Friday, March 9, 2018

Robin Wyatt Dunn responds

Robin Wyatt Dunn: I've declared myself an enemy of America; this probably makes me an American. I was born in Wyoming. I live in Los Angeles. I was once robbed by Harrison Ford and Harvey Weinstein. These days I'm trying to escape to Canada.

DV: Was Mr. Ford still a carpenter on movie sets when he robbed you? Or did he use a light saber?

RWD: No, he robbed me in the usual way, by starring in stolen intellectual property. Most of Hollywood's money is stolen.

DV: You're referring to "The Age of Adaline"?

RWD: I wrote a summary of the case here:<>

DV: OK, here's a slightly edited version of your account: "Five years ago, being more naive than I am now, I sent this screenplay with the working title of "A huge and deafening roar" or "Love Amidst the Ruins" to John Duncan, who was Harvey Weinstein's assistant in New York. Then, 3 years ago, I discover it's being made into a movie called "The Age of Adaline" starring Natalie Portman, the very actress I had suggested for the lead. [Ultimately, it starred Blake Lively rather than Natalie Portman.] I promptly sued Harvey Weinstein and Lakeshore Entertainment, and learned in so doing that George W. Bush had rewritten the laws governing federal courtroom procedure so that all evidence had to be submitted in advance, none could be submitted during the case. (This has the effect of preventing poor people like me from bringing suit for copyright infringement, and then demanding to see the script that has been stolen and rewritten by thieves in Hollywood). Not surprisingly, given the corruption in our courts and in our country, my case was immediately dismissed.... One of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, is renowned for suing at the drop of a hat every time he suspected something of his was stolen. He's a lot smarter and more stubborn than me, of course, and more famous to boot, which always helps, but even though the courts defeated me he inspires me to do at least this much to poke the Hollywood Monster and their associated criminals in the eye a little bit!"

RWD: Probably it was a blessing in disguise as it proved to me the deep corruption in Hollywood, something I already would have known if I'd been paying attention. But as they say, it's different when it happens to you.

DV: So, Robin, what got you into the writing game? Especially the writing of poetry?

RWD:  I lived in Houston, Texas from 1984 to 1990, through sixth grade. Texas had this wonderful thing called "tracking," and lots of oil money, so smart kids got lots of extra attention, and they taught us to write poetry in third grade. We also wrote short stories and published them ourselves in books we made. I doubt public school does that in many places any more. I was fortunate too when I moved to California, and met a guy named Will Newman who taught the special ed kids. California didn't have tracking (everybody's equal in California), but Mr. Newman kept me writing poetry, and got me published for the first time in a youth newspaper.

DV: "Special Ed" is a bureaucratic euphemism for teaching children who are "disadvantaged" in a normal classroom, generally because of developmental problems of one sort or another. One of your fellow "L.A. outlaw poets," Doug Draime, spent decades teaching Special Education students, like your Mr. Newman. Do you see any affinity between that branch of pedagogy and poetry?

RWD: Probably there is some affinity between disability and poetry. Both are kinds of potentiality, somewhat removed from the world, gnomic.Both have to fight their way back in to be seen.

DV:  In your view, as a poet, is it worth the fight?

RWD: Sure, you have to fight anyway;  poetry allows you to be both central to it and totally below the radar. Poetry is where language is made, and reality. In shaping reality, you get to learn how much and how little control you have over the process. I tell something similar to my students:  that when they're holding their pen is the most power they'll ever have. Presidents don't get to push the button. But writers do get to write.

DV: Whose "buttons" do you particularly like to push? Is there any evidence that any of your targets ever actually paid attention?

RWD: I've left America already in my heart. So it is Americans whose buttons I wish to push. Some of them pay attention. We have to destroy our bourgeoisie, our Boomers and the trail of evidence they've left us of their criminal depravity:  consisting chiefly of looking the other way. So this motivates my poetry. It also motivates my political attacks on our institutions, and their leading figures. People pay attention. They're  afraid. Looking to make a deal; most already have. Shut up and close the door, and inform, is the deal. Tell the boss everything.

DV: Do you have a particular poem you'd like to share that encapsulates this attitude of alienation and resistance?

