Tag Archives: spring 2006


Brent Cunningham
Ugly Duckling Presse ($10)

by Amanda Nadelberg

As magical and lovely on the inside as its wonderful 1970's kitchen-green cover suggests, Brent Cunningham's Bird & Forest transforms itself from declarative orations to stunningly self-conscious meditations and then turns again, the poems becoming portraits of people and animals. All of this happens seamlessly, on account of a careful and consistent kind of language that Cunningham employs.

The first section, "The Orations of Trillius Patronius," puts the reader in a rare position. Typically, such speeches would be heard and not seen; Cunningham challenges this tradition and in doing so creates a fine intimacy between the reader and the text. These orations are even more significant for introducing a ritual that Cunningham practices throughout the book: the act of asking questions and providing multiple answers without sounding disingenuous. If anything, there seems no better way to engage the reader, the crowd, than to ask questions—this is not a heavy monologue, but rather a gorgeous conversation.

Having set up his dialogic strategy, Cunningham continues to leave open the door for possibility in these poems. "Preface to the Bird & Forest" is a piece that seems to explain how the central image of the book came about. Three subsequent "descriptions," however, present three different versions of a truth, and each of these three pieces conclude with the statement, "And this was how I first conceived the Bird & Forest." While a variety of explanations could appear deceptive, here it is more the case that this acknowledgment of multiple truths mirrors the truth of perception, and also points to a kind of generosity that Cunningham exhibits throughout: if one of the explanations doesn't suit you, you have others from which to choose. Similarly, the ongoing presentation of questions—"Were the leaves of this forests deciduous? Was it winter? Was it night?"—illustrates Cunningham's fine modesty as a writer while inviting us to participate in his imaginings.

Any cynic who believes that prose poetry lacks music hasn't read this book, for Cunningham's sentences are impeccably timed and punctuation never sounded so good. On first glance, nothing could seem less metrical than a big block of text, as with "Part 2: The Exact, Exact Bird." But even there, the poet makes good sounds with beautiful syllables:

Now listen, listen....Give me your finger; put it in that glass. Can you hear that rasping? I'm a cracked little beak, crushed in my nasals. You think you saw something? But what was it? It lingers and bores you, this nothing.... Have you ever been to Sunnydale? They have nothing in Sunnydale. They think white people have soap up their assholes.

This importance of sound in this book ties back to Cunningham's inclusion of the orations and multitude of questions, two aspects so dependent on the ear.

Bird & Forest continues to bend the rules of prose and sound in poetry, while keeping the reader gladly engaged in this generous conversation. It's really not so complicated: "My friends, I have come today, in my little bird-car, to say hello to these depths of the heart." Such a simple, delightful thing as this should be repeated often. In the last poem, "The Troubling Volume," Cunningham writes, "They will say / he has gone off / but where we cannot say." During subsequent travels through the book the reader finds a possible answer in "Principle of the Bird": "When the creature can't contain anymore, it flies off, into the trees, as a pursuant, to start again its questions."

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


HostileHeather Nagami
Chax Press ($15)

by Kenny Tanemura

Heather Nagami's debut, Hostile, is an anomaly among first books by an Asian American poet, or any young poet writing today. While many young Asian American poets leap over the now unfashionable “identity work,” only to come up with generic lyrics about generic topics—as if streamlining is the solution to a problematic politics—Nagami struggles with the very issues that have compelled such a move toward presumed anonymity. “Acts of Translation,” the 12-page, 9-part poem that opens the collection, serves as a good introduction to Nagami's work. It's only an introduction, since Nagami covers a lot of ground, both in style and content, but a section of the poem, titled “VII. Yonsei” is revealing:

ichi, ni, san, shi, go

issei, nisei, sansei, shisei?


Shi, which is a Chinese character, can mean “death”.
So, we use yon—the Japanese number “four”.

Yon-sei. You are yonsei.

Not death—say it.

Not death—yone, say.

say it:

“Issei, nisei, sansei,” is how Japanese Americans label generations: issei refers to the first generation of Japanese Americans, while sansei means third-generation Japanese Americans, the generation of Nagami's parents. By asking the question, “shisei?” Nagami is playing with her tenuous relationship to the Japanese language, while at the same time suggesting that such a thing as the yonsei—or fourth-generation Japanese American—doesn't exist.

It doesn't exist for a number of reasons: fourth-generation Japanese Americans are the least cohesive generation, with the least connection to community, and they are mostly bi-racial and multi-racial. The term, yonsei, therefore is exclusive, since it presumes a mono-racial, cohesive group. While this kind of labeling might apply to the nisei, who are well-known for their place in American history—internment camps, the 442nd regiment, the draft resisters, etc.—yonsei is a group that scholars have shied away from considering.

Nagami explores how this lack of a yonsei community is a kind of death. Japanese Americans are known for being a spare group, and with lack of immigration from Japan, with the highest out-marriage rate among all ethnic groups in the country, one can't help consider the ramifications of the death of a community.

In the section of “Acts of Translation,” titled “VIII. Fourth Generation,” Nagami begins with these lines:

white washed? banana? twinkie?

can't speak?

haven't been back?

Can't speak your own language?

and ends the poem with these lines:

Yes, Hezza san. Wax on,

wax off.

Wax on,

wax off.



Nagami starts the poem with a conflation: other Asians accuse her of being “white washed” in the first line, but in the next three lines, the speaker is confronted with stereotypes of herself, created by non-Asians. Nagami takes us on another twist at the end of the poem, where the speaker imagines herself as the main character in the movie The Karate Kid. Instead of “Daniel-san,” the hero in the movie, the sensei, played by Pat Morita, addresses the poet as “Hezza-san,” a faked mispronunciation of “Heather-san.” The sensei tells her to wax on, wax off, just as he told Daniel-san, when the Confucian old man asked the would-be martial arts star to clean his collection of cars.

This works as both a parody of the stereotype perpetuated in films like The Karate Kid as well as an enactment of the inevitability of assimilation. The speaker is actually more familiar with these classic pop-culture lines from than she is with the Japanese language or with Japan or Japanese culture. “Ganbatte!” is a word the old sensei in the movie used, and it means “hang in there.” While Nagami satirizes the movie, the meaning of the word remains, and it is a common expression among Japanese and Japanese Americans, and in that sense is “authentic.”

With subtle gestures like these, Nagami investigates the fine line between what is “authentic” and what is trivialized by pop culture. It is a also a mocking, ironic note—the speaker tells herself, to “hang in there” in spite of all the confusion.

The novelist and poet Maxine Hong Kingston once quipped that Japanese Americans don't write novels—she suggested it might have something to do with the silences of internment. It could just as well be said that Japanese Americans don't write poetry books. Yet Hostile is the genuine article—a collection that insists on not only staying alive in the poetry world, but going beyond the poetics established by the older generation of Japanese Americans, which include Lawson Inada, David Mura, Garrett Hongo, Amy Uyematsu and others. One wonders how these various poetries will cohere or disassemble as more and more poetry books by younger Japanese Americans are published.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


HoopsMajor Jackson
W.W. Norton & Company ($23.95)

by Lynnell Edwards

I read Major Jackson's new book Hoops in the week between the end of the AWP conference and the beginning of college basketball's annual furor, March Madness. And this mid-frenzy caesura seems like exactly the right place to appreciate Jackson's struggle in this latest book, pulled between one kind of carnival and another: on one side, the streets and the hoops in spoken-word rhythms that jump off the page in three- and four-stanza lay-ups, and on the other, the po-biz world, and its big dance of conferencing, residencies, and publishing.

The first section of Hoops begins with the long title poem, which eulogizes a street-ball phenom from his youth, “Radar,” in pitch-perfect stanzas:

Elbows posed like handlebars,
he flicks a wrist, the pill arcs
through sunlight glare,
& splashes the basket's

circle of air.

Subsequent poems, driven by sensation and story, investigate the muscular grace of the urban scene, from the rooftop, the dance floor, the café. Poems in the second section, “Urban Renewal,” rely on longer, subtly rhymed lines, and reach further into childhood memory. From his grandfather's rooftop garden comes an urban pastoral:

Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy
bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts
cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties
and spills from a suitcase of hurt.

