Jeremy Seligson: I was born in Washington, D.C., a stone's throw from the White House. The nurse held me up to the window and said, "Boy, do you see that White House? Someday you gonna live in that White House!" It hasn't come to pass and in fact to this day I haven't lived in any house that was white. My father was the comptroller for the Secret City, Oak Ridge Tennessee, when the A-Bomb fuel was produced and my mother the wardrobe mistress in the Playhouse. She died of breast cancer when I was four, perhaps from nuclear pollution, and that's why I say, "My mother, too, died in Hiroshima." For the past 20 years I have operated The Children's Peace Train in response to North Korea's threats to reduce Seoul to ashes in a "Sea of Fire." Children from all over the globe have participated in drawing pictures of Peace in their own life. My own two daughters, also a motivating factor, helped out.
DV: Jeremy, we've known each other for a long time. How did you get from being a lawyer to a writer? And especially, to a writer of poetry?
JS: In 1970, at the age of 24 I was the only lawyer in the Ministry of Land Reform and Administration for the Government of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. As such, even though only a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, I had responsibilities way beyond my experience, including being secretary for an inter-ministerial committee discussing and revising a law I had proposed for land redistribution. This went up to the Crown Council and within a few years after my departure provoked a revolution. So where could I go from there? The rest of Africa was waiting and in particular the Congo where I traveled alone to visit the pigmies in the Ituri Forest. Earlier, while in Addis Ababa I had already drafted one novel and the pigmies provided an opportunity for another. After a year traveling in Africa I headed for India to seek spiritual understanding and this gave fruit to another draft of a novel. A few years later I arrived in Kyoto, Japan and met the poet Cid Corman, who would become my poetry mentor for the next 30 years until he passed away in 2004. My novels are tucked away and I haven't gotten back to them yet. Instead, Cid, through our weekly poetry workshop meetings during those two years in Kyoto, infected me as he said with the poetry "Bug."
DV: Cid Corman was a great man, though largely invisible to the general public. American poetry in the late 20th century would have been markedly different if he weren't in it. I know that it's unfair to say that he only wrote minimalist poetry, but is he the source of the kind of poetry you usually write?
JS: Yes, Cid is the source of the poetry I usually write but it is not the way he wrote poetry. The freedom of lines and the relationship of the lines to the movement of action in the poems is not something he did, but he did introduce me to others whose arrangements of words could be more radical, like Frank Samperi or Larry Eigner who had to write in strung out sentences because of his physical handicap. Cid introduced me to a whole range of poets he was networking with and some became lifelong friends. John
Martone. who Jerome Rothenberg calls the finest minimalist poet in America and is a close friend, has gone far beyond everyone else in his ability to say so much with so few words and with such clarity and beauty and has been a standard-bearer of great poetry for me. Ed Baker. who has provided watercolor illustrations for some of my works. is also an inspiration. Bob Arnold is another, all of us learning from Cid. What Cid taught was to make every syllable count and to leave out everything that doesn't contribute to the wholeness and unity of the poem. Due to Cid's influence, it is hard to read a poem if the line extends beyond a certain width and the lines reach beyond a certain length. A short poem can strike to the heart with great beauty. A long poem is harder to sustain with quality throughout and can feel like prose arranged in strangely shaped stanzas. Great exceptions include long narrow poems like Asphodel by William Carlos Williams and the shorter My Life by Water by Lorine Niedecker, who was also influenced by Cid.
DV: Did you ever work extensively in haiku?
JS: No, I haven't worked in haiku at all, perhaps because of Cid's influence. I did read Wyeth's book when in Kyoto and various works at Cid's including his translation of Basho, Backroads to Far Places, but wanted to forge new ground and not be bound by any kind of standardized form and rather allow the subject and activity and feelings to shape its own form. However in preparation for a course beginning next week on the Literature and Culture of Nature I am experiencing a renewed appreciation of haiku, even contemporary ones as found in The Unswept Path, and of course Basho, Issa, Ryokan and so many of the other Japanese masters. Even some modern writers I am reading have been able to make haiku form feel unaffected and as natural as a breeze or effortless turn of thought reflecting a moment, event and feeling. This can be achieved by a master like John Martone, who has written more than 100 books and has that flow which doesn't seem to need revisions. Others can attain it after long periods of review and revision, careful not to edit the life out of it -- Cid says to put a poem aside for 10 years! and then when the halo effect is worn off, look at it again. Every day and every moment we see with different eyes and hear with different ears and so the poetry is read differently, and often in my own case I have made poems worse, and discovering this on clearer days gone back again and again, maybe1,000 times. Only in moments of extreme tranquility and clarity can the original moments be recaptured and the right or better word find its way to the page.
