Fred Wolven Interviews Duane Locke - continued

Fred Wolven:Duane, you remarked earlier about how "language becomes real" (as you write your poems). I've read a couple more of your observations in two recent pieces. First, in "The Poet," you say,
"The poet's job is to wrap / A thick cloth tightly around his ears, / Dig in the dark waters of a wild swamp / To find new words / That are not executioners."
And, in another selection - (in) "Poetry,"you add,
"...the sound is the meaning."
Duane, in these (and in other) poems you expand on your ideas of a poetics. It's obvious you have a keen interest in the nature of poetry and the work of the poet. What would you add to this? Do you see yourself as poet with some sort of obligation or objective in writing?

Duane Locke: My only objective, which might be call "an obligation," is to write the best poem I can. The struggle to achieve this almost impossible task is a joy in itself. When I say "best poem," I do not mean according to popular and fashionable standards promulgated in literary magazines and college classrooms, but my own standards, my own personal esthetic axiology, which is primarily a matter of intuition that is a result of years of reading esthetic philosophies.

Fred, I might add at this point that in my long literary education, I never had a course in creative writing. I feel for a writer the study of literature and related subjects, such as art and music, is far more important than taking a course in creative writing.

Now, when I start to write a poem, I never start with the idea, "I'm going to create a work of art, create an excellent poem." I think the surrealist Andre Breton was right when he advocated spurts from the unconscious rather than conscious control. But the unconscious needs literary erudition as a background for its formation. Again, the back- ground never should be a conceptual dictatorship, but a bodily process, a natural feeling.

When I write some mysterious feeling, akin to the mystic, guides me in the selection of images and arrangement of music. I believe that the cultivation of one's life is much more important than creative writing courses. Auden once said that all one needs to do to be a poet is to take care of an animal and parody other poets. By cultivation of life, I mean strive to develop the empathy of a John Keats, "When I see a sparrow peck, I peck along with the sparrow," or learn as William Blake did to see infinity in a grain of sand.

When I write I have no technical concerns. It seems brutal to me to kill living words by forcing them into preconceived and inherited forms. But I must qualify my remark by stating I have spent my life studying poetry, and have assimilated the wonders of the past masters into my bodily responses. I studied under Ant Oras from Oxford, who, at the time, was considered the world's authority on prosody, and I spent years analyzing and studying the sounds of poetry before I ever wrote my first poem.

To illustrate by example what I am talking about. Once when I was reading poetry at Tarpon Springs, another poet congratulated me on winning the Edna St. Vincent Millay prize for writing what was considered the best sonnet written in the United States for that year. I thought it some mistake on the informer's part, for I had not written any sonnets. When I arrived home, I found the check for the prize in my mailbox. I did not under- stand, so I went to my files and found the poem. It was a sonnet, yet I was completely unaware of it being a sonnet when I wrote the poem.

I think one of the reasons that so many poets in the present are mediocre is because they have never assimilated the past. On the other hand, they have conceptualized the past, killed the past, and have made its ghost an authority. The past is our companion, not our enemy, not our dictator.

Years ago Jack Gilbert wrote a poem about Orpheus in Greenwich Village. It is about how Orpheus spent his life learning to write his music, and then when reading in Greenwich Village he found his audience was deaf. I have found so many young writers who aspire to be poets today are deaf to poetic music. Some, usually older, try to compensate for their deafness and insensitivity to sound by a return to formalisms, such as mechanically grinding out sonnets.

A good poet, a real poet, assimilates a sense of sound by extensive and intensive reading of past poems. When the real poet writes, lyricism leaps without coaxing out of his nervous system.

I might add that those who are ignorant of the past are often too insensitive to realize how egregious their cherished and beloved poems are.

Mallarme said the purpose of the poet was to purify the language of the tribe, and T. S. Eliot repeated this phrase; but I would modify it to say that the purpose of the poet is to give meaning to the false language spoken by the tribe.

Fred Wolven:Duane, in your last book, Watching Wisteria [], you mention, "Life imitates art." You are also an artist - you've recently had a one-man exhibit in a gallery in Tampa, and you've just selected some of your work - art and/or photos - for a museum exhibit and another gallery. So, Duane, would you elaborate just a bit more on this, on art being an imitation of life and the connection of art with writing poetry?

