In 2007 I was one of two U.S. Poets honored at the Oaxaca, Mexico International Arts Festival
Below is an interview conducted at that time.
Interviewer: Daniel Eduardo De La Fuente Altamirano, a Mexico freelance journalist.
1-How would you describe the literary environment in the US?
First off, I’m not a poetry scholar or an academic poet. The response you will receive is a blue-collar, workingman’s perspective of the poetry scene and how it relates to my life.
If by this question you are referring to the publishing environment in the U.S., it has been on the decline since corporations first began purchasing major publishing houses in the eighties. The major publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. You need to have an agent in order to get in the front door. This is a “Catch-22” situation. The publisher demands you have an agent, and the agent demands publishing credits, and a track history before representing you.
The University presses are dominated by academic writers and a few poets and writers who have managed to obtain name recognition.
The only real alternative left is being published by a small press. There are literally thousands of small press magazines seeking and publishing the work of alternative poets and writers, but 99% of them lack any distribution and are limited to small press runs. The small presses who publish books are hampered by lack of funds for proper promotion and distribution.
This has led to “Print on Demand” (POD) services, which refers to the digital printing and binding of a book in a relatively short time frame. It is cost-effective to produce books one or two at a time, rather than the more costly process of a larger print run.
In reality, however, POD publishing services aren’t publishers in the traditional sense of the word but are really just a printing-publishing service offered to writers. They charge a fee for publication and will publish most anyone willing to pay the fee. They do not routinely provide editing services or proofreading, although many will provide this service at an additional fee. In practice, this service closely resembles vanity publishers and is equated as such by critics and reviewers.
It has been estimated that 40% of POD sales are to the authors themselves, who purchase them for family and friends. There are many drawbacks: Booksellers don’t like dealing with POD services; POD services are not cheap; books are unlikely to be reviewed; The book will not be publicized, and terms and conditions have been known to be changed without warning. In short, to a new poet or writer, the publishing prospects other than the small press world are indeed bleak.
If you are referring to the poets and authors writing within this environment, a lot has changed since my generation. There are any number of young writers today who are not overly concerned with being published by a big publishing house. This is true for some writers I know in San Francisco who are content with desktop publishing and having their books published in a print run of 100 or 200 copies. They are satisfied with a local reputation, although I’m sure they would not turn down an offer from a large publishing house.
I don’t feel qualified to speak for the entire U.S. I was born in San Francisco, California, and have lived here practically my entire life; therefore, I feel qualified to speak about my own literary environment.
San Francisco has always been a Mecca for creativity, be it poetry, prose, or the art world. Many young people continue to be enthralled with the Beat poets and writers, but before the Beat Generation, there existed what was known as the “ San Francisco Renaissance,” a designation for a range of poetic activity centered throughout the city.
The poet Kenneth Rexroth is considered the founding father of the renaissance. Rexroth was a prominent second-generation modernist poet who corresponded with the likes of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He held regular readings in his apartment located in the Fillmore District. The poets and writers attending the meetings represented a wide range of styles, from the ballads of Helen Adams to the bawdy themes of poet and filmmaker James Broughton.
In the fifties, the Beat Generation sprang-up with the core of the movement centered in New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach.
Allen Ginsberg came to San Francisco around this time and soon found his way to Rexroth’s pad, as did Philip Whalen and other Beat poets. Later Rexroth arranged a reading at the Six Gallery where Ginsberg read his now famous HOWL poem. Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen. Michael Mc Clure, and Philip Lamanita (surreal poet) were also on the bill.
Literary historians cite jazz as a major influence on the work of the Beats, and this is certainly true in the case of writers and poets like Jack Kerouac and Bob Kaufman. The truth is reading poetry to music was nothing new. In the early 1900s, Carl Sandburg played the guitar while reading poetry and Rexroth read to jazz with Langston Hughes, in Chicago, Illinois, before the term “Beat” existed. And Kenneth Patchen, whom I have only heard on tape, was perhaps the greatest jazz poet of them all.
