An interview with poet-translator Peter Valente by Neeli Cherkovski

Let the Games Begin: Five Roman Poets

  Talisman House, Publishers (2015)

Peter Valente was born in Salerno, Italy and grew up in New Jersey. He attended Stevens Institute of Technology, earing a degree in electrical engineering, but was already committed to a life in poetry. His first collection of poems is Forge of Words a Forest (Jensen Daniels 1999). He began publishing in many literary journals, including "Mirage" and "Talisman." He began making films and doing photography as well. The films have been shown at Anthology Film Archives. Peter went on to translate Luis Cernuda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Nanni Balestrini, Sandro Penna, and Antonin Artaud. His recent work on the five Roman poets will be followed by the publication of his co-translation of 33 late letters of Artaud (1945-1947). (NC)

Neeli Cherkovski: You were born in Salerno a beautiful port city south of Naples. It has been the focal point of many poets. Can you tell me when you left for the U.S.? What were the circumstances? Is it partially because of your Italian heritage that you have begun conversations with Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of my favorite poets, and Sandro Penna? I have read many Pasolini translations and some of my poems for him are translated into Italian. My friend George Scrivani did a selection of Penna for the Hanuman series. He describes him as “the quiet one.” You do versions- how does this differ from translations?

Peter Valente: As a matter of fact, Jack Hirschman was very happily surprised to hear that I was born in Salerno and told me that his work was not only very well received there but that he reads there every year. His large collection of poems, The Arcanes, was also published in Salerno by Multimedia Edizioni! And the 100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference for 2015 was held in Salerno in June. I had no idea that my birthplace was a center of so much poetic activity!
My parents came to America in 1972 because of economic reasons. They saw better opportunities in America, as is usually the case with immigrants who come to this country. I was two years old at the time. My father primarily spoke Italian in the household yet my mother was fluent in both Italian and English as was my brother who was born here. I would have lost my ability to speak and read Italian if it was not for my father but I also studied Italian in high school and college.
My interest in Pasolini and Penna does stem in part from my Italian heritage but I also decided to translate them simply because I found them to be very powerful poets in their own right. I came to Pasolini through his films, when I was in college, and only recently, two years ago in fact, decided to translate him. I was interested in those works that slipped through the cracks, like his poems to Ninetto Davoli from the seventies that show Pasolini alternating from extreme anger to resignation as a result of Davoli’s marriage. I translated about thirty of them. They are some of his most intensely lyrical poems. I first encountered Penna while reading a biography on Pasolini. He is a very different kind of poet, a minimalist whose work is candid, uncluttered, and unpretentious. I remember thinking of Penna as a kind of impressionist who, with a quick stroke of the pen, captured a fleeting moment or sensation. And what really struck me when I saw a video of him reading was his conversational style. I was aware of the Hanuman book but I can’t say that I let any of the previous translations influence me too much. I like “the quiet one” as a description of Penna. His life as a poet was punctuated by numerous silences, as in the sixties, during which time he wrote very little. Pasolini and he were close friends and it was in part Pasolini’s support that brought Penna’s work to the attention of a larger audience; as a result he eventually won both the Le Grazie literary Prize and the Premio Viareggio prize, two important Italian literary awards, the latter judged by Ungaretti himself.
In literal translations it is generally assumed that the translator should aspire to become invisible; he must limit any personal gesture from going too far. But for me translation involves a deeply personal and sustained involvement with the author’s work. For example, when I was creating versions of Artaud I merged my own language with his. In his response to the work, Jerome Rothenberg clarified the difference between a version and a literal translation. The versions were at once “commentary,” “extension,” and “a legitimate form of othering.” Spicer’s Lorca, Schmidt’s Rimbaud, Logue’s Homer, and Rodefer’s Villon all represent radical approaches to translation and although my work differs from theirs, they were a source of inspiration. You might say I’m working in the Poundian tradition of “criticism by translation” where the spirit of the work is more important than semantic fidelity.

