ARTIFACTS of LOVE in the DUST

Rodrigo Toscano in conversation with Michael Gottlieb

[Editor’s note: for this guest post in our long running (re:con)versions series, Rodrigo Toscano speaks with Michael Gottlieb, whose Selected Poems will be published by Chax books in September 2021, concurrent with the staging of two plays based on his poems: ‘The Dust,’ his poem about 9/11, to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks, and ‘The Voices,’ about NYC and COVID at the Poetry Project in NYC (where ‘The Dust’ was first produced in 2011, 10 years ago) — EM].

RODRIGO TOSCANO: Michael, some years ago I was combing through a very rare no frills archeological catalogue of ancient Roman graffiti. Plate after plate of black & white photos with very dryly stated facts in the captions locked my attention for a few hours. Approximate date of each scrawling, its geographic location, a few cursory remarks on the lexicon, grammar, and occasionally, the social context in which the graffiti was made. “Lydia, Demetria’s bent on borrowing your husband’s plough” “Critio — right across the face — ha ha!” “Five Oases wine tavern — five turds ­– one stacked on the other!” I was after vernacular speech in Latin, which, actually, very little is known about. Terence’s comedies in the early Roman period sprinkle in some demotic. There’s a few other sprinklings here and there (some Petronius I remember) but, in the main, these knavish scribblings on schist, slate, and limestone, are all we’ve got.

I’m relating all this because I’ve often approached your writing through an archeological lens throughout the 25 years (!) I’ve known it. Ruins. Sky beams! Artifacts. Sky beams! Poetic instillations wrought from the sediment of decades lived in the northeastern megalopolis of a waning empire. Your chiseled lines (messages) come through in high relief, and multi-scalar. When you’re talking about personal, it’s a wide public affair; when you talk wide public, it’s a personal intimation. Now, there’s folks (too many) who are at heart prose writers, but hack away at writing lines of poetry, few of which are worth remembering. Not so with your work. You’re practically a tagger. The referents preoccupy you, yes, but also the very shape, texture and density do so equally. And it often seems to me that you’re after a unique grammatical tense, one that doesn’t officially exist, something that’s a mix of the simple present and past perfect, a version of The Now that fights impermanence by way of alchemizing permanencies into being. Is it the edge of Death (personal or social) that puts you in that bare (initiatory) frame of mind? Does the desire to have your scrawls found, disinterred, mulled over, come from a plucky sculpture’s impulse to form fit contemporary sensibilities onto established value structures? Both your deep attraction to outré art throughout the years and your manifest avoidance of becoming an institutional hack is what’s leading me to ask you why you’re still writing.

MICHAEL GOTTLIEB: What is that grammatical tense that I’m after? The funny thing is, there are all those tenses — in other languages I guess — that I’ve never heard of. When my daughter was in college and learning –was it Russian? Spanish? Italian — she’d come to me with all these tenses I’d never heard of: Past Ridiculous, Indicative Dispirited, Future Farfetched. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But the combination you suggest, ‘simple present and past perfect’ seems spot-on. But, what should we call it? …There’s a term that I’ve been reading more and more often in the last year, for obvious reasons: complicated grief. Maybe we could call that tense you’ve identified: Complicated Present.

And… what puts me in that frame of mind? Well, at this stage of my life, and with what we’ve all been living through, yes, it is that edge of Death. But when I was younger? What then? If you can identify that tense in work of mine from twenty, thirty, forty, almost fifty years ago, then I would yes, you’re right: writing this way very well may have been, all along, some sort of sublimated sleight of hand, an effort from the start, to not-be-forgot.

So why keep writing? My attractions to what you call ‘outré art,’ or what we could also call non-traditional sources of inspiration or ‘material:’ like signage, commercial language, the speech of cops and cabbies, has been constant from the beginning. They continue to crowd in on me, obliging me to acknowledge them, accept them, include them into my poems. Is that a reason to keep writing? Well, yes.

And was it hard not to turn into an “institutional hack?” Well, It isn’t hard not to be invited to parties where you aren’t wanted. And yet, there was always some space in the poetry world for me, for the likes of me. And, one reason to keep writing (to finally answer your last question) is that now, I think, there are going to be more and more people like me in the poetry world, like you, who are having to figure out how to be poets in a ‘non-institutional’ way. And maybe things I have to say could be helpful to them.

So why keep writing? My attractions to what you call ‘outré art,’ or what we could also call non-traditional sources of inspiration or ‘material:’ like signage, commercial language, the speech of cops and cabbies, has been constant from the beginning. They continue to crowd in on me, obliging me to acknowledge them, accept them, include them into my poems. Is that a reason to keep writing? Well, yes.

