Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Charles Borkhuis: I’ve long been aware that if I go for more than a week without working on some writing project, I feel what I can only describe as the beginnings of withdrawal symptoms. Does this mean that I dare not let my turkey get cold for too long? Most probably I am a word junky, not because I love words so much, but because they pull on me and peck at me. In some important sense, I look forward to the day when I can get clean and just live in the world without living beside it, without the need to inhabit a world parallel to it which appears to be more real than the world itself. But not now … not now.
As for poetry, it usually starts with a few glancing phrases that bubble up and erupt from basically nowhere. I’ve learned to scratch them down quickly, almost always by hand. More times than not, the words are accompanied by a physical, muscular sensation. In a sense, I feel inhabited by something. What can I say? Monkeys made me do it.
These first words usually collect in the form of loose lines that invite me to enter their space. They create an opening. There is a heard, or perhaps a scribble, a few words that seem to matter, but things interfere at the point of inception, and I want to catch that torque that seems a truer sense of what’s going on than anything else. Soon another layer of voice-fragments may jump in to carve up or expand the territory, adding a level of image, distortion, and detour to the wordplay.
“… someone in my past is listening in
wondering if he is hearing voices”
(Department of Missing Persons, #1 in “Disappearing Acts”)
The whole process grows from inspired mistakes or meaningful coincidences that finally develop a certain weight and hold. The original scribblings or insights are sometimes grounded in a severe traction that is informed by opposing forces. What frequently settles in is a stratum of flashes and echoes, calls and responses between the periphery and a moving empty center that draws me in. What am I to this this, this process that wants me to follow and watch, listen closely and play with gravity, so that what is important is taken casually and what is of little importance is taken most seriously? Who knows where poetry is leading us? If I knew what I was going to write about, I would be less driven to write it.
TB: I know one facet of your work—the poetry—which will be what is focused on here. You are, though, also a playwright.
I’m wondering, given your response to my first question, how you would respond if the word “drama” was substituted for “poetry”?
CB: Well, I was a playwright long before I started writing poetry seriously, and I continue to write plays and occasionally screenplays and essays. Finishing a group of poems and then moving to working on a play gives me a pleasurable release and a chance to refocus on another aspect of my writing. I’ve come to learn over the years that poetry and theater have different audiences, make different demands, and present different satisfactions.
Most of my plays are dark comedies that combine surreal and neo-realistic elements and range in length from 10 minutes to 2 hours. In a short play of 10 minutes to a half-hour, you can get away with a lot of dazzling fireworks as in many of Sam Shepard’s earlier plays in which his “manic monologues” reigned supreme. But an audience won’t put up with that for 2 hours. They will start tapping their toes and mentally or physically leave the theater long before the play is over. Structure in this case simply means that certain themes and metaphors return and deepen as they proceed. By the end of 2 hours, the audience has lived with these characters and they expect something from them, which is to say, something must be at stake in all this.
For me, a play can start with anything: an image, a location, a speech, dialogue, or a full blown idea for two acts. I might experience the complete freedom of style for a few pages but, as in any game, the rules and how far you can stretch them are established very early. The kick for me in playwriting is getting into characters’ heads and bodies and leaving my own for a while. It’s not the same thing in poetry. Even though I might move though different personae, moods, and attitudes, I still feel poetry uses predominantly one mind as a focal point. The theater demands that the dramatist write from multiple identities: a mother, a teenager, an old man, a drug addict, a cop, etc. This “negative capability” is an actor’s domain as well, and I do love working with talented actors. An actor who has lived with a part and placed her body on the line can sometimes come to a playwright or director with an insight into her character which is spot-on revelatory. This offers a playwright, actor, and director a chance to rework and reshape the dynamics and direction of a play. When something like this happens during a reading or rehearsal, it pitches me out into other peoples’ lives. I try to discretely suggest what the characters might say or do, but they also tell me what they want to say or resist doing something that is out of character. I try to listen closely to what they need and want and how they might grow or slip back into fatal iterations. Working with directors and actors in shaping a play gives me something that I seem to crave. However, writing poetry gives me something else that I also deeply desire, which is a way of talking to myself in which I am most intimately talking to the reader.
