Bipolar Worlds: an interview with Chris Stroffolino

by Aryanil Mukherjee

Chris Stroffolino with Continuous Pheasant
Chris Stroffolino with Continuous Peasant band mates

Chris Stroffolino is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: Oops (Pavement Saw Press, 1994),  Stealer's Wheel (Hard Press, 1999), and Speculative Primitive (Tougher Disguises, 2005) as well as several limited edition chapbooks. His outspoken views on poetry can be found in Spin Cycle, a collection of essays, talks, and reviews (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), and he co-edited An Anthology of New (American) Poets (Talisman House, 1998). He was Visiting Distinguished Poet in Residence at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California from 2001-2004, and is currently the lead singer/songwriter of the band Continuous Peasant. He talks here with Aryanil Mukherjee about a plethora of topics ranging from contemporary poetics to cross currents in American poetry in the last half-century.

Aryanil Mukherjee: Casting a look at the different periods of American poetry, which era do you think stands out in terms of its innovation of the poetic language, and why?

Chris Stroffolino: I'm skeptical of talking about poetry in terms of periods or eras, at least in any definitive way. Eras tend to be ill-defined or tend to come down to a few individuals whose ideas of poetry, for rather arbitrary reasons, get put forth as maxims more than others. Often, if we're thinking of American poetry, the name that comes up as the most influential innovator of "poetic language" (which is in my opinion less profound than other forms of poetic innovations) is Ezra Pound, with his theoretical/aesthetic tomes and machinations that persuaded many of the need to "modernize" language and other aspects of poetry to suit what he perceived “the age demanded" and to justify his own particular aesthetics. Thus, it's no accident that he would be held up for his superior "music" or "ear" as many of Pound's "innovations" have now become "naturalized" in many discussions of American poetry of the last 100 years—despite what discomfort many may feel about his poetic project. One could say the Beats did much, for a time, to help provide an alternative to Pound—obviously on an ethical and content level, as well as in terms of language. But this question for me is ultimately more about individuals than movements or periods, and about much more than language. I might even argue that the most important poets for me, even if they can be seen as "innovators," are not primarily so, at least if we restrict the question to “poetic language.”

AM: There's a lot of interest among Indian readers about the Beat Generation poets. Parallel poetry movements happened in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the '60s that apparently seem to have been inspired or thronged by the Beatniks. In retrospect, how do you think the Beats influenced the American poetry scene?

CS: The Beats had a lot to do with opening things up in the late '50s (insofar as writers like Lowell, Rich, and Merwin, in the wake of the Beats, began loosening their prosody, for instance), helped popularize, or laid the ground for appreciation of, other contemporary poets such as Creeley, O'Hara, Jones/Baraka, Ashbery, and so on, and helped many re-evaluate older writers like Williams, Whitman, Blake, and Shelley (whose reputation suffered under the post-Eliot/Pound New Criticism). They also may have had a significant impact culturally beyond mere poetry lineages (insofar as they were able to cross over into the mass media and help turn a post-World War II "baby-boom" generation on to cultural aspects largely ignored by normative media at the time. In retrospect, it's pretty amazing they got so much attention considering how conservative the '50s were, but it just goes to show how things are even more closed up now than they were then. This paralleled to some extent the rise of rock and roll; the younger Bob Dylan, for instance, had a definite kinship with the Beats that may have had an even more profound effect on culture for a time.

Of course, referring to the Beats as a group presents many problems. Take for instance, Corso vs. Ginsberg. While, in general, I think Corso has written the better poems on the page in terms of sophistication and lyric and intellectual intensity, Ginsberg's most important achievement (after Howl) was largely as a popularizer of poetry and as a spokesman and social revolutionary. Both of these roles are necessary, and although my writing may align me more with the former at present, if the opportunity presents itself. I can see myself sacrificing the intense page-poem for a more Ginsbergian role (perhaps with my rock band)—but so far it's a responsibility and a privilege that has not afforded itself to me. I bring this up because in my late 20s and for most of my 30s, I, and I think many others of my generation, thought that we reached a point in our poetry where we outgrew the Beats, or at least a straightforward declamatory kind of poetry. However, as the cultural and political climate in America has grown increasingly conservative, and the original Beat generation poets increasingly dead, and writers younger than myself are increasingly not even aware of what the Beats were able to do (and if they are, they consider it something in the distant past, like Romanticism), I've found myself feeling that what is needed today in American poetry is at least as much of a “rebirth of wonder” as Ferlinghetti called for in the mid-1950s. This is not to suggest a simple return to the Beat ethos—yes, they were part of the sexist 1950s, and women were largely marginalized from the Beat movement— nor do I suggest that we all have to become huge students of their writing. Yet even if the "message" in poetry by Ginsberg and other Beats may be very easy to grasp in a way that doesn't require as much study as Creeley, Ashbery, or others, it may be actually more difficult to live—and that may be the most important aspect to Beat poetry, like rock and roll at its best, "free your ass and your mind will follow." One contemporary poet I admire who is influenced by the Beats is Eliot Katz, who just visited San Francisco. He takes the Beats so seriously, when so many of my more "sophisticated" poetry friends do not.

