Spotlight: Ed Pavlić
The Music of Possession
Interview by Ken L. Walker
I saw a book with Donny Hathaway on its cover at the 2008 AWP Conference here in New York City. Judging it by its cover, I spent my last ten dollars to buy Winners Have Yet to Be Announced. The poems in that book purport themselves to be artifacts of documentary evidence—research-based poetry where a portion of the inspection is almost fictitious, non-actual, but much of it is based on gathered truths. The possibilities of creative non-fiction had finally collided with the capabilities of poetry, and in a very different fashion than Susan Howe’s work.
In his newest book, But Here Are Small Clear Refractions—a fascinating meeting ground of poetry, memoir, travel documentation (he took all the photos that appear in the book), and subtle political commentary—Pavlić connects antitheses to a single blank page. He puts two versions of the world (the overlooked and the all-too-noticeable) on display by traveling to and observing Siu, a town on Pate Island, which is in Kenyan territory but borders on Somali territory. It is also the island where Fazul Mohammed (a most-wanted international terrorist) lived for a few months. Siu was, to a certain degree, invaded by the FBI and bombed by the American military and while the town means something to the so-called “war on terror,” it offers a unique somatic pallet to its native inhabitants. Pavlić sums this up as “the music of possession which can’t be possessed.”
…Refractions shows that a poet offers and takes serious benefits from recording excursions, especially when it’s written in that gray zone of communication which hovers between poetry and prose. Pavlić does not lack the experience, a posteriori, having lived in Alphabet City/the East Village in the early 1990s when it was a war (on drugs) zone, as well as Nigeria. He now resides in Athens, Georgia and when he came to New York late last year, we sat down and discussed his work, a little political ideology and plenty of other things.
KW: For some reason or another, I’ve been listening to a lot of newer Keith Jarrett recently. His compositions and live playing style always makes me think about corridors.
EP: Jarrett’s work strikes me as deeply compatible with that sort of spatial/grammatical discussion. The first 20 minutes of his Vienna Concert, for me, is an intricate and complex reckoning with certain basic functions of intellectual and linguistic activity (I’ll elaborate on these below): holding, moving, and catching. The interval about mid-way in that span where he begins to find and assert the ostinato (left hand) while repeating and altering and deepening the melodic search and commentary (right hand) is up there with the best music I know. In fact, it’s beyond music, as such, rather it’s an exploration of, as I suggest, basic and fundamental actions of mind. For me, the piece kind of loses it after 20 minutes but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got the image of Jarrett lightly playing those rhythms on, say, a reinforced concrete wall and the wall coming apart at his fingertips. In that music, I hear something like how to, say, “press but don’t push” in a way that doesn’t acquiesce to the will (there’s a corridor!) and doesn’t abdicate it (like, say, John Cage) either. I think that position is the key to engaged creative work and open presence in the world.
In your newest book, But Here Are Small Clear Refractions, you mention this idea of the possibility of a life without a vowel or a consonant.
The character sits listening to a conversation in Ki-Swahili. He’s absorbed by the tonal give and take and the rhythm made when one voice answers another. He’s already noticed a unique rhythm in Ki-Swahili where listeners respond into spaces left open by the voice addressing them. All languages do this. He can’t hear the Ki-Swahili vowels and consonants that he knows create the tonal (vowels) and rhythmic (consonants) texture of phrases and sentences in English. So, he understands he’s in a musical/verbal space that he marks but doesn’t understand. And, he thinks of that antiphonal rhythm as a physical terrain. The song of language is a political reality. Not to romanticize the work being done (the women are washing clothes by hand) but to imagine, to re-encounter, the power of daily language use in its relation to the historical speech (the men narrating the history of the village). And,of course, in relation to global political discourse and power smothering (or seeking and failing to smother) local realities and the kind of power that remain in the hands of people few would see, or admit that they see, or know how to see, as powerful. It’s very difficult to see or imagine something about people that one can’t imagine or accept about oneself.
