Online Edition: Spring 2010

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Frenzied Sweetness

An Interview with Michael Rothenberg and David Meltzer

 by Christopher Luna

Part One: Michael Rothenberg’s Choose and Poetic Lineage

Michael Rothenberg’s passion for poetry is complemented by a keen wit and a finely tuned bullshit detector. His collections of poetry include Man/Woman (Two Windows Press), a collaboration with Joanne Kyger, The Paris Journals (Fish Drum Press), Monk Daddy (Blue Press), and Unhurried Vision (La Alameda/University of New Mexico Press). Also a noted editor, he runs the online zine Big Bridge and has produced several important volumes for the Penguin Poets series, which includes selected works of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, and Ed Dorn. His most recent editing project was the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press).

Choose (Big Bridge Press) is Michael Rothenberg’s latest collection of poetry, a stimulating selection of works written over the last decade that finds the poet investigating his place in the world. Like the best poetry, his observations ask us to take a closer look at people and places we may have come to take for granted. It is an emotional, funny, and sometimes tragic catalogue of Rothenberg’s experiences, in which the writer masterfully transitions between the inner and outer landscape as he engages with his physical environment in locales as diverse as Paris, Miami, New Orleans, and Guerneville, California.


Christopher Luna: Tell me about your upbringing, which you describe in "Mink Household" as "very middle class." How did your middle class background influence your writing?

Michael Rothenberg: I can’t answer this question. I don’t even like the idea of class. What is a middle class writer? I am more interested in undermining class ideas than in defining them or stating my sociological/psychological case. What is middle class really? Supporting the status quo? Confusing sushi with Zen Buddhism? I try to stay out of jail—which class is that?

If I believe in overthrowing the system, is it because I am, or was, middle class, or in spite of the fact? Can you be a working class liberal? How about an upper class conservative who is addicted to OxyContin and reruns of American Idol? How many TV sets do you own? Do you go to school? Do you want to be a doctor? Where do you buy your clothes?

When I was growing up we had a lot of “stuff,” and my family and the families in the Miami Beach stetl of the ’50s all thought we were on top of the heap, kings of the mountain. Now it’s obvious that lots of people have lots of stuff, regardless of class, and nobody can afford it—all this stuff is killing us. But all classes like to feel their power through their stuff. I have this bone I chew on everyday. My power bone. How about the quality of the water we drink and air we breathe? The middle class and above can afford bottled water and an iron lung—how fortunate!

Class is largely a delusion. The more we make of class the worse it gets. Is this middle class thinking on my part? Or would I have to have been middle class to begin with, and then to have rejected my middle class upbringing in order to come up with this sort of thinking?

CL: Many of the poems in Choose are poems of relationship. How have your personal relationships changed you or your writing?

MR: I am not sure I have learned anything from personal relationships—except to avoid them. No, really, I try to be nicer and listen better. Yes, I write about personal relationships, but I don’t write relationship poetry. I mean, I have a poem about my high school girlfriend who committed suicide, and even that I don’t think of as a relationship poem. Life is full of all kinds of relationships, and not just to people, and it influences us and our writing, of course.

CL: Several of the poems in the book are based on memories. What did compiling your older poems teach you about who you are today?

MR: One thing I learned is that considering and dating poems based on older and newer is a vanity. Old poems are new now because they ring true in a way they didn’t when I wrote them. I have a habit of burying my new poems and reading them later, and that way getting some distance on them. It is too hard to edit a new poem and make it ready for prime time without letting it cook for a few centuries. I do remember a lot, though, still. I guess compiling older poems and including them with more recent poems reminds me that poems aren’t written to be good for a season. That there is no essential difference between the old and the new. I might have shifted my subject matter some and I hope I have become a better writer. Maybe I am less nostalgic as I have gotten older.

CL: You work with the list form in some of these poems. Is this an attempt to take inventory of your life?

MR: I like the list because it is a comfortable way for me to make a narrative, a kind of imagist narrative, through juxtaposition. I prefer it to storytelling. I mainly work with fragments and so the list is a succession of my personal fragments.

