Interview with Pierre Joris
Interview with Pierre Joris
Barzakh: What is the trajectory of your own poetics?
PJ: from Homer (in German prose translations) via Gottfried Benn — Paul Celan — Rimbaud, Rimbaud, Rimbaud —
Lautréamont — some Breton & the Surrealists — Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & the Beats —
Mohammed Khair-Eddine (first published poet I shared a room with) & the francophone Maghrebi & Caribbean poets
— Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot (already fighting in the captain’s tower — EP won easily) — Shelley (& small doses of the
other English Romantics, especially Keats for Neg. Cap.) — Rilke (a little, at arm’s length) Whitman (all of it) — H.D.
& W.C.W. — Basho (Oku no Hosomichi more than any single haikus) — William Blake (the great Prophetic Books
before all) — Charles Olson & Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley, again & again — Gertrude Stein is Gertrude Stein is
Gertrude Stein — Jack Spicer — Robert Kelly & Jerome Rothenberg & Clayton Eshleman — Dada & Kurt Schwitters
— Ken Irby & Gerrit Lansing — Osip Mandelstam & Marina Tsvetaeva (I had read & liked the Futurists before, but
these two stayed closest, certainly O.M. did) — Frank O’Hara & Ted Berrigan — Joyce Mansour & Claude Pélieu —
to my contemporaries, more difficult to judge or name all, — Allen Fisher (core) — Eric Mottram (core teacher) —
Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Charles Stein, Habib Tengour, Nicole Brossard,
Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino — the list is endless, nomadically so, of course, & this morning typing this in the
Pyrenees at 5:35 a.m. I worry that I’ll leave out important ones for me & hurt friends —
not sure what made me do this as a list of names, but I guess that besides whatever personal, psychic, physical
compulsion drives one to not only write poetry as everyone does in their teenage years, but to continue into
adulthood & make it the essential, daily activity of one’s life, besides that possibly unfathomable urge, one’s poetics
come from reading, absorbing, confronting, digesting, rejecting the poetry of the past & the present. For me, coming
to this with 4 languages & having decided to write in the last one I learned, this also meant reading in a variety of
cultures, something I have come to think of as essential for anyone wanting to write today in our “global” world. The
best contemporary poetries have made process-showing (i.e. integrating & making visible the “how” of the poem, or
its poetics, in the poem itself) part & parcel of the work, just as a situationist like Guy Debord insisted that in all made
things the final product should show the actual trace of the means & tools that produced it (ideologically, that trace is
exactly what the products of capitalism try to obliterate absolutely). As the previous sentence would indicate one’s
poetics do not necessarily come from lit-crit or purely literary analysis. My own ideas of what poetry today should be
& how it should configure itself to be as relevant as possible to the complexities of our world, have been shaped and
advanced by a wide range of readings in the sciences (Heisenberg’s writings, among others), and the history of the
sciences (Michel Serres is major here, especially his study of Lucretius, but also Jacques Monod, Jacques Ruffié, on
biology, Francis Crick on the structure of DNA, but further Joseph Needham on the history of science in China, and
G. Spender-Brown, whose Laws of Form brilliantly investigates matters of form via mathematical concepts. Then of
course there is philosophy, from the pre-Socratics (way more essential today than Plato & Aristotle) via the
Renaissance thinkers, from Montaigne to Giordano Bruno, to the core moderns, for example Alfred North
Whitehead’s Process and Reality, to contemporary thinkers, with, essential for me, Gilles Deleuze & Jacques Derrida
as core movers. Other areas, like anthropology, history, geography, botany, medicine, the traditional (neo-platonic)
sciences & systems, are also useful areas of investigation for one’s poetics.
As a poet & writer you want to know what happened and what is going on right now as you write (to just enjoy
aesthetically but also learn from & be inspired by) other art forms, painting, music, performance etc., from the earliest
prehistoric art (it so happens that tomorrow morning I’ll be going for the 4th time to the Gargas Cave here in the
Pyrenees, to check out those amazing paintings of hands, and one of the most fabulous vulva representations we
have in the history of our species) to the work of my contemporaries (I just wrote a preface for a catalogue of an
exhibition of paintings happening in Paris later this month investigating the concept of “Le Mal – now” & including
work by the likes of Irving Petlin, whose work is on the covers of my two books from Wesleyan University Press,
Horst Haack, Joyce Kozloff, Vladimir Velickovic and others)
If this looks like a daunting list of “musts,” it is not: what it is is the vast field of human endeavors in which my decision
to be a poet, and thus “the last generalist of the whole, … who eats everything,” as one friend has dubbed the poet’s
job, allows & even demands me to play, to read & learn, to make connections & write through & from. This is not say
that such knowledge supplants or replaces that unavoidable banality called “personal experience,” but that it helps
give it shape, depths, adding dimensions & layers to one’s reading of daily events in one’s own life & in the world one
lives this life in in the company of others.
Barzakh: What has been the trajectory of poetics at SUNY Albany?