We “um-hmm” people in English all the time. And, the jazz accompanist learns to be out of the way while “filling in windows” left open by the voice of a singer. Billie Holiday and Lester Young, for example, made a sculptural-duet out of that space. It’s interesting that you mention that moment in the book. I’ve signed a bunch of them with the inscriptions, “in a single ascending tone” or “in a duet of falling cadences.” Both of those inscriptions come from precisely that moment in the book. I think I see it as a major event in my creative life to have written those lines and an important event in my experience to have encountered them in the air around me. Possibly, I’d spent years writing those kinds of valances and cadences into my own interior, in a way, preparing myself to encounter them that morning in Siu?
Does language make walls?
Of course, words are mobilized in/as walls all around us. But, in ways even more radical than stones or brick, the connective (what Emerson called “vehicular”) reality of words betrays the ramparts people build with them. Words link. Obviously, as many have noted and as writers like Pinter and Beckett made careers of, words link indirectly as much by clunky obstruction as by anything that deserves the name “fluency.” But, they link nonetheless. Williams James observed the same about “consciousness.” Even the partitions and obstructions are links, are in the turbulence and flow of the stream, they give the stream, each stream, part of its singular character.
And, by their being, words cast shadows and so always mean much more than a speaker can intend and in ways no speaker can control. Corridor is better. I’ve long had the idea of a phrase, image, or sentence as a street or a hallway in which two people (say, writer and reader) meet. The idea came to me, strangely enough (in relation to Refractions, which is, finally, an exploration of political “interrogation”) in a poem called “Results of the Polygraph.” But, words also “hold” and “catch.” Words, therefore, perform the three basic spatial functions: holding (spherical, round: skulls, grapes); transferring (tubular, long: veins, highways, rivers); and catching (planar, flat: fins, wings, sails, leaves). Words can also create the experience of subtle and intense pressures: depths, heights. I’ve been at work for years in attempts to create a “poetry” that could “hold” (sphere), “catch” (plane), and “move” (tube) a reader’s eye in a different way. At times, I think of this literally: to write is to catch, hold, and move a person’s eye in your hand. How do that with words? I think it has as much to do with the tonal and rhythmic properties of words as it does with their meaning. And, of course, if the words don’t catch, hold, move the writer, there’s little hope they’ll do such with a reader.
Right. “No one would ask / me what I said if / I spoke any louder than this” seems a great poetic example—an interesting way to envelop the interaction between reader, writer, media, and something else, a phantom limb?
The idea of an audience of people was actually the farthest thing from my mind in writing poems. Thankfully, I’m still there! I’m not sure I’m saying what I mean, here. And, that reminds me that the line in “Polygraph” is, actually, “if I spoke any louder than this here.”
The notion of “address.” Who is listening? I know that poems began exactly as a result of having no one (on earth) to whom I could say what it felt like I needed to “say.” And, I mean felt. And, I mean need. And, I could feel my voice accommodating and/or resisting what “people think” on the way out of my mouth. When I was young, I’d mastered that. I could gargle my voice in ways to convince people of what I wanted them to think, etc. Of who I was, etc. I’d learned to inflect a certain version of my past into the tone of my phrases. Tubes, veins. But, by the time I was, say, 26 or 27, those transactions, and my success in them, had begun to strangle me.
The version of my past inflected in my voice, true as it was, was insufficient for me. I remember when my voice began to catch, when words (really the veins behind them) just wouldn’t be there when I began to speak or when I wanted to complete a thought or punch home a point. They had been there, now they were gone. Or, if they were there and I could use them as I had, and when I did, I remember the crushing sense of regret I’d feel afterward. I didn’t understand these feelings at that time. I remember Curtis Mayfield’s line from “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” in the back of my brain, chanting at me: “Pardon me brother, as you stand in your glory, I know you won’t mind, if I tell the whole story.” It was the pressure to expand the sphere, to hold more of the world, it needed new, wider veins.
Now I know it’s because, in fact, there IS no world out there into which I can be articulate in the way I seem to need to be articulate. And that need is always shifting. The differences in my books evince something about these shifts, I think. That’s a fact. The fact is that within certain bounds, I was fluent with my world. But, I couldn’t abide the boundaries. When I began to realize this, I thought I was losing my mind. My edge.
