get it very wrong, if I can’t always get it right.
But no matter how much I talk about alchemy and nothing dies, the point of that poem is that people do die every day—even children—accidentally and without warning. I don’t care if they come back as a lettuce leaf. I don’t care if Layne is part of the ocean now. I want her body back.
KG: It seems important to you that you “tell it like it is,” even if the truth carries less revelation than metaphor; i.e., fiction.
RR: What makes authentic spiritual teachers so powerful is their willingness to tell the truth. What was important to me about Allen Ginsberg was that he always told the truth, even when he was wrong. Jane Siberry says that every time you tell the truth, a part of you becomes real. The Christian bible says the truth will set you free. That’s certainly been the case in my life. I’m sold.
The first time I realized the power of truth was when I was a junior in St. Bernard’s Boys High School, run by the Christian Brothers. I loved my Catholic high school, by the way. They taught me how to think, not what to think. My senior paper was “Nietzsche, Kafka, and Hesse: The Man Who Created the Modern World, the Man Crushed by the Modern World, the Man Who Escaped the Modern World.” That was the level of discourse that was expected.
It was also the time of the Vietnam War and the school would rent yellow school buses and take us to anti-war demonstrations. But first you had to bring in a consent form signed by your parents. One time I stood with my friends in our school uniforms in front of a grandstand, twenty feet from John Lennon and Yoko Ono in downtown New York City, both of them in uniforms too: camouflage fatigues, black sunglasses, black berets, black leather fists in the air. “Power to the people!” “Right on! Right on!”
One night my English class had an overnight at our teacher’s house on Long Island Sound, and we smoked hash and lay on his lawn damp with ocean and looked up at the stars and listened to the cast album of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” His name was Ron, and he taught a class on “Gandhi, Chardin, and Christ.” We studied Ahimsa (non-injury) and Satyagraha (“Truth Force!”)—the physics of non-violence, how and why it works—and how Gandhi’s civil disobedience was inspired by Thoreau and went on to inspire Martin Luther King, Jr., and how our civil rights movement was the U.S. version of the liberation of India from British rule.
And we would alternate those classes with classes on Teilhard de Chardin, the early 20th century Christian mystic. Mysticism was taught as our other half, balancing our social responsibilities. It was about the path of truth that relied on complete fidelity to the singular, the personal, especially in the face of social opposition. That I wouldn’t be happy unless I found a way to balance both my social and my personal responsibilities.
Then in my junior year, several of my friends went for a long weekend in NYC for what was called the Christian Encounter Movement. It was this hush-hush thing, so no one was allowed to say anything after they came back. I was no longer a practicing Catholic and had a very conflicted relationship with the Church, but this secret society thing intrigued me and I liked the happiness I saw in my friends’ eyes when they got back, so I signed on.
It turned out to be a mixture of Gestalt Therapy, Esalen, and a 3-day rap session, with a lot of talk about Jesus and The New Testament. It was a kind of liberation theology turned inward. There was also a lot of ritual on the weekend, combined with the exclusivity thing, and that experience was definitely something that influenced my plans decades later with Layne to reinstitute the Eleusinian mysteries—as well as we could on Greek soil. I saw the power of ritual and how easily one could be lost.
Anyway, on day two, one of the presenters—the jovial rolly-polly down-to-earth guy got up after dinner—this was probably the fourth or fifth session of the weekend and said something like, “You know, I’ve been listening to everyone last night and today about their faith and love and desire to live a life of Christian compassion and generosity and love. And I realized there was only one word to describe what I was hearing.” And he held up a sign that said, “Bullshit.”
That was a transformative moment for me. I experienced the power of the truth spoken aloud in an environment that was very vocal about not wanting to hear it. And I saw how the act of telling the truth, of making a declaration, galvanized the room, pro and con. Everyone woke up, that’s for sure. In that moment my future was set. Even now whenever I’m at the podium, I want to be that guy.
Then, when my wife was going to school in New London, Connecticut in the mid-70s, we lived near the O’Neill Theater for the Deaf. She was a dancer and it wasn’t unusual to be at parties with some of the theater students. I would actually seek them out because they were often inner city kids, and this was rural Connecticut. And I really enjoyed talking in their mixture of spoken word and pantomime. It’s something that demands your full attention. You have to face the person you’re talking to all the time because he’s reading your lips, so he’s going to notice if you’re uncomfortable or confused or not paying attention. It’s like a truth serum.
Anyway, at a Christmas party one year, I had been talking to one of the deaf students for quite a while, and the door opened and a married couple entered the kitchen and shouted out their hellos. But I could see in their faces that they had been arguing in the car on the way over, and that they were using their cheery hellos to cover their unhappiness. It was like we were hiding behind these big word balloons, and I saw how we use words to obscure, not reveal, the truth.
I also have a very strong memory of my father telling me he could see right through me. The funny thing is that he was almost always wrong, but I also felt I could see through people who were obviously lying or exaggerating, or self-aggrandizing, or being manipulative and phony, or lying to themselves. I feel so embarrassed for anyone who seems to be lying or trying to manipulate or impress me that I try to catch myself before I begin to lie or exaggerate or self-aggrandize myself. But it doesn’t always work. I usually have to get into trouble before I realize that I’m only using words to mislead myself in new ways.
And in my writing—especially my “creative non-fiction”—I always go over it with an eye toward whether what I’m saying is “true.” And perhaps more important, is it honest? Because the “creative” part of creative non-fiction is making shit up. But I don’t make up stuff to mislead people—I make up stuff when I can sense something underneath what I’m seeing or hearing, like those faces at the party. It’s an embellishment, but it’s congruous. The people in my writing are not hand-puppets. They’re real people and what I write has to be in character.
And I don’t knowingly write about anyone critically or cynically. It’s the same reason that I don’t like to revisit some of the traumatic events in my life—if I do write something down to blow off steam, I hardly ever type it up, and it rarely survives a first read-through if I do. I can’t think of a single story in the published version that’s critical of anyone except me.
And as for the difference between history and literature, I feel an obligation to be very careful about what I say, but not about whether it actually happened or happened in this way, or even if I discovered it in someone else’s writings. I’m creating a mosaic, precisely as it comes to me, before I understand it myself. Whenever something catches my attention—especially if I don’t understand it—I pull out my notebook and write down what I’m experiencing without thinking and think about it later.
In The Decalogue I discuss the question of authorship of my written works, as if some intelligence that is not my consciousness may be writing my words and I am more of ascribe and editor. Once I understood that I didn’t need to worry about the larger issue of what to write about or what it meant or what I wanted to say until much later during the editorial process, that I just had to notice what I noticed, as Allen Ginsberg advised, I enjoyed writing and shaping my writing a lot more. I could spend the requisite amount of time finishing a piece without carving it to nothing or throwing it out. It’s hard to read something I’ve written in a moment of deep feeling even a week or two later. It’s like there’s nothing there underneath all the smoke and flames. But if I’m just the reporter, then the story is the star, and I’m allowed to enjoy the telling. There’s a level of mystery to it. There’s room for play and poignancy, a balance between joy and sorrow.
That’s why I insist on being as honest as I can, about myself first, for my own sake. I want to know what’s really going on, and I can only do that if I’m not lying to myself. I know going forward almost always includes a painful lesson that you don’t want to forget, and those are the moments I want to capture most of all. It’s also a way of trying to get past them, of putting them to rest.
KG: Your notion that the truth is ever changing reveals how the teller is transformed by the experiences he is telling, which seems to be your point of departure. It reminds me of D.T. Suzuki’s idea that the arts—haiku, tea ceremony, landscape painting, calligraphy, ikebana—are the ideal place to express the inexpressible essence of Buddhism. In your “Journal Entry, Istanbul, December 1st” in What I Have Become (2007) you write, as if in answer to this notion, “If you create in order to be a creator, you will never be satisfied, because every creation has limits—and by making anything you instantly outgrow them. But if you become the source of creation, then everything you see is transformed. Beauty loses it subjectivity. It isn’t a reflection and it isn’t personal. You don’t make anything. It’s a matter of seeing and then being skilled enough in your medium to transfer that vision directly.” You’ve hung hard with Buddhists in your day job as a producer and editor for Sounds True. How has that experience shaped your point of view?
RR: I work with people who wake up every morning and make a vow to save all sentient beings. If I’m in a studio working with a Buddhist lama, I’m the only thing on the menu. But it’s a little like that story about how a pickpocket only sees a great teacher’s pockets. I’m not there for spiritual enlightenment—I’m there to record a program. They can’t be thinking about me—I want their focus to be on the recording. Later, when I’m editing, it’s the same thing: Does this make sense, is it clear, is it well organized? It’s like the staff running a retreat. They’re benefitting, but first and foremost they’re working. But there are things I’ve learned, sure. Some of it sinks in just through the repetition. But it’s not just Buddhists. On Monday I might be working with a Vedic priest, on Wednesday a Jungian analyst, on Friday a rabbi, on Tuesday a neuroscientist, on Thursday a Christian mystic. I try to learn one thing from every program I’ve worked on, and I’ve probably produced or edited over 300 programs in the 16-plus years I’ve worked
Sometimes I work with the author ahead of time to plan and shape the content, and I’ll believe we’re recording a program on—say—the Kabbalah. But about fifteen minutes into the recording I’ll realize, “Oh, we’re recording a program about what it’s like to be human.” And of course it is. What, a Kabbalist is going to be talking about a different universe than a Christian mystic, a different reality than a Buddhist monk or a brain scientist? Most of the really good projects I work on—it seems to me—are really saying the same things about the same things, using different languages, different sets of references.
The main thing that interests me about the heavy-duty Buddhists is their humanity. In my experience, that’s mostly an American Buddhist thing, but I’ve also seen it in a young female Chinese Buddhist landscape painter—who is represented by Xi in The Decalogue. I’ve seen it in the studio with Matthieu Richard—the Dalai Lama’s French translator and Anh-Huong Nguyen, Thich Nhat Hanh’s niece and dharma heir. I didn’t hear it in Krishnamurti when I created Truth Is a Pathless Land, and I do not hear it in Thich Nhat Hanh. I don’t hear it in Alan Watts or Joseph Goldstein, and those are two of my favorite authors in the field.
But the first-generation American Buddhists are probably the best at this sense of shared humanity: Jack Kornfield, Adyashanti, Lama Surya Das, Pema Chodron, Cheri Huber, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach. Ram Dass has it too, but in my experience not a lot of other Hindus. I’ve met some non-Americans who have it: Trungpa, Stephen Batchelor, Eckhart Tolle. Deepak used to be like that but I haven’t had any contact with him in years. I hear it in some of our poets—Allen most of all, but Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder and Williams and Whitman and Emerson and Thoreau, too.
What I mean by humanity is that they don’t claim to be any different from who they are. They get angry, they’re greedy, they gossip, they belly laugh, they tell the truth, they listen with their full attention, they can be emotionally intimate to a powerful degree. They’re self-aware and totally themselves. They pretty quickly become aware of their anger, and they drop it. They’re aware of their greediness, so when it bursts out, they acknowledge it and move on. I had one lama say after an outburst, “I’m sorry. That was my arrogance speaking. Can you accept my apology?” But he didn’t collapse. He didn’t beat himself up. He didn’t try to defend his outburst or pretend it was anything other than what it was. He didn’t try to confuse me about what just happened or what was happening. It was like a little dramatization of arrogance in action. And in case I missed it, he stopped to point it out. He didn’t have a need to be right, he didn’t have to be perfect, or to justify or cover up what he’d done. His main concern was that I might think I’d done something wrong. And when it was over, it was over! We both moved on.
All I want is to be a human being—this human being—fully me, in this lifetime, while I’m alive. That’s what I’m after. My spiritual path has never been about powers or siddhis or enlightenment, or to be a guru, any of that. When I learned TM, they stressed that you meditate in order to more fully enjoy your life—you don’t live to meditate, you don’t consider everyday life less spiritual than life on retreat.
