Interview: Clayton Eshleman

Bug: Unlike many poets, your poems cannot be easily divided. Themes, allusions, and images constantly return in them like recurring chords in a jazz solo. This got me wondering, do you see the poem as the destination of a poet’s journey or as the map tracing the imagination’s quest for greater comprehension?

Clayton: While I am aware that since the late 1970s, images associated with the Upper Paleolithic crop up occasionally in my poetry, and that for many years civil materials, pertaining to the American government with its nose in everyone’s business, are always just around the corner, I would like to think that I do not reuse the same images. As for your question, the response would have to be: both. Map and destination. A lifework is a map filled with destinations, a map that is also a palimpsest. My poetry is also contoured with evocations of material from poems I have translated by Vallejo, Artaud, and Césaire.

Bug: Is the imagination a physical entity?

Clayton: No more than Satan is. I believe that imagination is the central function of man and the basis of all art.   In poetry imagination is a kind of conductor who directs not only the orchestra but the pit, mediating between the critical faculty and spontaneous subconscious input. A mental dance, as it were, which also includes the handling of dead ends, blocks, and what the alchemist Fulcanelli calls, “the bitter conflict at the center of the labyrinth.”

In the creative process, one is in the dark much of the time, and of course the end product can never be seen until it is suddenly upon one. Therefore I think the writing of poetry corresponds to being in a labyrinth. At the point I enter the poem, I leave the material world of my workroom and enter a multifoliate maze of decision making which at some point either realizes itself or peters out. This would be that “bitter conflict,” when the Minotaur is defeated or destroys the operation. Then: one must get out. This is closure.  I like to end a poem with a line or two that completes the process and could also be the beginning of a new undertaking.

Bug: Over the years it seems that your poetry has become increasingly political. I am thinking of bitterly funny lines in Under World Arrest and An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire such as: 

           “‘Norman our huggable Desert Storm Teddy Bear. . .

            plush and loveable. . .ready to storm into your home

            and right into your heart'”

 Is there a motivation behind this increasing political engagement?

Bug: The complete stanza from which your quotation comes is as follows:

                      “Wipe out the trauma of war

                        Turn it into entertainment

                        The Disneylands on which our fancy feeds

                        ‘Norman our huggable Desert Storm Teddy Bear…

                        plush and loveable… ready to storm into your home

                        and right into your heart’”

I had come across an ad from The House of Tyrol (a direct mail Georgia retailer) for a Teddy Bear based on “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War. I think the complete stanza is self-explanatory.

I have felt for many years that one “wing” of my poetry must be written by someone let’s call Citizen Eshleman, who reads and listens to the news, and suffers the impotence of not being able to directly interfere with the overseas horrors our government has been perpetrating since the late 1940s. I think that this “wing” must be a accommodated with  other “wings,” must not be allowed to take over, and must not turn into agenda-speak. That is to say, it must remain part of my imaginal process at large.

 In the 1940s, nearly all major American poets writing at that time failed to respond to the opening of the Nazi death camps (Reznikoff and Oppen are the primary and noble exceptions). And no one to my knowledge wrote about our failure to bomb the camps or to provide haven for fleeing Jews.

I would like for someone reading my poetry fifty years from now to see that I was actively engaged as a citizen in my work.

Bug: My co-editor once said to me, “I like how Clayton makes up words in his poems. They’re very striking.” We got to talking and wondered if you felt that language is unsuited for the deep psychic explorations in your poetry?

 Clayton: I would like to think that all levels of language, from the arcane, the archaic, the scientific, the vulgar, and the made up, are welcome, at any particular moment, in the poem. I do this very spontaneously. The made up occurs when a more conventional expression seems trite or misleading. I think the poet must have real respect for language and no respect for it at all.  One role of poetry is to keep language rich, unpredictable, and spontaneously adhesive to the heat of the moment in composition. I am most interested in what happens to my mind as it pokes, sniffs, roots about, bumps into, sails through the resistance and release of language.

Over the past couple decades, I have written many poems responding to art or artists. In a poem called “Michaux, 1956” I make up some words to evoke in language images in Henri Michaux’s drawings in which one cannot tell if the lifeless is squirming alive, or a living organism is in its death throes. Thus the following line:

                           “Black sand dense on white ground. Mites. Mites in mitosis. Mito-

                            chondria. Misible mites. Mitomitosalchondrialmaze.”

