Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Henry Gould

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Henry G books[64941]

Henry Gould

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

First off, thank you, Paul, for proposing this interview. I started writing poetry at age 14, during my first year in high school (what we call 9th grade in the U.S.). That was in 1967. I had thought of myself as a “writer” much earlier, by age 10 or 11. I hoped to become a newspaper reporter, maybe a novelist. What brought me to start in with poetry? My English teachers over several years included poems in our reading and composition. Poetry was also an emphasis in the French and Latin classes. I was very fortunate to have teachers like that, who took an interest. Around age 14 I simply discovered I had a talent for writing short poems. Both the contemporary things I was reading in school anthologies, and the exotic glamour of French poetry, got my attention. From there the interest and ambition grew, very gradually, so that now poetry has pretty much taken command of my earthly existence, so to speak.

2. Would you say that it was your teachers who introduced you to poetry?

In a certain sense, yes. They helped focus my attention at the right time. I owe them a debt of gratitude, for bring poems into the school routine, for stimulating classroom reflection and critical discussion, for forcing us to write about it, and finally for encouraging my own experimentation. On the other hand, I don’t want to give you an oversimplified answer. How does poetry make itself felt in one’s awareness to begin with? This is actually an issue that has preoccupied me lately. Do the schools, and culture at large, confine poetry within too narrow a channel right now, exotic and specialized? In my view, poetry, with all its technical specificity and particular history, is nevertheless part of a seamless continuum. It’s a phase phenomenon, on a spectrum with literature as a whole (poetry, drama, fiction, criticism), with the arts (music, dance, visual art), and even with sciences and humanities more generally. And in our personal experience, we are soaked in unconscious poetry from an early age, within this luxuriant context of aesthetic experiences of all kinds. Poetry is inseparable from this wider artistic milieu. I could say I wrote my first poem in 1956, when I was 4 years old. My workaholic father was heading out the door in the morning. I called out this little sing-song doggerel bit toward him (“Play, Play! / It’s time to play! / Play all day, / that’s what I say! / Your work is done, / come out in the sun! / Play, play, play!”). My father stopped right there, and wrote it down on a little cardboard key card he had in his pocket. 50 years later, my mother found the card in a drawer and sent it to me. As my former teacher Edwin Honig once wrote, for a children’s pamphlet put out by the government : “Poetry is a buzzing in the air. It’s everywhere. Poets hear that sound, and write it down.”

2.1. How did “the exotic glamour of French poetry, (get your) attention”?

A few years ago I experienced one of those all-too-rare Proustian spontaneous memories (though I can’t remember what triggered it, which is actually what would make it Proustian).  Very evocative.  It was probably the summer of 1968.  I was sitting barefoot on a little metal balcony at my parents’ house, reading one of those tiny French paperbacks – Baudelaire, probably.  The profound pleasure in being able – somewhat! –  to read the French; to hear the slow sound of it… “luxe, calme et volupte“… and to understand it – somewhat! – in my own language.  With that purely literary phenomenon of experiencing something distant, remote, untouchable… yet one is absorbed by it nonetheless.  At that adolescent time of life, when love and desire and romance seem so utterly, physically close, and yet so impossible to find, to know… all that oceanic dreaming and loneliness and uncertainty all in one flow, one deep well of naive, semi-childish consciousness.  Actually an episode in the long farewell to childhood.  This kind of experience seems to epitomize the point that poetry is actually born and grows within the already-poetic consciousness of the reader.  The poem is the flower, the reader is the garden (something like that).  Poetry is elusive, subjective, it changes, dependent on our personal state of mind.  As the Spanish playwright put it, La vida es sueno.  Life is a dream.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

You probably realize this is a big, challenging question.  I’m tempted to say “Next question”.   But I’ve thought of a few fragmentary things by way of response.

Perhaps the ideal for poets is not “domination” but “guidance”.  Or better yet, “friendship”.  Canadian scholar Elena Glazov-Corrigan wrote a book about this, with respect to Osip Mandelstam (Mandelshtam’s Poetics : a Challenge to Postmodernism).  She traces the transformations in Mandelstam’s development as a movement away from postmodern otherness and non-identity, toward a new concept of poetic “friendship” or affiliation.  A personal bond, between poets – regardless of time and space – which promises new creative/spiritual integration.  One can see this exemplified in another way in Paul Celan’s profound affiliation with Mandelstam himself – M-at-a-distance.