AM: Shelley seemed to have a stellar influence on Corso; in fact, Corso's poetry appears a little deceitful to me in the sense that it is as much romantic, sensible, and organized and self-destructive as Corso's own life. What do you think?

CS: I think Corso read Shelley quite differently than I do! For me, part of Shelley's brilliance and intensity was his discursive "intellectual beauty." Shelley presented himself as more of an intellectual than Corso. Thus, much of what I liked in Creeley, Ashbery and Stevens, and later in Shakespeare, I found in Shelley—a strong conceptual thinker. Yet he also presented himself as more emotionally intense than Stevens and Ashbery (if not Creeley), and also dramatized himself very insistently as a "the Lyric Self" in ways that many subsequent writers would claim was a little too reckless (in the "fear" of Romanticism which has largely characterized both Victorian and 20th-century norms in American and English poetry). Stevens, Riding, and Ashbery, though three of the most "romantic" (and even "visionary") poets of the 20th century (especially if compared to Eliot and Pound), are nonetheless rather repressed when compared to Shelley. Corso's intensity is much more emotional and lyric than intellectual and discursive. This does not mean Corso is not a very subtle thinker in the best of his poetry, but that his thought is often brilliantly condensed in a tighter gem-like lyricism, without what some (though not me) would call the "dross" of discursive, "prose-like" (dry) explanation one may find in Ashbery, Riding and Stevens. In this sense, Corso is a less-generative poet for me (as the other writers often get my juices flowing to write a poem when reading them more than Corso does), but this does not mean I value him as a poet less. I see a lyric kinship with aspects of Frank O'Hara (O'Hara's beautiful poem called "Gregory Corso's Gasoline"  is like, and better than, a review of early Corso.). In the best of Corso there's a brittle, even fragile, intensity of each word, each line, that reminds me of, say, early Delmore Schwartz at his best (as well as Rimbaud, and other poets who have such faith in the “less is more” notion of lyric poetry). It's so well crafted it doesn't seem an accident that he couldn't sustain such lyric intensity in some of his later work. It's unfortunate that this has hurt his reputation as a poet. Is it self-destructive? Is the fact that Corso was "nearly a social failure" a relevant consideration when considering the value of his poetry? I'm torn about that one. Quite a few of the language poets have been candid enough to tell me privately that one of their problems with writers like Corso is not ultimately aesthetic, or political, but comes more deeply out of their fear of turning out like him as a person—as if the mere fact of writing that way would destabilize their bourgeois comforts. Maybe it does, but that hardly discredits Corso for me.

AM: Do you believe that many contemporary American poets including you got divorced from Language Poetry? Was Language Poetry barely an academic hallmark? A manifesto for the movement's sake?

CS: I don't know if I can speak for anyone but myself here, but for me, I never got "divorced" from Language Poetry, because I was never "married" to it. I know some others who got "turned on" to poetry largely through the auspices, or networking prowess, of the Language poets—they are very good recruiters; almost as good as the army—and they would have a different take on it. Perhaps Wallace would be a good example of this; which is why perhaps he coined the term "Post-language" poetry in the mid-1990s. Because I was already clear that I wanted to be a poet before I became aware of the Language poets, and already had a pretty clear sense of what I thought poetry was and could be, the Language poets presented a challenge to me that I found intriguing enough to read them with as open a mind as possible, while maintaining a skepticism toward their claims. In fact, like many have said before me, I found their polemics to be what initially attracted me to them. They presented themselves as intellectual arguers, and this inspired me to write critical prose that would argue back. The polemics also did a good job of whetting my interest in their poetry, and a few of them—Bob Perelman, Carla Harryman most notably—I think, are definitely among the best poets of their generation. But since I still liked writers they said you weren't supposed to like, well, there was a lot of pettiness involved. As time went on, many of them became less dogmatic, but even today there are too many taboos, too many don'ts (a la Ezra Pound), in their prescriptions for proper poetry. I've written more lengthily elsewhere about some of my quarrels with the Language poets and had hoped at one time that they would wish to enter into a dialogue with me, in part because I did take many of their stated concerns seriously, but for the most part they have refused—so I've increasingly found myself reading less of them than I used to.