TB: I’ve written elsewhere about the pairing of ghostliness, of hauntedness, with investigations of identity in your poetry writing. Derrida’s portmanteau word hauntology comes to mind in this context—a term which embodies the disjunction within Being between presence and absence. I’d argue that there’s a phenomenology of spookiness being developed in your poetry.
CB: I think you’re right to identify a certain shade of hauntedness or even “spooky action at a distance” in my poetry. Maybe this is not so much gothic goofiness on my part or Bloom’s more obvious “anxiety of influence,” which every artist faces but, as you indicate, might be closer to Derrida’s hauntology. In a sense, I’m writing about a kind ghosting that hangs over the process of writing, and which I have chosen to turn a light on. This hauntedness comes out in my plays as well; characters often lurk in a quirky noir introspection that can turn ironic or spooky at the drop of a hat.
Maybe identity is always a little haunted; maybe it’s always been troubled by alterity. There goes your shadow-image across the store window. There goes your doppelganger’s double who whispers over your shoulder in passing.
“I am what haunts and what is haunted
but absent at its core…” (Dead Reckoning 5, #6 in “Disappearing Acts”)
Another aspect of the haunted, déjà vu echoing of things is that nothing is ever finished, especially when someone tries to end it. Ending never stops ending and the beginning never quite starts but has always already begun. We’re stuck in the middle of an unfolding as with Kafka’s messengers who never arrive.
“ … each beginning starts and ends in the middle
writes the one who never leaves” (Dinner with Franz in “Disappearing Acts”)
One is haunted by an otherness that hangs over this life, which is both foreign and at the same time all too familiar. Perhaps we are ghosting the world ourselves. As we watch others, so there is the sense that we are being watched, which is increased tenfold by the presence of ubiquitous surveillance cameras aimed at every aspect of our lives. Our smart phones have made us complicitous videographers in the hauntology of the quotidian.
There is little doubt that we have begun to internalize the spookiness of watching and being watched, which has grown into an enormous industry. Along with increased surveillance comes the sense that everything is being recorded somewhere in some parallel, virtual world, and that world is simulating the reality of this one faster than we think.
If one can speak of presence and absence in my poetry, one must also speak of waking and dreaming, or for that matter, living and dying. Each pair of oppositional terms can be folded in upon the other (absence-in-presence), and each has the capacity for reversal (presence-in-absence). Each sees the other through the unveiling of a sequence of echoes, a hauntology of a sort that remains open and eschews closure.
“ … what lives in the hole hidden by presence
is anybody’s guess” (Friendly Fire in “Afterimage”)
To resist the religious, cultural, and historical call to a transcendental, metaphysical unity is to choose to live on the edge of paradox with all its attendant ambiguity and uncertainty. Poetry also walks the blade of this paradox. Although it is often elegantly concise, poetry never resolves anything. It prefers the round-about, indirect route to truth-telling. What it finds is rarely fact but multiple ways of seeing, and like science its search proves to be both necessary and insufficient.
TB: Speaking of ghosts, who do you think of as your poetic forebears?
CB: If I might exhume a few favorite forerunners to modernism they would start with Lautreamont, Rimbaud, and Poe – a spiny, unnerving team of specters that make the underground feel more intimate and alive. I’d quickly add to that the introspective spider Whitman and the ghostly, ontological gardener Dickinson. Of the moderns a few names that quickly come to mind are: Artaud, Celan, Stevens, Oppen, and Ashbery. More recently, Clark Coolidge, Bob Perelman, John Godfrey, and Rae Armantrout are poets I keep returning to. As you can see by now, possession has arranged this discrete row of pearls.
It has been my experience that artists don’t do well in survey courses, mainly because they’re really only interested in stringing together their own blood brothers and sisters from the monstrous museums of history. But these influences may be vast and cross multiple boundaries. It should be no surprise that a filmmaker, gardener, musician, philosopher or cook may light on a poet’s shoulder at any moment, crawl down a shaky arm, and inject herself into the ink that leaves its mark upon the page. Although one can name some kind of lineage in a pinch as I have attempted here, a whole host of others might sit in to jam at any given moment.
