Sulfur and After: An Interview with Clayton Eshleman
The last issue of Sulfur will appear this year. Why is it ending? Thinking retrospectively, what do you see as the importance of Sulfur? How do you place it in the history of poetry written in the United States in the last two decades? How would you define its editorial line? Do you think polemics are crucial for an alternative magazine?
Several things converged to bring Sulfur to an end in the Spring of 2000. One is that I will have edited it for 19 years; 46 issues, over 10,000 pages of material! On one level, editing literary magazines and translating poetry are services poets perform for the community of poetry at large. I feel that I have done my part, in these regards, and that it is now most appropriate to concentrate solely on my own poetry and prose.
At this point, Sulfur has less than 1000 subscribers, a very small sustaining readership that was created through minimal publicity, mainly word-of-mouth. If I were to have real financial backing I would have been tempted to widen the subscriber base, and to get the magazine into the hands of people for whom what Sulfur is might be a discovery. But my funding now has diminished even more than in the early 1990s: between 1993 and 1996, Sulfur was receiving $12,000 a year from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC. With that support no longer available, and with no new funding in place, this was another part of the decision to end the magazine.
Sulfur has kept an image of international post-modernism alive and current for nearly two decades. Its combination of aspects – translations, archival materials (unpublished writing by the great dead), art and art commentary, innovative poetry by well-known figures as well as the unknown, and a big section of critical articles and reviews – is unique in American literary magazines. Sulfur has unswervingly presented itself as an alternative to what some of us call “official verse culture” (backed by the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Nation, and nearly all trade publishing houses, to the exclusion of contrasting viewpoints). For reasons that continue to elude me, the vast majority of poetry readers in this country acclaim this “official verse” which is not much different in its use of language than TV situation comedies and popular novels, and in so doing relegate most of the complex and challenging poetries to an almost invisible periphery. However, readers may have heard of Charles Bukowski. Although not “official verse,” his poetry, which can be read as rapidly as a telephone book, is a soiled, rude version of it, and according to his publisher (which also happens to be mine), his books in English alone sell 100,000 copies a year (his European sales are probably larger).
Since Sulfur’s masthead is comprised of a dozen people, all of whom have editorial input, and since some of these people are at odds with each other’s aesthetics, there is no clear-cut editorial line. While we have published all of the well-known Language Poets, we have also published poets whose work does not in any way resemble Language Poetry. While Sulfur could not in any sense be called a Surrealist magazine, we have published the most interesting American Surrealists: Philip Lamantia, Will Alexander, and Jayne Cortez, along with vital translations of André Breton and Antonin Artaud. And while the magazine has no Objectivist focus at large, we have published over 100 pages of George Oppen’s “working papers,” and a long essay on Charles Reznikoff by the Language poet Charles Bernstein.
Polemics have been a minor part of Sulfur as I think they must be for any literary magazine that presents itself as an alternative to conventional, mainstream taste. We have run critical articles on establishment critics, such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, as well as on establishment poets, such as Richard Wilbur and Robert Bly. When the Czech Jaroslav Seifert received the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature (his great contemporary Vladimir Holan having been passed over for decades), I dug up what translations I could find of his work and with the Slavic literature translator Michael Heim’s help, discovered that Seifert was an utterly undistinguished writer. I wrote an article in Sulfur in which I presented two different translations of one of his key poems. There would have been no point in examining Seifert in Sulfur had he not won the prize of prizes. Which is to say: the magazine has not attacked unacclaimed poetries. Most of our commentary is affirmative.
co-translations) of these authors’ works Conductors of the Pit (1988).
There are elements of the grotesque in such American poets as Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, Jayne Cortez, and Will Alexander.
You have said in an interview, that “to be a significant American poet you have to read internationally.” North American poetry seems to have been, in great part, unaware of Latin American poetries. Even though geographically we are in the same hemisphere North American poets have been more tuned in to European poetic traditions. Sulfur, in this sense, was very important for opening its pages to what was being done in other parts of the globe. You are a respected translator of Vallejo, Césaire, and Neruda. How do you see Latin American poetry, and why?
Contrary to your assertion, quite a few American poets, representing a diversity of poetics, have not only been aware of Latin American poetry — from the 1960s to the present — but have translated it. Such poets as Muriel Rukeyser, Thomas Merton, Paul Blackburn, Elizabeth Bishop, Ben Bellit, Mark Strand, Nathaniel Tarn, Alastair Reid (a Scot, but in residence here for many years), Robert Bly, Willis Barnstone, Philip Levine, James Wright, Margaret Randall, Galway Kinnell, Ed Dorn, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forché, Eliot Weinberger, and Forrest Gander. And these are just the ones who come immediately to mind. I am sure there are more.
