Tony Towle – Leo Edelstein
Interview for Pataphysics
“Holiday Resort” Issue, 2003
Leo Edelstein: What made you decide to write Memoir 1960-1963 and how did you go about assembling it?
Tony Towle: The immediate impetus was that Jack Kimball was starting a publishing venture (Faux Press) two years ago and he asked me to be in his first series. All my poetry, past and recent, was spoken for as Bob Hershon’s Hanging Loose Press was going to be coming out with a comprehensive New & Selected (The History of the Invitation) about the same time. However, what I thought I could do would be to give him some prose. I envisioned four or five ten- or twenty-page vignettes from over the years that I had always wanted to write about.
One of them was my experience at the New York Writer’s Conference, held at Wagner College in July of 1963, which took place soon after the conclusion of the poetry workshops I took at the New School that spring with Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. It also coincided with an intense love affair I had that summer. The logical starting point was when I overheard Frank O'Hara on an extension phone giving me an unofficial recommendation to the Conference’s director. But I realized that I really then had to go back and tell how I met Frank O’Hara, which was the year before. However, in between, I had taken a rather quixotic trip to Los Angeles, where I bought books by Koch and O’Hara in preparation for Koch’s workshop, which I wanted to come back to New York to take that January. This process of what had to be included led me inexorably back to the end of my first marriage in 1960, when I first started writing poetry. On the other chronological end, I decided, a bit more arbitrarily, to stop in December of 1963, when the my literary and social die was cast, as it were.
All this ended up taking over from the other little pieces I was contemplating and it extended to a hundred pages. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written and it was driving me a little crazy by the time I finished. I tried not to take liberties with the past but to be as exact as I could and put down only what I could remember. However, because these three years were the beginning of my poetic career, there was a great deal that had been seared into my mind, though there were also events and names I just couldn’t quite recall no matter how much I ransacked my brain.
It took me from May 2000 to September 2001 to finish it. (I wanted a note to that effect in the book, so it would be known that it hadn’t been written from material from 20, 30, or 40 years before.) Jack Kimball had to stay on my case with a deadline or it would certainly have taken longer. Fortuitously, I sent the manuscript off to him via e-mail on the afternoon of September 10th, and then Diane and I went blithely off to a party, staying out quite late. We live eleven blocks up from the World Trade Center. A month or so later, when it came time to read the galleys, I decided to make the note in the book more specific: May 13, 2000 to September 10, 2001. I didn’t want the reader to think that I was worrying about what I did 40 years ago when the city was falling down around my ears!
LE: Has the architecture of New York City influenced the spatiality of your poems?
TT: New York (Manhattan) has certainly affected my poetry, and it’s ongoing! And although I take an interest in architecture, past and present, and am always looking at buildings wherever I am, I don’t think I can answer this question. I’ve lived in Manhattan since 1961 and the environment and its architecture is so much a part of my sensibility that I can’t really separate it. I’m sure if I had lived on the coast of Maine all my life, say, my poems would certainly be different! It may be worth mentioning that a poem I wrote in the mid-‘70s, “Works on Paper,” in which the architectural theme seems partly about Renaissance Italy and partly irreal, is of course subtextually about Manhattan as well (and there is one line in the poem that refers to this). I should also say that, although I lived in Manhattan for the first two years of my life, as well as the last 41, I grew up (from ages two to thirteen) on the sixth floor of a modest six-story brick building on Queens Boulevard — but it had a million dollar view: the Manhattan skyline. I could and did see it every day (including, at times, spectacular sunsets behind it). So it was like seeing the Emerald City from afar rather than living in it. That kind of perspective pops up in my poems, I think. Also, in 1968, I had the occasion to read Ada Louise Huxtable’s little book, Classical New York, which gave me an overview on dating the 19th-century buildings I saw around me every day (I was living in SoHo’s cast-iron area by then).
LE: You describe sharing an apartment with Joe Brainard and his experimentation with collage. Would you see the humor in your poems as relating to his work?
TT: Well, it was actually my apartment, 441 East 9th Street, that Frank Lima and I had taken over from Frank O’Hara and Joe LeSueur in April of 1963. When Frank Lima moved out to get married that fall, I had the place to myself and rather liked it that way. The second bedroom was my storage room. It was Ted Berrigan who prevailed on me to let his friend, “an artist living in Boston right now, a real nice guy,” move in. No, Joe had nothing to do with my sense of humor, per se; that was fixed long before, and I think my dark ironies are different from the spirit of Joe’s work. However, he was very responsible for my “pop collage” period because, although his collages didn’t affect my work (although I certainly liked them a lot), some of the materials for them that he scavenged and brought into the apartment did.
Literary appropriation was very much in the air around this time. One was given permission to tap non-literary outside sources by both the New York School (some of the poems in Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, for example, which had come out the previous year), and the French Surrealists. I had been toying with collage in the fall of ’63, and had written one poem that was basically taken from advertising, and another that primarily came from a Hindi grammar book — the diction of the translated phrases struck me as wonderfully absurd. But Joe started bringing home periodicals I would never have gone out and bought — comic books, “true romance” magazines, wrestling magazines — which would now be sitting in piles around our kitchen. Joe had moved in in December; in March, I started using Joe’s “literary” scavenges in earnest. I was lifting and collaging sentences and sections from all sorts of popular publications and juxtaposing them for effect. I felt no compunction to be “pure” about my borrowings, though. I would tinker with them, changing a word here and there if I thought there was a need for it, especially the pronouns, although the primary effects came, I think, from the juxtapositions.
