Ken Peters interviews Robert ErmanPeters - What is important enough to write poetry about?
Erman - If importance wasn't a variable attribute of the process, nobody I know could even write poetry. I think the poetic process is like levitating icebergs. You have to lift up the entire sentiment (especially the dark submerged part) to get that little tip to surface on the page. And the reader has to take up the whole weight to get anything from it. This takes some mental muscles...all working in opposition around a moment arm of leverage we only know blindly in our bones. The fulcrum is entrenched values relaxing enough to enable not insight itself but the mere chance of insight. Identity is what blinds us most, still there are ways to see beyond it.
Which few of my attempts at poetry can I hope are any good? The ones where my gaze stays directed outward long enough to tug an entity out to sea. Which dust motes call the rain to condense? What will freeze the heart hard enough to mass pure water at its core? Any thing is the enzyme that does it. Taste is a parlor trick. Mostly we salivate trying to ring the bell.
Eternal Vested Pantheon of The Only Worthy Poetic Themes? Bah! That's all jail bait for academic whores and hangers on. A hoax to bugger into MLA boilerplate. A way to be starved at the banquet of this hour.
Process…that's the stuff. ( and the reason critics criticize and writers write ) These days I'm withered down to my last "belief"...that poetry is spirit taking flesh in word.
Peters - Spirit taking flesh in word is an interesting thought. How do you, as a poet and as a being, reconcile knowing with speaking?
Erman - I'm suddenly reminded of a guy who asked me, " How can I become a great poet? " Like I should know! All I could tell him was, "Try to stay alive long enough to find the right words. "
When I was a little kid I would sit in the can reading the dictionary cover to cover. Not much of a plot but so many of the words really jazzed me. In spite of my numb buns and general inexperience with just about everything, even before I could put them in service, some part of my neural architecture was shaped to resonate with them.
Creation myths of so many cultures make out being to quicken with words... with name giving.
Peters - I am reminded of the adage " those that speak do not know and those that know do not speak. "
Erman - Doesn't that one have it's roots in Zen and/or Taoist practices? I wish I could sit still like that and for that long without my bad back going postal. Still, I maintain a kind of observance in my own goofy way.
If one's motivation to speak is histrionic ego gush ( I'm so cool when I say cute things and impress my siblings ... ) then the outcome is infantile...lizard brain slapstick. Maybe the more developed types keep still so as not to reinforce all that monkey business. Joshua's "Mu" might make a good rolled up newspaper for educating ditz y puppies.
Peters - Can any communication, intra- or inter- personal be any more than a question or an affirmation?
Erman - What a fun question. At first glance, last night, I thought naaaah that can't be right. But today, at noon, what few exceptions I've come up with seem puny.
Peters - One of the things I appreciate about your work is the use of a particular circumstance to illustrate a general truth. I am thinking here about your Ninja willows and the well that endures. Can you say something about what makes an environment a muse?
Erman - Attitude. I have these anomic reverences. Sometimes, after the crowd thins down, I find complicity in nature where I can't even find tolerance in whom I generally get to meet of my species. Things as they are out there surpass mentation. So poems (paintings too) are just faulty transcripts of the speechless witness.
What a weird ambition ... hoping to make someone love what I love. Worse! After thirty-three years at this, I can't even brag to myself about my results. Kenneth Rexroth, in "Toward An Organic Philosophy" ( In What Hour, 1940, New Directions ) has already bested me before I was born. You refer to some of the Onoh Roshi poems. The tone I try for there and have not yet mastered is already real in Gary Snyder's Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems & Riprap, 1958, Four Seasons Foundation Series ). I think these two poets especially give a better answer to your question in their examples than I can get rhetoric to do tonight.
Peters - Snyder and some of the other City Lights poets bring to mind the issue of the artist as a canary in the mine. Can you speak to this?
Erman - Forgive me. I have to quote Ned Flanders of the Simpsons. "Lousy beatniks!" ( Ned was referring to the folks that brought him up without teaching him a discipline.)
I've lived half a century here on the best stuff there is...benign indifference. Not a social contract really, more of a Mexican stand-off. Surely the majority of American poets live, work and die in overwhelming obscurity. Only a few can ever win the nepotism lottery and get anything like national distribution of their work. Why? Aliens quietly abducting all the junior high English teachers and wiring dumbdowninators into their heads? A huge multi-national corporation conspiracy of ignorance to protect the predictability of marketing gambits? I do know developing skills that enable one to read poetry also hardens the intellect against what passes for argument in politics, entertainment and advertising.
That old mine canary may have been kept caged and underground but its songs were noticed and put to good use.
Peters - Please speak to the issue of poetry and personal/world peace.
Erman - Personal peace might be obtainable...maybe even as a steady state. World peace doesn't look like part of the foreseeable future...though the makings (and the unmakings) are there in our dreams.
There will be no peace until we bail ourselves out of the patriarchal nightmare. Not by just letting the pendulum swing back to matriarchy. [Like the way it was before the exodus from Ur (an early human-caused eco-disaster...salt build up from irrigation killed first the wheat, then the barley, then everyone who had nowhere else to go.) God was seen as female prior to that. All that Cain and Abel stuff is one fork in the tap roots of what became western civilization.] Peace will take a complete bias de-tox and re-birth of gender equity and cooperation. The major religions will have to be completely debunked! I don't think we've got the guts to do it.
No peace either while multi-national corporations run the actual show like R. Buckminster Fuller's world pirates and the presumed governments of the world remain as they are... just Punch and Judy shows to keep the rubes distracted with their own tax dollars.
How will poetry save the day? It won't. Since the first metaphor...it has always been done in soul defiance of the inevitable.