John Kinsella interviews Ken Bolton

JK: Your poetry often takes on an “active” or dynamic voice/form—integrating action with language—i.e., concepts evolve from immediate/current action. Could you comment on this?

KB: Well I don’t know that all my poetry is this way. But you tend to develop where you think your strengths lie—and for me this has been in attending to the way thinking moves: inflected by, deflecting off and in deference to its surroundings—one’s context—including other ideas and thoughts, memories, records playing, people going by on the street, the counter argument presented even by the appearance of other people in, say, a coffee shop—people who, sensibly, don’t look like they hold the same ideas as you or hold them with larger or smaller pinches of salt. The shifts from idea to idea, the gaps and pausing, can provide poetically or aesthetically interesting shape or form, that is, effectively, what a poem is: its motif if you like, in the Cézanne sense.

I try to think hard about things—but in the poems—as in much of one’s life, I think—I’m not attempting theory. I’m not up to much as a theoretician. I’m interested . . . but I like other people’s theory better—judged as end product—than my own, I mean as an originary thinker. My art criticism can be theoretical—and interestingly so—in its judgements—but it doesn’t make new theory.

In the ’70s it was called the poem “of process”: you wrote the poem’s unfolding, in its context . . . I think that was the line. It didn’t have to have organicist beliefs attached to it—and I realize the consequent truth or realism/reportage effect is only an effect. Or, it is when judged as finished product, as artefact—but as an operating aesthetic for producing the artefact it has a useful ‘code of ethics’ for the writer—I mean in terms of truth to the tone and subtlety of one’s experience and thinking. As do many other ways of writing a poem—and for those very same notions, too, of accuracy and subtlety. And finally the way of every poem is slightly different from that of every other—unless you’re really into repetition. When I say “operating aesthetic” I mean it more as a recipe—you’ve got to be more interested in your ideas and feelings than I usually am for the truth aspect to be always the pre-eminent goal in writing a poem—rather than the art (as somehow defined). Often you don’t have to choose: form follows function, as John Forbes and Reyner Banham say.

For me the self-reflexiveness involved is for a kind of self-consciousness that is epistemological—a reminder of the basis for opinions—or of the purely subjective or circumstantial (even ‘determined’) nature of one’s ideas. It’s against certainties. Or it’s psychological—ingrained or in-built: you know, This guy wouldn’t take a stand on anything!

My thinking’s pretty relativist anyway: but I’m torn between, or usually find myself operating at any rate, in one mode or the other: attention to the truth aspect, the logical or emotional conclusion of one’s thoughts—or amusement at them and flight from them (into the pleasures of evasion, joke, the disconnected and arbitrary or the formally well-turned, or the brainstormed and baroque, the inauthentic). You published a poem of mine—”Lives Of The Poets”—now if that’s a process poem then its principle is distraction more than cohesive thought —and it’s musical—distraction along musical lines—a pretty nutty music: Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler and Satie & Dan Hicks—but along “strictly verbal principles”—Ezra Pound and Pee Wee Herman, and Tristan Tzara—which is to say Bean Spasms, right?

JK: Ted Berrigan. And right beside that poem was the “Bill Hayden Ode”!

KB: Right—traditional form. It’s an ode only in that it has, or begins with, “heightened language”. Actually, the inspiration for that poem was Ron Padgett’s “Italian Odes” in his book Great Balls Of Fire. Do you know that book? They’re in the kind of really high flown language you can’t get away with in English. He pretends they are translations—even has the Italian underneath.

JK: You quote Aragon at the beginning of your Two Poems volume—”He [God] has a handful of gimmicks to which he invariably resorts . . . ” You play against the idea of the poem but is there a pathos in this irony? or a pathos of “traditional” forms?

KB: Well I don’t feel any special pathos. I mean, I know it’s supposed to inhere in the situation . . . you know, The poem is necessarily a failure talking to, evoking [a tradition of] other failures, its words empty except inasmuch as they can make earlier poems vibrate, resuscitated, in its aid. But if you’re a poet that’s the situation you embrace . . . to the extent that other arts don’t face that barrier, that is the extent to which they’re inconsiderable and don’t partake of the real seriousness of the human condition . . . You know, Much as we love you, Painting, much as we love you, Dance (ha ha), still . . .