TB: One of my passions is the relationship, sometimes tortured, between poetry and philosophy. Is this something that figures in your work?
CB: Yes, I’ve experienced the “agony and the ecstasy” that cross-readings in poetry and philosophy can produce. It may be surprising to some, but the philosopher that I find most useful to me as a poet is the scientist and phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. I read his books on poetics years ago, and they still elicit the closest understanding of the poetic process in philosophical terms that I have encountered. Although out of fashion during the Structuralist period in France, Bachelard’s radical understanding of metaphor was referred to by Derrida as an epistemological rupture that deformed and “cracked the surface of philosophy.”
I would agree with those poets who think that poetry doesn’t need philosophy to provide a necessary ground or underpinning. Although poetry can use and be strengthened by ideas, it suffers when it is in the service of theory, which I feel has been the case with certain contemporary conceptual poets. Poetry is more inclusive than the ideas that we might formulate about it, yet poets can certainly learn a great deal about the relationship of language to the world from reading philosophy.
Like many of us, I was taught early on that great poetry had as its subject great ideas or at least great themes. Great poets poured those great themes into traditional forms and if they were lucky ended up with great poetry. Of course, one had to be a great poet to begin with for all this to work. This top-down thinking left anyone who wanted to write poetry standing behind the eight ball. Trying to conjure up an original, great idea was a daunting task, especially for beginners.
It was only years later after studying with actual poets that I discovered that the creative process worked better from the bottom up or at least sideways, and that “great” was a suspect adjective. I had been tricked by academicians into thinking that great ideas were the source of almost anything of value, and that this could be traced back to Plato and his ideal forms that governed all particulars. This standard model needed to be rethought, and as Heidegger has pointed out, history took the wrong turn and associated Plato’s truth with ideas instead of its earlier meaning of Aletheia (unveiling or un-hiddenness).
Poetry’s truth is nothing like a supersensible idea, and so its receptive, feminine qualities had to be controlled and ordered and finally made to submit to Big Ideas or pay the price. In one way or another, most of us are still consciously or unconsciously submitting to big ideas or grand narratives in our own lives because they go hand-in-hand with our historically received religion, science, and culture. We have been carefully trained to think in terms of essential compartments and dutifully file and categorize subordinating material into smaller and smaller boxes. But poetry operates as a more associative, musical response to stimuli and is closer to sudden insight that jumps the gap between disparate categories. In many cases the greater the distance between categories the greater the poetic spark.
In this regard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida have each in their own way seen the dead end in traditional metaphysics and tried to establish an intimate dialogue with poetic language. I would argue that poets and philosophers are closer than ever to finding ways to decenter essentialist thinking.
I would include most “Language” poets as examples of the tendency to toggle between poetry and philosophical thought in their writings. But I would also add a number of “Neo-Objectivist” and “New York School” poets like John Ashbery in this discussion. Although Ashbery is arguably one of the most elusive, evasive, and digressive of contemporary poets, his poems frequently contain the nugget of an argument which amounts to a kind of philosophy on the move. He makes sure that a philosophical kernel doesn’t serve as a centering device but functions as part of a series of waves or transitions that contain multiple points of interest. In this way, Ashbery allows philosophical ideas to arise, but his poetry avoids becoming top heavy or making the poem groan with unnecessary weight. If you miss this wave there’s always another one behind it and if taken collectively, the waves might add up to a nice day at the beach with some interesting introspective moments thrown in.
TB: I want to back up a bit. You mentioned earlier that you were a playwright long before you got serious about poetry. Could you flesh out how you came to be part of both worlds?
CB: When I was in graduate school at San Francisco State in the early-mid 70s, I studied with Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, and the Greek poet, playwright, and scholar Nanos Valaoritis. I was also lucky enough to get to know George and Mary Oppen, who were wonderful, generous people. I hung out with Creeley at the North Beach bars and he turned me on to Jerry Rothenberg’s “Technicians of the Sacred,” an amazing anthology of poetries from Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. I loved hearing Creeley read his poetry with his inimitable hesitant, existential unease. There was a lot of interest in poetry readings in the Bay Area at the time, peppered by the steady appearances of Beat poets like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, and McClure, but the poet that had the biggest influence on me was Nanos Valaoritis, who became a lifelong friend. Nanos was a member of the Surrealist movement in the ‘50s and knew Breton well. His classes on the European avant-garde were revelatory, and I visited him many times in Paris before he settled back to Greece. I was a playwright at the time, but my head was swimming in poetry.
