from Contemporary Literature v. XIII n. 2
An Interview with Paul Blackburn
Q. I notice that the epigraph to one of your volumes is taken from Aristotle, a passage from The Metaphysics, in which the eye is considered one of the most important senses for obtaining a knowledge of things. Many of your poems seem to demonstrate this view. They seem to delimit a world in which sharp observation rather than judgment, sentiment, or introspection is paramount. Would you agree that you are carrying on a tradition established by poets like William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky?
A. That's fair. As a matter of fact, I ran across the quote not in Aristotle but in that big book of Louis', Bottom: On Shakespeare. I had those lines hanging on my wall for years.
Q. How did you come across Zukofsky's work?
A. Well, that's a long history. I was corresponding with Pound when I was going to college here [Wisconsin] and Pound was then in the nut house in Washington. I hitchhiked down to Washington from New York to visit him a few times. I'd write long letters and he'd write short ones. We talked about everything, but I never showed him anything and I never told him I was a writer. Well, that doesn't tell you about Zukofsky. I had a poem at that point that I was pretty disgusted with; it was my first attempt at a long piece of work. Since I was so much into Pound, I was very concerned about how to sustain a poem over a page long. This was something I just did not know how to do and I really worked at it. I started this poem in New York during the summer. I'd done twenty-one versions of the damn thing and it was finished. I mean it was finished; you couldn't change anything in it. It was perfect and it was dead. I was disgusted with it. I submitted it to the campus literary magazine and they must have considered it a big bore. They didn't understand it; they didn't like it, and I figured that was all right. The same spring, I got a letter from James Laughlin at New Directions saying that he had a note from Pound in St. Elizabeth's saying that I wanted to contribute something to his New Directions Annual.
Q. Pound was still going strong....
A. Oh, Pound was fantastic. I mean because of Pound, I was in touch with Creeley, I was in touch with Olson, I was in touch with Cid Corman. My correspondence, which unfortunately all has been lost. . . my correspondence from those years, in light of subsequent events, would have been fantastic. None of us knew each other and we were all writing each other letters, and all of this comes through that little center down there in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, D. C. You know, "Write Creeley, chicken farmer up in New Hampshire. . . ." I didn't actually meet Creeley until almost two years later. That was before the beginning of Origin.
Q. That's before 1952 then?
A. Sure, that was '49 or '50. I graduated in '50 or so.
Q. How did Pound know that you were writing?
A. I think he just assumed that because I never mentioned that I wrote or ever showed him anything, I must really be good. I would never have recommended anybody whose work I had never seen. Of course, this happened at a time when I had made up my mind that ... I must have been twenty-four; I was quite late as a graduate ... I had made up my mind that I wouldn't publish anything until I was thirty. I felt that maybe by that time I'd know what I was doing. Anyway, I sent the poem to Laughlin and he published it. That made me feel pretty good—embarrassed, but excited.
Q. Where does Zukofsky fit into all of this?
A. Well, you see here is where the whole cycle starts: from Pound to Creeley to Corman to Olson. Into that comes a young man from North Carolina, who is still m the army over in Germany, named Jonathan Williams. I was in New York; Creeley went to the south of France and lived in a small town in which someone named Denise Levertov also happened to be living. It was all accidents. Just sheer, outright, damned accidents. Creeley passed through New York and spent a week with me in preparing passage for his whole family to Europe. I don't think he slept all week. I was working in a print shop down below Canal Street; I was foreman on the night shift. Creeley stayed in my apartment; I would come home at one-thirty or two o'clock in the morning and he'd be up reading. Of course, that's still my day, so we'd sit up and talk the rest of the night. I'd go to bed around 8:00 a.m. after having had supper and Bob would continue reading; I would wake up and he'd still be reading. I think he must have read the whole Cantos that week; I don't know. Finally, Ann and the kids arrived and I got them all on the boat, waved, kissed everybody goodbye, and didn't see them for two years,
Q. Had Olson put in an appearance this early?
A. Olson was still up in Gloucester. It was either Gloucester or Black Mountain. As a matter of fact, Olson wanted Creeley to come back from Majorca and go to work at Black Mountain. While Creeley was still refusing to come back (for which I didn't blame him), I was also interviewed for a position down there. But then, I guess, Creeley finally decided to come, so that was OK too. I mean I already had a job.
