Exchange on Vincent Katz’ Broadway for Paul (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020)

By Maarten Buser

Maarten Buser: Your new collection Broadway for Paul is a very different book than Southness (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016), which was very different from the one before that, Swimming Home, (Nightboat Books, 2015), but they are clearly by the same poet. That’s something that struck me, and it’s pretty cool. Broadway for Paul is sometimes a bit Whitmanesque, as in the wonderful opening poem “Between the Griffon and Met Life”; am I right?

I am totally enamored of every person passing in this unseasonably warm mid-March evening near 39th and Park

The young women, of course, with their lives in front of them, and the young men too, just standing here as I am, checking it out, hanging out, talking

But everyone here, every age, every type, is beautiful, the moment, somehow, the weather, has made them all real and for this moment, before it turns to night, they’re all fantastic

The light is such that I can see everyone and can imagine what they are imagining for the night ahead, what dreams, what fulfilled fantasies of togetherness

And the two guys who were here a moment ago, paused, have moved on, and the light is deepening, every moment or so, actually falling into a deeper stupor, which is night

But if I look south I still see the pink flush of desire there at the bottom, the southness of all our lives, and it’s okay that it’s darkening here, people accept it as they concoct plans for tonight, Thursday

Soon I’ll have to go too, lose this spot, this moment, but some we’ve met and some experience we had somewhere else is becoming ever more important
(3-4)

I really like how that poem sets the tone for the rest of the book: it’s a very enthusiastic poem, like the narrator just wants to absorb everything (kind of Whitmanesque), but then the melancholy sets in. And yet in the last poem in the book, “A City Marriage,” there’s melancholy and a lot of reflection on the past: mostly diving into the history and traces of slavery, but also the fight for LGBT rights. The poem ends with a kind of enthusiasm, with the promised new start of a wedding bouquet thrown in the air: “We can’t see who the lucky recipient is” (121). I had a moment of clarity yesterday, while brushing my teeth of course, that Broadway for Paul might be in a way a bit like Rilke’s Duino Elegies, in which he says: “Hiersein ist herrlich” (“To be here is delightful”) somewhere towards the end (but you know that, of course). Broadway for Paul starts with a being here that is blissful, but it moves in the other direction, toward the finiteness underneath the bliss. But it’s never downhill from there: the book is full of impressions, of liveliness and of melancholy, but very balanced.

Vincent Katz: You are right that Broadway for Paul is different from my previous books, though I think it might have something in common with a much earlier book, New York Hello! (Ommation Press, 1990), in which I tried to be very unguarded regarding my emotions. I remember at that time being impressed by the way Sir Walter Raleigh could craft his poems as formal structures that barely contained his raging feelings. The poems in the current book were all written since the usurpation of the U.S. presidency (which everyone is now paying for, so dearly). When that travesty occurred, I decided to write poems as nakedly as I could, with as few literary filters as possible. Of course, there is always artifice, and in fact, artifice is often what one comes to appreciate most in poetry, or maybe, the artifice combining with the thought and sentiment, locking in. All of the poems in Broadway for Paul are, in my way, and among other things, a response to the political climate.

I wasn’t thinking specifically of Whitman, but sure, he’s the papa of us all. He really starts the river of American poetry, which filters out into so many streams and tributaries. Or, you might say, Whitman and Dickinson represent two distinct foundations. It would be difficult to name many American poets who have not been influenced by Whitman. I like the person of Whitman a lot, and in small doses, the modern quality of his language and thought. In larger doses, he becomes diffuse for me, losing some sense of scale in his poetry. 

I think I was trying to continue a kind of breath that does connect back to the poems in Swimming Home — namely, one composed in short phrases, separated by commas. I often try to avoid the “normal” syntax of prose in my poems, and this comma-separated breath (in Swimming Home and in “Between the Griffon and Met Life,” for instance) felt fresh to me, a way of thinking and moving that did not remind me so much of other poets. 

