Charles North has published twelve books of poems along with a handful of chapbooks, three books of critical prose, and has collaborated extensively with artists and other poets. With James Schuyler, he edited the poet/painter anthologies Broadway and Broadway 2. He is Poet-in-Residence at Pace University in New York City. His latest collection, Everything and Other Poems, was published by The Song Cave1 in 2020.Initially I had intended to review the book, but I’ve reviewed him before, and was wary of repeating myself. It wouldn’t be the first time. So instead I decided to ask Charles if he would consent to an interview, although I knew he was not especially keen on talking about his work. But we have known each other (albeit not closely) since the early 1980s when we met in New York through our mutual friend, the poet Paul Violi, and I was delighted when he agreed. The interview took place via email in late May/early June.
Note: This interview is followed by four poems from Charles North's most recent book.
MS: I want to begin in what is perhaps an unexpected place, by referring to an essay you wrote in 2014 - “The Threat of Poetry” - in which you are discussing, not for the first time, the ways in which critics approach poetry, and in there you mention William Carlos Williams’s “To a Poor Old Woman”, the relevant part of which I’ll include here –munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
and you say, among other things, that part of the reason the poem “is as original and delightful as it is …… is what Williams gets away with [your italics] in that second stanza.” And a few days ago, I was reading in the New Poems of your 1999 New And Selected Poems the following:FRENCH NOTEBOOK THREATENED BY WRITING
1. The day is broader than the night though more
2. The moon sleeps in its fully realized breadbasket.
3. For they exit via a kind of enchanted lobby pulling down
housing starts—still housing starts have made something
of a recovery if not nearly enough.
4. Even now your breath is volcanic to this music it sounds like
Mozart—or very early Beethoven.
5. Fields with a thin winter glaze on them above and beyond.
6. The day is broader than the night.
7. The moon sleeps in its fully realized breadbasket.
And when I read that I thought immediately of the Williams
comment, because here you are in #7 repeating #2, and while I could appreciate
there might be any number of ways to account for that repetition through
conventional critical approaches, I get the sense that you enjoy that
repetition partly because, on the face of it, it’s doing something you are not really supposed
to do, especially when this is a kind of list, and lists don’t usually repeat things,
but you get away with it. I’m
reading into this one aspect at least of your approach to the writing of poems.
Now you can tell me I’m
way off the mark . . .
CN: I like your beginning in medias res, which suggests we're embarking on an epic (we can make it a short one), and I think you're on the mark. I've always liked seeing what I can get away with, in lists and in many other kinds of poems (actually, I don't think of "French Notebook" as primarily a list, though of course in one sense it is). One list poem that comes to mind is that early one dedicated to Paul (Violi), "The Brooklynese Capital," which is composed of Beowulf-style "kennings" or periphrases almost all of which are so roundabout and unnecessary that they're close to preposterous (and interesting, I hope, at least partly because of that): "The critic of peace," "Mortality's reiterator," "The smegma convention," and of course the title. One of my inspirations from the start has been to do things that haven't been done, or at least that I haven't done, in the hope that surprising myself will surprise/interest a reader. So to me it's not just "getting away with" (in the sense, say, of sticking it to the Establishment), it's trying to produce interesting work. By the way, not everyone would agree that Williams is getting away with anything in that second stanza. I've read commentary that sees the repetition as mere emphasis, i.e., a contributor to meaning, never mind how surprisingly casual and even conceivably "accidental" the repetition and lineation are (I've always wondered whether WCW tried out three different line formations and decided to keep all three, which wouldn't surprise me); accident being something the critics I'm taking to task are at pains to rule out as a resource for "true poets," which is of course simply ignorant.
MS: So this approach, which I assume you will agree is to do with what I think can be called “sensibility” – I’m wondering: I know you began writing poetry in Kenneth Koch’s workshop at the The New School (I’m not sure what year), and then attended Tony Towle’s workshop at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s (again, I’m not sure of the year) – I’m wondering how much of this sensibility you already had or knew you had, and how much was something you picked up from those people, and from other poets you met, or if you discovered it was how you felt, and I guess I’m wondering just how you found your way, as it were. I’m aware you trained as a classical musician, which does seem likely (to someone who knows nothing about training as a classical musician) to involve going about things very differently. And if you want to say what drew you to Kenneth’s workshop in the first place . . .
