“In earlier times, I was a shipyard welder, radiation monitor, and carpenter. Then I subbed and taught English in France, where I got a doctorate. I read Bukowski in French when in France and he started me off as a poet (I used to try writing like him, similar themes, women, etc.). Then negative experience at Elmira College as a professor started me off as an ardent critic. Similar negative experience at Fitchburg State College incited me to start a literary journal, The American Dissident.”
What is the mission of the American Dissident? It seems your role is a revolution against the establishment of poetry. Are you trying to cut the fat off excessive contemporary poetry to get to the meat of it all, the “rude truth?” It seems to me that the “rude truth” in your eyes equates to struggle, grim reality and anger. Can a poet be constructive if they tend to lean toward the positive notions of life and refrain from shaking it up?
THE MISSION OF THE AMERICAN DISSIDENT is to provide a forum for no-holds-barred criticism of the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex, which includes established-order poetry, other writing, poets, other writers, editors, publishers, literary journals, professors, educationists, and journalists, as well as established-order canon idols and works. It seeks also to promote risk-taking on the part of poets, writers, journalists, and professors. In other words, all writers know precisely what they should not write about, that is, if they wish to further their careers as writers and be “successful.” (Of course, being “successful” usually implies concluding a Faustian Pact, where one trades the freedom to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) for fame, money, publications, tenure, invitations, speaking engagements—you name it.
The AD thus seeks to promote writers who will consciously write about what they know they should not. It would also like to promote whistle-blowers by publishing their accounts.
As for a “revolution against the establishment of poetry,” I do not harbor such illusions of grandeur and doubt very much AD will change anything at all. Corporate interests are much too powerful. They have been alarmingly successful at co-opting poetry. Consider the Poetry Foundation with its $200 million-dollar corporate gift. It has business managers on its board and spends $1 million annually on Poetry magazine’s website alone! Compare that to the 27 dollars spent annually by AD on its website. Millions of dollars will certainly succeed in changing the very face of poetry. It is in the interests of Big Business to render poetry a safe diversion. Big Business does not want American citizens to think. Instead, it wants to keep them entertained.
In academe, the situation is equally bad. As an example, I publish caustic essays in the student newspaper critical of the university—yes, the one currently employing me. Students have said, in a nice way, that I am “crazy” and “have balls.” That’s indicative of just how sad things have become regarding democracy in America and especially in higher education, where one would expect caustic critique and debate not to be unusual. But professors are functionaries (not good citizens) and their students are being bred to become functionaries (not good citizens)… and functionaries do not by nature speak out, they function.
As for cutting “the fat off,” I am really trying to sensitize the established-order regarding its implicit ban on critical poetry. We need to examine and decry the close ties binding state cultural councils (that fund poetry) with state chamber of commerce organizations. National Poetry Month, which also receives plenty of corporate dollars, promotes precisely the kind of poetry Big Business wants. Simply examine last year’s National Poetry Month poster. The verse is so inoffensive and innocuous that I find it quite offensive and don’t give a damn who wrote it. The copy of the poster I got off the Internet is so small I can’t see the names of the poets who wrote the following: “She sang/ Beyond/ The genius/ Of the sea,” “Body/ My house/ My horse/ My hound…”
As a poet, I do not believe that the subject matter of poetry should be restricted. I do not argue all poetry should be critical. I simply argue critical poetry ought to be considered as a viable possibility and be permitted in the agora of literature. It is rare to find a critical poem, especially of the poetry establishment, in an establishment literary journal… and those are the journals that get the publicity. Today, labeling a “rude truth” to be offensive constitutes an easy way to bury it. Civility is the big word today, not truth.
Regarding “rude truth,” you suggest “struggle, grim reality and anger.” Yes, that sounds good. But for me, it is especially Emerson’s meaning where in reality “rude truth” constitutes a pleonasm. In other words, if the truth is not rude, it is probably not worth writing about. The “rude truth” is precisely that truth every writer knows he shouldn’t write about because if he does he knows damn well he’ll get grief for doing so.
I’m not sure poets are necessarily “constructive,” nor if being “constructive” ought to necessarily be a poet’s responsibility or goal. I like to visualize the poet as an ideal—a man or woman who dares speak “rude truth,” where others don’t. Of course, the reality of today’s poet is anything but that. If a poet actually speaks “rude truth,” other poets will likely either ignore him or seek to diminish him by calling him names like Mr. Truth or Mr. Dissident or some other inanity. Poets need not risk their lives in America. Under Stalin in the USSR, they did and some were murdered. So, in America, to speak the “rude truth” is almost never life-threatening. When one does not speak the “rude truth,” one not only diminishes democracy, but also diminishes oneself and one’s dignity as a human being.
This is an interesting perspective. Can a poem be successful in your eyes if is not critically proclaiming any rude truth? Do you ever find it hard to be artistically inspired by constantly taking a constant critical approach to your poetry? I would think that the satisfaction from speaking the rude truth would eventually dissolve into a negative outlook on the world and lead into depression. Depression is a lonely road to writer’s block for myself.
