Bob Holman: Dinosaur, Jabberwocky, Shaman, Kora
(Part Two of Two)
by Daniela Gioseffi
DG: Where does your urge to write poetry in the first place come from? You are obviously a "macher" and you have the ability to make things happen, but what about your own work? For example, your poem which begins, "It's 1990 and Nelson Mandela is free." Where does the urge to write poetry, instead of doing something else come from for you? I mean, you're such a macher, you could've done a lot of things. Why poetry of all things?
BH: It comes from a love of language. Poems are not emotions riveted onto a page. They are not pretty pictures. They are words. They are histories of words. They are subtleties. I'm a word kinda guy. I was the guy at the party who said, "Listen to these words." I was a complete jerk about it. I still am a complete jerk about words. So, once you get the words, then what do you say with them?
For some reason it's been given me to do these big video projects. For some reason fate said "yes" to me about doing this. So now, who gets a chance to talk? Well, do I pick the sixty greatest poets who are alive right now? Who are they and who decides who they are? Or do you begin to say, 'Here's an opportunity for this country to see itself in a different way'? And in between those two lists or list makers, there's something you work for.
There will be times when I just have to write a poem. I have to write a poem every year on my birthday. That's just what I do. It's my job no matter what else is going on. And, when I have kids, I have to write poems when they're born. When my wife has a birthday, I have to write her a poem. When I was sitting next to Winton Marsalis and next to my good buddies, Paul and Steve Cannon, there was a big audience come forth, I needed to make this event.
I've been studying the last year or more with Papa Zuzu, a griot from the Gambio, and learning about the griots. For years, I've said that hip-hop comes from the griots, the oral historians of Africa, the time binders who bring the past together with the present.
DG: The sort of thing Homer, too, was doing. The shamanists, too?
BH: Well, the shamanists are a bit different, but there's this sort of seer thing, this predicting or fortune telling thing, too.
(BH gets his beautiful African instrument, made of a large gourd, down from the shelf and begins to play it. Its strings give off a lovely lilting and peaceful sound.)
DG: Oh, beautiful! Just beautiful, Bob! I had a little African lyre I used to travel with and sing poems to all through the Seventies. It was called a buntu in Northern Nigeria, the precursor of the guitar, a smaller gourd instrument covered with cow's skin and with hemp strings. I also had a bass harp covered with snakeskin, a bit larger. I had a treble and a base with seven strings--no doubt for the pentatonic scale--but I tuned it to the Western scale of C major. What do you call this marvelous, biodegradable instrument you're playing?
BH: It's called a "kora." (BH plays more.) I've got it from Papa Zuzu. His brother built it for me and when you play, it just makes you feel like telling a few poems.
DG: It's wonderful. What's next?
BH: Next, I'm going to put all my poems in chronological order on my web site. They will all be there. And, I'll begin to see my whole body of work in one place. So, I've been building this web site over the past year.
DG: Is it interactive with video and audio? I was going to ask you...What do you think the future of poetry is in this new digitized century? Do you feel the audience for poetry will grow or shrink in years to come, with the internet and e-books and so forth?
BH: It's all good, I feel. It's going to be more choices. I'm starting a new club--a school--over on the Bowery, for arts and technology. The big questions is access. What can you do, how do you get to what you need to put the work out there? How do you get to a studio? People say, 'You've got a good voice,' but that's because I've been in the studio, and I've listened and played back and critiqued myself and worked on it and learned.
DG: Yes, and the use of a microphone is a whole art unto itself that I've had to learn as a jazz singer. The use of a microphone can be so subtle. I started as a classical actress doing Sophocles, Shakespeare, Congreve, Ibsen, and such. That's what drove me into being a performance poet early on, as I came from the world of poetic drama. Poetry and drama have always been related but you wouldn't know it from some academic poets who put you to sleep.
BH: Ha! Yes. At my class up at Bard where I teach a course called "ExplodingText," I always have a microphone in class for the students to work and perform with. They work on performing.
DG: So you've recently--What, the last two or three years?--entered academia with the teaching of performance poetry.
BH: Yes, this is my third year teaching at Bard, but I taught at the New School before that, just one course, but this is a bigger part of the curriculum. First semester: "Exploding Text: Poetry Performance." Second semester: "Exploding Text: A Poets' Theatre Festival." Simply, that the poet, when performing, is the text exploded into the moment where the shards of meaning are flying around, like ping-pong balls in a mousetrap factory. But, also, to get at the essence of a text, because to me there's no difference between analyzing a text to get at it, or preparing it for performance. It's the same process.
DG: Ah yes, I taught what we call "oral interpretation." It's the same process of explication or analysis.
BH: Exactly. We take a close reading of a text as a doctoral thesis. It's the same process. Mysteries of Small Houses [Alice Notley, Penquin. Notley's work appears in this month's feature. Eds.] and D.A. Levi's book, The Buddhist Third Class Junk-Mail Oracle. We take both the performance and the contemplative aspects of the text, and we do collaborations with the music department, the jazz department at Bard. We also dig into the real edgy poets of today who are text-based. Next semester we'll be doing a poem by John Ashbery, from his new book, Girls on the Run, and we'll theatricalize it. We also study Mayakowsky.