CN: The getting away with is certainly one of the things that inspire me to write; I'm not sure it qualifies as my approach, or 'sensibility’, which to me is a large term covering whatever is distinctive about a writer's style, aims, means, etc. I'll say more about it below, but I think music (another large idea!) is at least as central, perhaps even more so.
This is how I found my way to Kenneth and poetry, essentially a series of false starts — with a happy ending. As an undergraduate I majored in English and philosophy, but philosophy was what excited me and I had no special interest in poetry. I did write, and publish in the lit. mag, some prose fiction. After college, I enrolled in a Master's program in English and Comp. Lit. at Columbia (which, if I stayed to get the Ph. D., would lead to teaching), but I wasn't happy and left before doing the M.A. thesis. The next false start was Harvard Law School, which I dropped out of after six weeks (I finally did do the Master's thesis.) I then got into a Ph. D. program in philosophy (aesthetics) but never enrolled. While working as a copy editor for a publishing company, I wrote a handful of poems and showed them to my advisor at Columbia. He liked them and suggested I take a poetry writing class at The New School (a small college in downtown NYC with a socialist history) given by his Columbia colleague Kenneth Koch. Koch had been moonlighting at The New School for several years and, as it happened, the semester I enrolled (fall 1966) — after putting it off for a year out of sheer timidity — was the last one he taught there.
It sounds dramatic, but stumbling into Koch's class changed my life. He was the best teacher I had ever encountered and the best teacher of poetry writing this country has ever seen — I'm by no means the only one to think so. He was extremely well read, passionate about good poetry whether it was written by Whitman or Rimbaud or Lorca, or his pals John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, or the obscure David Schubert. He made no bones about his dislike of most of the poetry that was being published in America (his early poem "Fresh Air" is a funny, trenchant satire on same) and read to us — and had us read — poets he thought would inspire us. And yes, in terms of what passed for poetry in America in the 1950s and into the 1960s, a lot of his assignments and "poetry ideas" involved getting away with things, breaking rules (as did much of the American poetry that came to light in the early 1960s with the publication of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry). Write a poem that doesn't make sense (the mind makes sense of all it reads). The "flavor of ideas" in a poem can be more important than the ideas themselves (which everyone knows anyway). One's dumbest feelings are great material for poetry. Once you rid yourself of whatever you thought poetry was, it can become fun to write again. Etc.
It was all new to me and extremely exciting and I wrote a ton — at least during the course — very much influenced by his approach. Whether I had an inchoate rule-breaking gene in my DNA is hard to say, although the academic experience of poetry which left me cold certainly was fertile ground for the new to take hold.
Although I kept writing poems, I didn't do very well after the class, and began to think I wasn't cut out for poetry after all. Three years later in spring 1970, I stumbled — clearly my way of moving in those days — into a poetry workshop Tony (Towle) was giving at The Poetry Project. I didn't know Tony, but he was already one of my favorite poets, and I knew he had taken Kenneth's workshop himself and had been close to O'Hara. Meeting Tony turned out to be the second magical event to do with poetry. He encouraged me tremendously, introduced me to people on the scene, chose me to give a reading at the Project, sent a poem I wrote in the class to my poetic hero Jimmy Schuyler, and perhaps above all convinced me not only that I could write but that a life in poetry/art was an important one. And Paul was in the class, too; we were soon a threesome and met regularly, showed one another poems, collaborated, etc. Interestingly, I think I first heard the term 'sensibility' from Tony. At the time, he seemed to me to know everything and everyone! His taste and the rule-breaking in his own poems were important inspirations. Of course I discovered things on my own, too, e.g., my early poems in the form of baseball lineups, which of course got away with a lot. I wasn't supposed to be giving Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" (which was not my favorite of his poems) a place in a baseball batting order or a position on the playing field.