TOSCANO: And you have been helpful, for sure, especially now with your essays. I like how you’ve been as raw as you have, taking on issues of how to proceed as a poet in this country where poetry readerships are quite limited. And then there’s the whole question of how limited and for whom. And of course, how to go about confronting those conditions.

But about being uninvited to certain institutional “parties”…why not crash the party — is one way to look at it. I remember Leslie Scalapino (an actual friend of mine of mine back in the day), how she would send poems to Bay Area newspapers like the San Francisco Examiner, exhorting editors to consider publishing her works as relevant articles of interest to their readership. She totally believed in a Complicated Present. Well, not a one poem got published, as you might imagine. And I was quite amused by it all, but very intrigued at the same time. Her cultural domain hopping I found to be a form of bravery. And I wonder now if that was one of the ingredients of her art, you know, carrying on as if the social structures themselves were radically different than they actually were, and that they might be amenable to poetry. Whatever the shake-out of that whole activity ended up being, surely it was a concrete way to enact outreach, by testing it again and again.

You know, in Latin America, there’s a tradition of poets doubling as periodistas (newspaper reporters), but even better, many poets still to this day get promoted to diplomats to countries all over the world. I remember once being picked up by a limousine at Reagan airport in Washington DC to do a reading at the Mexican embassy. Monica de la Torre was slated to read there. The embassy was a splendid villa on a hill with bright murals in the interior. Lush, sprawling plants were everywhere. When we got there, we were greeted by gaggle of twenty and thirty somethings. It was early evening and the drinks were already flowing, and they were smoking inside, legs propped up on huge mahogany desks, “Bienvenido Toscano!” (upper crusties in L. America have this thing about calling you by your last name). And what an evening that was. They knew literature for sure. And the poems (in Spanish) I had scrawled in Brooklyn dive bars some weeks before, were, by all signs, appreciated. Anyway…I mean two things by relating this to you. There’s on the one hand, a total degradation of the poetic arts in the U.S. in terms of its civic presence, while at the same time, a ubiquitous elevation of Jack & Jill anybodies to do — whatever. Everybody gets a little cubicle of “significance” offered to them by the neoliberal capitalist imperative: everybody must needs produce and consume. And guess what? I accept, in part, that bargain, in yet another no-name bar here in the 7th ward, New Orleans. I’ve also striven to respond to the neoliberal relegations we’re all dealing with, you might say, in a tense twixed the Past Ridiculous and Future Farfetched.

This calls up the realm of the political, right? Not the news-cycle type, but the deeper, more enduring inlays that are so much us, we hardly detect their handiwork on our very nerves. What are you feeling right now, Michael? What’s the very edge of where you’re at, and how does that relate to your poetics?

GOTTLIEB: A periodista tradition — that would be nice here (well, there is John Yau, for example, doing yeoman work as a critic. God bless him) and as for the tradition in Latin America of making poets ambassadors — wouldn’t that be something to see in this country? The mind boggles. I mean, can you just see, say, John Giorno holding forth in the UN, at the Security Council? When Krushchev took off his shoe and started banging on the desk, what would John have taken off and started banging!

I just read, in your new dialogue with Julie Carr, that analysis where you touched on the question of what economic sectors poets are coming from these days. It conjured in me some weird, funny notion of a Poetry Gross National Product, a ‘PGNP’, segmented out by industry.

And you went on to point out that the vast majority is generated by the educational sector (by the way, the SIC code for ‘Education and Educational Services’ is 8299). And yes, of course we are all aware of that. But there are poets sitting in other industries. There are lots and lots of poets working in offices. Toiling, shall we say? Our patron saint: Wallace Stevens? Now, I work for a company with over a hundred thousand employees, and poets do come out of the woodwork there too, here and there, I stumble over them not all that infrequently.

But when it comes to the topic of not-being-invited to certain aesthetic-institutional parties, located in that educational sector of the PGNP, I want to say first, there were always a good number of us who were never part of that world, who saw it grow like topsy back when we ourselves were young‘uns, and for one reason or another opted not to join in. The thing is, when it comes to the question of poetry audiences in this country, and not just their scale, but their composition… what I find myself focusing on more and more now is: what comes next?

That poetry-academic-industrial complex which poets of my generation were instrumental in building, which provided good and decent livelihoods for a good number of poets for a few decades, and then progressively more horrific, debt-ridden, adjunct-doom-spiral lives for a good many more as the years went on, seems possibly to be on the way out. The whole thing seems unsustainable. Will it be the case that the pandemic — as it seems in fact to be doing across a broad range of other SIC codes — will sweep away or utterly transform, in its terrible, death-dealing way, the poetry world’s teetering, unjust economic model?