And that’s carried over to my writing as well. I’m not focused on being a great poet or acknowledged as a writer. I write and work on my writing as a means to help me more fully understand what is happening in my life. I publish something to get it off my desk and make room for whatever’s next. If not I could keep changing any piece of writing every rereading for the rest of my life. Someone said that no piece of writing is ever finished—at some moment you just cut it loose and move on. I know I’ve reached that point when I reread something and change an “and” into a “but” and on the next rereading I change it back.
Memoir—turning my life into a story, into a myth—is a creative process. It’s fun! I’d rather work on my writing than see a film. The only music I seek out now is music that I can listen to as I work on my writing. I saw a tee-shirt with a saying that was attributed to Ani DeFranco: “You have your whole life to make something and it’s not a lot of time.” I think some of us feel that, and some of us don’t. I don’t know who’s better off, but I like my life or I’d change it.
I can never really extricate myself from myself and I can never become anyone else, but I can choose to do this and not that. One choice I’ve made has been to prioritize getting to know myself in this lifetime. Everything I do is in service to this goal. Where and how I work. What and how I write. It’s a higher priority than the writing, certainly. There are times I feel the writing is getting in the way of genuinely experiencing something, and I’ll put the writing aside. I call those periods my in-put phases. That’s the other side of the intense output phases that precede and follow them. The hardest thing for me to accept are those input phases, though. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never write again. It seems that periodically I get bored and restless and have to completely destroy my previous understanding of writing, like hitting reset on a computer, except it takes me a couple of weeks to completely forget the habit of writing and not feel guilty about not writing. Sometimes it’s important to let the dust settle before choosing how to proceed.
And since I chose to focus on my personal truth, it’s almost emblematic that I’m often in conflict with others. But when I stopped looking outside for confirmation, it was easy to be unmoved in the face of opposition. I’m not really interested in “out” except as it relates to “in.” I don’t have to search for meaning because it’s always and only here, right now, in front of me, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. I can’t be separate from it. It doesn’t exist without me, but it’s the only thing that’s true.
KG: Regarding your sense of the phony/authentic aspect of the Sounds True teachers you have worked with, what comes to mind is the old dialectic ‘tween philosophies that are actually systems of thought (e.g: Torah, Aristotle/Aquinas, Hegel, Sartre; Veda, Confucius; Islam) and philosophies that remind us that the system of thought has a gaping hole in its bucket (e.g: New Testament, Plato/Augustine, Marx, Kierkegaard; Buddha, Lao Tzu; Sufism). The systematizers say follow the map while the post systematizers remind us that the map is not the territory. So in this scenario, the examples of Alan Watts’ prodigious scholarship on liberation “systems” along with Krishnamurti’s liberation from Theosophy’s “system” would be celebrated as whistle blowing to those who would bow to a system instead of opening their hearts or minds. Is it too much to say that you are in the reminder school and that you are exercising exorcising rites that reveal the limits of systemic thinking, hence your interest in not fictionalizing, pretending or faking it in your own writing, living, recording, witnessing?
RR: I want to be clear that I didn’t mean to suggest that Watts or Krishnamurti were faking it—I’m certain they weren’t. I’ve edited half a dozen programs by Alan Watts big programs, like 6-10 CD sets—and it would be great pleasure to do another one. For me, Watts hasn’t dated at all, even when he’s imagining the future, which is by now our past. And I’m continually surprised by how advanced his understanding was way back when. I live in a world vastly different from his, including access to the full range of spiritual teachings and teachers and practices. But he still seems miles ahead of most present-day teachers, especially in how he understands and communicates paradox and groundlessness. He’s fearless and fierce. He’s another “bullshit” guy.
Listening to Krishnamurti’s archives was a different story. It was originally planned as a series, but I listened to everything I could and there was only one talk I could release. First of all, I want to say that I was very excited about this project. I did a lot of background reading. Granted, what I learned about his life story is amazing, especially his public refusal to accept the role of spiritual leader for the Theosophical Society on his coronation day, after they’d discovered him and groomed him for over a decade to become the first East-West, right-brain-left brain, worldwide spiritual teacher. The drama of the situation is more outrageous than anything that would be accepted as believable in fiction.
But I was particularly offended by his disdain for TM. His argument made him seem kind of ignorant. He said that nothing happens by repeating a mantra, that you’re just deluding yourself, but that’s definitely not my experience. I’m not claiming that repeating a mantra has mystical powers or is a magical formula or anything like that. What I do know is that when I plug a mantra into my constant stream of thoughts, it stops them for as long as I can remember to repeat the mantra. And when I’m not thinking, my consciousness floats free of my boring, repetitive thoughts and I feel intellectually and emotionally restored. And when I go back to thinking, I can’t go back all the way. That’s enough of a benefit for me—to be able to experience moments of freedom and joy and an expanded sense of self instead of the same old blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, every waking moment of every fucking day.
And I don’t agree with Krishnamurti’s views on the perniciousness of the commercialization of spirituality. I’m a big-boat guy. I want everyone to get a taste of it, and then they can move on to the deeper practices if so inclined. I love creating what we call Spirituality 101 programs at work, programs focused on people just entering a meditation or spiritual practice. Or the ones where we teach things like basic mindfulness in secular language. I believe that even if meditation only changes the direction you’re headed by one degree, in a couple of years you’re going to be off the map.
It’s funny though that when I was a meditation instructor within a month I began trying to dissuade people from learning how to meditate. In the mid-90s, Deepak Chopra broke away from the TM movement and started his own organization. He began recruiting instructors for a mantra-based meditation practice he’d found in the Vedas. It involved about two years of classes in Ayurveda, yoga, diet, meditation and awareness practices. We studied herbs and neuroscience. And it ended with a residency, where we groomed to teach meditation. Part of that was having to perform all of the steps in front of your peers, and they would give you feedback, and you’d do it over and over until you were allowed to move on to the next step. We had to memorize long ceremonies in Sanskrit. Not everyone made it. Them there were classes on the responsibilities of becoming someone’s spiritual advisor. I was in the second graduating class in early 1997. I took the training as a way to deepen my meditation practice and never intended to actually work as a meditation teacher. But by the time I graduated, I no longer had a job, and I tried to make a go of it by teaching meditation for Deepak for a couple of months.
So many of the people who contacted me were hopping from practice to practice, getting discouraged, and moving on to the next thing. They would go on a meditation retreat in shamatha or vipassana or Shambhala, and here it was, a week later, and nothing had changed. Or, maybe one of their friends had recommended me and I’d spend most of the phonecall explaining what meditation was and what I was teaching. Or maybe they were studying yoga and or Qi Gong and Tai Chi, and they heard something about mantras in class and wanted to check it out.
I was certain that for most of them this would just be the next thing that didn’t work. So, if I felt they were kind of shopping for an easy fix, I’d start by telling them there were many forms of meditation and this one—mantram—was not the most powerful, at least in my experience. The most powerful meditation practice in my experience was shamatha. But the thing is, I’m not going to do shamatha every day, and I will do mantram every day.
My point was that I believe that no practice will become truly meaningful unless you’re committed to do it every day, especially on the hard days, because those are the days you’re meditating for. It’s a commitment to turn my attention inward twice a day—no matter what’s going on, whether I’m craving the down-time or I feel so behind that taking time to meditate just seems like one more stress. Even if it’s just for five minutes, for those five minutes I’ll stop focusing on what’s not present and come face to face with what is, which is sometimes hard for me to see, through all the emotion and commotion I can generate.
My boss asked me one day why I continued to meditate if I wasn’t getting enlightened and I said because when I don’t meditate it’s like every day is the same. The same thoughts, the same conversations, the same emotions, the same frustrations. But when I meditate, every interaction, every conversation, everyone I meet is like the first time. It’s given me the room necessary not to be reactive and then reacting to the results of my reactiveness my entire life. I definitely see that I have more options than I originally thought after I’ve meditated.
And by sitting when I’m steaming about something, or depressed, or excited, I can sometimes begin to separate what’s happening and my response to it. I’m very interested in seeking out my habitual reactions so I can unwrap them. I want to spend as much of the time I have left having new experiences and preparing to die, not making amends for behavior that occurred while I was unconscious.
When I was a meditation teacher, I also made a big deal out of not over-promising. I’d tell them that after thirty years of meditating every day, I still had plenty of thoughts, even while I was meditating. But now I’m aware of them. And that’s all I could promise them as well: that they’d become more aware as the continued to think. I could see the panic and disappointment in their faces. “Oh no! We’ve chosen the wrong teacher!”
When I was taking classes in preparation for receiving my mantra, one of the students asked how long it would take to get enlightened, and our instructor said that some people are enlightened immediately and for some it takes as long as two years. I can remember thinking, “Two years! I can’t wait two years!” But, as someone sort of in the biz, I don’t think I’m unusual in not attaining enlightenment after decades of continuous and sincere practice, in my case even including listening to hundreds of dharma talks over the last 16 years and twice graduating from a Buddhist university.
But I’ve never really been interested in “Enlightenment.” I’ll acknowledge it’s a humbler goal but for me it was more interesting to become fully and truly me. For me a lot of spiritual training is too focused on attaining extraordinary mental or emotional or spiritual states. In my experience, those aren’t goals that appeal to the best qualities of the kind of person who is attracted to something for those reasons. I feel sorry for people who believe they have to be powerful or beautiful or wise or special in order to be “good enough.” And it makes me angry too. I’ve seen a lot of damage around people who have to be number one.
Within a month I’d stopped advertising myself as a teacher and people had to find me on their own, and within six months I delisted myself completely. It’s a shame because I believed in meditation and could have really used the income. But I was uncomfortable being the spiritual advisor for everyone who showed up at my door.
When I told Allen Ginsberg in our last conversation that I would refuse to teach meditation to someone if I didn’t think they’d stick to it, he yelled at me over the phone! “What kind of meditation teacher are you if you withhold the experience of a meditative mind to someone who has sought you out as their teacher? What right do you have to refuse someone if you they ask you for instruction?” He would teach meditation to anyone if they were even mildly curious. I’ve seen him take someone into a corner at a party and give them instruction. “Who knows what even a taste of meditation will lead to later on! Who knows what your refusal will cost them?
So I guess my attitude about meditation is equally entitled and elitist, but what separates me and Krishnamurti, I think, is that there’s such hate and disdain in his voice when he’s talking about every spiritual path other than his rather nihilist one. Putting that kind of hate out into the world can’t possibly be good, judging by the growing depression I felt listening to recordings of his public talks.
Another problem I had with Krishnamurti was how he talked about women and sex. I knew what no one knew at the time, of course, which was that for something like twenty years he had been sleeping with his best friend’s wife. No wonder he thought sexuality especially a woman’s—was an enemy of the spiritual.
But I think he’s projecting when he claims that it’s usually a woman’s fault when men get waylaid on the spiritual path. I love women and have known some real dakinis. In fact, for me the best thing about women is that they’re women. I’m much more likely to lead them astray than they are to distract me from my spiritual life.
So when I got to the creepiness in his voice when he was talking about sex, he lost me. I’ll allow people to fail in almost every way except for hypocrisy, lying, knowingly taking advantage of people, hate speech, being cruel, physically striking another, or abusing women. Wow, that’s quite a long list!
I’ve never publicly talked about my meditation practice before, ever. I bet most of my friends don’t even know I meditate. I don’t hide it, it’s just that no one’s ever asked before.
But, to answer your question, I’m fascinated by your idea about my working against the limits of systemic thinking. I’ve never had it presented to me this way but what jumped out is that I do not like most of the works and authors in your “systemic thinking” category except for Sartre—whose Nausea is a very important touchstone in my life. And I love almost everyone and everything on your “hole in the bucket” list. Sufism is probably my favorite religion, if I had any desire to join a spiritual community, which I don’t.