The Beats openly challenged and defied the established order of the day. They were among the first to fictionalize their lives to readers worldwide, who thrived on their real-life experiences. By the late fifties, they had cemented their role in the new American Counterculture. The most important thing Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady did was to make rebellious youths in the U.S. and abroad aware there were others out there who felt the same way they felt.
The single most important event that served to gain the Beats notoriety was when the U.S. Customs seized A shipment of Ginsberg’s HOWL, declaring it obscene. Customs later dropped the charge and allowed the book into the U.S., but an overzealous San Francisco Police Department arrested Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Muro (the then manager of City Lights) and charged them with selling obscene literature. Judge Clayton Horn later ruled that if a book has “The slightest redeeming social importance, it is protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. and California Constructions and therefore can not be declared obscene.” This legal precedent allowed Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to be published by Grove Press.
The Beat movement in San Francisco continued through the early part of the sixties. Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg, Di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, Jack Spicer, Richard Brautigan, Philip Whalen, and others were at the forefront of the movement.
There is some dispute over who termed the word “Beat.” Some people claim it was Bob Kaufman. Ferlinghetti, Mc Clure, and others Beats have said they are uncomfortable with the term but are quite content with the fame it has brought them. The word itself is hardly new. As Robert Briggs has pointed out, “In 1860, a Beat was a loafer, moocher, or dead beat. By 1930 it was the rhythm with which someone beat a rap, or beat someone’s time for a girl, and by the late 40s the term dead beat referred to those who drained whatever scene they happened into.”
Be it as may, today the Beats have by and large died off, with only Ferlinghetti, Mc Clure, Di Prima, Kyger, and David Meltzer still residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, but their Influence remains, their spirit carried by post-Beat poets, who are too numerous to mention.
2-Is today's American literature characterized by any determining trend?
I don’t follow or subscribe to trends. American Literature since the beginning of thee 21st Century is exceptionally diverse, with rapidly growing multicultural influences. The biggest and fastest-growing minority group is the Latino population, which is now more than 40 million strong. The Asian population, although stabilized, also makes up a sizable number of the overall population. New voices continue to emerge within the Native American, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American communities. “Bilingual” is a popular theme among American authors, reflecting both the alienation and the strong cultural identify that come with being a non-native English speaker living in the U.S. Gender issues remain popular in 21st Century American Literature, and Gay and Lesbian authors continue to publish and make their concerns known within their particular communities.
American writers as a group continue to respond to the important issues of the country and the world at large, while creating unique worlds within their own communities. America’s diverse literary voices reflect the unique characteristics of its land, its people, and culture. The same holds true for Latino writers in their native land.
3-Horace Engdahl, Nobel Prize Secretary, said on the eve of declaring Le Clézio winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, that the US were too insular and ignorant a country to compete against Europe for the world's main literary prize. “Europe is still the center of the literary world,” he said, "not the United States. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” What is your opinion about this statement?
I think his statement is both arrogant and misguided. There is just as much junk literature cluttering the shelves of Europe as there is here in the U.S. Perhaps Engdahl forgets that William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and other recognized writers were also awarded a Nobel Literature Prize, the very prize Mr. Engdahl holds in such high esteem.Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures, has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty, is to write about these things. It is a privilege to help man endure by lifting his head, by reminding him of courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props to help him endure and prevail.”
Could a European writer have said this any better? But more importantly, poetry is not, and should not be, about competing. Poetry comes from the heart and soul of the poet, and poets should not be in competition with each other, let alone nations competing with each other.
Mr. Engdahl says the U.S. is “too insular and too ignorant a country.” He fails to realize poetry does not originate from the core of any one country, but from the poet himself, regardless of what country he resides in. Most poets outside the Academy are by their very nature outsiders, some even outlaws.
He is perhaps right that not enough translations are being done in the U.S., but this is slowly changing. PEN (of which I am a member) encourages and rewards translations, and its writers have actively participated in the “dialogue of literature.” However, I would respectfully point out that no translator can fully catch the full beauty of a poem written in the native tongue of the poet. As for the “big dialogue of literature,” I leave this up to the Academics.