Neeli Cherkovski:That’s really a great view on translation. I feel as if our one human tongue loves to reconnect on so many levels. Please talk more about Pasolini, poet, filmmaker and humanitarian par excellence. How about Pasolini as an heir to Leopardi? Is that too easy? Who are some of the Italian translators you admire? You are having these conversations with so many poets. Can you talk more about Penna, so concise a poet, so different than Pasolini. Then we have Antonin Artaud, different language, wild mind, a true heir to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. How do you come to his work?

Peter Valente: I remember the first Pasolini film I saw was “Teorema.” I don’t remember where but it must have been some time in the late 90s. Soon I had seen all of Pasolini’s films. I admired them for their poetic images, their provocative themes, and the surprising way he made use of artists like Giotto and Masaccio; the manner in which he framed faces or group scenes in particular films, like “Oedipus Rex,” reminded you of Renaissance paintings. His “Trilogy of Life” is impressive for its sheer scope and for Pasolini’s daring ambition in re-interpreting for the screen three classics of world literature, The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and, my favorite among them, The Arabian Nights. This last film is Pasolini’s consummate poem in cinematic terms. And then there is, of course, “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” which is a film that is a real change for Pasolini both in subject matter and more importantly in aesthetic terms. It is his masterpiece.
My interest in Pasolini’s films led me to investigate his poetry. Pasolini was very prolific, not only as a poet but as a critic. Throughout his life, in his poetry, in his critical essays, in his films, he was an outspoken critic of what he saw was destroying Italy. For example, he attacked the Church because he believed it was no longer an independent religious organization but indistinguishable from the State, serving the same interests while ignoring the people. He saw the people changing, adopting consumerist, bourgeois, values in favor of a more modern, European sensibility. He envisioned a different world, a world outside of time and space, pre-historical; it was a world that had the epic quality of myth. In the posthumous publication, The Lutheran Letters (1976), which contains some of his last writings, Pasolini indicts the Christian Democrats for corruption, the Communists for their acceptance of consumerism, and the Italian youth for blindly allowing fashion and possessions to gain primary importance over real values. The last essay in that volume is a call to all men to fight against the “invisible power” that was taking control of Italy: “Against all this you need only, I believe, do nothing other than continue simply to be yourselves; which means to be constantly unrecognizable. To forget at once the great successes and to continue, unafraid, obstinate, eternally contrary; to demand, to will, to identify yourselves with all that is different – to scandalize and to blaspheme.”
I think it’s useful to see Pasolini as an heir of Leopardi since both men were, in their time, misunderstood by their contemporaries; both were eclectic and multifaceted in their talents; both were mistrusted by conservatives; but I think Pasolini remains such a unique figure in recent Italian history that he is almost without any literary precedent. In this respect, I think the following quote by Antonio Negri is worth repeating: “If you go to France to speak of Sartre, you don’t simply speak of him as a great philosopher. You have to speak of him as a maître à penser, a mentor. And Pasolini was a maître à penser, here, in Italy. The only one, mind you. There was no other. And this is incredible. Because in fact, in this mix that he created between poetry and filmmaking and journalism he functioned as a maître à penser. Take someone else, like Moravia, or Umberto Eco, etc. Nothing. Pasolini was an enormous figure – free, intelligent – who did what he wanted.”
Sandro Penna is not as well known in the U.S. as Pasolini and there are only a few translations available in English. And yet Pasolini was a great supporter of his work, claiming at one point that the Nobel Prize should have gone to Penna instead of Montale.
Penna was born in Perugia in 1906 but lived most of his life in Rome. He held numerous jobs, working as an accountant, an art dealer, a translator and a proofreader, but he resisted steady employment and devoted himself primarily to writing poems. The Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi was important to him as a young man as well as André Gide and Arthur Rimbaud. At one point he writes, “Rimbaud has now really become my God”. As a young man he also read English writers such as Oscar Wilde and he writes that he, himself, is “one of those beings who, perhaps as Oscar Wilde says ‘are made for the exception, and not the rule’.
His first poems began to appear in 1929. During this time he met the poet Umberto Saba, who was very sympathetic to his work and encouraged the young poet. Montale, whom Penna met in the early 30s, was very different from Saba. He was highly critical of Penna’s work whereas Saba was more generous. Montale would not fully support those aspects of Penna’s work that he objected to, namely, the homosexual content. Saba, on the other hand, saw the modesty, and chaste quality of his poems and assured Penna that he would not encounter resistance. Sadly he was wrong. Montale told Penna to remove a number of poems from the manuscript he was preparing, because he felt the subject matter would be potentially offensive. This is the beginning of a rift in their friendship and soon all contact between them stops. Montale was clearly disturbed about the content of Penna’s poems and, in a letter to Saba, criticizes Penna, speaking, in reference to his homosexuality, of “a reputation that only someone who lives from private means can afford not to care about.” His first book is finally published in 1939. After eleven years of silence his second book, Notes, appears, and despite relative neglect on the part of the critics, the book was well received by Pasolini, who in later years became one of his most ardent supporters.
