PATAPHYSICS - PAUL VIOLI INTERVIEW with Leo Edelstein
You once went to the Letterman Show with some friends. Was it a negative experience?
How long ago did I tell you that!--Why did I tell you that? What little I remember doesn ' t sound worth recalling. I was with a friend I hadn ' t seen in a while and I was dismayed by the way he looked. He was still a young man but Vietnam and booze had turned him into a frail, trembling old man who had to use a cane. He had tickets to the show and I thought that was an odd thing to do. He had a pal with him, a big guy who was on crutches, and they had been drinking quite a bit. When we entered the studio the perky minions who seat the audience took one look at us and panicked. We didn ' t fit their demographic. They didn ' t want us anywhere near a camera angle. I think we were wearing black raincoats. I naturally insisted that we sit in the front row, they wanted us in the back row. We compromised and they seated us in the second-to-last row--in a corner!
How do you go about finding material for your work? Do you pay attention to dreams?
I don ' t deliberately search for things, they find me. Things can pop-up whatever I ' m doing. I don ' t go prospecting. Or perhaps I always am. I like your saying " materials. " It reminds me of Faulkner ' s phrase, that the writer ' s job is " to create out of the materials of the human spirit something that did not exist before. " Materials seem to be there in my everyday goings-on, or reading, especially history, which provides a lot of nuggets, something that sets me off. I was reading Samuel Eliot Morrison ' s The European Discovery of America yesterday and he ' s describing the great navigator Frobisher, how on his return journey to England, he found and charted an island south of Greenland: 52 degrees 30 ' N. He sailed around it for more than a day, observed that it had two harbours, noted woods and meadows and that the land was fruitful. No one has ever seen the place since then, but cartographers insisted on putting it on their maps for centuries afterward. They hate vast vacant spaces; their job is to fill space, not erase. They kept it on their maps because Frobisher said he ' d seen it. They drew wreathes of whales and walruses around it. For centuries they wouldn ' t accept that nothing was out there, and I imagine the wreathes and artwork became more elaborate. At one point they concluded it must have sunk, and they changed the name of it to The Sunken Land. Same location. Now that ' s an expression of the human spirit I find endearing: Persistence, hopefulness, filling in the blanks, a reluctance or refusal to accept the blank. But by the time they accept that something ' s not there, they ' re drawing in another place or figure on another map, a celestial map. As for dreams--I rarely have memorable ones, or any that make me think there ' s a nascent poem in one. What I imagine is generally more interesting than what I dream. My dreams are either too explicit, often enjoyably so, or obviously symbolic. For instance, I was mourning recently and I had two dreams that struck me as extensions or enactments of the loss I was feeling and suppressing. In one I found myself searching through fallen leaves that were inside my house. I was on my hands and knees on a stone tile floor, reaching under leaves, looking for something I ' d lost and was unable to grasp. I was bereft but calmly determined. The leaves were crisp, some were lank, freshly fallen, and they were pili! ng up fast. I finally grabbed a broom to clear them away but the more I swept the more there were and there was no telling how they were entering the house and the whole dreamplot was an re-enactment of a realization, of the irretrievable. Days later, in the second dream I was trying and failing to understand, to decipher a language that I couldn ' t use to articulate the sorrow I felt. I suspected it might be English, but the words weren ' t understandable, no arrangement made syntactical sense. Every attempt to make a statement turned into questions. I was questioning the very language and there were no answers; whatever language it was, ultimately all of it was reduced to a pile of ashes, except for these newly forged question marks, very large shiny metal question marks that lay in the ashes. I noticed they had a somewhat elegant design. So, to answer your question: No, I rarely derive poems from dreams.
What have been the major influences on your writing?
You tell me. Influences are such a mixed bag. They sound so disparate and wacky if they haven ' t flowed through your own imagination. I often confuse or conflate what has influenced me with what has inspired me. Then again, influences can be very sneaky. I mean, to what extent I ' m always conscious of them. Certainly, there are those negative influences that make me want to flee as far as I can from anything that resembles them. In terms of beneficial influences, being in New York in the late Sixties and coming across so much that was new to me, whether contemporary work or not, hearing about poets from other poets or discovering things on my own--well, I wouldn ' t know where to begin. One major influence were a few anthologies of troubador poets in translation. Some were already familiar from my having read Pound, whose influence on me was major.
How has the tone of your work altered since the 60s?
I don ' t think there ' s one tone to a poet ' s work. I enjoy poetry that covers a range of tones. " I ' m still bringing things into play that I started using back then--mainly humor, being true to the way I see things, along with historical references, allusions, impersonating and adapting prose forms, retrieving narrative, fictional or imagined experiences, and being free to mix up the immiscible, the whole bag of serio-comic takes and tones. It was a matter of finding what gave me the most pleasure and difficulty, doing what was most gratifying. I ' m not sure " The 60s " is much of a marker since I came to NY in 68. What excited me then--more in what painters like Rivers, Oldenburg, Dine, and later Grooms, were up to than poets--I still feel is valuable now, namely what made their paintings beautiful in spite of breaking all the rules. What was crucial to me before that, while in my early twenties, was coming upon novelists like Amis, Donleavey, and Heller, along with reading the great satirists--Pope, Swift, Dryden, Voltaire, Rabelais, Byron. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, I first came across the "post-modern" turn in architecture, namely Robert Venturi. What appealed to me was the freedom, the openness, the allusive playfulness with which they drew on the past to counteract the cold and brutal severity--you know, all that concrete and sharp angles. What mattered was not a clean wholesale break with the past but a continuing homage to or conversation with poetry I loved. And I should say there was plenty of poetry that also repelled me at that time--and still does: pretentious, precious, unrelievedly solemn, or lightweight, the egomaniacal orphic bards, the dumb political rants, the politics of resentment, the pandering and crass paeons to ethnic identity, the lifeless, deadening language exercises, the self-aggrandizing Confessional style and that type of confessional stuff that was mostly a form of self-mortification and exhibitionism. --Am I hitting an overly magnanimous tone here? Christ, the amount of puerile, witless vulgarity was amazing. I might not have always been sure where my work was headed, but I sure as hell knew what directions to avoid. I still put a big emphasis on originality and imagination, inventiveness. These are the qualities I found in the poetry that mattered to me at that time and that I still value.