Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry

The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry
Edited by Mark Weiss
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009

          When I was in New York a few years ago to give a poetry reading, I was fortunate to spend some time with poet and translator Mark Weiss, who was at the time working on his monumental project of compiling and translating Cuban poets for a bilingual anthology, The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry. I knew next to nothing about Cuban poetry then, and now, having read the anthology, I understand his excitement about the project. Weiss has done the English-speaking world a tremendous service by bringing attention to some of the most significant post-World War II poets of Cuba.
          I knew that I’d be engaging with a literature that had evolved in historical and cultural contexts quite different from those I’ve been steeped in much of my life as a poet and literary scholar. I might want to read Weiss’s chronologically-ordered anthology with notions of development parallel to the succession of “-isms” in Europe and North America more familiar to me. But due to the unique history of the island, I also knew that I would need to approach the poetry on its own terms.
          A number of questions came to mind before I began reading The Whole Island. Under state censorship, what kind of poetry was allowed? To what degree have poets who remained in Cuba written in relative isolation from the rest of the world? What international influences shaped the evolution of Cuban poetry? How have Cuban poets of the post-Revolution diaspora dealt with exile? What role did socialist realism play in Cuba’s literary production? Would there be within officially sanctioned verse covert symbols bearing witness to resistance?
          In retrospect, I realized that these questions primarily related to Cuban poetry after 1959. I’m a child of the 60s, and news about embargo, hijackings, escape, exile, and censorship loom as large in my mind as the face-off of Kennedy and Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis—not to mention the incessant American propaganda about the domino theory of the spread of Communism. So a broader set of questions would inquire about the rich history of pre-Revolution poetry and the indigenous and international cultural forces that shaped it. And after reading Weiss’s incisive introduction to the anthology and the poetry itself, I came to realize that answers to these and other questions were far more complex than I had imagined.
          Weiss’s introduction and selection of poems in The Whole Island draw the curtain to reveal, not only important poetry previously unknown to much of the Anglophone world, but also the ongoing drama of exile and repatriation, revolutionary zeal and disillusionment, debate and the suppression of debate, close official scrutiny guiding publication and censorship, and the tension between poets who’ve remained diehard apologists for the regime and those who secretly hold illegal poetry salons. In the background is a tug of war in which the state (and some poets) pull poetry towards the camp of servile revolutionary optimism, and poets of resistance seek strategies to elude that pull: by writing poetry that somehow survives within the political framework, by going into exile, or by resigning themselves to a life of obscurity in their native home and elsewhere.
          Weiss’s introduction delineates two general and occasionally stridently opposed tendencies that have emerged in Cuban poetry during the past few decades: conversacionalismo (also known as vanguardismo or coloquialismo) and neobarroco. Conversacionalismo, as one might expect, espouses accessible language, a sort of Wordsworthian commitment to colloquial diction. After Castro’s takeover in 1959, it was this tendency that was deemed more expedient to convey Marxist ideology than the neobarroco with its constantly shifting frames of reference, its polyphony of images, and its embracing of process rather than logic. Pushed to its extreme during the darkest days of the regime’s censorship, the colloquial style in the hands of some poets became a hollow receptacle for ideological messages.
         But the more interesting drama is at once more sophisticated poetically and perhaps even more tragic than the spectacle of Potemkin poetry. In a story that epitomizes a great irony in the history of post-revolution Cuban poetry, Weiss describes a political drama played out between Heberto Padilla (1932–2000), an exponent of conversacionalismo, and José Lezama (1910–1976), a major poet of the neobarroco. In 1959, close on the heels of the revolution, Padilla was quick to publically denounce the poetry of Lezama as counter-revolutionary in its individualism, obscurity, and disinclination to deal with social realities. Padilla’s work continued to appear in state-approved publications, and during this time Padilla was also participating in the open expression of concerns regarding individual liberty and the practice of sending “undesirables” (including homosexuals) to labour camps.
          Meanwhile, in 1968 Padilla’s poetry collection Fuera del Juego won Cuba’s Julian del Casal Award, with his nemesis Lezama on the jury. However, Padilla’s book was deemed to be counter-revolutionary by the Interior Ministry. In 1971, Padilla was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned for about a month, after which he gave a dramatic confession of his “sins” against the revolution and denounced a number of his colleagues, including Lezama. As a result, Lezama’s works were banned and did not appear in print again until after his death. Padilla was allowed to leave Cuba in 1980 to immigrate to the United States. Ironically, both conversacionalismo and neobarroco lost in favour of the state’s poetics of choice: knee-jerk praise of the party line. Perhaps, as Weiss observes, the so-called Padilla Affair was a strategy for taking out both aesthetic thorns in the revolutionary ideal.
          Weiss’s anthology also brings into focus the influence of Walt Whitman on Cuban poetry. José Martí (1853–1895), Cuban national hero and poet, had first introduced Whitman to Cubans in an essay of 1887, and Whitman’s poetry was translated into Spanish by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Since then, Leaves of Grass has been warmly embraced in Hispanic literature. The influence on Cuban poetry of the Whitmanesque vox populi and long, free verse lines can be discerned in both coloquialismo and neobarocco. Skimming through the 602-page anthology, the pervasiveness of Whitman’s influence is immediately noticeable in the expansive lines of many poems. An example from “Animus” by José Kozer, a Cuban poet who has lived in the United States since 1950, shows the spirit of Whitman in a neobarroco context:

In Ecbatana the rainbow is only visible in a state of holiness.
The grove to the right among the ruins is clogged with corn flowers.
Within each flower is lost another star another blue corpuscle of God.

Although Kozer has revised Whitman’s all-encompassing ego into a self with a less grandiose relationship to the universe, the continuing legacy of Whitman is present.
          Equally fascinating is the influence of the Spanish baroque and French symbolist and surrealist poetry on Cuban poetry. Baudelaire was championed by Cuban poet Julián del Casal, and it was Casal’s introduction of Baudelaire to Cuba that gave rise to the prose poem there and in the rest of Latin America.
          Weiss points out that his choices for inclusion and exclusion of poets in an anthology in which political positions are hotly contested are subject to interpretation of partisanship. However, Weiss attempts, and successfully in my opinion, an even-handed approach, presenting the poetry “within an evolving context that Cuban poets and readers might recognize, not as North Americans might wish it.”
          I’m profoundly grateful to Mark Weiss for his efforts in assembling this excellent and long-overdue survey of recent Cuban poetry. My one cavil—and it is a small one in the face of the magnificence of this anthology—is that a few of the translations seem too literally rendered into English, and thus otherwise powerful poetry occasionally slows down to a less-than-graceful trot. However, the effective translations far outnumber the few duller ones. And I must point out that Weiss’s own translations are outstanding because Weiss thinks in the English language like a poet who understands its rhythmic maneuvers and melodic registers. The artistry of his translations is especially apparent with the neobarroco poets—he hones the syntax to make the polyphony sing clearly even through its complexity.
          Anthologies can serve as springboards for deeper explorations, and for me, one of Weiss’s achievement in The Whole Island is to offer a rich and engaging preparation to delve deeper into the work of Cuban poets of which a small taste has whetted my appetite for more. Now I know which poets I want to explore further.
          Weiss has graciously given permission for me to offer a sampling of six poems from The Whole Island. In the following selection, my bias toward the neobarroco branch of Cuban poetry is evident, though I find some of the work of conversacionalists intriguing as well. All of the poems below are translated by Mark Weiss.

José Lezama Lima (1910–1976)


At midnight a station wagon
filled with musicians
rattles old stones
shot through with silver
like the ones I saw
when I entered Taxco.
The fat actress
and the scrawny romeo
fall by accident
against the window crank—pretentiousness,
and they tear out their hair—.
Screams and bells,
the flush of a cheek,
slide to the roar of the piss
of swimming horses, parasols
above their inflated haunches.
Terrestrial brown
and violet flashes
boast of the bouncing
that the streetlight once deciphered.
A vacant house,
theatrically empty,
invigorates the passing musicians.
And there beyond the car’s window
a covetous arm’s apostrophe lingers
frosted with various feathers.
The great hall clock chimes in,
bumping into the raucous laughter
of those musicians sunk
in their ball-fringed pillows.
Time’s tassels,
creative as Montecristo’s pistols
or the river’s deflated sperm sacs.
And the cock?
It spread its legs
pointed its finger
and crowed
in the glow of a cigarette.