One night Jack Collom suggested we collaborate on a poem celebrating Aristotle by blaming our ecological disasters on Plato and his creation of The Ideal, and I was shocked and heard myself yelling: “But I love Plato! I hate Aristotle! Aristotle is the kind of guy who’d carve up a duck and pin him to a board. Yeah, but his can’t fly!”
I love exploring worlds that open up to include me, as long as I don’t have to deny anything that’s true to my experience or pretend to believe in something I find ridiculous. Granted, a lot of time is spent turning what I’m hearing into metaphor, but I’m suspicious of any influence an outside idea might have on me at all. I’m constantly checking: is my voice being overwhelmed or am I being influenced away from my authentic self? I prefer worlds that include wonder and magic and large areas of “I don’t know.” But even so, as soon as I get comfortable, I start looking for what’s next. I say I want resolution, but I reject it when it presents itself.
And, yeah, I guess I bristle when someone suggests they’ve got it all nailed down, that they understand the system. I find them almost bullies in a way. I don’t want to be presented with a closed system, even the right one. I want to figure it out one second before I die.
There’s a possibly apocryphal story I’ve heard about Allen’s death. Allen had been in a coma for over a week and a Buddhist student was washing his feet in the middle of the night when Allen’s head jerked forward, his eyes opened and his mouth fell open and he said “Ah!” and then he slumped to his side and was dead. That’s the way I want to go.
In my studies, I haven’t found anything of value in trying to learn an outside system of thought other than to understand it as a metaphor for my own story. I choose to focus on myself and my life and what’s happening right now and the newness of it and the limitlessness of it rather than trying to understand how my experience fits into someone else’s story. I have a suspicion that accepting anything second-hand would contaminate what’s true about it.
At this point—over 40 years of daily practice—I think it’s delusional to hope that anyone can teach me anything that I haven’t already been exposed to. And I’m proud that lots of people don’t like my writing, or what I do for a living, or who I am, and that they may be right. That says to me that I’m willing to stay true to my own vision in the face of social opposition. But there are also enough times where I have to come to realize with great difficulty that I’m actually wrong to reassure me that I’m not just stubborn, or that I’m incapable of learning or compromising.
Duchamp gave me the two most useful pieces of advice on art and life. He wrote, “Sharpen the eye (a method of torture).” And he said that the best artists don’t waste their time creating art but rather inspire it in others. The artists with the most lasting influence are the ones whose lives are their greatest and most inspiring works of art, even if they never create a single object and their audience is limited to those who know them personally.
Anyway, right now my conscious focus is on only two things: What’s my actual experience pre-thought and conditioning, and how can I use language to say something specific and true?
KG: Perhaps Krishnamurti was rejecting what you are rejecting: entitlement, insincerity, elitism and the con game. In his case, that included the hierarchy not only of Theosophy, “advancement on the path” or the New Age racket (a symptom of the American illusion produced by greed that we can purchase satori with a credit card?) but of his own Indian tradition of lineage, succession, caste and religion. TM’s mantra yoga, a well respected practice, is about mind protection. He maybe was trying to get out of what you are trying to get into. In any case, the traditional Sanskrit reminder-response to “I’ve found the final enlightenment,” is “Neti, neti” (neither This, nor That).
RR: I think Krishnamurti was wrong to reject the Hindu practice of (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If you want to catch the attention of a child you use a shiny toy.” How are you going to lead people out of a lesser understanding of their lives to a greater one if they can’t imagine that it exists? If you believe that people are naturally good and can recognize the truth and you know that the practices you’re teaching actually work, you’re free to find out what they’re willing to work for and use that as bait.
Deepak Chopra was a master of that. He’d even talk about it onstage. He used to teach a workshop called “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” and he’d start with “I can teach you how to live forever. (Long pause.) Plant a tree. Teach your children well. Change an unfair law, improve your neighborhood, volunteer for a cause you believe in, preserve something beautiful and endangered, create something whose time has come, tear down something in the way of a more equitable future. He had another workshop called “Creating Abundance.” He’d start off with, “I can teach you how to manifest a Porsche. But it’s not for everyone. You need focus, you need determination. Do you want to know a foolproof way to manifest a Porsche, using nothing more than focus and determination? (Room goes nuts.) Okay, here’s how you do it: 1) Be determined about working as much as you can. 2) Focus on saving your money. 3) If you’re able to remain focused and determined long enough, you will one day have saved enough to buy a Porsche. But think back to the last time you achieved a goal like that, something you bought because you thought it would change your life. How long did that feeling last? Now think about the last time you achieved an interior goal—like becoming a genuinely more pleasant person to be around. Or how about being “caught” behaving unselfishly? If they sold that feeling in 7–Eleven, everyone would be lined up around the block. In fact, that’s probably the feeling you’re trying to get with the Porsche. So let’s set aside the Porsche for a moment and examine what you’re really looking for, not the thing you think will give you what you’re looking for. In fact, let’s forget even what you’re really looking for and examine this longing first. What is this longing and what is it longing for?”
Another thing Deepak was an expert at doing—at least a long time ago, I didn’t see this in him the last time I saw him, back in 2006—is that he was the punchline of his best stories. He was always the one who was learning the truths behind his teachings the hard way. I thought I invented the first-person character who thinks he’s above everyone else even after repeatedly discovering that he’s the last person to understand almost everything, and now I realize that I may have stolen that from Deepak. I could sense what a disarming tool it was. It was another way of saying “bullshit”—calling yourself on your own bullshit.
It’s interesting to look back and discover where I’ve picked up elements of my style. It’s like a magpie, collecting the shiny bits to decorate her nest. I don’t realize a seed has been planted until something comes up—almost fully formed—and I believe it’s my own invention. Anselm Hollo once recognized that I’d quoted William Blake before I did. I didn’t know the lines (“Enough / Enough, or too much!”) weren’t my own. That was a bridge. Now I consciously quote lines and create whole poems from the words of others and consider them my own work.
Deepak definitely understood that the reward was in a fully flourishing life and not in a mediation habit or a denial of “real life.” I think some heavy lifting was done for a lot of people in Deepak’s early workshops. He taught that what they were longing for was at the center of their longing. That the way you experience abundance is not by having gifts showered upon you—which just encourages a material addiction that can never really be satisfied. It’s just more things you’re going to lose, one way or another. Enough is never enough, the stakes just get higher, that’s all.
But you can experience abundance any time you want by being abundant to others. Or you can feel grateful for everything you’ve been given already. Or, if you want to experience love, love someone first. In other words, what we’re looking for is always available to us if we act on our desires. In fact, it has to be inside of us and it has to be experienced—not just intellectually accepted—in order for it to be true. So the kingdom of heaven really is at hand, and that’s where it will always be and where it can only be, and that’s inside of you already. Amen.
I believe in spiritual practice. Emotions and insights have arisen when I’ve been involved in spiritual practice that are very important in how I see myself and others. It’s redirected my attention to places where I’m more likely to find what I’m looking for, and helped me understand why certain things I was trying weren’t working. It has helped me become aware when I’ve made mistakes and given me the understanding and tools I need to work my way at least partially out of them. It’s taught me that consciously or unconsciously, whether I choose to make use of it or not, I am creating—or rather recreating—the universe in every moment.
My life wouldn’t be worth living if I left it unexamined. It’d be like being given a present and never unwrapping it. The better I understand myself, the better I understand what I’m doing, the better choices I make. The only way I can begin to understand others especially underneath all of our conditioning—is to understand myself that deeply as well.
I know that my meditation practice has changed me, although I can’t point to exactly how. I have nothing to compare it to. But you can’t blame meditation for the fact that I’m not perfect or enlightened. Or maybe you can, because it’s made me more resilient, calmer and more open, less attached, more accepting of my differences from others, more satisfied with life as it is. I’m not looking for anything more—I’m satisfied with what’s already happened.
I’m conscious of the irony again, because everything that I’ve chosen to prioritize—my personal reality—will cease to exist when I die. And I balance that awareness with my writing. Without meditation, I don’t think I’d be making choices that took all of that into account.
I’ve studied mantra under various lineages and I’m not quite sure what “mind protection” means. For me it’s almost the opposite: I give my mind something to chew on designed to destroy it. Or I give my mind a shiny toy to keep it occupied while I get out of the car and stretch my legs. There’s also some people who teach that the sound of the mantra is designed to have a specific healing or an orienting effect on the mind and body, and I know of no reason why that couldn’t be true.
I’m encouraged by the desire in human beings that brings them to spiritual practice. Of course that desire is not going to be purified before they start their practice, but once you practice, even a little, you do see more opportunities to sow peace—or at least not spread more strife—and alleviate at least a little suffering while you can, even if it’s just your own. As the practice continues and some of the disturbance settles, I’ve seen people begin to see more of the bigger picture and what’s important and what’s not and have a fuller understanding of their choices.
But everything is relative. To improve someone’s life is not to make them perfect, just better than they would be otherwise. If I’m on the bottom of the ladder, taking that first step is an improvement in my life, although it may not look like much from where you’re sitting. It’s almost required, I think, to be advanced in one way—say intellectually—and at the same time very backward in others—say social graces or a healthy body. So we each have a different, complicated path to walk, often out of sync with what’s going on with our friends and times.
Another reason I continue to practice is because life is getting harder for me as I get older. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t had an opportunity to learn meditation when I did. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I’m doubtful I’d have made it to 60 without meditation.
I began to practice less formally in my fifties. By then I was practicing in one form or another even when my eyes were open. If I’m walking or driving or on a bus or in a line or in a waiting room, I’ll be silently repeating a mantra—going into and out of it as necessary. If I’m interacting with others, I’m trying to practice mindfulness.
I still continue to sit at least twice a day—in the morning and at night—but I’ve abandoned—at least for the time being, and I can’t imagine ever wanting them back—a lot of the formalities I was taught. After thirty years of benefitting from following the rules, I no longer feel the need to time my sitting, or to “finish” the entire multi-step sixty-minute practice I was taught. I can pick and choose from other traditions and mix things up. It’s a transparent state of mind I’m looking for—I don’t care how I get there.
I support anything that lessens human suffering, and I believe that just about any motivation combined with any spiritual practice will do that, although with all the scandals and some of the behavior I’ve seen in supposedly spiritual communities it’s sometimes difficult to believe. I’ve met phonies in my work, and I’ve heard first-hand stories of criminal behavior by spiritual teachers and the community explaining it away. When I was in Myanmar the Buddhists were killing the Muslims.
I have noticed a difference between someone whose desire is to become enlightened and someone who is motivated by a desire to become a better person. The ones who want to become enlightened think that being enlightened is to be right, and what is right, right? It’s in the power of others to give or take away their validation. So their focus is always out “in the room,” explaining everything, and their currency is their charisma. They see my resistance and feel sorry for me because they think I’m not growing in my spiritual practice, and I feel sorry for them because they think they are. It’s Aristotle and Plato again.
KG: Regarding your eye to people who think they have it all together and who pose as your betters: what if the humility you express as not-having-it-all-together proved not only to be a universally true reality for all humans but also an effective way to access more truth? What if your “re-sent-ment” is a “re-act-ion” to an untruth that perpetrates the fraud that there are such things as one’s betters? Who would you bet on to be better at being you than you? Your writing reveals you’re a great-grandchild of Father Walt who could not abide any form of condescension. What if you’re revealing that the quest for better-dom is the disguise of the self-loathing? What if your poet-warrior heart is rightly wronged by a system(izer) that bullies, excludes, dominates and denies others’ humanity in the name of liberation? What I’m saying: at its most complementary level perhaps, these two styles of system and reminder, for all their differences, may be holding hands under the table as both are selling a point of view based upon what’s missing in the other’s point of view. The “authentics” need the artifice of a system to amplify their reminders to be authentic and the “accountants” need the inherent anarchy in the reminder philosophy to validate their need for a system. Consider your poem from What I Have Become (2007):
What Wisdom Has Hidden From Us
The wise know how everything works
and they have all the answers,
and they know better than we do
where everything is headed.