DG: What do you feel about that whole Abstract Expressionist School of John Ashbery's style of poetry? During the last decades it seems to have fostered Jorie Graham and so many writers of the New York School of poetry. Or what do you think of the Language School of Charles Bernstein which actually harkens back to Gertrude Stein, and Jackson Mac Low (whom I knew years ago in the East Village)? We were all trying those language experiments in the early Seventies with Mac Low. But, what do you think about these schools and their champions and critics like Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, these theoretical poets who seem to have dominated the last couple of decades while the average reader seems to have great difficulty responding to these forms of poetry? These schools have for a time dominated poetry, and I don't associate them in my mind with your kind of performance poetry and rap and out-there exciting stuff. Ginsberg harkens back to Whitman and Williams, but the influence of people like Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, James Wright, John Logan seem to have been a bit submerged over the past decade or two, wouldn't you say? What would you say about these schools and the idea of sociopolitical content in poetry? How have these schools affected poetry?
BH: I think it depends on which world you're living in. The world of poetry as it's defined by the texts of major publishers and academic quarterlies is one world. Then, you're right that those schools have predominated and there is little or no sociopolitical content. The vocabulary they use is directed at these poems they've created. The lineage that they see for themselves has been derived from a very clear and virile coup. But, if you're a young poet who is down with the movie Slam and who looks upon Patti Smith or Annie DeFranco as your favorite poet, then you've never paid any attention to those schools at all.
The audiences of the Patti Smith's and Annie DeFranco's are far larger in numbers than the small world of academic poetry. I'm an addict of poetry and I love all kinds, a lot of it. I certainly love the poetry of John Ashbery. How I see it relating to the sociopoliltical structure is simply by his imaginative use of language. He places himself outside the box where you are being poked out and treated as the base point of a capitalist society. But, in this world, you're a smart cookie who can follow his lovely weavings of language, who can follow his imaginative leaps. Is it a privileged place to be? Well, yes, it's a privileged place to be.
You talk about the poetry of Amiri Baraka, say, which is filled with direct hits on a culture which has been very repressive of the African American; you hear from another point of view. As far as who has the greater impact, somebody else has to do that study. If you want to play the capitalist game, you go and you look up the number of books sold.
DG: So, you can go to Amazon.com and look up ranking numbers?
BH: But, you see, a lot of Amiri's books wouldn't be counted there because he carries them around with him to his readings and distributes himself among his followers and within his community.
DG: Like Walt Whitman out of a basket on the Camden streets toward the end of his life.
What interests me though is that John Ashbery has only one message and it's a nihilistic message. He's been called down for always saying the same thing: "Nothing means anything. It's all an action painting lived in a dream that passes us daily passing, moment to meaningless juxtaposed moment." That bothers me. I feel that if I've seen a few of Jackson Pollack's action paintings, I've seen them all! Ashbery's is basically a nihilist's message with no care or concern for the future. It's all in the surreal Zen moment: 'Here I am adrift in the flotsam and jetsam.' Ashbery is brilliant with his use of language, and he's a kindly and cultured man, one of the few who pronounces my long Italian name perfectly whenever I see him, very pleasant and cordial, but what is he saying over and over? It's depressing, not uplifting.
I, myself, feel closer to Ginsberg, Rukeyser or Baraka. It's interesting that you are choosing Ashbery for your class, to dramatize it. I know you're a guy who's open to all kinds of poetry. You have all these books on your voluminous shelves here behind you in your study, and I know that you've taken on the William Carlos Williams's motto as the theme for The United States of Poetry: "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem." But it's interesting you've been able to combine some of the principles behind an Ashbery poem, and combine them into your 199l Nelson Mandela poem.
BH: Yes, well, it's just, can you keep your feet on the race track while you are riding through the flux of the cosmos? The poem is a way that enables you to do that. Who do I feel closer to? Certainly, I'd not be a poet now if it weren't for the works of Ginsberg, which pulled me out of the extreme conservatism of rural Ohio and gave me a possibility for truth and for seeing art and poetry as a means for both getting out and getting over. So, it's as you follow along, your path is as a poet. So, while I grieve with Whitman looking at poets as the unacknowledged legislators, in order to pull that off, that path of poetry, I have to continue my work in studying what's going on. I have to keep on liberating poetry from both the oppression of a consumerist culture and the narrowmindedness of the academy that defines poetry so slightly that it becomes a powerless entity in the culture!
DG: Well, you certainly make it a more powerful medium with your energetic and lively presence, Bob Holman. Thank you so much for your time.
BH: My pleasure, Daniela.
DG: You're a wonder! A lively performer who can really make poetry happen in the living moment for your audiences. Piacere, signor
Holman! Grazie molto!
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