D. Nurkse is the author of seven books of poetry, the
latest being The Fall, Knopf: NY, 2003. Prior books,
The Rules of Paradise, 2001; Leaving Xaia, 2000; and
Voices Over Water, 1996 were published by Four Way Books:
NY and earlier works were from Graywolf, Hanging Loose
Press, State Street Press, and Owl Creek Press.. Formerly
Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, he has received the Whiting
Writers' Award, two National Endowment for the Arts
fellowships, two grants from the New York Foundation
for the Arts, a Tanne Foundation award, and the Bess
Hokin Prize from Poetry. He's also worked in the human
rights movement, particularly the children's rights
area, and written
widely on human rights issues and worked with Amnesty
International and other organizations. He is currently
a professor in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.
Daniela Gioseffi initiated this conversation with D.
Nurkse in Brooklyn Heights, New York City, December
Daniela Gioseffi: Before 9/11 2001 there was an idea
afoot, at least in the dominant language and abstract
schools of American poetry at the time, that politics
has no place in poetry? Prior to 9/11, I began interviewing
various poets on their feelings regarding the place
of politics and sociopolitical issues in poetry, ie.
Grace Paley, Ishmael Reed, Galway Kinnell, Bob Holman,
etc. Before the current "Poets Against the War"
phenomenon initiated by Sam Hammil l -I'd founded Poets
for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980's and served on
the board of The Writers and Publishers Alliance for
Nuclear Disarmament-as well as headed one of the oldest
chapters of SANE-now The National Peace Action. I've
always felt that you can write a bad love poem as well
as a bad political poem and it's a
matter of how skillful the poet is with the craft-whatever
subject? What do you feel about this issue?
D. Nurkse: I think that it's excellent that you're
raising these issues in your interviews. These issues
tend to be spoken of in a truncated and primitive way.
We live in a world where we segregate experience. It's
a difficult question in a way, because I'm very much
a defender of the autonomy of poetry. I remember through
the struggles of the 20th Century how Marx valued poetry
as an autonomous art. He did not want it to be in the
service of any particular
worldview. Having said that, it amazes me how sometimes
in America, we're willing to speak from an impoverished
sense of the self as if there's so much experience in
the world that our poetry should ignore. It's less a
moral issue for me than the fact that poetry always
needs to expand its horizons and speak to the richness
of human experience- including the difficulties we face
at the moment. The uniqueness of our period in history!
I want poetry to broaden
itself to address those issues.
DG: Grace Paley said something similar. She said that
some poets write as if they lived in a vacuum. Politics
is always going on around us and part of our lives,
and effects us. If it comes up in our writing, it's
just another part of our lives--like love and death
and everything else. I feel the problem might be that
some poets define politics narrowly rather than as a
sociopolitical construct which profoundly effects the
personal. Galway Kinnell explained that he worries more
about didacticism than politics in poetry. We need to
be weary as poets of preaching down to the imagined
rabble, instead of seeing ourselves as part of it. It's
the high and mighty perch we need to avoid. Do you agree?
DN: I think that's an excellent distinction you're
making between the didactic and the political. I remember
a Beautiful line by the contemporary American poet James
Scully, who wrote: "the heart, asked to feel more,
feels less." I thought that really said a great
deal. He captured that subject-object problem which
confronts, which can be a crippling problem -- when
the reader becomes the object and the speaker becomes
the subject. So, even if the speaker is trying to promote
a sense of unity, he will end up objectifying his audience
and seeing them, perhaps, as less morally advanced than
he is. One of the solutions for that is to "get
a life!" Certainly, you're a person who's done
more political work than most poets--but doing actual
political work, has shown me the
limits of my understanding and the limits of my awareness.
So, one problem of didacticism is that it tends to happen
in a vacuum. It tends to reflect political poetry that
is substituting itself for a real re-imagining of society
and really limiting itself to a kind of cultural rebelliousness.
That's a different issue: the problem of politics that
restricts itself to cultural protest or to identity
politics. First of all, it may lead to didactic poetry,
and second of all, it may reflect a certain lack of
political community where perhaps the only avenue left
is to write a poem to take a political stance. Perhaps
it's equally important to lead a life that reflects
your values, and to try to speak to people who have
different values and either convince them, or learn
DG: I see what you're saying. How do you feel about
being a poet in a world that's entertaining itself to
death with rock videos, movies, television, and computer
games. There' s so much competition from the world of
CDs and DVDs, and baseball or sports as an opiate of
the masses in America, even more than religion! What
do you feel about the effects on poetry in a world like
that? How do you feel about your audience and who do
you imagine them to be?
