Interview with Don Byrd

Interview with Don Byrd

Interview with Don Byrd
 

Barzakh: What is the trajectory of your own poetics?

DB: I started very much involved with the poets of the Black Mountain School: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and
Ed Dorn. Duncan and Dorn were my teachers at the University of Kansas. And I wrote a PhD dissertation about
Charles Olson. So my whole poetics was saturated with that particular initiation. Which means that I was involved in
the notion of breath as a measure, and rhythm, and history. And the poem as a postlogical thing in the world, that
wasn’t just about the world, but was actually an event in the world. And I wrote a book called Aesop’s
Garden (published in 1976) that came out of that. I can see now that I had not quite paid my dues. I was still fairly
young at that time.

I started becoming interested in a connection with new media in the early 80s. I did a book called The GreatDime
Store Centennial (published in 1986). It happened to be the Centennial of the F. W. Woolworth stores. The thing that
interested me about the dime store is that it has everything in it—this collection of random stuff. When I was a kid, the
dime stores had these bins made of glass partitions, and you could change the size and shape of them. So I’d stand
and look at these toys when I was just tall enough to see over the edge of the counter, and there’d be these different
sized bins with different kinds of wonderful things in them. So I thought of a form where you have this kind of random
collection of stuff. It could be thrown into these bins, and shuffled around, and the forms could be reshaped, and so
on. I made some connection between that and dj-ing, sampling, and mixing, so that metaphor also came into play.

Then I randomly decided, having come across an old book about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that I
would write a long poem of 7 books, each having to do with one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We
have had these two periods of monstrous growth—cancerous growth—in the ancient world and in the modern world.
Each would be about the length of an academic lecture (it would take about 50 minutes to read each one). I only
thought of the lecture as a measure of length. I was very happy with it. I think it was maybe the best thing I’ve ever
written. At the same time, I thought, “This is it. This is what I have to do.” Poets would usually write a good book, and
then they’d go on writing the same book over and over again, and I didn’t see any reason to do that. I said, “I took my
shot, and figured out what I had to do, and now I need to figure out something else to do.” Obviously this a very bad
thing to do if one thinks of a poetic career or something like that, because, for that, you have to have a book coming
out every two years so that the public continues to pay attention to your name and work. But my feeling was that I’d
written this book, and I needed to understand what it was about better than I did. The interesting thing about poetry is,
when you’re in a groove, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Certainly there are many things about that book
that were mysterious to me, and there still are.

So I thought then, suppose I really dig down and try to understand the theoretical and historical framework that led
me to write this poem. So I started a book called The Poetics of the Common Knowledge, and it was a monster—
almost 500 pages, or over 500, I think, with all of the apparatus. It began with the 17th Century, and covers roughly
the same historical period covered by Michel Foucault’s Order of Things (from the Renaissance to the 20th Century).
It gives a very different picture of what that history is all about. Now you can check online and see how many people
are looking at your work, and you can find citations, and things like that. It’s getting cited a lot more than I suspected it
was.

So then I wanted to go back and write poetry. The thing about poetry, as I said, is that you’re much more interested in
the process, than in the message or content. Poets are whores: they’re willing to turn any trick they can in order to get
an effect. So I set out to write a poem that would satisfy me both as a poem and as a theoretical and philosophical
argument. I wanted to combine these two books that I’d written, the long poem and the theoretical argument. This
turned out to be a considerably larger task than I expected it to be. I’m not a fast writer, but I’ve been working on this
book for 15 years now. It’s not a matter of writer’s block (I’ve written more than 3,000 pages). The problem is figuring
out how to put it all together in some way that makes sense. I’d promised my wife I’d never write another book more
than 200 pages long. Trying to squeeze all that writing into that length has proven difficult. That’s what I’m doing now.
It’s a book called Abstraction. It’s an attempt to write a poem about a world in which information is used in a really
different way than it is used in our world. It has a lot to do with the technology that’s available. (I will say it that way,
rather than talking all night to make it clear.)

The dream of this other way of using information is why I am interested in various pieces of software. The whole
educational process should center on an information console. Kids should be confronted early on with this machine
that gives them access to all of digital resources. They should know that with this machine you can call down
anything you want for the net: make video, audio, you can write, you can draw, you can take still photographs, you
can combine these things, you can process photos or sound any way you want to. They should know that this is the
medium we live in. This is not artificial intelligence that replaces humans, but an artificial intelligence that expands
human possibility. We’re to use these machines not as replications, but as tools. I have a version of that book that I
could wrap up and have to a publisher in a month, if there were any compulsion to do so. I’m still tinkering with it. I get
up and go for a walk every morning, and record things on the voice memo app on my phone, and transcribe it or do
something with it. So that’s where I am now, trying to finish something that will satisfy me as a poem, and also as a
coherent philosophic and theoretical argument.