No, I chose the quote because I liked it—for its joke—but also to introduce the poem: that it would include much incidental detail—as the full quote does—and no Grand Recits or teleology. Not that I’m consciously rigorous, or well-trained, in these matters. There’s probably a pack of incriminating foolish assumptions entailed—in what I thought were blithely insouciant acts of casual verbal bravado—asides, observations, opinions offered and retracted.

Although, come to think of it, the second poem in that book was deliberately flat —a finale to the other poem which it was intended to revive and bring to a close. That was intended as I began it. But the finale is a kind of recognition (recognized by the deflated tone, by sentimentality and emotional withdrawal) . . . recognition that there is no big statement available to make. No big clincher either as comforting thought or, consequently, as form. Maybe pathos was the point.

Traditional forms are neither here nor there. They’re not available to me. But each poem has its own form, including those in traditional forms: they must have a form within or over and above that form—coincidental with it, where the traditional form is appropriate and not just a template.

JK: Could you discuss the relationship between both your poetry and criticism and that of Frank O’Hara.

KB: I’m not sure what the relationship is. I steeped myself in Frank O’Hara when I first discovered him. Many of his poems I like but don’t get. And there are poems that are not a success, as far as I can tell. He’s very attractive. His poems have a remarkable lightness yet they’re agile and firm and casually sinuous—sometimes all of these things and ornate as well. I spent so long reading him that I hope some of it rubbed off. But I don’t have many of the same gifts—let alone have them to that degree—and I don’t think my poems are very similar. It’s the easiest Frank O’Hara—there are a few sorts of O’Hara poem—that I’m close to occasionally. The “I do this, I do that” poem, of context and thought, I am always at. Without O’Hara’s touch, even, for more than a line or two. At the same time I was reading Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan. And since then I’ve continued to read Berrigan and late Schuyler—The Morning Of The Poem and subsequent poems particularly—and Tony Towle is another enthusiasm. And locally I was reading Laurie Duggan (and via him Philip Whalen) and John Forbes and Anna Couani’s early prose. All of them differently influential, either as critique or stimulus or model. O’Hara leavened my early poetry.

O’Hara’s art criticism is not particularly an influence. It’s usually a nice read—and he’s best making over art after his own image, his own aesthetic. Where this allows him insight to an aspect of someone’s work he’s very good in terms of appreciation. And he can manage sympathy for artists whom you wouldn’t pick always as centrally his. His study on Pollock, though, is not important in the literature on that artist for example—though his treatment of some aspects of Pollock is exemplary, especially as antidote to the heavy weather that is usually made of his work. O’Hara’s art writing is mostly occasional.

Well, so’s mine—chiefly review and criticism—for magazines or newspapers. I think the reader can hear the machinery crunching a lot more in my art writing. Newspaper work—especially for Adelaide’s Advertiser—does not allow for much abstraction, or sustained argument, but it’s taught me to write a little more clearly (and a lot quicker!). The art world is given to a great deal of earnest hype and respectfully enslaved thought—as to what counts and how meaning or significance might be made. In that respect the context has changed a lot since O’Hara’s day. It’s more thoroughly institutionalized and professionalized. I’m glad to be both part of it and an outsider. Because, though they come through half-baked sometimes, a lot of ideas wash in and out of the art world—at just about my level—more interesting than a lot of the art. Hmm. Of course most poetry you see around is not real interesting either. But O’Hara . . . O’Hara’s of the late ’50s, when Abstract Expressionism reigned and a second and third generation of them were distilling something more pure but narrower from it. And apart from Larry Rivers, O’Hara was not too sympathetic to the reactions against it—Rauschenberg, Johns, Stella, the Minimalists and Pop—though I guess he got to work with Johns . . . I’m not in New York, for one thing, and I ‘learned’ the ’60s, in the ’70s, as an undergraduate, quite some time after O’Hara’s death. (Actually, he was sympathetic to the less radical reactions against Abstract Expressionism—hence Rauschenberg’s dismissal of O’Hara’s set as twee taste —Meaning artists like Freilicher and Katz.)

