Joe Safdie
from Cento Magazine

Once Upon a Time with West Ed


"The opening scene . . . is famously without words --
an opera where the arias are stared, not sung"
       --- Sydney Pollock, on "Once Upon A Time in the West"

In the introduction to Internal Resistances, a book of essays on the poetry of Ed Dorn published in 1985, Donald Wesling writes about Ed's first class at UC San Diego in La Jolla in the spring of 1976, when, "after a prolonged silence," he dramatically unrolled a map ("There is your domain") of the railroads stretching across the Western United States. I had a similar experience of Ed's teaching style at the University of Colorado some 18 months later. He had been hired to teach in the creative writing program that had started up the previous year; the teaching assistants, of whom I was one, were directed to attend once-a-week lectures by the permanent faculty to the undergraduates, who were then broken up into smaller sections taught by us.

These lectures were given in a cavernous lecture hall with green walls, mostly used for chemistry classes; I remember a row of Bunsen burners arrayed across a long slab of formica. One afternoon early in the semester, Dorn strode in, wearing cowboy boots and a vest, and started taking out a series of books from a leather bag. After three or four had emerged, he squinted balefully out at the assembled students, took out a match, struck it against the edge of the formica slab, lit his cigarette, and took a deep drag, not saying a word for about five minutes – the ritual was impeccable. Finally, he said "The subject of these lectures is obviously what I've been reading" . . . and started talking about Cioran's philosophy, Samuel Johnson's Life of Richard Savage and W.E. Woodward's Meet General Grant, weaving them together in a brilliant para-logical narrative the likes of which I haven't come close to hearing since.

I'd been lucky enough to have experienced some great teachers in my university experience, but this was something else again; I was 24 years old, and I was hooked. Ed's work and presence were my most important instruction in poetry, and they still inform almost everything I write.

Lots of critical essays have been written about his work – the aforementioned Internal Resistances has some good ones in it, and Tom Clark's recent biography A World of Difference provocatively interweaves the facts of Ed's life with reflections on his writing and the peculiar indeterminacy of his authorial persona – but here I'd like to informally remember a little bit of what it was like being, first, a student of Ed's, and then a friend and occasional correspondent until the pancreatic cancer (what he would call "the alien" in Chemo Sábe, the record of those last years) finally took over in December of 1999.

"I saved myself by . . . establishing a ritual of my own person" he wrote in "Driving Across the Plains," and I don't think it's possible to explain how special it was being around him without talking about his presence, always a little larger than life. A few years after I'd left Boulder for San Francisco, I organized a benefit reading for Zephyr, the magazine I was editing at the time, to coincide with a visit from Ed and his wife Jenny, and called all the writers I knew. Richard Grossinger, writer and publisher of North Atlantic Press, said he had just seen a Clint Eastwood movie that reminded him of Ed, and if you can picture Pale Rider or that first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, that wariness and rock-hard cragginess . . . that was definitely part of the image. He both was and wasn't Slinger, the demi-god of his most famous work -- certainly those of us who were privileged to have kept company with him often assumed those adventures were continuing -- but I think people who didn't know him well assumed that a certain splenetic sarcasm was all there was. That's too bad, as he was one of the most generous people I've ever known.

But he did have a fiery temper. Perhaps our most unusual contact was in 1992, when he and Jenny drove from Southern France (where the Languedoc Variorum, originally called Languedoc Around the Clock, had its origins in the early 90s) to Olomouc, a small town in the Czech Republic where my wife and I were teaching as Peace Corps volunteers, and where I had arranged for him to give a talk and a reading. I'd mailed what I thought were fairly accurate maps, but apparently had left out a crucial segment – anyway, they got lost, and when they finally arrived, an hour or so late, it didn't seem as if the vodka I'd made sure to chill in our freezer would be enough to calm him.

It reminded me of a time back in Boulder when he and Jenny needed a place to stay for a few nights before the fall semester of 1978 began. They had been in San Francisco over the summer, winding up their affairs in North Beach, and were traveling with their kids and most of their possessions.* I was sharing a house near the university at the time with a young single mother, and gladly gave up my room and slept on the deck outside. I didn't know, however, that my roommate had managed to offend Ed with a stray remark during the evening, and I woke up at about 6:00 in the morning to the whole family tramping out to a motel – "Tell your roommate she won't have to bother with us anymore," he growled. I was mortified, but visited him in their motel room a day later, and all was forgiven . . . the remark, whatever it had been, forgotten.