CL: What is your greatest source of frustration with the current state of poetry? Similarly, what are we doing well?

MR: I am aggravated by the abundance of poetry “cliques” and the lack of general good fun and spirit among poets and in poetry crowds. There are too many categories of poetry and not enough celebration—too many poets and poetry gatekeepers full of themselves. I am tired of the “professional” poets, stylistic dogmatism, and rehashing of old experiments. There is a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder in poetry that is epidemic, and we are supposed to like it. People don’t get to learn from each other because they are busy preaching to the choir. I think poets and artists are too sheepish. They require certification and endorsement and are reluctant to speak out, shout out, and mix it up.

An example of what we are doing well is best exemplified by a recent performance I was at in St. Louis. I liked it because the styles of poetry were diverse, the voices diverse—hip hop, beat, spoken word, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-gender, poetry with music, poetry without music, music without poetry, and it was a full house. There was dancing at the back of the room while the band played on. There are a lot of poets writing poetry and making their own way, and some excellent ones who are not waiting to be given permission to exist and to riff. These are the poets who will make the difference to future generations.

CL: What is your sense of your own poetic lineage? Who are the poets you look to as elders?

MR: I guess I would have to say my poetic lineage is closest to The New American Poets, particularly the Beats, Black Mountain, and San Francisco Renaissance poets. Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Bob Dylan were influential voices. John Keats and Hart Crane! I dig Villon, William Carlos Williams, Tu Fu, Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Patchen, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Mayakovsky. I am omnivorous. I try not to blame people for the way I write.

CL: In "Be More Dying," you describe the indignities suffered by Philip Whalen in his final days. You took care of Whalen at the end of his life. What is the poetry community's responsibility to its elders' legacies and their personal health?

MR: The poetry community should take care of its elders—nobody else will. Whalen’s case was especially problematic in that I felt a couple of different communities failed him: the Zen community and the poetry community. Of course, those communities overlap in many ways, which might have made things more problematic. Of course, there were people who stepped in to assist Philip—it wasn’t like he was left in a ditch—people came to visit him, but they didn’t work as advocates with the health care system, and that is what was needed. He would have been better served by some form of home care rather than being shuttled into some dreary extended care facility because he wasn’t dying fast enough. I don’t think he got the treatment he deserved. But I think that in American society, this is a problem overall . . . the inability to see and treat “the elder” as deserving great respect and honest care. This feeling of responsibility and humanity is not quite all there in the younger people who surround the “wise man.”

CL: Please tell me about Shelldance and how it led to the relationships you formed with Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, and others.

MR: I came out to California from Florida with Nancy Victoria Davis in 1975. Together with my brother, we decided to start Shelldance, a tropical plant nursery specializing in bromeliads. We saw them in Florida and thought they were pretty amazing. We found an old nursery for lease in Pacifica on some condemned highway property owned by Caltrans. It was supposed to become a freeway interchange for Highway 380 but the project got hung up waiting for money. It was also bogged down in mutterings from the environmentalists on the coast who wished to see around 1000 acres become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s a very long story.

Shelldance became well known around the plant world for its collection of bromeliads and other exotic plants. We had an amazing bromeliad collection, which began with the acquisition of one of the oldest bromeliad collections in the world, David Barry’s California Jungle Gardens collection in L.A. We moved tens of thousands of plant up from L.A. by truck. We had to learn fast. And because of its scenic location on a hill on Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Shelldance caught the imagination of a lot of people. We became a kind of tourist spot. And I got very involved with environmental struggles on the coast and the effort to see the nursery land and the adjacent Sweeney Ridge included in the National Parks. So eventually, Shelldance developed a reputation for being both a great place to see rare plants but also a place to connect up with environmental movement on the northern California coast. The Park Service has a record of my oral history on the environmental movement on this part of the coast if you are interested.