Bug: Unlike many translators, you develop complex and involved relationships with the poets you translate. For example, your decades-long devotion to giving César Vallejo’s warped Spanish a proper English voice is truly astounding. Do you see translation as a sort of apprenticeship? If so, what do you learn along the way?

 Clayton: A good answer to this question can be found in “A Translation Memoir,” which follows my translation of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo.

While I was living in Kyoto, Japan, in 1963, my friend Will Petersen, a lithographer, visited one afternoon and told of having just left a Bonsai gardener who, he said, was now doing wonderfully inventive work. For some reason, I asked Will: “How old is he?” Will responded that the man was in his early 70s—and that he had only recently completed his apprenticeship! Such information set me back on my heels. At that time I was a 28 year old who, like millions of other young Americans, thought that, with some luck, and ingenuity, I could make a name for myself in art. Will’s story led me to the realization that I too was going to have to go through an apprenticeship if I really wanted to count on poetry to guide my life. So I rather impulsively decided that I should commit myself to the toughest poetic task I knew about at that time: a translation of the eighty-nine poems that made up Vallejo’s 1939 European collection of poetry, Poemas humanos.  I intuited that I would learn something from attempting to translate the Poemas humanos that I could not get elsewhere. And I also thought of my work as a potential offering to others who did not have access to the original Spanish.

Blake writes somewhere that the most divine act is to set another before you. One does this in love, and Whitman proposes that adhesive love, the love of comrades, is deeper and of greater human service than romantic love. In my translational apprenticeship I set Vallejo before me—as gate, and as obstacle. He has become my adhesive poet comrade for my whole writing life.

Also, in 1963 I did not know how to proceed, in poetry, on my own. By working on Vallejo I worked on myself in a way that I could not at that time do directly. Of course, given my distress and the translational difficulties I faced, at times I thought that by working on Vallejo that I was evading working on myself. Vallejo was my wall. By slowly burrowing through that wall, by not going over or under it, I positioned his work in my being (and also turned him into a figure in my own poetry).

Bug: Who would you choose as a bodyguard down a dark alley, Vallejo or Artaud?

 Clayton: Actually, I would probably choose my friend Mark Moore, who is a black belt in Aikido, or poets Hugh Seidman and André Spears who are black belts in Karate. Vallejo would be useless as a bodyguard. Artaud would undoubtedly scream so hideously the assailant would scram. Or I might enlist Wallace Stevens, who I understand held his own in a drunken fist-fight with Hemingway once in Florida.

Bug: I was wondering if we could talk about your long-time research in the Upper Paleolithic cave art in France. What’s it like being in those ancient caves? Do you feel a connection to our ancestors when face to face with their art? What’s your favorite cave and why?

 Clayton:  Frustrating is the first word that comes to mind for being in many of the Ice Age painted caves in France open to the public. Why? Because one is always with a guide, who has been in the cave hundreds of times before, and for whom being in the cave is just another job. There are a few exceptions, like Jean Pierre Vanzo, at Font-De-Gaume, who is clearly moved by being there, and draws the tourists in to a focused reading of the beautifully-conceived bison there. And of course the grand exception would be Jacques Marsal, one of the 1940 discoverers of Lascaux. Marsal stayed on to become the principle caretaker and guide of the cave (until the late 1980s when he became ill and died).

My first grand experience in an ensouled Upper Paleolithic cave was in fact Lascaux in the spring of 1974. I was completely unprepared for the impact of The Rotunda, the crystalline-white walls of which are covered with polychromatic aurochses, ponies, and stags.  Marsal led us down into this area, in the dark, and told us to stand there for a few moments. He then turned the dim lights on, and we were suddenly surrounded by this cavalcade of creatures which in their own way remind me of the animals encircling the pond with bathing maidens in the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Much of the art of Lascaux must have been planned in advance with specially heated ochre and manganese minerals, and executed by trained artists.  