MS: And music?
CN: I played clarinet in orchestras and concert bands and
chamber music groups as a teenager (some alto sax too) thinking that might be
my life; I stopped at 17. I once said in an interview that I write prose in
some musical way having to do with rhythms, cadences, lengths, stops and
starts, etc. I think - I find it hard to talk
about - that something
similar goes on when I write poems. I care a great deal about line breaks and
line lengths (States of the Art 2 has an essay
devoted to Schuyler's lineation), as well as about how a poem begins and ends, flows,
cadences, "transposes" - all,
to me, partly musical ideas and very hard to talk about - as well as how a poem looks on the page. In
fact, I spend a lot of time deciding whether something is good enough to be in
print, and I don’t
publish very much. One other thing to do with music and sensibility comes to
mind. I had the idea early on of trying
to make lyrical poems out of material that is the furthest thing from lyrical;
to write, as I thought of them, "technical lyrics." I have a fair
number of poems that I still think of in those terms. One other thought about them, which I've
never mentioned or written about, is a little fancier. There's a Freudian (Anna
rather than Sigmund?) phenomenon known as displacement:
repressed emotions, feelings, etc., popping up where they have no business
doing so. Correct or not, I've always liked the idea that feelings may be
unconsciously transferred to subject matter and language they have no overt
relation to, and retain their feeling content on some level via the music of
the language. Whether that's meaningful,
or wishful, or a big stretch, I think it has something to do with poetic
sensibility, at least in my case.
MS: I didn’t mean to imply that getting away with it was your only approach! But I think it’s connected with the idea that the possibilities of poetry are wide open which is, I assume, something we would take as a given, and which you touch upon in talking about Kenneth. I’m interested in what you say about the lyric, because among the questions I had lined up was to ask you to say something about the lyric poem as you see it, and I’m reasonably sure that what you say about “the music of language” and “feeling” has a truth kicking around in it that I know I’m absolutely not qualified to discuss much further without getting way out of my depth. Your philosophy studies beat me on that one, for sure. But I was also planning to ask you about the idea of your poems having become “messier” – because when I first encountered your work the best part of 40 years ago (40!) I had a distinct impression of often quite short, and seeming to me at that time – when I should add that I was very much a newbie, discovering poetries new to me – very almost “chiselled” constructs. For instance, one of the first poems of yours I published in joe soap’s canoe in 1983 was “Descant”:Piano and hedges
and more piano
and sometimes the piano wins.
And sometimes the taxis are movie locations
set apart from the double
vision of the city elevatedly
affixed to see. From storefront
to riverfront, and from
middle-income housing mismanagement
to the unstabilized, stable
poor. The bits of piano
coating the hedges, turned
with only an occasional cloud to spill,
to fix the objects that would be there if
they weren’t; powder blue and vertical
rather than one limit in a vast evening field.
So at that time, for me, I was struck by the shape of the poem (a shape which several of your poems adopted, I think), how it was put together, and also not only by how you get from the first line to the last, but what the reader is invited to think about between those two points – points which are actually not very far apart in terms of the time it takes to read the poem. (This “invitation to think” is something I want to come back to. I hope I remember!) But in 2000’s collection The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight there is “Day After Day the Storm Mounted, Then It Dismounted”, which stretches over a dozen or so pages, and the title poem of 2007’s Cadenza runs to 10 pages, and that book also contains the long “Summer of Living Dangerously”, which takes the (ostensible) form of diary entries, mainly in prose (so you are obviously a real poet! and I know that to describe them as mere “diary entries” almost verges on the insulting, because they are far from that), and now the title poem of the new book, Everything, is around 25 pages . . . I’m not even sure what my question is to be honest. I guess it’s just about how you see your work over the years, how it’s developed. I am tempted to ask, in the manner of someone who simply doesn’t get it, “What’s it all about?” but I daren’t . . . so I will cut this last sentence out (maybe).