He calmed down after the long drive to Olomouc as well -- "I never thought I'd get this far East," he said, and learning they would stay in a guest house that Mozart had once stayed in didn't hurt. We had a great dinner at a Chinese restaurant, paid for by a visiting law professor from Georgetown we were sure was a member of the CIA. (He kept on getting Ed's name confused with Bernadine Dohrn's). The next morning, Ed gave a well-attended talk about Black Mountain at Palacky University, and that afternoon, a reading, complete with Czech translator. Ed Dorn and Joe Safdie in Prague, Spring, 1992I remember that the poems he was going to read had to be arranged in advance with the rector of the university, who wanted him to read pieces that had already been translated into Czech from Hands Up and Geography – personal lyrics like "Are They Dancing" and others written to Helene, with which Ed felt quite uncomfortable and read awkwardly. The next day, we drove to Prague to pick up his check from the U.S. embassy, a photo of George Bush the Elder gazing down at us. It was the summer of 1992, and the first tales of Bill Clinton's infidelities were in the news, this time with Jennifer Flowers. "He fucked her," he said at our table in the Grand Hotel on Wenceslas Square, "but he didn't come."

He was constitutionally unable to support anyone in power; although he once allowed as how he had voted for Jimmy Carter, his scorn at what he felt was the amateurish nature of that administration in the late 1970s was relentless. As Wesling said about him, "Dorn is not a poet of causes. In fact, he is suspicious of anyone who favors anything." I laughed when Clark revealed one of Ed's earliest intellectual influences, a Methodist preacher who said "It's not okay, and it's not going to be okay." When I saw him in Seattle in 1994, he and Jenny were engaged in a project called "Negativity," collecting notes about public signage that expressed hostile sentiments. One favorite was "The King is rolling in his grave" (a reference to the ill-fated marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley).

It seemed at times that he purposely picked on popular received ideas, if only to pierce any of them that had been accepted lazily, without a thorough examination – the word "gadfly" comes to mind. Once, when we were walking quickly across the CU campus (he always moved quickly), a squirrel was attracting some attention from the coeds. "Everybody has these Walt Disney feelings about them," he snarled – "they're just bushy-tailed rats." I also remember, in the midst of a popular boycott of the Coors brewery, Ed going up to the bartender at the Boulderado Hotel and loudly demanding a Coors. As Anselm Hollo said, in Clark's biography, "Almost any take endorsed by the U.S. media, and perhaps especially by the ‘liberal' wing of same, was instantly suspect, and Ed's m.o. was to assume the diametrically opposed position." An e-mail correspondent a few years ago sniffed disapprovingly about his references to the "jackbooted purveyors of multiculturalism," and his famous air bag poem – one of the first of the short, twisted epigrams that were to make up most of his work in the late 70s and 80s – was in part a diatribe against Ralph Nader.

But as a student, I took his rants as an opportunity to sharpen my attention to what he thought were the pernicious forces forever threatening us, "conning the present to hustle the futcha / By a simple elimination of the datadata" ("The Cycle") "They ALWAYS want to screw you, Oscar," he once admonished one of my roommates, who had innocently complained about his utility bill. Things assumed heightened importance whenever he was around, no matter what the subject of conversation was, which made me (and hundreds of others) want to explore and learn a little about what he knew.
For me, specifically, that was American history – in my standardized English department education before grad school, I'd thought of the 18th century only in terms of Pope and Swift, and (of course?) favored the romantics to come. No, no, no, he insisted -- this was the century of the American revolution; this is where we came from! He got me reading epochal books of American history, W.E. Woodward's Washington: The Image and the Man and Meet General Grant, and Claude Bowers' Jefferson and Hamilton, which were much more inspiring than the aesthetic theories and confessional poems of the late 70s, and gave me a lifelong preference for poetry that incorporated and explored historical fact rather than the intricacies of its own syntax. I didn't get to all of Olson's recommendations in the famous "Bibliography on America," but I found quite a few -- Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains, Kathleen Coman's Economic Beginnings of the Far West, Carl Sauer -- all of which rescued me from any possibility of repeating the mainstream lyric effusions then in vogue. (As I went to the "Bibliograhy" to remember the spelling of Ms. Coman's name, I found Olson's remark that "our own ‘life' is too serious a concern for us to be parlayed forward by literary antecedence. In other words, ‘culture,' no matter how great" – which seems relevant.)

But this was a creative writing program, after all, and eventually a few of us, who felt we had progressed "beyond" the regular workshops, got a chance to take an advanced class with him. The required reading was a letter from Tom Raworth containing an acidic review about a European poetry festival (it might have been Spoleto) at which many American friends had read, Ed Sanders' Investigative Poetry (which had started as a Naropa class project investigating the infamous Trungpa Rinpoche-W. S. Merwin dispute at a Buddhist retreat and set off "The Great Naropa Poetry Wars"; see Tom Clark's book of that title), and another letter from Jeremy Prynne about Sanders' essay, to which he was hardly sympathetic -- that one started "But Edward -- . . ."