Penna and Pasolini were good friends and frequent companions; their bond was strengthened by their mutual love for young men. Penna was openly gay and when Pasolini first arrived in Rome in 1950 he sought him out to show him around. They both loved the same ragazzi that prowled the outskirts of Rome.
In 1956, his third book, The Strange Joy of Living, was published and Pasolini contributed a very favorable review. Critics also praised the book and Penna was awarded the Le Grazie literary Prize. A year later another volume appeared which collected Penna’s work up to that point as well as many unpublished poems, including the poems that Montale suggested he remove from the earlier manuscript. Among much controversy, but with Pasolini’s support, the book won the Premio Viareggio prize. More books followed over the years but as Penna’s reputation grew he began to withdraw into silence. He published very little in the sixties. His last book The Sleepless Traveler, which Penna had approved for publication, was published a month after his death. He died in Rome on January 21, 1977. I think Penna’s various silences and refusals to publish were his way of showing that he didn’t care about how his work was received in academic circles.
I’ve always admired Paul Vangelisti’s work as a translator and Jennifer Scappettone did some wonderful things with Amelia Rosselli. I also like what Jack Hirschman has done with Pasolini. But I think the idea of a “civic poet” still dominates, to a certain extent, the vision of Pasolini in America. I’ve read some of Sartarelli’s translations and so far I like what he’s done; perhaps his recent volume will change that view a little. In my own work with Pasolini I focus more on his homosexuality and his ideas of God or the sacred, and almost all of the poems I’ve translated fall out of the accepted canon of his work. I wanted to break away somewhat from the political Pasolini.
My interest in Artaud began in college (’91 or ’92) where I encountered the City Lights Artaud Anthology. I took a class in modern literature and studied Artaud in the context of Surrealism. I remember the professor telling us that it was dangerous to study Artaud too closely because you could easily become obsessed and lose your mind! Something like that actually did happen to Colette Thomas, the young actress who met Artaud late in his life. Nevertheless, that was enough of a lure for me in my early 20’s to start investigating Artaud’s work. Of course, at the time, I conceived of him as a visionary madman, or shaman, very much in the tradition of Rimbaud. It was an image that the City Lights anthology seemed to encourage; nothing wrong with that. The Helen Weaver / Susan Sontag Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, which came out later, was a massive volume of his writings that added greatly to my understanding of Artaud. The anthology Watchfiends and Rack Screams, edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman, came out in the late 90s and was also an important volume. Nevertheless, I have always been very fond of David Rattray’s translations from the City Lights edition. He was one of the first translators and I still think one of the best.
And so I was thinking about and reading Artaud for many years before I decided to translate him. Over the past few years, with the DVD release of the film, “My Life and Times with Artaud” and more importantly the documentary that came with it, “The True Story of Artaud le Mômo,” I became interested in doing something, perhaps an essay, or a short film (which I actually did complete).
By this time I had been reading Stephen Barber’s important work on Artaud which helped me to understand more about Artaud’s life; his friends, his doctors, his life in the various asylums etc. I became interested in Artaud, the man, apart from the idea of him as a visionary or shaman, which is certainly also very interesting. But this concern with biography is what drew me to his late letters, from 1945-1947, thirty-three of which I translated with a friend. They are fascinating, and show, among other things, that there was a kind of continuity to his thought. I don’t mean a complete world-view but rather extensions and clarifications of ideas going as far back as the Theater and its Double. I’ve also just completed a series of essays dealing with the various themes that come up in the letters. The first of five essays can be found at http://www.talismanmag.net/valente--artaud.html.
The Artaud Variations was written in 4 months in a house in upstate NY in 2013. I wrote every morning, well into the afternoon, fueled by cup after cup of coffee. After a while I found myself “responding” to the sentences I was translating; Artaud’s sentences were starting to suggest to me my own, forcing me, somehow, to create alongside the translation, and soon my own writing merged with the translation. All the years thinking and reading and writing about Artaud, all the thoughts and conclusions and unanswered questions I had, suddenly worked their way into the translation. The Artaud Variations was also my first book in ten years. By this time I knew his work quite well.
It really did feel as though the book was waiting to emerge after all these years. At least that’s how it felt since the writing was very fast and I’m quite serious when I say that the manuscript was virtually unaltered. In fact, there was only a single word cut from the text at the last minute. It was that effortless. Finally, the result is not really a translation in any conventional sense of the word.