CN: l like the word "chiselled", and I stand corrected. In a little statement for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, which gave me a grant in 2008, I said I thought my poems had gotten “messier,” by which I meant freer and more inclusive. But yes, less formed, too, in any sense of the word. The early baseball lineups were obviously my concoctions, but I also tried villanelles, triolets, rhyming couplets, chain rhyme (!) — in all of which I was, at least as far as I was concerned, trying to be lyrical at the same time I was being formal and breaking rules, e.g., a 'philosophical' villanelle ("April"), a triolet hidden in a longer poem ("Typing and Typing in the Wandering Countryside," whose title may ring a bell), a poem composed of unconnected, fragmentary, rhymed couplets ("Fourteen Poems"); along with other quasi-formal arrangements like a poem made up of short, titled sections whose titles are part of the overall poem ("The Dawn"), and those odd, vaguely sonnet-like 16-liners, individually ("Tinker to Evers to Randomness," "Detail") and grouped ("Building Sixteens," where each section ends — and then continues on). My friend the poet Larry Fagin said that the stanzas in "Building Sixteens" reminded him of bricks as well as of capital I's, which to me nicely connected odd lyricism to odd form. As to your wonderful question about getting from the first line to the last and "what the reader is invited to think about between those two points," I'm not sure I can answer — or, actually, that I would want to. To me, that's the poem's territory not mine. My guess is that this will be of no help whatsoever, but after talking about "making 'lyrical' poems out of material and language that have no business being lyrical" in that 2008 statement, I added: "I'm also particularly interested in the borders between conventional meaning (or meaningfulness) and what is sometimes called language play." (I didn't, by the way, and don't, mean to associate myself with the so-called language poets.)
The diary form of "Summer of Living Dangerously" was at least as much a way of organizing a long poem as it was actual diary, a way of keeping a long poem going. I think — I don't really remember — that the dates are real, at least as regards the days I wrote (or began to write) the "entry" underneath. But I think it's pretty clear that it's not really a diary in the sense that any of the diaries or even poets' diaries we know are. I do, by the way, love Schuyler's diaries, which are the real thing, as well as John Clare's and a number of others; probably Schuyler's were in some sense an inspiration for the poem. Actually, and I haven't thought about it for a while, it was indeed a summer of living dangerously. Kenneth was sick with the leukemia he would soon die of. I had just had an aortic valve replacement — serious surgery requiring a heart-lung machine and, as someone said afterwards when I had reported how depressed I had been, a literal 'out of body' experience — and spent that summer recovering; I was shaky not only physically but emotionally. You didn't ask, but I think there's a fair amount of "dark" material in the poem, and the ending, which on the surface is about one of the great modern philosophical formulations (by the philosopher Saul Kripke), is, to me, more importantly about the illness and death which were in the air that summer.
What was the question?
MS: Hold on, I forgot – let me check back. . . Oh, it was to do with how you see your work having developed, but I think you may have answered it. At least, you’ve almost certainly gone some of the way, which is fair enough. I’m going to go back to the “thinking” thing, because I reviewed Cadenza back in 2007, and talking about the title poem I said “It’s a poem that thinks, and makes you (the reader) think too. I’m not sure one can ask for more. Actually, one can ask for much more. You can ask not just for a thinking poem but a poem which also is at the same time a delight and a pleasure to read, a poem that makes you feel you are doing something decent and intelligent with your brain and your time. And that the something you are doing is happening because you are a person who actually enjoys doing something decent and intelligent with their brain for no reason other than the doing's sake. Perhaps poetry makes nothing happen except to make the world a richer place and the people who are touched by it a little richer also.” – which, at the time, I thought was a decent thing to say, and I still think so today. And in a recent review of the new book at hyperallergic.com, John Yau wrote that, “. . . the reader can drift along, lost in the precise pleasures of North’s writing, the acuity of his thinking, and the range of resources he effortlessly draws upon (“Everyone knows that Janus Weathercock and Cornelius Van Vinckboons are too good not to be true, but very few know of their connection to the poet John Clare”). If that sentence doesn’t make you want to scurry to Wikipedia, you’d better get the oximeter out and check your pulse. . . . . It is not the destination of the poem that matters, the final revelation or feel-good message, but all the different ways the poet gets us there.” 3 and I think the two connect up. And I’m not even sure there’s a question here except, perhaps, it’s got us to Everything, and here’s a simple one (or two) about the title poem: were you planning a 25-pager when you started out? Was there a plan, or did you, for example, go fishing (to coin a phrase) with an idea to see what might happen? And I’m going to pluck out a small section of the poem here for readers to get (I hope) just a sense of how the poem moves along (not an easy thing to do, by the way) –You say tomato
and I say everything is consumed by its appearances.