What you write about enthusiasm and melancholy is interesting. I personally don’t find the ending of “Griffon” melancholy, but I can see that it might feel that way to some readers. For me, it is more about recognizing the continuity of life, and desire, until such time as those things can no longer continue. It is kind of a Stoic viewpoint, and also shares something with Buddhist thought. The attitude is one of accepting impermanence, feeling it, letting it enter. But then, being able to go on.

Likewise, in “A City Marriage,” I wouldn’t call it melancholy, but rather the tragedy of the early history of New York. Or maybe you mean the melancholy of a contemporary person wandering around in this area contemplating the past? 

I have a bi-lingual edition of the Duino Elegies, with translations by Edward Snow. I do like some of Rilke, and I appreciate the shifting quality in the Duino Elegies. There are moments of intense passion which remain oddly undefined. One definitely can have moments of bliss; it’s almost inevitable I think. My poems over the sequence of several books show a personality trying to come to terms with fleetingness, often just attempting to become aware, to focus on sights and sounds in a very physical way (an inheritance from Williams, Schuyler and others), while simultaneously paying attention to the sounds and rhythms of words.

Buser: I’ll have to let the stoicism sink in, I guess, but I think I understand what you’re saying about it. There’s a kind of acceptance in “Between the Griffon and Met Life” which is stoic, but to me it felt more like the acceptance after a bit of melancholy. It might be the Corona virus interpretation creeping into everything: the melancholy of not being able to see a lot of family or my friends, projected onto the poem. But I’m pretty sure there’s melancholy in “A City Marriage”: I mean, it zooms out, but there’s still someone walking these streets, thinking these things, noticing how the excitement of the wedding and the tragedy of the place clash with each other, right?

Katz: I can only see the poem with my own eyes and sensibility, but I am aware that other people may see other things in it, and I appreciate that. If they see them, they are there; and especially when it is someone like you, whose opinions on poetry I respect! When I look at “A City Marriage,” I remember writing it, over a number of days, while my wife was doing jury duty. I would walk her down to her jury location every day at around 7 am. Then I would buy a coffee and wander around that neighborhood. 

Part of my process is to have time, to walk around, look at things. Photographing even becomes part of it, as I wind my way back and around streets over days, seeing the same things from different angles, becoming familiar with the shortcuts and details, as someone who works in the area and is there every day might. People become familiar with places to buy lunch, parks in which to sit and eat, the specific look of old and new architecture, the shadows tall buildings make on public spaces, the way seasons and weather change the emotional atmosphere.

When I look at “A City Marriage,” all of that comes back to me — the process of writing it — and that is easily as pleasurable as the final product itself. In “Personism,” his mock-manifesto that really is a manifesto, Frank O’Hara makes the case that a phone call to someone can be an equivalent (even a substitute) for a poem written for that person. I don’t agree with that literally. And neither did he, by the way. In his statement for The New American Poetry: 1945-60, he wrote, “At times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me.” Writing poetry is an act of daily life.

The Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt predated O’Hara both in his love of the democratic randomness in New York’s midtown and in his requirement that art-making should be pleasurable and spontaneous. But pleasurable does not mean that it is giddy or eternally full of upbeat sentiment. It means something more like a physical engagement with the moment, a kind of exercise that is kinetic (Burckhardt likened it to a dance and said, when he was photographing in crowds, he often witnessed people barely avoiding collision) and also psychic. Another poet I should mention in this regard is James Schuyler, not so much for the urban context, though he has that, but for the intense concentration on surroundings he was able to maintain and evince in his poems. Often, his attention yields unexpected fruit, as when a baby suddenly appears, filling the window he is observing in his poem “February.” 

Something happens when attention is applied to surroundings. What that something is depends very much on the person applying the attention. In my case, I sometimes try to look back to historical contexts. I am fascinated by how things got to be the way they are today. In the case of “A City Marriage,” as I began looking more deeply into that neighborhood, Manhattan’s Civic Center, as it is now called, I realized both how quickly ideas about history can change and also the extent to which history may remain hidden under our feet.

