(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with David Shapiro
from the Blue issue


Joseph Lease: Do you feel typecast by critics?

David Shapiro: Critics tend to typecast one. I've had the experience of writing a book in black paint, as it were, my almost suicidal House (Blown Apart), and having critics begin by typecasting me as a New York School Poet of whimsy and cheerfulness. So it is, yes, dangerous. I think the New York School Poets may have less in common together than one thinks. Though there were some shared affinities - with Pasternak, with Stevens, with Surrealism - each poet now seems fairly distinct: James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch of the older generation, and some younger people may seem to have blurred, in critics' eyes, into mere epigones. This is simply part of the pathos of literary traditions and I guess we're caught in it. My own sense is that some of us have tried to make the flux or the impressionism of the New York School into something 'solid as the art of the museums.' I often feel our task is a Cezannism of trying to fix the mere impressionistic empiricism of great poets such as James Schuyler and Frank O'Hara into something angrier, more sexual, whatever that might mean, less lenient with history. The impressionism of the New York School, much derided, actually has a great freshness. One loves the freshness of James Schuyler's poems and it's very hard to better that sense of exultation in them or in Fairfield Porter. It may be almost absurd to say one can do anything better than Ashbery in his rococo sense: that exquisiteness in 'The Skaters' that I really love, the pathos of the labyrinth there. One simply tries to do what one can do, glumly. (Laughter.)

JL: How have you tried to make that impressionism angrier, more sexual, less lenient with history? What do those categories mean for you?

DS: Well from the beginning I was a violinist who was very interested in late Mozart that is always already Romantic. The Mozart of the late Divertimento and late Beethoven, those are one's standards. Something that I love in Elliot Carter is his drive for polyrhythmic music, and he also defines the tempo of music in a way that I feel very close to. He talks about the necessity for rhythms that accelerate and decelerate, the variety of tempi that he wants to have acting together. And in my poetry one of the things that often annoyed older poets is that I was very interested in changing tempi. I think that one part of the steadiness of John Ashbery's poetry - to speak synesthetically - is its extraordinary perfect monochrome. And since one couldn't do any better than that in its own way, as John Ashbery said of Duchamp, one tried for a polychrome poetry. And it wasn't simply in response: I think at any rate it was a necessity for me to have a poetry of many rhythms, one that would not be as entranced with forms of monotony. Not that I didn't flirt with them, but one simply saw that masters of monotony like Warhol in a generation before me had investigated that, it seemed to me, had pursued that recklessly. What I was interested in was the darkness of the divertimento in which sequences would abut and create a kind of montage.

I was always interested in doing a philosophical epic and I continued in House (Blown Apart), To An Idea, and in some of my other poems, such as 'About this Course,' and 'Man Holding an Acoustic Panel' to create a sort of elegy to an America I despised. I had an anti-imperialistic theme, politically, that was very difficult to match with monochrome and I was less taken with camp than with Jewish earnestness and with prophetic qualities in Isaiah that were my first sense of poetry. There's a part of me - comically enough, and not everyone might see this - that even links to my old Newark friend Allen Ginsberg. There is an aspect of my poetry which irked the parodistic in poets such as Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan, the part of me that's perhaps too involved with seriousness. But I was very taken with the idea of Rilke that one should not be merely ironic and I always told my students to dig past mere irony.

Not that I was involved with confession, but I was very interested (since my wife is an architect and we've lived together for so many years) in structure, in the kind of moral seriousness that you get in the great visionary architecture of John Hedjuk, his penological cities, his analogous cities. Aldo Rossi's dream cities might seem to be an analogue, but John's are even more austere. That's why I put John on my cover (of House (Blown Apart)). I've been interested in achieving the kind of depressing, massive sense of melancholy that one gets again and again in Jasper Johns (in many ways my aesthetic standard) and the mania for prophetic structures in John Hedjuk's great imaginary cities. And I often dream of a poem that will be as labyrinthine as one of John's analogous cities.

That's all very far from the single lament. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe said to me that our theme together, as colleagues, painters and poets, is multiplicity. He sees it as Deleuzean. I don't know if that's true but it seems to be one way in which my poetry is more 'demobilized' and 'nomadic' than one might think.

JL: You use elements of collage which are alive for you. They become charged with personal force. One feels in your poems not the systematic non-sequitur but something lived and felt.

DS: Gilbert-Rolfe once said to me, 'So where's the collage in your poetry?' I said, 'Well, I've transformed grammar and physics textbooks and played with their degraded diction.' He said, 'No that's not collage.' I said, Well, I've taken Heidegger and changed all his words for being into snow.' He said, 'No, no, that's not collage.' I said, 'There's "A Song," where I take parts of "When A Man Loves A Woman" and turn them into a disco cascade with elements of The Encyclopedia Brittanica.' He said, 'Oh yes, that's probably the only place where you use collage.' He was teasing me because I kept trying to state the argument in terms of collage, and maybe that's not necessary. It's even more difficult to find what collage might mean in music, though I think it's a very important aspect of certain problems in Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

JL: What most readers associate with collage in poetry is a kind of a syntactic staccato mode, and you never abandon melody, though you do, as you say change tempi - nor do you abandon syntax, nor do you really abandon narrative, though dream-like narratives slide into one another in your poems.