And perhaps it’s no accident that Glazov-Corrigan centers her analysis on Mandelstam’s late essay “Conversation About Dante”.  In this rhapsodic work, Mandelstam strives to raise up a new Dante for the 20th century – in fulfillment and transmutation of his early Acmeist doctrines (“We do not want Ovid in translation – we want the living, breathing Ovid!”).

Dante, of course, narrates the paradigmatic healthy relationship between a poet and his or her famous ancestors.  Virgil – who, as the poet avows, is his great literary model and creative inspiration – becomes a benevolent, if circumscribed, character in Dante’s own effort.  What is happening here?  Virgil offers Dante the literary, generic template : the organizational algorithm.  But the literary technology is only the vehicle (flaming chariot though it may be).  The journey itself belongs to Dante : which occasions his transformation of all the categories of classical literature into his new, medieval, romantic, Biblical key – the key of spiritual eternity, the key to the Kingdom.

Can we glimpse, in this design, a reversal of the (Harold) Bloomian model of Oedipal struggle, between strong literary fathers and striving sons?  Can we project the negation of an abstract Bourdieuvian theory of literary power mechanics?  If the basis of the affinity between Dante and Virgil, or Mandelstam and Dante, or Celan and Mandelstam, is really not one of dominant-model-to-youthful-imitator, but more like the “mysteries” shared between fellow Masonic master craftspersons – then maybe there is some actual, neutral, personal ground for the possibility of the next trans-chronological spiritual fellowship.  This is clearly an Acmeist idea.  If simple craft is the bond – the techne of poetic expression – then this leaves open the personal, historical, moral, and spiritual differentiations and distinctions which divide political parties and nation-states and historical eras.  So, for example, the criminal Francois Villon can be seen as the soul-mate of (political) sacrificial lamb Osip Mandelstam, etc. etc.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

For many years I had to work around my day job.  I decided early on, for better or for worse, that I didn’t want to teach writing or literature.  I felt I could never write and teach at the same time.  If others can, all power to them!  It seemed impossible for me.  So I had various lines of work over the years – I’ve been writing poetry for half a century – but the main job I held was as a low-level clerk in an academic library (Brown University, in Providence, RI).  I went and got myself a professional library degree, but I never used it.  Too much responsibility!  I needed a day job I could forget about in the evenings.  The library was perfect.  I had all the research materials and latest books right to hand.  It was tedious, secluded, socially-detached, drab drudgery – very boring!  But it paid the bills and gave me unlimited access to the wonders of literature and scholarship.

So this is a long-winded answer!  I’m retired now.  I keep daily notebooks, with little compositional jottings for future poems.  My reading usually circles very closely around the topics confronting me in the poems under construction.  So it’s basically : the notebooks, the reading, the thinking… and the writing.  I like to take walks.  I take photos which sometimes illustrate or record what ends up in the poems. Composition has become something like second nature with me.  I can feel the poems approaching.  My type of poetry is rather specialized.  I’ve been writing long poems for many years.  So there’s an over-arching if implicit narrative, a kind of thematic structure, behind the diaristic series of individual poems.  I apply pretty repetitive patterns, and I find this allows me to loosen up and let go in other ways.  I’ve had some musical training and experience, which I think made itself felt very deeply in my approach, on different levels.  Improvisation within a thematic design is what it’s all about for me.  I’d hate to jinx myself, but I’ve had no problem with writer’s block or anything like that.  Maybe I inherited a bit of Irish gift of gab somewhere along the line (for better & worse, again).  Since the poems are diaristic to a degree, I like to post them on my blog (hgpoetics.blogspot.com) – it has an immediacy I like.  Doesn’t help me break into the Main Stream Scene so much, but who knows.

5. In addition to photos what else motivates you to write?

This is a seemingly simple question, but I’m finding it not so simple to answer. The photos are more ancillary : sometimes they give me an entry to a phrase or an opening to a poem, but they’re not essential.

What then are the real motivators? Poetry is a kind of spiritual force, a power. In poetry speech takes on that striking, vivid, real & authentic vitality. It is a way of saying true things that makes the saying beautiful, and finds and expresses the beautiful in things. So for me since I was quite young, making poetry involves trying to inhabit that spiritual aptitude, and make my own new versions of it. I looked on it – the making of poems – as a kind of sacred state, set apart in its own magic circle. I think this is something of what is meant when it’s said that poetry necessarily proceeds from inspiration. It’s a gift and power the poet can’t calculate, manipulate, or predict – at least not entirely.