So word got out to Margo Doss about Shelldance. Margo Doss was an environmentally minded journalist with a column in The San Francisco Chronicle called “Bay Area at Your Feet.” Margo wrote about interesting places, cultural attractions, many that needed to be protected from development or something like that, and that would benefit from public awareness. The column came out on Sundays and you could buy the paper on Saturday night and plan to go walk with Margo at the featured location the next afternoon. Sometimes thousands of people would show up on a Sunday afternoon and walk with Margo. It was a very popular column. Margo featured Shelldance in her column, called it “Bromeliad Fever.” About 1,000 people showed up.

We set up a booth to inform people about the movement to save Sweeney Ridge and stop the development of 380, and served gallons of pineapple juice and gave tours of the greenhouses.

So during Margo’s interview for her column, she found out I was a poet, too. That’s how I found out about Bolinas. It turns out Margo was a kind of catalyst in the Bolinas Literary scene. She was friends and acquaintance with everyone who ever set foot in that town: Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Lewis MacAdams, Tom Clark, David Meltzer, Bill Berkson, the list goes on . . . She knew them all, maybe put them up when they needed a place to crash. Her husband John Doss was a doctor, digger, and poet. It was quite a scene. There’s a whole book about Bolinas by Kevin Opstedal at Big Bridge you can check out. I don’t think you can understand the San Francisco Renaissance or how poetry moved through the U.S. in the last half of the 20th century without looking at Bolinas. Everyone came through that town. But I didn’t know anything about Bolinas until I met Margo. She invited me to come out to Bolinas cause she thought I should meet Joanne Kyger and her partner Donald Guravich. I met Bill Berkson that same time. I ended up doing a collaborative book with Joanne, Man/Women, and edited her selected poems, As Ever, for Penguin Books.

Joanne suggested Nancy Davis and I go meet Philip Whalen. She made the introduction and Philip came out to Shelldance. Nancy made him noodle soup and we walked through the nursery and gave him an educational tour. He was very sweet and courteous. We became very close friends. Nancy sat zazen with Philip, and I developed a habit of coming to town to meet Philip for lunch. Eventually we would work together on Mark Other Place, a selection of poems, mostly unpublished, that became a chapbook on Big Bridge online, which would be integrated into the text to Whalen’s Some of These Days, published by Clifford Burke. We worked together on Overtime for Penguin Books. I miss Philip.

Michael McClure was another story. There was this amazing ornithologist and director of the Academy of Sciences, Luis Baptista, who used to come out to Shelldance to buy bromeliads and just talk about flowers. Luis was a genius, a beautiful human being, a true Renaissance man. He could sing any birdsong known to man and I think he could speak a hundred languages. We ended up working on a broadside together, “Elegy for The Dusky Seaside Sparrow.” Luis was friends with McClure and thought I should definitely meet him, that McClure would love Shelldance. This was pretty cool to me. Of course everyone knows McClure, and Meat Science Essays was enormously influential for me. It was a book of enlightenment and permission. The book helped me understand how a poet could and should be a biologist, horticulturist, and environmentalist. Creating Shelldance made sense because of a book like Meat Science Essays. In the ‘60s and ‘70s you didn’t have to be a specialist, a professional poet locked away in a library—you could actually learn about everything, go outside and embrace a more physical world; geology, astronomy, biology, religion, and art were all unified, and you could be active in environmental concerns in a hands-on, personal way, and be better for it. Meat Science Essays helped me understand that.

So Luis brought McClure out to Shelldance and I gave him a tour of the bromeliads. Like Kyger, McClure was interested in my efforts to get the nursery and the adjacent lands of Sweeney Ridge into National Park protection. We hiked up to the top of Sweeney Ridge together with Luis and scientist Sterling Bunnell. McClure and I started hanging out together after that. I’d go into town and visit him in the Haight for lunch. Shelldance had a shop in the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park at that time, and we would go walk through the Conservatory glass house or check out reptiles at some of the pet shops.