But, from my first actual attempts at poems, that is to find “images” and “rhythms” and “tones” rather than statements for things I could feel, for the world in my body and in my brain, strangely, it seemed that the poems created listeners to whom I could say what I felt like I needed to say, which, of course, I had to create in order to say it. And, I mean create. And, I still mean need. The best poems of mine (to me) are the ones where, somehow, in the writing and revising, it’s as if a listener appears in the distance and, as the revision comes around, she steps closer. And, when the revision goes astray, she steps back. And, when the poem really takes shape, I’ve got a new friend, for life. A friend who can actually save my life. This has happened to me.
Tell me more about the re-appropriated Adrienne Rich title?
That phrase just fell onto the page. The full passage from the poem “Trace Elements” (in The School Among the Ruins) is:
but here are small clear refractions
from an unclear season
blood on a leaf
gold trace element in water
light from the eye behind the eye
I’d actually had a poem with that title for a few years, it was a poem composed of bits of cell phone conversations as transcribed by “operatives” (bored) at the NSF at Fort Meade, MD. I thought maybe that poem might be a book, but I think I may have given up on it. Small clear refractions. The glimpse. The peripheral vision. Hindsight. Oversight. Happensight. But, Adrienne Rich’s work takes these obliquities and works them into images that somehow are like steel beams but, at the same time, in no ways rigid. Her work makes almost dreamlike couples of things like : stability / fluidity, complexity / clarity. Dreamlike in the way that irrational (or non-rational, contradictory) elements easily co-exist in ways the “waking” mind has difficulty understanding because of the role of separation in our (unfortunate) methods for understanding. In his classic study of Faulkner, Figures of Division, the great, far-too-soon-late, literary critic James Snead, wrote that the need to “separate and distinguish” is the “aboriginal obsession of the Western mind.” I love that. In an early essay, James Baldwin wrote that the goal was to “be, not seem, outrageous, anarchical. . .”, that one must be very “disciplined, as a means of being spontaneous.” So, I hoped that Refractions could return, in a non-derivative way, the gesture from Adrienne Rich’s poem.
Because this new book reminded me of his ideologies, I wanted to ask you how you feel about Enrique Dussel.
I haven’t read Dussel but understand that his work sits in line (roughly) with writers (John Berger, Édouard Glissant, Césaire) whom I admire. Certainly, the association with Marx, Gramsci is interesting to me, of course. What’s the connection you see between Dussel and Refractions?
Your book made me think of Bartolome de Las Casas and how travel, in a way, suggests that any encounter with another culture creates a paradox of use; there is a privilege in being able to travel but you’re subtly examining how the minority that gets to do it legally. And, so, one must properly exercise that privilege. One can blindly encounter another culture or one can genuinely trade with another culture.
Our trip was really organized by Kenyans. Last year we went back to that territory again. The reality is that those provinces of Kenya, those areas, what they call “coast province” are remote to Kenyans who live “up country.” The people on that boat were quite an amalgam (another American, three or four Kenyans, a Russian, etc.) and so everybody was really in a pretty foreign element—Kenyans as well. The up country Kenyans knew Swahili, of course, but they didn’t know Swahili on the level that the locals speak it where it’s a livelier language. It’s unplugged, un-modern, un-rural. You can get to rural in an hour from Nairobi. This is a different dimension. And, so therefore, there’s a certain powerlessness in this region because it’s so far away from the center of political power. It’s been actively impoverished by the Kenyan government over generations. But, because of its other-worldly nature, and its historical involvement with Islam and its access to the Indian Ocean, it has this cosmopolitan cultural power as a region that some people respect. It’s culturally autonomous and powerful in a away that makes people non-attentive to it which then re-gathers an attention from other factions and this helps it to become a location that attracts a lot of international, cosmopolitan traffic. To me, Mombasa is a far more sophisticated city than Nairobi will ever be. Nairobi feels a lot like Atlanta feels to me. It’s about money. Mombasa feels like what I imagine having read about 18th century Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. In the case of Mombasa, Somalis, Indians, coastal Kenyans all densely and intensely inter-swirl with each other in the streets. One passes Mosques, Temples, Churches wherever one goes. And, certainly, relative to Nairobi, it’s notably absent of violent crime.
How do you see the way contemporary Empire operates?