I’ve been instructed to push
a handful of minor characters back into the wings but they won’t
no matter how hard I try.
The pencil line between being and not being, hardly
static however it looks
—more accurately, between staying put
and erupting into feelings that can’t be held in check no matter
like the corruption built into medical advertising
aimed directly at the TV-viewing public—
reminds me of the boundary line
between so-called feeling and so-called understanding.
To have a purchase on. Know thoroughly
by close contact with, or long experience of,
as opposed to hearsay or even legitimate authority.
I hope you can remember the question(s).
CN: I can! You went easy on me this time. Yes, I did set out to do a (really) long poem. With the "Study" that precedes it and the "Coda" following (the first of which I had planned on and the second of which just happened), it's actually more than 30 pp. both in ms. and in the book. And I had the idea from the start of dividing it into sections, which would, I hoped, give it some sort of organization (not a form this time) even if the organization was as much nominal as real, as well as enable me to "re-start" the poem from time to time and help keep things fresh. 30 pages is a lot, and the challenge, obviously, was to keep it not only going but engaging - stimulating, moving, offbeat, on-beat, funny, surprising, thoughtful, silly, everything; or, if I can say so without sounding grand, everything we humans find our lives, inner and outer, to be. I spent most of a summer doing the original writing, then came back to it on and off.
Speaking of “Everything”, I had the title and the
epigraph before I started, too. To me,
the poem title as well as the title of the book are on the outrageous side, and
I got a kick out of that. And I loved
the epigraph from Krazy Kat — "Everything is just
nothing repeated" — which
I felt gave me the license — well,
more than that; I would say a good deal of the inspiration — to see if I could let the
poem go wherever it wanted, touching on the ordinary and even the trivial as
much as on what's usually considered important or "poetic." This is the Kitchen Sink principle. One of my poet friends told me I did it,
wrote a poem about everything! Which I
was happy to hear, even though I took what he said with a big grain of
salt. But the hope was, and is, that
close to nothing can play an effective part in a long poem if the part is
written effectively. With respect to
your wonderfully generous (actually, quite eloquent) review of Cadenza, the hope is that a
"thinking poem" can include what isn't often material for much
thought and somehow be stimulating because of that.
MS: I have to admit that part of the reason I asked about the long poem is that recently I had a long poem I wrote early last year published as a book, and in manuscript it was 30 pages, and it wound up as a 40 page book (Did we tie? or did I beat you?) - I wrote a page a day for a month then spent another couple of months “fixing” it. And I had like an “idea” and though I probably didn’t go full “kitchen sink” it wandered and ranged, I think, while I kept a certain fixed point in mind all the time. I’m fascinated by process, or what (if anything) is in the mind when starting out on a poem - at least, I’m interested in process when it’s a poet I admire; the opposite applies, of course, for poets and poems I have little or no time for. But, and this is a fairly boring question, but I’ll throw it in anyway, if only to see how you respond: the idea of letting the poem go “wherever it wanted” is very dangerous, isn’t it? (I know where I’m going with this train of thought, by the way, but one question at a time . . .)
CN: Clearly you beat me in page count (and I'm eager to see your poem). Have to try harder next time. . .
