The hugely prolific poet and writer Robert Kelly here, very kindly, answers some of my questions. (More of Robert's work, including his long lyric poem Ariadne (written in 1991) is available on his homepage with more current work available on his other website.) Robert's recent texts include Threads (a long sequence from First Intensity), Lapis (poems 2002-2004, Godine/Black Sparrow), Shame/Scham, prose collaboration with Birgit Kempker (McPherson/Engeler) and The Garden of Distances, texts to images by Brigitte Mahlknecht (documentext/per procura). His forthcoming books include Sainte-Terre (Shivastan), May Day (Parsifal Press), The Language of Eden (Black Square). Robert lives with his wife, the translator Charlotte Mandell, in the Hudson Valley, and teaches in the Writing Program at Bard College.
Mark Thwaite: I can't start this interview Robert without asking the "Joyce Carol Oates" question: you are hugely prolific, with over 60 books to your name. Do you write all of the time? Is that your default behaviour!?
Robert Kelly: Imre Kertész says: “while I work, I am; if I didn’t work, who knows if I’d be?” And on my part, I would also worry about this: who knows who I’d be? It is something like that. I write to pay back my debt. I write out of guilt, to fill the blank pages the world sets in front of me. When I say pay my debt, perhaps I should say pay my way. Giving back something, that is, transforming the energy that floods into us all from overwhelming presences of people and places, mountains and operas and sailboats and a hawk over my head. So from all these riches of experience and cognition that I have been given, to transform that energy into gifts I can give back, poems, stories, anything I can do. Anything that comes to mind. I write because it comes to mind. I don’t like to begin a day without writing – if I can get even fifteen uninterrupted minutes after I wake, I feel I can get something down. Sounds like a wrestler, get someone down.
What happens is this, as close as I can call it: my mind is silent, but my breath is anxious, a tension in my chest. It is morning, I’ve just awakened, walked downstairs, sat down at the table or stepped outside into the day. My body tense, my mind quiet. And suddenly something speaks: a phrase (never just a single word) or sentence ‘comes’ and I hear it. I write it down and work from it, with it, using whatever comes to mind. What happens then is, I think, obvious in any poem or text – the reader can follow the lines of thought or (even sometimes) reasoning. But I feel better for saying this right here, how it begins, each day – that is what the reader would not necessarily notice. Unless the reader were The Reader, the one who reads everything.
MT: You are such a prolific writer that it is difficult to pin down your abiding themes. Do you see any throughout all of your work? What questions are you seeeking to answer?
RK: Listening, I think it’s about listening. I have come to believe (and I keep saying this, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before) that every language is a second language, language itself is a second language. We remember childhood, the vague excitement of heard words, their colors, their shapes in our ears we tried to taste in our mouths, words were things then, and the system that any natural language is hadn’t gelled yet for us. (Michel Leiris is wonderful on that epoch.) We heard, and what we heard the Others saying somehow, but we didn’t know how, somehow related to, mapped onto, connected with, the other things around us, the thing things. Things that spoke to and in us with a vividness and distinctiveness, each its own. I keep trying to listen to things that way still again, things that are ‘always already’ speaking (in that famous French phrase). So one way to answer is to say that there are three phases: things and no language (earliest childhood), things and language distinct but interlinking (ordinary life and language), the words become things of their own (writing, the poem as object in a world of object, made so not by the accuracy by which it may map some prior emotional state of the ‘poet’ – that is, not by its force of representation – but by the fact, thingliness of the language itself.)
I want to write Thinglish. And when I push students in workshops, it’s towards Thinglish, the pebbled streambed that purifies the stream of language that runs over it.
MT: You are an "experimental" writer; pushing the boundaries and working against the mainstream. (Perhaps by experimental I just mean that you see language as an issue in itself: words aren't just transparent signifiers, you have to negotiate them and their history to get done what you want to do with them.) Are you disappointed/bored by many of the books you see being published around you? Or would you counter my description of you in the first place?
RK: No, I’m content with your description. Language is the heart of my work, and my body and my life and reading and feelings and intuitions are only of consequence (in my work) to the extent that they entrain language. That is, they prepare the event of writing, they prepare me for the meeting with language. I keep telling my students (a fancy word for people who take the trouble of listening to me) that a poet is somebody who has nothing to say, nothing but language. It’s the very opacity of words (for me certainly including their histories, their real and fancied ‘cognates,’ their relations with other words in same or other languages) that makes poetry possible. Makes me possible. Their thingliness avails.