Barzakh: What has been the trajectory of poetics at SUNY Albany?

DB: It has very much to do with the people. When I came here in 1971 there were no other poets. There was a
novelist on the faculty, Gene Mirabelli who retired maybe ten years ago. In 1977 we hired a fiction writer named Gene
Garber, who’d been head of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at one point. I was interested in creating an alternative to the
Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and Gene was too. He saw that the Iowa model had served its purpose. We had this Doctor
of Arts Program, which was, as it turns out, primarily a writing program. We understood that just giving people
degrees in creative writing was a kind of dead-end, because jobs for writers depend on their publications, not their
having a degree. Our scheme was to accept people who were primarily interested in creative writing, but to propose
to them that all writing was related, and that the beginning writer struggling to write the freshman composition is on
his or her level dealing with exactly the same kinds of problems that the poet or novelist is dealing with. Our scheme
was to let people continue with their work as poets or novelists, and also to give them training in teaching writing and
composition. All during the 80s and early 90s, people with PhD’s from elite schools were not getting jobs, but our
people with a composition background were getting jobs, and were teaching writing, and going on with their own work
as creative writers. Many of them are very successful, like Michael Blitz, Derek Owens, Chris Funkhouser, Belle
Gironda, Yatie Yates, Lori Anderson Morseman, Christina Milletti, and Dimtri Anastasopoulos . Christina and Dimitri
are both teaching at SUNY Buffalo, and are now a solid part of their creative writing program. We have all of these
people out there, and I get books from all of them. We re-registered the PhD Program in 1993, and the writing
program, which had been the center of the graduate program, more or less disappeared. It has become more like
other programs in English. We still have some excellent poets and fiction writers finishing PhDs, and they are writing
interesting dissertations, but their work is closer to the standard academic form.

Barzakh: What does ecopoetry mean?

DB: I’m not sure, actually, what it means now, though it has become a huge field, and a specialized field. It’s a field
I’ve become nervous about, because I consider myself an environmentalist, but when I look into ecopoetics, there
seems to be a real hostility toward technology, and many other parts of the ecosystem. Computers are part of a
nature too. What else can they be? People are part of nature and one of their natural processes is to make
computers.

I love wildernesses. I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Adirondacks and Catskills and elsewhere—like the Australian
outback. I get up in the morning and go for a walk, and look at the wood duck in Washington Park. The fact is, like it
or not, we have evolved as a species on earth that is dependent upon technology, and our survival depends even
upon technology that doesn’t exist yet. In this sense, I think of the work that I’m doing as ecopoetics, though I say
nothing of the plight of endangered animals or the wilderness as a model of perfection. Last Sunday I was involved in
an event in New York City that involved walking the length of Broadway from 240th Street in the Bronx to the tip of
Manhattan. The idea was to understand Broadway as a kind of ecological core of the city. Iain Kerr and Petia
Morozov of the SPURSE collective conducted the discussion along one stretch, and they are very interesting people;
expert foragers in urban environments. They are publishing a book entitled Eat your Sidewalk. This kind of thing I
find interesting, though I doubt there is enough curly dock and chicory in the green spaces of New York to feed many
people.

I was in India last August, and while I was there, a power outage occurred in the northwestern part of India that left
seven hundred million people without power. 10% of the world’s population lives in that corner of India. In India, one
population is doing well—a population the size of the population of the U.S., say—and 1 billion people who have
nothing. The same is true in China. It’s not that there is an environment these people can go back to. This is the
environment.

When it started ecopoetics was mostly a nostalgic American transcendentalism, with Thoreau and Emerson, and the
notion that there is a natural order or primal environment that could be recovered. That the transcendental form and
nature could be unified, of course, was just never true. In this book, Abstraction, that I am working on, I propose that
the human operating system (HumOS), while it didn’t disappear in the 20th Century, was superseded by a neoplastic
operating system. We are neoplasms. Earthly creativity has always been unsponsored, if not cancerous. As
neoplasms we may also be benign, but non-genetic, nonorganic growth. What we have is a potential for wild
intelligent and creative growth and choice. Of course, we have to take responsibility for it. The only way we’re going
to survive is by taking responsibility for ourselves, and not throwing responsibility off on nature or a transcendental
order of some kind. The environmental imperative is that we come to understand our environment and figure out how
to live with it, not because we are unnatural but because neoplasms are natural and earthly too.

 

 

 

Don Byrd recently retired from the University at Albany English Department, where he taught for over forty years. His books include Aesop’s Garden (1976) and The Poetics of the Common Knowledge (1994).

 

 

Barzakh Mag