My introduction to Latin American poetry took place around 1957 via Dudley Fitt’s 1947 Latin American Poetry anthology. It included the work of 95 poets. I read it avidly, and immediately got involved with the poetry of Neruda and Vallejo. I bought a bilingual dictionary and tried to read their poems word by word, and then, discovering other translations of some of the poems, was dumbfounded by the differences. I spent the summers of 1958 and 1959 in Mexico (hitchhiking the first summer; riding down in the back of a truck the second one). I took a Neruda collection to Chapala in 1959 and rented a room from a retired American butcher who had a young Indian wife. While pigs wandered in and out of my room, we would sit on the bed and I would ask her about words in Neruda’s poetry.
I completed my first little collection of translations — about 30 poems from Neruda’s first two Residencias en la tierra — in Kyoto, 1962. I then turned, seriously, to Vallejo’s Poemas humanos and was, as I have written elsewhere, quicksanded. Neruda’s Residencias were a forest of curious hybrids and aromas, one walked on solid ground inspecting this and that. With Vallejo the little ground I had gained gave way. I was foundering in an abyss of contradictions and dissonance, in which absurdity, compassion and anguish mixed like smoke. After several months of attempting to scale Vallejo’s vertical walls, I determined that a translation of Poemas humanos that I could live with would be my apprenticeship to poetry. To make a long, complicated story short, Grove Press published a bilingual Human Poems in 1968. Several years later, I decided that the translation had to be redone and teamed up this time with the Spanish scholar José Rubia Barcia. César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry was published in 1978 by the University of California Press (since that time they have sold around 13,000 copies of the book). As you probably know, I returned to Vallejo in 1989 and spent three years translating Trilce, which was published bilingually by Marsilio in 1992.
As a translator/reader I have always gone deep into a few individual poets, translating complete books when possible. Besides attempting to make accurate, readable versions, I was involved in a secondary plot, or sub-text, wanting to shovel some of their psychic coal into my own furnaces. This is also to suggest that I have no overall sense of 20th century Latin American poetry, or European poetry, for that matter. I have preferred to read Vallejo, Césaire, and Artaud in depth rather than read smaller amounts of many writers. The collective resource offered by the poets I have translated has been one of permission — of giving me permission, in my own poetry, to say anything that would spur on my quest for authenticity and for constructing an alternative world.
Pound has defined the poem as a vortex “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” In modern and post-modern poetry we observe a conscious attempt to conceive the poem as a kind of “black hole” which is able to suck up different discourses, traditions, times, into the body of the poem. Thus, the old concept of lyric and epic poetry has increasingly opened up to incorporate and assimilate materials that were formerly considered non-poetic. Your poetry, it seems, derives its energies not only from your own personal experiences, autobiography, and struggle with the poets you have translated, but also from anthropology, psychology, etc. How would you define your poetics in this context?
I don’t care for the words “vortex” and “black hole” as terms for heterogeneous assimilation, as they are basically destructive. The incorporation of different genres and previously non-poeticized information into poems is something else. I’m not sure what to call it. Northrop Frye referred to William Blake’s multi-genre “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” as an “anatomy,” and I have used that term to identify my research/book project on Ice Age cave imagery.
As you imply, the problem with much poetry is that it passes too effortlessly down the road in others’ ruts. From the viewpoint of the 18th century, say, the 20th (in terms of what has happened to poetry) must look like a millepedal nightmare. As Robert Duncan put it, reflecting on what he called “a symposium of the whole,” his vision of the 20th century range of the humanities, “all the excluded orders must be included. The female; the proletariat; the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”
For the individual poet, the task is to cathect areas of experience that have yet to be “admitted,” and then to make them part of what his poetry, and possibly poetry at large, is responsive to and responsible for. While many of the areas that Duncan cites have been engaged, it is stunning to ponder how many ranges of human experience — virtually all of the sciences — have yet to be assimilated into poetic visions.
How would I define my poetics? I’ve attempted to be responsible, in my poetry, for all I know about myself and the world. I’ve tried to splice a number of dualisms: to write for myself and to communicate; to engage inspiration and self-criticism; to practice a reality that is at once created and observed; to fight self-censorship and self-indulgence. The idea is to turn these opposed situations into folds, or (in the Blakean sense) contraries, in a poetry that is as Argus-eyed as it is porous.