As to the books I see published around me: no, I’m not bored. Impatient sometimes, but I often am about everything. I do notice that American poetry (I first typed pietry, which tells you something of my annoyance with it) has gotten pretty quiet: experimentalists making cautious little moves, trying to corner some terrain in the post-Cage, post-Mac Low, post-Chain era that they can claim for their own – often this is a search for a plausible gimmick, and why not, we all like new tricks – for a while. Meanwhile the sacred frivolistes of the après-Second-School-of-NY era with equal caution are trying to explore the possibility of actually saying something, bending the Pleasing Propositional towards some political or social commentary they are embarrassed not to be addressing. I do get tired of literary correctness. I notice today an article by Hank Lazer in the new issue of Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuffs suddenly letting himself notice that for years and not just at the end of his life, Robert Creeley allowed himself to explore “pure sentimentality.” It’s an odd time, people wanting above all to be right. But all the while there are still so many powerful voices unabashed, continuing in their hard-won distinctiveness, learned, smart, profoundly useful.
MT: Queen of Terrors is an almost cubist collection, ambiguous and enigmatic. Your prose, with its attention to detail, bears all the hallmarks of your work as a poet. Mostly you work on a small canvas: you've written so many books, but few novels. However, you started out as a novel: The Scorpions was very successful: why is it that you've not really ever stuck with the novel form Robert?
RK: I haven’t abandoned the novel, though it may seem so. In the 1970s I worked for about a year on a very long novel, Parsifal its working title, and completed it to my dissatisfaction at about 2000 typescript pages. A few years later I revised it massively – didn’t make it much longer or shorter, though – and then Xeroxed it and put it all away. Only this year, have I taken it out again. A student assistant is entering the text into the computer – Cori O’Keefe’s halfway home, and I hope that by next year I’ll have a clean file to work with (this speaks a little to Question 11 below) and finally finish the text. At this stage of my life, I want to be able to work directly on the file – no more retyping. Prose compose only on computer, poetry use anything (see Question 9 infra).
And there’s a novel in the works: I’m doing the last interstitial additions and corrections of a short but dense novel, The Book from the Sky, that I’ve been at for a lustrum, working slowly deliberately, to avoid my usual spate.
But it’s true that a lot of my published work in fiction plays out in shorter forms. Some years ago Robert Shepard was putting together the first anthology of this newish genre of very short (page-or-less) stories, and I suggested to him the name Sudden Fiction – both for the genre and for his book – and the name stuck, so we run into it here and there. So while I’ve written a fair number of sudden fictions, and enjoy that genre very much, I still have gone on writing all shapes and sizes of narrative and quasi-narrative – and don’t ask me what that means.
MT: How did your collaboration on Shame with Birgit Kempker come about? What were the biggest challenges of writing in this way? Do you think you'd like to collaborate with someone else in this way again?
RK: I have collaborated with Birgit on two projects: the book Scham/Shame just published, and an earlier, much smaller Kollabor on closets, published only in Germany, her half in German, mine in English. But the formal excitement of that project for us led us to the Shame project.
Even now, a decade or so into collaborations, I’m just beginning to get some sense of what collaboration is about – not formally, I mean, or in terms of personal relations between the two collaborators, but in terms of the psychic economy of the collaborator alone. Why would I do this? What can I do for it, or it do for me, that writing solo doesn’t manage?
My first ‘collaboration’ was with Hoelderlin himself – the dead are wonderful to collaborate with; they are immensely demanding, insistent on every last word of theirs, but at the same time wonderfully welcoming. I did a homeophonic reading of his fantastic hymn At the Source of the Danube (my Unquell the Dawn Now heard his Am Quell der Donau). That led to further collaboration with the German experimentalist Schuldt (who has also translated magically well a lot of my work into German) who collaborated with my text, me with his, etc. The results were published in a sumptuous edition, in several volumes, with CD laid in, by the art press Steidl Verlag in Goettingen.
The main collaborations, though, have been with Shelley – his Mont Blanc in four pages became mine in forty, with all his words intact in proper order, but with mine intruding, interfering, impregnating. The rule for me in that mad journey into another man’s text was this: that the result must seem in no way weird, must seem ordinary poetic discourse, must not scream I Am An Experiment.