Or, in church, the poet recalls his baptism scene:

…caught in that rush of tambourines next to solemn
trays of grape juice and bits of crackers held by deacons when
the reverend, serious as a pew, whispered, “Fall back, my son.

These poems truly show the range of Jackson's formal talents and his capacity for expanding the lyric potential of narrative.

The last section, “Letters to Brooks,” comprises over half the book. It is an ambitious project of tightly constructed poems, each titled with their place of origin, and consisting of seven-line numbered stanzas. In these broadly addressed letters to Gwendolyn Brooks, Jackson wrestles with the politics of the poetry world—his role, his ambition, his contribution—but digresses to riff on his immediate surroundings, the headlines, pop culture, his friends and family.

The initial poem “Fern Rock” identifies the project as an “epistolary chat” and proceeds to wander from Jackson's son's imagined scene of Brooks in heaven, to a riff on parenting and the vanity of parents “who schedule / A child's every waking hour,” to a comment on visiting a high school where he plans to warn the kid about the dangers of cannabis (rhymes with “benefits”), concluding the stanza with “Kids, deign to avoid. / You'll likely catch the paranoids.” Finally, establishing himself in an epistolary tradition, he namedrops Whitman, Mark Doty, Auden, Chaucer, Dante, and Joyce—with a digression on the NEA and e-mail. And so it generally goes for 13 more letters, each between 7 and 18 cantos, sent from places variously obscure (“Olney”), known (“North Philadelphia”), or simply “Wyoming.”

Jackson's project here is ambitious, if uneven. Certainly there is much to absorb on a second and third reading, and there is marked brilliance in the dazzling spins of language, easy in its shifts among idioms and registers, as in “Girard”:

Rene Descarte:
Omnia apud me poetica fiunt. Oops!
I misquote by design. Call in the troops.

and the juxtapositions of classical and pop culture, as in “Hunting Park”:

O, Orpheus grant the skills to stir
The dead like Kanye mixing music with fire.
Spitting souls through wires.

The strongest of these letters, “Cecil B. Moore,” considers a post 9/11 world as seen by a father fearing for his son, maintaining a tight narrative coherence and a more unified topical focus. Likewise “Spring Garden,” with the repeated trope “When you have forgotten,” catalogues image after brilliant image:

…when you
Have forgotten, say sun-lit corners, brick
Full of skyline, rowhomes, smokestacks,
Billboards, littered rooftops & wondered
What bread wrappers reflect of our hunger

But weaker efforts are fraught with insider references to particular AWP conferences or the work of friends, and a reliance on rhyme (strictly ababbcc) that generates:

Like registering students for my classes,
Or answering e-mails from the lads and lasses.

Some of the smartest, most musical and accessible poetry is being written by contemporary African American poets, including Terence Hayes, A. Van Jordan, Crystal Williams, Natasha Trethewey, Frank X. Walker, Kevin Young, Elizabeth Alexander. It is informed, even wise, to questions of form and the potential for mixing different vernacular registers, juxtaposing popular and classical culture, and recovering landscapes, historical and contemporary, that stun in their unexpected beauty. Major Jackson extends this exciting new tradition with Hoops, offering a startling range and sensibility to the worlds we inhabit.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

Time-Stopping, Points of Friction, and Other Narrative Events: an interview with Mary Burger

photo of Mary Burger by Rod Golden

Photo by Rod Golden

By Kevin Kilroy

A transmutation of the boundaries between poetics and prose seems to be occurring, and Mary Burger's various work demonstrates how this activity affects far more than just literary vocabulary, but rather extends to our everyday relationships in and perceptions of the outside world. Sonny, (Leon Works, $12.95) her most recent book, opens doors for the reader/writer as much as it shows how the author herself has explored these rooms of narrative and poetics and the powers of combination. The narrative is constantly shifting between the worlds of a small-town family and the team efforts of the Manhattan Project, and the spaces between become the means of travel. What they have to do with each other becomes a question of how we look at the world—ethically, epistemologically, and physically—rather than a direct narrative correlation. The text becomes an active field, an event for readers to take part in through their subjective understanding, misunderstanding, and willingness to break the many assumptions one might have about how the mess of living is structured.

In addition to Sonny, Burger is the author of The Boy Who Could Fly (Second Story Books), Thin Straw That I Suck Life Through (Melodeon), Nature's Maw Gives and Gives (Duration) and Bleeding Optimist (Xurban). Since 1998 she has edited Second Story Books, a series of short works of experimental prose. She is also co-editor of Narrativity, an online forum on experimental prose, and Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House), an anthology of Narrativity contributors.

This past July, Burger visited The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University to teach a course entitled “What is This Thing Called Prose?” Her course description illustrates the innovations in writing she admires: “Among the progeny of new American poetry is the emergent genre of writing that uses elements of narrative—time, place, event, subject, sentence, story—while breaking with the conventions of fiction; that preserves the poet's attention to language—tonal sensitivity, semantic multiplicity, rhythmic pattern, super-rational shifts in consciousness—while adhering to the forms of prose. What's going on here? What possibilities does this writing hold for us as readers? As writers?” We sat beneath the sycamore tree on campus to discuss Sonny, New Narrative, and time.

Kevin Kilroy: What writers are you teaching this week?

Mary Burger: One we're looking at is Truong Tran. He's a Bay Area writer originally from Vietnam, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child during the war. He has a recent book called dust and conscience(Apogee Press), which is a series of narrative poems each made up of brief prose blocks. The work uses aspects of storytelling—memoir, travelogue, fable, letters home—that all have a narrative effect, but at the same time there's a pervasive quality of ambiguity and ellipsis and multiple meanings that puts the work in a space of poetry. Formally, the text is in full-justified blocks, in more or less syntactic sentences, but there is no capitalization, no punctuation of any kind, which heightens the ambiguity and open movement in the writing.

Thematically, Tran works between notions of home and story, where home is sort of a place of arrival, a place of peace or contemplativeness, and story is about movement, agitation, or change. In part the work is about him traveling back to Vietnam and exploring that as home, but as he's there he's also away from home, from the home he knows in the U.S. There's a very complex attention to the ambiguities of the immigrant's relationship to place. There's a lot about family, disruptions of family that have happened because of the war, and the larger cultural changes and generational differences that happen within the family—for example, his mother's difficulty in talking to Tran about the male lover he meets in Vietnam. It's a really interesting navigation of social space and private space, of private space being mediated by public identity. That's been interesting to bring up in class.

I'm always interested in what Renee Gladman is doing. We're looking at Not Right Now (Second Story Books). We've been talking about how piece works as a kind of "philosophical documentary." There's a chronicle of a life in a city, the details and events of a specific urban space (told with a humorous, almost absurdist particularity), permeated by deep ambiguity in subject identity, a constant migration between "I" and "you" and "we" that makes it impossible to draw an absolute line between self and other or inner and outer.

Another we looked at is Brenda Coultas, especially her piece A Summer Newsreel (reprinted in A Handmade Museum, Coffee House Press). I think of Brenda as an archivist poet, sorting through traces of her own past and other pasts, and examining her relationship to that material in very self-conscious interpretive acts. Her writing constructs a kind of mythology, myths of origin, using story-telling techniques of the historian and the imagery and detail of the poet.

Another writer whom I hoped to talk about, but didn't quite fit in, is Stacy Doris. I've been reading her book Conference (Potes and Poets Press), published about five years ago. It's in the form of a set of dialogues and monologues, interspersed with narrative prose sections. At the beginning there is a “character key,” a list of symbols or glyphs, which each represent one character or multiple characters in the drama. Some of the character identities are full of contradiction (the second one is identified as “Tragedy = Comedy = Me = Jar = Folding-chair…” and on and on. Some of the characters are explicitly identified with the narrative “I” and many of them aren't. It's a real cacophony.

Throughout the text, each passage or speech is preceded by one of the character glyphs, and sometimes more than one. So she really plays with the idea of “conference,” a multiplicity of voices and identities coming together and addressing one another. There's a lot going on about the slipperiness and mutability of identity, and how identity works in relation to other, simultaneously shifting identities.

We've also been talking about some pieces in Biting the Error by Kathy Acker, Aaron Shurin, and Camille Roy that give a lot of theoretical tools for talking about narrative writing.