In Central Park a boy is crying
afraid of monsters underneath the bridge,
as his mother screams back at him, See,
there are no monsters anywhere at all!
RR: Oh, I get it now. Yes, I need someone to push against. But it’s very tricky. First of all, it’s very difficult to put myself in the line of fire because I get triggered so easily, having grown up in an abusive household. If I’m shamed or attacked in public, I dissociate and collapse inside. Or I’ll put myself in peril if I think someone is getting attacked, especially a woman defending herself against an abusive man. I had two younger sisters and I would sometimes have to physically impose myself between them and my raging father.
KG: Continuing to probe how your thinking impacts your writing, your insistence on reportage reminded me of Charles Reznikoff and the work of the Objectivists who I am sure you know, yes?
RR: You know, I haven’t really thought of Reznikoff in a long time, but you’re absolutely right. You have this uncanny way of sensing through my writing the roots and influences that I’ve assimilated and completely forgotten about.
I have a story about Allen Ginsberg reading Reznikoff to me on the last day of my apprenticeship. It’s the final segment of “The Object Is to See Clearly,” a memoir about my apprenticeship with Allen, which was published in the “Naropa Bulletin” when I was 27 (1981).
“The Object Is to See Clearly” was my first attempt to write memoir, and it strikes me that even though I keep talking about how new in concept The Decalogue is, my first piece of non-fiction would fit with the last. They’re both constructed out of separate pieces, their edges purposefully left jagged. I’m trying to avoid the omniscient narrator, just as there is no omniscient narrator in anybody’s life. Things only begin and end in fiction. Life leaps abruptly from piece to piece and has no apparent over-arching narration. Life’s a collection of real-life events experienced without commentary or connectives in a specific order. My writing from the start attempts to recreate a sequence of significant first-person events in lieu of a “story.” I can even feel the same struggle for precision, and it’s not lost on me that my memoirs begin “The object is to see clearly.” But tonight—in re-reading the Reznikoff piece—what I’m startled to remember is that I originally stole “my” style from Tom Pickard’s excellent account of his time apprenticing with Basil Bunting, which I read in a Paideuma around this time (1980).
Our last meeting went long, trying to tie up all the loose ends, and I was burnt-out and wanted to go home. But when we finished, Allen put his papers aside and said, with a great enthusiasm, “Well, what did you bring today!?” So we tinkered with my poems a bit and then he asked if I knew the work of Charles Reznikoff. I wasn’t very familiar. “I think he’d be a good model for you.”
He went to his bookshelf and pulled a chair beside mine in the dim light of the living room window. He flipped through the first few pages. Then he began to read, looking up occasionally as some line or image or word struck him as important. His voice was clear and his eyes were bright. He was using his speaking voice—the same voice he’d been using in our conversation only a moment ago—as a troubled stranger might, striking up a conversation in a bar or at a bus stop.
I began to shiver a little. There was something very strange about this. I found I could lean into what he was saying, and when I did I could hear a voice coming from a dark apartment in a turn-of-the-century New York City tenement. It was sometimes a young man becoming too quickly an old man, or an old man who saw only a wasted life behind and ahead of him, writing alone in his kitchen while his family slept. It was a voice without any hope that it would one day be read aloud from one poet to another.
I closed my eyes and leaned forward and began to feel bursts of energy in my chest and forehead that were unpleasant in the sense that I was afraid of being overwhelmed by them. So I’d alternate—I’d lean into what he was saying and ride those waves and then, when it got scary, I’d back off. Sometimes I’d be able to go quite far; other times I wouldn’t get very far at all before having to back away.
Finally there was a moment where I decided to see how far I could go and almost immediately I realized I’d gone too far—I’d gone past the point where I could pull my body back under my conscious control and I was afraid that Allen would notice my hands shaking and my heels tapping the floor, my head dropping forward and the thought crossed my mind that I was in danger of falling onto the floor. But since Allen had pulled his chair so close to mine, I knew that if I fell it would be right into his lap.
And throughout it all there was the continuity of Allen’s voice and Reznikoff’s poetry of intense turmoil in a quiet, understated, almost urban voice: stories of gray and off-white and deep, cracking black.
Allen read for about twenty minutes. During that time everything in the room was calm, clear, and very real: the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read, the coming darkness. Then he stopped and brought the covers of the book together. “Well,” he said, “that’s it.”
The one sentence where I realize I’ve already accomplished what I’ve been trying to achieve in The Decalogue is: “During that time everything in the room was calm, clear, and very real: the color of the words, the wind that moved through Allen as he read, the coming darkness.” It’s very precise about things that are not at all precise. Like “the color of the words” or “the wind that moved through Allen as he read.” And your idea about fiction being better than non-fiction at revelation through metaphor, I’d hold the phrase “the coming darkness” up against anything possible in fiction. But in order to get there, I laid a foundation in reality so it wouldn’t be just a sentimental assertion. I wanted it to have some substance.
That assignment also had a very important effect on my writing. My mother never said anything positive about my writing, except one time when she surprised me by saying, “I thought you described the part where you almost fainted and landed in Allen’s lap very well.” If there was a passage in my writing that I was nervous about publishing, it was that one. Once my mom liked it, I was all-in. The more personal and honest to my actual experience the better!
But I wanted to be precise because I knew that the most important part of this kind of writing was not in my conscious mind but in my state of consciousness. It’d be like Objectivism if Objectivism meant what it should mean, which would be the use of the rawest form of objective reality to tell your story. The sequence of events, before there is a story. That’s what I mean when I say I’m only interested in two things now: what is my actual experience pre-thought and conditioning, and how can I use language to say something specific and true? And I enjoy zooming in to expose the discontinuities, the substancelessness, the uncertainty. And I write with an awareness of the finality of death and what it has to say to the living, the meaning in the meaninglessness. That’s my field, whatever you want to call it.
I haven’t read Reznikoff in years, but you’re making me see how I borrowed so much from him: his use of story as scaffolding rather than poetic forms, his focus on what’s human to the exclusion of all else, his sense of time passing inexorably toward a fast approaching end, his desire to document the small sensations of daily life, his commitment to understatement and concreteness as he reaches for the universal, his focus on looking out from “in.” I’ve probably stopped reading him so I could get past the feeling of being a second-hand Reznikoff.
I’ve forgotten about all of these moments—“bullshit,” the deaf theater kids, my dad, and Reznikoff’s poetry—but these are the things—or some of the things—that have given me a sense of my interests and limitations as a writer—my “field” so to speak—much more than the poets I’ve studied with. Except maybe Ted Berrigan. And Allen and Diane, but their effects were more personal, helping me to learn how to behave and not feel so out of place, like surrogate parents. Or the prose writers whose works most inspired me: Laurence Sterne, Diderot, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Bruce Chatwin, Michael Ondaatje, Julian Barnes, Milan Kundera. And Flaubert, who taught me how to write a sentence (the secret is a great one has three parts).
KG: Your experience of AG reading Reznikoff to you feels like a lineage revelation moment and reminds me of a journal excerpt in your aptly titled travel book, What I Have Become: “When I’m traveling alone and with no obligations—just anonymously moving without agenda and on my own through a city I’ve never been in before, there’s usually a moment when I move ‘inside’ the place, which is what I imagine walking inside a mirror might be like. I am no longer in the place, but of the place.” You also write, “I think those who really love Rilke are those who have some part of them that only comes to life when they’re alone, something that would cease to exist if it was shared.” Especially in your travel books which bounce back and forth between the zones of solitude and society, you seem also to bounce back and forth between the genres of poetry and prose. For example, from What I Have Become (2007):
He Begins to Enumerate How Things Are and Why
I don’t understand anything unless it whirls and spins
like the burning books in the bonfire scene of “Orpheus”
which has the quality of a memory and not of cinema—
how it’s sometimes enough just to write the words
in my head, since it’s only a dream that there’s any connection
between my memories and experiences, until I want only
to write a text transmitting the things themselves—to say this
and then that, like some calculating machine until it actually
appears—then falls away, the way leaves turn black and are
swept away by October in Nature’s sleight of hand—
her now you see it, now what’s happened kind of way—
the way the moon’s venetian fingers eliminate the shadows
beyond all else, as I open every window to let the
moonlight in, to uncover what I’ll remember of tonight.
RR: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. That style began with Dodo—the transcription of my first seven-month solo trip to Europe, July 1990 through January 1991. And it got even more severe in San Francisco Notebook from 1999. In that one there are even poems that just stop and there’s a seemingly unrelated piece of prose, and then the poem continues as if it hasn’t been interrupted … or sometimes doesn’t continue at all. Or some other poem begins, mid-thought. I got that by reproducing the order in which everything appeared in my notebook. There would be a mini-essay, followed by an overheard conversation, followed by a fact, a memory, a letter to an ex-girlfriend, something I remembered and something from my reading and something I saw and something I thought and … you now, all of it, jumbled together. Just like real life.
I want my writing to give a sense of the allness of consciousness and evidence—if it exists—that my experience of reality is co-emergent in origination, or if it’s not, or any other qualities it might actually possess. The acme of that thus far was Dissolve: Screenplays to the Films of Stan Brakhage (2002). I went to the Boulder Public Library every Monday night for months to watch a program curated by Joel Haertling of Stan’s films. I sat in the back row and I would write down my thoughts as I saw the film with the help of a small reading lamp inside a cardboard box. The film slowed my thoughts down enough that I could catch and recreate almost all of them. It would be fun one day to read the poems with the films that inspired them, like the subtitle suggests.
Once I began to work with the raw matter of the notebook works, I lost interest in creating anything other than journal-work written during a specific time and place. A book of poems is not like life. Life is not like a book of essays or even a novel. Life is messier and more uncertain than a biography. Life is made up of a letter, a photograph, a shopping list, an e-mail, a phonecall, a smell, a memory, weather, all of it. I want to point out this constant process of changing focus—which is one definition of discontinuity—in what appears to be reality, the way Joyce revealed the inner monologue, and Freud revealed the unconscious, and the Impressionists taught us how to see light, and Kerouac awoke everyone’s desire for their own rumspringas.
In my experience discontinuity includes a very high level of order. Themes appear in my notebooks that weren’t visible to me—ostensibly the author—at the time. And the stories include impossible-to-foresee parallels and foreshadowings. And there’s an interior logic that’s only obvious in retrospect, way beyond anything I could have consciously contrived, and certainly I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Whomever’s writing my works, they’re better at it than I am, so it’s been easy to give up the what of my writing to concentrate on the how. I consciously the big picture over to the part of my mind that is beyond my level of awareness. I’m a scribe. My job is to record what is being dictated.
But as a writer what I’m really after is to capture the movement of my consciousness through time. There’s a recent film called Boyhood that was made over a 12-year period with the same cast, shooting an act or two every year. You watch the passage of time in the boy’s changing body, in the bodies of his aging parents. That’s the tar of the film—the passage of time. That’s what I’m trying to capture as well, the larger story, the one no one—including the principles—can see at the time. The uncertainty. The mysterious.
KG: You speak a lot about the need to have courage, which you certainly manifest plenty of in your travels. I am also intrigued by your chutzpah. What was it like conversing with Pound’s daughter Mary de Rachewiltz and his lover Olga Rudge?
RR: In 1990, Diane di Prima called Julia Connor, who was hosting a Cantos reading group I was involved with in Boulder. Diane said she’d just learned about a program sponsored by the University of New Orleans where students could go and study Pound in his daughter’s castle in Dorf Tirol, Italy, where Pound spent the last years of his life and where he wrote the last of the Cantos. That’s where Olga and Mary still lived, along with Mary’s son, Siegfried, in a castle belonging to her husband’s family. Mary’s husband Boris de Rachewiltz was a prince and a scholar who wrote extensively on Africa and African art, as well as Egyptian Maxims, which was translated by Guy Davenport, which led to them co-authoring Seven Greeks. The prince was rarely home, but he did visit for a single night while we were there and the castle was in quite a state, getting ready with late notice.