Then with the wonderful Tyrolean painter Brigitte Mahlknecht of Bolzano. I took one look at her drawings (people mapped as cities, cities mapped as language) and knew we had to work together. She sent me a fax and we were off. A year later, I had answered her faxed pictures with faxed poems, she answered my faxed poems with faxed drawings and paintings. We met in Vienna in the last months of the last millennium, and spread out over a big studio floor all the pictures and all the poems they had elicited. We put the results together, The Garden of Distances, soon published in Vienna and later in New York (McPherson & Co.) Our rule, and one I insisted on, was this: Prima la pittura, duopo la poesia. The picture comes first. The poem answers the existent picture – so the poem is a pure response, a desperate reading of the intricate surfaces and intersections of her work. I worked hard on those responses, and working with her (through the fierce chastity of fuzzy faxes) produced my best work of that year. And her images are rich, uncanny, fresh. I’d estimate that working as ardently as I could and did, I never managed to mine more than ten or twenty percent of the rich signifiers and signifying of her pictures. I want her work to be better known – I haven’t seen Brigitte in three or four years, but her work continues to grow – there’s a big monograph on it worth finding.
Then began the collaborations with Birgit Kempker. Once again, our actual meeting in real time and space took place after we had finished our basic work – sixteen chapters of Scham/Shame, alternating. This time e-mail was the method, and again I was (by design) in the role of responder. Birgit wrote the first chapter and thereafter all the odd-numbered, I the even. After over a year of back and forth writing and responding, chapter by chapter, we met in Lausanne one very hot day, and sat over lunch in a pleasant restaurant across from the cathedral; Charlotte was with me – we had taken the ferry north across Lake Geneva from Thonon, downhill from the mountain town where we spent the summer of 2004 with Charlotte’s family. And with Birgit came Urs Engeler, friend and publisher, whose idea it was in the first place to turn our exchange of shames into a book. Later we all walked along the steep wealthy streets of that calm city down to Ouchy, where they went swimming and Charlotte and I took the steamer back to France. That’s how to make a book: do it in one afternoon in a foreign country.
Yes, I love collaboration. I’d be happy indeed to collaborate again with Birgit, Brigitte, Schuldt, Friedrich, Percy… As I say, I’m still trying slowly, non-urgently, to figure out what is at stake, what is in play, when one artist collaborates with another, living or dead. And I wonder who my next victim will be…
And poets are ahead of the game here, aren’t we. In the fact that every single word we write down we borrow from those who spoke before. Every act of speech is a collaboration, in one important sense. And all the more so, every act of writing. Poetry = cheap, democratic, collaborative revelation.
MT: Do you still teach literature at Bard College Robert? Has teaching helped you with your own writing and reading?
RK: Yes. Though I’ve wandered here and there, for forty five years Bard has been home for me. Through the first years of that period, it was only the startling quality of the students that kept me here, and that brilliance has continued. And in the last couple of decades, the structure of the school itself, under Leon Botstein’s guidance, has become a magnificent place for writers. The novelist Bradford Morrow’s journal Conjunctions has been edited here for many years now, and we brought it here faithful to my perception that it was the most inventive, conscientious and articulate literary magazine we have in the US. Morrow teaches here as well, part of a collegial community that, at the moment, includes John Ashbery, Mary Caponegro, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Ives, Ian Buruma, Luc Sante, Chinua Achebe, Mona Simpson, William Weaver, Norman Manea, Joan Retallack, Mat Johnson, Peter Sourian, Mikhail Horowitz, Susan Rogers, Celia Bland, David Levi Strauss – you can see why I might want to linger. And when you add the wealth in film and the visual arts, music, the music festival, the grand intellectual and cultural enterprise of Leon Botstein – historian, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, educational philosopher as well as Bard’s president, and what he has brought to the place, I can’t imagine any reason to leave. Last night we went to a performance in the new Frank Gehry theater –the first staged performance in America ever of Schumann’s beautiful opera Genoveva – conducted by Leon. Afterwards we could walk home through the cool summer night. Good place.
As for teaching: For the past it must be ten years or so I’ve been teaching only writing courses, workshops or practicums of one kind or another – and all the literature teaching I do is folded into those stimulations. In a way, this seems true to the way I’ve always read – the text is a provocation: to action, reflection, composition. I have never been easy with a purely aesthetic apprehension (as I understand it) of a text, a sheer contemplation of its beauties. Yes, that: but only until the contemplation entrains action. Writing entrains. That is why I find it so difficult reading some of the masters – say Henry James, perhaps the greatest of them: I read a paragraph or two and get so excited, so formally provoked, that I have to do something about it. Write something, or lecture about what I’ve just read, buttonhole my wife or friend and yammer on about it.
MT: Who are your main influences as a poet and as a writer?
