THE ITHACA OF POETRY: INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL LIMNIOS
Neeli Cherkovski is an applauded poet, critic, memoirist and literary biographer. He has written twelve books of poetry, including: From the Canyon Outward, the award winning Leaning Against Time, Elegy for Bob Kaufman and Animal; two acclaimed biographies, Bukowski: A Life and Ferlinghetti: A Biography; his book, Whitman's Wild Children (a collection of critical memoirs), has become an underground classic.
Michael Limnios: What characterize Neeli Cherkovski’s philosophy about the life… and world?
Neeli Cherkovski: Somewhere in my poetry there is a philosophy “about the life.” I have always listened to the world. My first three poems, written when I was 12 in 1957 were on Gandhi, Buddha, and Africa. I was reaching –– reaching over frontiers. Gandhi intrigued me because of his non-violence. I had read his autobiography and marveled at his focus on making changes, first in South Africa and then in India. His work led me to the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Hindu text on the law of karma, and on doing one’s duty. It has helped me keep top my life as a poet, even in days (or years) when I didn’t write much. I came across Some Sayings of the Buddha, according to the Pali canon.
Actually, my father gave it to me, he was very subversive. In this translation of early Buddhist thinking I found what has turned into a lifetime of thinking, pausing, and thinking again. Here is the guidebook to undertaking a journey into the whole world, into the mind of a plant, the sound a tree makes, the light in an animal’s eyes. All of that.
I also read Rousseau’s Confessions and the Social Contract. He stresses, of course, individual freedom, the right to think independently and the need for self-expression. I felt he stood by me when I challenged some of the things I heard in school. My iconoclasm often sent me to the Dean’s Office, which was cool. As for Africa, it is always there as a kind of dream, the original home of the human race. Again, my father led me there.
Well, fifty years later and what do I know about this life, this world? Some of my best memories are about hiking and camping, alone, in wilderness areas round Southern California. I’d go off for days, or weeks, at a time and commune with the trees, the streams, mountain lakes –– it was splendid. Sitting alone at a campfire, nothing like it, watching the wood go down to coals and the coals go up in ashes. I confess, I was a boy scout, mainly because I was in love with other kids my age.
Walt Whitman’s “Salute A Monde” seems so naive today, even as many of us reach across borders and languages to redeem our land, our sense of communion. My view, my idea, my philosophy of life centers around the need to re-adjust ourselves to the planet, to leave the rain forest alone, to keep the wild, or some of it, wild. Ah, so many people now, a crowded planet, and crowded minds.
I go to the poets, many of the great classical ones, like Homer (always Homer) and the poets of ancient China, so boldly rendered into English by Ezra Pound in The Confucian Odes. Five thousand old beatniks, from way back in time, beat on my door. I remember reading Rimbaud back in 1961, for the first time, in a tiny illustrated edition –– this guy, wow! He had such insight, such anger directed art a stultifying society. Poets inform me. They expand my mind. They are like medicinal plants for my brain. Listening to Sappho’s paeans for love is another significant event in my life.
ML: Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
NC: Maybe what is happening now. I have watched my friends (and myself) grow older, holding little bitterness, and a lot of happiness, as if the challenges of becoming an elder is a kind of gift, despite the dramatic physical changes that take place.
When my friend Harold Norse went into a “home” in his late 80s, living until age 92, I would visit often. He had stopped writing, but one day read me a poem he had written four decades earlier. After the performance, he said, with a smile, “You know, I was a pretty good poet.”
Well, I still write, a lot. Just a few days ago (late May, 2012) I completed a short book of poems called The Manila Poems. I spend a month or so each year in The Philippines. Jesse loves going back home, and I follow. This collection is based on things I have felt there, but also includes poems that were simply written at our condo in Bonifacio Global City.
I continue to work on Frankfurt A to Aleph, a meditation on German culture –– seen from the eyes of a secular Jew and I’m completing a memoir. Sections have been published hither and tither over the past few years.
My friend Dennis Dybeck, who writes as Art Beck, is 71 and he just published a book of translations, the work of the 6th Century Latin poet Luxorious. So, there it is. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 93 and, over the past few years, has penned many of his best poems. One is a homage to Pablo Neruda that weaves sea imagery, deep meditative thought, and political commentary into a rhapsodic whole.