Mary seemed to have given her whole life over to defending her father. She would bring up issues—the anti-Semitism, the anti-American radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II, his incarceration, his trial for treason, his incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s for the criminally insane—in order to reframe the story as one about a passionate but politically naïve literary genius and American patriot who was charmed and misled and isolated and didn’t realize his news was being controlled in Italy.
Olga was loudly dismissive of Mary’s efforts and opinions in all things and they mostly argued if both of them were awake and in the same room. At this point Olga was well over 90, and she slept almost the entire day, and often fell asleep in the living room after meals, where her snoring was so loud that people had to raise their voices. But when she was awake she was very sharp. Most of us were very restrained in her presence, but my friend Jonathan was wonderful with her, and got her to reminiscence. I lost my notebook from that part of the trip, but one time he asked her if she had ever studied with Nadia Boulanger. Olga replied, “I think she accompanied me once.”
Most of the many interesting things Mary said about her father’s work were lost in that notebook as well, but one I remember is that the real silent period in Pound’s life wasn’t at the end of his life—when he was suffering from what is known as Alzheimer’s now, and senility then—but rather during the composition of the Adams and the Chinese cantos, when he spent over a decade editing others’ words.
I lost my notebook from that trip in a Laundromat as I was leaving Paris, a few days before Christmas. It had all of my classnotes, my notes from my talks with Mary and Olga and the other students, my reading notes, my thesis notes, my poems and stories, all of it. It wasn’t only the Pound stuff—it was the first six months of a seven-months trip. That includes traveling around England and Wales and Scotland studying British folk music, my time with Joyce’s nephew, my notes from reading the complete poems of Yeats and everything written by Samuel Beckett in Ireland, reading Fowles in Lyme Regis (where he was living at the time) and Thomas Hardy in Dorchester. And my notes from reading Flaubert and Joan of Arc in Rouen, and Proust in Paris. All of it gone. The only writing I have from that part of my trip was the quotidian stuff I’d written in my pocket notebook and the notes I made while I was out and about, like what turned into “Ekphrasis and Cathexis.” I also have the notes I made in the books themselves, a habit of mine. Some of those notes became “The Myth of the Celtic Race,” which is to my poetry the same kind of innocuous at the time but in retrospect pivotal moment in my work as “The Object Is to See Clearly” and San Francisco Notebook were.
The seven students that summer slept in an outbuilding and we’d meet for classes with John Gery of the University of New Orleans during the day in what was left of Pound’s library. Over three or four weeks, we read all of Pound’s poetry including the Cantos and a big chunk of his criticism. In the evenings two of the three women students and I would sit in the library and read the Cantos aloud, alternating pages, reviewing the notes. The one woman missing from our nightly reading group—Ping—was a young Chinese woman. She took exception to the story Pound was telling about China, as it differed significantly from the history she’d been taught. And Pound isn’t easy reading, even for someone fluent in English. Coming to a consensus among us on what Pound was saying was often difficult. Gery even admitted that after seven summers teaching the same complete poems and selected criticism he was less certain than when he began. Ping was also really struggling with the cultural shock of being in a western country, but I do have to say that the Americans, as poets, were exceptionally well behaved. But outside of class she was unhappy about a lot of the challenging opinions we expressed about China. Not all of us, but a couple of us. This was the first Chinese person we’d ever met, and there were a lot of awkward moments, and even tears from her. She was definitely challenged on many levels, but it just made her focus even harder. She had never been out of China and here she was studying the Cantos in Italy with an American University group.
There were two rows of bookcases in Pound’s library—each about twelve feet wide and maybe ten feet high, and they were several rows deep. I think Pound may have made them himself, as he had other furniture still used in the castle.
The library’s collection included what was left of Pound’s library, as well as books left by writers who had stayed there, or books sent to Mary. There was a huge American flag hanging as a kind of dust covering and backdrop behind the head of the table where Gery usually sat. Around the walls were displays of Pound’s tennis racquets and tennis clothes and some furniture he made.
One night George McGovern arrived for dinner. I got to see him work a room, and he wasn’t even running for anything. When the dessert and coffee orders had been taken, he did a tour of each of half-a-dozen tables, staying long enough for a story and some questions before effortlessly extricating himself from one table and moving on to the
It was quite something to be studying in a medieval stone castle, passing through a heavily fortified front gate house each day to and from the town for lunch. The hallway continued past the library to a stone porch that hung over the valley. You could look down the valley and see the weather that would reach you in an hour or two. Or the movements of an army days before its arrival. One evening after dinner Olga arranged for a chamber orchestra in a room expressly designed for one, in which these concerts had been going on for over 400 years.
In the stacks I found Pound’s source for the Chinese cantos—a multiple-volume history of China written in French and bound in red leather. You could see Pound’s handwritten pencil markings on the endpapers, mostly page references. Then you would go to the page and there would be Pound’s tiny handwriting in the margins, or brackets around a passage. I also found Pound’s blue-boards first edition of Ulysses, with Joyce’s tiny handwriting thanking Pound for helping to get it published on the title page.
We spent a weekend in Venice tracking down places where Pound lived and references in his poems. We took a boat out to his grave on an island outside the mainland. We got to see Gaudier-Brzeska’s original Hieratic head of Pound, which is locked inside a monastery’s garden, but John knew the right things to say to get it unlocked. Gery also got someone to open a storage facility to show us a Doge’s barge. And there were the churches and sculptures and paintings and buildings and views that are mentioned in his poems, and the details, like the carvings on a pillar and the unusual decorations on an altar, and the signature of a craftsman on a pillar.
We were given a weekend on our own, and I went to Verona by train, and visited the balcony believed to be Juliet’s and “Juliet Capulet crypt,” and I tracked down evidence of the continued presence in the city of the name Malatesta, a family who feature prominently in the Italian cantos as emblems of a time when men lived large.
One of the most amazing things for me about Dorf Tirol is that it’s on a mountainside above Bergamo, which has a spa that’s been active since at least the 15th century. Kafka came to Bergamo in 1914 to recuperate from tuberculosis. From the spa you can easily see Schloss Tirol—the Tirolian Castle—on the top of the mountain, directly above Brunnenberg Castle. The trail that goes to the two castles travels through tiered grapevines, and it has severe and very long and winding switchbacks.
One afternoon I decided to walk to Schloss Tirol from Brunnenberg Castle, which seemed close enough to reach in about half an hour. But, after walking dangerously close to sundown, I seemed to be no closer. I spent more than half of my time walking away from the castle, often out of sight of the castle completely. Or the path would suddenly head upward and I’d get excited—yes, I’m definitely getting closer—and then the path would plunge down and away from the castle and I would seem to be farther away than ever … and moreso with every step. Had I missed a turn? Anyone who’s read The Castle will know exactly the feeling that I’m talking about.
KP: What of your Yeats-Pound ruminations at Stone Cottage where Yeats’ Silentia Lunae and A Vision were born? I ask after the latter work particularly as it’s one of the strangest honeymoon accounts ever written. The notion that astral guides had come to give Yeats metaphors for his poetry strikes me as the kind of non-fiction you could relate to as an author. Your earlier remarks on your “anima mundi” experience with your neck (The Convalescence Notebook) suggested as much.
RR: One day Jack Kornfield asked what I was working on and I was embarrassed because it was a program about spirit guides—and not in a good way—and he said, “Oh, don’t rule that out.” And he told me stories from his friends and their encounters with spirit guides. Still, when I write about some of the weirdo things that have happened to me, I feel a need to focus precisely on the facts—on what happened and what I remember—and not leap to any conclusions. I’m not about to make any claims or think about it too much. But I thank my spirit guides, my goddesses and gods, all the time. My whole house is a shrine to the many gods and goddesses I’ve met on the road.
Anyway, it turned out my paper for the class had to be turned in before I was due to be back in the U.S., so I junked my plan to rent a car and drive the Romantic Road through Germany and instead took a train to Lisboa, where food and lodging were the cheapest in Europe at the time. I would go out for breakfast and stay out until after dinner. Then I’d go back to my room and handwrite my thesis from my notebooks until I fell asleep. It was a good thing that there wasn’t a lot going on in Lisboa at the time, because I had a limited amount of time before I had to get to London for the folk music tour, about a week. But I knew that my time would be limited by the first day in Brunnenberg, so I made notes all through my readings and in Lisboa it was more or less a matter of thinking about it all day, and then going back at night and going through my notes and putting things in order and fleshing them out and making connections and tracking down references.
I was mostly writing on the relationship between Pound and Yeats at the Stone Cottage, 1913-1916. Everyone talks about how Pound modernized Yeats over those summers—a debt that was acknowledged by Yeats himself—but I could only find one book that mentioned any possible effect Yeats’ mysticism and arcane spiritual readings had on Pound. If you take Pound at his word in the critical work, it’s hard to explain the later poems. From the Pisan Cantos onward, they’re floating in what Yeats would call the “etheric.” But all the way back to the Stone Cottage days, Pound talks about spirits andsprites and goddesses, but he does it in a context that undermines theotherworldliness that Yeats embraced. And I argue that post-Stone Cottage references are substantively different than the stiff and unconvincing appearances by anything classical in Pound before the Stone Cottage summers.
When I went to Sligo I finally understood the constant presence of myth in Yeats, especially in his early poetry. If you walk a foot outside of town, you will see a distant butte with a noticeable knob at the top, known as Queen Mab’s tomb. And it keeps popping up on the walk to the Lake Isle of Innisfree or to the church where Yeats is buried underneath Ben Bulben. And it’s not unusual to walk past still standing stone Neolithic tombs or for a farmer to plow around one in the middle of his fields. Of course people are going to tell stories to explain these relics from before memory. The etheric is part of the landscape in Ireland–it’s visible–and the legends are alive.
I think that’s how Pound differed in his treatment of the etheric. Yeats’ famous comment is that the guides appeared in his life in order to give him metaphors for poetry, but I think it was more a fascination with higher eternal realities and hidden truths, ancient rituals, spirits and friendly and unfriendly agents from other realms interacting with this one. Part of his poetry seems a means to invoke these spirits, and part of it is written as a true believer, and part of it is as a poet who enjoys creating fantasy worlds.
Pound was more of a rationalist. His gateway drug—for lack of a better term—was the presence in their absence of great men of the past. That was what I was tracking in Verona, the statues and markers and elaborate tombs attributed to the family Malatesta. If you don’t know what to look for, you would easily walk past many of them. But Pound would insist–as D.H. Lawrence and Joyce and Eliot would as well–that it didn’t matter that the robber-baron family Malatesta was largely powerless and forgotten now, their greatness–which for Pound meant a mixture of bravado, disdain, and willfullness–was in the blood of the citizens of Verona, 600 years after the death of Sigismondo, the Wolf of Rimini. Pound was often drawn to brazen or violent heroes–Bertran de Born, Villon, and Mussolini, of course.
Especially after Stone Cottage, characters in myth and literature began to populate Pound’s poems, and soon he–as A Vision does–begins to see history as a story told on very grand scale, and to see our microcosm here on Earth as a reflection of a higher eternal reality. And once he began to see the invisible forces of history and myth behind current events, it was a very short step to seeing that the gods and goddesses are certainly as present as Odysseus in the genes of the human race, waiting to be woken up–or preserved–by poets. In our time these energies would naturally take different disguises than they would in times when art was controlled by the church, or in the violent times of the troubadours, but outbursts of creativity continued to appear in different and unexpected locations throughout history, especially in times of great turmoil and uncertainty, with civilization itself in the balance.
In one sense the Cantos began with the goal of collecting these points of light throughout history. Pound wanted to approach the subject as a scientist would, searching to prove an ultimate truth: these perennial outbursts of creativity in unlikely times and places through the length and breadth of recorded history (and for Pound his discovery of Chinese imagism was all he needed to know the evidence was cross-cultural as well) were proof of a creative force that was eternal, but not constant. So his collection starts with Homeric hymns and the English bards and the troubadours and Dante and Cavalcanti, Villon and then backward to the Egyptians and Li Po, and forward to the founding of the United States.