I have also constructed a myth in the book on Ice Age art that primordial image-making was motivated by a crisis in which people began to separate the animal out of their about-to-be human heads and to project it on cave walls. The corollary to this intuition is that proto-shamanism may have come into being as a reactive swerve from this separation continuum, to rebind human being to the fantasy of a paradise which did not exist until the separation was sensed.
The task I’ve created for myself has been to travel to the origin of humanness — to a real backwall — while maintaining a focus on late 20th century life. Besides exploring the basis for dualisms (the separation and rebinding that in my view characterizes Ice Age image-making), I want to deal directly (and brutally) with political issues — for example, the El Mozote massacre in Salvador, the O.J. Simpson trial, the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the Gulf War — as well as to “read” 20th century visual art. In From Scratch (1998) there are poems working with the imagery of such painters as Chaim Soutine, Willem de Kooning, and Nora Jaffe. These areas of attention occasionally intermingle, and this brings up the matter of methodology.
The art that engages me involves a dance between the artist’s subconscious and conscious realms. The subconscious is Dionysian, the grounds of inspiration, teeming with conflict; the conscious is Appollonian, or the will to cohere, perceptive and self-critical. The challenge in this regard is to communicate while synthesizing within a melee. Sometimes I have a plan when I begin a poem, sometimes no plan whatsoever. I try not to anticipate myself, but to let each phrase or line generate the next. This is not “automatic writing” or “stream of consciousness” because inspiration is constantly shadowed by evaluation. I don’t want the unknown to be fully translated into the known. I want the dream to have its life in the poem along with insights into its ramifications.
Your poetry is aligned with a visionary tradition that goes back to ancestral times, and many of your contemporaries — such as Blackburn, Snyder, Corman, McClure, and Rothenberg — are also involved in peculiar types of re-vision. How would you situate your investigation in relation to these poets? Do you feel that you belong to a visionary North American poetics? How has this “looking back” to ancestral times affected your poetry?
Blake would be the source of any alignment to be found in my poetry with a visionary tradition. There are moments of grandeur in all of his phases, from the pagan “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” to the Christianity-encumbered “Jerusalem.” Blake’s attempt to translate Christianity into his own system is heroic, and because he revealed what it entailed I don’t need to take it on. You can reject Christianity because Blake demonstrated that if you try to incorporate it in an altered form you will still end up identifying man with humanity and woman with nature. This is one of the errors, of nearly incurable depth, that continues to hold humanity in its thrall.
Of the contemporary American poets you mention, only Rothenberg and McClure could be thought of as participating in a visionary tradition. I feel some kinship with them, particularly with Rothenberg, whose blend of vision and political awareness is powerfully demonstrated in the poem “Khurbn.” Blackburn and Snyder are more observational than visionary; both have a keen sense of how perceived materials can be aligned in language. I suppose a case could be made for Snyder as a visionary via his adherence to Zen Buddhism which has some things in common with Blake’s conception of art as creation designed to pull the Creation inside out. However, Snyder is so observationally engineered, so attuned to natural specificity and flux, that his visionary propensity is usually restrained. Corman is the least visionary of the poets you mention; he is a kind of haiku-minimalist whose vista is restricted by his unceasing obsession with dying, or “livingdying” as he puts it. However: he can cover more ground in 8 or 10 words than any other American poet alive today, and he is also a splendid translator (of Basho, Celan and Montale, for example), and he edited the seminal literary magazine of the 1950s and early 1960s, origin. I should also acknowledge here that Blackburn, Snyder, and Rothenberg are excellent translators too and that, as an essayist, Snyder is our Thoreau. As an anthologist, Rothenberg has almost single-handedly reinvented the range of anthologies for our times.
I don’t think there is a visionary North American tradition in poetry. There are a few visionaries but all are dependent upon either pre-industrial tribal or Western European sources. The American Protestant-Capitalist complex does not support visionary poetics — as both Hart Crane and Charles Olson learned at crucial and tragic points in their careers.
My poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s is very personal, bent upon excavating my Indianapolis “family romance” and background. When I chanced upon the Ice Age caves in the French Dordogne in the mid-1970s and realized that they were prime poetic material, I made a 180 degree turn in focus. I shifted from highly-differentiated personal concerns to possibly the most undifferentiated transpersonal realm we know of. I don’t mean to suggest that I simply jettisoned my personal life as material when I began to engage the caves. What they offered me was a shot at the origin of metaphor, or even the origin of poetry if one believes, as I do, that early shamans were proto-poets. The caves thus gave me a bedrock on which to stand. They solved, for me, the 20th century existential dilemma of: to whom do I belong? Do I belong to any place? Do I belong at all? In 1987, as the sensations of loss poured through me in the village of Les Eyzies (the center of French prehistory), I realized that I was home. Whatever missing story I have had to create for myself has, since the late 1970s, taken place against an Upper Paleolithic background and the myths I have created in order to understand some of that background. The Dordogne was the gift of a lifetime.