So perhaps that’s the primary motivation – simply to replicate, if possible, that productive, natural atmosphere of poems being born. That is, I’ve known it – and I want to experience it again, make a new poem.

Perhaps alongside that is another, almost equally-central motivation. It’s more social – has to do with a sort of technical-professional sense of being a poet. I’m part of a traditional guild of artists who have been making poems since the beginning of recorded history. I bring with me a specific set of visions, beliefs, historical circumstances, and social commitments – and I want to express these things in poetry that could stand without deference or shame with my contemporaries, and with poets and poetries of other times and places. This is the deep ambition of poets, and I suppose it’s this particular motivation, along with the first one mentioned above, which shapes the directions of style and genre that I’ve taken over the years.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

I started out in poetry way back in the mid-1960s.  My parents sent my brothers and I to a private school in Hopkins, Minnesota called Blake (in fact we walked to school, it was just down the street).  Blake is an elite private school, modeled on the English “public schools”.  The ’60s were, as the cliche has it, a time of change.  When I was in the 6th grade at Blake, our English teacher required us to memorize Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” in its entirety, and recite it at the front of the class.  The teacher, Mr. Close, stood close behind us.  If we forgot a line or made a mistake, he would swat us hard over the shoulders with his yardstick.  He was “old school”, so to speak.

At the same, time we also had more forward-looking English teachers, interested in contemporary poetry.  (Allen Grossman, the American poet and critic, attended Blake exactly 20 years before I did.) We had a student anthology called A Gift of Watermelon Pickle, which included a lot of modernist and contemporary poets, and had a very light touch (photographs were used to enhance the poems).  In the late 60s, toward the end of high school, I also started to absorb current poetry on my own.  I became completely infatuated with the wry and playful approach of the New York School poets.  There were a couple of NY School anthologies out then which commanded all my attention and emulation.  I believe it was partly on the basis of some NY Schoolish poems, which I submitted with my college application, that I was granted admission to Brown University.

So my early years in poetry were marked by this zeitgeist shift – from “old school” seriousness, with respect to the traditional exalted status of poetry, to the more “contemporary” informal and iconoclastic attitude.  I think both ends of this spectrum have fed into what I’ve tried to do, and still try to do, in a general way.

However, I think if I could characterize my development in a shorthand way, I would say my poems have gradually, over the decades, become more complex, distinct from any particular school, and “serious”.  I credit this development to my encounter with a wider spectrum of poetic models from all over the world, and from the distant past.  It would take a dissertation or a monograph to go into all this in detail.  But this encounter began early for me, and played out in a highly dramatic and crazy way.  I’m afraid if I start recounting that tale it would really stretch the boundaries of the interview format.  I’ve written about it elsewhere (including in a memoir-essay published in 1994, as part of a festschrift I co-edited and published in honor of poet-translator Edwin Honig, called A Glass of Green Tea – with Honig.  This book was distributed by Fordham Univ. Press).  Basically I had a kind of spiritual crisis and mental breakdown in 1973, while at Brown.  I thought the ghost of William Shakespeare was literally communicating with me via the Sonnets.  It threw me for an enormous loop.  I retreated into the Bible, and dropped out of school for several years.

6.1. I believe “ A Glass of Green Tea- with Honig” can be bought on Amazon. Could you give a brief description of the “wider spectrum of poetic models from all over the world, and from the distant past” that influence you now.

That’s hard for me to summarize.  My experience with the muse over 50 years seems to fall into distinct layers.  I went to college at Brown in 1970, already under the influence of the NY School and the “Deep Image” and neo-archaic movements (Technicians of the Sacred, et al.).  At Brown I studied Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.  My comp lit and writing courses under poet/translator Edwin Honig broadened my perspective.  I met a lot of young poets and won some awards, traveled around New England and NYC for readings, etc.  Then after two golden years I went into a period of depression and withdrawal.  I underwent a severe spiritual/psychological/vocation crisis.  Renounced poetry and dropped out of college, traveled around for several years, came back in 1977 to change my major and finish my B.A.  My final (double) major was in Semiotics-Creative Writing/Local Agriculture.  I put poetry at arm’s length for several years.  Ran a food coop; worked in community organizing for 5 years as a VISTA volunteer; built a solar greenhouse and community gardens etc.