I have to say that I am optimistic about people’s values changing in general, and more specifically, in poetry. We are in the midst, still, of a breathtakingly terrible time. You know, my last book, Mostly Clearing, which came out right before COVID struck, was all about exploring optimism, as affect. Over the last year, that sense, that belief, that things were getting better, was — I have to admit — often impossible to hold onto. But now I feel it. I feel it more than ever.

That poetry-academic-industrial complex which poets of my generation were instrumental in building, which provided good and decent livelihoods for a good number of poets for a few decades, and then progressively more horrific, debt-ridden, adjunct-doom-spiral lives for a good many more as the years went on, seems possibly to be on the way out. The whole thing seems unsustainable. Will it be the case that the pandemic — as it seems in fact to be doing across a broad range of other SIC codes — will sweep away or utterly transform, in its terrible, death-dealing way, the poetry world’s teetering, unjust economic model?

TOSCANO: This “what comes next” poltergeist does pop outta nowhere, huh? Yeah. Sit it down. Offer it a drink. Entice it to speak. Dangle charms in its face. Still, that visitant is pretty damn terse. And yet, oodles of these specters assail us throughout our days, “what comes next”. And we do learn something from being spooked like that all the time. I’d say, they mark our moods, generally, whether we’re in retreat mode, or chest out advancing tall mode. Oh, so here’s my current political “mood” numbers, best as I can calculate:

Pessimistic — 26 wins, 10 losses, 8 draws

Optimistic — 28 wins, 5 losses, 11 draws

Alright, so, Wallace Stevens. I remember in the late 90’s in NYC, in the “vanguard” poetry scene, anybody who made over 40K was a “Wallace Stevens!” I remember a poet carefully turning her head in a bar, making sure there weren’t any of them around, blurt-whispering to me — “he’s a total… Wallace Stevens.” But I guess positions in industry do count for something. Insurance executive, say, versus, small town doctor, William Carlos Williams. Nobody was blurt-whispering that name.

But you know who’s been doing the actual work of representing multiple sectors, and all of them essential workers? Mark Nowak. He’s the director of the Worker Writers School in NY. You can see a sample of what the collective do here, the Coronavirus Haiku. COVID pandemic frontline workers writing things together — examining, discussing, processing. And now they’re working to get short 10-second haiku films of the workers’ poems into bus kiosks in NYC this summer! As Mark put it to me, “Mobile publishing projects so more than the literati and our social media followers can read these poems from the ‘essential workers’.”

But, I agree with you, I think, at least here in the “the states”, there’s a bit to feel much better about compared to last year. There’s a road out of this pandemic (for now). But soon, the bill is going to be due as regards mass mental, physical, and yeah, artistic health. And how all that stuff is going to manifest in our poetic gardens remains to be seen. Me too, I’m attendant to “what comes next.”

What will survive? Of anything that we knew just a year or so ago. I remember Nick Piombino once telling me that one of his proudest and most life invigorating moments was to be simultaneously jailed with Jackson MacLow in the early 70’s. The point here is the dedication that poets used to have to attend to a singular poet a time, or a handful at most. I remember, taking Amtrak trains to LA (from San Diego) just to see Will Alexander read, or Bruce Andrews swinging into town. Fanny Howe too, reading at Otis School of the arts. Two day, three day trips, just to see someone in the flesh, and learn firsthand about poetics. Sometimes I worry about the excessive cyber-“DIY” way of going about things. This never meeting anybody in person. Ok. I understand, things change. All the time. But, for now, I’m — let’s just say, meditative about what this post-pandemic culture might have in store. How many finance sector dominated universities are going to be offering zoom readings ad infinitum for the simple reason of dodging minimal honorariums? (a labor issue). How many already over the top neurotic poets are going to opt for staying home instead of tipping into the live bump & grinds that their poetic premonitions actually need to thrive on? What new points systems are going to be implemented for sorting mass aggregate poetic labor? But, the better questions is, what are we each going to do to better elevate our poetics to a place where the wider public gets something out of it?

How many finance sector dominated universities are going to be offering zoom readings ad infinitum for the simple reason of dodging minimal honorariums? (a labor issue). How many already over the top neurotic poets are going to opt for staying home instead of tipping into the live bump & grinds that their poetic premonitions actually need to thrive on? What new points systems are going to be implemented for sorting mass aggregate poetic labor? But, the better questions is, what are we each going to do to better elevate our poetics to a place where the wider public gets something out of it?

