Summer 2004


Summer 2004

Daniela Gioseffi

D. Nurkse is the author of seven books of poetry, the latest being The Fall, Knopf: NY, 2003. Prior books, The Rules of Paradise, 2001; Leaving Xaia, 2000; and Voices Over Water, 1996 were published by Four Way Books: NY and earlier works were from Graywolf, Hanging Loose Press, State Street Press, and Owl Creek Press.. Formerly the
Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, he has received the Whiting Writers' Award, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, two grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Tanne Foundation award, and the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry. He's also worked in the human rights movement, particularly the children's rights area, and written
widely on human rights issues and worked with Amnesty International and other organizations. He is currently a professor in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. Daniela Gioseffi initiated this conversation with D. Nurkse in Brooklyn Heights, New York City, December 22, 2003.

Daniela Gioseffi: Before 9/11 2001 there was an idea afoot, at least in the dominant language and abstract schools of American poetry at the time, that politics has no place in poetry? Prior to 9/11, I began interviewing various poets on their feelings regarding the place of politics and sociopolitical issues in poetry, ie. Grace Paley, Ishmael Reed, Galway Kinnell, Bob Holman, etc. Before the current "Poets Against the War" phenomenon initiated by Sam Hammil l -I'd founded Poets for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980's and served on the board of The Writers and Publishers Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament-as well as headed one of the oldest chapters of SANE-now The National Peace Action. I've always felt that you can write a bad love poem as well as a bad political poem and it's a
matter of how skillful the poet is with the craft-whatever subject? What do you feel about this issue?

D. Nurkse: I think that it's excellent that you're raising these issues in your interviews. These issues tend to be spoken of in a truncated and primitive way. We live in a world where we segregate experience. It's a difficult question in a way, because I'm very much a defender of the autonomy of poetry. I remember through the struggles of the 20th Century how Marx valued poetry as an autonomous art. He did not want it to be in the service of any particular
worldview. Having said that, it amazes me how sometimes in America, we're willing to speak from an impoverished sense of the self as if there's so much experience in the world that our poetry should ignore. It's less a moral issue for me than the fact that poetry always needs to expand its horizons and speak to the richness of human experience- including the difficulties we face at the moment. The uniqueness of our period in history! I want poetry to broaden
itself to address those issues.

DG: Grace Paley said something similar. She said that some poets write as if they lived in a vacuum. Politics is always going on around us and part of our lives, and effects us. If it comes up in our writing, it's just another part of our lives--like love and death and everything else. I feel the problem might be that some poets define politics narrowly rather than as a sociopolitical construct which profoundly effects the personal. Galway Kinnell explained that he worries more about didacticism than politics in poetry. We need to be weary as poets of preaching down to the imagined rabble, instead of seeing ourselves as part of it. It's the high and mighty perch we need to avoid. Do you agree?

DN: I think that's an excellent distinction you're making between the didactic and the political. I remember a Beautiful line by the contemporary American poet James Scully, who wrote: "the heart, asked to feel more, feels less." I thought that really said a great deal. He captured that subject-object problem which didactic poetry
confronts, which can be a crippling problem -- when the reader becomes the object and the speaker becomes the subject. So, even if the speaker is trying to promote a sense of unity, he will end up objectifying his audience and seeing them, perhaps, as less morally advanced than he is. One of the solutions for that is to "get a life!" Certainly, you're a person who's done more political work than most poets--but doing actual political work, has shown me the
limits of my understanding and the limits of my awareness. So, one problem of didacticism is that it tends to happen in a vacuum. It tends to reflect political poetry that is substituting itself for a real re-imagining of society and really limiting itself to a kind of cultural rebelliousness. That's a different issue: the problem of politics that restricts itself to cultural protest or to identity politics. First of all, it may lead to didactic poetry, and second of all, it may reflect a certain lack of political community where perhaps the only avenue left is to write a poem to take a political stance. Perhaps it's equally important to lead a life that reflects your values, and to try to speak to people who have radically
different values and either convince them, or learn from them.

DG: I see what you're saying. How do you feel about being a poet in a world that's entertaining itself to death with rock videos, movies, television, and computer games. There' s so much competition from the world of CDs and DVDs, and baseball or sports as an opiate of the masses in America, even more than religion! What do you feel about the effects on poetry in a world like that? How do you feel about your audience and who do you imagine them to be?