I like the Combarelles cave a lot too. There furrowed elephant-hide-like walls are covered with some 600 often crude engravings, including 50 or 60 humanoids. I say “humanoids” instead of “humans,” since most are sketchy and extremely grotesque, and give the impression, unlike the animals in Lascaux’s Rotunda, of being done in the dark by ordinary men, women, and probably children, responding to the stimulation that sensory isolation in caves can create.

Bug: In Juniper Fuse, you mention how Rimbaud’s attempts at finding the unknown “I” were aesthetic rather than psychological. That got me thinking, do you believe that most modern writers have used the novelty of aesthetic innovation to avoid probing deeply into the soul? In other words, a change of thought presentation instead of a change of thought? 

 Clayton: For readers who are interested, my comments about Rimbaud and others are on pp. 82-83 of Juniper Fuse.

My point there is that while Rimbaud sought to make himself into a seer, his journey did not involve the sort of interior dismemberment that at least some shamanic novices go through. I think aesthetic innovation can involve “probing deeply into the soul,” but that modern and contemporary poets do not gain access to “the unifying womb of things,” which, to me, suggests tapping into the tribal subconscious with archetypal formations that have been experienced by medicine men/women or shamans in the past. One must also keep in mind here that artists are obsessed with a product, a much different goal than that of a novice shaman.

I think of Blake at this point. He might be the grand exception here, in as much as he seems to have determined that the old mythical universe was dead and that a new set of myths had to be constructed to accommodate revolutionary shifts in the mind. This meant new gods and goddesses, and nothing less than the invention, with some Biblical aid, of a personal cosmogonic mythology. From a shamanic point of view, Blake attempted to redirect “the tribal subconscious” into a vast re-visionary network that he believed responded to the psychological and social world he lived in.

Bug: How can the poet learn to abandon the ego?

 Clayton: Rimbaud makes another appearance. His “somebody else” is a more dimensional sense of the ego, complexed with material from his subconscious.  I would propose that one reason we may feel that a particular poet’s work is great is because he comes at us with more heft and metaphoric density than we associate with daily ego-oriented consciousness. To say that a great poet dreams awake suggests that he is able, in composition, to draw upon his subconscious, and in that way brings to bear on writing irrational formations.

However, “dreaming awake” is not quite right, because when we dream we are passive receptors (very few people, in my experience, are able to direct their dreaming while they are asleep). I would like to think that the full blast no holds barred version of “somebody else” involves a multifoliate traffic between all of a poet’s mental states, including rational scrutiny of this traffic as he directs it and picks it off while aligning it.

Bug: Why do you think some artists shy away from their deepest, darkest work? I am thinking of Neruda here, how he went from being the poet of submerged darkness in Residence on Earth to the poet of perpetual light in the later odes.

Clayton: Interesting you bring up Neruda here. He was on my mind too, while I was completing the poems in An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire.

Based on what I know of his poetry, the first two Residencias en la tierra are the most mysterious and engaging works of his career. However, I find them more moody than “dark”. In the third Residencia, much of which is compelled by the Spanish Civil War, one sees Neruda moving toward “universal voice,” or “voice of the people,” a perspective that reaches its peak in certain sections of Canto general.  At the point Neruda merges his voice with that of the common man, or makes that claim, I begin to back off, and suspect that a doctrinal agenda is right around the corner.

Which turns out to be true, for the longest of Neruda’s poems, published a few years after the 1950 Canto general, is Las uvas y el viento, a dreadfully superficial work that includes birthday songs to Stalin (this in the early 1950s!).

The “perpetual light” you refer to in the Odas (all three volumes of which were also published in the 1950s) continues the journalistic poetry of Las uvas y el viento, but the focus has shifted to common things, such as socks, tomatoes, conger eels, onions, and César Vallejo. I think, keeping your terms in mind, that politics knocked the brooding darkness out of Neruda.  Politics forced him to the social surface and though he occasionally wrote fine poems in the 50s and 60s (“Sueños de Trenes” from Estravagario is one of them) he never regained the dream-like, metaphoric thickness one finds in the first two Residencias.

Neruda is of course just one example. Very, very few poets can hang in there with “their deepest, darkest work” for very long. Baudelaire and Artaud are among the few exceptions.

Bug: Will it be possible for modern humans to reconnect with their origins?