Think about that for a minute – a famous poet letting graduate writing students read his own personal correspondence, in order to talk about the issues involved. Writing programs may be problematic (I agree with a lot of the criticism I've read), but if examples of such generosity are on the curriculum, one would be small-minded indeed to criticize them.

The classes were held around his dinner table, scene of many raucous gatherings ("where one place / is the center of this terrific actualism" as Book III of Slinger had it), but the conversation was serious – he wanted us to fully consider Prynne's objections before we too rapidly signed on to a trendy new "movement," even one (or especially one) with which he was sympathetic; he wanted us to consider everything that poetry could possibly do and be, and then find our own way.

One thing that established writers can do for novices in such situations is simply to recognize them. I still remember Ed saying "That's really masterful compression" after he'd read a short poem I'd written "about" Alexander Hamilton's plan to revamp the currency in the 1790s – simple encouragement that allowed me, simply, to go on with what I'd been doing. He felt, I think, that serious practitioners need only tell the truth – and that any device that would lead to the expression of that truth should be exploited -- including historical documentation of course, but also jokes, bad puns, sarcasm, irony and "samplings" of other poems! If you weren't somehow telling the truth in your poems, though, there was nothing that he, or anyone, could do for you. (One early criticism came when I showed him a sequence of poems I'd inscribed "For E. M. Cioran" – "You can't say that," he said, disgusted; "you don't know him.")

On March 25, 2000, I helped organize a memorial reading for Ed in Seattle – many writers came from various far-flung regions to participate. English poet Tom Raworth flew in that morning from Albany, NY; John Daley, who'd met Ed in Buffalo in the 1970s and became a lifelong friend, took a few days off from his criminal defense work in Los Angeles; Charles Potts, author and editor of The Temple and a student of Ed's in Pocatello in the early 1960s, drove in from Walla Walla, etc. I've been listening to the audio cassette of that reading -- readings of and in response to Ed's writing -- while I finish these recollections, and I'm struck, as I have been so often, with that curious combination of fierce morality and side-splitting humor that he practiced so well. As he said, in the late reading tour of Eastern Washington that Potts arranged, "My problem is how to make pain funny."

That was something he managed to pull off pretty well in his last book of poems, Chemo Sábe, and in this wonderful quote from a late letter to Clark:

But now I'm leveling off again and feel much better. I've stopped taking that fucking Zoloft for starters, and feel a lot better already. That has to be something invented by some New Age Torquemada, mindless nasty stuff. It is said, and I believe it, that the whole English dept. at CU is "on" it, and that theorists in general everywhere can't function without it. No wonder they detest the past in which it didn't exist. (September 30, 1998)

The seriousness was always there, from "The Rick of Green Wood" on, but it took a while to register the humor, encased, as it so often was, in bitterness. Another thing about Ed that Raworth mentioned at the memorial was that he knew about work; he knew what it meant to be poor and live on food stamps (see Clark's bio, and his own semi-autobiographical By The Sound, for vivid descriptions of that poverty), and he never failed to indict the people responsible for the maintenance of that situation. Yet the humor made the social commentary even more pointed -- "1 billion Chinese are telling me / the gang of 4 are wrong? / Doesn't this seem out of proportion?" he asked in Yellow Lola, a book of "offshoots" from Hello, La Jolla. (I'm not sure if I've ever seen any comment that Yellow Lola is an approximation of a Japanese person trying to pronounce the name of the earlier book; Ed was hysterically politically incorrect before such things were even possible.)

And finally, that's what matters most. He was just such a gas to be around. As John Daley said at the memorial reading, "One was never bored around Edward." Which made it such an honor, in the winter of 1979, when my roommate and I drove down to Santa Fe to, among other things, meet Max Finstein, the eminence grise behind the Taos World Championships of Poetry, to be accompanied by a note that said: "Max – these are my friends, Stokes and Joe. Show them a good time.
              West Ed."

* They left me their parakeet to take care of while they were gone. One day my roommates let it out of the cage and it flew into a nearby tree; I almost had heart failure. I had lost Ed Dorn's bird! My life as I knew it was over! We put the cage on top of the car hood and whistled, and after a few minutes, the bird, amazingly, flew back in. Two days after I proudly returned it to them, a cat got in its cage and tore it apart.