KK: Two parts of Sonny stand out for me—the scenes with Oppenheimer and other members of the Manhattan Project, and the scene with the Russian leader and the president. Like Truong Tran, you add quick and graspable events of history that contextualize many of the themes running through the book. What are your thoughts on using history in this style?

MB: Well, the invention of the atomic bomb, the Trinity bomb test, the bombs dropped in Japan, are such monumental events, so extensively studied and interpreted, that I thought there was no way I could look at it all head-on. I had to be elliptical or oblique to find any new relationship to it. What I wanted to do was explore the incidental events that happened in the course of the development of the bomb, because even huge historical events happen as a result of incidental decisions.

Also I wanted to tie the story of the bomb to the very particular, peculiar family story I was telling in parallel with it, and look at what these things could possibly have in common with each other. The interstices or intersections that I found were really about incidental moments when the figures in the Manhattan Project became ordinary human scale, because of the small experiences they had or small decisions they made or small details that are available about them.

So it was really a gesture of trying to bring a huge and overwhelming historical phenomenon down to a scale that it seemed I, or anybody, could respond to effectively without being paralyzed. Sort of a lesson or source book on how to respond to what's going on politically today in the name of the “War on Terror” and related issues. I mean, the invention of the bomb happened sixty years ago, and in certain ways the event has been almost rendered inert by the fact that the bomb has been so normalized. We take for granted that nuclear weapons shape most of our foreign policy and our military strategy—well, not that we take it for granted but that it seems permanent, it seems like something that we'll always live with. But there was a time when these things didn't exist, and it wasn't that long ago. So I was trying to find a way into the hegemony of that history, by measuring it with a smaller scale.

I was reading a slew of books about the history of the Manhattan Project. There's no end to them, but the ones that really fascinated me were the ones that weren't necessarily well written, but were filled with anecdotal memories. There was a scene where Oppenheimer walked into a room where Fermi was sitting, really struggling with an equation. Oppenheimer made some correction on the chalkboard, and, you know, the light went off for Fermi, he found his solution. There were a lot of moments like that, that were small but significant turning points.

And there's the anecdotal history of the pilots who were training to drop the bomb, how they were just like any other guys in the military. They wanted to feel special, they wanted to feel like they were doing their part, that they were important. They didn't even know the details of what they were training for. They knew they wanted to be heroes. Or, there are the incidental things like what Oppenheimer said to his wife, these very accessible details of story that help us realize that in any moment something can go differently, nothing is predetermined, and small decisions can change the course of these very consequential events.

KK: The other thing I was thinking about was how in Sonny the pronouns shift so much—you write from all these different characters, all these different voices. What kind of process was it for you to assume those voices?

MB: It was a really hard and confusing process actually, to get beyond the point of just a scattered sense of multiplicity that would not become something more than its parts. It was something where the editing process with Renee [Gladman] was really an important part of doing the work, because she's someone who has developed a very fictional sensibility in terms of looking for story structures that carry the work forward. The questions that she put to me were very obvious questions yet very hard to deal with. Like, who are these different “he”s? Who are these different boys and how do they relate to each other? Why does the “I” shift so much? And I really had to push past a certain level of complacency, I think, instead of just saying, “Oh, you know, it's an open text and people can put the pieces together.” But there can be lethargy in that.

So for myself, I wrote a lot of backstory that didn't end up in the book. The hardest questions for me were: What does the Manhattan Project have to do with this family history? Why put them in the same book, and where's the energy of putting them together? Small local people and large public people—what's the point? And I really tried to follow up on points of friction where there was a confusion that would be generative rather than just obfuscating. The confusion about this boy who was riding a horse, and he seems to, in some way, be a witness to the bomb, where does he come from and what relationship does he have to any of it? There were incidents that for me that tied these different stories together—the blending of scale between the very local story of this family and the small domestic details of these public figures that made them seem more similar than different.

KK: Could you talk about trying to create, as you say, an “open text” and also making sure that there is energy and connections between the events and characters? How hard was it to balance these two vital notions of ambivalence and narrative?

MB: Well, like I said, I generated a lot of backstory as a way to work with that process, a lot of really narrative and fictional stuff that I decided not to put in because I didn't want it to turn into a conventional novel, and I didn't really want to just tell a story about people living their lives together. I really needed to stay in a very tense and tenuous sense of present. I was talking about that at the reading Tuesday night when I gave a few words of introduction, about this idea of caesura and interruption. Interruption that just keeps happening in a way, like when a CD gets stuck and there's a real jitteriness where this moment is supposed to be going on and it's not going on. So that sense of static time, at the same time that these huge, significant events and historical processes are taking place.

KK: Did you write Sonny in fragments, or interrupt it after the fact?

MB: It's very definitely written in fragments. The final published book represents a lot of reorganizing and literal cutting and pasting, sitting on the floor and laying out the pages and trying to find the organization that sustained that kind of energy. I think the thing that I really come back to again and again with narrative is that I can't let myself relax into a sense of narrative continuity that represents some kind of escape from the immediate moment. And so I'm kind of compelled to keep interrupting any sense of continuity, but it has to be to a certain end, not just eruption for its own sake. So what I wanted here was that tension of something enormous just about to happen and the ambivalence that something like the invention of the bomb represented. I mean, the people who worked on it—the military and political leaders who sponsored it—really did believe that it was necessary, and that if we didn't do it, someone else was going to do it. So I was trying to get to that sense of urgency but the sense that many people involved knew, even before Trinity or Hiroshima, that, “Oh, this is going to have a lot of bad consequences, this might be the wrong thing to do.” But there was a momentum that couldn't be stopped—or could have, maybe, you know, but the way the history is written now, it seems like no individual could step forward. There was this machine of political and military decision-making—in any case no one did stop it. That was the moment that I wanted to be arrested by and have the text arrest the reader by—that moment when there's that question, is there something that can be done? Is there a way to influence this moment? Are we passive, or not? I think we can all definitely feel that in the current moment—what can we do, politically? People are on edge about what's within our control. Can we prevent further military expansion, environmental degradation, loss of social connections?

KK: There are places where the text becomes overtly metatextual and seems to be talking about the form the narrative itself is taking, places like, “After something blows apart, its wholeness is a fiction you construct. Pick any piece—the wholeness that it comes from comes from you.” And: “Nature, which in all its forms, always against us, knows no meaning. Knows nothing. Is mindless. Inhuman. Every beauty that we see is our perception.” These definitely stopped me and made me wonder why it was necessary for you to come so far out of the text in order to speak about its relationship to the reader.

MB: Those passages are partly about the epistemological ideas I was working with—how knowledge operates, the ethics of knowledge, and particularly the ethics of modern physics. I was thinking about the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and what happened in Western ideologies that brought us to the point of being able to create something like the atomic bomb. What model of knowledge lets us imagine the bomb and say, “This is the solution to our problems; this will stop the tyranny and the totalitarianism that are so threatening us.” So those passages in particular were about my having sort of tried to walk this line between inhabiting what the physicists might have believed, what Oppenheimer might have believed he was doing with the tools of science, and what we after the fact have had to learn about the limits and consequences of our own knowledge.

In particular I was thinking about the limits of our models of knowledge in regard to nature. How for so much of Western history, nature has been something to be acted upon, something passive, something that we use to see what we can get out of it. The more we threaten nature, the more we understand that that ideology doesn't work, that we need to work with nature if we want to survive, and the arrogance of that sort of frontier or invader mentality will destroy everything including ourselves.

I think that also refracts into a set of guideposts for the reader to work through the text and to problematize the notion of a coherent or consistent or stable reading—that the text is something like nature or the weather: it has no inherent meaning, but we impose meaning on it. I mean, that's a little specious; a text is more like a set of tools, kind of a machine, for working with ideas and imagination, for working with the intellect of the reader (it's not a pre-existing entity). But anyway, I wanted to work with the idea that a reader brings things to the text that the writer doesn't foresee, and the text has contradictions that the reader can't contain or resolve. There's no sense of the whole text or the self-contained text, and also no sense of the complete reader. The reader is incomplete and the text is incomplete, and each time that the text is read it's a unique act.

KK: Do you think about how available your texts are to readers?