So it was Shelldance and not the “poetry scene” that became the basis of my relationship with McClure, Kyger, and Whalen. And you know, Nancy Davis is a great artist. She did a hand-watercolored book, Book for Sensei, which incorporated poems from McClure, Kyger, Whalen, Jim Harrison, Andrei Codrescu, and me in an accordion binding. Nancy also illustrated Man/Women. So it was a pretty organic evolution, the way we met and all got together. Even my getting to know Jim Harrison had more to do with plants, at least in the beginning, than it did with poetry. You know his novel Dalva? We did the research for him on windbreaks and plants and trees that showed up in the landscape of that book.

I was never comfortable with schmoozing downtown at poetry readings and events. I kept to the nursery and my activities in Pacifica. There is something reassuring to me that the basis of these relationships began with a common love of nature and not poetry politics.


Part Two: ROCKPILE on the Road

Poets Michael Rothenberg, David Meltzer, and Terri Carrion recently returned from ROCKPILE on the Road, a nationwide tour they documented online as it progressed. They were accompanied by a diverse array of musicians, including The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans and Burnett Thompson in Washington, D.C. For footage of their journey and performances, visit: http://www.bigbridge.org/ROCKPILE/.

As the ROCKPILE website reminds us, “David Meltzer was raised in Brooklyn during the war years. He performed on radio and early TV on the Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour. He was exiled to L.A. at 16, and at 17 enrolled in an ongoing academy with artists Wallace Berman, George Herms, Robert Alexander, and Cameron. David migrated to San Francisco in 1957 for higher education with peers & maestros like Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Joanne Kyger, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, Jack Hirschman, and a cast of thousands all living extraordinary ordinary lives. His Beat Thing (La Alameda Press, 2004) won the Josephine Miles PEN Award, 2005. He was editor and interviewer for San Francisco Beat: Talking With The Poets (City Lights, 2001). With Steve Dickison, David co-edits Shuffle Boil, a magazine devoted to music in all its appearances & disappearances. 2005 saw the publication of David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer by Viking/Penguin, a collection spanning over forty years of work. It paints a vivid portrait of Meltzer’s life as a poet, through poems taken from thirty of his previous books of poetry. With a versatile style and playful tone, Meltzer offers his unique vision of civilization with a range of juxtapositions from Jewish mysticism and everyday life to jazz and pop culture. His website is at Meltzerville.com.”

Michael Rothenberg and David Meltzer agreed to answer a few questions about their time on the road together.

CL: How was ROCKPILE conceived? What role did the Allen Ginsberg Trust play in putting the tour together?

MR: Terri Carrion should get the major credit for setting up ROCKPILE. David Meltzer and Terri and I were running around the country doing readings together so ROCKPILE formalized and expanded what we had already begun doing. David had been teaching at New College for like twenty-seven years, and when the school closed down he was out of a job. He needed something to get him out of the house. I was done working on the Whalen Collected and looking for something challenging to do. Terri was burned out working in a retail store, so we were all ready for a change. Terri and I heard about a grant that was available from the Creative Work Fund. Terri researched that and together we came up with the ROCKPILE concept. Terri put together an awesome proposal and we got the grant. The project name, ROCKPILE, came from an unpublished book that David had been working on for years about the music scene he was part of back in the ’60s. Though this project has nothing to do with that book it does obviously have something to do with poetry and music. And it was a dream come true to work with all these amazing musicians and go around the country to different cities and meet new people and talk about issues that mattered to us, as well as share a love of poetry. It seems that people have become incredibly isolated over the years and ROCKPILE was a way of opening up things. Life in the Bay Area can get very isolated and provincial.

The Allen Ginsberg Trust has always been a friend and supportive, but they weren’t involved in putting together the tour. They were our fiscal sponsors. You had to have a fiscal sponsor that was non-profit to qualify for a grant from the Creative Work Fund.

CL: Who booked the dates? Who found the musicians in each city?

