Spent the day with L. in Corning and Paskenta. The village of Paskenta sits at the foothills of the Mendocino National Forest, on the eastern side. It is barely a town, really. There is a general store with gas/diesel, a community hall, and a cemetary with a sign out front that says Watch Out For Rattlesnakes. (As we were leaving, we did hear something distinctly rattlesome near a bush we passed). The area is geographically stunning, with rolling, butte-filled hills and horse farms. The Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, owners of the very successful Rolling Hills Casino, were the original inhabitants of this area before the whites moved in. Nomlaki are of the Wintun people, which were largely decimated by contact with the white poisoners and murderers, among them Kit Carson and John Fremont. Fremont's name lives on in many American cities, including the one in California. The Wintun languages are nearly extinct.
There has been a delay for the second interversation, though it will appear in the next week or so.
Highly recommended film by Mike Leigh: Grown Ups.
September 24, 2006
We watched O, Brother, Where Art Thou? tonight. Eh. Much too much pratfall humor for me, with the googly eyes, overacting, overwriting, etc.
Purchased Edward Said's Orientalism tonight. Too drugged out from Tavist to make it through the introduction, though.
The next interversation will be coming shortly.
Purchased Edward Said's Orientalism tonight. Too drugged out from Tavist to make it through the introduction, though.
The next interversation will be coming shortly.
September 8, 2006
Steve Timm atop the Skyway Canyon Ridge (Chico, CA, 3/06)
INTERVERSATION WITH STEVE TIMM (PART ONE)
James Wagner: "Place" seems to be such an enormous contextual apparatus, in everything...from the kinds of employment available, to the way people speak (or will learn to speak), to the possible lovers one encounters, to the dominating cultural localities, etc., so that one's "place" seems well-arranged, well-conditioned, to the point where it fixes itself as a "world". Can you talk about your relationships to your hometown Kenosha, or Belleville, or even when you were in Yemen or San Francisco, the Twin Cities, and perhaps how this relates to your formation as a poet?
Steve Timm: I have never felt that place itself has had a big influence on my poetry. I suppose it has, but I have never meditated on this, nor considered it worthy of thought. I essentially accept the world and me in it as ultimately unchangeable, and just go on doing what I do. If I had been born into serfdom, I'd've just taken it, I think. But I'll see what I can find now, given your prompting.
The obvious answers are images of places I've been that've shown up in the poems. No need to list or elaborate those. Thinking Bout it more in the way I think you're asking [I'll leave that cute typo of "about" there; you can fix it if you want], I guess growing up middle class Kenoshan made me in a lot of ways. It was a factory town then (American Motors, Snap-On Tools, et al.), a rather utilitarian place; so pursuing poetry would seem to me illegitimable. But I think I have an innate ego-need to be different from those around me, so perhaps the general anti-intellectual dopiness of my peers led me into pursuing something as bizarre as poetry, which I did once a frenchhorn player turned me onto Ferlinghetti's Coney Island in high school.
Living in rural southern Wisc since the late 80s certainly pushed me into lots of nature-driven attempts at poetry; so it can be said that slowed me down though I did learn about the costs and ways of being earnest in poetry until I figured out how to co-opt nature in the service and misuse of language, which interests me. But perhaps it was the utilitarian inculcated that made me think I could deliver real messages of beauty and benefit rather than stick with what was natural to me, fucking with language in ways that amused and bewildered me.
3 years in Yemen did nothing at the time for my formation. The place was too alien at the time for me to address it in poetry; I was too busy addressing my place there and negotiating my place just as English teacher and American. It's clear now that that mattered a lot to the poetry; it just took a goddamn long time for it to.
I think, ultimately, I am just like everyone else: place pushed me and I pushed back ; it ate me up at times and I puked it back or ignored it or tried to eat it up; and so on. Pretty Newtonian. (Oh what I'd give right now for some old-fashioned physicist to be walking by right now.)
JW: I'm interested in the "ego-need" that you mentioned, and how much it arises out of dissatisfaction of what is already in place, instead of it arising organically by itself, not "in opposition to." I feel this is a constant underlying tone in your work, and I certainly can see it in mine as well. Do you think this is part of a larger pattern of midwesternism, of being upset, dissatisfied (the damn winters, etc), or do you not feel that to be true, that it reflects nothing, really? I am angling this to be sure, because I am interested in what innately seems "normal" to me, and the kinds of speech I most immediately understand and by which I locate myself. In other words, your work and wording seem especially "normal" or "understandable" to me, in ways that other writers' works do not.