As to letting a poem go - which to me doesn't mean "full kitchen sink" exactly (though I like the phrase) but does involve the unconscious and its messiness - — I think more in terms of risk than danger. I know the two are close, but "risk/reward" is a familiar enough idea, whereas danger has a more ominous ring, at least to me. I remember Kenneth talking about poetry's capacity to be more interesting, exciting, etc., than other sorts of writing - or than one's ordinary speech or thinking or reasonable self - because its music, lineation, etc., encourage access to the unconscious. The reason I don't think this sort of letting go is dangerous is that, whatever emerges in the process, you have the freedom to do whatever you want with it afterwards: not only shorten, lengthen, rearrange, substitute for, but chuck it into the waste basket.
My experience may have little relevance to yours or anyone else's, but in doing "Everything" I wrote tons, not every day because that's never worked, but enough so that I had, I'd guess, twice as many pages as the published poem. And I did what I usually do, which is put it all aside till later, give it (and me) a chance to cool off. Ultimately - I don't remember exactly - I'll bet I went back to it on and off for a year, not in any regular or planned fashion (more messiness; less method). I wonder if this idea, which just occurred to me, helps. I think I treat the original draft at least partly as raw material or resource, with the expectation that I'll go on to do whatever I decide makes the poem better: use a dozen lines from this page, use one line from that page, throw away these whole pages - which clearly happened frequently. One of the audience questions during that Live Stream reading 4 you saw a few weeks ago was how one revises without destroying the poem's "original flow." My answer, which I wish I had articulated better, is that one doesn't owe anything to the first (or second or third) draft; the only obligation is to oneself, to come out with a poem one likes enough to show to others in the hope they'll like it, too. In my own experience, even the flow can emerge during the revising/fooling around with stage. So - back to your question! - the only danger, as I see it, lies in not letting what emerged cool off sufficiently so that you can see how to make it better. The corollary as far as risks are concerned is that if you don't take them (or at least think you're taking them), the chances of getting anywhere near poetry's "magic" are much diminished. Here are two notes I kept from Koch's 1967 workshop. "There will be time for pruning once you get the orchard growing." "If you only write re. what you understand, your poetry won't be more interesting than your conversation or your prose." I'm not offering these as a defense of what I've said above. But I still find the advice inspiring.
MS: Me too. It’s brilliant. And it leads me (at least, I’ll say it does) to where my thought train was heading, which is something to do with the probably vague area of self-confidence and trusting one’s own judgement. And of course I know actually that for the most part this all comes with the years and experience and suchlike, as well as acceptance and respect from one’s peers, and I suspect it doesn’t hurt to have some arrogance too, along with a healthy dose of self-doubt, but one of the things that particularly interested me about your reading in that Live Stream was that you chose to read “French Licks”, which is 8 pages of translated “fragments” from a variety of French writers. And though I know they are your translations, it struck me as interesting that in the framework of a relatively short reading you devoted a substantial part of it to other writers, which in one sense at least is a defying of expectations (which is perhaps my subject here)—in this case, it’s the audience’s expectations. I think what I’m flailing around and trying to get at is that, as an artist, one has ultimately to do what one wants and feels is right, as opposed to what might be expected, even when it comes down to what to read at a public event, and I’m closing in on the combined attributes of “self-confidence” and “selfishness” here, albeit clumsily. There’s no question here. I think it’s more of a “Discuss”. (And if this makes no sense at all, throw it back at me.)
CN: Of course it makes sense! But I'm not sure if what I say will be quite what you expected. For one thing, self-confidence has never been my strong suit. Quite the opposite. When I began, even with Tony's or Paul's blessing (we showed each other a lot of what we were doing before showing anyone else), I had trouble submitting work anywhere. I gave readings, but by no means calmly. My first book, Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music, came about because Larry Fagin, who edited Adventures in Poetry, asked to see a manuscript I was planning to self-publish. As to arrogance - which I believe, or at least have trouble not believing, isn't my problem - of course one sees a lot of it. But whether it genuinely helps or hurts isn't clear, at least to me. It can certainly get in the way of useful self-doubt.