Q. You didn't get down there at all then?
A. No, I was never at Black Mountain until ten years after it closed—sightseeing, but that was all. The point is that out of Creeley's European contacts, he ended up somehow with Jonathan Williams. Now whether Jonathan got in touch with him or there had been correspondence before, I have no idea. I ended up as the first distributor of Jargon Books in New York City. As you know, I was the New York part of this poetry conspiracy. We didn't realize we were building a mafia. Well, anyway, Jonathan somehow fell into Zukofsky, and like nobody had seen Zukofsky since the 1930s. That 1931 issue'of Poetry, with the objectivist poets in it—well, all of a sudden people were talking about Zukofsky. So everyone starts digging around to find out about him and it turns out that he'd been living over in Brooklyn all this time, quietly teaching at Brooklyn Polytech. It was the same with Basil Bunting. Who in the hell had heard of Bunting? I had. How did I hear of Bunting? Pound. And not only that, some kook, one of Pound's political nuts somewhere in Texas whom I'd also been in correspondence with, had pirated an edition of Bunting in 1949.
Q. Did you actually get in touch with Bunting?
A. No, no. Strangely enough, the people who'd stayed in contact all those years were Bunting and Zukofsky. They had been corresponding all those years, and, I guess, Zukofsky had also been in touch with Pound. They had had that thing going since the twenties. That whole crew was working together, and somehow the whole circle we were building was intersecting at all different points.
Q. But this was not a matter of personality; it was a matter of influence, of poetry and poetics.
A. Sure. These people come into your life when you're twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five years old. Williams lived right across the damn river. For some reason, almost by the closeness of it, I had never got in contact with him. I had always felt it would have been an imposition. He had his own thing there. It was not a scene; he was a doctor and he had work to do. I met him a few times but years later.
Q. What about that poem in The Cities, "Phone Call to Rutherford"? Did you actually call him up?
A. Oh, sure. By that time, I'd been over and had met him. That was when he was very old. Floss was a lot tougher than he was about visitors, in that sense. She wanted him to have more contact. There were a lot of poets in the city at the time and I figured, what the hell, two or three of us could go out at a time, just once a week. We'd figure out the day with Flossie so that he would have some sense of continuity, a constant flow of visitors. It was at that point I wrote the poem about calling him up. He died the next spring.
Q. Where do people like Ed Dorn come into the picture?
A. Ed was a student at Black Mountain. So was Joel Oppenheimer. Duncan was a teacher there, although he's from the west coast.
Q. Let me ask you a little about your poetry. Actually, the world you depict appears to be even more sensationalistic than either Williams' or Zukofsky's. For example, you wrote in "Song of the Wires," "There is always something/to touch or feel or smell or see." (1) Do you agree with this?
A. Yes, I'm very much there. That poem's about riding trains in Spain.
Q. Would you agree that you put an even greater emphasis on the sensual than Williams and Zukofsky?
A. I wouldn't say so. Take a couple of Williams' poems, like the one about the woman on the street eating plums. She's got half of this plum in her hand and it tastes good to her. It tastes good to her. It tastes good to her. Don't talk to me about Williams' not being sensual.
Q. Oh he's sensual, all right. But look at Blackburn's poems—the description of love, for example. Love seems to be reduced to that of animal passion. In "Poor Dog," for instance, the speaker ostensibly identifies himself with a cat in heat—"looking/out of our minds/down to the street with glazed eyes" (p. 73).
A. I've lived with cats for years and I appreciate them. The same goes for women.
Q. It's a cat's appreciation of women.
A. Well, in a way I have an appreciation of cat-like women. There's been a cat-like sense about all of my women.
Q. There's a cat-like sense about you, too. The speaker of your poems is kind of a cat-like personality, isn't he?
A. Untrustworthy, independent.
Q. That isn't what I meant. But what about the poem, "Purse Seine"?
A. Well, that was the beginning of a very serious relationship. I was between marriages and was really afraid of getting trapped, yet knowing that I had to give myself to her. That's what that poem was about.
Q. The description of love in this poem seems different from that in the other poems. You write a poem like "Love Song" which gives a physical kind of description; this poem does too, but it also seems to take on a kind of mythical cast:
here on this bed
This seems like more than a sensual experience.