RWD: Sure, I'm happy to. I wrote this one last week:  "New Order."

no lemon water
no freedom
no free sex
no savior
no salvation
no America
no Mercury
no Madame Bovary
no maid nor hair
I am not there

no love
no pain
no bruises
no certainty
no sashay
over oatmeal
and breasts
no curtain and no quarter

no quarter oh my dear
who is it sitting here
who is it I have found under my morning breakfast
ready for the dingy dell revolt
underneath the scintillating feeling of my copper corner
curtain kerchief clipping cate and caramelizing sugar

we could kill you and we must
but not quite yet
let's enjoy this meal together

each bite
the finest
each hour
the melody of life

each maison
my own

tell me the names of your fathers
and I will tell you my mine
I can't remember mine
but we have yours written down

all over the wall

we'll start right here

and for each father
we're going to cut down one of your kids
right in front of you

for each father
we're going to take one of your fingers
and put it into the pate

into the puissance of dust

the puissance of dust
marks my armor
sets my fervor
arms my hand and mind
to do the business of my kind
in each hour our delay is sweet
and the meat of our reward salty enough
to wait till five

or maybe eight

after dinner

oh my love

my love

the blood cannot define enough
and after we'll have plenty
the right amount
the best
and you can sing to me in Italian

and we'll fuck underneath the mosquito canopy

the melody of europe
moving west
you heifer

lowering the wind

low into the wind for me you cow
we've miles to go before we weep
and it has to be a good show
we've walls to tear down too

in Israel and elsewhere

Hadrian is smiling and I have to laugh
just to look at your desert face

you beautiful fucking Jew
yada yada yada and all I can think is this light is meant for us

(Intriguingly "Jude" and "yada yada" may share a common etymology, for Jews' ancient love of talk ;) )

DV: An intriguing though gnomic poem, one that takes some effort on the reader's part to absorb. It certainly covers a lot of ground, though grounded in the long history of antisemitism. Was this a poem that essentially wrote itself, or did it require many starts and stops and scribbling outs and rewrites and sweat to come into existence? Was it an easy birth or a difficult one?

RWD: This was an easy one. Yes antisemitism is very much on many people's minds now; for me and my friends, both Jewish and non, because the powers-that-be encourage people to find criticism of Israel indistinguishable from antisemitism. A friend of mine encouraged me to read Alan Dershowitz's "The Case for Israel" and one thing I did agree with it on was that anything Israelis guilty of, America is too, if not more so. We play together on the world stage.

DV: Were you always a political poet?

RWD: No, not really. More so since 2008, and especially since 2016. Lots of people who didn't want to be political became so last year. Of course, you can argue that all poems are political documents! It's just a question of what their politics are.

DV: So, "all poem are political documents." I realize you qualify that remark with a disclaimer, but what does that mean? In what way is, oh, Shakespeare's 10th sonnet a political statement, even though it contains possibly politically charged words like "conspire"?

RWD: This is what I tell my students:  that language is an inherently political entity, our first and last resort against violence. When speech stops, violence begins. But speech is also a kind of slow-motion violence, refashioning the known world. All dialogue, all assertions, not only describe the world but occupy a political position in relation to each other and the things around us. Are we going to change them? Worship them? Kill them? Preserve them? Politics as it's generally understood--bourgeois western electoral politics and the global geo-positioning of nation states—is ultimately only the most denuded form of the word "politics." Every living cell is a city state. New Pop Lit published an interesting article about a similar subject: the establishment's (in this case, the Paris Review’s) decision to valorize only "non-political" writing starting in the 1950s. Bourgeois navel-gazing can be great art, but it's obviously also a political decision.

DV: In the 80s Noam Chomsky told me that he never had trouble publishing his work in linguistics but that it had become increasingly difficult to find publishers of his political thought. Has that been your experience as well?

RWD: I'm still new to political writing; really I don't know how to do it. And there's another aspect: insofar as these politics are new they necessitate new forms which don't yet exist. Poetry remains easiest for me because in America it really "doesn't matter" -- something I'm grateful for -- so you can put anything in the poem and people will nod and smile and not be bothered (or, hopefully, be moved in some way). Probably I'm not very good at the soft sell of a political essay. I'll never be Voltaire or Swift; I shout too much. 

DV: But you might be good on talk radio.... When it comes to poetry, do you have a method? A set routine? A schedule?

RWD: Hahaha talk radio. That sounds like an insult. Lol Yes usually I write them when listening to music. Often the poems are a sort of tribute to the song, even if they don't necessarily have anything to do with the "subject" of the song, if there are lyrics. Sometimes with books of poems I've tried to concentrate on a particular theme or story; often I'll listen to the same song over and over so they all have a similar influence. On other books I've used Facebook and stuck in every poem that got "hearted." Haha.

DV: A couple of times you've mentioned your students. Where/what do you teach?

RWD: I teach Freshman Comp at CSU Los Angeles. I am a grunt in the trenches.

DV: What do you see as the future of American poetry?