MB: I do think about it, and I think that it's something that a lot of experimental or theoretically informed writers think about. It's a very self-conscious community that we create and the texts can be exclusive, they can require a certain kind of education or a certain introduction. I don't think that should be seen as exclusionary. I think it means that we need to bring an impulse to educate along with the texts, and rather than throwing them out there and saying, “Take it or leave it,” that we're sort of proselytizers, or envoys, because hegemonic ideologies, totalitarian ideologies, are very invested in missionary work, in proselytizing and recruiting and absorbing and extending their reach. We have to be just as invested in extending another kind of reach—a reach toward connectivity and away from tyranny.

My sense of readership for the book I think is, of necessity, a particular community within the large community of literary readers, but I don't want to intentionally limit it. I think that the people who are interested in this kind of work come out of all kinds of communities, and you can't predict why someone will be interested in certain work. I think it's important just to make it available, to make readings happen in as many places as possible on a really pragmatic level. One gratifying thing is seeing the people who emerged in innovative writing communities, the New York School and St. Mark's Poetry Project for example, now having their works more widely distributed. Maybe it's a matter of larger communities being able to develop a relationship to the work over time and not instantly.

KK: I think Gertrude Stein said it takes forty years. Would you say your approach of erupting the form and making choices based around the subjectivity of the text is more in conversation with experiencing yourself in the world or experiencing yourself through literature?

MB: I guess I don't really make a distinction. Literature is something I came to in part because I needed tools for thinking about how to live, how to understand a place in the world. But I guess there's always a sense of conflict or anxiety about how experience relates to literature or to any creative work. We've been talking in the workshop about how a text navigates social space or social identity, looking at the work by Renee Gladman and Truong Tran and others. One way to talk about those texts is to look at how the writers place themselves in the social world, what they notice, what they engage with, what is relevant to them, what they problematize. So, I guess the intersection is often at the point of problem and anxiety. The impetus to write comes because there's something that isn't completely tranquil. I think the impulse to create doesn't come out of tranquility or resolution or satisfaction, I think there's an unrest that underlies it.

KK: How do you create adequate room for the subjectivity that a reader might bring to the text?

MB: I have a real impulse toward ellipsis. It comes up when I feel that I am being too explicit. It's not necessarily an urge to “say as little as possible,” but “don't say anything that over-explains,” or that shuts down the possibility of multiple readings. I think there is definitely a tension, if you're interested in narrative, if you're interested in creating a notion of a subject in time and space, social space, there's a danger in under-representing, under-explaining, a danger of just losing energy. But generally—sort of like touching a hot stove—when I feel that I've said too much, when I feel that the text becomes static or oppressively over-explained, that is when I'll draw back. I think that's such an interesting space to work in, to try to explore—when is ambiguity generative and when is it obfuscating?

KK: What about your interest in time? Is there any tension between the way that you are socially conditioned to understand time and the different ways that you have come to perceive it? Or is this question just some personal bullshit I think about?

MB: No, it's not. That's something that I try to talk about, or try to think about. One of the fascinating things about text is the way it enables you to experience simultaneous, multiple scales of time or relationships to time. In the workshop we looked at Kathy Acker's essay “The Killers” in Biting the Error. She talks about the different relationships to time that happen in a text. There's the immediate moment of interacting with the text—reading the text or hearing the text—and the physical time of the writing the text—when was the writer actually creating these words—and also, the various levels of conscious time that are being explored within the text and the many movements between those.

I think what we colloquially refer to as “time,” the linear, one-way sequence of events, is something that we measure through our biological lifespan as organisms. The fact that an organism is born, that it comes into being and eventually dies, is a linear process. I mean, whatever Buddhist or Hindu notions of reoccurrence you might have, there is a particular organism that lives and then dies. But beyond that, there are variations in our experiences of time, changes in scale, speed, and duration, shifts in perspective, simultaneity, recurrence, deja vu—the “uncanny”—that belie a simple linear model of time.

Creating a narrative text is for me not only about trying to understand what it is to experience the passage of time, but also about trying to understand the representation of time, how slippery that is and how complicated it is and how hard to pin down exactly what it is that makes narrative—what makes a series of sentences into something that represents or enacts or performs the passage of time. What is the difference between experiencing time and experiencing the representation of it, or is there a difference? I mean, sort of the Lacanian notion of the unconscious as a text or the unconscious as a language. Is written language another representation of the kinds of experiences—subconscious, psychological experiences—that we have of time? There's a multitude of questions to ask about how that works, like, what values, what philosophical values or political values are we enacting by making certain kinds of representations of time? Our representations of time have a lot to do with how we view connections and relationships to others — values are revealed in what we incorporate about other beings in our representations.

KK: I just came across a quick summary of Gödel's theory of timelessness and his idea that time is a space—do these types of physics texts and notions interest you?

MB: That's something I'm really interested in, in regard to theoretical physics. Beyond our experience as a biological organism with a finite existence, it seems to me that, when you get into issues of understanding matter and the relationship between energy and matter in these highly theoretical but palpable measurable things, linearity ceases to have value or ceases to have relevance, that in talking about these dynamics there is an interrelationship, a cyclicality, a spiral. The difference between Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics is that shift, I think, to understanding things in a sense of interrelatedness.

KK: And how that shift from Newtonian physics to quantum weirdness hasn't really been in enacted in our everyday lives. We're still taught Newtonian physics in school.

MB: I think the political implications have to do with notions of realism—in a straw-man argument, it's the reductive idea that there is an absolute reality that we all participate in, that determines what is ethical, what is just, what can come up in discourses about political events, and what is validated. It's abstract and seemingly esoteric, but I think there are ways of talking about what the political consequences are for having a limited notion of time and our being in time.

KK: On the back cover of Biting the Error is a statement by Antonin Artaud: “From this moment of error there remains the feeling that I have snatched something real from the unknown.” It feels extremely important that you call back to the writers who have opened up the possibilities of a new form of narrative. Could you talk about New Narrative, the Narrativity website, and the Biting the Error anthology?

MB: New Narrative writing was a particular historic moment that happened in particular around the Bay Area. If you have a chance to look at Robert Glück's essay “Long Note on New Narrative” in Biting the Error, that's one of the best written histories of the evolution of that. He was one of the people, he and Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy and Bruce Boone and a number of others whom he mentions, who really developed New Narrative writing.

Bob writes about having been a young writer in the Bay Area in the '70s when the Language poetry discourses were really energized and had moved into a more public space. Language poets were making a very conscious articulation of their own poetics, politicized and confrontational in the sense of wanting to shape the current literary conversation. It was a discourse that was particularly about removing a static or complacent sense of the subject or experience or the body, about removing the assumption of a stable identity from the text, and having the text be more about sort of post-structural operations of meaning. Bob writes about the invigoration of that, but also about issues that were excluded or ignored by that poetics, his own issues of being a gay man and having so much meaning, so many political consequences, associated with the experiences of the body and with the experiences of social identity, and needing to write those back into the text.

So New Narrative seemed in part a response or a contrast to the poetics of Language poetry, saying, we need the interrogation of power in language, but we need these other things too, we need the experience of the social space and the body to be part of the writing. And that including those issues in the text could also be an interrogation of power and language, could also be radical. That writing that addressed social identity could confront complacencies in reading and writing and thinking, and could confront static power structures.

That was all a big influence on me, these writers were some of my heroes when I moved to the Bay Area in the '90s. I was really amazed at the possibilities that New Narrative writing opened up, in having this impulse toward autobiography or mining the self as material for how the subject is represented, and at the same time having this attention to the politics of language, and to language itself as material.

The project of Narrativity and the website evolved for me through my association with Camille Roy. She in turn was closely associated with Bob Glück and Gail Scott. We wanted to get a conversation going among writers who were using narrative to look at issues like those that had come up for New Narrativists, and going off in other directions—writers doing cross-genre work, exploring form and subject and social identity in self-conscious ways that really paid attention to how the text was operating and to its function in political and cultural contexts.

We wanted a forum, we wanted prose writers to have as much of a discourse as the language poets had developed. We wanted there to be a "poetics" of prose. There were writers who were already working on that kind of discourse, very self-conscious critiques or analyses of narrative prose, exploring their methods and ideas and integrating theory with practice. But we also had to push in some cases to get prose writers to make statements about their practice. People would send us creative works and we'd say, “Could you also send us a statement of your practice?” because we didn't want the project to turn into a place to publish interesting short stories. Of course there needs to be a place for that, but we wanted to make a place for discourse, a critical forum. I think, especially with the anthology coming out, there's a way for that to start to take shape, to have these works play off one another and develop some conversations.