I’m fascinated by your research on Paleolithic imagination. Could you talk about this investigation and how it enters your poetry? What is “Juniper Fuse”? What did you learn from your study and actual experience with the caves?
What I learned will be published in the forthcoming work you mention, the full title of which is Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld. Concerning the book’s title: wicks made of quarter inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux. Since the Upper Paleolithic, wick has become fuse as the conveyor of ignition for electrical purposes as well as for shells and bombs. “Juniper Fuse,” then, as a metaphor for connecting the flame by which cave imagery was made possible to its ignescent consequences in modern life.
Here is how the “Juniper Fuse” project began: at the suggestion of a friend, my wife and I rented an apartment in a farmhouse outside of Les Eyzies for the spring and summer months of 1974. After discovering the caves in the area, I discovered something of equal importance with regard to anything I might write: no poet had taken on the Upper Paleolithic and done what Charles Olson referred to as a “saturation job.” Without knowing where such a project would lead, or even how I would go about it, I began to revisit the caves of the Dordogne, Lot, and Ariège regions, and to read what had been written about the Upper Paleolithic. Over the past 25 years, we have visited and revisited around 40 caves, and I have read hundreds of books and articles.
As one might expect, studies of Ice Age image-making have been written by archeologists in scholarly, objective prose based on fieldwork, and often framed by a single theory to account for the “art.” In the late 1970s, I became aware that cave imagery is an inseparable mix of mental constructs and perception. That is, there are “fantastic” animals as well as astutely-perceived realistic animals. There are not only human figures representing men and women whose social roles cannot be determined, but others, with bird masks, bison heads, and peculiar wounds, that evoke an interior world, in some cases shamanism. So instead of employing solely rational documentation (as have the archeologists), it struck me that this “inseparable mix” might be approached using mental imagery as well as perception, or poetic imagination as well as fieldwork and research.
This in the writing of “Juniper Fuse” I sought to be open to what I thought about and fantasized while in the caves or while meditating on their image environments — to create my own truth as to what they mean, respecting imagination as one of a plurality of conflicting powers. I also sought to be a careful observer, and to reflect on what others have written, photographed, and drawn. Sometimes a section is all poetry, sometimes all prose — at other times it is a shifting combination like a Calder mobile, with poetry turning into prose, prose turning into poetry.
I also decided to bring to bear on my “saturation job” a range of thinkers outside of archeology proper. While I studied the works of the Abbés Breuil and Glory, Annette Laming, André Leroi-Gourhan, S. Giedion, Max Rafael, Alexander Marshack, Jean Clottes, Margaret S. Conkey, and Paul Bahn, I also read Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Geza Róheim, Mikhail Bakhtin, Weston LaBarre, N.O. Brown, Kenneth Grant, James Hillman, and Hans Peter Duerr. I sought to match my pluralistic theoretical approach with varying styles. “Juniper Fuse” is, as I mentioned earlier, an “anatomy,” composed of poetry, prose poetry, essays, lectures, notes, dreams, and visual materials.
Two phrases strike me when I think of poetic translation: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” and “One never finishes a translation; one abandons it.” How crucial is translation for a poet? What is your approach regarding translation? What are your criteria? What are your next projects in this area?
I think your first question is possibly only relevant with regard to the translation of traditional rhymed and metered verse. You can’t translate a sonnet as a sonnet without seriously distorting its meaning; to translate it for meaning alone means doing it as free verse, and losing most of its sonnet-identity. I have never touched, as a translator, Vallejo’s first book, Los heraldos negros, because I regard translating it as a no-win situation. Most of it is traditional verse. Once you strip poems of their metrical uniforms in a free verse translation they are not compelling. And if you offered them English verse uniforms the result would be inevitably inaccurate and grotesque. However, most of Vallejo’s complex poems written in Europe are, in my opinion, potentially translatable because they are intellectually geared, and without the musical veneer of regular meter and rhyme.
Your second question: I heard it years ago, in a slightly different version, attributed to Picasso! The story: “Picasso, how do you know when a painting is finished?” “I don’t finish paintings, I abandon them.”
