DEAD OR ALIVE: INTERVIEW WITH MAURA CAVELL
Maura Cavell: Should the role of the poet today resemble that of the Beats? I know I’m generalizing, but I wonder if the poet, in your estimation, has a “true” purpose.
Jim Cohn: Poets live in a more experientially and technologically open, diverse and complex society than during the Beat Generation. We also have many more established genres of poetry and major poetic figures outside one’s own community to be aware of, study, and hopefully to get to know. If you obsess with one community, you risk becoming a kind of mental segregationist. That may not be helpful to an experimental writer, activist and avant-garde artist. Then again, it may.
When it comes to the Beats, I don’t think anyone was playing a role—even, later, when many of the writers were teaching, after their fame was established and serious Beat Studies scholarship was underway. Surely, these writers did not get to that place by playing roles, by adopting personas, by faking it. They did not go home at 5 o’clock and stop being nonconformists, deviants, activists, geniuses, oppositionists. There was no formula for the fame that followed the Beats. They didn’t have a Business Plan. There’s always going to be just one first generation of TV poets and the Beats were it.
People remain fascinated by the Beats because they became iconically linked to various social phenomena, particularly related to the 1960s. They were not authors divorced from society—as a group or as individuals. That is worth understanding, contemplating, by poets of the future. Beat Literature offered critical models that promoted subjective innovation, exploration, and affirmation; use of media for viral expressions of art; defense of human dignity, civil, and spiritual rights; transparency and accountability of government; ecological consciousness; and nonviolent protest. I do see a kind of universal poetic constant exemplified by the Beats, but I feel that is something available to every generation.
MC: Emotions are not often subtle in your work. You are a man unafraid not only to have them, but to use them, express them, completely feel them. Pain seems to be especially prevalent, but so are joy and humor pervasive enough to “temper” seriousness. What are your comments on this idea?
JC: The psychic energy I carry is very receptive to Ezra Pound’s notion that “only emotion endures.” I’ve always understood “only emotion endures” as a statement of purpose regarding the true nature of poetic content. Poetic emotion, enduring emotion, as suggested by Pound, is the invitation of awareness. This idea was something I found exemplified in the poetry of twentieth century male poets such as Ted Berrigan, Paul Blackburn, Robert Desnos, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Garcia Lorca, Frank O’Hara, Pablo Neruda, Pedro Pietri, Rainer Maria Rilke, who each had a unique way of assigning human emotion to things themselves. The enduring repository of poetic emotion found in the Blues is staggering. You see particular lines, images, motifs and themes as they appear and change—testing the strength of a sentiment—over time. You can see the emotional accretion of lifetimes, generations, in such works. In the context of conditioning and dissolution, suffering is a matter of mind. We believe our thoughts are real—our paranoia and our desire. I pay attention to that aspect of mind that remains untouched, unmoved, sane, beatific, regardless of what I might think is happening. I listen to that. This has been a lifelong pursuit, a lifelong aspiration.
MC: Compassion, in a Zen Buddhist sense, and as your personal philosophy, seems to be a theme running throughout much of your poetry, written and spoken. Would you please speak to this idea? How does compassion fit into your life, work, and poetry?
JC: Compassion is a way out of paranoia and victimization. If a poet doesn’t practice compassion, what is it they’re doing? You can only run for so long before ego’s raw ambition turns the writing to excrement. One thing Allen Ginsberg wrote remains with me like a mantra. “If I am not the Buddha, who am I?” All people have the ability to look kindly upon themselves. Compassion seeks to assist us feel our way meaningfully through the infinite nations of selves we have been and are. I have a deep affection for the siddha tales—the mahamudra or “great seal” tales of the siddhas, accomplished liberators in the perfection of spirit. Even in an utterly secular environment as a state worker, I see the lives of the siddhas as a sourcebook for my own practice of serving others. The eighty-four siddhas were preeminent disability specialists renowned for their ability in advising means of achieving flawless personhood. The siddha’s art makes no attempt to dissuade others out of habitual nature. That becomes the raw material with which suffering itself may dissolve all the specific characteristics of one’s existential situation.
MC: What one notices about form when reading your printed poems is its variety. Would you comment on your sense of form, technique, writing habits (set time and place, when the mood strikes), or anything else about you as craftsman?
JC: Form is an extension of emptiness. Poems take place in a space nothing can fill. It’s not like a barn. There were no blueprints. I never actually wrote in any kind of ordinary fashion at all. I just saw, heard and translated ghost talk, spirit news, codes in newspapers, magazines, books. I wrote like Andy Warhol—the Andy Warhol of mushroom clouds, Campbell’s soup cans, celebrities, dollar bills, electric chairs, and Sleep starring John Giorno—poet, performance artist, founder of Giorno Poetry Systems, and the now classic “The Dial-A-Poem Poets” audio recordings—sleeping for 5 hours and twenty minutes. Being the first writers possessing the tools to bring batholiths of information into their work, this is a pioneering time. The computer makes us, as a people, seem smarter than we are. When it comes to writing, I don’t turn on the oven timer and write as fast as I can for an hour and then go back to watching The Shopping Channel. Sometimes I’ll e-mail myself and later I’ll find these weird lines or kernels I forgotten about during the day. I cannot say that being a poet “destroyed” “every” “relationship” “I” “was” “in.” Other things may have had something to do with it too. There’s a very fine line between loneliness and freedom.
MC: Spirit, Native American beliefs, Buddhism, dreams, duality, letters, numbers, signs (the arbitrary markers in society), popular cultural figures, television actors, factories, thoughts of extreme situations listed to “rattle” the reader, violence, and so much more come up in Grasslands and elsewhere in your writing, and I wonder how this “layering effect” comes to you. Are you shaking up your own system, pulling together parts of your own psyche, making the reader think about the arbitrary in what is normally viewed as accepted fact, all of the above, none of the above? “George Washington Bridge, Lower Level, Clear Day” is an example.
JC: I’m no Phil Spector producing his Gold Star Studios Wall of Sound. And I’m not a painter, although the paintings of Jackson Pollack illustrated what I thought Charles Olson meant by “Projectivist Verse.” What I write and how it gets written is an extension of the world as I appear in it and as it occurs to me. I’m nothing more, as Master Dogen wrote, than a “time-being.” I don’t shy away from the ugly. I don’t close my eyes to chaos, to the diversity, and the coincidence around me. You can’t really start over, but you do every day. When I drove across the George Washington Bridge, just returning from the Yucatan, it simply hit me—who would take the lower level of the George Washington Bridge on such a beautiful day? And from there, the poem was basically written in the time it took to cross the Hudson River in the automobile.
MC: What does writing do for your awareness, your consciousness that no other art form can?
JC: The short answer is everything. For me, what most people refer to as “thinking” is something I have the ability to do without writing. I just wouldn’t know what it was saying. What people call “revision” I consider consciousness. It’s the difference between “I have a dream” and “I had a dream.”
December 27-28, 2000
[Jim Cohn. “Dead or Alive: Interview with Maura Cavell.” In Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets & The New Demotics. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2011.]