Gastón Baquero (1914–1997)


I had a cat named Tamerlaine.
And all he ate were poems by Emily Dickinson
and Schubert melodies.

He traveled with me: in Paris
they served him on lace doilies
chocolate confections made for him and him alone
by Madame Sévigné herself.
To no avail: he waved them off
like a Roman emperor
after a night or orgies.

Page by page, verse by verse
he wished only to chew on
old editions of Emily Dickinson’s poems
and he listened incessantly to Schubet melodies.

(In Munich, in a German pension, we met
Katherine Mansfield, and she,
who held within her all the world’s
delicacy, for Tamerlaine played sweetly on her cello
Schubert melodies.)

Tamerlaine passed away in the most appropriate manner:
we were on our way through Amsterdam, through the ghetto, to be exact,
and as we passed the front of the oldest synagogue
Tamerlaine stopped, looked at me with all love’s splendor in his eyes
and leaped into the interior of that dark temple.

Since then, each year,
I send a bunch of poems as a present to the old
synagogue of Amsterdam.
                    Poems that were wept one day in Amherst
by Emily, that melancholy lady,
Emily Tamerlaine Dickinson.


One horse, two butterfly, three sailor,
look at the horse, look at the sailor,
look at the butterfly.
The sailor is dressed in white
the horse’s hide is white,
the white butterfly laughs.
Three sailor, two butterfly, one horse,
the sailor flies over the white horse,
the butterfly over the sailor,
two butterfly, one horse, three sailor,
the horse looks at the butterfly,
the sailor looks at his horse’s white laughter,
the butterfly looks at the sailor, looks at the horse,
the horse flies, the sailor sings
the butterfly a lullaby,
the horse sleeps and dreams of the sailor,
the butterfly sleeps and dreams it’s the horse,
the sailor sleeps and dreams of becoming a butterfly,
one horse, two butterfly, three sailor,
three butterfly, two sailor, one horse,
one sailor, one horse, one butterfly

José Kozer (1940–)


In Ecbatana the rainbow is only visible in a state of holiness.

The grove to the right among the ruins is clogged with corn flowers.

Within each flower is lost another star another blue corpuscle of God.

Antares (white) Alpha Centauri (black) Regulus (purple) Aldebaran (blue) (even now its blue not true-blue); orange (Arcturus) silver (Altair) gold (Vega).

Vega’s blue is more intense perhaps: its corpuscle now scores the gold reshapes to the right a last clump of corn flowers in the grove.

The name of that star still darkens one of Beatrice’s family names, still darkens (lapis lazuli, remembered) Guadalupe’s pregnant body: it doesn’t (at bottom) acknowledge the statue of salt. The blue intensity of the corpuscle in Guadalupe’s gaze (guides) to the right side of the grove.

To the left (at bottom) the salt is crumbling (the statue noticed): beneath the midday sun a dark green pool reflects the intensity of the myrtle.

Lead me, myrtle, to fields of corn flowers (lead me) past the pillar of salt to Guadalupe’s lapis lazuli eye to the imperishable sphere (Beatrice) of the star in the ruins now overhead to the left (Guadalupe) to the right (at bottom) lead me from jasper to amethyst to the foot of the hill of splendor.