Neeli Cherkovski:Peter, we have talked of the conversations you have had with the deep past. In your work you have brought the Roman poets into the present time from long ago. As we have discussed, there was little holding back. Catullus and company did not need to mask unbridled sexuality as, for example, Walt Whitman did in Calamus and in Children of Adam. These poets were so graphic and felt no compunction in delving right into issues that were hidden, ignored, or masked until recent times. Harold Norse, Allen Ginsberg and other modern gay writers drew so much from those Latin wild men. What do you think allowed for such openness way back then? And how do you feel about what Whitman accomplished in his Calamus? I think Ginsberg reaches far with his poem, “Please Master,” which I consider a landmark. Where might poetry go with all of this? I think your work underscores the need for more frank appraisals of the human condition. We have discussed this one on one. So much poetry of today goes away from the body and turns from human emotions to a kind of essay mentality. And so, how do you feel about this?

Peter Valente: Well, the ancient Romans had no precise term for homosexuality or heterosexuality. In Ancient Rome the dichotomy with regard to sexuality was expressed as active (sodomy)/masculine and passive (fellatio)/feminine. Roman men were free to have sex with other males without any perceived loss of masculinity or social status, provided that they took the dominant role, which meant penetration. You can find the active / passive distinction still present in places as different as Mexico and the Middle East. So the emphasis was rather on the way the sexual act was performed and not on the act itself. In the Roman world a “feminine” man was looked down upon only because he was likely to be passive in a sexual encounter. So it would be wrong to think that gender played no part in the consideration of sexual desire or behavior. Instead, gender played a very different role than it does today, and distinctions were still made between men, or more accurately, between boys and women, as objects of desire. Nevertheless, gender is socially constructed, and in this sense women were considered less capable (whatever that means) than boys, who might have futures that women could not expect. The problem becomes more complex when you add slaves to the mix. For example, in the Roman era, a man might have a boy or woman slave whose duties might include sex.
The “Calamus Poems” are important since they were Whitman’s brave attempt, given the time period, to write about his homosexual desires. His altering of the manuscript, sometimes changing the word “male” to “female” to hide the fact that his desire was for a man, and cutting out poems that seemed too explicit, was really a choice dictated by circumstance. I mean there was very little information in the 19th America on the subject of homosexuality and this may have contributed to Whitman’s reticence about revealing the true nature of his desires. But Whitman’s daring move in favor of free speech, the liberation of human desires from the conventions of the time, was an important one, despite the resistance he encountered and as such the Calamus Poems are certainly a landmark text in the fight for gay rights of expression.
It is a very strange phenomenon here in the U.S. that, while the Internet contains countless images of a pornographic nature, and the media is flooded with sexual imagery, a high school teacher could be fired for reading a poem that contained homosexual subject matter. But this is what happened recently to an award-winning AP English teacher in Connecticut who read a homoerotic poem by Allen Ginsberg in his class. He was forced to resign after complaints about the sexually explicit nature of the work and about the way he handled the episode. The poem in question was in fact the one you mentioned, “Please Master”. The school claimed that it was inappropriate to expose high school students to this poem without alerting their parents of its sexual nature. Well, I think students in Advanced Placement courses in high school are destined to go off to college where they will encounter literature as