GOTTLIEB: I think we’ll be grateful to gather again together. And yes, some will choose to stay home (but many always preferred to, right?), and while we may not be taking three day train trips to hear someone read, and maybe the online version of this life, what we’ve had to subsist on since the beginning of 2020, won’t be going away entirely (and we can say: it shouldn’t) but we know that so much of our lives as poets is being together with each other, at readings, talking, in bars and restaurants and in living rooms and kitchens and on sidewalks and, yes, trains.

People who aren’t poets really don’t get it. Poetry is different. Maybe novelists or people like that lead solitary lives but poets — for the most part — ‘live’ in scenes. We have to. Putting the academic-lifestyle version of being-a-poet off to the side for moment, we have to live like this. We publish each other, we read to and for each other.

I just found myself thinking about those days — how long ago are they now? More than forty, soon it’ll be fifty years ago, can it be that long ago? — sitting around with a bunch of poets, doing a mailing… I just came back from Staples because I noticed that a whole shelf of magazines, because they’ve been sitting in the sun for a few years, are starting to look a bit yellow. So there I was this morning, boxing them up, and looking at them, really looking at them for the first time in who knows how long.

How natural it was to get together to do a mailing. That meant getting labels printed and getting stamps or finding someone who had a bulk rate permit, and folding and stuffing and sealing and bagging and arranging by zip code and things like that. It was a lot of work (that mailing I’m thinking of was for that very magazine, Roof, that I was boxing up this morning). And, actually, I’ve written about all that, but that was published more than ten years ago. But there we were, we all showed up. Okay, we could be jealous and petty too, but still… Was it partly just being young? Being in love with the idea of what we were? …Young poets, Language poets, making other people angry just by being who we were. How great was that!?

I trust there are young poets who feel just like that now. You know, we really need them — we need you, all of you — now. Now more than ever.

For this past year I’ve stayed home. Now, I am so ready to leave. I’ve been productive, I worked up the manuscript for this new book, Selected Poems. And, I wrote a bunch of short introductory/biographical/critical essays for each of its ten sections. And, I wrote a new group of essays. And, I’ve been working with Genée Coreno, a great young director, on staged versions of two poems of mine that are scheduled to be produced in New York in September, ‘The Dust,’ my 9/11 poem, and ‘The Voices,’ a new poem about COVID and NYC. So, I haven’t been sitting around eating bons bons, but I am so ready to get out of the house.

I want to walk down Second Avenue, down St. Marks Place, down West Fourth Street. I want to walk into a bookstore, a coffee shop, a bar if it strikes my fancy. I want to walk across 23rd Street and get annoyed, like I used to, every time I clap my eyes on the Gap store at the corner of Eighth where there once was a Woolworths. I want to see the coffee shop where I used to get a cheeseburger deluxe at least once a week, the one that used to have velvet ropes out late at night because it was such a club kid post-club hangout. I want to walk past the fancy apartment house down the street, and turn up my nose at it, where there used to be a Dykes Lumber where my friend Steve went to buy the wood for the desk he built for me, the one I’m sitting at now, which I’ve also written about. I want to come across a friend by chance on the street and go grab a beer. And sit, and talk. This is what I’ve been doing. What have you been up to? I’ve been thinking about this. I keep getting stuck on this. Do you come across this too? What do you think about this. That’s what I want to know.

TOSCANO: The idea and habit of being a flaneur is something that’s always been central to my writing practice. Exposing oneself to accidental encounters in public is a good analogy to writing itself. Every word a character, every phrase a situation, every poem a complex of wrong roads taken, making all the difference. I’ve tenaciously hung on to becoming a fixture at cafés, bars, and breweries for decades. I love the sharp contrast between being home and out in public. One without the other, makes both stale. And so in the worst times of this pandemic, that lifestyle was brutally upended. During those “spikes” and shut downs, I had to commit to the Bayou St. John, just down the street from me. I’d set up a folding chair at water’s edge usually from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. or so. Daily. One evening would blend into another. But I was able to write a whole new book in the summer of 2020, The Charm & The Dread. And there were people around me along those banks. So, I felt semi-alone, and that state of mind is very fruitful for me, semi-alone. It did help that the weather here in New Orleans permits outdoor activity pretty much year around. And now (May 2021) things are in full swing down here. Outdoor eating and drinking spaces are overflowing with people. It’s actually quite a lot to handle, so I’ve had to search out quieter places to play the interloper.