Raúl Hernández Novás (1948–1993)

from “Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”


What sugary gull skimmed the waves
of those Virginia seas
where the ship of fools sails with all of us aboard
with all of us Billy with all of us
my god we’re just a bunch of cowards
a bunch of crazies on a spinning boat
and we toss sails and anchors and rudder into the sea
and we let the enemy wind take us and we wait
we await Jaws and Jaws doesn’t come
and the ship doesn’t sink and the whale while
as a crystal tomb doesn’t come
Mac Mac Mac Where have you gone
you’ve left me at the helm and I don’t know how
to steer this ship and you hid you hid with candies
but instead of laughing you were sad
tell me why you hide with the gloss
of candy on your lips and left us alone why brother
why father have you left us alone on this ship of fools
that I don’t know how to steer
                                                            give me the logbook
that the sirens thumbed
with those green cloudlike hands
those hands of seaweed and hyacinth
And in the logbook
after the sterile night without sweets or games
after the dreamed-of game without candies
no sugar star in the mouth
the heavenly piñata empty
and the tender club in our hands the club
with which we strike blindly without hitting the piñata
pinning the shameful tail and ears on the unspeakable donkey
without finding the ball that’s as round as the world in the empty stadium
after the rainy Halloween of closed doors
(they’ve poisoned the candy hid needles in the apples)
and mute unlit pumpkins her pumpkins
next to the body of a twinkling star
in the white logbook Billy I write
rien as the king did
after his empty wedding-night

Alessandra Molina (1968-)


From albino lashes
no thicker than pollen in light
her personal allergy descends
in the form of a sudden sneeze.
Allergic, albino, she could be a goddess
if despite her finicky eating
her transparent skin exploded in purple blotches,
and her eyes distended
as if the rush of blood were a sacrifice.
In this place without seasons or ancient goddesses,
here where there are no crimes,
where a fiction is better than crime,
she recounts what a neighbor, a
voice teacher, the newlyweds, the goatherds, the young
novelist, the psychologist tell her.
They repeat a childish round of shrill stories that approach
and exceed the wildest of tales in their trashy
projections of horrors.
They speak of a broken doll, the foot of a girl,
a whole toy store hanging among the branches;
they speak of the copulation of nocturnal beasts.
In this place without seasons or ancient goddesses
or authentic toads.

Camille Martin

“Chafing at the Margins”: An Interview with Joel Dailey


[“I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins . . . “]

Poet and publisher Joel Dailey is the author of Lower 48 (1999) and My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008), both from Lavender Ink. Since the mid-70s, he has published numerous chapbooks with small presses, including Surprised by French Fries (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), How to Wallpaper Like a Pro (Unarmed, 2007), Biopic (Igneus Press, 1999), Audience, Ambience, Ambulance (Blank Gun Press, 1999), and Mars, 1953 (Rumba Press, 1979). His magazine publications are too many to mention, but let’s just say they include Rolling Stone, Exquisite Corpse, Fuck, and New American Writing.
         For many years Dailey has been an influential and generous presence in the New Orleans poetry community and far beyond. Through his long-running and iconoclastic magazine,
Fell Swoop: The All Bohemian Revue*, he has published countless poets as well as many single-author issues by the likes of Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan Keith Abbott, Bill Berkson, and Richard Martin.
         As for Dailey’s own poetry, Hank Lazer praises
Lower 48 as “an energetic, humorous, edgy successor to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” in which “Dailey wanders this world of manipulative consumerism resisting its hold with his blazing stun-guns of outrage, paranoia, passion, and comedy, leaving a laminated America del Norte in his wake.”
         And in
My Psychic Dogs My Life, Kevin Killian “feel[s] the New Orleans gris-gris emanating from this book like candyfloss” and “the magic of a true trickster substituting words and ideas like dice in a shell game, conjuring spells on the unprepared.”
         Samples of Dailey’s gris-gris can be found here, here, and here.
         The following interview was conducted in one fell swoop, so to speak, on February 26, 2012.

* Subscription to the print-only Fell Swoop is $15 (USD) for three issues per year:
Fell Swoop / PO Box 740158 / New Orleans, LA / 70174 / USA

Camille Martin: Thanks, Joel, for sitting down with me in our respective cities of New Orleans and Toronto for this interview.

Some of your earliest poetry publications were in Rolling Stone, which you later collected into a chapbook, Not on the Cover. Before I knew that about you, I didn’t realize Rolling Stone was a haven for poetry. What was it like publishing there? Please tell me they paid you in concert tickets and coke bashes.