All that said, I do think I have more self-confidence these days, partly, as you suggest, because of acceptance, respect, etc. I wasn't going to read "French Licks" originally; it's on the long side (as you know, I did wind up cutting it a little short) and we had decided on 15-20 minutes apiece. I wasn't thinking about audience expectations; I just decided the poem would be easier to grasp for the listening audience (almost 200 people, by the way, invited primarily by the bookstore) for whom a lot of my work would be new. In fact, I came close to choosing "Desk", the longish one to Kenneth, but felt it, like many others, was somehow better on the page.
About "French Licks" - and feel free to delete this if you don't find it interesting enough - I think of it not just as translated snippets - or jazz licks or riffs - but as a work on its own. That could be wishful. But I spent time choosing, arranging, thinking about "rhythms" and "cadences" and beginnings and endings; what I always do. And speaking of self-confidence, I began it as hesitantly as I've ever begun anything, going through books and anthologies and scribbling (literally; you should see the notebook) translations of what struck me and in addition seemed graspable enough for me to give it a try in English. I had published two or three translations in my life, and here I was planning to dedicate a series of translations to my friend and fellow poet Ron Padgett, one of the best translators we have. I'd say, self-doubt plus chutzpah. Even when it was finished, it took me a while to show him. So when people, including Ron, told me how much they liked it, I was as much surprised and relieved as pleased.
MS: I think it’s great, and it’s certainly much more than simply fragments or snippets (great word). I also love the way long works like that—and I’m including the poem “Everything” in this - they can be read as a whole, and should be, but they can also be dipped into and still give the reader something interesting and, I can’t avoid this word, pleasurable. I will never underestimate the value of reading pleasure.
At which point, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t be thinking about winding this up. But you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned painting - which is mainly because I know somewhere in another interview you said that people usually mention music and art in relation to your work, and the fact that you’re married to an artist, Paula . . . so I more or less determined to avoid it. But it takes only a brief look at some of your poems to see there’s something of a painterly thing going on in there a lot of the time. And these kinds of interviews/conversations usually end with the interviewee being asked either (a) what are they working on these days or (b) who are the young up and coming poets they know who they would recommend we check out—and usually they get asked both. But I’m not going to ask you either of them.
Do you want to say anything about the role of painting in your work, or anything about anything else, or shall we depart the virtual room gracefully?
CN: In retrospect, it's easy to see how a connection between my poems and painting came about. It wasn't only Paula's work, which I adored, or the tons of gallery shows we went to when I began writing; painting was in the air. As I mentioned in that one-sided "interview" you published in joe soap’s canoe years ago 5, many N.Y. (School) poets had connections with the art world - as reviewers and critics, collaborators, curators, print-makers, drinking buddies, etc.; the poetry/painting nexus seemed the most natural thing in the world. The art critic and editor Peter Schjeldahl, whom I was friendly with and who was still writing poetry, invited me to write for Art in America, which I did on and off for several years. And the poet who initially meant the most to me (and whom I took cues from) was Jimmy Schuyler, a painterly poet if there ever was one. Once I got to know him (through Tony) we co-edited the two Broadway magazine/anthologies combining poems by NY poets with drawings by NY artists including Alex Katz, Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher (who did cover and drawings for my first book), Trevor Winkfield, Rudy Burckhardt, Joe Brainard, Rackstraw Downes, Fairfield Porter, etc.
I guess what I mean is that I came by the painting connection "honestly." But I don't think I qualify as a painterly poet, even though a good many poems have been inspired by art in one way or another, and landscapes (outdoors as much as in art) have been important to me since I was a kid. I can see that "Crepuscule with Paula" (in Everything), as well as others, are on the painterly side. But my feeling is that in spite of the outdoors that finds its way into a lot of poems, my real interest isn't - as a good part of Schuyler's is - in picture-making.
How about my departing the virtual room by gracefully evading the two questions you didn't ask while managing to get them down anyway? I'm thinking about working on a small book of poems with drawings by my friend (and multiple collaborator) Trevor Winkfield. And one of my all-time favorite books of poems was published by the then (1968) young, up and coming poet Jeremy Prynne, Kitchen Poems. Both, as you'll notice, English!