JK: How do you “use” art in your poetry? It is not obviously to re-create an object or thing-in-itself. Is it rather as “instigation” or “reaction”? Or extension?

KB: I don’t know. I think about art and writing mostly through a particular, mutating set of art-derived terms and tools.—Well, plus the philosophers and feminism and cultural criticism—you know, “all the usual suspects” as Claude Rains would say—the things that are leading thinking these days. But these things get to me through my involvement with art. God knows if I get anywhere with it. My thinking about writing is less systematic, more informal, but pretty constant and not really separable from my thinking about art. I mean, both writing and art are directed outwards you know—to the news of the world.

Probably I responded to O’Hara and Berrigan partly through a set of ideas and value judgements originally invoked or formed to explain the virtues and charms of artists: Rauschenberg, Johns, Motherwell, Pollock, Oldenburg, Warhol, Rosenquist . . . but also Cage, Schwitters, Picasso and Braque, Cornell, and Performance Art etc.

But these terms were literary enough.

For myself, I’d say my agenda is maybe not every other poet’s—but then whose is?—and that while my agenda is literary, a lot of literary subjects, or the literary tradition’s perspective on them, are not mine. But still, really, Ted Berrigan, Tony Towle, James Schuyler are more important to my writing than Frank Stella or Imants Tillers, or Micky Allan or Dale Frank. So I don’t have a sense of a divide, or of its mattering very much. Art—particularly works or exhibitions—is sometimes the source or cause of particular opinions that generate poems for me: so “The Artists” is a kind of joking alternative catalogue essay written as a poem—to expurgate the essay I really did write full of mandatory artworldspeak; “Criticism” is a poem written from notes I made on an exhibition exactly for the purposes of reviewing it. Some poems just speak about art. “Terrible Attitude” looks at my critical ‘heritage’, the ideas I’d inherited to respond to the 70s with. I guess early poems like “Terrific Days” and “Four Poems” emulated in some degree an idea I had of what Rauschenberg and Stella and Larry Rivers and Joan Snyder—and John Firth-Smith and Tony Tuckson—might do if they were all rolled up into one person, who liked the same jokes as me and thought John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” was pretty amazing.

JK: Doesn’t theory evolve from practice? Surely a poem like “Minimal Poem”, from Blonde and French, works antithetically?

KB: I don’t know that it necessarily does. A theory, or at any rate a group of theoretically-based attitudes, can seek to defend and put the best face on a ‘practice’—people in the visual arts talk, now, about “their practice” as though they were GPs—and will run down other contesting sorts of practice. In conjunction with practice—especially failing attempts, or repetitious successes or failures—and in conjunction with analysis of the contesting alternatives—dismissive analysis, usually—then thinking (is that theory?), including what is likely to be intuitive thought as well, will nudge practice, or force it, into an ‘opening’, say, that suddenly becomes apparent. But how do you make the distinction between practice and theory in action: your approval/disapproval, liking/disliking, anxiety-about/pleasure-in a poem as you write it has to be ‘theoretical’ in large part. Where it feels say, formalist—you know, where you can ‘just tell’ it is wrong, or ‘just tell’ it is right, or you laugh or smile because it’s ‘going well’—still, this is theoretical/intellectual approval that has been internalized so as to seem not a matter of thought. But it can be examined. And, if you have that turn of mind, eventually you’ll examine it. So much of writing is fun because it is not theoretical or intellectual but is quasi sensuous—but very quasi, sensuous at three or four removes: the pleasures of form (pace, shape, sound, music, rigour maybe) within restrictions of, and pleasures (and interest and difficulty) of sense. Not just the poem’s sense as utterance or symbolic artefact, but the pleasures/interest/difficulty of the sense the work has vis à vis other poems—vis à vis current writing or relative to one’s conception of the canon or tradition. Or competing traditions. This last kind of sense might also inform the poem’s quite evident or primary meaning. All this seems self-evident to me, I imagine to you too.

