THE POET AND THE POEM:
An Interview with Ron Silliman
by Grace Cavalieri
The Poet and the Poem
Ron Silliman is one of America’s most exciting/ intelligent poet/critics. He has written and edited 31 books to date. For 25 years Silliman wrote a single poem, entitled The Alphabet.(1979-2004.) His present poem is entitled Universe. Silliman sees his poetry as being part of a lifework, which he calls Ketjak. Ron Silliman's blog is a culturally significant English-language blog of contemporary poetry and poetics By 2008, the site had logged 1,500,000 visitors. Silliman was born in Pasco WA, and attended San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at San Francisco State University, the University of California at San Diego, New College of California, Naropa University and Brown University. Silliman is a literary activist who has also been a political organizer, lobbyist, ethnographer and newspaper editor, Ron has received several honors including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Arts Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He is a market analyst in the computer industry. After living for 40 years in the Bay area, he now lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and children.
Grace Cavalieri: What is the urgency of poetry in your own life?
Ron Silliman: When I was younger, say the age of ten, I knew that I wanted an art of language, but I didn’t really have an idea what that might mean, what possibilities might exist. Growing up in a home that held only Readers Digest condensed novels was not conducive to finding out. Fortunately, the suburb I grew up in was on the edge of Berkeley, so that what I couldn’t find at home I could come across in the world. When, at the age of 16, the same age my boys are today, I happened across William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music in the local library, I knew I had found what I’d been looking for.
GC: What was the most critical crossroad in your professional life?
RS: There are so many different ways to answer that. When I left UC Berkeley during my senior year to perform my “military obligation” as a conscientious objector with a prison movement group, the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice, I discovered that nonprofit groups needed writers, even if they didn’t know it themselves. Before I left that job – I stayed five years – I and a half-dozen other people had crafted a rewrite of California’s state penal code, setting terms for over 3,000 different felonies. Perhaps the most critical crossroad on that job occurred my very second day there. The two women who ran the organization had given me the keys to the door and instructions on how to sort the mail and told me to open up the next day so that they could come in around ten, but when I arrived I discovered an “escaped” convict from San Quentin literally hiding in the shadows. He’d been part of a work-release program but had failed to return to the joint the night before because a female co-worker, not knowing he was a San Quentin inmate, offered him dinner and some post-dinner companionship. I had to negotiate his surrender and managed to do so in a way that he was not charged with any new crime, tho he was removed from the work-release program. It gave my new employer a sense that I could think and act in an emergency, and I was given much more responsibility right away than otherwise might have been the case.
GC: How do poems without narrative and story create experience?
RS: The same way experience does. Narrative, in a strict sense, is nothing other than the unfolding of meaning in time, and my work is deeply narrative. But it doesn’t confuse narrative with plot, which is something altogether different. I have a hard time imagining what my work must look like to somebody not familiar with it, if only because I’ve been on the inside now for decades, but I think if you don’t worry about your preconceptions of what a work “should be,” you will discover that my writing is always rich with meaning, but that its focus moves, sometimes sentence by sentence, at times word by word. Usually I try to set up rhythms in the write to guide the experience, and my principle interest in the Fibonacci series (which I used to writing Tjanting and several sections of Lit within The Alphabet) is first of all musical. It always amazes me that people who have no difficulty going to a show by Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle or Jess or any other artist whose canvases pile multiple layers of imagery one on top of the other would then have any difficulty with a text that did the same. I’ve given readings to audiences that were mostly Deadheads (there to hear my co-reader Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead) and even in prisons and had great responses. The only place my work appears to be difficult at all is within certain second-tier creative writing programs.
GC: How can dismantling the line make a greater entirety?
RS: I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question, so I’m going to presume that you’re alluding to a work like 2197, which is part of The Age of Huts cycle. That work, which consists of 2,197 sentences over 13 poems (some in prose), each with 13 paragraphs or stanzas (and each with 13 sentences) combines the basic grammatical structure of some sentences with the vocabulary of others, so that you can get sentences in which certain terms recur. Let’s just look at one word, fishing. It appears in the following forms there:
We arrived at the small fishing sensitivity just as the language worked its way over the information.
Ridge on the small of fishing.
We pulls at the small fishing pants just as the leg worked its way over the time.
We arrived at the
small fishing context just as the term use its way
over the miscreants.
We arrived at the small fishing swamp just as the sun worked its way over the gas.
Which is fishing, which is sun.
A small village, fishing, worked for the sun.
Fishing on the ridge
Fishing is the small ridge.