DN: Well strangely, I feel very optimistic about the audience for poetry in America. I'm not always a huge fan of the Beats in terms of my own work, but I think they effected a tremendous amount of social change. They changed people's idea of what poetry was and they really reached a different audience for poetry. They did a wonderful
service to American culture that really hasn't been fully recognized. I find those effects when I give readings or work with people in unusual contexts. Which is something that I try to do. I know that in my childhood, homophobia was a huge issue when you talked about poetry. Young girls wrote poetry, and they were supposed to write love poems, and boys didn't touch poetry. All of that has changed. It's massively changed in America. When I work with young people, it seems to me, they have a very accurate and very challenging sense of what poetry is. I work with prisoners on Riker's Island, and they distinguish between rap and poetry and have a very keen sense of poetry, And I feel a very challenging and accurate sense of poetry. I find that also when I work with college students in unlikely parts
of the country. I mean, there are a lot of people who really keep themselves alive through poetry in America and follow, in a way, what happens in poetry in Europe, too. In terms of poetry, I'm very proud of what people are accomplishing in America. (Laughs)

DG: You feel there's really a large audience? As Galway said, there are poetry readings going on all over the country every night of the week in the multi-thousands, and yet, on the other hand, Gregory Rebassa- who's translated three Nobel Laureates-has made the point that less than one percent of the population of this very developed country actually reads good literature. And Dana Gioia recently published an essay in the Hudson Review saying that it's even gone down from the one percent who actually read literary art on the page. He feels a good deal of the poetry that's being patronized by an audience is in the oral tradition, the rap poetry, the cowboy poetry which draws huge audiences. And yet, on the other hand, Galway said he feels that the literary sensibilities of a nation's poetry trickle
down through the culture and make a kind change in the overall conscience of a country as it filters through the society. What would you say about this?

DN: I'd say that's all very true. Though I would also say that the locus of poetry is also lyrics. The locus of poetry is also in folk, the blues, and country western music. I translate medieval Spanish lyrics because I want to access that very sharp-edged folk consciousness. Louis Simpson once said, "I have the poor man's nerve tic of irony." And, I think that there's a vibrancy in American speech, in American popular culture; so, it's not only trickle-down.
There's a little osmosis going the other way, where there's a certain urgency that moves up. I know that Philip Levine used to listen to country western musical lyrics, and maybe not so much to inform his next poem, but to keep that sense of an American language alive. Certainly, the Beats listened to jazz and rock and roll, etc. to do that.

DG: Well, I used to be a jazz singer and there's lots of poetry in the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, for example. There are good jazz standards that have social conscience in them like the song Billy Holliday made so popular, "Stange Fruit." Then John Lennon and the Beatles singing, "Imagine all the people living in a world of peace" or "All we are saying is give peace a chance," have become standards at demonstrations, along with "Blowing in the Wind, " Bob Dylan's tune, or so many of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez lyrics. Then, there's the older traditions of the Songs of the Women of Fez or the Portugese Fados, or Garcia Lorca's Andalusian tradition of "Deep Song." I taught for some years at Riker's Island, and I worked for Hospital Audiences, Inc. Recently at Bedford Hills where I gave a
reading and a seminar, I was amazed at the level of literacy among the prisoners who had really read quite deeply into contemporary literature and were very concerned about the importance of literature and poetry to their spirit. When you think back to Lorca or Sappho and the Orphic Tradition, poetry comes from the poet-preist, witch-doctor, or shaman invested in healing. Sappho was the most widely known poet of antiquity. We only have about eleven hundred of her lines, because The Church destroyed nearly all of what wasn't found on some far off Egyptian, papyrus-wrapped mummys. Sappho was a sort of "pop singer" of her time is my point! You're certainly correct, there was plenty of poetry going on in all periods of history. So, you don't feel discouraged by all the other entertainment which seems to drown out poetry?