I think contemporary empire operates in every way. Read The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection. There’s a lot there : “domination is a rhythm we live within.” It’s true. Predator drones in people’s Cornflakes. A tele-culture that envelopes people’s lives before they’re lived. Experience represented before it happens. I have a 3-d image of my youngest son from inside the womb. 3-d. And, he wanted out! It clearly wasn’t comfortable in there. I’m going to tell him that and show him the portrait when he’s 15. You know, “Ok, you don’t want to be here, but you didn’t want to be where you came from either and I have proof!” So, maybe I’m an emperor, too.
But, seriously, I do think that contemporary empire operates via people’s daily, articulate speech. I know that empire hates friction. Smooth asphalt. Runways, better. Fibre optics, better still. Empire functions via particular kinds of “veins.” And, I hear this in people’s speech. I’m not sure empire can operate in, say, parts of Afghanistan where the roads are rough or where there are no roads. Those recent photos in The New York Times, from the Afghan elections in September, 2010. Stuff like this :
That’s NOT empire. There’s immense power there. But, it’s not power that’s wagered its fluency in terms that empire can readily absorb as yet. In my mind, that’s the crux of what’s meant by the term “terrorist.” Energy which refuses to be absorbed into the loss of friction that empires require of subjects, all subjects. A clog in the arteries of trillionaire corporations, the ones that own the nations in whose name Empire functions. Markets need to grow. And, no one in the empires can afford to have markets growing at the pace photographed above. This may sound romantic, but I don’t think so. That photo comes from an article from Sept. 17 in The Washington Post. The headline was “Carrying the Weight of Much Hope.” That’s true. Whose? And, for what? I doubt very seriously there’s much in common, really, between the hopes in those tubs and those behind the orders of whatever US support’s going on outside the frame of the photo. “Support?” The tubs are probably from Target. . .
Veins in the brains. Wired by Empire. SAT tests and GRE exams are to intellectual and creative life exactly what interstate highways and turnpikes are to auto travel, and, for identical reasons: they both shun similar zip codes. They’re about a (always potentially at least) militarized, transportability (and interchangeability) of product. Third graders are being taught “test taking skills.” Nine-year olds. Us. Empire? I went to the mall in Atlanta looking for a shirt to wear next week. Stacey warned me about showing up on a Saturday. Wow. What a pageant. These people are serious. The Taliban and Al Shabaab might not be as militant about what they believe as are these Atlanta-based American consumers. Stacey and I had to really keep our jaws from falling on the floor. I really felt like I’d come from the village with dust on my feet and my shoes in a paper bag. The face armor, bullet-proof hair, epic nails, lips like phases of a sunset. The heels! Cleavage like ski slopes for the disappearing eye. And, all that’s just the men! There are people, and lots of them, with teeth that are white in a way no human teeth should be white. I think they wear the shades simply so the glow from their teeth doesn’t blind them. And, all races. All sexes. No one without money need exist during business hours, of course. The gargoyles lurking about in the cosmetics section of the department stores. Man. The latent violence of it, really, the pure puissance of the veneer is something I’d never felt to that degree. It’s sheer obliteration; oblivion need not apply. In a way, I think this is what’s being fought about under the American flag. And, subliminally (maybe) conscripted, the people in that mall, in fact, are far more active and engaged than the most devoted National Guard unit. Soldiers all.
This makes the region of Kenya you were in sound like a region not plagued by anomie. It sounds more than interesting as an area, a place very point-full and meaningful. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I think of Chiapas, Mexico, a place luscious, full of life, and full of revolution and full of indigenousness. And, of course, I’d love to travel there and observe and help and fight the revolution with the Zapatistas but I feel like I have an obligation to fix the streetlight on the corner and not stray too far from “home.”
I certainly didn’t show up with ideals like that. I did show up with curiosity because of the mix of an ancient way of life, or a way of life in some continuous relationship with its history, and also situatied in this deeply fraught contemporary political situation. Cruise missles flew over those islands a week after we were there. At this point in my life, I felt like I could be there and just watch it and run it thru my brain. I could kind of aim myself at it. That’s why the book comes off with the sense that I am the only person involved. I was the only poet on the boat; does that have something to do with it? Probably.