PJ: I’m not really a historian of this, our, academic institution & can at best give a limited, personal, biased take on
this matter. When I came to UA in 1992, there was a sort of triple braid happening: On the one hand there was the
New York State Writers Institute with Tom Smith in the position that Don Faulkner now has, and on the other, in the
department itself, there were two strains. The first, coming from Judith Johnson, a good & active poet & teacher, who
brought to campus and edited the magazines Thirteenth Moon (primarily feminist / women’s work — & very important
in that way at that moment) and The Little Magazine. Judy’s approach was very much creative writing workshop
based & she would dearly have seen the department set up a dedicated MFA program. Then there was Don Byrd,
poet & scholar, whose 1980 book Charles Olson’s Maximus is still the best intro to that major 20C American epic, and
whose 1993 The Poetics of the Common Knowledge should be compulsory reading for all our poetics/poetry
graduate students. Coming as he did from the Olson line of poets & thinkers, you can immediately see that my own
interests were very close to his (just look back at the lists in my first answer above).
We both felt that the invasion of American universities by cash-cow creative writing programs would eventually be a
liability for thinking men & women, given their built-in anti-intellectual stance, their reliance on a fake arte povera
based on “personal experience,” & their quasi-chauvinistic & simplistic American self-reliance guide-lines. So we both
much favored the new PhD that had just been created (& in whose definition Don had had a hand) and which
involved combinations of creative and critical &/or pedagogical areas. Don was also very involved with the new
electronic arts & especially digital poetry; he taught in that area and supervised the first CD-edition of The Little
Magazine that proposed a range of such poetries.
After I got to Albany in 1992, I managed to convince Tom Smith at the NYSWI to let us bring in poets on a more solid
basis than just the one-off readings, & so for a few years we had week-long residencies by poets who would interact
with the students, teach a master-class, give a reading & be available to talk with students. We were thus able to
invite the likes of Alice Notley, Anne Waldman and Robin Blaser, among others. Unhappily, due to circumstances
beyond my control, that very fruitful situation only lasted a few years before the Institute, after the premature death of
Tom Smith, folded back onto itself, mainly because of economic reasons, I’d guess. I was also close to Charles
Bernstein & the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo & we were able to bring in a number of the international visitors
Buffalo had invited (they had more money) & whom we got so to say on the rebound.
But despite very limited means & opposition to its aims or at least benign neglect from the wider department, our
poetics program over my 22 years here has always astounded me by its vitality — one gauge of which is the fact that
year after year the number of excellent prospective graduate students applying to our department was top-heavy with
first-rate poetics candidates.
Barzakh: What does the term ecopoetry mean?
PJ: I guess whatever you want it to mean — i.e. at this point there no long standing fixed definition of the term. In the
word-combo, the “poetry” part is of course the oldest and best defined (with multiple & often contradictory definitions).
Ecology is a much newer term, & as Robert Duncan pointed out long ago, “the O.E.D. gives 1873 as the earliest use
of the word in our language, appearing in the translation of Haeckel’s History of Creation: ‘the great series of
phenomena of comparative anatomy and ontogeny… oecology.’” And if you read on in Duncan (the quote is from
Chapter 6 of the H.D. Book) you’ll see that far from being “just” an interdisciplinary field that includes biology and
Earth Sciences, it is an all-encompassing system, in which all living beings and other matter, including human beings
come into “their comparisons” — an egalitarian view, not one with the species speciously known as homo sapiens, is
always the top or tip of the pyramid. In that sense all poetry that deals inventively with the complexity of our world
could be called ecopoetry — & not just some kind of self-conscious nature poetry.
In fact my — only partially jocular — proposition is that poetry is essentially an ecologically correct genre: a small
book of good poems, 60 to70 pages, say, holds as much or even way more information than any 350 page novel. It
thus has a way smaller carbon footprint in its making, and, even better, bears rereading any number of times, in fact
demands such rereadings, rather than the eat-&-discard fastfood the average fat novel is.
Barzakh: Where would you situate ecopoetry in relation to nomadic poetics or ethnopoetics, and why?
PJ: They are linked, complementary terms, different aspects of the same quest, different ways of exploring & moving
into & through the complexities of the world as described above. Jerome Rothenberg, working in this country &
looking at the much neglected american cultural complexity, saw at a specific time the need to concentrate on native
american work, in its written & oral forms, and bring those into the poetic present — which he was able to do,
nomadically, by drawing on early modernist avant-garde models and other such formal innovations. The initial insight
of ethnopoetics, that “primitive means complex,” deconstructs & annuls the ideologically motivated hierarchical
system proposed by white western christian imperial thinking, according to which its current euro-american
incarnation is the spearhead of progress while all other cultures are primitive and retrograde.
My nomadic poetics come out of my own personal & cultural givens — the various languages I was brought up with in
a tiny country I left as soon as I could, the traveling through a range of cultures that was my basic experience for
many years, my paradoxical sense of total at-homeness in complete displaced-ness, my involvement with translation
at a range of levels, my “natural” comparatist approach to things, etc etc. — & link up quite logically with the concerns
of ethnopoetics and ecopoetics. There is an essay on nomadicity in which I suggest that if there is to be another
“grand narrative” (cf Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis of the downfall of all such in the postmodern age) it can only be
based on the logos of “oekos,” on ecological knowledge & purpose, on the urgent crisis situation in our “earth
household” (to use Gary Snyder’s expression) — as it truly concerns all people on the planet, without exception &
without distinction. A nomadic poetics is one among a number of ways of traveling through, exploring & trying to
speak of these complexities.
Pierre Joris has just retired from the University at Albany English Department, where he taught for over twenty years. With Habib Tengour, he recently edited Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature (2013). For more on him and his work, seehere and here.