DS: Collages to me suggest that a person is involved in appropriating from a variety of sources of textures, one might say. For example, my poetry sometimes does appropriate high and low dictions and attempts to have them explode. I am very interested in seeing what one word does to another word. It is obvious when Braque uses a newspaper against a piece of paint that he's interested in dissonance. Both. I don't think it's necessary to have breakdowns in syntax because I think that collage and this form of juxtaposition and montage can occur with forms of dislocation that we can make less trivial than mere discontinuity. A lot of the collages that I do often don't announce themselves as such, as in Marianne Moore, who really is a kind of collage poet (I think 'Marriage' is one of the great collages that we have) but she was interested in the fact that collage could be a principal of continuity.

In other words, somewhat as Andrew Ross suggested that intellectuals could learn from mass culture, one can appropriate - and not for complacent purposes. One of the things I don't like about the montage of the eclectic 'postmodernists' in architecture - one thinks of certain popularist architects, of whom my friend Arthur Cohen said they were trying to monumentalize their own vulgarity - is that one doesn't want only to say 'Las Vegas is enough,' as the found poems of Oliver North do, or aspects of some of my contemporaries. One doesn't want to just parade mass culture, though I like the idea, as has been said by Ross recently, that one gets a certain kind of surplus value out of these seemingly degraded commodities. But I have been very interested in the explosion of a Menippean horde of a multiplicity of rhetorics.

I was very attracted early on to 'The Waste Land' as the encyclopedia of consciousness. It seemed to me the most melancholy poem, the most haunting. I've always been amazed at those who have been able to give it up. Most New York School poets sort of laughed at me for my love of 'The Waste Land' and even of the Four Quartets. I hear Eliot in Ashbery. Eliot and Stevens combine in me. I'm always appalled at the critics who seem to have to make the choice between Eliot and Stevens. I love both of them and I find the feeling tone of suffering in Stevens and a great cadenza of Cubism in 'The Waste Land.' I feel very sad that one would have to give up 'The Waste Land.' It is a sort of principle of my poetry to continue to think about what a contemporary 'Waste Land' might be. It may be that one of the things that I'm not attracted to in a certain form of the recent narrative poetry has been a return to a storytelling that 'The Waste Land' seems to have 'blown apart.' I do think that if you're going to give up figuration you're going to have to give an abstract work that is as good as Velázquez. I think if you're going to give up one form of storytelling you're going to have to do it in another way.

JL: What is that 'other way'? The two parts of the title House (Blown Apart) for example: one has 'house' - domesticity, the inner life, the family romance; and one has 'blown apart' in that sense of 'The Waste Land' having blown narrative apart. How do you balance them?

DS: Well, remember 'House (Blown Apart)' is an allusion or a quote or an appropriation of a poem by Tu Fu where he tells a story about his house, a thatched roof hut. Tu Fu loses the roof of his house and watches - an old man being mocked by kids from the south village - and at some point, commenting on this emergency like a Channel 7 reporter, he turns, and after a lot of precision about the domestic crisis - his wife and son inside restlessly kicking their feet and the rain streaming down (he said that the war had produced a lot of insomnia) - he suddenly changes scale a great deal and, in what the Chinese regard as a great act of piety and an enormous poetic coup de théâtre he says, 'I am dreaming of a house with a thousand windows and a thousand doors. I would like to see this house before my eyes. There I would house all the poor scholars of the world. If I could only see this house before my eyes I would die frozen, still satisfied.' I like particularly the William Hung translation. What I've tried to do is use what's already bifurcated in Tu Fu. On the one hand it's very personal - 'my house has been blown apart,' and his reportage on the details - which is something I love to do. In psychoanalysis I love to keep dream diaries. l love that exaggerated sense of the personal - the extraordinary sense that something is really your world - that you can get in dreams and the sense of terror in dream diaries. And a lot of my poems do come out of dreams.

But there's another part: I've always presumed that the personal is public. My mother was very left-wing, a dissident in South Africa in her youth, so I was brought up with a strong socialist background, to say the least. I can't really imagine poetry without the political term. I do feel that a lot of works that look private have an extraordinary political term. The narrative, which implies the family that has a beginning, middle and end (children or mothers dying), and the public situation (which is framed most darkly by the Holocaust and the meaning of political oppression in our century up to and including things that are still taking place in the Middle East - the transition from victim to victor and back again in nation-states): those are the dark nomadic edges of my poetry. I meant House (Blown Apart) to have a very public, imperial sense of the American house blown apart, just as 'A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel' was my funeral poem in 1968 to a whole generation that seemed to be blowing itself up in bombs. That's why Jan Palach - and the funeral of Jan Palach - is very central in that third book of mine. Jan Palach was a young man who burned himself to protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and even to this day his grave, or lack of a grave as it were, is a very political situation. But a personal funeral becomes a public funeral: what his mother said was picked up by a microphone - 'My son, my beloved son, I never thought this possible. I'll follow you on foot.'

I was in the generation of '68 that thought they could do something. Lionel Abel has suggested that one of the lessons of the '30s was that people overestimated that they could do everything or underestimated that they could do nothing. Irving Petlin, the painter, said, 'I think we held back the full force of the fist of the American empire.' And that's something to be said for our generation. I think that the rage that's in my poetry (and you can feel it in the photographic cliché of my smoking the president of Columbia's cigar) was the enormous rage over the immoral war with the Vietnamese, of which I still continue to think in almost Manichean terms. The pathos of that war was still very large in me. And the yielding of the universities to that war, and the yielding of the entire society to that war. It's very hard for me when I see the wall in Washington not to think that we were trying to make those names less of a scroll. I regard it as a valuable part of my poetry - that rage against the American empire. I'm still fairly assured that the empire needs to be criticized. Poetry can have this anti-imperial theme as a part of it. I don't make it my topic. It's not my burden to be explicitly, dogmatically political. It's just that one does use it everywhere.