A. Well, I don't know what happens. One either has good luck or bad luck with such poems, I guess. I think this has pretty good luck in it. It seems to work, and you come to a point where ... it's almost like fighting one's way through, and none of the resistances are explicit in the poem. But there are lots of images of resistance in there. I've had a bad experience in love and had one marriage rocked on me and I'm afraid to get into another thing. I don't trust myself. I don't trust her or the incredible attraction that there is literally, physically, between two people, but finally you give yourself to it in a way that you want to, as fully as you can. It's almost picky in that way ... it's almost picking at it and working the whole image of getting trapped in that net.
Q. That's the bird hitting the mast?
A. Well, you can read that image in two ways. The previous marriage breaking up or approaching disaster, or even the impact of literal violence that is also in love. It falls with a cry to the deck and flutters off.
Q. Do you feel that any love relationship is a trap?
A. I feel that less now. My own life has changed sufficiently that I'm in a much more open set of possibilities. But it's a limitation, especially for a young man. Any love has got to limit you; any set of things in life you commit yourself to has got to limit you. You free yourself through entrapment, in a way; you just have to choose your traps right.
Q. Do you find freedom on the deck of a ferry boat?
A. You mean in the poem, "The Net of Moon"? No, that again is nailing it down, nailing down the choices:
Impact of these splendid
From the Mary Murray's upper deck
Another spring as warm
another year falling across its face so slow-
to us, ten days later, a year gone,
Goodbye moon . (pp. 155-56) (3)
The sense of limitation closes in again and you regret something that did not work out but has changed. That year was a particularly bad year in that sense or a good year in another sense. I mean your images come to you from around you. That's my second wife with me on the deck of that ferry boat.
Q. Would you see love more a matter of passion than salvation?
A. Well, certainly passion has a great deal to do with it. You see, I can't pick it apart that way. Your body is reacting with another person's body. I mean that's got to be really there, a real exchange of cells, of feelings, of warmth.
Q. Let me ask you about "Brooklyn Narcissus." The more the poet describes cities, the more one senses his isolation. He seems to confirm his loneliness even in the ale house or the Bakery Restaurant. Especially in the Bakery poems, he seems to be overhearing rather than really participating in the conversation. And in "Sun Flower Rock," after describing the eviction of a derelict old man, he explicitly reveals that his own condition is little different: "Soon we step into ourselves, stop to buy/ a half pint at the corner for the cold night." (4)
A. Again that's place. It's the geography literally of the city. And geography doesn't isolate you in that sense; it sets up the lines and the directions—the streets with their grid, as they very often are in New York. But they are very much in on you wherever you are—if you're sitting on Twenty-fourth Street and Third Avenue or if you're sitting on Seventh Street opposite Hall Place.
Q. I never quite understood this business of geography that seems so important in Black Mountain writing. Does geography actually get substituted for human relations?
A. No, it just keeps the mind clear, gives it certain tracks to run on. I mean geography in the quite literal sense. This afternoon, I took the scenic route to Madison. The contours of the land are really lovely—the valleys, the hills, and the whole nice roll of this part of the country; the glacier mounds are beautiful at this time of the year. I had a better time than I would have just coming in nice and fast. So it took an extra ten minutes. It keeps your head clear. It gives you something to look at, to think about.
Q. But you're not really in a world of men, a world of people, anymore. You're in a world of nature, aren't you?
A. Geography is the human world, animal world. Why are the mountains of Spain stripped, timbered off before the Romans? The major railroads in this country, the transcontinental railroads were all once buffalo trails.... We're all a part of what our landscape is. If it amounts to looking out the window and seeing a wall ten feet away, that's it; it's what you've got.
Q. Does geometry enter into this? You've got a poem about a girl walking along a "hypotenuse" to cross a square.
A. That's working the city, where things are not necessarily grid. It just so happens I like squares and there are fewer of them in American cities than in Europe. America on the whole is less graceful; our constructs are much too often ugly.
Q. What about Manhattan?
A. Well, when they finish the town, I'll let you know.
Q. That'll be never!
A. That's right! The sense of Manhattan's changed very much in the last twenty years. Look at the place from Brooklyn Heights and it's a tower of glass, man; it's light. It floats. You get that old sense ... from water, you know, from really seeing it from there, where you can see the bay. You can see out to the island and sense that this boat is floating and it's light now. It used to be heavy. It used to be stone. And now it's not; it's changed.