DN: Well strangely, I feel very optimistic about the
audience for poetry in America. I'm not always a huge
fan of the Beats in terms of my own work, but I think
they effected a tremendous amount of social change.
They changed people's idea of what poetry was and they
really reached a different audience for poetry. They
did a wonderful
service to American culture that really hasn't been
fully recognized. I find those effects when I give readings
or work with people in unusual contexts. Which is something
that I try to do. I know that in my childhood, homophobia
was a huge issue when you talked about poetry. Young
girls wrote poetry, and they were supposed to write
love poems, and boys didn't touch poetry. All of that
has changed. It's massively changed in America. When
I work with young people, it seems to me, they have
a very accurate and very challenging sense of what poetry
is. I work with prisoners on Riker's Island, and they
distinguish between rap and poetry and have a very keen
sense of poetry, And I feel a very challenging and accurate
sense of poetry. I find that also when I work with college
students in unlikely parts
of the country. I mean, there are a lot of people who
really keep themselves alive through poetry in America
and follow, in a way, what happens in poetry in Europe,
too. In terms of poetry, I'm very proud of what people
are accomplishing in America. (Laughs)
DG: You feel there's really a large audience? As Galway
said, there are poetry readings going on all over the
country every night of the week in the multi-thousands,
and yet, on the other hand, Gregory Rebassa- who's translated
three Nobel Laureates-has made the point that less than
one percent of the population of this very developed
country actually reads good literature. And Dana Gioia
recently published an essay in the Hudson Review saying
that it's even gone down from the one percent who actually
read literary art on the page. He feels a good deal
of the poetry that's being patronized by an audience
is in the oral tradition, the rap poetry, the cowboy
poetry which draws huge audiences. And yet, on the other
hand, Galway said he feels that the literary sensibilities
of a nation's poetry trickle
down through the culture and make a kind change in the
overall conscience of a country as it filters through
the society. What would you say about this?
DN: I'd say that's all very true. Though I would also
say that the locus of poetry is also lyrics. The locus
of poetry is also in folk, the blues, and country western
music. I translate medieval Spanish lyrics because I
want to access that very sharp-edged folk consciousness.
Louis Simpson once said, "I have the poor man's
nerve tic of irony." And, I think that there's
a vibrancy in American speech, in American popular culture;
so, it's not only trickle-down.
There's a little osmosis going the other way, where
there's a certain urgency that moves up. I know that
Philip Levine used to listen to country western musical
lyrics, and maybe not so much to inform his next poem,
but to keep that sense of an American language alive.
Certainly, the Beats listened to jazz and rock and roll,
etc. to do that.
DG: Well, I used to be a jazz singer and there's lots
of poetry in the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, for example.
There are good jazz standards that have social conscience
in them like the song Billy Holliday made so popular,
"Stange Fruit." Then John Lennon and the Beatles
singing, "Imagine all the people living in a world
of peace" or "All we are saying is give peace
a chance," have become standards at demonstrations,
along with "Blowing in the Wind, " Bob Dylan's
tune, or so many of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez lyrics.
Then, there's the older traditions of the Songs of the
Women of Fez or the Portugese Fados, or Garcia Lorca's
Andalusian tradition of "Deep Song." I taught
for some years at Riker's Island, and I worked for Hospital
Audiences, Inc. Recently at Bedford Hills where I gave
reading and a seminar, I was amazed at the level of
literacy among the prisoners who had really read quite
deeply into contemporary literature and were very concerned
about the importance of literature and poetry to their
spirit. When you think back to Lorca or Sappho and the
Orphic Tradition, poetry comes from the poet-preist,
witch-doctor, or shaman invested in healing. Sappho
was the most widely known poet of antiquity. We only
have about eleven hundred of her lines, because The
Church destroyed nearly all of what wasn't found on
some far off Egyptian, papyrus-wrapped mummys. Sappho
was a sort of "pop singer" of her time is
my point! You're certainly correct, there was plenty
of poetry going on in all periods of history. So, you
don't feel discouraged by all the other entertainment
which seems to drown out poetry?
DN: I think all the shallow entertainment will burn
itself off. At one point, I was simply arbitrarily in
a position to study, in depth, 16th Century French Theater,
and in that project, I wasn't studying the classics.
When I studied it in depth, so much of it was third
rate. So much of it was Hollywood. If you were a theater-goer
in that period, you would have seen so many plays that
ended with St. George appearing from nowhere, destroying
the Saracens and riding off into the sunset with the
queen. There's a certain level of bad culture that human
beings have always produced, and I think that we have
the means to amplify it right now, and it is deadening.