“Minimal poem”, as I remember it, offers itself as a kind of möbius strip. It was an attempt to write a poem with similes only and to make it obvious that this was going on and to make the spectacle of the process interesting. Minimal art tended to reduce art-making to its constituent elements and sought to, say, make sculpture out of just the process of stacking, of placing, of hanging something. You know, no representation, no narrative, no illusionism, no symbolism—think of Judd, Robert Morris, a painter like Ryman. I’d always been against richly and persuasively (rather than decoratively) metaphorical poetry—and poetry with effects of power, especially where those effects attempt to obviate counter argument. So “Minimal poem” attempted to demonstrate the making of comparisons as the basis for a poem—so it’s a joke on the conventionally ‘poetic’—and to do so via the repetition of a rather silly comparison in any case. Serious Al Yankovich.

[“ “]

Hm. This means something like “an open set” in mathematics . . . ?

Which sounds very late-60s conceptual. Might it be . . . Mel Bochner’s middle name?? Is that it? Or is it Intertextuality: you know, “voices off”, like they say in plays—the poem, the bits of poems, and bits of any other discourse—philosophy, TV, journalism etc—that a poem triggers, seeks to trigger, acknowledges in its process? All that. My poems do it you mean? Yep.

JK: Silliman, Andrews, Susan Howe, Hejinian . . .

KB: Ah, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers! Is that why the funny question? I first read them in the early 80s. There’s a few I like, but I’m not sure how central they are to the group—people like Stephen Rodefer (his Four Lecturers, and just recently I began a new book of his), David Bromige (his prose more particularly).

I’ve read them, but not enough of any of them. I guess I’ve not got what they’re on about. And as well, most of what I’ve read by the group generally they’d written in the late 70s through to the mid 80s. They’ll have moved on by now. So, I know two Silliman titles, Tjanting and Ketjak. Ketjak is more like Ou Li Po, and I found it interesting. Although I guess it’s not restrictive form but a form for letting everything in. Davidson and Palmer I’ve read a bit, and less of Watten, Perelman and Hejinian. I read their theory more closely—mostly for its effect on my thinking, something to think against—or to take into account—I can’t connect it much with their own writing.

I tire of the endless floating phrases, though it sometimes seemed funny. There seemed (though I may be wrong) a ritual suppression of “I think” and “it seems”. And often the suppression is just a whiting-out of those words, a refusal to type them. They’re implied anyway. OR the implication is This is (really) happening. i.e., despite the fragmentary appearance, fiction—as opposed to opinion. [See later answer.] Another claim of tough-minded objectivity and degree zero.

“Terrific Days”—my own work—is fragmentary also, but it has an unspoken, yet happily implied (rather than unhappily disavowed), structure which voices This, and then this. And this happens—now this! That is, duration, music, event or incident—in the sense of “visual incident” in non-figurative painting—and lists, that are their own small periods of duration en abîme, in a way, within the larger poem. The freedom to do it was the justification, as well as the excitement of its not being what it wasn’t—lots of other sorts of poetry. And “Four Poems”, on the other hand, has genre allusions, to give a jokey closure (rather than the lyrical closure of “Terrific Days”). Though the closure is token and parodic. (And I realize these twin techniques are what I still use: The Ferrara Poems—the two poems that make up the first two chapters anyway—they began as Minimalist demonstrations ad absurdam (but also ad irresponsible fun) of the conventions of The Novel. Chapter one, characters are introduced, fully. Chapter two, action, but action of the least kind. Later a ‘mystery’ is introduced—but one the reader forgets, so its ‘solution’, later, provides the novel’s resolution. And no character has to ‘struggle’—when clouds appear they just go away a little later. Every character who joins the group must first fall over —an arbitrary rule, but why not? It amused John [Jenkins, the co-author —ed.] and I a lot—to impose this sort of rule on reality, and then to naturalize it a lot: they each have a good reason for falling over.)