BY RUDE TRUTH, I MEAN truth spoken to someone likely to feel uncomfortable upon hearing (reading) it. Poetry is of course wide open, so yes to your question. My tastes just happen to be rather restricted to poetry that has something to say, if possible, refreshingly rude. What I am asking is that the established order open its doors to “rude truth” poetry and critique.
A unique beautiful place like the Labrador coast, for example, generally inspire me. I do write poems on nature and my travels.
As for the world, I certainly do have a very negative outlook on its human part. At times, since I do not believe in angels and a hereafter, I do get depressed… by the very futility of the fight and of writing poetry itself. Depression strikes me sometimes too when intelligent people respond to argument with name-calling, as opposed to logical counter-argument. Sadly, the name-calling, non-argument reaction of intelligent poets, editors, and professors is alarmingly frequent. Nature—beautiful sunshine, mellow breeze, ocean expanse—will usually extirpate me from the gloom… or even a good movie or book. Now and then a publication will raise my spirits too… your interview, for example! As for writer’s block, I am against the very concept because it implies forcing what ought not to be forced. Too many writers force daily quantity production. I only write when inspired.
Do you find the rude truth is a vehicle for inspiration because you feel there is a lack of raw emotion in poetry? Or in editorial approaches? Is too much poetry glossed over with images workshopped so much that no raw emotion is left?
YES TO YOUR QUESTION. Certainly, far too much poetry is contrived… as in I think I’ll try to write a poem now… or okay class, your assignment is to write a poem on your grandfather. It is important to have passion as a fuel. Passion does not only occur when one meets someone new and ones sexual impulses are titillated. It can also result from first-hand experience/observation of injustice and corruption. The corruption I witness in the literary milieu, for example, often brings my blood to a boil.
I know we talked some about the poem you wrote, “Villon died for his verse…”, but are you fighting the same flight as Villain, for the injustice of man? Is the outing of literary corruption as important as Villon’s quest? You find your inspiration in critical analysis of high powered literati, but are there any writers or editors producing poetry comparable to Villon, Whitman, and other poets who lived and died for the word?
VILLION FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE AND FREEDOM… especially his own. He risked his life by openly criticizing in verse the high clergy of Paris. I’m not big on Whitman. He was much too positive, which explains why he became so big in the USA. I critiqued his 1855 “Preface” in an essay, the canon bearers refuse to publish. Whitman states: “Of all nations, the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest.” Regarding the need for poets, America does indeed need them, but not more of the tie-and-jacketed tenured emeritus variety with letters of recommendation from dubious college deans. My fight is the very same as Villon’s; that is, to openly criticize the corrupt. I am fighting to open the doors of the literary agora of ideas and debate. Currently, little or no debate at all occurs between the university gate holders and others. No criticism from others is permitted through their gates, especially if critical of those gate holders.
If Villon were alive today, let’s hope he’d be doing what I’m doing: fighting for free speech and criticizing those gate holders who determine what poetry is and what it is not, who want poetry to sell like burgers and those eating it to feel good, complacent and comfy… just like the poets writing it.
Although as editor, I stay clear of orthodox poets, right or left, I do publish Villonesque writers though usually post-mortem and from other countries (Russia, Cuba, Quebec). Nevertheless, the corruption is so thick in America—in all her institutions—that risk-taking poets inevitably must arise and do exist here and now. But sadly they are few.
I would think that poetry, of all circles, would not be corrupt. Aside from the POETRY FOUNDATION, is there really all that much to debate about in poetry to fixate on it as a focus for inspiration? Most poets and editors usually stick together and rarely search for the corruption under the desks of fellow editors and poets because we are a dying breed of artists who support each other so poetry does not fade out of society all together. How much harmful corruption is really going on? Can you give me some examples of any major battles you have had with a poet’s or editors? If you are going after the tenured emeritus variety, why waste time with recognized poets and editors in the small press What do you hope to achieve with these battles? To expose any hidden literary corruption or change the approach to portray poetry in a light similar to the way Villon might see it?
ONE WOULD HAVE HOPED that poetry, of all circles, would not be corrupt. But the reality is that poets tend to be average Joes, compelled not by truth, but rather by fitting in, loyalty, climbing the ladder, enticements, etc. Intellectual corruption in the milieu perturbs me and that includes rampant backslapping, self-congratulations, cronyism, toadying, idol worship, turning a blind eye, careerism, fame-seeking, and all the other things that serve to diminish truth and counter the natural questioning-and-challenging of the intellect. The “harmful corruption” of poetry is taking place today and on an increasingly large scale thanks to corporate and public monies. The money evidently serves to promote poets and poetry not apt to criticize it or society. It serves to give voice… and to prevent voice. We have politicians playing actors today, though bit roles. I predict soon we’ll have politicians playing poets too… or better yet, poets playing politicians. Perhaps you want to rethink poets not as a “dying breed of artists,” but rather as an oddly proliferating one
Well, unlike you, I can think of many poets rolling in the dough, from Pinsky to Collins to Giovanni to Angelou to Write to Haas to Ferlinghetti to Codrescu. In fact, most any poet sitting in a tenured professor’s chair will be doing just fine financially, a number of them making over $100,000 a year.