 Clayton: It depends on how you mean “reconnect.”  The writings of the anthropologist Wade Davis are saturated with articulated experience based on contact with tribal and nomadic peoples. At the same time, Wade lives in Washington, and works for the National Geographic Institute as an “Explorer-in-Residence.”

Your question, however, seems more aimed at humankind than at any particular person (I thought of Wade Davis because he is, in my estimation, a marvelous bridge figure between many different worlds). In that sense, I would say no. Humankind is drugged on the conveniences associated with modernity and religion and, like lemmings, we will follow them right over the cliff. Let’s see what we do without oil—that might be a good test of how much regenerative stuff we have left in us.

Bug: You and your wife Caryl seem to have a close working relationship. How has she affected your work and vice versa?

Clayton: I began to read things I was working on to Caryl in 1973 and by the late 70s she had become a terrific responder, orally and textually, to what I was attempting to do as a poet and essayist. She has functioned as my editor now for many years, and because of her input I have repeated myself less than I would have without her. She has made me a more careful reader of my own work and has constantly noticed botches and glitches in drafts and in revisions. My poetry owes her more than I can express.                                                       

Because of certain health problems, Caryl has not had the energy to pursue an art of her own. So she has very generously offered me imaginative input that under different circumstances would have been channeled into her own workings.

One of the ways in which I have responded to her gifts to me, is by helping her do certain things, from grocery shopping to shopping for clothing. For many years I have also done, with the exception of desserts, all the cooking.

Bug: You’ve mentioned to me that you and Caryl will be going on another trip to France to continue your cave explorations. What do you hope to accomplish on this trip?

 Clayton: We don’t really explore caves anymore. With the exception of a visit I made to the recently discovered (and magnificent) Chauvet cave at the beginning of 2005, my exploratory work ended in the 1990s, at the time I finished my research on Juniper Fuse. These days we visit caves we have been in many times with the small groups we take to the Dordogne and Lot regions, every June, sponsored by the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota. We enjoy these trips. They enable us to return to southwestern France and help others appreciate what I have come to call “the back wall of imagination” (there will be a long essay on the researching and writing of Juniper Fuse in the September issue of APR).

The commercial scene is much greater in Les Eyzies de Tayac, the town we always stay in, than it was in the 1970s when I began my research. What was then a sleepy village with a single street and a half dozen stores now has a tourist focus , with pizza joints, rock shops, boutiques, souvenir stands etc. The new regional prehistory museum is expected to bring in a half million people per year.

However, the ancient Dordogne can still be sensed in spite of these changes—especially the magnificent rock walls that line the Vézère River and the town. They are the place’s signature and probably the force, along with the images in the caves, that made me feel, in the late 1980s (when I finally got my cave book in focus), that I had come home, had found my true home there.  So when I am in the Dordogne, I try to see around the tourists and shop-keepers and keep focused on those primordial images that changed my life.

Bug: What other new projects are on the horizon for Clayton Eshleman?

Clayton: A new collection of essays, prose poems, notes, and interviews will be published this coming October by Black Widow Press as Archaic Design.

Because this has been a big year for readings—I did around fifty between November 2006 and April 2007—I have not tried to finish many new poems. I have a lot of things in drafts that I want to spend the summer with after we return in late June from France. Some examples:

   –poems contemplating bizarre figures on Mayan vases (based on Justin and Barbara Kerr’s marvelous roll-out photos);

   –a work on tent caterpillars;

   –a word sarcophagus for my mother;

   –working with notebooks filled with jottings made in the three major Madrid museums (2006) and the British Museum (2007);

   –a poem to be called “Tjurunga,” in which I create my own out of my foundational experiences as a poet (the idea for which came from Barry Hill’s book: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession).

I have been thinking about expanding my translation of Artaud’s writings from his 1945-48 period, Watchfiends & Rack Screams, to include additional texts published in Conductors of the Pit and Sulfur #9.

There is an Eshleman Reader in the works for Black Widow Press in 2008. This will mean re-reading a great deal of what I have written and translated, and selecting around 350 pages of poetry, essays, and translations.   

Over the past two years I have been assembling pieces from Sulfur magazine for “A Sulfur Anthology.” I am sure no press is going to publish an anthology of more than 600 pages, yet at this point the smallest compilation I am happy with, based on Sulfur’s 11,000 pages, comes to 2000!