Poetry never went away, though.  I would say the most pivotal and sustained influence on my poetry comes from Osip Mandelstam, and his wife Nadezhda’s dual memoirs of their life together in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  I discovered David McDuff’s translations of Mandelstam’s Selected Poems in a bookstore across the street from the food coop, and the poems immediately took hold of me.  I credit Mandelstam, and the scholarly work I explored in that regard, with leading me not only to Hart Crane’s Bridge, but, by a kind of domino effect, to the whole field of epic and the long poem – Pound, Olson, H.D., Zukofsky, WC Williams et al.  Moreover, just as an example, what I learned about Mandelstam’s application of ring-structure, numerology and odic design led me back to the Renaissance studies in this area (Alastair Fowler’s books et al.).  Not only that : it was through a Providence friend, Tom Epstein, a scholar of Russian samizdat poetry, that I was able to meet several times and correspond with the late Elena Shvarts, a wonderful Petersburg poet.  The Russian-American poetry conferences in Hoboken also introduced me to a number of other Russian poets.

These various experiences and encounters, along with others, have fed into the streams and directions I’ve pursued in my own work.  My poems, long and short, reflect these influences.

6.2. What about the long poem enthrals you?

Twelve years ago I wrote a brief note called “How to Read a Long Poem” (online here : http://hgessrev.blogspot.com/2007/01/how-to-read-long-poem-long-poem-is-not.html ).  It might provide part of an answer to your question.  I believe there exists an intellectual (and also emotional) impulse toward wholeness, or a holistic philosophical understanding of experience.  The long poem, the epic poem, offers, truly or falsely (the “Gate of Horn” or the “Gate of Ivory”) a possible means toward such holistic expression.

In the Middle Ages, scholars illustrated the idea of different levels of poetic style with a model they called “Virgil’s Wheel”.  The three levels were pastoral, didactic, and epic (exemplified by Virgil’s Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid).  Aspiring poets would emulate the Master by starting with the plain, or “rustic” style; advance to the didactic; and finish with the epic.  The pedantic quality of the method was a typically medieval, but these distinctions imply that a poet might require the adoption of such an expansive sense of genre, in order to achieve that mimetic realism or holism which could do justice to experience.

My absorption with the long poem happened gradually.  I think it began in the early ’80s with a creative impasse – a dissatisfaction, a sense of disconnect between what I was thinking and experiencing on the one hand, and the way I was writing on the other.  I was utterly under the spell of Mandelstam, and was writing what I thought were “Mandelstamian” poems : elusive, gnomic, elliptical, riddling.  But at the same time, my life in general and my energies were still on the anti-poetic side of the gyre.  In the mid-70s I had really renounced poetry.  I tried with all my might to ground myself in something real, useful, practical, objective.  As I mentioned, I had changed my major in college to include “Local Agriculture”.  After graduating I threw myself into various kinds of community organizing.  I was something of a grassroots activist in Providence.  It was all-consuming work.  Meanwhile I had gotten married.  My wife and I had two children in the early 80s.  The work, among other things, involved a lot of political talk (in smoke-filled factory rooms full of asbestos droppings) and theorizing and debating and maneuvering among different actors and political groups.  I got a Master’s degree in Community Organization during those years.  My state of mind was bent toward the abstract, theoretical, strategic aspects of local politics and social justice.

It was not that I had given up on reading and poetry entirely; just that I was having difficulty relating my previous writing style with what I was currently thinking and doing.  I wanted to find a way to make poetry that reflected history and politics and facts.  I was most interested in two exemplars from early Modernism : Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Hart Crane’s The Bridge.  I was utterly fascinated with Crane’s entire oeuvre.  In part I thought I recognized an affinity between his style and that of Mandelstam.  You could sum it up in both cases as resonant, mysterious, musical, multivalent, allusive imagery.  After many years I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not so much a close or special affinity between these two poets, but the sense of such an affinity is a result of the fact that both of them drew on deep, rich wells of traditional poetic lore and technique.  They are both part of the main high stream, the grand manner, going back through Yeats et al. to the Romantics, to the Renaissance, and further back.