Some of this history I already knew. I knew about the African Burial Ground, but I had never visited the museum devoted to it. I knew the art works by Lorenzo Pace and Beverly Pepper, and I am drawn to art works in public places, but I had never tried to write about these works. So another root to the kind of writing in “A City Marriage” comes from a different source altogether, geographically and psychologically distant from the New York School. I am referring to the tradition of Investigative Poetry.

I’ve been influenced by Charles Olson’s expansive vision of how to intermingle historical fact and daily observation. His crowning achievement, The Maximus Poems, still amazes me. I don’t always like reading it; the lists of materials and accounts of colonial times can be linguistically harsh. But I love the devotion in it; it made me want to go to Gloucester, the town featured in Maximus. People say this historicizing tradition began with Pound, but I’ve had a hard time engaging with The Cantos. I did love reading Williams’ Paterson, which is really the marker for The Maximus Poems. Olson was an important teacher, a gadfly figure, domineering at times and provocative. He was essential to the generation of poets who came of age in the 1960s, and one of his lessons was to learn as much as possible about a particular place and people.

Buser: You mentioned you wanted to write as nakedly as possible, given the political situation in the United States. I can see this in the first and third section of the book, which contain respectively the poems “Between the Griffon and Met Life” and “A City Marriage” we’ve spoken about above. But the second part of the book feels very different, with short, often very compressed poems, often with elliptical lines divided by commas. I’m thinking of poems like “Calligraphy at the Beach”:

Tonight, the same view,
But different, the light
Darker, different water
Has flowed, boats come,

Gone, shapes insistent,
Many more people now,
Hour of promenade,
Music, darkness, walking

Not much flirting, just
A way of life involving
Water, boats out there,
Food offering, perfume
(68)

How does this relate to the nakedness you spoke about? I wanted to ask you about the elliptical style before, by the way, because you also used that in your earlier book Southness, which provided a challenge when I translated poems from it. How did you develop this style? It feels American to me, but also a bit French; there’s a bit of Apollinaire and Cendrars in it; a bit of impressionism even.

Katz: I like your term “elliptical.” That feels very accurate to me as to what I am going for in writing certain poems. I used to think of it as “abstract.” I guess I meant a kind of poem that is difficult to parse into other language, that includes condensation (I love Pound’s Dichtung = condensare) and also some elision of subject matter. I’ve gone in for dispensing with syntax quite often, when it feels accurate to the experience. My rubric is to try to find language that feels close to the experience. Oftentimes, for me, that means leaving syntax behind. I like doing that, too, because very few poets, even those called experimental, have the nerve to leave hold of syntax. Maybe it can be a political act to deny its authority? I developed the style with phrases separated by commas about ten years ago, in poems like “A City Poem” and “Sidewalk Poem,” the last two poems in my book Swimming Home. I think some of the poems in the second section of Broadway for Paul may have grown out of those, but the ones in Broadway for Paul are more clipped in their expression and also in their look. Whereas “A City Poem” and “Sidewalk Poem” are indebted to a kind of expansiveness that one might say emulates the expansiveness one can feel in certain urban situations, the lines in the shorter poems feel quieter, more hermetic.  It’s important to note that the poems in section 2 of Broadway for Paul were inspired by the work of Paul Resika, an American painter who was born in New York some 92 years ago and still lives there and in Cape Cod. (See: https://www.booksteinprojects.com/artists/paul-resika?view=slider#15 )

His paintings are evocative to me of moments that derive from a seen experience but then are transformed into something mythical. We met in the mid-1970s, when I was a teenager. He was spending the summer teaching at the Skowhegan School in Maine, and we drove over with some friends to see him. He found out I was a poet, and we spoke for about 10 minutes. I discovered he liked Shelley. He asked me who I was reading. I might have said Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold, or William Carlos Willams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations. That conversation always intrigued me, and 40 years later, I decided it was time to look Paul up. We bonded again over poetry. He invited me to his studio, and we had a number of conversations while looking at his paintings.