MR: I booked all the dates and most of the musicians. That was exhausting. Some musicians, like Theo Saunders and Marty Ehrlich, had already worked with David, so they were naturally brought into the program. Theo hooked us up with John B. Williams in L.A. and Marty Ehrlich hooked us up with Lindsey Horner and Michael Stephans in N.Y.C. I had previously worked with Bob Malone, Johnny Lee Schell, and Joe Sublett writing songs; it was great to get together with them as a performer. Johnny hooked us up with drummer Debra Dobkin, who’s been touring with Richard Thompson, and Debra hooked us up with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans. Burnett Thompson came to us through multiple referrals. He was a revelation. The Thunderbird Orkestra was organized by Jeff Bryan, who published my book Unhurried Vision and Meltzer’s Beat Thing. So you get the idea: lots of talk to lots of musicians about what we wanted or thought we wanted. I spent a solid year, day and night, exploring venues and musicians, times, dates, and configurations of all of the above, to put the tour together.

CL: David, how did Michael present the concept of ROCKPILE? What was your contribution to the concept and/or planning of the events?

David Meltzer: The concept was gestating between us and Terri. It was Terri who was able to make sense of it to articulate a grant proposal to the Creative Work Fund. This was a potluck ping ponging of ideas and enthusiasms. Lots of heated and overheated phone calls.

CL: What have you learned from Michael? How would you characterize his work?

DM: The pleasure of watching him elevate his performance style. Watching/hearing him wheel and deal. His frenzied sweetness and deep loyalty. His work is ongoing and abundant, and like all of us, he needs more books, presence, and acceptance in the Wide Wide World of Poetry. I also must advocate for Terri Carrion's equal importance in all of this, not only her grunt work—uploading the blog, talking pictures, videoing—but also emerging as a sensational performer. Much joy all around.

CL: How did you two meet?

DM: Michael was a returning student—i.e., middle-aged—and entered the graduate Poetics program at New College of California. He felt more like a peer than a student. We did a lot of independent studies; he was in all my classes and always put a special spin and brilliance in his papers and presentations. Our friendship and collaborations have deepened over time. Over the past few years we've done many gigs in the Bay Area and elsewhere. I've noted how he's grown as a poet and performer.

CL: Can you speak specifically about how the delivery of the work was affected by the artists with whom you collaborated?

DM: Good question. As you know, any performance is never the same performance, it’s all contingent on interactions. The key is to listen and be heard. All the musicians we worked with brought their unique creative attention to working with us. Starting at our first gig at the Hammer Billy Wilder Auditorium in LA, to our grand finale in St. Louis. We were privileged to work with and learn from the musicians. As the official old fart—one who started doing poetry with jazz in l958—it was a profound re-learning, for which I thank the musicians.

MR: That’s a way complicated question. Let’s just say that the more time I spent with these musicians the more I learned how to listen to them. I couldn’t just run out on stage and read and expect some kind of background music to fill out the collaboration. I didn’t get with them to give me a soundtrack. Music for this kind of program isn’t some kind of vase to stick the flowers in—you enter another time zone on stage, and in that time zone it’s time to listen to everyone there playing with you, to find your place and groove as one of the instruments. And the better the collaborating musicians were at listening to us, the more we could work good things out. It is a very immediate and experiential collaboration. The performance is created at the time of the performance itself, not on paper somewhere.

CL: Did any of the collaborations lead you to a different perspective on the piece you performed?

MR: Sure, everything changed in the collaboration. The biggest problem with poetry readings these day is that most poetry readers have a preconceived idea about how they think a poem sounds, or what a poem means, and how they think it should be read. So they go out and read with some kind of preconceived melody and rhythm and tone that most of the time has nothing to do with the actual poem, or voice of the poem, or voice of the poet. It is totally inappropriate. I don’t think all kinds of poets should sound the same when they read a poem, but they mostly do these days. Not necessarily because they write the same but because they imitate each other’s performance style. It’s monotonous. I don’t get that.

Once the poem leaves the page it has a life of its own. You have to learn it over and over again, at each performance, word for word, note for note. The words tell you what is being said. Not some idea of the words. Each time is new. Perspectives, moods, how you see and think about a poem, changes from day to day. And musicians change from day to day. Different musicians, or the same musicians, in different moods. So you have to be open to that.