Then, traveling to Europe and getting to know so many writers. Seeing my poems in Spanish, Italian, German, French, is a delight. Last year I read at the Walt Whitman birthplace. That was important, being connected in that way with the good gray bard. The Whitman home is a quaint, two-story, shingled place, a family residence till the 1950s. The visitors center is where I read. They also have a fine bookstore. Visiting Italy a year and a half ago (2010 added so much to my better side, I mean my happy side. The hospitality in Verona and Verona was out of sight. Getting to know the Philippines over the last four years has been important. All this travel makes home, deep in a San Francisco neighborhood, all the more exciting. I love to sit and muse on a redwood deck, alongside my bamboo, a looking down on a sweet garden.
Often I think of Hydra, an island I have been on many times, first in 1970. I stayed two months, then came in 1999, in 2004, and 2005, the last two times with students from the law school of New College of California. We stayed in both Athens and Hydra. The harbor there, the rugged trails up treeless hills, the old Venetian palaces... all good.
So, many things keep life interesting, alive. And finally, I managed to ‘vend’ my papers to the University of California, Berkeley –– out of the house with lots of paper. It was good, but still my place is cluttered. Some books I cannot imagine living without, and so the shelves are crowded. I love reading Martin Heidegger, he is so dense, so packed-in with deep thinking. And I go back to the American modernists often, Pound Eliot, Stevens, and the magnificent W.C. Williams.
Better mention two of my publications, From the Canyon Outward and From the Middle Woods. Both can be seized on Amazon.
experiences in your life make you a good writer and poet?
NC: Well, what makes one a writer, a poet? Let me refrain from being to lyrical, but I’d say, for me, it’s like listening, seeing, being within things. I want to fly like the birds, to soar as they do, to look down on ridges and plains as they can. All I can do is sit in an airplane seat, pace the aisles, and peer at clouds or land or ocean from the porthole in an emergency door. Restlessness makes me a poet. Curiosity makes me a thinker, I think. But I search for rhythm in things, in ideas, in the world of shadow and light. Beyond thinking as such, more like feeling, flowing. Something akin to being a student of the Tao or walking a way ‘tween mythos and logos.
I read Humpty Dumpty, and one week later cracked my head open. There it is. 62 years later, the deep scar seems to have grown. That crack, and subsequent drive to the hospital, made me a poet. No one could put Humpty together again, after his fall, not “all the king’s horses or all the king’s men....”
ML: What first attracted you to the Beat Generation & how has the Beats changed your life?
NC: I read Ferlinghetti. Imagine? A Coney Island of the Mind was pure magic, such a welcoming entrance into the house of poesy. Years later we’d be going to the movies together. What a phenomenal man.
Soon after my first reading of LF’s poems I found Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and as with many readers, that really hit home. I was thirteen at the time. I had just gone through a huge bout of reading a lot of novels. Allen’s rhythm caught me, and I recognized his love for Walt Whitman, so sweet. And I loved the open gayness of Ginsberg. It made my secret love affairs seem to okay.
As I implied earlier, Homer changed, or re-arranged my life. All the rest seems to be commentary. Homer gives legs to the journey, pure and simple.
ML: From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Beats?
NC: Probably David Meltzer who is a great teacher. I had the honor of teaching with him from time to time. Incidentally he is the youngest poet in that ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry and his book When I was a Poet is Number 60 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series.
ML: Why did you think that the Beat Generation continued to generate such a devoted following?
NC: They are easy to follow. For the most part, it is populist poetry. There is little of the grand montage as one finds in Pound, for example, or the density of Wallace Stevens. And they give to the young a sense of rebellion.
ML: Which memory from Charles Bukowski makes you smile? What advice Bukowski has given to you?
NC: Hank met my partner Jesse, and he took me aside, whispering, “I’m so glad you met somebody. I hope you guys are staying the night.”
I must have gotten a sardonic view of life partially from Bukowski. He didn’t mean to be a teacher, but he was. There’s a 25-year age split between us. I loved hearing his stories of growing up in Depression Era Los Angeles of the 1930s –– a gone world. He had a terrific sense of humor, and he loved to poke fun at standard ways of thinking. There is a surface anti-intellectualism in him, but much of that was a pose. He’s always say, “Get in the arena. Keep the poems coming. Don’t stop.” That was solid advice from someone who worked on his writing all the time he could. Sitting down at a typewriter was like going to a job at a factory as far as he was concerned, but nicer. “If you’re not enjoying yourself while writing, then something is wrong,” he often said.
ML: How does the jazz music come out of Bob Kaufman’s words?