4- You were close to the Beat Tradition. What is the legacy of its authors? How valid are Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs' writings in 2008? Have they been studied enough?
Kerouac will always be the Godfather of the Beat Generation and Ginsberg (a self-marketing genius) will be remembered, if for nothing more than his poem, HOWL.
For my money Ginsberg’s Kaddish is the best poem he wrote. I’ll discuss Burroughs later, as you have a question directly addressed to him. However, I feel it’s important to point out there were many Beat writers who were as good if not better than Ginsberg, but who never received the proper recognition. An example is Bob Kaufman, one of the original voices to come out of the Beat Generation. Kaufman is rightfully considered as one of the most influential black poets of his era, though his poetry transcends race identification. Like many of the Beats he started out in New York and later migrated to San Francisco’s North Beach.
He was an amazing poet who early in his life served in the Merchant Marines and traveled the world over. Like Kerouac, he was heavy into the jazz scene. In later years, he became the victim of drugs and forced shock treatments at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He took a vow of silence in 1963 after watching President Kennedy assassinated on TV, and kept his vow until the end of the Vietnam War. And yet he had the poems of the masters memorized. You would be sitting next to him in North Beach and all of a sudden he would start reciting lines from T.S. Eliot, William Blake, and Lorca, this despite his diminished capacity.
Today, literary critics and academics alike recognize the Beats as legitimate poets, writers, and artists, but the legitimacy did not come without a cost. In later life, Ginsberg sold out to the establishment, and as a result his work suffered. He applied for and received not one or two, but three NEA fellowship grants, and years before his death sold his archives to Stanford University for one million dollars. William Burroughs made commercials and had a small roll in a popular movie. Today, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore can’t be distinguished from other commercial bookstores, and he is second only to Ginsberg in marketing himself, receiving thousands of dollars for readings.
It’s unfortunate that Beat historians and translators have by and large limited their study of the Beats to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Di Prima, Mc Clure, and Burroughs, while largely ignoring other Beat poets who left their mark on the Beat Generation. This extends to non-Beat poets who were an influence on the Beats; Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth are an example of two excellent poets and writers who seem to have fallen out of favor with the literary elite.
5- You were close, among other writers, to Burroughs. To what extent is his work enriching and influencing other authors?
Actually I only met Burroughs twice. The first time was at a New York Book Fair and the last time at City Lights Bookstore, for a total conversational time of probably no more than fifteen minutes. There is no denying he was an important voice that went beyond the “Beat” image.
His was a literary voice that influenced many young people, both at home and abroad. He is considered by many to be one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. Jack Kerouac called him, “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” and Norman Mailer went so far as to say he was quite possibly the “only American Writer possessed by genius.”
He was a Harvard-educated man and the grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine, whose family was listed in the Saint Louis Social Register, who gave it all up to write drug-induced literature that bridged generations and made him immensely popular both at home and abroad.
After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs moved to New York and became part of the underground drug scene. It was in New York that he met and became friends with Kerouac and Ginsberg, who were both students at Columbia University. Ginsberg and Kerouac convinced Burroughs to write about his own personal experiences in life, which resulted in his first book, Junky. In his early literary career he wrote straight narrative prose, having burst forth on the scene at a time when conventional methods of writing were becoming boring. It’s said his intention was to create a “literature of risk,” in which the writer was an outlaw in the midst of society and the accepted writers of the day.
His greatest contribution to literature came with the publication of later books such as Naked Lunch, which was banned in many places due to its sexual content and biting political satire. The book revealed a new writing style, with Burroughs presenting numerous characters and personalities within the course of the book, shifting from one to the next without any warning. He spliced in what he called “routines,” small skits of humorous anecdotes. Rather than the standard practice of progressing from beginning to the end as the book evolves, the chapters were presented in random order. He ignored the standard rules of the day, and manipulated the language to suit his purposes.