While in San Francisco, I saw a production at SF State by the theater group Mabou Mines that blew me away. I had been writing plays in an American version of the “Theater of the Absurd,” but when I saw Mabou Mines perform “Red Horse Animation,” I knew something had drastically changed. The audience was seated on a rectangle of bleachers looking down on the performers, who were squirming around on the ground like worms while coughing up fragments of poetry by writer/director Lee Breuer. The group formed an articulated horse that broke up and came together at various points, which was based on Lee’s memory of a dead horse left on a road in one of his travels to the Near East. Watching the actors playing most of the piece on the ground was somehow crazy-perfect. When I went to New York in ’75, I looked them up and found out that they frequently performed in art galleries and were tuned into the cutting edge of the visual arts, performance, film, music, and language. They were using conceptual and minimal art in the theater and the effect was completely new and captivating. I was extremely lucky to be New York in the mid-‘70s during the electrifying “Theater of Images” period that galvanized the extraordinary work of Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, Meredith Monk, Squat Theater, The Theater of the Ridiculous, Mabou Mines and a host of breakthrough performance artists.
My first full-length play “Phantom Limbs” was produced in 1981 at Re.cher.chez studio, Mabou Mines’ workshop, of which I was a member. It went on to be produced at Theater for the Open Eye in NYC and in L.A., directed by Michael Arabian, where it received a L.A. Times “Critic’s Choice” and a Dramalogue Award. During the mid-80s, I edited THEATER:EX, an experimental theater magazine and had numerous plays produced, mostly in Off-Off Broadway theaters in New York. Company One Theater in Hartford produced my play “Sunspots” at the 300-seat Wadsworth Antheneum Aetna Theater in Hartford in 1993. Juanita Rockwell directed an insightful production of the play, and went onto direct two noir radio plays of mine for NPR that aired over WGBO in New York and can be heard on http://www.pennsound. But by that time the original, fierce energy of the first “Theater of Images” generation had started to wane. Although I loved that form of experimental theater, playwrights didn’t write those kinds of plays and those groups weren’t inviting playwrights to work with them. Unless you wanted to form your own group and direct your own plays, you might have to maneuver your way into the existing theaters like a Trojan horse.
I’d been following the poetry scene at the Poetry Project since the mid-‘70s and taken workshops with Bill Zavatsky and Paul Violi. By the mid-80s, in addition to writing plays, I started to write poetry seriously and began getting my work published in magazines like o.blek and Avec. I fell in with a group of “Language” poets who were reading at the Segue series at the Ear Inn, and I became a curator for the Segue series for 15 years. What originally attracted me to the “Language” poets were their interest in theory and their use of fragmented, discontinuous non-sequiturs, which I thought had a lot in common with certain aspects of late surrealist poetry, although there were many important differences. I followed up on this by writing an essay in 1990 called “Writing from Inside Language: Late Surrealism and Textual Poetry in France and the United States” that was published in the L.A. magazine “Onthebus in 1991,” and again in 2000 in the book “Telling it Slant” (U. of Alabama Press). I think that essay capsulized a lot of my ideas on how late or tangential surrealist-influenced poets like Artaud, Michaux, Bataille, and Sollers were instrumental in taking Surrealism into a more textual, sentient zone that was not unlike some of the work of American “Language” poets such as Coolidge, Andrews, and Perelman. I suggested that the gap between them was fertile ground for further experiment and mentioned poets I thought were doing that. This essay was recently referenced in Michael Golston’s 2015 book “Poetic Machinations: Allegory, Surrealism, and Postmodern Poetic Form” (Columbia U. Press).
Since there was little or no money or fame involved in the experimental poetry world, I was free to write pretty much whatever I wanted. Theater offers the chance to show work to larger, more diverse audiences and have the pleasure of working with actors and directors, but with poetry there is an intimate, social group of thoughtful marginalia that follow each other and read each other’s work.