DV: I well know that every poem has its own process of creation. But if you have a "typical" experience, from the moment of inspiration to the finished product at the end of the process, could you describe it to us?
JS: Well, for the poems that you are now showing it was a special process, an artistic series of movements written spontaneously as if on a cloud. One day on a bus I noted the clouds blowing this way and that through the sky about the mountains, so I went there and walked and felt and wrote as it happened, poem after poem day after day, letting it come out in brief clarities. Later I recreated the movement with the spreading out of the words, and very few of those words have changed. It was a rare period of being in tune with the movements of nature. As for most other poems, I have kept going back again and again, changing this word or that, hearing and sounding it and then re-looking and re-hearing, and if I leave enough space in between and persist enough, and then wait again for the halos to wear off, those poems can regain a naturalness if the original perceptions of beauty and wonder were truly heart- or soul-felt, leaving an indelible impression implanted that could be re-seen, re-breathed. Always the process includes re-looking and hearing and feeling to see if there are any unnecessary words or whether the words can be rephrased for brevity that makes the poem more immediate and alive. It needs in the end to be a living breathing entity, one that the reader can breathe in and experience.
DV: For as long as I've known you, you've used your vacation time to travel the globe. This is in addition to the various places you lived and worked before arriving in Korea. Have any of these places left its mark on your poems or your poetic sensibility?
JS: My two years in Japan and nearly 35 in Seoul, Korea, have inspired me the most, because of the long periods involved. Another source for poetry has been India, which I have been pilgrimaging to since 1975 and have written a poem of one-word lines running down the middle of the page for some 200 pages, titled Once in India. To illustrate, here is a sample from a section about the Ganges at Benares:
Also, I traveled to Vietnam with my 12 year old daughter Chalina, where we stayed in an old palace converted into a hotel by the seashore. There the airy rooms, high whitewashed walls and net hammocks produced an atmosphere for writing fatherly love poems about my daughter. This was published in a bi-lingual edition in France by AIOU in 2001 under the title, Vietnam Diary.
Another country which has inspired poems is Israel. There are two sets of Peace poems, one focused on a visit to a Druze village on the Lebanon border.
And oh, yes, as part of my unpublished book Cherry Blossoms, along with sections from Kyoto and Seoul, there is a section about Cherry Blossoms on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C..
we got married
Going further back, I have discovered a poem from my Africa days, 1973, that ends:
'till, tired, on leaves
in a small grass hut
DV: Your poems often have a dreamlike, ethereal quality to them. Are dreams ever part of your creative process?
JS: Certainly. Often dreams, as I learned from Cid's examples, can be turned into wondrous prose poems. I have made many of such, and also presented a whole book of Oriental Birth Dreams, editing the contributors' dreams as well as some of my own to read like prose poetry, and in some case condensed into actual poems. The present book, also finished and over three years in the making called Dragon Dreams, also contains many prose poem dreams, mostly those of others, but also some of my own.
On March 7th, 2013, I awoke from a dream:
I am sitting with Eloisia by a small round, white metal table at a large restaurant. Near us, great curved windows let in light from a park outdoors. She is feeling sad, so I suggest we stand in the curving line of customers and order food. She has already sipped a glass of milk elsewhere but it had tasted bland and unsatisfying. At the counter, a buxom blond Danish woman, who is wearing a white apron over a colorful-pattern dress, waits on us. She smiles, “What would you like?” I reply automatically, “Two milks, please!” Surely, Eloisia wouldn't be pleased! (Yet, what else do you order when facing a charming milkmaid?)
The Danish waitress hands me two cans decorated like Pepsi cans with the same red and silver colors, except that these taper gracefully at the waist. Each is designed with a jolly, scaly dragon. Words printed under its open, smiling jaws read “DRAGON MILK!”
Amazed, I exclaim, “DRAGON MILK! That's just what we need: DRAGON MILK! I should take a picture of this!”
Alas, I forgot my camera. No matter; we can swallow the milk and carry the cans home
The book Dragon Dreams also contains regular poems at the start of each chapter. For example:
In the form
Of an eye -
By ghosts -
DV: Well, on that humorous note, let's end this session. I know I've enjoyed getting an insight into how your creative mind works, and I hope your readers have found something valuable as well. Thanks for your time and honesty.