We arrived at the small fishing body just as the temperature worked its way over the back.
The village of small fishing sun.
Fishing off the small.
The ridge of my fishing village.
We arrived at the small fishing attention just as the case deserves its way over the past.
We arrived at the small fishing village just as the sun worked its way over the ridge.
The village arrived with fishing first.
We arrived at the more fishing village just as the sun eat its way over the porridge.
between the small fishing meaning just as the verification worked its way over the this.
small fishing of an old sun.
We form at the small fishing form, just as the rain worked its way over the loss.
As small of fishing begins to arrived, village of sun begins to worked.
Those are all 21 occurrences of the term fishing in the 13 poems of 2197. You will notice that there are two kinds of sentences here, at least with regard to that one word. There are a group that all follow the same syntactic structure into which for all but one some unusual terms have been introduced. Then there is a second group in which the term fishing has been introduced into sentences with different structures, and that some other terms that keep appearing with fishing may also have been introduced into that sentence. And there is one sentence that is a perfectly ordinary sentence – the 15th in this sequence. At one level the introduced words, whether from the fishing Ur-sentence or from others, invariably twist the language so that is sort of intelligible, but only sort of. The other is that terms begin to take on some traits that typically belong to characters in fiction, they appear in different circumstances and have different fates. Now if you pay heed to the language as you – as you would if you read it aloud – this seems pretty easy to do, even if all the disjointedness is a little unusual or new to you. But if you are used to skimming language and only heeding the larger elements of fiction & exposition, like characters, then you are probably going to think this is all gobbledygook. In some ways, my ideal reader is somebody who starts off doing the latter, which is the sort of lazy, semi-literate reading most of us were trained to do, and realizes in the process that she or he has to do the former. I’ve had several wonderful conversations with readers who have had that experience with one or another of my works and, as one of them once told me, it “ruined them” for bad literature from that point forward.
GC: What is there about language that we own; and what cannot be owned?
RS: I don’t think we own anything, ultimately. If you can’t take it to the grave, it’s not yours.
GC: Would you approach teaching Milton, Dryden and Donne the same way you’d teach Mullen or Hejinian?
RS: Absolutely. In each case, I’d have people begin to read the works aloud, even when they’re by themselves alone. I don’t think you can read Milton any other way, frankly.
GC: In your own writing of a single work for 25 years, how do you sustain the flagging spirit to keep going?
RS: Because one of the major issues of my work is to rethink the part: whole relationship in the longpoem, I’m working with different forms and approaches from section to section and, in some cases, within sections. So I’m not really doing the same thing for a quarter century. And, as The Alphabet built, the variation, the way individual sections “commented upon” one another became a sort of its own fascination for me.
GC: What do you see at this moment as the heart of invention in poetry?
RS: The world is changing constantly, at an even more rapid pace now than ever before. Poetry has to both reflect and refract those changes in order to speak meaningfully of our lives at this moment. To write of the 21st century in a form that was tired in the 17th century is just pathological. While I have my issues with the term “postmodern,” I don’t have any problem recognizing that pre-modern or anti-modern approaches to literature are failures both as writing and ultimately as ways to live.
GC: What thematic similarities do you see stated and restated in poetry?
RS:Charles Olson put it best: What does not change / is the will to change.
GC: What of the safety and stability of digitally encoded text, as compared to the permanence of ink in the old fashioned book?
RS: Permanence is a relative fiction for a species that lives on a planet dependent upon a sun that surely will burn out if we don’t annihilate ourselves first. There are pros and cons to both methods, but the pros for electronic media mostly have to do with distribution, more than with retention. As librarians are wont to say, “Hard copy is truth.”
GC: Is pattern on the page the way we understand poetry not based in meter?
RS: Meter is just one of many ways of building pattern, structure, form into a text, however you want to think of it, and the least original and interesting one at that. Meter, if it is at all regular, is simply narcoleptic.
GC: What if Icarus had been a pragmatist?
RS: Then we’d tell a different story, but with the same key variables. We need a tale about overreaching, call him Icarus, call him Faust.
GC: How come people are so mean to Language poets?
RS: What does not change / is the will to change. But people resist change. Language poetry was confrontive and analytical at a moment when many writers were still pretending that they were “above” such cognitive exercise. Even many poets whose work we admired felt that they had chosen sides in the 1950s debate between the raw & the cooked and here we came with a different menu altogether. It was as if we brought chopsticks. Basically, we’ve been the torso of young Apollo in the room for the past thirty years. You must change your life.