Presented as a statement on translation, I find this quotation questionable. It is probably only true in the case of poems that have a very strong sound component (as in “sound poetry”), or words that the translator cannot track down — or neologisms that he cannot match in the second language. Let’s put it this way: it is possibly true for certain poems by Paul Celan and Vallejo (I “abandoned” a half-dozen translations of poems in Trilce). But I don’t think it would hold true for, say, Montale, Neruda, or Breton.
As a translator, I try to do accurate work — seeing myself as the servant of the original, not a performer using its space to dance in — and to bring what I do, as much as possible, up to the performance level of the original. Because my French and Spanish are not fluent, I often work with a co-translator. In this regard, I have been lucky: I’ve worked with rigorously honest, demanding people. I have avoided the situation in which a speaker of the original language prepares a trot in the second language and passes it along to the second language person to be polished. With José Rubia Barcia, Annette Smith, and Bernard Bador, I have worked in tandem, spending countless hours with each of them, exploring, researching, debating, and checking our work.
I have no new translation projects.
In the end of the beautiful poem “Short Story,” you wrote: “Poetry’s horrible responsibility:/in language to be the world.” What can poetry do, in your opinion, in a world dominated by materialism, consumerism and the mass media, as well as in a world with increasing social injustices and deep economic problems? What is the poet’s ‘mission,’ in your vision? The Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski (1945-1989) had a motto: “in order to be a poet it is necessary to be more than a poet.” Do you agree with that? How do you posit yourself, as poet, in the world?
In Love’s Body (in the chapter called “Fulfillment”), N.O. Brown writes: “The central feature of the human situation is the existence of the unconscious, the existence of a reality of which we are unconscious.” He also proposes that “the axis of world history is making conscious the unconscious,” and that “symbolic consciousness” (comprised of seeing and not seeing, of waking and sleep) overcomes dualities and is expressed as poetry. One could argue that, of the language arts, poetry is the one that is most involved with ensouling, or deepening meaning by admitting the unconscious to consciousness, by eliminating the literal floor of consciousness so that the basement becomes part of meaning’s space. This activity is an essential ingredient in the process of becoming human and being human.
The kind of poetry that meets this definition faces formidable obstacles relative to being received and assimilated because it often moves into uncharted areas. Under the best of circumstances, a slim minority of the population performs the role of a supporting receiver for such poetry. In North America today, we have far from the best circumstances for such an exchange. Our culture is not only drenched in entertainment and media distraction but layered with art-phobia. If an art is blasphemous, obscene, abrasively dissentaneous, or really demanding — that is, if it does not easily reflect the reader/viewer’s immediate experience — it will be rejected. I am not merely talking about the uneducated reader/viewer, but the so-called arbiters of culture. Editors, reviewers, gallery directors, university department heads, foundation officers and award panels, as a conglomerate, determine what will see the light of day. Increasingly, I believe, such people are insensitive and hostile to original work. The trend is toward passive spectatorship, in which the film, book, or painting is expected to go 90% of the way. Global television dissemination of sporting events has undoubtedly stimulated this passivity.
My experience as a professor and as a writer giving a half-dozen readings each year before university audiences is that the most open segment of the population consists of people in their 30s and 40s who have some real life experience under their belts and who still think of themselves as part-time students. They are porous and curious, and willing to try something that may also make them uneasy. Such people constitute a very modest percentage of North Americans.
Difficult poetry offers less surface than most novels, plays, and paintings, and demands, therefore, a more active response; you have to work hard at it to get anything at all since there is seldom a plot, and never a color field, to provide an entrance level that can be bypassed or just relaxed into.
There always seem to be a small number of people who will work out their lives in poetry and be grateful for the opportunity to do so regardless of the paucity of response. Poetry in the 21st century could become like alchemy in the late 19th century: a handful of people working on what appears to others as arcane and pointless transformations. Such workers will need a Jung to justify their activities as part of an evolving symbolic consciousness. If this alchemy parallel is pertinent, however, the news is not good: to my knowledge, alchemy as a practice has ceased to exist.
Concerning Leminski’s motto: one could say that translating and editing — activities I earlier identified as, on one level, services to a community of poetry — constitute “being more than a poet.” Or perhaps Leminski had in mind the need to incorporate the non-poetic into the poetic so as not to end up with aesthetic re-runs. Or maybe he had Rimbaud in Africa in mind — though Rimbaud had severed all ties to poetry before going into regions no white man had penetrated before him. Perhaps a more appropriate image for our times would be Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder in India, in 1962, visiting ashrams, and discovering the depth of Far Eastern thought for Occidentals. I think Leminski’s point is well, if ambiguously, taken: the poet must eternally incorporate the previously unincorporated into his holdings. And he does so as society at large directs the incorporated and the unincorporated into profit and fun.