But I do think
that that deadening is something I'm very aware of if
I read the paper, but if I go out and give readings,
or go out and work with people; work with homeless people,
for example, I find something very different. I gave
a series of workshops in East Flatbush and I asked black
teenagers to bring in poems that they lived by. One
brought in the meditations of Thomas Traherne. One teenager
brought in some George Herbert, and one teenager brought
in that Eliot poem "because I do not hope to turn
again teach us to care and not to car" Their tastes,
interests, reading, were not stereotyped at all. That's
where I feel that you and other poets are trying to
get beyond the political discussion that we have at
the moment in this country because the political discussion
at the moment would assume that black teenagers are
only interested in rap. And then the issue would be,
do we become rap poets, or not? Whereas I think that
poetry is always going to be an underground art form.
And, it's very strong. Where it has been crippled in
this country is by allowing itself to become a courtly
art form -- to become an academic art form, given
that academia is the new royal court, so to speak. This
is not the first time that that's happened. If I think
of Spain, I think of Castillian lyrics being domesticated
at court and being eviscerated and made decorative and
mildly ironic. It didn't do any damage to poetry in
the long run. Poetry survived that. Poetry was not patronized
by the most powerful five percent of the hierarchy,
but maybe the least powerful five percent of the hierarchy
during most eras in history. It's never been over five
percent. It's not clear if that percentage reflects
the persons' educational status or
publication credits. But there always has been that
margin which survived.
DG: That's true. Yet, Pope, Innocent III was enough
worried about the influences of the Provencal poets
in their rebellion from Church dogma to want to commit
genocide upon them for their desire to secede. It reminds
me of how some people get so worried about rock n' roll
or rap lyrics being a terrible influence on youth. But,
I think the American high school, as you go out across
the land, is often a wasteland where the kids aren't
given enough real issues to think about or enough creative
to do. Maybe, they end up, in shootings like those at
Columbine as a result. What high school peer pressure
seems to do is force conformity to the image of the
macho guy on the football team who is not allowed, as
you said earlier, to pursue poetry or art. At least,
it seemed that way in my day, and when I was a charter
poet working with the Poets-in-the-Schools program in
the 70's and 80's. There was this pressure, upon young
men, to be baseball, football or track stars, and on
the girls to be cheerleaders or baton twirling majorettes--
and to feel like they were sissies, nerds or geeks if
they cared about things like poetry. Rap and Hip-Hop
has helped quell that concept to a large extent. Do
you find the American high school as much of a wasteland
as it was?
DN: That's not a question I can answer, because I haven't
really done workshops in general high school classes.
I've done workshops in colleges, public libraries, and
the inner city through the public library system. For
example, at Brooklyn College we do a program where we
pull out students from every public high school, denominational
school, and Yeshiva in Brooklyn. They come to Brooklyn
College and do an intensive poetry marathon. Allen Ginsberg
used to do that and meet with these Brooklyn kids.
DG: So yours are students who chose to study creative
writing. Speaking of Ginsberg. If there's any poet that
fits the definition of a poet who reached beyond the
literary culture, but was a part of it as well, it's
Ginsberg. Isn't he the most famous name in poetry ever--in
terms of being widely known and read worldwide
DN: In terms of name-recognition, I really don't know.
One of the interesting things is how powerless the Beats
were when they were really making things happen. When
he wrote Sunflower Sutra. Those people were really pretty
divested and quite marginal then. Whether he was known
or not, there were plenty of poets who were extremely
well known, but didn't change our conception of poetry.
But, Ginsberg is certainly an argument for poetry being
an active political force. He did change American culture.
He set out to change it, and he succeeded.
DG: Yes, the Beats opened up the American mind and
got us away from that sort of bloodless poetry of T.S.
Eliot and Ezra Pound. Influenced by William Carlos Williams,
the Beats made a more conversational kind of verse,
turning a lot more people onto poetry. Unfortunately,
they also turned a lot more people onto drugs and many
of them were horrible parents, and spent more time worrying
about a drug-fix than their kids. I think there was
an awfully decadent side to the Beats, and I'm sure
I'll be scalped for saying so. But what do you think
DN: I think you're right about that, but history is
dialectic, every positive has a negative. There's certainly
much that I would admire about Eliot, too, but what
I would criticize is the academic, risk-free poem. I
think that Eliot's poetry was risky in its time. Definitely.