But, I know what you mean about the streetlight on the corner. I’m not sure I think I have an obligation to “fix” it. By “streetlight,” let me say I mean “human situations” at, near, in my home. I don’t think I have an obligation to fix them. But, I do think an artist can see them in ways that clarifies something hidden. And, I think, aiming myself at street corners in Mombasa or at scenes in Siu, in listening to Muhammad Kubwa, I think these things can aid in clarifying human situations (or making them newly ambiguous in ways that require clarification) closer to home.
One thing. I’m not talking about Americans who go somewhere else and come back “grateful” for what “we have.” That’s a widget in an empire talking, that’s not a person talking. I’m talking about a newly ambiguous sense of what, in fact, one has and doesn’t have. And, what has hold of me, and what doesn’t have hold of me. A language for what one actually doesn’t have, and will have to build, to contend with the consumer-sickness of inexhaustible want.
Can you expand on this passage from the interview at the end of Refractions: “Strictly speaking, this isn’t a question of Eastern philosophy. I’m no ethnographer. . . I’m an American poet.”
It’s not a question of abdicating the “Western will.” We don’t have that right. Poetically speaking or otherwise, there is no “open field” in the United States. Fuel rods at the bottom of Walden Pond. The pages are not blank. Gary Snyder’s “Escape the human” in the life of an American reader (not in Snyder’s life, mind you) is as easily a suburban mandate as it is eco-anything. It’s not about abdication. It’s about engaging. For me, it’s much closer to James Brown than John Cage. It’s about a sensibility in a complex, intricate relationship to its surroundings. A level of articulate fluency that, in fact, doesn’t have to say a whole lot at all. As for the “ethnographic” thing, in my book, there’s no question of the poetic eye, mine, characterizing the “other” in anyway that’s not totally involved with me. It’s intra-graphic, and inter-graphic, all at once. That’s the second person address. It’s why the book is written as if the world is actually addressing the character played by “me.” “You get on the boat, you walk to Siu. . .”. And, I must say, I didn’t realize this until after the book was almost completely revised. What’s even more interesting than that, is that we argued about how to spell the name of the village on the island. Siu or Siyu. It’s spelled both ways depending on where you find the name, etc. So, we stuck with what’s on the sign at the village. Of course, who knows who put that sign there? Finally, we gave up and went with Siu.
Then, this is very wild. Four of us, including Muhammad Kubwa, went back to the islands in Dec. 2009. And, when we got off the boat at the jetty that leads to the shore (over a wide mangrove swamp) that leads to the path to the village, we saw the following painted on the wall of the jetty just where one comes up from the channel. A third spelling. So, we had Siu, Siyu, and now :
And, I thought. Well, there’s the address from my book! I wondered, having already wrote it three years ago in the narrative perspective of the book, who wrote that? And, to whom?
Within the mixture of urban, reverent, cool American cultural paradigms, is a response of anger acceptable?
Anger is necessary, of course, and inevitable. But, like fear, anger in the hands of the delusional is a dangerous and, in fact, counter-evolutionary force. It the hands of an able craftsperson, it can be a good editor. It can be a terrible late-night drinking partner. There are people for whom anger has a self-reflexive, analytical vigor, an authority. Adrienne Rich, I’m thinking of the poem “The Phenomenology of Anger,” for instance. McEnroe in serve and volley. Pure surgery. Baldwin in an essay or in an argument with his press about money. I think anger requires a kind of personal authority one can only come upon via a disciplined craft built from the inside – out according to autobiographical exigencies that come from the outside – in.
Why did you decide to move to Nigeria?