So my paper was more or less a matter of tracking as I read through the poems and critical work for anything that sniffed for any suggestion of what Yeats claimed was the only real question—is this reality the only reality? And then try to enumerate how they seemed to Pound to be useful as metaphors and symbols for impersonal eternal natural forces. But they’re there.
KG: There it is again: systematizer (Yeats’s spirit world) and reminder (ol’ Ez’s nature metaphor). If these Modernists could be called rock stars of their day, how did traveling the British Isles with real rock stars, Fairport Convention, compare?
RR: After Portugal, I took a train to London, where I met up with a bunch of people on a tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, ending in Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, where Richard Thompson was performing. The tour was led by Nancy Covey, Richard Thompson’s second wife. We began by following the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention through their rehearsals for that year’s Cropedy Festival, and went out to a pub and played pub games after the Festival. I’ve never seen anyone drink as much as those guys, but they never seemed to get drunk.
We also visited other notable British folk-rock musicians, including Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, who played harp and told us stories after dinner in a 17th century Welsh manor house; Iain Matthews, who played for us on a Thames boatride; and home concerts and workshops with premier Scottish accordionist Phil Cunningham and Scots acoustic guitarist Dougie MacLean, who treated us to a home concert that included (“for the ladies”) the kind of illustration of what a Scotsman wears underneath his kilt you can only get away with when you’re very drunk. And Mark Ellington, a British guitarist who guested with Fairport back in the day, but has since returned to his family’s 16th-century estate in Aberdeenshire, to assume—as eldest son—the position of Deputy Lieutenant. He still plays guitar at home, but he and his beautiful wife mostly wear their family’s ceremonial crowns at public events. It’s the only house I’ve ever been in that has an original Brueghel. Not only that, but it was painted under his ancestors’ commission, back in the 16th century. “It’s a minor piece, I’m afraid.” Mark said when I expressed amazement, “and what, with the insurance and expenses to secure it from thieves, more of a family curse than a boon, actually.”
Nineteen Ninety was also the 20th anniversary of the Albion Band, so we spent a day at a ceilieh—a Gaelic community dance—with Ashley Hutchings as M.C. and the members of the many manifestations of the Albion Band playing in different configurations. I sat at the feet of June Tabor and watched her sing dark ballads during one of the breaks in the dancing.
Richard Thompson joined us for a couple of evenings and outings and bus rides. I was a huge fan of Richard before this tour, and a few friends and I used to follow him around the Midwest and called ourselves the Dickheads.
Nancy—whom I adored—was the woman who broke up Richard’s marriage with Linda, Teddy’s mom. Nancy used to book McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, which is how she met Richard, and it was where she’d once booked Allen Ginsberg, whose singing she declared was “dreadful”—adding quickly, “But he had a cold.” “Is it true,” Richard said over dinner one night, “that Allen Ginsberg is a hypochondriac?” “Sort of,” I said, “but I doubt that’s his defining characteristic.”
KP: And meeting with James Joyce’s nephew in Dublin? How did that happen?
RR: Later in that same trip, I made it to Dublin. My original plan had been to spend a couple of days there, and then head west to Sligo and Galway and Gort for an extended study of Yeats in the places where much of his work was written or written about—which I did, but two weeks late, as I ended up running into Joyce’s nephew my second day in Dublin. He was giving tours and raising funds for his vision of a Joyce Museum.
On my first day there, I went to the Dublin tourist agency and saw a postcard advertising walks through Joyce’s Dublin with his nephew—Ken Monaghan—who was about 50 at the time. This guy was fun, and funny, and informed, and he invited me to join him for lunch in the warehouse space he’d rented downtown to keep the holdings of his imagined future James Joyce Centre. He’d offer me half of his sandwich and I’d offer him half of mine and I’d go through his files in exchange for some company and intelligent conversation about his uncle’s work. All of those notes were in the notebook I would lose in Paris.
He led a 90-minute walking tour of downtown Dublin, pointing out places in Joyce’s life and references in his books. He’d visit the grammar school in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the post office and the tunnel where Bloom picks up and later reads his illicit love letter, the maternity hospital, the barber shop, the general store which was still in business. (Later when I went back to the general store, the clerk asked me, “Doin’ the tour?” as he rang up my bar of lemon soap.) We had a drink at Davy Byrnes’ Pub, walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge and visited the Gresham Hotel. We went into Trinity College Library, visited the houses and neighborhoods—slums, really—where Joyce lived with his family. As we walked, Ken would talk non-stop, telling stories about Joyce, and quoting from his works, and pointing out the locations of various scenes in Joyce’s writings.
We also visited the house where Joyce set “The Dead.” The front door of the house is visible in the exterior shots in John Huston’s film. Since the short story is also based on a real evening, the door that Joyce opened that evening, the door he describes in the story, and the door we see in the film are all the same door. Those are the kinds of layered realities that Joyce is known for.
I found things in Ken’s files that no biographer at the time had mentioned, including the only known representation (at the time) of Joyce’s father’s voice outside of Joyce’s reconstructions—from an interview after some controversy about Ulysses. Ken had hundreds of photos, transcripts, interviews, letters, all haphazardly filed, and he even had paintings of Joyce, dusty and torn and yellowing, propped up against a wall.
Ken’s hope was to endow a museum with his collection, in Dublin. And I just looked it up and he did open the James Joyce Centre. Its homepage quotes from a Yelp review that it was taken over by the city after having been run “haphazardly” by Joyce’s nephew for its first few years. So he found a way for the city to take over the museum after all! But the Centre’s homepage doesn’t even mention him by name.
One evening we were on the roof, looking east, where Dogtown was, which was now the financial district. “Joyce would get a laugh out of that,” Ken said. “The oldest profession in the world replaced by the second oldest.” “Well,” I said, “they both make a living out of screwing their customers.”
Northeast, there was the Hill of Howth, where Joyce and Nora Barnacle had sex for the first time (on June 16th—Bloomsday—the date Joyce set Ulysses). To the south, the Liffey River, the spires of the Star of the Sea Church, and Sandymount Strand, where Stephen goes for a walk and Bloom has his encounter with a woman and her pair of bloomers. And in the far distance, the Mortello Tower where the book begins.
I read all of Joyce during the evenings in Dublin (except Finnegans Wake, which I had read and wrote a paper on as an independent study at Naropa my last semester). I had always been afraid of Ulysses—that I wouldn’t understand it and I’d end up feeling stupid. But I loved that book! There were times I was laughing so hard that I was afraid the people in the next room would call the front desk.
And that was another influence on The Decalogue too, I think now, because each chapter in Ulysses is written in a different style, and that’s part of what I’m trying to do as well, except I’m changing within the chapter, and returning sometimes to that voice in future pieces, so there’s continuity and discontinuity constantly appearing together. That’s what following the strict chronology of the notebooks had taught me, and they became the canvas, the fabric upon which the work was written. And in this way the writing is an objective correlative of what the writing is about.
But the real surprise for me was when I walked to the top of Howth Head and discovered a Mortello Tower that’s only visible if you climb to the very top. I’ve never seen this mentioned anywhere. Ulysses begins in a Mortello Tower that protects the Liffey, and Dublin—from the south, and this is its sister tower, guarding the north shore, where the book ends, with Molly masturbating and fantasizing about the first time she (Nora) and Bloom (Joyce) had sex in the bushes at the top of the Howth Head. (The book ends as she orgasms with, “yes I said yes I will Yes.”)
Ken had only met his uncle once when Joyce came back to Dublin with Nora to settle some business affairs. Ken said that as a young boy meeting his uncle for the first and last time, he felt sorry for Joyce because everyone in Ireland is part of a boisterous extended family—but everyone in his family called him Joyce instead of Jim, and everyone in his family treated him with reverence, which Ken said felt to him cold and unnatural. One of my biggest regrets is that I told Ken—just to make conversation—what William Burroughs had told me when I told him that I was reading Finnegans Wake. Burroughs said that it was a writer’s worst nightmare—that their masterwork was unreadable. Burroughs said the book’s denseness was evidence of the perseveration that’s common in advanced stages of alcoholism. That really hurt Ken, and I left quickly and never saw him again, never even to say goodbye or thank him.
KG: In the books these travel adventures read like a hybrid vigor uniting the personal, poetic and immediate sensory take with the longer eye of the scholarly and the historical. The result is very engaging, but your chutzpah doesn’t end there. You describe real people and their actual behavior in these scenes—girlfriends, guides, fellow travelers, your literary contemporaries, your teachers both alive and dead—as well as in the poems! You write them into the work with their real names! I wonder if you’ve taken any flack for that. In fiction one must be always mindful of the possibility of getting sued, but non-fiction runs the additional risk/challenge of writing folks from your life that really do need an introduction as to why they are there.
RR: I can’t be the only one who writes about his life using real names, but I won’t publish anything unless I can turn it into literature. That means the people in my stories are characters who I usually refer to by their first names only. Anything dodgy gets assigned to someone with a made-up name. Some I refer to people by their first initial, and sometimes I’ll make up a name, or even use a pseudonym for someone who appears otherwise in other parts of the work. I change the name whenever I feel I’m dealing with anything sensitive to anyone involved. And that means sometimes even when it’s something extremely positive. As I said to one very angry ex-girlfriend, “I’m a reasonable person, I’m not a monster, but you have to be reasonable. This is my life too.” But there’s very few occasions I can think of where I have any need to include anything sensitive about anyone else.
Of course, that’s a subjective judgment call, certainly. My memoir writing is never wittingly untrue, but it has different levels of disclosure. I don’t ever print anything that’s knowingly untrue, but I don’t say everything I know.
But I note from the very beginning of the work that the complete text is a mixture of the real and the manipulated and the false. I include found materials and appropriations. I have changed facts—such as dates or who said what—if I think it makes a better splash. That’s my genre, whatever it is. Maybe I’ll change it in the future, but I can’t imagine it. I can’t write fiction. My sensibilities are too “post-modern” for journalism or history pieces. I can’t see me writing in anything other than this gesamtkunstwerk.
A couple of people—like that ex-girlfriend—haven’t appreciated what I’ve written or don’t want to make any public appearances—identifiable or not—in my work. Usually it’s about how they’re portrayed in a particular piece, or maybe it’s something specific, and sometimes it’s the very idea of being a character in my bildungsroman. Some people believe I haven’t been discrete enough or dispute my facts. I have other friends and relatives who are upset that I haven’t written about them enough. “I thought I was more important to you than this!” There are other people who are too close to me and almost never appear in my published work. I won’t say who they are because that would defeat the purpose. But I do have a line for what’s not helpful, in case anyone is interested.
I don’t know how many different ways I can say this—my work is creative non-fiction, in that it embellishes fact with fiction in order to create literature. I don’t think The Decalogue—or anything else I’ve written—will ever be seen the way I see it until all of the principles are dead. Future historians can discover what actually happened and trace where I got what and what I did with it. But I’m not trying to get away with anything.
I can’t think of anyone I’ve criticized in my writing except myself. The person in my writing who is most exposed, who is always the butt of every joke, the guy who gets his comeuppance over and over again, is always me. I tend not to want to even spend time transcribing my bitterest, angriest writings, or if I do I jettison them pretty early in the editorial process. Maybe it felt good writing my feelings down and getting the ongoing argument out of my head, but it doesn’t feel good typing them up and it’s certainly unpleasant to re-read, so it’d be very unusual if anything negative made it to print. I don’t know. Point to something specific. Show me where I’ve been indiscrete. Maybe it’s that I’m thinking of all the stuff I didn’t write that I could have if my intentions were malicious.
The first memoir I wrote is the one I quoted above, about my apprenticeship with Allen [“The Object Is to See Clearly”]. That set the template for the rest of my non-fiction writing. It doesn’t attempt to be impartial—it’s my story, and Allen is a character in my story. I was worried before it was published because not all of it was complimentary, but Allen never complained about anything I wrote about him, and that made me even bolder.