Duane Locke:The phrase "Life imitates art," which I used in my poem of long ago, was from Oscar Wilde. I used Wilde's viewpoint as something to set the poem in motion. Wilde's contention was people's perceptions are formed by art and thus life becomes an imitation of art. Monet taught people to see the color of shadows. Before Monet, people conceptualized shadows to be all black and imposed this false perception on living nature. Monet, through his art, taught people how to see the real.

I meant something similar when in the previous answer I said the purpose of the poem is to give meaning and truth to the false and meaningless language spoken by the people. I've never liked definitions, for all definition excludes and there is always the rift between language and what is being talked about, but I will state my personal view of art is that art is not an imitation of life, but an engenderment from a personal interpretation of life that originates from a personal feeling about a unique situation. I dismiss Plato's "Ideal," Aristotle's "Form," any absolute, any universal, any transcendental as being only linguistic constructions that are imposed on an elusive and incommensurable reality.

In painting I interpret through colors, light, line, space arrangements; in poetry, through words. If I paint a tree and write about a tree, both are entirely different experiences of the personal interpretation of a tree, one visually, the other verbal. Neither is about trees, but about the interpretation of what is designated by language as trees.

Matisse once replied to an observer of his painting who remarked,
"That does not look like a woman," by stating,
"It is not a woman, it is a painting."
His painting was his interpretations of what is linguistically designed "woman." It was his response, his reality, to the origin of the designation. There is no one Reality, but many, an infinity of realities, and this is what makes communication so difficult. Mallarme said something similar. Degas remarked to Mallarme that he had a lot of ideas, and wanted to write poems. Mallarme replied,
"Poems are not made with ideas, but with words."

Fred Wolven:With reference to your work in art and photography, I recall that you have taken an extended series of photos of alleys, and I also remember that in your poem "Alleys" you say, "I walk in alleys / Because no one /Can walk twice / In the same alley". Duane, would you comment about the apparent connection between your observations of what you see, what one does when walking in alleys, and what you do in writing your poems?

Duane Locke:Of course, my line on alleys is a play on Heraclitius's astute observation that one can never step twice in the same river. It was to establish the supremacy of Becoming over Parmenides's Being. I suppose the poet that has dealt best with this subject is the supreme poet, the Frenchman Yves Bonnefoy. If I had to pick out the three best poets in the 20th century, I would select Yves Bonnefoy, the Spanish poet, Federica Garcia Lorca, and the German Karl Krolow.

I might add the Heraclitius observation has been has been annotated and improved by Jean-Francois Lyotard when he said that you cannot step twice into the same river because there is no river. To me, this is one of the most profound statements ever uttered by a human being.

Alleys are the places where people throw away things, like they have thrown away their lives. I walk down these alleys, and photograph what has been tossed away. I find a beauty in what is discarded, what has been overlooked. Most people have such a bad taste and no real sense of beauty that what is in their homes is ugly, but what they disdain and toss out is truly beautiful. This is what I show in my photographs. I think a relationship to my poems can be sensed. In my poems I often suggest that what people toss out of their lives is the truly beautiful and what they cherish, revere, and keep is the ugly.

Fred Wolven:Duane, in recent months I've read some of your two series of poems, "Memoirs of Damniso Lopez" and "The Life of a Dead Poet, Norris Benjamin, as Related by His Wife". I find these two groups of poems intriguing both in terms of the scope of what you write about and in how you came to write them ("Memoirs of Damniso Lopez" poems) as well as the subject of them ("The Life of...Norris Benjamin..." poems). Duane, would you shed some light on these two fascinating sets of poems?

Duane Locke:Fred, You've touched on a hilarious part of my life, my six pennames. From September 98 to September 99, I wrote under my own name and six other names: Damniso Lopez, Decilio Lago, Norris Benjamin, Stra Schrag, Lind Call, and Busstop Fifteen.

Each of these persons had distinct personalities and biographies that I invented. I wanted to see what would happen when a poet wrote from the viewpoint "Je suis Pautre." I've seen this statement attributed both to Gerard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud. I think one used a "suis" and the other used an "est," but I can't remember now. I definitely remember reading the statement in Rimbaud's letters.