RWD: I hope it dies, along with America. Amerigo means "work ruler," and, perhaps slightly in part due to the power of names, America has been predominantly a place of slavery. English poetry will live on. It will become more vibrant, less parochial, less hamstrung, less traditional, obviously more diverse, and, I imagine, more important. In many traditional societies, poetry was their highest art form. I see no reason why the anglophone world could not return to this.

DV: On the other hand, the Mongols placed poets below prostitutes on the official social scale. Poetry, of some sort or another, has been and continues to be an important part of American popular culture, though “literary poetry” has rarely been. And poets (except the rare celebrity like Edgar Guest and Maya Angelou) are essentially irrelevant in our everyday lives. But, nevertheless, real poets continue to turn out high-quality work; they certainly don’t do it for the money. But I wonder what you see as the connection between American poetry and slavery. (Clearly, before and in the decades after the Civil War, some poets like Henry Timrod defended the institution, just as others like John Greenleaf Whittier opposed it. But in a general sense, how are the two joined?

RWD: Names are important, though culture is perhaps "better" or "bigger" than names -- or maybe not. Names can also swallow culture. Walt Whitman is the hardest for me, since I love Whitman. And certainly he took the side of the North in the Civil War. Yet it's fair to say that his glorious expansive mood in “Leaves of Grass,” transcendent and unmatchable as it is, is essentially a white vision, with a little homoeroticism for frisson. There is no grand
vision for black folks in Whitman. White man, unfortunately. Names are important. To call yourself an American is to embrace a legacy of colonial white supremacy. It's funny, recently I was accused of being--I don't know what
exactly, I get accused of a lot of things--but insufficiently revolutionary. Not hardcore enough in the battle for Native American civil rights. This from a literary editor comfortably married with plenty of money to spend on his federally recognized nonprofit. So: sure, we're none of us in the ideal position to effect the revolution, but still it must be done. Whatever is good in us we can keep; revolutions always have to keep most everything. But the French impulse to burn everything--all the names--this is an extremely important instinct that should be respected. Let us be the Turtle Island poets, then.

DV: A number of Native American tribes refer to North America as Turtle Island. Gary Snyder claimed that the term would synthesize indigenous and colonizer cultures; he also proposed “Isla Tortuga” to reflect the Spanish history on the continent. As you say, names are important. But perhaps they are mainly self-referential. Many “Americans” reject (or are indifferent toward) a legacy of white supremacy. Not so long ago when we had to fill out forms for one purpose or another we had maybe three or four choices for “race” but not have a much larger, more inclusive menu to choose from; for “sex” we only had two choices (or three, I suppose, if we circled the entire “M or F” binary, producing “morf”.) Even the fairly restricted LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) classification has been expanded to LGBTIQ (adding intersex – people who are born with variations in sex characteristics – and “queer” – a term encompassing anyone who has a socially confusing gender identity; the Q may also be “questioning,” for those who are not sure of their own sexual roles – sometimes the group is even LGBTIQQ!) So, yes, names are important, but they depend more on connotation than denotation.

RWD: Ultimately language is a discussion of philosophy, and vice versa. For me, there is no easily defined difference between connotation and denotation, or between form and content. What words mean are by definition an assimilation of connotations -- but even these resonances occur both "above" and "below" board, their sub rosa aspects being often the most important. In my heart of hearts, and because I am a writer occasionally susceptible to "conspiracy theories" (a term coined by the CIA! lol), I do believe that words contain some magical elements. What those might be, I would prefer to remain at least somewhat in the dark. Although I find royalty pure evil (and would not relish using currency with the little Queenie), I do find Canada's name much more inviting: it means village. (Quebec also has an intriguing name: strait, narrows.) California's is very obnoxious: with only one or two turns it comes from the caliph, Muhammed’s successor (via the “Song of Roland,” and then a fifteenth century maritime adventure manuscript favored by Spanish sailors).

DV: How does all this language awareness get translated into poetry?

RWD: Sometimes I get teasy about it (like with the "yada yada" in the poem I shared here), but mostly it just makes me love language more. As with biology, or neuroscience, knowing there are all kinds of systems at work you can barely discern or understand doesn't make you love the field less, it makes you love it more. Because you're a blip in the stream. And, like one of those little micrometeorites orbiting in in the narrow gaps between Saturn's rings, your tiny oscillations can create huge waves, which are heard by astronauts on the dark side of the moon.

DV: Robin, our little discussion has been both pleasurable and enlightening. Maybe we can do it again sometime!  Meanwhile, I want to thank you for your time and candor, and wish you well in all your endeavors.

RWD: Thanks Duane! You're a gentleman and a scholar.


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