As far as “battles” with poets and editors, I’ve had so many, and they’ve almost all ended up the same way, as if those poets and editors had all taken the same MFA course in how to deal with uncomfortable truths and criticism: they ignore the critique put forth, resort to name-calling (egotist, bitter, angry, etc.) and otherwise seek to kill the messenger. Rarely do they resort to intelligent counter-argumentation. Now and then, some of them actually like my ideas, are tempted to publish them, but inevitably come to realize that they themselves are the herd-member functionaries I criticize. I’ve had battles with Contemporary Poetry Review dot com, Briar Cliff Review , Alehouse Press, Turnrow, Chronicle of Higher Education, Divide, Georgia Review , Poetry dot com, Stone Soup Poets, NewPages dot com and, as you well know, Poesy (so bravo to you for not being a grudge-holder and even more so for desiring to open the gates of the agora of discussion to different voices, even negative ones).
I am not “going after” them per se, but rather after the poetry they tend to push (exclusively) and/or the things they say in their writing. To seek to render poetry polite and/or fun entertainment (a la National Poetry Month) constitutes a grave disservice, if not insult, to all those poets who’ve suffered for not keeping poetry in that grain, including Villon and the scores of Soviet gulag poets. It would be nice to think that maybe by “going after,” I might be able to instigate thought, though I’m doubtful, for it is next to impossible to make a poet functionary realize he or she is precisely that. So, I do not really hope to accomplish anything with the exception of maintaining my own dignity by striving to speak rude truth. As Wole Soyinka rightfully noted, “criticism, like charity, starts at home.” Thus, I start at home… and poetry is my home. As for Villon, I do not claim or wish to be his inheritor, even though he is certainly to be admired because he did risk. I am my own person and would much prefer to be considered a loose cannon (yes, let’s spell that with one ‘n’!).
So adhering to the characterization of a dissident, are you a dissident of America? Or just American Poetry? How did you evolve into a dissident?
SURE, I’M A DISSIDENT OF ALL THINGS AMERICAN, though with a specialty, if you will, in poetry and academe. For me, America is not a country. It is a business. It is not a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. I was in college in the late 60s/early 70s, but was really just a conformist hippie like everyone else—the long hair, music, dope, and all the other look-alike, sound-alike inanity. My dissidence really started as a professor at Elmira College (NY) in the late 80s, where I began writing essays and poems against administrators and fellow professors for the student newspaper, which in a sense selected me as dissident of the year. It was there where I made the sad discovery that students were clients, while professors, salesmen who had to keep their clients happy… or look for another job. Quite naively, I’d thought academe was supposed to be a place where questioning and challenging were current, not taboo. Of course, I brought that to the attention of the college. Prior to that experience I attempted to write poetry a la Bukowski. Later, I found the same kind of intellectual corruption—outright administrative/professorial prevarication, image distortion, cronyism, backslapping, self-congratulating, and cowardice—at Fitchburg State College (MA), my next “job.” Since the student, local, and state press (Boston Globe and Boston Review) proved entirely indifferent and uninterested in my accounts of public-college corruption, I ended up creating The American Dissident in 1998. My “case” at Fitchburg went to arbitration, which ended up in my winning a monetary settlement that shamefully I am not permitted to divulge. Years later I could still be arrested for stepping foot on the college campus, despite the fact that I threatened nobody. The arbitration transcript is not available to me or anyone else, though I was able to get one page of it. That page is revealing of the nonsense that goes on behind closed doors. It is the account of a Harvard lawyer grilling me over my use of a French TV ad on rum in my class of adult students. He was essentially accusing me of trying to push rum on the students (killing the messenger!). In the late 90s I became more involved in poetry and came to conclude that corruption was also perhaps rampant in that milieu. Stone Soup Poets in Cambridge, for example, proved quite closed to my kind of dissidence (criticism of poets and the milieu). In fact, its president, Jack Powers (I believe Doug Holder was present during the discussion), wanted to censor one of my books, Fuck Massachusetts!, which I had on the small-press table during the Jack Kerouac Festival in Lowell.
On another occasion, I was protesting the lack of free speech at, of all places, Walden Pond. Stone Soupers and other poets walked by me and my protest sign in complete indifference. On an earlier occasion, I’d been arrested and incarcerated in Concord for having a non-violent argument with a park ranger. No poets wanted to hear about any of this. Still later, in Quebec, I’d been invited and paid (a free hotel room for 10 days plus an $800 stipend) to read my French poetry at its international poetry festival. Out of 150 invited paid poets from around the world, I was the only one who dared criticize the festival management right in front of its snouts. And for doing so, I became the “star” of the festival… and, of course, was never invited back… but I knew damn well what I was doing. I was willing to sacrifice future paid invitations to write and read poetry on precisely what I knew damn well I shouldn’t. And to me, that is precisely what a poet should do: know the taboos and write about them!