KK: How political do you think New Narrative is?

MB: I don't think there's a simple way to encapsulate it. Going back to Bob Glück's essay, he really goes into some detail about what was political about introducing the body—and the conflicts and desires and pleasures and embarrassments of the body—into the space of the text. “Politics” permeates the writing we're talking about, in one way or another. I keep coming back to this idea of navigating a social space and navigating between a social space and textual space; the ways that we instantiate subject, and what entitlement the subject has, how much authority the subject takes over describing the world and imposing an order, versus allowing room for interpretation.

The idea of realism and this notion about a predetermined set of descriptions or tools to describe a world that we're all supposedly participating in, the hidden politics of realism and the presumptions that it makes and the questions that it precludes—these are the areas where experimental narrative writing is pushing the boundaries and saying, "No, we're not going to make those presumptions, we're going to open them up." So in that way it's irreducibly political to open up questions and to allow for new ways of connecting as opposed to shutting down.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Photo of Sparrow Violet Snow

Photo by Violet Snow

By Thomas Devaney

Sparrow is a poet and prose provocateur best known as a folk hero and poet-journalist in New York City's East Village and the Woodstock area of the Catskills, where he currently lives with his wife and daughter. Publishing in local newspapers and smaller magazines such as Chronogram and The Sun, and occasionally crossing-over into mainstream publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, Sparrow may be one of the most touching and elusive writers in America.

His recent book America: A Prophecy—The Sparrow Reader (Soft Skull Press, $15.95), edited by Marcus Boon, is a rip-roaring collection of Sparrow's various political, cultural, literary, and spiritual writings. In Sparrow's brief essays, and even briefer poems, his originality and persistence is clear. He writes proverbs, bumper stickers, essays on the charms of spam email, and oddly insightful political commentary. Among his notable stories, Sparrow recounts his tilting jousts with The New Yorker magazine, whose editors ultimately published his poems.

Robert Christgau in The Village Voice called Sparrow “one of the funniest men in Manhattan.” He is funny, but his humor often feels like humor about humor as much as playful fun, coming from his directness, simplicity, and endlessly surprising sensibility. Sparrow's vitality and elasticity reminds me of Cervantes, Rabelais, and Borges. He is a master of contemporary haiku in its most heroic and true sense, the best example which is found in his collection of poems Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! (Soft Skull Press, 2002).

Even Sparrow's essays are infused with a haiku-like sensibility. In his autobiographical article “My Career in Bumper Stickers” published in The New York Times (February 13, 2005), he writes: Bumper stickers are the haiku of the American highway. Could one such slogan actually be a haiku? I turned this thought itself into a haiku: Why Can't a Bumper / Sticker Be a Haiku? No / One Can Quite Explain.”

No one can quite explain Sparrow's work either. Writers I associate him with include Yoko Ono, Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving, Ted Berrgian, and Basho. It's an impossible mix, but it is a grouping that resonates with Sparrow's life and work: Ono for her Fluxus performances and her writing in Grapefruit; Lincoln for his humor, political philosophy, and grip of his prose style; Irving for his eccentric characters and unforgettable dispatches from upstate New York; Berrigan for his expansive personality and poetry mixed with facts, flair, and gossip; and Basho for his legendary mysticism setting the little life in the circle of the greater life of the Tao.

Since 1992, Sparrow has run for president in the last four elections; his book Republican Like Me (Soft Skull, 1998) is a diary of his first presidential bid. In addition to running for President, it's also important to note that Sparrow is a substitute teacher. At his best, Sparrow has a tender intelligence and a radical modesty which sets the tone for many mild shocks of surprise in his dedicated and exuberant essays and poems.

This interview is a selection from three interviews conducted between 2002 and 2004. A number of pieces in Sparrow's current collection America: A Prophecy were written around the time and referred to in the interview. The interviews were conducted in the kitchen of my third floor apartment in Philadelphia above the Chinese take-out restaurant Jade Garden. 

Thomas Devaney: Okay, I am going to say a series of words, or names, and you say what comes to mind. The first is Tennessee Williams.

Sparrow: Tennessee Williams. Hahahaha. I'm thinking of Indiana Jones, because I'm middle aged I can't remember anything so I'm thinking Indiana Jones—but it comes out Tennessee Williams.

TD: Okay, here's a big one: work.

S: Play. Because my work is to play. I always have a job where I'm playing, like I'm a substitute teacher, so I represent the absence of authority.  When I enter the room, it means there's no teacher—there's only me. I'm like a Shakespearean fool. I'm the person that exists to be harassed, to be funny, they can put on their headphones and listen to Jay-Z. I'm like a walking vacation! (Laughs). That's my job. For that I get sixty dollars a day, which is not much.

TD: So, vacation.

S: Sober. Then I think when I go on vacation, I'm extremely sober. That's the way I am. I have this countervalent personality. When I go on vacation, I spend the whole time meditating, reading, as if I'm in the Bahamas. Then, when I'm at work, I'm completely drunk (laughter), metaphorically.

TD: How about Robinson Crusoe?

S: Robin Williams; they're the same. Robinson Crusoe is the eighteenth-century Robin Williams.

TD: Next one is Peter Jennings.

S: Jews for Social Inadequacy. I guess when I think of the media, I think of the Jews. I like the idea that the Jews control the media. It's an important American invention. In Europe, they thought the Jews killed children and turned them into matzoh, they were moneylenders, they were Christ-murderers, but in America there's this interesting pairing of Jews and movies—that we couldn't have movies without the Jews. It's really important. It's almost as important as jazz.

TD: The recent Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature is awfully impressive, not to mention including fascinating people in it like S.J. Perelman and Groucho Marx…

S: Plus every novelist after 1960 is a Jew. I'm thinking of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer.

TD: I love the lonely and lovely stories of Max Apple. At one point I was reading all Jewish authors—not on purpose, but I realized that the last ten novels I read were all written by people who were Jewish. So I wanted to read an Irish-Catholic, someone mentioned Mary Gordon, and I started to read through her books. I read about four books and then I find out her father was Jewish, he converted to marry. I had no idea, and otherwise it wouldn't matter, but at the moment it threw me.

S: That is the biggest embarrassment to the Irish in American literary history. When I found that out, I wept.

TD: Yes, a good a Irish-Catholic girl from Queens. Who knew?

S: And she's like the most modern Irish-Catholic writer in the modern American world. She's Irish to the max!

TD: Her book The Other Side is wonderful. All of her books are pretty good and have a certain quality.

S: Yeah she's an interesting writer. Although now that you know she's Jewish, doesn't she seem a little bit like a Jew looking at the Irish from within?

TD: Well, yeah, it probably makes her more interesting actually, but she was raised Catholic. Moving on, I'm just going to ask: what's wrong with America today?

S: I was saying that to someone. Was it you?

TD: No.

S: That people don't sing anymore? This Indian Ayurvedic doctor I met in Jersey City said to me, "I came to New York City in 1969 and I've lived in America till now. When I first came, you would hear people laughing in the street. Now the only people who laugh are Negroes and the insane." [Laughs.]

TD: I heard you laughing.

S: "I Hear America Laughing."

TD: On Friday night at Bob and Barbara's [a bar in Philadelphia] I saw you dancing, which was a joy to see.

S: Oh that's right…Like an American drunk.

TD: Someone picked you out of the crowd.

S: More than picked—dragged.

TD: You were both getting along pretty well, I think.

S: Happens a lot. Someone who is extreme, homeless, visionary, will pick me for their next conversation.

TD: Are those your constituency—your people?

S: Last time I was in New York City, heading toward my 31st high school reunion, as I was walking across the street at the Fashion Institute of Technology, this homeless guy and I locked eyes. And as I walked toward him, he looked at me and said, "I'm going to kill you." I'm terrified that I'm going to be shot. I live in this little town in the Catskills, surrounded by patriots with rifles. Luckily they don't read. (Laughs, doorbell rings, more laughter.)

TD: They're here to get us;or you at least! [Poet Elizabeth Scanlon enters and sits down at the kitchen table to join the conversation.]

ES: Did you and Tom talk about your New Yorker poems? They published a few, but not all of them. Was there ever any explanation as to why they took them and did not run them?