I’m glad you brought up your new long poetic work on COVID, ‘The Voices’. I’ve read a sample of sections from it and I’m riveted by it. I would say that it’s in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. In that work, Reznikoff scoured court records and explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with little ornament and metaphor. ‘The Voices’ immediate purpose would seem to be to document (by hyper-compressing) passing comments or quotes about the pandemic, but like Reznikoff’s work it overflows with meaning. We reach baselines of anthropologic poetic meaning as we move through it, each one deeper than the other. Same with your piece, ‘The Dust. And how you handle the spacing and timing of the content in both pieces becomes integral to the very process by which the reader/listener might grapple with trauma. Though it’s not just about trauma, but, also about the unsayability of cataclysmic events.

We reach baselines of anthropologic poetic meaning as we move through it, each one deeper than the other.

And that brings me to your comment that we mainly write and read for each other as poets. Now, certainly that happens a lot, and many of the reasons that happens seems out of our control, but I positively reject looking at poetic works in that way. Like, I think that the two pieces of yours which I commented on above, are not “scene” specific, and a “scene” (now since defunct) can’t help those pieces in any way. They are worthy of the widest audience possible right now. The way I think of it now (I used to think differently), is that if works can’t be appreciated by more than just poets, then the work is probably defective in many ways. I mean it. I’m really tired of heroizing small readerships, and mainly, because it makes the writing worse over time. Now, of course, when one starts off with very experimental work, necessarily the readership is going to be small, but I think it’s up to us, as experimenters, to draw lessons from our projects and apply them to works that speak more broadly.

Now, I do want to say one thing about “scenes.” Here’s how I’ve found them useful. Over time, they drill into us what we’re not entirely capable of, while at the same time, what we’re in fact good at. All of this comes by way of sampling, live, in-the-flesh, the effects of various poetics. In lively scenes, no one can get away with being a knock off of somebody else. So scenes help you find your bandwidth of poetics, season after season. The bad thing about scenes, is you can become dependent on them, preventing you from writing anything that’s looking towards a wider world, something not aimed at the peanut gallery where you’re guaranteed to pull off some inside jokes, all while thinking that your “place” in the scene is secure. Then the scene collapses. I also want to make a differentiation between ‘scenes’ and ‘communities’ of poets. Scenes tend to operate on a competitive model, while communities are much more cooperative. I would say that down here in New Orleans, we have a community of poets. Nobody is rooting for someone else to flop. Nobody wants to build a hierarchy of who’s legit and who’s not. The New Orleans Poetry Festival, in its 6th year now, I think does a great job at spreading that model of community — not just nationwide, but internationally. And I wish that I could say that “the people” will decide what writing to cherish over time or not, but now there’s a real Machine of Poetic Election out there. I mean, the interlocking institutions that decide who to elevate and who now And so now, the question becomes whether to or how much to Punch Back on those institutions. But one thing’s for sure, “so much depends” on how we write. And that’s why I keep writing. I’m always after poetic bandwidths that can break through as the times rapidly shift. I’m testing messaging, more than “experimenting” with text.

GOTTLIEB: It’s funny, when I talk about ‘The Voices’ and ‘The Dust,’ those two long poems, it throws out of the window a good part of my argument about my ‘focus.’ Specifically, about scenes. By that I mean, I’ve been saying for a while now, for example in that long essay about my writing in my last book, Mostly Clearing, and, also, in those short memoir/critical essays that introduce each section of the Selected, that I have three principal foci as a poet: 1. ‘language’ — what language does to us and what we can do to it, what we can do with it, 2. New York City– New York has been an all-consuming subject and object for me since I’ve started publishing, and then 3. Our roles and responsibilities, our lives, as poets. In other words, how we live our lives, what our responsibilities are to ourselves, our work, those who come after us and who’ve come before us. And, also, those around us — like those we love, who we live with — who we also have responsibilities to.

And when you look at ‘The Voices’ and ‘The Dust,’ they are totally focused on language centeredness and New York. These two long poems, more than any other poems I’ve written, are totally built up out of ‘non-literary’ language. ‘The Dust’ is a list poem, a series of lists actually, setting forth what was turned into dust in New York on 9/11, from fire trucks to steel girders to office supplies to what people carried in their purses to the people themselves. There’s no other language — certainly no literary language. And ‘The Voices,’ similarly, consists of what people were saying then in the city, last spring and summer, when this pandemic started. What they were saying, and what else was ‘happening,’ like the birds migrating through New York, and the flowers that were blooming in the midst of all that death. And yes, when it comes down to it, both of them have New York City at their center.

And yet, ‘The Dust’ and ‘The Voices’ don’t focus on how we live our lives as poets. There is nothing about our scenes, how we relate to each other, what our jobs are as poets. If you recall, I wrote an essay called ‘Jobs of the Poets.’ It appeared in What We Do: Essays for Poets, that Chax published a few years ago. There’s none of that in these two poems. But what I want to believe is that those two poems explicate what our job is, as poets. I won’t be so vainglorious as to claim that they do it well or not but I think it’s clear: these two poems ‘job’ is to try to help us make sense of what we cannot make sense of. Or, if not make sense, if we cannot make sense, if there is no sense to be made, then somehow learn to live with ourselves, as we live with the memory of what has happened — to all those people, and to us.