AM: A fairly large percentage of established, practicing, experimenting poets hold either MFAs or PhDs and teach literature (you, Wallace, Gizzi, etc.) or are otherwise working in the arts. Most Bengali poets have no formal training in any field of arts, and are in professions that are completely incongruent with arts or literature. What's your take on this?

CS: I have TOO many takes on this! I decided I wanted to be a teacher around the same time I decided I wanted to be a poet, but these were two separate decisions (I would have applied for the job of "fool," probably, if it were England in 1590). On another level, your question makes me wonder about the larger social forces that have caused America to become largely a "service economy" of white-collar workers, while the blue-collar, manual laborers are now more found in other countries. Not that I'm nostalgic for the "good old days" of sweatshops or anything—as a first-generation college student, I certainly went to college to avoid the factory in which my dad worked. Maybe the fact that the “growth” of America coincides with electronic mass-media further discouraged manual laborers from the less capital-intensive activity of reading and writing. In any event, I feel the much touted "progress" about the "upward mobility" to be gained from switching from blue-collar jobs to white-collar (presumably more mentally fulfilling) jobs to be another aspect of "the American ruse" that I question. If indeed many poets in America, like me, spent much time in their 20s and 30s going to graduate school to get those higher degrees in part to be able to buy time to work on their poetry (and went into huge student-loan debts in the process), of course we'd want to get jobs in the academy—it’s practically the only marketable skill we have in this increasingly specialized and professionalized society. Since college was the place in which many have learned poetry, and one of the few places in which appreciating poetry was a value, it makes sense that so many of us would want to be there. Now, if poetry were disseminated in other ways—through the media (like rock music is), or through "peer pressure" (like drugs are)—then maybe I wouldn't have felt a need to go to school in the first place. I know that in other countries it's different. For instance, I have some Canadian friends who have been able to get government grants to take a year off to write poetry. It seems it's significantly easier to get grants there to do that, because the poets I knew were young, and not very published. I think if we had a stronger public sector in America, a stronger government support for artists (I'm not talking about a decadent "free ride"—but rather a sense that the grant money would result in some kind of "community service" project that would benefit the commonwealth), then perhaps more poets wouldn't have to be involved with the academy. Not that I think being involved in the academy is a bad thing, but if I believe that poets are best when they have more freedom—more time to think, feel, sleep, and so on—then I also believe we need less money than other people to be able to live. But America is so "all or nothing" in the sense that it's almost impossible to find some means of support that provide the bare modicum to be able to live happily and healthily (I'm not even going to get into the health care crisis!). Instead, it's either poverty and constant stress, or overwork and constant stress. At least a teaching job can allow you three months off in the summer, and that's a start.

AM: What are the politics of the poetry publishing houses in America? Typically, how would a young poet find places to publish his early work? And how has that journey been for you?

CS: Oh gosh, I don't know about the politics of the poetry publishing houses in America (if I knew more, I'd probably be able to get and keep my books in print better!) so I have many conspiracy theories about many presses. Yet, I think most presses that publish primarily poetry are generally very small in America, and generally lose money. So there are many editors who either work more than one job to pay for their little presses, or who have inherited money. These people are really trying, but most poetry books being published hardly ever sell more than 500 or 1000 copies (a good deal of which are probably often bought by the author herself). The situation is very close to what is called a "vanity press" or there's a basic barter system, as poets trade books with each other. In my more cynical moods, I came up with this formula for the contemporary poetry world in America: "buy and read 50 books of poetry a year, and maybe 50 people will buy and read yours"—not that the poet sees the money or anything. Anyway, it used to be more large publishing houses would have a poetry "division" or "wing"; that's not so much the case now. University presses (and others) often have contests to make money. There are also the "anonymous" reading committees; it's shrouded in a certain mystery because people want to avoid the appearance of nepotism (but they're often the most nepotistic). I only tried the contest thing once, and don't plan on trying it again. I’d like to see a press that publishes challenging poetry make an attempt to reach outside the poetry coteries again, for someone with access to the cultural means of production to take a risk on it again (it sickens me that even college radio stations, much less NPR or The Village Voice, for the most part consider poets non-entities). The only example of someone who did this in recent years was Rob Bingham, at Open City, who helped get David Berman’s book to a relatively wide audience (though still not as big as the audiences of Howl, For Love, and The Happy Birthday of Death). He was interested in my work, but he died tragically at a young age. Well, it proves that it can be done, and maybe someone else will appear on the scene and do it.