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E stuff, in its frequent rejection of the sentence or of ordinary connection, seemed to me to come from a lot of theorizing beforehand, which produced the structure or procedure. And that structure or procedure testified (“simply”) to the advertized proud assumptions of that theorizing. But the writing’s own activity, it seemed, was not able to “do philosophy” itself.

Of course that was L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E stuff of some time ago. It must’ve changed since then—plus I’ll have got the thing wrong in the first place by their lights. But it often seemed to me quaintly and sternly avant-gardist—tough posturing. (This is rather ad hominem—and the opposition they’ve aroused is maybe a sign they’re on to something. Do you know the Tom Clark article on them? It seems rather damaging. Clark is rather plainspoken and ‘natural language’ in orientation. But he has never seemed to me unintelligent either.)

To them I would seem corny and provincial in my allegiances. But I absorbed and read the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s all at one time—in the ’70s: Sol LeWitt, Johns, Hofmann, and Spiral Jetty; O’Hara, Ashbery, Berrigan, Schuyler; Butor, Duras and Robbe-Grillet; Olson, Larkin and Creeley; Victor Burgin; Lucy Lippard and Michael Fried; Enzensberger; a lot of generalized feminism and Marxism, and later Barthes, Foucault and Adorno, and others since. Well, it’s an incomplete list, and represents a partial and incomplete knowledge. (Anxiety over the Influences.) But for me many options are not so distinctly past their use-by date as I sense they are, for political reasons, for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E push. It’s an interesting telescoping that is exactly possible with distance and it’s not always detrimental. (Most of my faults as a poet are personal rather than cultural, surely.) Americans’ sense of themselves as being ‘where it happens’ is amusing—even when it occurs in one’s ‘heroes’: I guess I can call Peter Schjeldahl a minor hero of mine—he was like that—hilariously and dependably.

The gravitas of Black Mountain poetry (of Olson, Creeley, Duncan, of Dorn even) is corny and overbearing—special pleading, a longing for Authority. The New York school’s about the only American strand where it is fully absent. (Well, I also like Whalen.) So I’d like to state my preference for that NY poetry. Which seems to be a red rag to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E crowd.

But it’s only where I began. I never thought I was or could become “a New York poet”, and I don’t think I’m writing very much like them even now.

However—about ‘the New York School’—I think the energy is no longer with them as a group—though it remains with a number of them individually. So I like to see what they’re doing. And because the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group are putting out work I look at it on occasion. The bookshop I run stocks some anthologies of theirs, and I order individual titles in occasionally: Hejinian’s Oxota ‘novel’ for instance, is on its way, and Rodefer, Scalapino and others. And my old copies of THIS magazine and Poetics Journal I re-read often—usually to some good effect.

Try this: There IS rhetoric and then THERE/Is the lyric(al).

Well, in some sense is there anything but rhetoric? With a brief lyric the rhetoric is all in its cast—or is at least in its cast. I’m interested in poems whose procedure is lyrical without attracting that term and which in fact deal with subject matter, and often use terms and phrasing, that would be characterized usually as rhetorical or at any rate discursive. But I think I mean poetic rather than lyrical, though lyrical could be in the mix.

There’s not much point my being unironically rhetorical—or unironically discursive even—as I haven’t got much to say in many respects. I’m not completely stupid or dull, but I’m not about to hatch significant theory either, wish as I might. A poem like “Notes for Poems” is discursive I guess, but it’s satirical. So in that case the rhetoric is not the style. The style refashions the rhetoric. And the style will be unaware of its own rhetoric. Otherwise it’s all front brain stuff. I guess I’m against rhetoric that knows it’s rhetoric—or that continues—as the same rhetoric—after it’s caught itself out.

JK: “Opinions”?