The woman I identify as Xi in The Decalogue sometimes says in response to one of my columns “I don’t remember that” or “I remember it differently.” But I’ve intentionally changed some things too. Xi is not her real name—it’s the name she chose when I told her I was going to write about her. I knew halfway through our trip that I was going to be writing a lot about her and lot of it was going to be very personal and I wanted her to understand and consent before I published anything. For a lot of reasons. Xi is pronounced “shee” and her character has become a voice for many of the women I met in China. I’ve changed some facts about her life, left out some stuff because it was told to me in confidence, and conflated her with others if it made a better story.
But no one posed more of a problem than my guide in Lhasa. I asked him if I could quote him and he agreed, despite the danger. Someone could probably discover who he was, but it would be more likely they would find out who guided that particular trip than anything I’ve written.
I did have one ex send me an e-mail masquerading as a legal cease and desist order at the end of a break-up, which I ignored and nothing ever came of it. I had another ex with an unusual first name ask me to take down anything with her name in it, and I changed her into “A” and kept the stories. It depends on the situation. I’ve taken stuff down if I’m convinced it’s unfair to someone, but I’ve never wittingly published anything I thought was unfair. The exact opposite, actually.
I got fired after 17 years at the hospital for a memoir. In 1995, I sent a woman a profile I’d written on our sexual relationship. It was going to be published in a magazine we both subscribed to and I knew she would read this and it would upset her to see it in print, so I sent her a copy of the article with a handwritten note. I was afraid—I wrote—that if she might not realize that no one would be able to identify her from the piece, and part of it was this mixture of fact and fiction. Within days, a man stepped up to me at the admissions desk at the hospital and asked if I was Randolph Roark. I said yes. He handed me an envelope and disappeared. It was a restraining order. I had sent her “pornographic material of a threatening nature” through the mails. Then she went after me at the hospital, and it took a year but she eventually got me fired without even a hearing of my side of the story. But I took the hospital to court and won, and if I wasn’t fired I’d still be working in the emergency room. I should say a prayer to her every morning I go to work. God works in mysterious ways indeed.
My only really painful experience was about a profile I’d written for Layne Redmond two months before she died. I sent her the text before publication because I knew she was very fussy about how she was written about, and she wrote back almost immediately that she had “skimmed it” and couldn’t understand why I would write something like this as if she was “already dead.” And everyone has a right to their own version of the truth, but this wasn’t how she remembered it. So—two hours to deadline—I came up with another 5000-word column, but I published the original column the week after she died. There’s nothing wrong with that piece.
I had a major falling out with a friend over a manuscript we created together over a very short, intense period of time. We were both writers, so we kind of wrote an epistolary novel as we went along, and I collected the e-mails, the hand-written notes, the letters, as well as the poems and short prose works, and I printed it as Too Large Stars, in an edition of two through Laocoon Press when that short creative period was over. Years later, I was working as a kind of editor-at-large for Andy Hoffmann’s Elik Press, and I thought this would be a good way to get her into print. Andy was cool with the whole thing, and it was up to us to come up with a final manuscript. So we went back and forth. I didn’t ask to change a word or delete any poems, but on each review more and more poems were dropped—and they were always the most personal and for me the most important and poignant. The paper had already been bought when she wanted to drop another poem, a long poem, and a very good poem, and I just pulled the plug on the whole project, claiming that it had become a lie due to all its omissions, and I sent Andy a check for $500 for his trouble. And I’ve never regretted that decision for a single second.
Interviews like this have caused me some problems too. I wrote about one of the most important people in my life and described her as my muse, and she was disappointed. “That’s not the way I remember it.” That’s pretty much what it always is. I’ll try to sincerely and precisely compliment someone, and it turns out I didn’t compliment them enough. Or not in the right way. I didn’t grow up in a family that complimented each other a lot, so it’s difficult for me to know the right things to say or how much and when. It’s probably hardest for a “stick” guy like me to feel okay about giving out “carrots.”
KG: What of writing a celebrity or literary figure into the work that a reader might have some (mis)information on? Is there a public self and a private self and is a writer obliged to protect and not expose real people’s behavior or their web of relationships? What, for example, should a reader make of “for Anne Waldman/My muse since 1977” to introduce The San Francisco Notebook or “For My Daughter Maelle”/“And for anyone else I’ve damaged or taken advantage of in an attempt to get out” on the dedication page of Awakening Osiris?
RR: With Anne, it was to acknowledge that I learned about Naropa in 1977 in an article about her in People magazine. I fell in love with her photos in that article—and I mean that I felt that deep pull in my heart when I looked at the woman in those photos as I did when I deeply loved someone. And the date in the dedication points out that I ended up at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics through Anne, not through Allen, at least at first.
And The San Francisco Notebook was written on a visit to perform at Philip Whalen’s memorial reading, and I’m almost certain that it’s Anne who got me invited, because she couldn’t go. In a very real way without her generosity, I wouldn’t have written my breakthrough book. So the dedication in that book is pretty straightforward.
My dedication to my daughter is more complicated. We’ve had no contact since she went to college. That’s her choice, not mine. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how I see my work like the diaries of Anais Nin. Nin was certain her father would want to know what happened to her while he was away. My work is a father writing to his absent daughter, so that if she wants to get to know me some day, she can.
KP: Sometimes I am not sure if the motive is to underline that it’s true, it happened just like this or if the scaffolding of dedications, lit quotes at the top of poems and words from and references to these “characters” is an attempt to marry narrative non-fiction with poetic interludes.
RR: What’s happened since The San Francisco Notebook is that each “book” of mine has become a document of a particular time or trip or something I’ve been studying. I’ve fallen in love with the book-length work, mixing as many genres as I can find a way to include. And for the last eight years I have taken two trips a year outside of the country as a kind of pilgrimage and each adventure has resulted in a “notebook.” Traveling and creating these notebooks and amassing twenty of them into The Decalogue has been a means of self-exploration and self-expression for me and I’m as interested as anyone else where it’ll end up.
It’s been a real gift that my life has had the same rhythm for almost a decade now. Every six months—April and October—I choose a vacation, I prepare for it, I read up on it, I take off and have an adventure, I come home with a “book” and a lot of photographs. I type up the notebooks as soon as I can while things are still fresh, and then I put them away.
Since I started writing for “Newtopia,” in October 2011, my monthly routine has been to get 5000 words ready every month. When “Newtopia” stopped publishing in September 2014, I decided to continue the column on my website, and continue to finish 5000 words the first of every month.
All of these notebook collections are scrapbooks, really. One of the lamas I worked with described one of them as a “Randy helmet,” that anyone could put on and see the world as I do for a least a moment.
The quotes are from my readings at the time—newspapers, books, whatever. I find the quotes to be distancing devices that locate the book in a larger, impersonal context. And it gives a sense of what I’m reading, and what is catching my attention. In a way it’s tracing my lineage in real time. It’s also evidence that my sensibility is part of a conversation that exists out-of-time.
The quotes are the only things I feel free to move around wherever I chose. There are a lot more quotations—and poetry—in the full manuscript than what I’ve published in “Newtopia.” The quotes and poetry don’t work well in a column. The narrative, the story, the voice, the characters overpower the poems and quotes tend to interrupt and distract from the forward motion of the narration. And they seem too portentous and pretentious in a travel column, but I definitely see the lyric and the portentous as important levels of the greater narrative.
With well over 2000 pages of material from the first eight years of the project, and over 150,000 “finished” words published in 42 columns for “Newtopia,” I’m questioning what the “final” text will look like. There is definitely enough memoir to make a substantial book by picking the choosing the best bits. Or once I have the whole story in my hand, I could use my notes as a sketch for a larger work with another layer added in the retelling. It appeals to me that as the reteller I would know—but have to conceal—how the story ended. Or I could stick with my initial vision of a “complete” work, as it’s been recorded, without revision, as an experiment. My original conception of The Decalogue was to write something of substance, something “larger than a novel.” Now I’m not sure. My vision still includes wanting to capture awareness—in this case mine—as the main character in the work, as it changes through time. As I said earlier [in part I], I want to capture awareness plus time.
Working in this way over eight years has taught me to focus on chronology and change in my writings. For me everything is both an isolated incident with its own authority and part of my life’s meta-story about time. By that I mean that every incident is self contained, but its effects radiate out in both directions, and the words at the beginning can only be fully understood in the light of the last ones, which in this case aren’t even written yet. The story won’t begin until it ends. As Croesus put it, “I consider no man lucky who still breathes.”
KG: The Decalogue, begun in 2006 and displayed at the NewtopiaMagazine.com site, delivers a tangible you-are-there experience and opens with you in Fez, a city in Morocco perhaps best described as strange, beautiful. After a short history, you have choice photographs (objective correlatives) and a wide collection of both local music and internationally known bandleaders like Fela Kute and King Sunny Ade. There’s an insightful essay on Yorubaland and its spirit guides, and then it’s on to Rabat, Casablanca, the Sahara Desert, Ourika Valley and the Marjana Argan Cooperative with more photos, poems, music, history, conversations and observations of the local flora and fauna over seven more journal entries. The North African tour is followed by ten entries on South Africa, including Zambia, Botswana, the Okavonga Delta, the Shona and the Ngamo, safaris, music and ideas. Next up is six entries on India which include travel to Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi and Kathmandu, but by the latest entries—six in China, including Beijing, the Forbidden City and Hong Kong; and two more from Lhasa, Tibet—it’s clear you have gotten a lot more involved with the people in the places, most especially your guide, Xi. What was the evolution of your reportage like from the Morocco entries to your deeper investigations in Tibet? These could all be considered endangered ancient places, and I wonder if part of the adventure is a kind of time travel to locales that have resisted the homogenization of culture like in the USA. Is it fair to ask you what have been your favorite places and where are you headed next?
RR: There is a real desperation in my travels. The world is changing as fast as the icecaps are melting. There was a recent documentary on one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa that reports that this might the last generation for most of the remaining hunter gatherer civilizations, except perhaps in the Amazon where they’re protected.
I want to see the rawest places as soon as possible. It’s too late for so much already. In the Sahara desert the nomad-kids have smart phones and Crocs and exchange e-mail addresses with American girls. I’ve been friended on Facebook by kids in a grammar school I visited in Myanmar.
It’s not that I want to keep these cultures simple so I can feel nostalgic, or that I think that I’m seeing anything remotely authentic in terms of even a generation ago, but I enjoy sitting with someone as different from me as possible and communicating, even if we don’t speak the same language. It’s like being with those deaf theater kids in New London again [I talked about in Part I]. The strangeness and yet the familiarity of sitting on the floor of a mud-hut in Zambia with a man and his five wives, who sit on the floor while he and we (as guests) sit in chairs. Or to help cook dinner with a farmer’s family in China, even though neither of you speak the other’s language. Or having dinner with people on both sides of the argument that is tearing Thailand apart. Or riding in the front seat of a cab heading to Cairo, trading cigarettes and singing to the Eagles on the radio. There’s places in the world where the means of communication between us still has to be intimate, like with those deaf theater kids. I’m hooked.
What’s new in my Chinese notebook—other than the sudden appearance of Xi, who soon takes over the story—is that for the first time I’ve scrambled the chronology and included a significant amount of story to be told as remembered during the transcription process, wherever it came up. The result was like how on a boat you can be looking at the water and then with a shift of attention you see the sky reflected on the surface of the water and then you can switch back and forth.
There has been no repetition of that playing with time in the six books written since China. And at over 280 pages of material, the Chinese and Tibetan notebooks are longer than the first two books of The Decalogue. A lot about them have turned out to be singular, including that I’ve remained friends with Xi. That’s another idea about a “final” version—there’s a novel in there about my relationship with Xi. And there’s a chance the story isn’t over. We’re still in contact and she hopes to get to the U.S. with her family at some point and I hope to be traveling through Europe sometime when she’s leading a tour and we could meet again for dinner. It’s definitely possible!