But I wanted to see how the editors would react. I had planned to write a book on the American poetry situation based on responses to these poems. I now have a shelf full of material, but am too busy writing five poems a day to take some time out for prose.

After one year, these poets had 340 acceptances from print magazines. It would take a book to go into all the details, but the responses keep a group that met with me every weekend entertained. I would put provocative phrases into their cover letters to see what the result might be. One of the most frequent comments from editors was that Damniso Lopez should break out from the influence of Duane Locke. Everybody seemed to love Damniso the best, especially his living under a bridge and having a Latino name.

Latino poetry was a fad at the time. Damniso explained to one magazine editor that published him and wanted to know if he should go into the Latino section that although he was named "Lopez" he did not have a drop of Latino blood in him since his mother who was married to Lopez was a German chorus girl and his real father, an Irish priest. Fred, I could go on and on talking about these poets, but it really needs a book.

In Norris Benjamin's cover letters, I would plant the phrase that he liked to go to Duane Locke's salons just to gaze upon Lind Call, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. This made Lind very popular with editors. In her letters, I had her insult college professors, and surprisingly so many college professors asked for her picture, which I manufactured on a computer, and asked to discuss with her why the college professors were so evil.

Well, I no longer write under these pennames, but write their poems as dramatic monologues under my own name. I don't know if I'll ever get around to writing that book, for I am too happy now writing poems.

Fred Wolven: Duane, to pick up, for the moment, after your observation about the various pennames you used over a year's stretch.... As I read your poems (including the ones you penned under various names) now on a daily basis, Duane, not only do I look forward to this part of my day, but I can't help but note the breadth and depth in both your poetic form and content. Also, you often write on the subject of poetry (which you already discussed in this interview); in fact, recently, in your "Social Occasion" poem, you write:
In the largest room lived the landlord
With his large gun collection and pictures of dead wives.
In the middle-sized rooms lived pimps and their whores.
In the smaller rooms, the brilliant, intellectuals, professors.
In the tinniest room, poets.
Would you elaborate some on the obvious symbolic elements and allusions you make in these lines! Duane, aren't you, among other things, pointing out the lack of respect of poets in our society?

Duane Locke:Fred, I can almost answer your question about does our society respect poets in one Word, "No."

But I will elaborate. Recently, I was asked by the director of the art gallery where I was to have a one man art show and open the event by reading poetry to make an announcement about the occasion at a meeting of the Tampa Heights Civic Association since she was going to be busy that night and the meeting was only a few blocks from my house. I consented, although my appearance at such places went counter to my temperament. I went and made the announcement, and I introduced myself by saying, "I'm a poet who publishes all over the world, and thus internationally famous, but I'm totally unknown in Tampa Heights, where I've lived for over 40 years."

I might add not one of the people who attended the meeting came to the poetry reading. The people who attend this meeting are the few affluent members of the neighborhood. And the abject poor and quasi-homeless of my immediate neighborhood are never among these people who are buying up the slum houses, decorating with bright paints and exhibiting their improvements at public house visiting each year. Their concerns were with home exhibitionism, and the bums who overpopulated the neighborhood and throw trash on their just swept sidewalks. This is the trash I photograph and exhibited all over the world. I doubt if there is one person in this very large neighborhood that ever reads a poem of any worth.

An article in a magazine was written about me. It was the year I won three major poetic prizes, and the article stated that with my achievements if I had been in the business of sports entertainment I would have been a millionaire, but being a poet I was condemned to earn my livelihood by teaching at a dull university where I was lowly paid. My salary was so low that I would have barely existed above the poverty level if I did not have a private income.

As a professor of English for twenty-five years, I would say that 99% of my students had no respect for poetry. My colleagues in the Humanities had no real respect for poetry, and the University administration had no real respect for poetry. Only a nominal respect was granted to poetry, not real love.

From editor - Many thanks to Fred Wolven for this insightful interview with Duane Locke. Thanks also to Duane Locke for some very interesting answers and poetry.

To contact Fred Wolven, email: [email protected]

To contact Duane Locke, email: [email protected]

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