challenging as this poem by Allen Ginsberg. And while military strength increases at our expense and greed runs rampant in corporate America, and while unemployment becomes a very serious problem as people are evicted from their homes every day, and while the number of dead children rises in Palestine, a high school teacher’s career is ruined because of an uproar concerning a poem whose sexual content happens to go against the prevailing idea of what is considered sexually “normal” in America. This country’s priorities are simply upside down! Sometimes I don’t think we have progressed very far at all in opening our minds and our hearts to acceptance rather than blind and ignorant rejection. I also think John Wieners’ “Memories of You” is a very powerful poem in the same way that Ginsberg’s is.
I think the writers of the Beat movement, such as Ginsberg, Burroughs and Norse really had something to fight against, like the rise of the suburban middle class in America in the 50’s, or later, the Vietnam War. I mean there was a kind of us / them mentality at work that was productive. Those poets opposed to the Vietnam War were united in their opposition. There was “A System” that these writers wanted to liberate themselves from. Often they had to leave America altogether to seek out pleasures and ways of expression that were prohibited in the U.S. Nowadays, and largely because of economic factors, most artists seek academic positions and are absorbed into an institutional bureaucracy where Phd programs are dominated by texts on critical theory. And here in the institution is where radical poetics ferments, with sophisticated theoretical constructs in the background. This is why so much poetry sounds like essays on theory, or are just too finely tuned for there to be any air left. Much poetry is really just too rarified to be of much use to anyone but other poets with the same academic background. So, this us / them distinction begins to dissolve when more and more poets join the Academy. Every poet ends up potentially being part of the System in one way or another! The poet Edward Field has diagnosed the problem in this way: he has said that when the ghetto i.e. cheap, affordable housing was no longer available to artists in the East Village, they left, and the sense of community was no longer possible. What price must the poet pay for working outside the academy?
Amiri Baraka’s a great example of a committed poet activist willing to go beyond language games; also, Ed Sanders. We have to start writing from the body again. So much poetry today turns away from human emotions towards, as you say, "a kind of essay mentality." I've been reading Pierre Guyotat, the contemporary French novelist and memoirist. Some of his early works were written while masturbating, and the sexual tension before ejaculation was a way for him to involve the body in the creation of a text. There is the example of Artaud and Pasolini and the films of Otto Muehl are also useful in this context. In 2010 I made a film called, “A Public Service Film”; I went out onto the streets of the East Village and New Jersey, and filmed gang members, former drug addicts, and the homeless. It was a dangerous and exhilarating project. I got very close, physically and emotionally, to men and women who were outcasts in society. In many ways it was a kind of erotic experience. I learned something about their way of being in the world, what their reasons were for opposing society, their desires; some let me film them and we opened up a dialogue.
My reason for translating Pasolini, Artaud, Penna, and the various writers from the Ancient World, is that, in one way or another, and to varying extents, their writings were centered on an exploration of the body. Filming helped me change my thinking about my own work, which, in my late 20’s, was somewhat abstract, by leading me out into the streets, where I involved myself in situations that demanded a dialogue or some form of intervention; I extended these practices to writing and the result was an interest in opening up conversations through translation, a dialogue with writers who were literary “outcasts”, and for whom the sexual body is an important subject.