The most radical change in his writing took place in 1959, when he began to employ what is known as “cutups,” the process of cutting up pages and rearranging them to form new combinations of word and image. A page, for example, might be cut into quarters, and then the top right would be paired with the bottom left, and the top left with the bottom right. The composite text is then read or typed to form the new text.
There is little doubt Burroughs played an important role in the evolution of modern writing as well as other artistic mediums. His style broke through previous literary standards and barriers and made it possible for other writers to openly experiment with different writing styles.
6- Speaking about your personal work, what moves you to write? Who do you consider as your main influences and why?
My most immediate influences were writers and not poets. Writers like Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck, Camus, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. My early poetry influences were William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. It was not until I returned from the military (Panama) in 1958 that I discovered the Beats. Early Beat influences were Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island off the Mind, followed by the work of Ginsberg, Corso, Jack Spicer, Richard Brautigan, Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, and the non-beat poet, Charles Bukokwski.
But I have never said I was a poet. I would be hard pressed to tell you what a poet is. If I’m a poet, I’m a blue-collar workingman’s poet. I find poetry wherever I go. I have no national sense of poetry. I write because I have to. I write to appease the demons inside my head, voices that demand to be released, but there are times too when I write for the pure pleasure of it.
It seems like today everyone calls himself a poet. The Internet is flooded with some of the worst poems imaginable. You can’t simply call yourself a poet and be one.
I believe there are a large number of poets out there who write poetry because they want to be called a poet. They want recognition and crave awards and court favors, when in reality the real poet struggles to just survive and make a living. I will never write to become part of the literary mafia or the cliques that exist in San Francisco and beyond.
A good percentage of my poems are about the dispossessed: hookers, drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless, and the like. But I’m also a political poet, having opposed the Vietnam War and the unlawful invasion of Iraq by the criminal Bush administration. When I saw that young naked and crying girl running down the village road in Vietnam, after it was napalm bombed, well that was something I had to write about. I witness the police brutality of cops beating a man on the street, that’s another poem in waiting. I write what I feel, but also what I see. I leave the leaves and trees to poets like Li Po. So you can say social injustice and tragedies move me to write, but then so does a sweating Black musician blowing his horn in a jazz club, or the women I have loved in my life. It’s all writing material. It’s why I never took a writing workshop. They don’t teach subject matter like this in the classroom.
I’m not sure when I discovered the potential influence of the written word, or when I first realized its revolutionary power. Politically speaking, I was inspired by Folk musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and later on by Bob Dylan. But I don’t confine myself to any one writing style. My short chapbook, 13 Jazz Poems is lyrical in nature, and my book Crazy John Poems is written in a narrative style, laced with humor. I like to keep experimenting with language. I don’t want to be labeled under any one particular category.
At a recent reading during an invitation to participate at a literary festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the students raised his hand and said he didn’t understand poetry. That’s one of the problems I have with poetry. Too many poets write for other poets. They don’t write in a language the common man and woman understands. They don’t write about what goes on in the daily lives of the average American. The Language Poets search for the perfect line, but there is no gut feeling in those lines.
You can arrange lines in a near perfect order, and play around with metaphors and similes, but what does it mean to the average person in the street? That’s not the kind of poetry I write. I’m not interested in the clever use of words that lie lifeless on the page. I do not write to impress other poets or the Academic world.
7- What are your favorite topics, your main literary interests?
My main topic is the human condition. I address this by the laying down of words on paper as I see, feel, and live them. So the human condition is my main interest. I’m pretty much a recluse when it comes to the San Francisco Literary Scene. I don’t go to coffee houses, or carry a notebook to write down my every thought. I don’t go to weekly meetings at Spec’s Bar in North Beach, where a small group of poets meet and talk the night away. I’d rather have a beer at Gino and Carlo’s bar and talk life with a secretary or a longshoreman.
My main interest today is exploring how to take my poems and arrange them side-by-side with photographs I have taken over the course of my life, since I am also an amateur photographer. I’m interested in art films and art galleries. I am interested in people and politics.