DN: I think all the shallow entertainment will burn itself off. At one point, I was simply arbitrarily in a position to study, in depth, 16th Century French Theater, and in that project, I wasn't studying the classics. When I studied it in depth, so much of it was third rate. So much of it was Hollywood. If you were a theater-goer in that period, you would have seen so many plays that ended with St. George appearing from nowhere, destroying the Saracens and riding off into the sunset with the queen. There's a certain level of bad culture that human beings have always produced, and I think that we have the means to amplify it right now, and it is deadening. But I do think
that that deadening is something I'm very aware of if I read the paper, but if I go out and give readings, or go out and work with people; work with homeless people, for example, I find something very different. I gave a series of workshops in East Flatbush and I asked black teenagers to bring in poems that they lived by. One teenager
brought in the meditations of Thomas Traherne. One teenager brought in some George Herbert, and one teenager brought in that Eliot poem "because I do not hope to turn again teach us to care and not to car" Their tastes, interests, reading, were not stereotyped at all. That's where I feel that you and other poets are trying to get beyond the political discussion that we have at the moment in this country because the political discussion at the moment would assume that black teenagers are only interested in rap. And then the issue would be, do we become rap poets, or not? Whereas I think that poetry is always going to be an underground art form. And, it's very strong. Where it has been crippled in this country is by allowing itself to become a courtly art form -- to become an academic art form, given
that academia is the new royal court, so to speak. This is not the first time that that's happened. If I think of Spain, I think of Castillian lyrics being domesticated at court and being eviscerated and made decorative and mildly ironic. It didn't do any damage to poetry in the long run. Poetry survived that. Poetry was not patronized by the most powerful five percent of the hierarchy, but maybe the least powerful five percent of the hierarchy during most eras in history. It's never been over five percent. It's not clear if that percentage reflects the persons' educational status or
publication credits. But there always has been that margin which survived.

DG: That's true. Yet, Pope, Innocent III was enough worried about the influences of the Provencal poets in their rebellion from Church dogma to want to commit genocide upon them for their desire to secede. It reminds me of how some people get so worried about rock n' roll or rap lyrics being a terrible influence on youth. But, I think the American high school, as you go out across the land, is often a wasteland where the kids aren't given enough real issues to think about or enough creative to do. Maybe, they end up, in shootings like those at Columbine as a result. What high school peer pressure seems to do is force conformity to the image of the macho guy on the football team who is not allowed, as you said earlier, to pursue poetry or art. At least, it seemed that way in my day, and when I was a charter poet working with the Poets-in-the-Schools program in the 70's and 80's. There was this pressure, upon young men, to be baseball, football or track stars, and on the girls to be cheerleaders or baton twirling majorettes-- and to feel like they were sissies, nerds or geeks if they cared about things like poetry. Rap and Hip-Hop has helped quell that concept to a large extent. Do you find the American high school as much of a wasteland as it was?

DN: That's not a question I can answer, because I haven't really done workshops in general high school classes. I've done workshops in colleges, public libraries, and the inner city through the public library system. For example, at Brooklyn College we do a program where we pull out students from every public high school, denominational school, and Yeshiva in Brooklyn. They come to Brooklyn College and do an intensive poetry marathon. Allen Ginsberg used to do that and meet with these Brooklyn kids.

DG: So yours are students who chose to study creative writing. Speaking of Ginsberg. If there's any poet that fits the definition of a poet who reached beyond the literary culture, but was a part of it as well, it's Ginsberg. Isn't he the most famous name in poetry ever--in terms of being widely known and read worldwide

DN: In terms of name-recognition, I really don't know. One of the interesting things is how powerless the Beats were when they were really making things happen. When he wrote Sunflower Sutra. Those people were really pretty divested and quite marginal then. Whether he was known or not, there were plenty of poets who were extremely
well known, but didn't change our conception of poetry. But, Ginsberg is certainly an argument for poetry being an active political force. He did change American culture. He set out to change it, and he succeeded.

DG: Yes, the Beats opened up the American mind and got us away from that sort of bloodless poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Influenced by William Carlos Williams, the Beats made a more conversational kind of verse, turning a lot more people onto poetry. Unfortunately, they also turned a lot more people onto drugs and many
of them were horrible parents, and spent more time worrying about a drug-fix than their kids. I think there was an awfully decadent side to the Beats, and I'm sure I'll be scalped for saying so. But what do you think about that?

DN: I think you're right about that, but history is dialectic, every positive has a negative. There's certainly much that I would admire about Eliot, too, but what I would criticize is the academic, risk-free poem. I think that Eliot's poetry was risky in its time. Definitely.

DG: Do you think so? I don't know if you were at the CUNY celebration of the new collected volume, multi-translated, of Pablo Neruda, considered by many to be the greatest poet of the 20th Century. But,
Edward Hirsch-at that event, along with a couple of other poet-translators-said that Neruda was in a different line of poets than Eliot. That Eliot lacked a kind of human emotional warmth, whereas Neruda is in that other line of poets in which we would probably put Ginsberg, too, thinking of Kaddish - along with those poets who are more concerned about humanity and conveying human emotion. What would you say about that?