The titles of the poems in that section come from titles of a series of gouaches Paul did at the beach on Cape Cod in the early 1990s. I like the way he gives these ordinary scenes of people on the beach a timeless quality. Part of that, I felt, was in the titles. To talk about the poems themselves, some have more or less normal punctuation, sometimes as a way to rein in the impulses. There is a kind of elision occurring there. I’m thinking of poems like “Four Notes,” “Family,” “Smoke,” and “Four Women.” When you get to “Six Figures, Fire,” something different starts to happen, and part of it is engendered, or encouraged, by the minimal use of punctuation; significantly, no periods. This continues in “Yellow Towel,” “Encounter,” “Calligraphy at the Beach,” and “Arabesque.” The poems in section 2 were written in a range of different places, and I recall them vividly when I read the poems. I feel location is an essential element in these poems, even when not specified within the poem itself.

To answer the last part of your question, I have indeed been influenced by the fluidity of both Apollinaire and Cendrars, the compression in their poems, and the casual charm that draws attention away from their poems’ astounding artifice. Something similar happens in the paintings of the Impressionists, Monet especially, but also Sisley and Pisarro. The views they chose to depict often seem nondescript, but through close attention and a relaxed style, they created a new kind of landscape. I’ve been influenced in a different way by Manet, his idea of style and his striking manner of presenting people.

Buser: There’s a directness in Resika’s art: not much detail, but very dynamic: a brushstroke could be a person, a cloud or the sea. Maybe you could call it a kind of elliptical painting. Did you try to emulate things you admire in Resika’s paintings in your poems, did you perhaps feel a kinship, or both? I mean, you did talk a lot with him about poetry, so I feel there’s a bit of an overlap between the arts here to begin with.

Katz: It’s funny, because I only got to know Paul personally quite recently, so it’s not as though we’ve been speaking about these things for years. In terms of his art, I would see it, but I can’t say that it influenced me. Rather, I would say it stuck in my mind. There is something metaphysical about his images that stays with me. He uses color in a very particular way; it is strong and willful. It’s as if he imposes his will on a scene. A lot of his paintings don’t attempt to make things look the way we think they look in real life; in that sense, he is not a realist, although he does use recognizable images. 

I feel as though we both share a passion for the arts, for the arts of poetry and painting, but also for music. You could say we overlap in the classics. But to answer your question, no, I did not try to emulate, at least consciously, anything in Paul’s paintings. I think I was looking for another way of looking at the world, of being an artist, than the ones I was familiar with. And Paul fit in with that. The memory of our meeting some 40 years earlier also held a powerful pull for me.

The larger question, of overlap of the arts, is important to me. I’ve done collaborations with a number of visual artists, also with some musicians, and with writers. I’m currently collaborating with poet and critic Andrei Codrescu on a piece we are calling “A Possible Epic of Care.” Visual artists, in particular, hold a certain allure, as they come from a very different way of making art. Their materials are not necessarily language! Whereas, for the poet, they are. Which is not to say that we poets are bound to the inherited meanings and inflections of words we use, but we should take them into account. 

Regarding the book, Broadway for Paul, I liked having the Resika section in the middle of the book; it gives some breathing room to the poems in the first and third sections, which involve a lot of walking around the city and looking and hearing. The poems in section two may be more metaphysical, although they too relate directly to experience. They were written in various locales, unlike the city poems, which were mostly written in New York City. The section two poems came from a chapbook I published with Paul’s gallerist, Lori Bookstein, entitled Figures of Beach and City: Visits with Paul Resika (Libellum/Bookstein Projects, 2018). It includes, in addition to the poems, a selection of my photographs of Paul’s studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It also includes a short prose piece, in which I describe my meetings with Paul.