RK: Will you let me just make a list? I love lists; when I was a kid I spent hours gazing enraptured at catalogues: of books mostly, of records, chemicals, flowers, stars, cities, economic products of this island or that country, stamps. I would read them, eat them almost, as I ate lunch, a protracted meal of cheese and bread and names, names, names of the things of the human world, the menskr world, the world humans claimed by naming. So let me at least list the names. The sacred names of people whose work made the rocky road for me (and so many others) into the world. Their names are a blessing, a litany of our true saints. Each had some special craft or skill or tune or tone I needed – and most of them have something I need still.
Pound, Joyce, Baudelaire, Eliot, Stevens, Rilke, Chaucer, Skelton, Wyatt, Yeats, Kafka, Kleist, Novalis, Tieck, E.T.A.Hoffmann, Melville, Blake, Sterne, Swift, Twain, Beckett, The Eddas (and the great old Corpus Poeticum Boreale), the passionate English sinologues (Legge, Waley, Graham etc.) who gave us some sense of Chinese poetry, R.H. Blyth’s four volume Haiku collection, Milton, his great measure, Homer, the definer of a human line (where a line is the shortest path between silences – and Homer’s 17-syllable line makes alert, alive and haiku-flexible the 16 syllable slokas of Indic poetry – those numbers, 16, 17, alternating for three thousand years to claim our mind’s sound space), Aeschylus, Sophocles, Mann, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Dante, Virgil (immensely great, no matter what jealous Ezra said about him – when you chant the Pisan Cantos out loud in a tiled room, you can hear the boom of the Aeneid), Ovid, Lucius Apuleius, Rabelais, Bruno, Francesco Colonna, Sidney Marlowe, Shakespeare, Middleton & Rowley’s The Changeling, Hoelderlin, Broch, Hesse, Stein, Marco Polo, Malory, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Thomas Browne, Henry Vaughan, Donne, Johnson, Dryden, Coleridge, Keats, Nerval, Browning, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R.James, Edith Sitwell, Wilde, George, Hofmannsthal, Apollinaire, Breton, John Cowper Powys, Charles Williams, Lawrence, Ford, Canetti, Cavafy, LeFanu, Lovecraft, Whorf, Gurdjieff, Wodehouse, Heidegger, Carl Sauer, Flaubert, Dahlberg, Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Creeley, Michaux, Benjamin, Scholem, Spicer, Lorca, Neruda, Borges, Chesterton, Kipling, Verne, Buchan, Haggard, and at the base of the pyramid, that master of skeletal narration, Conan Doyle. And all the recentiores: Perec, Roubaud, Sebald, Lacan, Gaddis, Agamben, Caponegro, Winterson, Iain Sinclair, Carey Harrison, Vonnegut, Philip Roth, William Vollman, Viktor Klemperer’s memoirs, Nathaniel Mackey, Geoffrey O’Brien, John Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach, Thomas Meyer, Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, Keith Waldrop, Gerrit Lansing, Charles Stein, Kenneth Irby – these are the ones that come to mind this warm Sunday morning.
And now I need to answer a question you didn’t ask. You asked about the main influences. It isn’t enough to list books and poems. I have to speak of Opera. Since my childhood listening dazzled to my father’s old shellac MacCormack and one-sided Caruso records, opera has haunted my imagination. Of course, every poem I write is an aria, text and music both somehow compressed, expressed I hope, in the musical fact of the poem’s presence. Of course, they’re arias and choruses. Of course, I don’t know who is singing each, or what the greater narrative context is in which that song arises and into which it falls, lashing about with all my breath. But if I had to think of my whole body of work under any one trope or figure, it would be of a vast opera, a kind of hyper-Wagnerian structure of endlose Melodie and a cast of thousands – all of them lovers, beloveds, witches and high priests. Nonsense. They’re just a few thousand poems scattered in the spaces of time that let words in. But operas have wooed and won me, operas have gathered my time and sung to me. Sometimes I listen as I write – not always, not even often, but when I do I am writing into, against, the music.
Operas. Mozart’s Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Abduction from the Seraglio. Bellini’s Sonnambula, Straniera, Norma, Puritani. Rossini’s Cinderella, Barber of Seville, Otello, Semiramide, William Tell. Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Lucia, Elixir of Love, Maria Stuarda. Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, The Trojans. Verdi’s Trovatore, Traviata, Don Carlos, Sicilian Vespers, Otello. Boito’s Mefistofele. Gounod’s Faust (the first opera I ever saw), Romeo. Meyerbeer’s Prophet (so neglected, so rich in heresy and strange perverse sonorities), Huguenots. Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tristan, The Ring (especially Walküre), Parsifal. Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Massenet’s Werther, Manon. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Turandot. Strauss’s Salome, Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, Intermezzo, Daphne, Capriccio. Pfitzner’s Palestrina. Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Khovanschina. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. Bartok’s In Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Berg’s Wozzeck. Chausson’s Le roi Artus, Britten’s Peter Grimes. The ones I’ve underlined are ones that obsessed me, besieged me, and which I’ve listened to sometimes over and over till they became a species of dark weather into which I had to sail out.