TB: You have two new poetry books due to be released soon. Your work continues apace at a very high level. What keeps you interested and engaged?
CB: That’s hard to say exactly. Maybe not having said it, or not knowing when to stop is part of it. The it is what keeps disappearing a few steps in front of me. Perhaps it will stay a few steps in front of me for the rest of my life. This distance between before and after, call and response, self and other is never quite extinguished. I am a writer and a person in the world, both at the same time and in the same skin. This doubling effect continues to inspire a lot of my writing. It’s a kind of echoing or branching that sets up multiple poetic relationships. Poetry jumps between branches, between words, and between the betweens; there is always an abyss to leap over. All this could stop at any moment. Everything could come crashing down. But once you have made the jump and are on the other side, you’re not the same person. It’s that sense of seeing things from the other side of the metaphor that haunts me.
“shadow horse and shadow rider
on the other side of the hurdle
not the same not the same at all
we’ve changed our spots” (dropped a lifetime or two in “Finely Tuned Static”)
The almost infinite permutations of language hold a deep fascination for me. After having written only 4 or 5 lines, you can be pretty sure that your exact words in that particular order have never been written before. There is an incredible openness and resilience to language that keeps reaffirming itself and surprising us. Writing poetry is like remaking the world over and over. I admit that poetry is not easily communicated to people who are not aware that they are already doing it in their everyday lives. Often this can mean: slow down and listen closely to what’s really going on inside and outside you. This pause allows poetry to show up where it’s least expected, sometimes in the mouths of people who may not realize that they’re speaking it. But usually they recognize that they’ve said or thought something that takes them back for a moment. Some twist of truth has occurred and the world can build on that.
Charles Borkhuis is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and essayist. His 7 previous collections of poems include: Disappearing Acts [Chax Press 2014], Afterimage [Chax Press 2006], Savoir-fear [Spuyten Duyvil Press 2003], and Alpha Ruins [Bucknell University Press 2000], selected by Fanny Howe as a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Book Award. Dead Ringer [BlazeVOX] and Finely Tuned Static (with paintings by John McCluskey) [Lunar Chandelier] are forthcoming in 2017. His poems have appeared in 6 anthologies including: Dia Anthology: Readings in Contemporary Poetry 2010-2016 [Dia Art Foundation 2016], An Avec Sampler #2 [Avec Press 1998], Primary Trouble [Talisman House 1996], Writing From The New Coast: Presentation and Technique [o.blek Press 12, 1993]. His essays on contemporary poetics have appeared in two books published by the University of Alabama Press: Telling it Slant , We Who Love to Be Astonished . His work has appeared in numerous journals including: American Letters and Commentary, Avec, Big Bridge, BlazeVOX, Eoagh, First Intensity, Five Fingers, Jacket, New American Writing, o.blek, Ribot, Second Avenue Poetry, Skanky Possum, Talisman, Van Gogh’s Ear, Verse, and The World. He curated poetry readings for the Segue Foundation in NYC for 15 years. He translated New Exercises by Franck André Jamme [Wave Press 2008]. His plays have been presented in NYC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hartford, and Paris and have been published in Mouth of Shadows [Spuyten Duyvil 2000], The Sound of Fear Clapping [Obscure Press 2003], and Present Tense [Stage This 3, 2009]. His two radio plays The Sound of Fear Clapping and Foreign Bodies were produced for NPR [www.pennsound]. He is the recipient of a Drama-logue Award and the former editor of Theater:Ex [1986-1988], an experimental theater publication. His recent NY Productions include: Present Tense [Alchemical Theater Lab 2013], Barely There, Flipper [Harvest Works 2013], and Foreign Bodies [Center for Performance Research 2014]. He is the author of three feature-length screenplays: Irreparable Damage, Deep Divide, and Phase Change. He lives in New York City and has taught at Touro College and Hofstra University.
Tom Beckett’s most recent book, Appearances: A Novel in Fragments, is available from Moria: http://www.moriapoetry.com/beckettebook.pdf