Buser: The theme’s been brought up a few times already during this exchange, but I’d like ask you about the role of place(s) in your poems. The book ends with a Notes section that lists books and magazines in which the poems were previously published and also where and when they were written – for example “Between the Griffon and Met Life”: March 10, 2016 (Poetry Foundation website, PoetryNow, 2017). You end the general introduction to the specific notes with this sentence: “When not specified, poems were written in New York City” (125). I can frankly say I’ve never read a book before that lists the locations in which the poems were written so extensively. But you also seem to have a dynamic notion of place: the poems include people mentioned by their (first) name, John Ashbery, Rudy (Burckhardt), Morgan (Russell), there’s a lot of movement, as you said, and there are references to the weather and other temporary effects on the place that can connect to the time of the year, as in “Year’s beginning, warm, sunlight on leaves // Rainfall earlier cleared out but clouds / Returned’ (71). You also mention a lot of dates you sometimes give some information about – “9/16/17” is “Mexican Independence Day, if that has anything to do with it” (48) – but a lot of times not, especially in the diary-like poems. Places in particular play an important role. There’s the meditation on history in “A City Marriage”; there are both the observed city and a kind of air or atmosphere that is more personal that turns up in your poems. Such places are not only spatial, but also temporal or a kind of layered reality. Could you elaborate on this?

Katz: It’s interesting to think about where a poem was written — it often relates directly to the how of writing. One aspect of place is how it colors the poet’s mood. I noticed that the poems James Merrill wrote in Greece and other parts of Europe and the Middle East have a more energetic feel to them, whereas the ones he wrote in Connecticut seem somewhat drab, matching the social landscape visible from his window. Of course, the imagination is a great way to escape reality, and many poets avail themselves of it as a way to find inspiration. I prefer to find inspiration in the observation of people and objects.

Looking at the poems in Broadway for Paul, one can see from the Notes that most of the poems in the first section of the book were written in New York City. “Between the Griffon and Met Life” states in its title where it was written. The next poem in the book, “This Beautiful Bubble,” was written in the subway. There are poems written in Grand Central Station, the Metro North railroad on my way to New Haven (when I was teaching at Yale), and other locations in the city, near the river, for instance, a location I often go to in search of a poem, almost as if I’m hunting for one.

The second section of the book contains poems mostly not written in New York City: there are poems written in Lincolnville, Maine; Chicago; an island off the coast of Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil; São Paulo. But the poems in this section are also influenced by the titles and imagery of Paul Resika’s gouaches set on the beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 

The third section of the book returns to poems set in New York City, but with a different tone, maybe more melancholic, to use your word. I think of them as perhaps aware, in the Buddhist sense, of the sadness that is a recurring factor of living and dying —  with, I’d like to suggest, the potential for happiness, “shards of delight” or, as I put it, at the end of the poem “Alone”: “But there’s still desire and glee.”

Then there are poems of benediction in this final section: the long poem to my friend Morgan, the poem to Isaac, “City Marriage”. There are five poems written in Lincolnville that one might say are meditations on impermanence, followed by “A Quiet Zone,” which is a poem of return to the city, albeit the urban bucolic of Central Park.

Frank O’Hara liked to compose within the flux of social activity, at a cocktail party or in a typewriter showroom. Other poets need complete silence or isolation from other human activity in order to write. Poets who bring in a very clear sense of where they are as an integral part of their poetry include James Schuyler and Edwin Denby. I write a lot of poetry actually on the street, or out and about in the city, on subways or in parks. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life as it is lived on a daily basis.

***

Vincent Katz has lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for much of his life, where he often writes his poems on the streets and avenues. He is the author of the poetry collections Broadway for Paul, Southness and Swimming Home, as well as the book of translations The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. He is the editor of Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, and his writing on contemporary art and poetry has appeared in Art in America, ARTnews, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. As curator of the “Readings in Contemporary Poetry” series at Dia:Chelsea, Katz edited the anthology Readings in Contemporary Poetry.

Maarten Buser is a Dutch poet and art critic, who made his debut with the poetry collection Club Brancuzzi (2016). His poems, essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in a variety of art, literary and cultural magazines and websites, including the English language online journal the low countries. Some of his work was translated in English and French. To be published later this year is the art monograph Geertje van de Kamp in Japan, een Nederlandse kunstenaar in Azië (“Geertje van de Kamp in Japan. A Dutch artist in Asia”). He has translated poems by Vincent Katz to Dutch, as well as poems by Robert Polito, Jana Prikryl, Ian McLachlan and Ander Monson (upcoming).

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