DN: I wouldn't quarrel with that at all. I'm simply saying that Eliot's multiplicity of different voices in his poems affected George Seferis. It affected Pessoa. So it was something that was beyond the individual. Pablo Neruda is a formidable poet who had a worldwide vision of humane concerns. I wish we had a Neruda for the 21st Century. I think our problems are quite different now, and I wish we had a brilliant Neruda who would have the capacity to imagine in poetic and historical terms our troubling moment in time and truly articulate, broadly and fully, its concerns.

DG : Ginsberg did some of that. He was very generous with sociopolitical causes, and we've lost him. We've lost Neruda. Could you say something about what poets are out there trying to fill that vacuum? Can you point out some American poem or poet that sort of does this thing we are nebulously talking about? Something that has a great social conscience and a sense of history without being didactic -- without falling into the trap that we talked about earlier?

DN: I think there's a lot of that historically in American poetry. I think Charles Reznikoff -for one--was an underrated poet who has really influenced many people. James Wright also was a very politically committed poet. I had the luck to know James Wright for a moment when I was very young, and he really impressed me with his

DG : I had dinner with James Wright the night he won the Pulitzer. We were with Annie Wright, W. D. Snodgrass, and John Logan. Jim didn't want to mention that he'd won the Pulitzer because of the other poets at the table. Jim didn't want John Logan to feel bad as he himself called Logan "the best poet of his generation." Jim was a wonderfully ethical kind of guy. He truly pondered moral dilemmas. He wasn't afraid to come right out and say "Eisenhower's Visit to Franco, 1959" for the title of a poem. I asked Galway about that, and I mentioned how difficult it can be to read Aristophanes, today, because he had so many temporal references. Galway felt it wasn't necessary for poets to avoid these kinds of political terms. He mentioned, Robert Duncan's, anti-Vietnam war poem, "Uprising," as a successful poem despite its use of proper names of polticial characters and such. What do you think?

DN: I think it's absolutely important to situate yourself historically. It's as important as it is to show the reader visually where you are. If you don't situate yourself in time, I think a certain level of blindness happens in the poem. But, it's a risk too. It's always a risk to enter the realm of the concrete. I think there's a wish to begin with the absolute or the universal and general. Hegel speaks of the danger of trying to attain the absolute without doing what he calls the labor and suffering of the negative. And I think that's what the artist has to do. The artist has to enter
that realm of limitation. Which is again, a shortcoming of what we know of as political poetry. I think that we're familiar with a political poetry that tries to do a detour around that labor and suffering of the negative and speak from a position of moral purity. Whereas, the fact is, we're better off leaving moral purity to the professionals -- the priests and the psychotherapists. As poets, we're better off speaking from our own experience of the sociopolitical construct, our own experience of life in and around us. I think that poetry can be a powerful force in some instances. Sharon Olds was saying somewhere that it's a mystery whether poetry is the powerless thing that it appears to be in this country, or one of the most powerful forces on Earth. The jury is still out on that. It may turn out to be one of the most powerful forces on Earth. It just may. When I work with prisoners, sometimes I read them a poem from 13th Century Spain called "The Prisoner" and it is simply the voice of somebody who is never identified. In the poem, he talks about his circumstances and talks about being incarcerated. He doesn't know whether it's day or night and he only knows what season it is by the birdsong. He only knows the time of day because, everyday, a small bird sings at dawn, outside of the prison. The last line is "but today the Sentinel killed that bird with a crossbow, Goddamn his eyes." And the poem ends that way. But the thought that I give to these prisoners is: That poem is what survived from the era, and the king and the lord of the castle, the judges who sentenced that prisoner, they're all completely gone and that poem, which was probably originally scratched on the wall with a nail. (I mean, these things happen). That poem is what survived.

Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author of twelve books of poetry and prose. Her latest are WOMEN ON WAR: INTERNATIONAL WRITINGS from The Feminist Press @ CUNY Graduate Center, 2003, and SYMBIOSIS, Rattapallax Press: NY 2002. A winner of grant awards in poetry and performance poetry from The New York State Council for the Arts, Daniela has published 12 books of poetry and prose, her first collection of poetry was from BOA Editions, Ltd. and was titled EGGS IN THE LAKE. She has interviewed many poets, written reviews for numerous venues, and her her verse chosen to be etched in marble next to that of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman on a wall of the newly renovated 7th Ave. Concourse of PENN Station, NY, 2002. She edits and publishes which incorporates five archival web sites of literary art.



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