Following China, the text goes back to the usual travel writings, at least through the trips that are already written. After China is Cambodia and southern France following a portion of Pound’s walk a century ago with Jonathan, my friend from Brunnenberg, and then southern India and a boat trip from Vienna to Amsterdam, and Thailand and last spring Peru for the Inca. I go to Central America in November for the Maya and then back to Turkey and Greece the following spring. And my first visit to Crete. I had plans to meet my girlfriend in Athens and fly to Crete in January 1991, but the first Gulf War started and they canceled her flight. It’ll be almost exactly 25 years later that I’ll finally make it.
KG: No other guide or character has appeared in The Decalogue like Xi. Her own struggles as a woman and an artist and a thinker seem to mirror the struggles of the nation she represents while also serving as a mirror upon which your own struggles as a man-artist-thinker can be better understood.
RR: I like that idea of her being a symbol and something for me push against. Meeting her has been one of the most important events of my life. She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of really remarkable people. She inspires and humbles me. I can’t stop thinking about her and I can’t measure her effect on my life. One of the joys of working on the Chinese notebooks is that I get to spend the evening with her over and over again. I wish I could live as freshly and wisely as she does! When she disappears from the narrative, she’s going to be missed. Moving on again this time will be as painful as the first, probably.
KG: That leads me to bemusement over a central paradox in your oeuvre. On the one hand, your purposefulness, dedication to truth, heavy work load, commitment to craft, sequence of projects, apprenticeship to certain ideals and aesthetics with a sense of tradition and lineage have paid off. On the other hand, you write poems of such playful whimsy and metaphysical wit:
The Last Thing You Will Do on Earth Will Be to Enter the Earth
To dream of death within this dream
is to ascend the brilliance of the sun,
from whence life is a dream
and the rock world a shadow
yet also is the here through which
the future plunges into the past
and something has placed me
at the center of this dreaming,
to become the mystery of one
born solely in order to unravel.
RR: Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’m the purposeful hard worker—dedicated to truth and committed to craft—who named his production company DADA Productions. And who named his publishing company after Laocoon, whose violent end in the face of speaking the truth was given by Picasso as the symbol of the creative process. And I named my literary magazine FRICTION. You’re right. It’s complicated.
KG: I want to ask first how you conceptualize poetry. Your books of poems Awakening Osiris (1996), Mona Lisa’s Veil (2001), LIT (2008)—and your notebooks of travel writing and poems—The Convalescence Notebook (2008), Map of the World (2007), What Have I Become (2007)—and your online travel-reportage-with-poems in Newtopia (2006-2016) not only turn prose into poetry and back into shimmering prose, they read like manifestations of a larger life project, one that includes intensive research into poets and movements as well as actual pilgrimages to ancient, spiritual and literary locales all over the world.
RR: Yeah, back in 2006, I realized I might have the time and vision for one really big work, and I decided to throw myself into it while I had the time and focus to do that. So that’s The Decalogue, the culmination of all of my experiments in composition. It was envisioned as a ten-year project, and I’m just now completing the eighth year. It could go ten years, it could go twelve, it could end tomorrow and it’d be a success for me. I had no idea what would happen when I began, and it’s still on-going. I’m very happy with the results.
The project started when a Vedic astrologer told me in 2006 that I would meet my soul mate in 2016, but until then I had some work to do. I know it sounds funny, but I don’t believe in astrology, but I wondered what “my work” might be, and I thought it would be to travel and to write one big book. So in a way whether or not the astrology reading was accurate, it was what led to this 10-year project, so I’m very grateful to it.
I didn’t believe at the beginning that I would make it to year ten, or even to year two, or that I would have anything to show for it if I did, so successfully completing my eighth consecutive year feels like unqualified success. And the results are way beyond what I was capable of writing when I first started although I doubt my level of consciousness has improved over the years. My biggest fear is that the story of The Decalogue will be my mental or emotional decline.
You and I were talking once about how everything I have to say about my aesthetics is in the first entry of The Decalogue, written beside the young woman on the flight to Morocco. It’s like a capsule version of the whole project, although I couldn’t possibly have known it when that was written. And how my first attempt at memoir is named “The Object Is to See Clearly” and it’s of a piece with the latest, and how from the first—34 years ago, when I was 26, more than half my life ago—I’m only interested in what I’m interested in now: What’s my actual experience pre-thought and conditioning, and how can I use language to say something specific and true?
KG: So The Decalogue began with the desire to write one last big work. Now that you can see the end of the project, do you think the work accomplishes your goal?
RR: It’s by far the longest and most complex thing I’ve ever written. I can see myself grow as a writer over the years. I’m so glad I have this to show for the last ten years. I long ago got what I wanted out of it—enough material to keep up a eight- and now nine year daily writing practice, and already over 200,000 words finished and published. There’s at least three times as much finished material as yet unpublished. And it’s not over yet. In a way it’s become an interior pilgrimage now, toward a writing that’s authentic and insists on clarity first. Clarity over “poetry.” Clarity as a very specific form of the poetry of presentation.
But I’m also glad it’s coming to an end. Ten years—or even nine years—is a long time to focus on one project, and keep working on it, day after day, week after week. But I’ll give you odds that I’ll be at it again, within a month.
KP: What have you learned so far through the process itself?
RR: Well, that it works. For me. I didn’t really believe I would be able to keep this up for ten years or, at first, I even worried about two. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could accomplish anything worthwhile in a year. Then—when I was quite happy with the results of the first year—I immediately began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to make it work for a second year. But each year seemed to bring more variety to the writing, which was my biggest fear at the beginning: How much do I have to say, really? But I was writing and remembering more, and the process began to give me a deeper understanding of my life and what was happening in it. That’s the way it’s been now, for eight years.
I guess part of it goes back to when I graduated from Naropa with my BFA and I thought my schooling was over and I was afraid that I would stop writing without assignments, so I created a project where I would write every day–something, anything–for a year. Some nights I would be ready for bed and there was my notebook on my pillow. I remember nights when I would describe a lamp or a shadow from my bed. In a way, those nights when I had nothing to write about were the most important, because they taught me how to write when I wasn’t compelled to write, how to write clinically. Writing dispassionately is pretty much all I do now.
So for the last eight years, from March 15th to March 15th, I collect all of my writing in chronological order. That becomes a single volume of what will end up a 10-volume “book.” For the last three years, I’ve been publishing 5000 words of this material illustrated by my photographs in “Newtopia,” an on-line arts and culture magazine. They stopped publishing in October 2014, so I have continued to publish these columns on my website. And—by the way—the Ides of March thing was a complete gift. March 15th just happened to be the day I started. Someone else had to point out to me that it was the Ides of March.
The biggest surprise was probably how the writing created its own endings and beginnings for each book. And how plot lines appeared and developed, or didn’t. There are even foreshadowings, ironies, twists in the plot and mysteries beyond anything I could have dreamed up on my own. By the third year I could recognize that I was writing “first poems” or “starting over” poems at the beginning of each collection, and at the end of each notebook I could feel my voice turning autumnal, even though the calendar was approaching spring. And I’m surprised that the first published entry of “A Poet’s Progress”—written on the plane to Morocco—is really the perfect beginning, because it’s a distillation of what the book is about, although I couldn’t possibly have known it then. It wasn’t an authorial or editorial choice—the perfect beginning for the book was created by chance and chronology. Of course no one will really know what I mean by that until after they’ve read the whole thing, just like how I couldn’t have possibly known that when I was actually writing or editing the first piece.
And that’s another way that the text mimics how we experience our lives—because life must be experienced in chronological order and what we have to say at the end of our life is of no use to anyone beginning theirs.
KG: So what about your concept of living/writing your life in a kind of classical sequence, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot or Dante Allighieri?
RR: My model for The Decalogue was quite specifically John Bunyan’s 17th-century book-length Christian allegorical poem The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. It’s never been out-of-print in over 400 years. That’s where I got the name for my column: “A Poet’s Progress.” Because I’m testing his theory, minus the Christian allegory. He teaches that life is filled with predictable tests, and there are identifiable paths that lead us forward or eventually lead us astray. Basically, nothing in life turns out to be what it seems in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but Bunyan points out a series of landmarks and hazards and gives us a soul and a Holy Spirit who know the way and really want us to reunite with Jesus at the end, if we can only learn to listen to them.
I can no longer can find a way to fit inside that kind of understanding of life, but I have many of the same questions as Bunyan. Is life a test with our future dependent on the choices we make today? It certainly seems so. So how is that organized? Is it nature—essential—or nurture—changeable? And then how do our answers to these questions affect our lives? I know people who struggle every day to meet their responsibilities and to do everything as well as they can and suffer because of where they were born or the color of their skin or the choices they have made. Is this same “human-life map” the same for someone born in Africa or the Aleutian Islands and me? Is there a point or purpose to my life? Shouldn’t I come to some conclusion on that question before I get any older? And if there isn’t a purpose or point to my life, shouldn’t I know that too before I make any more decisions? Is my future dependent on the choices I make today or are other forces at work, and, if so, what are they? And if there are greater forces at work, what could they possibly be and what could their purposes be? Is there a god or gods and what would she or he or it or them be like and what is our relationship to them? What are their purposes and what are ours? Are there angels and spirit guides who protect us and tricksters who try to lead us astray? Is there more to life or is this all there is? Is there an ultimate truth and what does it mean if there is no ultimate truth? Are we singular, or is our fate tied to others? Do we live one life or many? Is there an end to this, or does it go on forever? How can I best make moment-to-moment decisions when I can’t see the larger picture? And what could that larger picture be and what is my place in it?
This ten-year canvas will help me examine my life over time, to see if there is any information that can help me live what time I have left better. I can already feel how I’m different because of my travels and the writing and my evolving perspective.
KG: Let’s talk about the elements of your dreaming. What is your relationship to dreams,
your “dream self” and your poetry?
RR: One of the long poems in Map of the World is written in what I call “dream language.” It tries to sustain that sensation of things being familiar but at the same time strange, and the sensation that everything’s constantly changing but not against its nature. I did have a dream that I wrote down shortly after we began this interview that has stayed with me. In the dream I was trying to explain everything I knew about poetry in one image, and I told you that a poet gathers eggs. There are thousands of different kinds of eggs, and each one has a different creature inside. It could be a bluebird, a chicken, a crocodile. The rarest eggs, of course, are the ones that are harvested with the most difficulty and suffering from the ends of the Earth.
The poet carries these eggs home and preserves them. And when the poet’s hungry, they’ll eat an egg, and the essence of a foreign thing will enter their body. If all goes well, five days or fifteen years after incubation something will come alive in them. Maybe it’s a whippoorwill or a dinosaur, maybe it’s a cobra or a condor. But that day the poet will open their mouth or pick up their pen and something unexpected will come out, something that surprises even the poet. A painting can appear like that, or a passage in a novel, or a scene in a play. I’ve heard of entire filmscripts or pieces of music arriving like Athena busting out of the forehead of Zeus, fully armed.
The problem is that it’s easy for the poet to forget this birth surprised them too and they begin to think they created it or should know how to create one just like it, only different. But very few poets ever connect the new thing they gave birth to with the eating of an egg that they gathered in the woods and put into words.
And that’s the poetry of poetry, really: finding something of sustenance and embodying it, often without full awareness of what it is or where it came from. Then—in a future moment—something will burst out of you, something that is not you, something that has a life of its own, something that will continue to exist after you fall down dead. And maybe that something that flies out of your mouth will enter someone else’s ear and take root there, and a more mature version will someday burst out of their mouth, long after you have fallen dead. And—for the very few—maybe it will enter another’s ear and take root there as well. And that’s how poets keep poetry alive, without even knowing it.
[This interview was first published in A Poet's Progress: Newtopia Magazine and appears at the author’s website; see Interviews: http://randyroark.com/interviewed-by-kirpal-gordon-september-2014-part-i/. Reprinted by permission of the author.]