Neeli Cherkovski:Peter, you mention Amiri. I just finished re reading those first two books of the dead lecturers and preface. Those two have had such a meaning for me as has much of his prose such as the system of Dante’s hell. I get swallowed in the polemics of the later Poetry. What about those early works? For me they stand as a high-end point of Pound/Eliot modernism. Your own poetry is interwoven with a postmodern bent no matter how far back you go because you are embracing so much. Did you have an early regard for Pound and Elliot? Who were your early influences? What bullets from the early days remain at your size? I suspect Catullus is one, but may be projecting?

Peter Valente: Sure, Baraka’s System of Dante’s Hell was an important one for me too, with its concerns about the negative psychological effects on African Americans as a result of America’s tendency to categorize according to race, gender, and class in a culture that is primarily white. Also, his Blues People: Negro Music in White America showed that he was a perceptive jazz critic. Then there this that wonderful early correspondence between Baraka and Dorn. Baraka dared to mix poetry with politics, a stance that was controversial and certainly had its critics. But with Baraka you at least knew where he stood, even though some of his statements may have been problematic. By contrast, much of contemporary “experimental” poetry seems complicit with the very forces it seems to be criticizing.
Not so much Eliot but Pound, yes. His ABC of Reading, Confucius to Cummings, his literary essays, the Cantos, and of course his translations were all important to me. His interesting and sometimes eccentric attempt to find correspondences between writers in various historical periods was fascinating. I see it as an early form of what we now call comparative literature. His determinations about what was worth reading and what was not, this approach to literature in terms of value, was useful to a young mind even though problematic. The Cantos contain great beauty and genuine lyrical power and it’s sad that it culminated in such pathetic nonsense. For this reason I think Pound is a tragic figure.
For me it was the translations, his Cavalcanti, old fashioned as it now seems, his Noh plays, and his Arnaut Daniel especially, which led to my discovering Paul Blackburn’s Proensa, a wonderful book that also had was an influence on the way I thought about translation. But there was also Pound’s love of Stendhal and Henry James that got me into their novels. I was also reading a lot of novels at the time, the Russians of course, but also Mann and Proust. I think Pound’s criticism of Shakespeare and preference for Chaucer is still an interesting argument. Pound was useful because he cast a very wide net over the literature of the world; through Pound I discovered many poets I would not have discovered otherwise. To a man in his early 20’s this was inspiring; Pound gave you a reading list, showed you how you could be a better reader, gave you the sense of how a poet might see the world differently. Of course there are problems with his distinctions between, for example, good writing and bad writing, and this kind of hierarchical thinking about literature ends up unfairly avoiding a large amount of so-called “bad” writing. Pound did what he could to establish a kind of literary history that would preserve the best in literature for the future, but his project, when it started to flirt with politics, was bound to fail.
During the same time, I was reading Rimbaud, the poems, the letters, Enid Starkie’s bio, everything, and also Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Rilke’s Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus were both essential texts. And of course there was City Lights’ Artaud Anthology that began my interest in his work and life, an interest that continues to this day. Then came the Don Allen anthology; it was there that I first discovered John Wieners. The anthology introduced me to a tradition of writing that was contrary to the mainstream of poetry. It put things in perspective. There was Olson’s Maximus and the essays, the great late lectures, his students Rumaker and Dorn, both of whom I really like, and Creeley’s For Love, which still holds up. Then there was the West Coast scene, for me mostly Spicer and the problems of language, his Lorca especially, but Duncan too, and Blaser. Actually, I published my first poems in Xeroxed journals on the West Coast in the early 90’s: Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s Mirage, Antenym, Angle, and Prosodia, which came out of the New College of California, and a number of others. Not much on the East coast in those days. Then came some contemporary poets like Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge absolutely, Jackson Mac Low, Barbara Guest who I really think should be read more, Gustaf Sobin, with whom I corresponded briefly in the late 90’s and whose work was very important to me in my late 20’s, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, the list goes on and on. Of the “Language” poets, Bruce Andrews has done some really interesting things and I’ve been reading Charles Bernstein for years. Also, Ted Greenwald remains a favorite. The “Flarf” movement never interested me much, though I do like the work of some of the poets associated with it.
So that’s what I was reading and what was influencing me at the time. My degree is in Electrical Engineering so I didn’t have any formal grounding in the history of poetry. I guess you could say I took notes at readings and kept my ears open. I haven’t really followed my contemporaries too much. My first chapbook came out in ‘98 but I wasn’t publishing much after that or during the early 2000’s; then I turned to filmmaking, and watching and thinking about films took up most of my time. These days, since I’m translating from the Ancient World, and also writers like Nerval, Balestrini, Pasolini etc., I don’t have much time to read contemporary poetry. That said, Harold Norse was a wonderful recent discovery and I’ve been reading Simon Pettet’s poems for years. Recently, I re-read Clark Coolidge’s Keys to the Caverns, which I really like, and Barbara Guest’s Defensive Rapture is one I go back to occasionally. I also recently read The Diary of James Schuyler, which was really wonderful.