ST: Well you're certainly familiar with my work in ways you're not with others, don't you think? As I am with yours. I mean, all those years of going to the open mikes together, reading each others' stuff along the way, being friends, sharing "discoveries". So I think that's part of the normality and understandability (though for others who've faced my work your descriptors might be quite laughable). But I also take your point, I think, that those qualities may come out of sharing a regional origin, of being midwesters. That is, there are bound to be certain inflections or concerns that are far less likely to show up in work by someone from a coast or mountains or endless plain. & a certain raisable hackle; for my answer to #1, I'd originally had some stuff in there about feeling awkward around other poets from other places, who seem so self-assured in gatherings, etc. I would like to call it a slickness, but that may just be a defense of my decided lack of smoothness, unfamiliarity with a certain lexicon and way of speaking about. & this may've come from college days, being in lit classes with folks from all over who exhibited similar fluencies and fluidities that I did not have and that bewildered me. But also some posing there (on both sides) and an impatience on my part with what I felt to be that posing or that windbagging just to impress. I think my feeling of revulsion was at least partly genuine, like "can't you just say it straight? do you have to go on and on? and who gives a shit anyway?" My reaction was that of any normal threatened immature male: I developed a defense rather than actually meet the Thing face to face. That is, I heightened what I felt to be the natural and indigenous in me to a point of opposition. It's a rather hideous reaction; I suppose it predicts a vulnerability to the next great populist to come along. & if I am normal in some big way about this, we can get to nationalism, etc very easily. I've just read an article about a researcher trying to decipher young babies to learn if humans have an innate knowledge and recently she's been looking at issues of race and native language and she thinks we may have an innate tendency to categorize an us and a them at a very very young age (before 1 year old). As she acknowledges, were this to be established, it would upset a lot of people. But she also goes on to more or less say that just because it's natural/innate doesn't mean it's good. It's there, but what do we want to do about it since we have these brains and sense of morality and so on? Being a pessimist, I like to think it's true; it certainly has an appealing reductival aspect that could clean up a lot of handwringing, or redirect handwringing to where it belongs--on the necks of those who manipulate. But I guess I have gone far a-field now. (The lesson for you here is never to encourage a tangentialist.)
To get back: that heightening of my "indigenous" meant adopting a certain way of being inappropriate, of intentionally engaging with others in the wrong register. & this does show up in the poetry, in changing registers, sometimes from word to word, my insistence on words like fuck (the "Letters to the Ed" being the extremest example). Perhaps this is the quality (or set of qualities) that resonates with you, that feels "right" to you? (I don't know what you are going to get from these things, but it seems to be helping me to get somewhere in my head. Thanks, Doc... Ol Doc Wagner. I remember when you pulled that slug outta my thigh, and all I had for the pain was biting down on a Best American Poetry edited by whatsisname [they're all the same to me].)
JW: There is also that Midwestern sense of "hiding one's light under a basket"--that is, to not be showy, which is one of the primary social cues, which sometimes involves the very paltry notion of even advocating for one's self. The community sense of biting the individual is quite great, I think, and, not so ironically, is the very place where the need to be individual becomes even more fixed. Or, tangentially, as my coworker/friend from Peru suddenly popped on me, "You're German, yes?" He kind of giggled and turned away. I suppose I am leaking all sorts of Germania and midwesternism all of the time. And this does make sense, because I do find extreme resonance in German writers, particularly. You tend more toward the South American and Spanish writers, I feel. What resonates for you in that work?
ST: My affinity for them probably originates in how I got into poetry, thru Ferlinghetti and the beats in general, that whole thing of the great roar coming out from someone, straight out of the romantics which was the only thing I liked hearing about when forced to read poetry in high school, it all fit in so well with the atmosphere swirling around back then in the late 60s early 70s, and don't forget that I was naturally drawn to the exploding-saxophone jazz back then--Trane, Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and in the liner notes (by them and by others) there was much about how they were expressing their souls so maybe that was how I first sought to escape the Germanic bloodroots, but I didn't come to the poets of the Spanish language until later, starting, natch, with Lorca (maybe while still in high school, I bought poet in new york out of the blue--just as I 1st bought Spicer out of the blue, completely ignorant) and then there was Neruda and later Machado and Jimenez (I’ll thank Bly for those 2) and finally Vallejo (better thank Eshleman), who grabbed me both lower down and higher up than the heart, thus putting the squeeze on that, and even now, my writing has something of that in it (it's even something that tempts me at times, just to cry out and rend (not render))--they all feel fundamental in their themes and the way they go about them (though they're all quite different from each other, obviously), and Vallejo touches the most chords/cords with his idiosyncratics and he still mystifies me in some poems and ways, so I can't stop coming back to him (& anyone else who touches and bewilders me--I have that one little poem in "hearing device" that sez monster flesh always disappoints ... the monster's always scarier before seen), the whole affinity probably stems from that need to break out and be in a sense anti-social while retaining my natural gregarity: be as you say showy and let the light out of the basket, and I always found encouragement at home and I found it in school etc. through wordplay so there was no repression, no real basket.
JW: Yes, with regard to Vallejo, the plucked chords of inner spaces, other realities, tonalities, disjunctioned, into the here and now. I found, too, for my sake, that he was a bit less overblown than Lorca or Neruda. Machado and Jimenez have not buried themselves into me like the other three. This great roar that you mention is obvious to anyone who has heard you read your poetry. You always really perform your work, not just read it aloud. This must be related to your jazz interests, in being a showman, so to speak. Or in being a teacher in general?