TOSCANO: That’s huge, what you just said “if we cannot make sense, if there is no sense to be made”…then? It’s poetics time, that existential vortex from which all rays of inquiry blaze skyward. And I say poetics, to contrast it to ‘poetry’, which all too often has little of any poetics. Now, as to those two catastrophe poems “explicating” “what our job is”, that’s an even bigger quandary. Let’s do this…

x — if we cannot make sense, if there is no sense to be made

y — catastrophe bringing us to the brink of unsayability

z — as we live with the memory of what has happened — to all those people, and to us

x = y/z

______

You contain multiples, Michael. On the one hand, you’re an itinerant poet-about-town, a disaster civil response bard at a-ready, a poetic spy on corporate boards, a poetry scene anthropologist, a smooth gallery opening eavesdropper, an alien to all things living and non-living, a pre-avalanche ski lodge interloper whispering whiskey whiskered troths.

And here’s one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time. In all of your books, there’s the most extensive vocabulary that I’ve ever encountered in contemporary poetry. There’s tons of words that most self-educated people have never heard of. Or, very rarely used words, that are defibrillated on the spot (and for me, fully resuscitated). It always struck me that the author (you) (some part of your brain) (not even “you”) (some neural grid station on standby) got off on that. Those big words are gracefully constructedly etched into your lines. Over time, it’s really one of the most memorable aspect of your poetics. Can you say something about that? And also, I believe you had a Wallace Stevens anecdote to tell me.

GOTTLIEB: I think your algorithm gets it just right. I think poetry has a job. Poets have a job. And not to get all instrumental, but among the things that poetry, that art, needs to do, has always done, or tried to do is just that… not just making sense of what cannot be made sense of but also helping us live through what cannot be lived through, allowing us to see what we couldn’t see before (that is, enabling to see what couldn’t before be seen), making clear what was inscrutable, and, finally, serving up to us, presenting us, in all its attendant horror and splendor, the ineluctable sheen of its glorious impenetrability, the absolute mystery of all that which, until the poem made it clear to us, we thought we knew, we understood, but about which now we realize we’re clueless…

Which brings me to those words you just asked about…

I think poetry has a job. Poets have a job. And not to get all instrumental, but among the things that poetry, that art, needs to do, has always done, or tried to do is just that… not just making sense of what cannot be made sense of but also helping us live through what cannot be lived through, allowing us to see what we couldn’t see before…

The fact is, among the Language poets (and it’s interesting how many of them/us no longer seem comfortable being labelled as such). I think had/have a particular focus on vocabulary. I wasn’t ever that interested in the sentence, for example, like Ron Silliman was. What got me going, what still makes me crazy, is individual words, words that up and take a crack at me from the news, from the mouth of a cabbie or a cop or a doctor (“the way he presents,” a friend who’s an ER doctor said to me once. I immediately wrote it down and it’s there in a poem). And, as I wrote in Memoir and Essay, what was so fantastically liberating about coming across Clark Coolidge that afternoon towards the end of the 1970s at the Gotham Book Mart, was the realization that I could do this. That I could make poems up out of those words, those words that struck me, bowled me over, stumped me. And yes, I would put them into a structure of one sort or another, and those structures would change over time, and yes, that thing called subject matter would come, would emerge — and as you’ve seen, I wrote about that particular development at length in the essay in Mostly Clearing, and also in the essays I wrote for the Selected, but I didn’t have to force it. I didn’t have to start from an argument, like I had been trained to do at college in all my writing workshops and tutorials. I could start from the words.

And I still write poems that way. I start from the words. I collect words. I used to jot them down on index cards I kept in my pocket. Now I use the Notes function on my devices (I write about that process in the essay introducing ‘The Voices’ in the Selected). And some of those words have always been just the kind of words that you call out above: inscrutable, arcane, fabulous, veiled, misty, forebodingly technical or academic or scientific. And I’ve written them down and included them in poems just because they are so difficult and dense, compacted with meaning that may no longer be unpackable. They are all the more beautiful for all that.

There is a problem, though. Inevitably, someone comes up to me after a reading and says something like: ‘man, you use such big words.’ And I realize that including that kind of vocabulary likely makes me look like someone who’s trying to impress. Hey look at me and all the big words I know. Aren’t I smart? Of course, that’s not why those words are there. But because I’ve heard that so often over the years, I’ve come to really make an effort to exclude them from my poems. I’m censoring myself, right? But I’m not doing a very good job. They keep showing up.