[“The Rolling Stone poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time.”]

Joel Dailey: Back in 1978 I was living in West Los Angeles working at a “literary” bookstore in Santa Monica called Intellectuals and Liars. At that time Rolling Stone was a newsprint weekly, publishing short poems between and among record reviews in the back pages of each issue. I don’t recall how or who but someone tipped me off that Charles Perry did the poetry editing out of the San Francisco office. So I sent off a batch of short poems and he took a couple. I later found out that Perry would have the accepted poems typeset and thumbtacked them all to a bulletin board. When an issue was nearly ready to go to print, he’d look for spaces in the record review section, and the poems which fit the openings were published. RS paid a modest sum upon publication, but I was convinced that hundreds of thousands of readers were having their lives changed by my little ditties hopping out of my typewriter. The RS poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time, as a writer I mean. How to say something deliberate and humorous, perhaps, was a challenge, and many of the ideas came right out of my journals from that time. To this day, my crisp journal entries, my habitual (yet another bad habit?) collecting of language sticks and stems, often leads to poems—or they become integral parts of poems. I still have the ten or so back issues of RS in which my poems can be found. The chapbook you mention is long out of print………..

CM: But thankfully not your long-overdue first book of poetry, Lower 48 (1999), nor My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008).

You’ve also published a plethora of chapbooks since 1975. The fifteen chaps of yours that grace the shelves of my left field poetry collection are gems of pop-culture mashup, cynical (and sometimes not-so-cynical) advice to the lovelorn, and other timeless matters. The earliest that I have is Positions, published by Morgan Press in 1976—a beauty of a little book.

Morgan Press and the others that have published your chapbooks read like a who’s who of renegade small presses from the 70s to the present: to name only a handful, Pentagram, Shockbox, Rumba Train, Blank Gun, Semiquasi, Lavender Ink, and of course your own self-styled “All Bohemian Revue,” the justly infamous Fell Swoop.

There’s a whiff of samizdat—or at least underground basement operation—about the small press culture and especially these chaps. Please describe your affinity for chapbooks, which you’ve made into a kind of art form in your oeuvre, and your experience publishing them with the small presses that you’ve worked with over the years.

[“I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette . . . I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches.”]

JD: You’re probably the one person besides me who thinks Lower 48 was overdue…..When I was growing up the kinds of jobs I imagined one day having all had to do with communication: I wanted to be a radio announcer, a journalist, a teacher. I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette, a three or four page newspaper. My mom still has a few issues salted away. I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches. So this yearning to communicate was strong within me. I got onto poetry via Rod McKuen during my adolescent years and began writing. When the quality improved years later, 1975 saw my first chapbook, Exploring Another Leg, issued from Pentagram. Some of those deep-image poems appeared in magazines, but I had the feeling that them appearing separately diminished their impact. I needed to group them, the best of them, and fashion a chapbook—which I did, and the ms. hit Mike Tarachow at the right moment; he was very excited and had to publish it. Bless him.

Jack Spicer of course had the great idea that individual poems were better in a field of work; his notion of writing books (or chapbooks) instead of single poems was a valuable insight and very different from the workshop idea of penning the immortal poem, the one that will get you into The Greatest Hits of Am Po…..I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins, and now satirically attacks mainstream media, Am “culture” (when I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for the remote), and Am Poetry itself….I’m comfortable standing at the edge of the crowd rather than being engulfed in the thick of it.

CM: I hope someday we’ll be treated to the greatest hits from The Garfield Gazette!

I know that the work of Ted Berrigan was important to you early on. What was it about Berrigan’s work that affected you? What other poets were early influences? If you were to write your bildungsroman, would you describe any poetic epiphanies?

[“We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….”]