I’d been in friendships with a few Yoruba painters. It was the early 90s, much was being made of the “Afro-Centric” and the “Diaspora.” I thought a lot of it, especially the Egyptological stuff out of Philadelphia, was hocus pocus. On the other hand, I’d read Hurston very closely and could see that she really was able to be “intra-graphic” and was able to find precise diasporic connections and put them to visionary, imaginative use. So, the painters convinced me to learn the language. I did a summer’s fellowship in Florida with the great, Olabiyi Yai. And, the next year, I moved to Nigeria and lived with a painter (and his wife and son) who knew the painters that I’d known in the states. There are several poems in Labors Lost Left Unfinished set in Nigeria, 1995. It was an amazing, terrifying, and intense experience in all kinds of ways. Never before had I been that permeable, on every level, to my surroundings. Some of the images in those poems are simply journalistic transcriptions. Images such as “Open eye of a needle / you already cast the shadow / of a shinbone.” Someone who knew me whom I didn’t know, in Ife, stopped me on the street one day and simply pointed to my shadow on the ground and that’s what we both saw. The shadow of my chest on the ground had an elliptical open spot where the sun shone through. There it is, and isn’t. That kind of thing seemed to happen a lot while I was there. Events that inevitably seem metaphorical, at best, seemed to occur in literal (though one needs another word) daily / nightly life.
While both books are very different and individualized, I am interested in the choice of form you’ve chosen for both Winners and Refractions. It refers to prosody while possessing an intense interior sonic quality. The somatics are highly intelligent yet kept on earth. It’s effective. Can you elaborate a bit on your frequent choice to engage the prosaic?
This goes back to the image from above about “holding the reader’s eye.” I think I’m trafficking in the illusion of prose. From across the room, it looks like prose, like paragraphs. Up close, it doesn’t work that way at all. At some level, I think I’m playing with the ease readers feel when they encounter prose as opposed to poems with line breaks, etc. So, I really don’t think they’re prose blocks at all. But, that’s the illusion. There’s a propulsion in the sections that belies the invisibility and referential clarity of prose. There are leaps between the period and the next capital letter that “prose” doesn’t allow.
Poetry is the action of language that depends most upon the reality of language and Prose is the action of language that depends most upon the reality of the referent. We write prose to make the language invisible in order to present to the reader the object we’re describing. We write poetry because the object we’re describing and the language we’re using are inextricably involved. We, in some way, want to emphasize the language. It’s not just what you’re looking at through the window but there’s something interesting in and on that window as well. Most of my own most useful thinking on any topic involving the differences between prose’s reality and a poem’s reality comes from William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All.
What was the original impetus for Winners Have Yet to Be Announced? How did you form the conceptual framework? Were there any impasses?
I’d lived with Donny’s music for years and years. In the early 90s while living on Avenue C in Manhattan I’d had an experience listening to Donny’s great re-make, “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” it was a version of the song far more sparse than the one I knew. And, I recall questions blearing into view as I watched out the barred window and listened to that song with the bright, night city sky and the dark line of the rooftops cutting it off from view. I’d known and appreciated Donny’s music long before that, on some level. But, on that night, I’d fallen down a few levels into a kind of wondering that had to have answers.
Impasses! Well. As is the case with any really necessary creative work, work which is out for answers, provisional as they might be, that are crucial to one’s survival, I learned that the most serious answers had to be made up. Imagined veracity, nothing else would do. Often, one can find an answer in an image, and from that go searching for the question. And, every time, when you find the question and then ask it, it’s another answer. Or the truth of the answer is in the tone of the question and no where else. That’s certainly true of Donny’s music, his voice. There’s no tone like it, yet we feel it in the un-swept corners of our lives. One old man in Winners says, “he’d sing your life. . . And, you’d sing it too, but not like that you didn’t sing it. . . .” I wrote the book to document where that kind of tone comes from.
As far as the conceptual framework? I guess all I can say is that I was out to show, I needed to show, that it’s difficult to hear music like Donny’s. To hear it, one has to travel with it, and part of “it” is inside the listener, so, to hear the song, one has to be able to leave the song to stay with the song. Does that make sense? I needed to work toward knowing that, knowing too, that there’s no way of understanding it. Indeed, that understanding is the first step away from knowing at the level I’m talking about. The intellect is WAY out of its depth. No one is smarter than his or her life. No one is smarter than Donny’s voice. It’s got more to do with feeling and trusting and listening than anything that could be called thinking. But, thinking and knowing have got to be exhausted before you can even begin trusting, that’s why it’s trust.