NC: Hey, Kaufman’s “Second April” is a top-notch jazz poem, consciously so, of course. We leap from Bukowski, who loved classical music to Kaufman, devotee of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and many more heroic jazz folk. He was a regular at New York jazz clubs in the late 40s, and from that music comes much of his verve.
ML: Could you tell us a little about your friendship with Bob Kaufman?
NC: For a time he was my roommate –– that was a challenge, but I faced it. He reveled in bohemian squalor. Luckily, we talked poetics. One night he asked, out of the blue, that I read my poems aloud in the cramped kitchen of my North Beach apartment. He sat there, smoking, staring into space, wide-eyed, tapping his fingers. I believe he enjoyed it.
ML: Are there any memories with Allen Ginsberg, which you’d like to share with us?
NC: A cranky uncle, I suppose. He always claimed I wanted to sleep with him. Oh, no way. My eyes were focused on young Achilles. A few times we had some delightful talks. He was certainly pleased whenever I had a lover, even if he did try to sleep with a couple of them. One day I called him “Rabbi Allen” and he squawked. But when one considers his “Kaddish,” it is not only an ode to his mother, but homage to the Hebrew hymn of mourning.
Allen spoke to me once of Vachel Lindsay, the Mid-Western American populist poet. Like me, he liked the rhyming chants “The Congo” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” When Ginsie talked of such poets, “lost” to us now, he did so with passion. His love for the bohemian rebel the New York street outsider was real, an under-pining to his generosity of spirit. Get him going on the Manhattan cafeteria life of the 40s and 50s, whoa! He saw it as sweet terrain, and some of its unknown heroes as true precursors to the Beat Era.
was the relation between music, poetry and activism?
NC: Ask my poet pal Jack Hirschman, who inaugurated the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade which has a world-wide membership devoted to social justice. His epic THE ARCANES is a chorus of activist verse, gentle lyricism, and rapid-moving experimentalism. I think of “Ode to the Spanish Civil Guard” be Federico Garcia Lorca as a skillful weaving-together of the lyrical and the political. Of course, one may only think of the incredible Bob Dylan's song “Blowing in the Wind,” and the earlier social protest songs of Woody Guthrie. Potent stuff.
you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory
Corso and Harold Norse?
NC: Ferlinghetti at his cabin in Bixby Creek Canyon, that place documented in Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. LF had a well-worn copy of Leaves of Grass on the rickety table in his abode. He was a good camping partner. He would gather wood for the fire and I’d gather twigs. His outhouse was called “The Buddhist Anarchist Temple.
Harold led me into the gay underworld of San Francisco. We shared a few guys together. I loved his knowledge of such figures as Blaise Cendrars, the Syrian poet Adonis, and so many others. At one point we had the same therapist –– driving each other crazy comparing notes. He taught a class at his apartment in the 70s –– about seven of eight of us attended. Harold was like a wizard with a wand, talking of WC Williams one moment and Antonin Artaud the next. He even showed a film he had made the burning of a pier on the beach in Los Angeles. He just happened to be walking by with a movie camera –– it was magnificent, as if he had stepped in to the flames.
Gregory... o Gregore! He wrote the poem “Marriage” and “Elegiac Feelings American.” Wow!! One wondrous evening he talked at length of Francois Villon, that outlaw poet of Medieval Paris and shared with me his love for Edgar Allen Poe. I remember him reciting Helen,” a work Poe wrote when he was 14. Gregory loved the phrase, “The agate lamp within thy hand/Ah Psyche, from regions’ which are Holy land.”
ML: What is your dream… and what is your nightmare?
NC: My dream is to win a big literary prize.
ML: Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
NC: Homer, for sure, especially since we’re not sure if Homer was Homer. I would have danced all night with Arthur Rimbaud. Nearer to home, I’d take both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. We would make a wonderful threesome.
ML: How you would spend a day with Walt Whitman? What would you say to Nanos Valaoritis?
NC: Ah, Whitman, I would at least graze my hand over his beard and take him out to dinner. To Nanos I would say, “I love you, especially when you chant Homer as he surely must have been chanted thousands of years ago.”
[“Neeli Cherkovski: The Ithaca of Poetry,” interview by Michael Limnios, originally published at “Blues Gr: Keep The Blues Alive,” http://blues.gr/profiles/blogs/poet-neeli-cherkovski-talks-about-bukowski-whitman-kaufman. Used by permission.]