They’re like rocks in a farmer’s field in New England. The new settler, the farmer, would clear his field, and pile all the stones at the edge. That’s why there are all those stone walls up here, right? But inevitably, over the years, as he plowed his field, more stones would rise to the surface. Like those stones, those words keep appearing.

Which brings me to that Wallace Stevens story. At some point, it was in the 90s, a few years into that approximately fifteen year period when my family and I were living up here in Connecticut full time, I gave a reading in the Segue series. I think they were still being held at the Ear Inn then, but I’m not sure. There was a line in a poem I read, a call out to Wallace Stevens: ‘up here no one thinks Asylum Avenue is an odd address.’ And, in fact, that is so — because Asylum Avenue is a big street in Hartford, or maybe it’s West Hartford. In fact, I want to say that there were a lot of asylums up here in New England. There’s an Old Asylum Road just a few minutes away from where I’m writing this now. Anyway, I thought that was a pretty good line, and kind of funny, and I would have thought that the reference was obvious, but only one person laughed in the whole room. I don’t think they thought it was unfunny, I think they just didn’t get it.

TOSCANO: The omnipresence of ‘Asylum’ up there in Connecticut, is intriguing. In the 17th and 18th Centuries that term leaned more towards how we now use the word “refuge”. Although the Puritans were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it: the need for uniformity of religion in the state. Once in control in New England, they sought to break the back of “schisms” and what they used to call “vile opinions.” The business of these first settlers was certainly not toleration, but rather, the opposite. Puritans simply expelled dissenters from their colonies. So I think that “Asylum” project of yore still has a refractory glow up there. It’s in the sediment, so to speak.

I love your farm stone pileups of words image. This brings us back to “artifacts” and a notion of poetry as explorations of cultural sediment. Looking at things that way, has a curious effect of slowing down historical time, and for me, has a calming effect on the nerves, even if we’re overtly aiming to be agitational in the present tense. I think that at the end of the day, poetries that aren’t, at least partially, aware of being a chronicle of something or other, simply fail. I mean, even the most presentist experimental work I’ve ever encountered ends up as a pile of artifacts to root through. This country is infuriating in that way. So many artists shoot for an eternal present tense, a marriage between divine providence and crass commodity mongering. I’m not exempt, I should add. But I resist. “Resist” being another thingamajig packed into some layer of sediment.

But I want to say something about the phenomenon of “emerging poets.” People generally mean, emerging from obscurity, or if not obscurity, then emerging “above” others, as it were. Ok. I get it. But when I think of “emerging” these days, I think of it as cultural emergent, whether it’s from a “new” culture, or a culture we’re accustomed to. I’m going to sound salty here, but, I think most American emerging” poets these days, are emerging from a submerging imperium, no matter what emergent “identities” these emerging poets cling to. So, I’m claiming to be a fully submerging poet as regards American Poetry, and a potentially emergent poet as regards a Greater Americas Poetry.

Michael, are you working for the Americans, or Chinese, or Russians these days? Are you directly on the dole, do you get secret deposits, or have you been mistaken altogether for someone else, and now on the run? Or might you stand your ground exactly where you are?

GOTTLIEB: I’m working for you. And you and you and you. Funny you should ask, I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late, in particular when it comes to The Dust and The Voices. Those two poems have a focus, a subject matter, that’s different from the other work I’ve published over the years: when it came to these poems I wanted to embody on the page a sense of what we lost in this city on that morning in September twenty years ago, and what we lost last year. However, when it comes to what that plague brought, when it comes overcoming what befell us, all of us in one way or another, writing that poem did something else. It did something else for me, which I hope in turn I was able to get down on the page. The act of writing The Voices itself came to give me an absolutely clear, gleamingly crystalline, vision of what did — or will defeat that plague. And that, in turn, brings me back to the topic of who-I’m-working-for.

Let’s go back, forty, almost fifty years: as self-conscious, avant-garde practitioners in the 70s and 80s we claimed that we were all about demolishing those tired old forms and structures and assumptions about art and poetry: poetic diction, structure — all of that vaporized! And subject matter? Forget about it. Don’t need it. No such thing. Begone! Of course, that high and mighty position didn’t last all that long. It didn’t take long for some of those clapped out traditions to creep back in. I mean look at all the people who started capitalizing the first letter of the first word of every line. And then there’s subject matter. It didn’t take all that long, by way of example, for the aforementioned topic of responsibility to appear in my own work.