DG: Do you think so? I don't know if you were at the
CUNY celebration of the new collected volume, multi-translated,
of Pablo Neruda, considered by many to be the greatest
poet of the 20th Century. But,
Edward Hirsch-at that event, along with a couple of
other poet-translators-said that Neruda was in a different
line of poets than Eliot. That Eliot lacked a kind of
human emotional warmth, whereas Neruda is in that other
line of poets in which we would probably put Ginsberg,
too, thinking of Kaddish - along with those poets who
are more concerned about humanity and conveying human
emotion. What would you say about that?
DN: I wouldn't quarrel with that at all. I'm simply
saying that Eliot's multiplicity of different voices
in his poems affected George Seferis. It affected Pessoa.
So it was something that was beyond the individual.
Pablo Neruda is a formidable poet who had a worldwide
vision of humane concerns. I wish we had a Neruda for
the 21st Century. I think our problems are quite different
now, and I wish we had a brilliant Neruda who would
have the capacity to imagine in poetic and historical
terms our troubling moment in time and truly articulate,
broadly and fully, its concerns.
DG : Ginsberg did some of that. He was very generous
with sociopolitical causes, and we've lost him. We've
lost Neruda. Could you say something about what poets
are out there trying to fill that vacuum? Can you point
out some American poem or poet that sort of does this
thing we are nebulously talking about? Something that
has a great social conscience and a sense of history
without being didactic -- without falling into the trap
that we talked about earlier?
DN: I think there's a lot of that historically in American
poetry. I think Charles Reznikoff -for one--was an underrated
poet who has really influenced many people. James Wright
also was a very politically committed poet. I had the
luck to know James Wright for a moment when I was very
young, and he really impressed me with his
DG : I had dinner with James Wright the night he won
the Pulitzer. We were with Annie Wright, W. D. Snodgrass,
and John Logan. Jim didn't want to mention that he'd
won the Pulitzer because of the other poets at the table.
Jim didn't want John Logan to feel bad as he himself
called Logan "the best poet of his generation."
Jim was a wonderfully ethical kind of guy. He truly
pondered moral dilemmas. He wasn't afraid to come right
out and say "Eisenhower's Visit to Franco, 1959"
for the title of a poem. I asked Galway about that,
and I mentioned how difficult it can be to read Aristophanes,
today, because he had so many temporal references. Galway
felt it wasn't necessary for poets to avoid these kinds
of political terms. He mentioned, Robert Duncan's, anti-Vietnam
war poem, "Uprising," as a successful poem
despite its use of proper names of polticial characters
and such. What do you think?
DN: I think it's absolutely important to situate yourself
historically. It's as important as it is to show the
reader visually where you are. If you don't situate
yourself in time, I think a certain level of blindness
happens in the poem. But, it's a risk too. It's always
a risk to enter the realm of the concrete. I think there's
a wish to begin with the absolute or the universal and
general. Hegel speaks of the danger of trying to attain
the absolute without doing what he calls the labor and
suffering of the negative. And I think that's what the
artist has to do. The artist has to enter
that realm of limitation. Which is again, a shortcoming
of what we know of as political poetry. I think that
we're familiar with a political poetry that tries to
do a detour around that labor and suffering of the negative
and speak from a position of moral purity. Whereas,
the fact is, we're better off leaving moral purity to
the professionals -- the priests and the psychotherapists.
As poets, we're better off speaking from our own experience
of the sociopolitical construct, our own experience
of life in and around us. I think that poetry can be
a powerful force in some instances. Sharon Olds was
saying somewhere that it's a mystery whether poetry
is the powerless thing that it appears to be in this
country, or one of the most powerful forces on Earth.
The jury is still out on that. It may turn out to be
one of the most powerful forces on Earth. It just may.
When I work with prisoners, sometimes I read them a
poem from 13th Century Spain called "The Prisoner"
and it is simply the voice of somebody who is never
identified. In the poem, he talks about his circumstances
and talks about being incarcerated. He doesn't know
whether it's day or night and he only knows what season
it is by the birdsong. He only knows the time of day
because, everyday, a small bird sings at dawn, outside
of the prison. The last line is "but today the
Sentinel killed that bird with a crossbow, Goddamn his
eyes." And the poem ends that way. But the thought
that I give to these prisoners is: That poem is what
survived from the era, and the king and the lord of
the castle, the judges who sentenced that prisoner,
they're all completely gone and that poem, which was
probably originally scratched on the wall with a nail.
(I mean, these things happen). That poem is what survived.