ST: In fact, I started out as a bland, dull reader. I had no idea what to do. First time I ever read was in San Fran, invited by Ralph La Charity, who was publishing Maybe Mombasa at the time, an issue of which I had 4 poems in. After the reading (along w/ many others), Ralph told me what a terrible reader I was. Then, later, I forget where, Sue told me that she would no longer attend unless I spiced things up because it was so boring to her. A big impetus came from a show by Roscoe Mitchell; he had a poet along with a big band, and this guy performed. And it was like, oh, I could do it like that. So I started trying to add some tonality some inflectivity, some _life_ into my readings. So my audience would not get bored; so I would not get bored. And I came to see that a reading is a public performance, and what did I look for in public performances? For example, going to a club to hear jazz ballads is boring, going to a coffeehouse and hearing some person strum and sing dopey rhymed things is boring, going to a rock concert and hearing a band play just like it is on the record is boring. Poetry is inherently boring and who would want to listen to it (the illegitimability of it, you know), so I wanted to make my time in front of everyone enjoyable. Of course, that leads easily to becoming a craven sycophant to audience, placing pleasing above anything else and for a time it certainly messed with my poetry, the dabbling with slamming and alla that crap. I like to think I've reached a somewhat balanced approach now, especially since what I write does not lend itself to greatly impassioned renderings. That's a very apt noun for it, isn't it, especially if one thinks of rendering plants, and especially if one is reading poems from a series or a chunk of a bigger chunk, here's juicy flank, ma'am, sir, here's that rump, hacking away to make a little package for the audience. But, I want to be admired for the work, so I have no choice, really. No one (including me) wants a one- or two-hour reading. Link, anyone? Hey, who wants one? Red hots! Get your red hots! Anyway, I find most readings boring though these days it's more because of the work I get to hear than the way it's done (what little patience I've had is slipping away). I was thinking of the idea, which I first came across in Bernstein's book on performance, that even the English department style is a performance choice, which I agree with. It's an aesthetic (I almost wrote asthmatic) choice, but the staidness of it drives me bonkers, just as the absolute silence of the audience does, that sense that at a Cultural Event, it's the audience's job to shut up except for the occasional titter. Of course, if there are questions afterward, they're almost always worse than that silence. This is where my experience of jazz and blues audiencing comes in; I'd love for someone to holler at me as I read, or just break in between poems and say something--anything. But then, maybe it's the work that makes'em stay silent? I know that when I like a reading, I want to say after a poem that's really good, or occasionally just respond in some way. I'm fidgety. Nuff sed, yes?
JW: Sure. In other realms, the United States is actively deploying its core principles of destroying democracies and autocracies throughout the world--notably in the front window, Iraq and Afghanistan, but offering considerable aid elsewhere to Israel and anti-socialist groups in Colombia, etc--...what does one do, if anything, as a poet, in these times, to counteract the imbecilities being presented as facts? To me, mere sarcastic collages of the empty-headed jargoneering of our leaders does nothing at all....
ST: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver asks in a poem from House of Light. To me your question really gets down to this question. It's clear to me that writing poems will not change the country or its people in any way-and I suspect that your question comes out of an impatience with claims to the contrary, even if those claims are merely implicit in the kinds of writing you mention. This country has no room for poetic discourse as a way of speaking and meaning that matters, and there is nothing in its recent history (Ginsberg notwithstanding; he was of a moment larger than he; yes, he was a public figure; yes, he was quoted in mainstream media; yes, people in other countries sought him out and made much of him; but I suspect he'd've never gotten to that public a place without Kerouac) or any reasonable forecast to suggest otherwise or that the situation could change. The reasons for this are of course essential but also well known and not worth repeating (at least, not for me; I have a genuine weariness with the re-expression of all those ideas that I've held and bandied for years; I receive no benefit from going over them again; thus, I tend to ignore news outlets of any ilk-unless the writing is good-because as Mary Daly once said, it's really the "olds," there is no new; the crimes are the same).
For me then the question of why write is not much an issue of the public. It's pointless to speak of reaching the masses (or even a large audience; I mean, please) or of finding one's voice among the people and alla that crap. It's not that I think some of those who speak of these things as possibilities are disingenuous; I just think that they are not possible. (I suppose this means that I think they are naïve.) What we are engaged in may affect some of those who read or hear it. Who knows-if one is good enough, a life here or there may be affected for longer than the time it takes to read or listen. But that's all.
I write because it brings me genuine pleasure and meaning in my own life. Writing is worth doing for reasons that lie outside our usual ideas of instrumentality/function/utility. Why does one meditate? Why pray? I do neither, but for me writing comes closer to having a spiritual meaning or resonance than a public or citizen one. If my writing brings some pleasure or meaning to anyone else, all the better; if not, what can I do? I have to write what I hear and what comes through me in the process of living. Audience matters, but only insofar as I can learn how to make clearer what I hear and what comes through me. Of course, "clearer" refers to sound, not meaning.
Steve Timm's collection of poetry, Disparity (Blazevox), can be purchased here. He teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Wisconsin--Madison.