Anyway, this style sort of took me over from early spring ’64 to the summer of ’65, when I finally finished “Lines for the New Year,” a 600-plus-line poem I had been working on for a year, and which was my farewell to this way of writing. (Joe had moved out at the end of ’64, but I had long ceased to depend on just what he brought into the house, I found my own sources.) Interestingly, I did not immediately realize that my collage poems were very much the literary equivalent of what Warhol and Lichtenstein and Rosenquist were doing at the same time.
LE: Was Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” influential on the development of your work?
TT: The short answer is no. That is, certainly not when I first read it, back in 1961, in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 — I wouldn’t have known how to be influenced by it; I wasn’t accomplished enough! From late 1962 on, Frank’s poetry had an influence on me but “Personism” itself, Frank’s soi-disant “manifesto,” which I have read many times over the years, initially baffled me somewhat — especially the rather outrageous: As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. I read “Personism” yet once more just now, and it strikes me that perhaps the real essence of the “message” is in the very first phrase: Everything is in the poems . . . In other words, the rest of the text is extraneous! What is truly remarkable is that here is a statement on poetics that is not an exposition or discussion but an exemplification of the poet’s sensibility as it appears in his poems. The well-known fact that Frank didn’t take this assignment seriously, that he just sat down one day and knocked it out because Allen asked him to write a statement for the anthology, is part and parcel of the exemplification.
Basically, by the time I felt I knew what “Personism” was talking about, I was already following my own path, and getting inspiration directly from Frank’s poetry, among other sources. However, I would like to think that some of my work eventually achieved the effect of what “Personism” was about (perhaps in “Nearing Christmas” or “Autobiography” among others) and I think it can be said that I often “go on my nerve” — but our sensibilities are basically different. I’m not as willing to wing it and then accept the results, as Frank was. I have to look at my work after it’s sat for a while and then, more often than not, revise it. I think I’m more conscious of constructing a poem, even if I don’t know where the materials are coming from.
LE: How have your poems changed since the ‘60s?
TT: I think I have to talk about the very profound changes in my work that took place in the ‘60s. First was the “juvenilia” I wrote (in my early twenties!) between 1960 and the end of ‘62, which I characterized as “jejune little ironies” in a poem from a couple of years ago. As soon as I began Kenneth Koch’s and Frank O’Hara’s workshops at the New School in January of ‘63, I quickly realized that none of those poems were any good and that I had to begin again. A few months later, it became clear to me that the earliest presentable poem was the first one I wrote in Kenneth’s workshop, for a “dream” assignment that February (called “Sequence”). This has remained true ever since.
Then I moved into the “pop collage” style as described above. By the summer of ’65, I came to feel that I had gone as far as I could go with it. In a year and a half, this method of working had gone from being a way of broadening my landscape and stepping into unexpected personas, to sidestepping myself, avoiding the deeper water, as it were. It was time to go back out on it, or into it.
Frank O’Hara, in an interview he gave in the fall [October] of 1965 for an English magazine [Studio], said (in answer to the question of what the young poets that he knew were doing) that my style was a combination of Wallace Stevens through Andy Warhol and that it was an “interesting and alarming style to get to know.” I didn’t know he had said this until the interview was reprinted posthumously somewhere about five years after his death (and I was extremely moved when I saw it). At any rate, Frank was talking about the collage style I had already moved on from. At the end of the year, I sent him the half dozen poems I had written that fall.
I think he liked them but I don’t remember whether I ever found out for sure. In July, Frank was hit fatally by a beach buggy at night on Fire Island, at the age of 40. I had a delayed but lingering reaction. I had felt somehow that Frank was immortal, regardless of how much he drank. At the turn of 1967, I wrote “Sunrise: Ode to Frank O’Hara,” a formal but personal elegy, more personal than I was used to being, and it seemed to usher in an easier, more fluent tone in the poems that came after it. At the time, it crossed my mind that this more conversational and fuller style was somehow due to Frank’s death, and that in a sense I was profiting from it. (I had forgotten about these thoughts for a long time.) I think Frank would have told me that it was both insecurity and self-dramatizing bullshit on my part, that I should take responsibility for the poems I had written and not blame them on him!
From then on, it’s difficult for me to distinguish between actual changes in style from the poems that rescued me from moments of literary crisis (which at times could be quite prolonged). “The Morgan Library” did this at the beginning of 1970, “Nearing Christmas” at the end of 1971, “Social Poem” in 1978, “Recapitulation” in 1982, and “Downtown Song” in 1992. In fact, I can’t be sure that there have been any fundamental changes in my work since the mid-‘70s, or I may just be too close to see what they are. On occasion I may still lift a phrase or two from popular sources. When a brochure for videotapes not too long ago presented me with the proposal: Relive the Terrors of World War II, I found appropriation irresistible.