AM: How have the times changed for poetry journal editors in America compared to when, say, Ed Sanders published his journal Fuck You?

CS: Well, I'd say one big difference is that there are simply so many poets today—perhaps even more than there are readers of poetry. It's a more conservative time (both politically and socially) than the 1960s, and probably even than the 1950s. Many poets (on the self-proclaimed “cutting edge”) claim the "shock value" of those words, or of strapping your naked self to a nuclear warhead, no longer exists, and is now simply passé. But when Albert Gonzalez comes, can Lenny Bruce be far behind? Besides, there are still magazines that are more similar to Fuck You than to most poetry magazines, but more likely they are connected to the "underground" or "punk" music magazines. That culture is more truly the heir to the spirit of the Beats and to Sanders (whose band the Fugs inspired many punk-like bands in the '80s and beyond) in its youth, and its desire to want to change culture, and not strictly publish poetry, or "LITERATURE." I think most poetry magazines today are much more like the way poetry magazines were before the Beats came around and traded in "respectability" for a certain "hipness." I think many magazines, even many I'm glad to have been published in, reek of respectability—and having just said that, I'll add, it's not really their fault. It's but a symptom of what has happened to culture in general in America.

AM: Before we end, I’d like to ask you about one of my favorite poems of yours, "Vive La Difference"—I am curious about the origin of this poem.

CS: The emotional/ethical origin of the poem was a feeling of unrequited Love upon meeting a woman in a bar and feeling how weird, and seemingly backwards, American courtship rituals are. The woman was a fast talker, verbally attractive (I tend to fall for that kind of woman a lot), but attracted to me, it seemed, ONLY FOR MY MIND, alas. So in this poem I'm basically trying to make the best of the situation and really hope that the intensity we shared non-physically could somehow translate to a physical connection, even though I was aware or afraid that we had gotten too close mentally first for this to ever happen. But there's an attempt at ingenuous optimism here. This particular woman did go so far as "dry-humping me" once, but when I reached to take off her shirt, she yelled, "you'll never see them," referring, I suppose, to her breasts. Of course, the poem does other things, and could apply to many other muses I've had (there's a political dimension to this poem) so I don't know how much the dry-humping really illuminates the poem; it probably says much more about my fear of being called (or treated like an) over-intellectual than it does about love.

Vive La Difference

We couldn’t see the sky painted on the ceiling
But the love we knew was blind could. Maybe
We met in a bar because she was as afraid of
My body as I was of hers. Under normal
Dating circumstances this could prevent us
But if the city proves anything it’s that nature
Isn’t normal. And as some have to go to movies
To look in the mirror and others need not be babies
To be born head first it's not really a matter
Of putting the cart before the horse to be friends
Before lovers, to eat the nut before cracking the shell
And feel like we have too much of what others have
Too little of. Nor must I feel like it can be quantified
For consciousness to come off like a teacher who lectures
So much or always calls on the one student, say memory,
Who always has his hands up. forgetting until finals week
To try to get the cuter silent one in the back to talk,
Which is shame when it turns out she has the most
Interesting things to say, or at least it seems that way
After overdosing on “depth.” And so we’re trying to drink
Our way out of the tunnel we’re were too similar to be
Attracted to each other. “Vive La Difference!” says one
Of the bridge-workers to a diplomat at the bar. “It keeps us
In business.” But I don’t know if I want to be kept there,
I protest. “Of course you do, silly. Listen. It’s not so bad.
You get nights off, free lunch, overtime, the pleasure
Of killing two birds with one stone.” But killing two birds
With one stone is just a polite way of saying ‘double vision’—
Any fool who just got fired can see that there only ever
Was one bird; it was blind at that, blind as a bat
That couldn’t care less whether the batter just struck out
The second before the game (played in the Astrodome)
Is called because of rain.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005