I never imagined poems like “Angels” and ”The Jet” to be “entertaining.” In fact, I thought that if a poem was too “entertaining” then it was probably superficial. But as I got out there and started to work with musicians I got a different take on things. I learned more how to have fun and improvise. That poetry is a celebration. I went along with my collaborators, musicians and audience, to learn how a work could, on a given day, be performed.

CL: Please share one or two highlights from the tour. What images or experiences stay with you?

DM: Performing "Brother" in duo with baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans. The trio in Buffalo—whose names I don't have at hand—bass, drum, tenor sax. Also, that night, Terri came into her own as a performer.

MR: There were so many highlights that I can’t begin to say. I lost my mind in L.A. freaking out because I didn’t think the collaboration would work and then we got to the Hammer and it was so beautiful, I didn’t think we needed to go any further on the tour—it couldn’t get better. When we got to New Orleans I saw the audience dance to David’s “Red Shoes.” The groove created by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was so compelling, and Meltzer was so on the money, that you couldn’t help dancing. Imagine, dancing to a poetry reading! It was sublime. In D.C. with Burnett Thompson, man, we had no rehearsal at all and Burnett set up a mind-blowing collaboration, brought on this angelic vocalist who opened and closed the show, created this great vocal contrast to our voices, and Joseph Cunliffe soared on multi-reed. Burnett had the whole thing magically improvised. I thought I died and gone to heaven. I swear I got into some bliss state that lasted for days. Then Bob Malone seemed to be everywhere—Chicago, St. Louis—and he shook the audience out of any kind of too serious mood with some rollicking, rocking Professor Long Hair, Dr. John, Jerry Lee Lewis kind of piano playing and shattered the whole idea of the “too serious poetry reading.” What a relief! Then there were the ribs at Dreamland. Meltzer denies it but he went back for seconds, but Terri stopped him because he is mostly a fishetarian and it was 10 am. She didn’t want him to hurt himself. There were too many highlights. Being on the road with David and Terri for two months in itself was a highlight. You could break that down!

CL: Did you write while on tour? How does being in transit affect the way that you write?

MR: Writing on this tour was difficult. My objective was to write for the ROCKPILE blog. That was our mission based on the grant and promise to friends who wanted to follow us on our journey. But we drove thousands of miles, planning ahead for PA, piano, venues, musicians, checking in and checking out of motels, moving baggage, running off to gatherings, seminars, and so forth—there was little time or mind space for writing. I have always liked writing on the move but there was just so much to do. By the time we got to N.Y.C. we had fallen behind on our “daily” blogging. I have never been a straight-out blogger type, neither is Meltzer. I did what I could to adapt to what I thought was a blog form. Terri had to do all the filming and uploading of film, videos, photos, and so forth so she rarely took up the pen. I didn’t finish with my blog entries until about a month after we got back home.

DM: I watched way too much TV in the motel rooms, especially those with huge flat screens. I'm not hooked up at home, just watch DVDs. Wrote fragmentary blahgs. Was getting adjusted to the restrictive freedom of a new iBook. The road throws routine out the window. My disciplined "writerly" habits of solitary were suddenly distracted by constantly shifting motel/hotel rooms. It was impossible for me to get in regular writing patterns and to work on three projects in progress.

CL: How much rehearsal time did you have with the musicians? What did you learn from working with them?

MR: Most of the time we had no rehearsals. Time and money didn’t allow it. It wasn’t really about rehearsals, though, it was about meeting and getting to know each other artistically. We didn’t score stuff out. We got some grooves down and sometimes gave the musicians poems so they could look them over. But mostly nobody had time to think about anything. A few cues, like hey, I want blues groove. Or I want this to rock. Or just start playing, I’ll jump in. We had a couple hours with The Dirty Dozen, the LA Band, and Thunderbird Poetry Orkestra, we did work with Malone in S.F. in the pre-ramble at Bird & Beckett, but mostly it was a case of show up, cross your fingers, and jump! I learned that no matter what you’ve got planned, what you think you know, you don’t know anything. It’s all one big mystery. Trust yourself, trust the musicians, let the moment speak to you and take it from there.