KB: You’re questioning me about an interview that appeared in Australian Book Review. I like having opinions in poems that are not necessarily well considered—the opinions, that is. On the other hand, I like them partly because their presence—as not even thought out—argues the right of the poem to have opinions, and ideas, and at the same time it invites scrutiny of them. I don’t want to have my poems ram my opinions down anyone’s neck. (I’ll do that in real life.) It’s also that I like a poetry of statement and I was talking against ABR’s normative notions of poetry as emotion, catharsis, mild decorous reflection or numinous truth.

JK: Could you outline your history re Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and small press publications—Why & How?

I’ve published magazines and books on and off for quite a while now. Magic Sam was my first magazine. The first writers I knew were Joanne Burns, Rae Jones, Gary Oliver, Carol Novack and later Anna Couani and John Jenkins. Rae and Gary published small, very ‘fugitive’ things: Rae published Your Friendly Fascist and Gary Oliver did Ploughman’s Lunch and Victoria Bitter. The Lunch did not achieve much speed, but Vic Bitter I liked. It was just a pamphlet. The Fascist was amusing because it was so perversely terrible—sort of Berlin Dada meets Benny Hill. What I loved best was the artwork in the early issues. It was all mimeographed and was usually hand-drawn onto the stencil with a biro or a pin! The result was terrible—and the drawings were of a sort of cartoon pig in Nazi uniform, very crudely drawn, covered in slogans, and obtuse, staggeringly. Infantile. I still wasn’t writing anything very interesting back then (in ’73, ’74). But when I began to there was nowhere I could publish it where it would fit: the magazines I did want to be in seemed closed to me, and I knew a few writers I’d like to publish and would want my work to appear with. So, Magic Sam. I favoured self-reflexive and self-conscious writing—opposed to the New Romanticism (the Merwin/Duncan mix) of Adamson’s New Poetry magazine, and of course it was uninterested in the High Church-and-Akubra poetry of Canberra and Les Murray’s acolytes. It was also more literalist and nominalist I’d guess, in orientation, than allied Melbourne publications like The Ear in a Wheatfield and etymspheres which were in part Olsonist and also more informed by European (French and German) traditions. Of course Magic Sam was ‘watered down’ or made ‘healthily broader’, depending on your view, by the inclusion of much else: not everyone writes as you think they should and, as an editor, you take what you get. And sometimes you learn something. I favoured poetry of process with an epistemological anxiety, or tic, as its engine. I published a lot of Anna Couani, who also became co-editor, and Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown, Robert Kenny; together with John Jenkins, Carol Novack, Sal Brereton, Noel Sheridan, John Forbes, Steve Kelen, Denis Gallagher—now there’s an overlooked figure: get your hands on his book Country Country—and many others, including people quite removed from the magazine’s central thrust—Vicki Viidikas, Rae Jones, others. That was 1976-1980. Six issues, all large, some overlarge.

Soon after Magic Sam was underway I began Sea Cruise Books. Anna played such a large part in that that when the partnership broke up she took Sea Cruise with her and has continued publishing under that name.

I started publishing Otis after I’d been in Adelaide a few years (in 1987). I did it for the same reason as before. There still weren’t mags for me to appear in and I thought I’d like to publish somewhere. Some of my friends were getting published—but the mags they published in didn’t seem to be able to tell that they were far and away the best thing in their pages. Well, Adelaide’s a long way from the publishing action and is not taken too seriously as an artistic centre by the east coast. And I was getting bored. So I started a new magazine. It’s a continuation of Magic Sam in most ways—a bit more savvy, a little less youthful, with a lot more visual arts critical material. And there were a few Adelaide writers worth showing to the world who couldn’t publish here and couldn’t—from Adelaide—easily crack Melbourne or Sydney. You know the story, I imagine, in Perth. People like Linda Marie Walker and Jyanni Steffensen. As well, it’s slightly more national in range of publication and distribution. Production standards have risen. And it publishes more overseas work than Magic Sam used to. It faces the same problems too—very little money, so that issues are consequently too far apart. Along with Otis I publish Little Esther books: four so far with more in the pipeline—a quite large one next up, by the New Zealand writer Gregory O’Brien, that’s going to be terrific. It’s called Malachi. You should watch for it.