I was doing a talk and reading from Winners at Columbia U. And, someone asked me why it wasn’t a happier book? Why there wasn’t more joy in the book? More “community.” The question has echoed in my mind ever since. Because I think there’s a deep joy in the book, and in Donny’s music. But, it’s joy. Not what most people would call happiness. There’s community, thick as thieves. An erotic brotherly pressure. An almost sexual terror. There’s even a party or two. But, Donny’s life wasn’t a party. No one’s is. And, Donny wasn’t a happy man. And, finally, I think because of the way he was metabolically constituted, he just wasn’t a part of the partying beyond a certain (early) point. And, I thought that if I’d written the book at that level, I’d just be leaving him out, alone, all over again. And, walking away with the party crowd. And, too, the pathos is about how songs of joy, even of happiness, aren’t made from happiness. VERY rarely. Maybe never. Mostly, those songs (take Marvin, or Al Green, or Stevie, take Keats, or Baldwin, or even Frankie Beverly and certainly Anthony Hamilton) are made of pain. Pain isn’t the whole story, but it does seem to have something to do with how a work of art opens itself into the lives of other people. Something in the lining of any fluent vein. I think the importance of pain has something to do with its status as “exile” in our self-willed life. As it should be, one can’t seek pain, that’s not pain. But, it must be heard from where it is, cause it’s always there. And, the most important facet of pain, I think, is the one that comes from the overlap of people’s lives. Shared space. Those songs are made by people who are willing to feel it and who aren’t dialing up the pharmacy every time the intensity meter goes beyond terror level orange.
As for the original impetus, I remember reading an Ebony article about Donny’s death and the caption of a photo, I think, said that he was “an obviously happy entertainer enjoying his popularity.” Who, I wondered, was that ridiculous observation supposed to comfort? Whoever they are, I don’t think they’ll enjoy reading Winners Have Yet to Be Announced.
Have you ever been to the Essex House Hotel (the place where Donny Hathaway leaped fifteen floors to his sudden death)?
I’ve walked past. The real image of the Essex House I have is that I remember a photo of it, that red block-letter sign, came on after Saturday Night Live episodes in the 70s when I was a kid and up too late. I think the hosts stayed there and the deep-voiced message said something like “Accommodations in Manhattan provided by the Essex House Hotel.”
In one of our previous conversations, you frequently referred to life as something to be savored, a lot like a poem.
I think in working on poems one can access registers of life, a kind of depth beneath experience (that probably is experience) that aren’t in the same state of vulnerability and contingency that most of the rest of your life is in. So that when the other levels of life are shaking apart, which they do, if you’re living they do, and when they do, what do you have? And I’ve found that I have these riffs, rhythms and tones from poems. . .
. . . Riffs from poems that you have read and written?
Both. Yes. But, definitely from ones that I have written. And you just come back to that and say: This is real and I can get back here and then go forth from right here and go wherever I need to go. When things are falling apart, you need that. . . When all the shit’s going to hell, what does one have, it won’t be anything you’ve bought, I’ll tell you that. It’ll be another order of property. Often, it’ll be something one has made. A relationship, say. Or, what I had were experiences which, in order to survive them, which is to say, in order to have (and not deny or evade) them, led me to create these riffs on a page. I know those pages were never blank. A lot had to be forced off of them (things that make a page look blank) for those riffs to have occurred in the space of those pages. Page, you know, even the word itself. . .
Your work has made me think a whole lot about the essential qualities of immediacy and how a poem demands a certain classical immediacy from its reader.
The action of the imagination can become true and that action becomes highly volatile. It is that volatility that scares people and causes them to think that imagination has nothing to do with actual experience or immediate reality. But, people are thirsty for such closeness as well. I don’t think people can live without it, I don’t think experience can happen at a distance from itself. I don’t think anyone can experience reality without the imagination. It’s all imagined, at some level. But the question is: which level of the active imagination becomes self-conscious? I think what we often do is displace that action into things that are less immediate, less immediately who we are. I don’t think it takes imagination to do that. I think it takes imagination to recuperate that distance, to re-discover the living turbulence of one’s actual life. Non-fiction and fiction doesn’t mean anything to me on that level. And, ultimately, I think one’s actual life, is only real in some relation to other lives. There’s no human reality without that.
Gray areas are more important.
Yes. But, the thing is that human turbulence isn’t gray at all. It’s vivid. It’s alive. It’s a song unlike any we’ve heard before.