MS: Yes, English - at least, technically . . . I think by painterly I mean it’s the way in which often in your poems we “see” New York, for exampleA small apartment building with a crowded
Starbucks at street level,
two Korean grocers sporting green awnings,
shadows flying in pieces out of a tinted bank window like ticker tape
which is an eye for colour and detail . . . And, by the way, I have the second of those Broadway anthologies - I have no idea where I got it from, perhaps from Bob Hershon at Hanging Loose - and it’s one of those volumes I can pick up when I need reminding, as I do on occasion, that there’s life and energy and a reason for doing this poem stuff. And although we both have one foot out of the virtual door, I’m just going to ask you about Prynne, because while Kitchen Poems is a Prynne I can read and enjoy, there’s a lot of him I find simply - what’s the word I’m looking for? - not “unreadable”, but certainly “unenjoyable”. And actually, having glimpsed a couple of poems from his most recent pamphlets, perhaps “unreadable” is the right word. I think there is just an imaginary line where on one side the work can be experimental or innovative or whatever word one chooses to use but it’s still open and possessing a human element that allows the reader in, and on the other side there’s just words, which seem too often to be saying not much more than “let’s see what you can make of this”, albeit under the guise of “interrogating or dismantling the language” or whatever, to which my reaction would often be to go and do something else. And I guess I’m not just talking about Prynne here, but a lot of “innovative” poetry. Any thoughts? Then we can both get out of here . . .
CN: Yes, in that sense of painterly I would agree, even though I really think it's for you to say and not me. You should hunt down the first Broadway too (wonderful cover by Paula North, in addition to the poems and drawings; if I had a copy to send you, I would).
I knew you weren't going to let me get away with that passing reference to Prynne! I think your points are well taken and well put, and I know others who feel exactly as you do. I was bowled over by Kitchen Poems - talk about "getting away with." What I found most engaging and original if not magical about those poems, as I did about a good bit of the early work collected in the Agneau 2 Poems (1982), was their sub rosa (sometimes not so sub) lyricism. In addition to the dogged cerebrality, "interrogating and dismantling the language" as you put it, the poems contain the traditional stuff of poetry: things, feelings, dailiness, weather, landscape, political climate, history, music. What you call "the human element." I'm pretty far from the English poetry scene and haven't seen much of what's been written about Prynne, but it does seem to me that the dismantling has gradually swamped the rest. I sometimes kid around, though I don't think I've done so in print, about "The Revenge of Poetry" - you know the 60s horror flick about poets who never swerve from their original discoveries. Or was the title "The Cliff of Diminishing Returns"? Like everyone else I have poetic heroes; but the poems by them that really inspired me invariably stopped coming, sometimes before the poet turned 40. Diminishing returns seems especially applicable to "language oriented" poetry. As exciting as it can be—and I've tried to do some myself - in my experience a little goes a long way. Prynne succeeded for longer than anyone might have expected, as did the little known American poet Joseph Ceravolo. But I'm counting on the fingers of one hand.
MS: Oh, Joe Ceravolo is wonderful. But let’s leave readers to find him for themselves. Charles, thank you.
Notes & References etc.
1. Everything and Other Poems can be found at The Song Cave: https://the-song-cave.com/collections/new-items/products/everything-and-other-poems-by-charles-north
2. Charles North, States of the Art: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Other Prose 1975-2014 (Pressed Wafer, 2017)
4. The reading hosted by The Paula Cooper Gallery, and also featuring poet Vincent Katz, took place on May 19th, and can be viewed here: https://paulacoopergallery-studio.com/posts/poetry-reading-with-charles-north-and-vincent-katz
5. “The N.Y. Poetry Scene / Short Form” can be found in joe soap’s canoe #8 and is archived here: http://www.martinstannard.com/jsc/jsc8compressed.pdf
6. Charles North on “Piece of a
copyright © Charles North and Martin Stannard, 2020