JD: Don’t hold your breath for seeing issues of The Garfield Gazette! I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was writing but I thought I was going to become an English professor with a Phd in Literature and the Nottingham year was, I thought, a necessary stepping stone in my envisioned academic career—but I was wrong about that….I met Philip Jenkins, a fellow student, a Welshman, at school there and he was heavily into the New York School and got me reading those poets, as well as the Black Mountain gang. Then we learned Ted Berrigan and the pregnant Alice Notley were at Essex for the year where Ted was teaching. Jenks took over the fledgling Literary Society and used its budgeted funds to bring this barbarian Ted Berrigan to read and give a lecture. We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….What he had to say in his non-stop fashion was beyond interesting. I had stopped attending classes at the university; I was disenchanted with the academick path I once sought and didn’t know what to do next…..Ted came on like gangbusters. His American accent, his bearing, his sureness in the idea that serving Poetry and living Poetry was not only the right choice, but the only choice—that devotion—all of that impressed me and guided me. Plus, at his reading he read great stuff; his works were terrific! Meeting him there on foreign soil changed my life for the better. I’ve never doubted that. Ted’s works have a lot to teach writers, and I’m delighted to see his Collected Poems and now his Selected Poems published so that a new generation has access to his work.

CM: Surprised by French Fries (haven’t we all been?) is a terrific chapbook hot off the Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems are by turns irreverent (“no ideas but in socks”), enlightened (“The earflaps are detachable so shutup.org”), and disturbed (“The previous owner may be previously disturbed”). Do you think of your poetry as holding up a mirror to media-saturated baby boomers and Gen-X? If we recognize ourselves in that mirror, should we be afraid? Very afraid?

Or do you think of it as helping us to chuckle through the sobbing?

Both? Neither?

[“How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something….”]

JD: I think we should all be terrified every second. Hiding under the bed as a matter of course can become a way of life, an indoor sport. Humor has always been an effective instrument and the definition of satire is humor with a point or at the point of a sword. I like to think that a reader of my work is immediately thrown off-balance by the poem not reading like his or her concept of what a poem is, or what it can do. For me, poetry has got to be entertaining and I set that standard for my own little creations, my windup monsters unleashed on unsuspecting readers of any generation. Milton Berle, that great standup slam poet, once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation…” I agree with him. Another great poet of our time whose works I treasure and admire, Anselm Hollo, once told me that for him if Language Poets didn’t have a sense of humor on display in their works it was a problem because then all you have is this dry, unending language flow. How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something…. I often surprise myself with the zingers that line up in my works….they are often pulled from my journal in which I record all manner of language bits, from magazine covers, tv news broadcasts, things I hear people say, to offbeat or common phrases I discover in student papers. The language surrounding us and creating our agreed-upon “reality” is rich, and out of that language pipe, I fashion poems. Ideally, the poems create an experience themselves instead of narrating past experiences—reading the poem is itself a fresh experience……

CM: Your poetry has been unflagging in its satirical edginess—to pick up on Berle, it has been an uninterrupted vacation. Has your writing changed from the time you started publishing around the mid-70s leading up to your most recent book, My Psychic Dog My Life, published by Lavender Ink, and beyond? Have you become more inclined, like a good Strangelove subject, to stop worrying and love the detritus of mass-pop-culture (please don’t reach for the remote just yet)? Or less?

[“. . . beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it . . .”]

JD: Recently a girlfriend of mine from the 70s when I was starting out with writing, recently she contacted me after no contact for 30+ years to say I ruined her life and she was dispatching a team of professional assassins to “take me out…” (just kidding). Actually, she was cleaning out her attic and stumbled upon a box of my letters, poems I’d written, etc. She was going to throw it all away but then thought better, found and emailed me, and sent this box, a literal and figurative blast from the past.. In exchange I sent her some recent books. She was astonished by how the 2011 scribblings were so different from the 1975 works—but she said many of the same elements were visible in the later works that she knew from the early, young man poems. Yes, a line of development (and hopefully, improvement) is clear as it is in many poets’ work if you get to see all of it. My poems from the 70s were more serious, but then I was also writing comical prose poems, and the Rolling Stone poems were lighter in tone. The surface of my writing now is fast in pace, humorous often by way of juxtaposition, but beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it. The message shows up, and I hope it’s heard or understood, understand?