Neeli Cherkovski:So for our final question, Peter, will you talk about what poetry has given to you? I suspect I know some of what you will say because of your devotion to what I call “the chorus” and I mean by that Artaud, Pasolini, Catullus, Penna, Valente, etc. I think this comes down to your poetics.

Peter Valente: Well, in my teens I used to keep notebooks filled with poems and song lyrics that I transcribed from the insertions that were sometimes inside LP’s: punk rock records from the late 70s, bands like Wire, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, 999, etc. and some 80s, like The Smiths, the Jesus and Mary Chain, The Birthday Party etc. I was also very much influenced by all the surrealist poets I was reading. In my late 20’s I ran workshops at a local bookstore in New Jersey, discussing the poetry I was reading at the time and devising creative exercises that involved music and film in addition to text. I did this for about five years. In my 30’s, and still living in Jersey, I curated a film series at a retirement home; I did this for about three years and I incorporated poetry as well as music in my discussions. At this time I was listening to Jazz and to a lot of free improvisation, musicians like Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, the Globe Unity Orchestra etc. So I was thinking about poetry as well as film, music, and sometimes, visual art. In addition to the poetry, I was also publishing my “collages” at this time; I was very interested in the relation of image to text.
So being a poet has always meant something more to me than just writing poems; the word “poetry” derives from the Greek word, poiēsis, which means “to make something” and so in this sense, my films, my visual art, my translations, as well as my own poetry, are part of a continual process of creation without boundaries. I learned the importance of this way of thinking, which involves a kind of “synthesis of the elements,” from reading and studying the great filmmaker, painter, record collector, and occultist, Harry Smith. When I started making short films myself I had the chance to collaborate with others and it also involved a great deal of improvisation with people I met on the streets.
Translating was a way to engage in dialogue with authors whose work was important for my own thinking about poetry. I am usually attracted to those writers who share a certain frame of mind that I can relate to, or whose writing provokes me in some way. If it’s a writer that has been translated often, like Pasolini, I’ll focus on the “lesser work,” the poems that I think are unlikely to be translated by anyone else, and in such a way as to highlight, in my versions, certain qualities that I see have previously been ignored or not thought about enough. My versions act as commentary and extension but also as criticism. My versions of Artaud, where I merged my own voice with his, are examples of this process. But above all, and especially with my versions of Ancient poetry, I refuse to treat the poem as a museum piece, to be looked at from afar and handled with care, as something precious; this is what I imagine some academic scholars do. I, on the other hand, in my versions, am interested in creating a conversation with the poet.
My recent book-length poem, Cinematic Trance, is a series of interlocking narratives created from the notes I kept when preparing for various films, quotes from film magazines, and recreations of scenes from favorite films. Here I was interested in using disparate but related materials to create a unified work. Harry Smith, again. So I don’t see poetry, film, visual art, or my translations, as separate categories, but all as part of my creative process, each contributing to and/or overlapping with the other. I am very interested in Harry Smith’s idea of synthesis and I could even say that his work has influenced my thinking about the artistic process even more than any one poet I’ve studied.