But those two events, 9/11 and COVID, those two externalities as economists put it, did something to me. These were events that ‘happened to people’ that I had to respond to that were different, in so many ways, than what I’d been responding to for so long. For so long what I’d been responding to were things that happened to poets. Of course, I believed, and still do, that those topics are relevant for those who aren’t poets, because in those poems (and essays and memoirs) the poets are just served up as proxies for everyone. And those issues the poets struggle with, which I came to articulate as matters of responsibility, are ones that we so many of us, in our own way, are obliged to deal with. But these two events were different.

These were things that happened, in one way or another, to absolutely everyone one of us. These were, are, global (in every sense of that word) events. And, as I sat down to respond to them maybe I felt the shadow of other poets, from other times, falling over me. And, I guess I felt I was writing not just about, but to, a different kind of audience — broader, wider, deeper. I don’t think that changed how these poems turned out, in that I didn’t try to make them more accessible, for example. But I think they are more accessible, even though they are, in formal terms, more rigorously uncompromising (e.g. they are both completely built up out of found material) than anything else I’ve written, just because their respective subjects are indeed so big and vast and they impacted everyone.

But, when it came to one aspect of this matter of subject matter, the process of writing this poem about COVID, capturing all of those people’s voices — because that is what it is made up of, other people’s voices — I came to see that that I had been flat out wrong for years. I should not have been calling it responsibility. It was fine and proper as a subject. But it is not responsibility we should, or I should, be talking about. It is something else. It has a different name. And, as hard as it is for me to say it, especially coming out of my art scene/literary tradition, I have no other word for it except: love. As I cut and pasted the texts that became ‘The Voices’ I came to see it. Over and over. It was there, in the words of the undertakers and the grave diggers and those men known as ‘delivery boys,’ and the grieving daughters and wives. Eventually it became blindingly clear: what eventually did down this disease? It was love. This is not to vouchsafe the role of science or people organizing politically, but it is love, ultimately, as I see it, that sends those EMTs into those apartments, that sends those nurses into those wards. We can call it duty or, yes, responsibility, but underlying it all it is love for what we used to call ‘our fellow man,’ known and unknown, and also the love for those we are bound by blood to, love for those we plight our troth to, as in this passage about a hospital orderly:

The last day Gary Washington reported to work at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital in northern Manhattan was March 29. His body was aching, and a colleague saw him lying down in the cafeteria.

Rosalyn Washington, his wife, thought he was growing too old to keep working as a housekeeping employee there. He cleaned the rooms of virus patients after they were discharged, and his brother thought he should stop going to work, she said.

So many housekeepers called out sick that the hospital began bringing in temporary workers, one of his colleagues said. But Mr. Washington was the family’s primary breadwinner.

“He was not going to quit his job and not take care of his family,” Mrs. Washington said.

“I had 25 years with this man. I’m so empty. Now I’m getting calls about widows’ benefits,” she said, her voice breaking. “He’s trying to take care of me still.”

This man is still taking care of his wife. His love goes on, beyond his death. It is a love that is stronger than death. That is why love triumphs. That is what writing this poem taught me. This is what I have to share with you. This is why I’m working for you. And it is you, you and you who taught me, by your example, by your words that I’ve captured, that this is indeed what I should have been writing about, what I perhaps was writing about, all along: love.

Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and essayist based in New Orleans. He is the author of ten books of poetry. Forthcoming in 2021 is The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books). His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Diasporic Avant Gardes and Best American Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakama) working on educational / training projects that involve environmental and labor justice culture transformation.

In September 2021 Chax Books will publish Michael Gottlieb’s Selected Poems, his twenty-second book. Also in September, the St. Marks Poetry Project will produce two plays based on his poems: ‘The Dust,’ his poem about 9/11, to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks (which they also produced in 2011, on the 10th anniversary), and ‘The Voices,’ about NYC and COVID. Both will be directed by Genée Coreno. His most recent titles are Mostly Clearing (Roof, 2019) What We Do: Essays for Poets (2016, Chax Press), I Had Every Intention (2014, Faux Editions). A native New Yorker and first-generation Language poet, his work includes memoirs and essays and has been often adapted for the stage. He divides his time between New York City and Connecticut.

--

--

--

The Operating System & Liminal Lab is an open access social practice experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and infrastructures founded and facilitated by Elæ Moss with an ever evolving global network of creative collaborators of all disciplines (and species).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rodrigo Toscano

Rodrigo Toscano

More from Medium

Heat and light: A tale of two elements

Heavy Soul, Let Go.

Where is the medical technology in the latest MTP Bill 2020?

Private Sector Partnerships Yield Award-Winning Outcomes