Then beyond opera, the unfailing ones: Biber, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Shostakovich.
MT: What is your favourite novel? Who is your favourite novelist? And who is your favourite poet?
RK: I’m a Libra, I can’t decide. I want everything. Reading Proust’s On the track of lost time was the grandest, deepest experience fiction ever gave me. I read around in it for years, but didn’t read it straight through till late in life – maybe just as well, since Proust changes your life entirely, His book teaches how to live, that is, how to pay attention. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain was the book that amazed and instructed my teenage years, back when Ezra Pound and Apollinaire and then Rilke then Wallace Stevens were my numina. Libras love the incompatible, the impossible, anything they can grab in their two hands, weigh in their two scale pans, always this against that, Olson against O’Hara, Blackburn against MacLow, Tennyson against Browning, measuring one against the other but keeping hold of both – my hand holds the scales, holds both pans. How can you live with only one saint, one god? It should never be Either/Or. It should always be Both/And. Some writers hold to that great sense of both: Hermann Broch who can write The Sleepwalkers and also The Death of Virgil, Joyce who can write the dailiness of Dubliners and the eternal dream of Finnegan.
MT: How do you write, longhand? Straight on to the screen? In one quick spurt or with countless edits?
RK: All of these. Every morning I write in a notebook, always a bound one, never a loose-leaf one, usually a school notebook, the cheap kind made in India or Brazil, with useful mathematical formulas inside the back cover. (How those formulas have changed over the years; they used to tell how many barrels in a hogshead. or that a dozen dozen is a gross; now they talk of milligrams. But the cheap one I’m using now, No. 290. from China, still tells me that 660 feet make one furlong. Thank god for furlongs!) I write longhand, with a fountain pen (favorites: a new golden Sheaffer, an old Parker 51, a Lamy Safari with violet ink) – this is the hour for poems, usually. If I’m writing prose then, or any time later in the day, because I love to revise but hate to type I usually do first drafts at the computer directly (Sony Vaio).
Quick spurts, yes. But also many edits. I love the act of revision – sometimes I feel I write so as to have something to revise.
MT: Do you have any tips for would-be writers?
RK: It’s hard to resist your invitation to be oracular. So, as to every temptation, I succumb. Write every day. Put away what is written and wait. Sneak back to it, be cunning, and read what you’ve written as if it were the drunken scribbles of your enemy, revise. Revise. Revise. I think that if writing is to be true revelation, our own particular habits of attention and desire have to be, or ought to be, revised away. Strip the poem to whatever has not been said. Be someone with nothing to say, then say something. That may be new. That may be the word we’ve been waiting for.
Don’t write from experience. Write to experience.
MT: What are you working on now and what is coming next?
RK: I’m just finishing (God send I don’t make a balls of it, as Beckett has one of his glamorous frauds remark) a long poem in triads or tercets – in an ill-advised moment I called it Dante without the jokes. Fair enough, for the moment. I don’t even know the name of the poem, but it has kept me excited all summer. I began it on Cuttyhunk, the little island (see Mr W.S.’s late play The Tempest for local color – the island was ‘discovered’ by a friend of Shakespeare’s in 1602) where we were in blissful ocean calm when your questions came in a month ago. How long I’ve kept you waiting, sorry. The poem continues, and is close to the end now.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
RK: Thank you for your questions, I love questions, and being asked them. I love the fact that they, and only they, can bring me into the place called thinking.
It seems to me that a poem in and of itself is a question, or ought to be a question. Not perhaps like those amazing, if faintly (nowadays) corny magnificences of Yeats’s closures, phrases and questions (like the ones that end Among School Children) that will live, as they say, as long as poetry does or the mind runs. No, I’m not asking us to re-examine just yet our current distaste for the ‘rhetorical question’ – as we falsely identify such hallucinatory demands at poem ends. (They are in fact real questions, since their answers are not known.)
But consider this: a poem itself is a question, should work that way in and for the reader, a quiet or tumultuous demand made on the reader’s consciousness to hold all that has just been read firmly together in mind with all that is already known. The demand to connect. To connect what is real with what is read. Reading every text as oracular. That is the purest question: putting the quest back in question.
Thank you again for reminding me of why I like questions. And why I write poems.