S: Well they bought them, intending to run, they quickly ran two of them in the spring of '95, then a few years later, Alice Quinn bought a fifth one that she had left lying on her desk for two years and had been undecided about. It was a really bad poem. It was about my wife peeing. It was called something like, “Morning Poem,” here it is: “The sound of my wife peeing: / Like straws dropping.”

TD: Simplicity and surprise—I don't know, sounds like haiku to me. More haiku than 99 percent of most haiku getting passed around. Let's ask Robert Hass!

S: I got $250 for that poem, which is less than they normally give you. According to the New York Times, they usually pay $350. Of course, it's a short poem. So, they were about to publish the third poem about two years ago, when I received an email from Alice Quinn explaining that David Remnick, the new editor, had looked over her shoulder and suddenly realized they were heading down a path of doom.

TD: I thought Remnick was sufficiently schooled in the ways of the raw and the cooked. But it sounds like you're on the very raw end of it. Has anyone ever commented on the high-end scraps of contemporary poetry? The adoration of the beautiful among the scraps of everyday existence I mean.

S: Alice Quinn sent me a letter she received after she published the first of my poems. Two New Yorker editors collectively wrote, saying: "When we heard that Sparrow was to be published, we feared that his poem would be merely the transcription of a performance, and not a true poem.  When we read the poem, we found that we were right." And this was literally true, because the poem was called "My Father Was a Snowman but He Melted," which was a song I wrote for my band that later developed as a poem.

ES: So they feared that? They were dismayed to find that so?

S: They found that it was merely…

ES: Did they go on to explain what they found so disturbing about that?

S: They felt it wasn't poetry. That if you get up and deliver some provocative spiel and then write it down, that's not a poem.

TD: What about the other project you were involved with? Actually doing translations?

S: That's why we picketed The New Yorker. I invented the idea of translating the poetry of The New Yorker into English (laughter).

TD: I love the idea. You should note that in future bio statements: poet/substitute teacher/translator.

S: "New Yorker poetry translator." And then I created an anthology of poems translated from the New Yorker into English, mostly by The Unbearables, the group I'm in, and we presented it to the New Yorker. That was our purpose for arriving there on Pearl Harbor Day of 1994. The problem was theNew Yorker had just published an entire issue exposing a plot by the CIA in El Salvador, and they were receiving death threats from Cuban mercenaries. So then we arrived and occupied their offices.

ES: Sounds dramatic. What happened?

S: Well, I like to say we occupied their offices. In fact, we just went in their waiting room, demanded to be given this manuscript by Rollo Whitehead, the fictional progenitor of The Unbearables, which we claimed had been lying there since Pearl Harbor Day of 1941. And we were also videotaping. I just sat in the corner writing poems. I wrote 28 poems, submitted them to the New Yorker, and one of them was published in the New York Observer in the midst of this. Then, Alice Quinn rejected the poems very warmly, saying, "I know these poems were dashed off in the heat of your merry spree, but I am much more open to Downtown poetry than you imagine." What could I do? I was asking to be published in the New Yorker, I sent her my poems, she published me. It's hard to complain. They outfoxed me.

TD: You were taken into the fold and then promptly folded! Do you think the same thing could happen if you ran for president again?

S: American politics doesn't work like that. Look at fucking Ralph Nader. They anti-coopt you. They use you to elect them.  They don't make Ralph Nader the Secretary of Transportation. The media covers his campaign when the race is close, and they can sway people from the Democratic Party to the Green Party. The minute the election ends, they never speak to Ralph Nader again. People said to him after the election, "Why don't you give a press conference?  Why don't you discuss this Bush dictatorship?" He answered, "I'm always giving press conferences. No one comes to my press conferences." So, American politics in the presidential arena are extremely focused. It's some kind of bilateral war. So people like me that are running for President exist as a kind of garnish, like a parsley next to the steak. [Laughter.] Nobody eats the parsley. Which might be beneficial, in my case.

TD: I eat parsley, but I don't eat that parsley usually.

S: Last time, in 2000, there were more weird candidates than ever before. So I'm part of a movement. I think people should run for president—it's important to run for president. I always tell people not to vote for me. I think you should vote for the Democrats. I've always been explicit about this, or at least implicit.

TD: How about complicit? Did you vote for yourself?

S: No, I always vote for the Democrats. Even though they're jerks. In American politics you have to vote against, you don't vote for. That's the mistake that Nader made.

TD: Earlier you mentioned you have the opposite problem of regular people, you said: “I have anti-vices instead of…”

S: I was saying my problem is I don't eat wheat, I don't eat dairy, I can't eat any of the stuff you bought for me. And lately I'm getting these allergic reactions, I think, from only eating rye. If your diet is so extremely limited, you end up getting allergic to the thing that you're obsessing on, to avoid the other obsession—because people need variety. Probably as chimpanzees we had a varied life of eating.

TD: What about the poem where you want to eat the flag? Could you read that?

S: I just wrote it, on the 9th (5/9/02). That's like three days ago, right? It's called "Thursday morning": “An urge to eat the American flag.” I explained that I was eating a rye cracker while substitute teaching in the morning, and I'm supposed to salute the flag—or at least stand and look solemnly at the flag—and while eating the cracker and looking at the flag, I developed the confused feeling that I wanted to eat the flag. [Laughter.]

ES: It may taste better than those crackers.

S: Exactly. Because the flag looks like it tastes better than the rye cracker. We live in a country with maybe the most delicious looking flag of any nation.

TD: Does “Eat your flag” or “Eat the flag” work as a slogan or campaign rallying point?

S: It's fucking illegal.

TD: Are there flag-eating states and non-flag-eating states?

S: You can't—it's illegal to eat the flag. Or it's going to be. They have laws about this.

TD: What if you have a cake that is an American flag and cut into pieces and you eat it?

S: That's one of the things that's interesting about the current patriotic mania. Abbie Hoffman was on The Merv Griffin Show wearing an American flag shirt, and they blanked it out, because it was considered a horrible defacement of the American ideals—and now everybody has American flag underwear, slippers, headbands. Really, it's about capitalism destroying feudalism; because flags are ultimately feudal, and capitalism doesn't give a shit about any traditions. It's in the world to destroy all tradition. That's its revolutionary character, as Marx explained. Once it's destroyed every tradition and reduced everyone to the level of idiocy, then... that's the situation we're in now.

TD: Well, do you think that people who don't get with the program are uncivilized?

S: Who don't become capitalists? Bush says it's a war for civilization that we're fighting now.  And we're fighting, as it happens, against barbarians. There was a great line in the New York Post about one of the last major battles in the Afghan war, where the Americans were using satellite-powered remote laser weapons to attack Al-Qaeda in the caves of Tora Bora. (It sounds like some science fiction story, when you say it out loud!) And the New York Post said: "The mysticism of the Taliban is no match for the technology of the West." Because Osama Bin Laden, in his tape, all he talks about with his friends are dreams—how the dreams prophesy various triumphs for them. They're working on the dream-prophecy-level, and our government is working on the electronic-weapon-level. So it's a war between those two views. And I think the real problem with the World Trade Center is that it melted just like a vision, that these Islamic mystics were able somehow to materialize their visionary style into our reality. And that troubles everyone in America. If God is with us, how could God have let the towers melt so immediately? It doesn't seem possible. That's why a lot of these banners say "God Bless America"; we have to reaffirm that God really is on our side. Because God creates miracles, and this was a kind of miracle. A horrible miracle, but a miracle. It was basically exactly what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah—the fire came from above and decimated them for their sins. I'm not defended Al-Qaeda, I don't like Al-Qaeda.  I'm just describing the aesthetic meaning of...

TD: Why do you think that people get, even thoughtful people, get so belligerent or unsympathetic to even hearing something like you have just said?

S: You know, I'm just speaking strictly as an art critic. I spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum looking at their Islamic art exhibit, which is first class. And I watched music videos in Egypt and I understand their spatial theory. [Laughs] (Just between you and me, I probably don't understand it [laughter]—but in this interview I'm pretending that I'm all-knowing.) I think it unsettles Americans to believe that they're evil. Because Star Wars has revived now—this is a central image in modern American thought—that there's the rebel army and there's the Empire. And we identify ourselves with the rebels; we don't think we're the Empire! [Laughs.]