8- How would you describe your own path, your personal poetry?
I have walked many paths in my life. I have tried to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. I’ve been a poet, a writer, a supporter of the arts, as well as having worked in Education, at the Office of Civil Rights, investigating discrimination against minorities, women, and the disabled. I’ll soon be 73, and I’m still learning and nowhere near to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
As for my personal poetry, even though I like to consider myself a “People’s Poet,” I refuse to be pigeonholed. I have experimented in other forms and styles from lyrical to haiku and humor. In baseball terms, I see myself as a fastball and curve ball pitcher, who sometimes crosses the batter up with a knuckle ball or a change-up. I like to keep them guessing.
9- What is the present situation of American authors vis-à-vis Latin America and the rest of the world?
I am not sure how to respond to this question. I think American writers and Latin American writers have much in common, as both share a common ground in responding to the important issues of their country and the world at large. American writers, Latin American writers, and writers across the globe have diverse literary voices reflecting the unique characteristics of their land, people and culture. There is much we can learn from each other.
As for my own familiarity with Latin American Poets and Writers, I am limited by the fact I am not bilingual. Like most American poets, I discovered Lorca, early on. There is no doubt he is one of the truly great Spanish writers of the 20th Century. In his short life, he produced a great body of work. His tragic death at the hands of Franco’s fascist henchmen is also what drew my attention to him.
Octavio Paz left behind a beautiful web of words of things seen and unseen. He was a true master of mixing in elements of surrealism with the grit and bone of natural objects. I recall his saying, “Wouldn’t it be better to turn life into poetry rather than to make poetry from life?”
I discovered Jorge Luis Borges rather late in life, which I regret, because I understand he is considered to be the foremost contemporary Latin American writer, and only now am I acquainting myself with Carlos Fuentes, a marvelous writer, dealing with the themes of Mexican identify and history.
And who cannot identify with Cesar Vallejo, if for no other reason than his identifying himself with the sufferings of the underprivileged.
Here at home, while working with the San Francisco Arts Commission (1975-80), I became familiar with Isabel Allende, who was at the time was living in California. During this time I also became friends with Victor Cruz and Alenjdro Murguia, two fine bilingual poets and writers.
As I said earlier, I think American and Latino writers share a common ground in that they both write about important issues of their respective counties, and both reflect diverse literary voices of the unique characteristics of their land, people, and culture. We both have the opportunity to enrich our lives through the eyes and words of the other.
10- Finally, your country faces a very severe economic crisis. What can a poet say when his country stands at such a difficult juncture?
This is not an easy question to answer. It’s up to each individual poet and writer to determine his response to these difficult times we find ourselves in. In my opinion a poet must say what needs to be said, without any thought or consideration as to the consequences.
We have war criminals in the Bush Administration who condoned and set policy allowing the torture of prisoners. Our Constitution has been whittled away, little by little, and the average person on the street doesn’t seem overly concerned. The Bush Administration used FEAR as its weapon and the people were all too willing to give away ordinary freedoms for the promise of a false security.
Poets need to speak out against these and other abuses of power. They need to join workers on the front lines; those brave enough to take their beliefs to the streets; protesting against the injustices perpetuated against the working class. Poets need to do more than just write a poem and read it to an audience and take satisfaction in the applause. They need to become active participants in the community they live in.
There is no easy solution to the economic crisis we find ourselves in. The banks and Wall Street are largely responsible for putting us in the position we find ourselves in, with their greed for the almighty buck. The poet and average citizen does not have a real opportunity to put an end to this greed other than to hold the politicians accountable and vote them out of office.
If the U.S. sinks into a depression like the one we experienced in the thirties, it may actually be good for the country. We have become a commodity-obsessed nation. We live beyond our means. We put everything on credit. We pass a homeless person on the street, and we don’t look him in the eye, let alone drop a coin in his cup. The Government isn’t the answer; it is only a player in the game. We need to examine our very heart and soul.