With Pound it was more a fascination and an admiration for his powerful, free and easy way with vast tons of historical material – specific facts, which he enlivens and causes to sparkle with his garrulous, joshing mannerisms.  And in my researches I found there was a kind of sub-genre, a special niche, for the long poem in America.  Pound’s grandiose ambition, his will to rival Dante’s Commedia no less, was a kind of virus for new generations of similarly-infected ambitious poets – William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, many others.  I was one of them.  My own ambition was complicated by a desire to turn the tables on Pound to some extent.  I had, and have, a fundamental disagreement with his worldview and politics.  And my own personal stylistic affinities (going back to Mandelstam, and further back to the “Deep Image” poets, maybe) were with Crane.  So, I could very reductively summarize my strategy in the long poem – and I’ve written nine of them – as an effort to counterbalance the influence of Pound and Eliot with a leaning toward Crane.  And both of them go back to Whitman.

So over a 30-year period – from 1989 to now, 2020 – I’ve been experimenting with successive versions of the long poem.  With occasional breaks for short poems!  I’ve written a lot of those, too.  My current ongoing version is called Ravenna Diagram.  Two volumes have been published, and the third, concluding volume is nearing the finish.  It’s over 1000 pp. so far.  Here’s the chronological sequence from 1989 of my long poems : Memorial Day, Spring Quartet, In RI, Island Road, Forth of July (which is three distinct volumes : Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, July), Rest Note, Lanthanum, Ravenna DiagramStubborn Grew was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2000; Dos Madres Press is publishing Ravenna Diagram.  I self-published all the rest of them.

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Far be it from me to pretend some bird’s-eye view or panoramic perspective on the contemporary scene.  I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  My random enthusiasms happen on the periphery of my personal focus, which is on my own work.  It has always been this way.  From early on – I mean from the late 1960s – I have felt that the process of making poetry is a spiritual mystery, a quasi-sacred activity.  I have tried from the beginning to keep myself open to this mystery of composition.  One way that happens, for me anyway, is to avoid mixing motives when it comes to writing.  I have felt this runs directly counter to the trends in poetry teaching and publishing – trends which went into high gear at the very moment I was starting out.  We are talking about the effects of the “program era” in the U.S., when college English and humanities departments organized an institutional niche for poets and creative writers.  These became well-established, and their faculty (poets and writers themselves) began to influence, through their students, the choices made by journal editors, grant and award systems, and major publishers.  The whole “program” became fairly integrated.  And what it is, in my opinion, is a standardization and professionalization of the art form itself.  This is not a bad thing; some standards in literary writing have been raised, in some places.  But it’s not my path, and never has been.  I don’t see poetry-writing as offering a paying career or a professional academic position.  I never have.  I’ve always tried to distinguish between the life of poetry, and the professional academic life, or the professional publishing world.  In the early 1990s, in Providence, Rhode Island, I helped found a small local independent nonprofit group called the Poetry Mission.  We published a little mag called Nedge for ten years, and sponsored readings and talks in the area which were distinctly separate from the thriving Creative Writing scene at Brown University, and other area colleges (though occasionally we drew on some of their talent for our readings).  Our events were held in art galleries, coffee houses, and public libraries.  These were all choices predicated on the notion – much-contested, of course – that poetry is a supremely unmediated phenomenon, rooted in inspiration and creative freedom.  It’s not a matter of the poet separating herself from the sources, the well-springs of poetry, in the models offered by other writers and the poetry of the past.  Far from it.  But it is fundamentally a question of the poet’s state-of-mind in the process of making.  Is it free?  Or is it an effort to please others, to pass a course, to benefit from an academic program, to network, to achieve recognition from influential writers and publishers?  Is it all a game, or is it something challenging, free, original and new?

I have witnessed the generations come and go, of clever, ambitious and successful poets who insist that a position like mine is ideologically confused, intellectually naive, morally hypocritical, and generally self-defeating.  “Come off your high horse, Henry,” is the message.  But it’s not a high horse, and I can’t climb off it.  It’s my own sense of Pegasus, which I seem to have been saddled with from the very beginning.  I value the moment of free, unmediated imagination – the spark of inspiration.  And I see the forces of institutions and markets and careerism as inimical to that creative state of mind.  I recognize that I have come from a highly privileged background – white, male, upper-middle-class.  And I don’t criticize or resent the energy and hustle it takes for some writers to try to make it and survive in the worlds of publishing, fame, the universities, etc.  I admire them.  But I don’t live in some rich trust-fund haven – I’ve always worked for a living, at relatively menial jobs, so I could focus on writing without interference.