And also, if you're a socialist and you don't approve of the American Empire, what's your role?  Will you get killed by the terrorists, just like John Ashcroft? Probably. So we're in a terrible position. Besides, we're not fundamentalist Muslims. We don't have the pleasure of believing in some doctrine of Islam. We're feminists, we're agnostics, so where do we stand in this present conflict? You know, George Carlin said about the Waco, Texas incident: "When fundamentalist Christians and government agents are shooting each other, I'm a happy man!" Yet, now that American imperialists and fundamentalist Muslims are shooting each other, we're not so happy. I'm not happy. I don't know why. [Laughs] I feel that Al-Qaeda has made major ideological blunders [laughs] and I feel that the American Empire is vicious, but I also feel that this is a false dichotomy. That we're all trapped in a false dichotomy, and this is why we're not acting. We have to see again the path; we've lost the path, we Leftists. Somehow in the smoke of the current war, we can't see our own…


TD: You're currently working on a book of your collective prose and various published pieces. Are you noticing anything about your work?

S: Yes, Soft Skull Press is putting out my collected prose works America: A Prophecy. So I'm looking at everything I ever wrote. I realize, in retrospect, that I'm really a visual artist. I used to put out these little mimeographed books, in '90 or '89, when there was still a mimeograph machine at St. Mark's Poetry Project, and looking at them now, they're this big [gestures with his fingers], stapled—as artifacts they're beautiful. Mimeograph is all mistakes, you know, like this transcendent collection of little mistakes.

TD: What were you writing back then?

S: For me, a breakthrough that I had—maybe the first good poem that I wrote—was from one of these mimeographed books I did. They were like your journal; I would just write things I overheard. I was going to readings at the 92nd St. Y—somebody gave me a free ticket for these readings—and Robert Bly would say something like, "I'm surprised there are so many blondes here," and that would be the poem, that quote.

TD: Lines in journals can either be convincing or inaccessible to just plain boring. You know, like you gave that example which something like, “like summer light on an old blue car.” That is not a good line.

S: Right.

TD: But sometimes when you come across certain lines, in a certain context, you're like God, yes—why is that? Why can such a simple line come across so well, while others don't hit it?

S: No, a journal is a document, so you know it's real. In other words, you write a poem, a poem is a performance. Like with Robert Frost, you don't really care whether his fucking farmers are real. They become metaphorical farmers, and everything they do is a metaphor, and everything they say is a performance. It has nothing to do with real farmers. It's just a philosophical pun that there are farmers in the poem. I'm not really capable of explaining this...

Like when you're 12, you write a poem about how your boyfriend dropped you and you're miserable. And you think other people are interested in your life. But you don't realize that a poem is a public document; it's public art, like a sculpture in the park. A sculpture is for everyone to look at. It has nothing to do with you, the artist—it's for them, the lookers!  [Laughs.] Whereas a journal is for you, the writer: it's you talking to you. So when someone else is looking in at it, they're looking at Fitzgerald and his relationship to that blue car. It's very touching, weirdly vivid, this communion between Fitzgerald and the car—and you can't do that in a poem, because there's no privacy in a poem. [Laughs.]

TD: You have a beard and dress like a homeless person and I could see how some people might say you look like a hippie, but you came of age after the hippies and before punk. I know you have a life-long practice of mediation. Can you talk about how a few of these strands connect in your life?

S: I tried to meditate in high school and I was never able to do it. At a certain point it happened.   I flunked out of college, my parents had more or less disowned me, my girlfriend left me. I was at the bottom of the universe.  I walked into this meditation, I got there late so everybody was already meditating. I still remember this vividly—it was the ethereal equivalent of a warm bath. I just felt, "Oh, I can relax!"  Now in retrospect, I may have been having a nervous breakdown. This was the answer on an experiential level, whether or not I believed in every crenulation of the philosophy. So I started doing meditation, and all my friends were starting to meditate. We would chant every week at the Temple of the Universe, out at The Hague, just outside of town. Mickey Singer, this charismatic teacher, would lead us in a chant for an hour and a half. Then we would stand in a big circle in a meadow and chant Om, eat cookies and flirt—it was really ecstatic. We were, in a way, a neo-conservative reaction to hippies.

TD: What year was this?

S: This is late '74. The hippies started in '66. But everything happened quickly. It's not like punk, that's been around for 25 years and still is exactly the same. Back then there was an evolution. And the feeling was that the hippies had failed. Drugs, sex, something was wrong. Trying to smoke pot and love everybody... If you smoke enough pot, you just stand there getting scared and nervous, or pissed off, 'cause somebody stole your pot! If you want real peace, real love, you've got to find a tradition that works, that changes consciousness. I don't mean to sermonize; I'm trying to explain how we felt. I must say I don't feel so differently about it at the moment, but I have a very complex relationship with yoga. I certainly have been practicing it since '74, and that will be—if I make it to September this year—30 years out of a life of 50, twice a day. I pretty much never fail. We came home at 3 o'clock last night, I didn't miss my meditation.

TD: So I just want to say, it doesn't have to do with the thing you're talking about right now, but during your time in Florida, is that when you got the name Sparrow?

S: Right, in the spiritual spring of '75. That's when Muktananda came to Gainesville, the first time I met him—a real and profound, though ultimately probably corrupt, guru. Also I took acid again (after the first time, on April 5th, '71, when I flipped out at a Grateful Dead concert at what was then called the Manhattan Ballroom; I think it's now the Hammerstein Ballroom). '75 was a real awakening time for me.  Allen Ginsberg says every decade finds its peak in the middle, and May '75 was when Patti Smith was inventing punk. My best friend Steve Kronen, who's now an academic poet—literally published in Poetry magazine—he went up to New York, his brother was living in New York, in 1977. He came back and told me he had been to this place, CBGB's, and had seen this really spiritual band called Television. It was a spiritual band; that was the first thing I heard about punk! [Laughs.]

Then in '78 I moved back to New York to continue my education. At the University of Florida I sat in on some courses. I thought it was a terrible university—mediocre, full of tennis players. Some of the teachers were sort of good but… So I decided I would go to one of those self-study colleges, either Empire State College in New York or Evergreen College in Washington State. (And I later realized, "Gee, if I had moved out to Washington, maybe I would have been part of the Grunge Underground.") I was so alienated from New York. I'd go to New York and feel terrified—the place seemed so unspiritual, and so crazy and paranoid and claustrophobic—and this is where I grew up! And I thought: "This is wrong, to be so alienated from your own birthplace." So I moved back and lived with my parents for a year. Then I started working with the mentally retarded in a group home. And I continued doing that, first at the group home and later at the 92nd St. Y, at an evening program for retarded adults that I helped found in '79. And I've essentially spent twenty years working with retarded people, part-time. Eventually, when we left New York in '98, I was working about fifteen hours a week. But it's a great job.

TD: So how did you get your name?

S: The person who gave me my name was named Jennifer. Jennifer The Princess of Love always wore purple and was basically an acidhead. I described her recently, in that New York Times article, as looking like a Tarot card come to life.

TD: Which article? “Spam I Am?”

S: Yeah, “Spam I Am.” I think. It probably got edited out. I think they edited it out. They heavily edited that piece.

TD: That doesn't sound unusual.

S: No, my first piece they didn't.

TD: They didn't?

S: Barely edited. But then the Jason Blair thing changed the tide. Now they're terrified. Terrified of mistakes. So then, Jennifer had this lady in waiting, Kitty, who was this gorgeous girl from Upstate New York who always dressed in green and never said anything.

TD: (Laughs).

S: So I said to Jennifer, "I need a new name," and she said, "You be Sparrow; you look like a sparrow." I think she meant that my head sat on my neck like a little sparrow. But she never knew she was naming me for all time.  Every day she would give people names. Like, we'd read the Sunday Comics, and she would point to Isolt and say, "Oh, you're just like Lil' Orphan Annie." So then I moved back to New York in 1978 and spent a year in cultural shock. These punks on the subways were terrifying; they just seemed like killers, you know? My friends and I  were spreading love and joy, and these people were spreading hate and heroin—yet I was attracted to them, fascinated by them. And I ended up, I had a friend, Meredith Lund, an artist, and she took me into the world of the Danceteria, the late punk scene of '79, '80.

TD: What in the world was Danceteria?