Q. But you still feel at home there.
A. Definitely. You have tracks inside a city. You build from wherever your center is. Wherever you sit your ass, wherever you put your drink, the place you eat in or a house or an apartment, you build your tracks from here to there. If you're going shopping, you find your stores; you usually even go to those stores a certain way. You follow certain tracks through the city. You might even work it into a sense of birth. Constantly, you're moving toward something, but you always return to wherever your womb is, whether it's McSorley's bar or you know. Just put me on Second Avenue; I can hang on. I'm driving down this ugly street again and like I know where I am. I know where the parking places are, if there are any, or what streets they're likely to be on. And it's get out of the car and get into a subway and go where you're going—that's much more sensible. But you immediately move into a whole new set of grooves, your head turned around, and you're moving places. You have friends here. It's easier to walk over to Carmine Street or to Van Dam Street than it is to take any kind of transportation whatsoever from the Lower East Side. You have a fifteen or twenty-minute walk, but it's much simpler than taking any transportation. And not only that, you can vary your routes. There are all sorts of channels inside a city, ways of doing things, going places....
Q. It must give you a sense of order and harmony.
A. No, it's somebody else's system. You use this whole complex of systems, somehow to satisfy your own sense of moving from here to there. I don't build roads, man; I didn't lay out the city. But I can walk all over Central Park practically in the dark. South of Eighty-first Street now, I can walk almost any place and know where I am. I'm completely located in this wild little park.
Q. Is that what you meant when you said of The Cities, "Finally it is a construct, out of my own isolations, eyes, ears, nose and breath, my recognitions of those constructs not my own that I can live in" (p. 11) .
A. That's right. In Barcelona, my God, the tracks I've got in Barcelona. I could spend a week getting drunk with you there and never go out of a thirty-block area, and you'd be completely lost. I know every goddamn little alley in that section.
Q. Do you build these groove channels into the poetry?
A. That's a good question. I don't know what builds which. I think that's a good point, but it works both ways. The geography works in the rhythms. It's also visual. For instance, a poem in the Nets book has got to be read from the bottom to the top. That is a picture of Bañalbufar and the terraces from the sea up to the top of the mountain. That's the way that the town runs, you know, the way I laid my lines out, from the bottom reading up.
Q. What about the emphatic voice pauses when you read the poems aloud?
A. I want other people to be able to read the poems with as much of the emphasis of my own voice as possible, and to do that you have to control the poem typographically on the page. You can control your rhythms visually in many ways; you can lay them out on a page in any way that is comprehensible to the reader—what the pauses are, where they fall, how long they are.
Q. That is something Olson is very much interested in—speech rhythms. Duncan and Creeley read their poetry in that emphatic, breathless way.
A. Duncan is very musical. He dances when he reads, whereas Creeley hunches down in his chair and bends over the book as though the whole dance were taking place in his head. His breaks are so precise.
Q. One more question. Why is the secret to The Cities scissors, paper, and rock?
A. I had to put that book together somehow. I wrote basically three kinds of poems in different proportions. Rock, say, is the concrete. The center of the poem is the object in Williams' sense, a person or a thing. It has as much sense as words can bring to it. That's the rock. Paper is where the form is basically an idea, even if the idea is never mentioned. And scissors, what do they remind you of? That's love poems, man. It's the legs opening and closing. The thing was to set up the volume in terms of a rhythm, so that the reader didn't get bored with too many of one kind of poem all in a row. My intention was not to put all the idea poems together and all the love poems together and all the hard object things together, but to keep a rhythm going among them that would be a kind of ground base. In other words, you can read that book from beginning to end and not get bored at any point with any particular kind of poem. There's always something new coming up. They aren't all alternated; sometimes you'll get two or three love poems in a row. But then something else will strike in, a very different kind of poem. Keep a rhythm among those three and you've got the secret of that book.
1 The Cities (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 64. Subsequent references to this edition will be noted parenthetically in the text. ^
Conducted by L. S. Dembo in Madison, May 25, 1971. Mr. Blackburn died of cancer on September 13, 1971.