This long introduction or deviation from your question, Paul, is just something I had to get off my chest.  I can’t keep up with the current scene.  It strikes me as very vibrant, diverse and productive at a high level right now.  I think the current scene should keep up with me, though.  During the last 15 years there has been a shift of interest, back toward some of the formalities of rhyme and meter, as well as a heightened sense of political awareness and responsibility for social justice.  This seems good to me (although I don’t believe rhyme and meter in themselves are any kind of serious measure of quality or interest, as some neo-formalists contend).  But I finished a book-length poem, Stubborn Grew, back in 1998 – published in 2000 by Spuyten Duyvil Press – written in rhymed quatrains, which is a local history poem, directly confronting issues of race, class, historical amnesia, and the corruption of democratic politics by money.  It was ignored.  Before that, I published an experimental sonnet sequence called Island Road (first published in a chapbook form in London), which also failed to win notice.  But it was about 20 years ahead of the current interest in sonnets and sonnet sequences.  So hey, world.

Who of today’s writers do I admire, and why?  I think in the U.S. Ange Mlinko is the leading poet-critic.  Her poetic talent and critical erudition are very fine.  Perhaps I’m a little biased : the Poetry Mission sponsored a reading for her in Providence 25 years ago.  And she and I are perhaps on very slightly parallel paths (though I would never claim some kind of equality of eminence) : coming out of an initial interest in the New York School milieu, and gradually assimilating a wider and older array of traditions and techniques.  I like Jordan Davis, though we are very different.  He’s keeping alive a certain goofy iconoclasm from the New York School.  I admire Canadian-American poet Lissa Wolsak, a true original.  I admire and respect many, many other poets and critics I come across in my scattershot reading these days, both in English and in translation, and I’m sure I’ll remember them after I finish this reply; but I think for now I’ll just leave it at that.

8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read and write as much as you can.  Listen; learn.  Don’t be afraid to share what you write, in person and by sending it around.  Meet and talk with other poets.  Write to established poets you really admire.  As long as you actually want to keep writing, don’t quit. These are the basics.

9. What inspired “Ravenna Diagram”, books 1 and 2 ?

I’m glad you asked that, Paul.  It’s very curious.  Ravenna Diagram is planned as a 3-volume poem, in 20 books, or chapters.  I’m working on book 19 now.  There will be roughly 1132 pp. to the whole thing when it’s finished.

It started out as a single poem, which I wrote in November, 2012, called “Potter’s Whirl”.  It’s dedicated to my mother, a retired potter.  After finishing it I had a sense it was part of something larger, but I didn’t know what.  As I’ve mentioned here, composition is a mystery to me.  I sense it arriving on my nerves, in my heart, my subconscious.  Anyway, not long after that I happened to see the old film Deserto Rosso, by Antonioni, which stars Monica Vitti, as a troubled person and amateur ceramic artist, in Ravenna.  I loved the film.  It evokes a certain wistfulness, a deep and quiet sadness.

Dante is buried in Ravenna.  We’re told by scholars that some scenes in his Paradiso are modeled on the great mosaics hidden in the old Byzantine churches there.  I’ve had a longtime interest in Byzantium.  And I suddenly felt this coalescence of feeling (Deserto Rosso) and intellect (Dante, poetry, theology).  I felt there might be a kind of framework there for what I wanted to do, and have tried to do repeatedly in my long poems : which is to offer a poetic/philosophical perspective on, or response to, history – its meaning for human persons as individuals, and humanity as a whole.  A challenge to Ezra Pound’s Cantos-vision, or Eliot’s Four Quartets-vision, of some of those same materials.  In order to do that I felt I needed to do something large and wide-ranging, something heavy and persistent.  So Ravenna Diagram has ended up being a kind of pilgrim’s progress, a diaristic journey-poem, the frail leaves of grass of my personal Sybil.

What do I look for and hope for?  Hopefully I can live to finish the poem.  It’s not far to go, but each step gets a little slower.  I also have a selection of short poems from 50 years or so in manuscript, which I’m calling Continental Shelf.  Looking for a publisher for that.  And I’ve written a prose memoir of my adventures in the ’70s, called Holy Fool.  Would like to find a publisher for that, too – either separately, or with an earlier piece of autobiographical fiction, set in the ’60s, called Chapel Hill.

Many thanks to you, Paul, for conceiving this project and for inviting me to participate.



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