S: Danceteria.  That was the Great Club.  As scintillant as Gainesville was in '75, it was just as dreamlike at Danceteria in '79. It was illegal, near Madison Square Garden. And it was just before AIDS. It was very gay. It was Halloween all of the time, is the only way I can describe it to you. Meredith had gone to prep school with someone in the band Human Sexual Response, so we would see them a lot.


TD: You have carpal tunnel syndrome. I think it's worth bringing up since you say you don't write, but you think about stuff, then you don't write it down. The last part is what I don't understand.

S: Then I go write it down?

TD: Okay, so you do write. It's rather elaborate isn't though?

S: Yeah. Oh, yeah, well, I have this ritual now that I wake up, lie in bed, I try to remember my dreams—which is difficult, 'cause as soon as I wake up I want to start writing a poem. But I resist that pull, and instead I try to remember everything I can about my dream. Like last night there was an editor in a publishing company and I was telling him about a novel I was writing, trying to interest him in my novel. [Laughs.] And as I told him the plot, I realized, "This plot is really obvious and dull!" A guy is sick and then I found some medicine and I cured him—that's the whole plot. And as I'm saying this to him, he's looking at me with a look of pity and confusion. He's a black guy, a black publishing editor, and you can see he's thinking, "Why would someone tell me such a pointless plot?" Then I wake up in horror at my own insufficiency as a writer. So I try to stay thinking about that, saturated with that rejection and self-revulsion. Then words begin to come into my mind. Today I was thinking, "flower destiny." I didn't think it; it sort of drifted into my mind.  Then I thought, "Your flower destiny will be sweet." Then I thought, "Oh wow, that's like a fortune cookie fortune!" Then I thought, "Maybe there should be more." And I decided: "Many marigolds and phlox will bedeck your telephone. Irises will grow in your Mickey Spillane paperbacks. Even your slippers will spout tulips." First I had, "Even your slippers will sprout roses," then I thought, "Wait, 'tulips' is funny, because it's like the slippers have two lips, and slippers do look like they're about to talk." [Laughs.]

Flower Destiny

Your flower destiny will be sweet.

Marigolds and phlox will

bedeck your telephone.

Irises will grow in your Mickey Spillane


Even your slippers will sprout tulips.

TD: Amazing. [Laughs.]

S: There must be some cartoon I'm remembering where the slippers are actually talking—they have tongues and eyes. So  I'm thinking about this whole series of ideas. Like the word "bedeck" comes into my mind: "I've got to use 'bedeck'!" And I compile these various words that are entering my mind into a mental artifact. Then I decide, "Do I really care about this, or do I want to let this drift back to its origin?" It came from nowhere, why can't it go back to nowhere? [Laughs.] If I feel it's an experiment I want to pursue, I go to my machine, turn it on, and I talk into my voice-activated computer—Dragon Naturally Speaking program—and the words appear on the screen.

TD: So you don't write what you write?

S: I'm not a writer, I'm a post-writer. I'm after the death of writing. I'm a person that thinks thoughts, like the "pre-cogs" in Minority Report, these psychics who lie blindfolded in a vat of tepid water, having visions of the future. I lie there, thoughts enter me, and if I think they might be useful to someone—mostly me—I talk them.Then I have to correct them a little, usually, because the computer doesn't know what "flower destiny" means. Then I go back to thinking, and I do that until noon. At the stroke of noon there's a siren in Phoenicia. (Actually, it's not exactly at noon; the siren is a minute before noon.) So I look at the clock, and when it's exactly noon, I can stop thinking. Then I start doing my yoga and all my elaborate middle-age exercises to improve my musculature and maintain my age level at maybe 36. Maybe I'm physically 36 years-old, even though chronologically I'm a 49 year-old. Now hopefully I'm going backwards, and eventually I'll get to 34.

TD: If I go slightly ahead, and you go slightly back, do you think we might ever meet?

S: Yes, we may meet.  (Laughs).

TD: Well, in this “pre-cog” state, is this where you also write? I mean make a lot of your palindromes?

S: Yeah, this is what I was saying. The danger.... You can also think about sex, but either at my age or my mentality, more often a palindromic undertow will pull me in—and once you start palindroming it's very hard to stop. It's something you have to fight. It's like Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree; the demons are tempting him, and he has to fight them. Also all Catholic saints do this.  And palindromes are strangely demonic: "Devil lived," "God a dog." Both "tit" are "boob" are palindromes...

TD: And gag is one: elegant as it is nasty.

S: Yes. (Smiling).

TD: Are palindromes bisexual in nature?

S: (Smiling).

TD: I mean don't they go both ways on their own?

S: Oh yeah, well a lot of them, "racecar," "level," words like that...I was going to tell you, I invented this palindrome: "Yoko Ono -- o.k. Oy!"  But they're useless, palindromes, they seem to have no value besides being demonic and bringing down all higher aspirations.  There's something about how they reverse...You think of God as an Absolute, and then you reverse God and you have a dog. Palindromes have this power to undo the conditioning of language. This movie I saw last night, Holes, is all about this guy, Stanley Yelnats, and he's a palindrome. This is my fate; I'm attracting palindromes. You want to hear this weird thing that happened to me?  The publisher of Chronogram e-mailed me and said, "Did you know today's date is a palindrome: 10/02/2001?" And that's my birthday.

TD: Oh my god, is that true?

S: Yeah, you attract palindromes once you palindromify. Palindromize. But I do a little palindroming. I'm not like a Buddhist; I'm not going to kill myself every time I palindromify. You just have to accept it and try to move on.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Brent Cunningham, Mary Burger, Sparrow, and more...


We Live in a Country with Maybe the Most Delicious Looking Flag of Any Nation: An Interview with Sparrow
Interviewed by Thomas Devaney
Sparrow may be one of the most touching and elusive writers in America.

Time-Stopping, Points of Friction, and Other Narrative Events: An Interview with Mary Burger
Interviewed by Kevin Kilroy
Mary Burger discusses Sonny, New Narrative, and time.


Major Jackson
Jackson’s formal talents and lyrically spun narratives dazzle in a book that covers everything from lay-ups to po-biz. Reviewed by Lynnell Edwards

Heather Nagami
An anomaly among first books by an Asian American poet, Hostile struggles with the very roots of unfashionable “identity work.” Reviewed by Kenny Tanemura

Bird & Forest
Brent Cunningham
Cunningham’s first collection of poems transforms itself from declarative orations to stunningly self-conscious meditations and then turns again. Reviewed by Amanda Nadelberg

The Healing Spirit of Haiku
David Rosen and Joel Weishaus
This book of reflections and haiku enhances the physical  reality of the haiku experience. Reviewed by Andrew Redhead


Gate of the Sun
Elias Khoury
translated by Humphrey Davies
A Palestinian resistance fighter of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war tells stories to his dying comrade, in an effort to talk him back to life in this poetic and poignant reworking of 1001 Nights. Reviewed by Laird Hunt

Things in the Night
Mati Unt
Unt’s book does not document absurdities so much as embody them; peeking out from behind these absurdities is an ongoing critique of modern society. Reviewed by Scott Esposito

Marlon Brando & Donald Cammell
Edited by David Thomson
Follow the exciting adventures of a man named Annie, Hong Kong prisoner and pirate. Reviewed by Sam Howie


A Little History of the World
E.H. Gombrich
Gombrich retells for young readers the great stories of history, from the beginnings of time and civilization to the dawning age of technology. Reviewed by Kelly Everding

Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment
David Edmonds & John Eidinow
This is a story of two great thinkers who became close friends only to become bitter enemies. Reviewed by Allan Vorda

Neurosphere: The Convergence of Evolution, Group Mind, and the Internet
Donald P. Dulchinos
Could the World Wide Web be the next step in the evolution of consciousness? Reviewed by Nicole Duclos

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich sets out to prove how hard it is to find a job in George W. Bush’s America. Reviewed by Robert J. Nebel

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
Pankaj Mishra
The story of the Buddha continues to be relevant for a society constantly dealing with consumerism, militarism, and nihilism. Reviewed by Rasoul Sorkhabi


Why are You Doing This
In his first full-color work, Jason follows a cat-headed young man named Alex as he tries to discover who has framed him for the murder of his best friend. Reviewed by Rebecca Porte

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006