CM: And the message is all the more effective, I think, because, as you say, you don’t completely control and engineer it, which is as good a segue as any to my next question.

Something you told me years ago about writing and editing has stayed with me, a twist on Kerouac: “First thought, best thought—unless it’s not.” I like the way this alerts us not to take the dictums of the legendaries too categorically. With all the manifestos and -isms stirring up the history of poetry, is there a danger in taking poetic camps and icons too seriously?

[“My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….”]

JD: Wait a sec, Camille—this question’s a lob, a telegraphed fastball right down the middle of the dinner plate…..I adore the movements and the isms….My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….I liked Actualism, actually, a movement out of Iowa City (of all places!) in the 70s—which was a tongue-in-cheek goof, sort of, on isms and movements. The interested reader can find an informative essay on Actualism by Dave Morice on Andrei Codrescu’s website. Who’s to say the Surrealists weren’t kidding? Marcel DuChamp was—or wasn’t he? Writers of the NY School never really fancied themselves a school at all, but it’s facile to refer to them in that way. Same with The Language School or Black Mountain (which really was a school, sort of, with a campus and a towering giant named Charles Olson) These are individual writers whose work deserves individual attention (in varying degrees)….I believe there’s a real danger in taking everything too seriously—and for a poet, taking him/herself too seriously? That is a disaster, as it shows up in self-inflated, self-important, self-serving (that’s a good dose of self, no?) poetry which isn’t worth reading….I’m a cardcarrying member of the infamous Post Contemporary School—wanna see my badge?

CM: That’s tempting, Joel, let’s talk.

You have now published more than a hundred issues of the intrepid Fell Swoop, which takes its cue from the great mimeographed zines of the 60s such as Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. That makes it one of the longest-running small press magazines on earth. Ever. And it’s the only one I know that, like a box of Cracker Jacks on crack, includes the occasional plastic utensil to surprise and delight the unsuspecting subscriber.

the “None of the Talent, Half the Brain” issue

What’s the history of the Swoop? If there’s a secret to its longevity, does it come in a convenient, easy-to-swallow capsule? And do we dare to hope that it will never, ever, bow out gracefully?

[“Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature . . .”]

JD: It’s really a newsletter for the Insane or the Inane; it’s a bad habit and I’ll probably go blind from keeping at it….I’ve vowed to quit producing the Swoop dozens of times, but always returned to do another issue. I enjoy making the issues and sending them out….I guess when I stop enjoying the process, I’ll quit it. Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature, with a spotlight on Am Po, but truly Am Po is proving adept at destroying itself; it’s fraught with self involved careerists who are churning out Real Drivel (as opposed to Unreal Drivel, which might be more interesting)—and getting rewarded for it, as they slime trail along their “career paths” to Hooterville….

[“. . . the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something.”]

History? The right Reverend Richard Martin has been a contributor to every general issue; he is also our Resident Historian, a non-paying and rather cramped position….the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something, and so the Swooper was birthed and has continued these many years, publishing hundreds of engaging and worthwhile writers—including you, Camille…..

CM: It has been a privilege to contribute to the Swoop’s worthy cause of general mayhem.

Speaking of mayhem of a different sort, you and your family were greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Your home was flooded and you were displaced for months. I’ll never forget when you Fed-Exed your house key to me from your Pennsylvania home-away-from-home, so that I could sneak back into New Orleans, still under mandatory evacuation, and check up on your two cats.

In post-apocalyptic New Orleans, there was a point when Fell Swoop aficionados wondered whether the magazine would survive the disruption and continue to inject us with an antidote of impertinent chutzpah on a semi-regular basis. Après le deluge, what has given you the grit to forge ahead with your magazine, your poetry, and life in general?

A related question: In My Psychic Dogs My Life, there’s a section written under the sign of Katrina, “My Evacuation.” Whereas some poetry inspired by that muse-bitch takes a more lyrical, somber approach, in your work there seems to be a continuum in your absurdist take on the horrors-that-be—no doubt reflecting the nonstop flow of sense-defying news, pre- and post-K, in the (un)real world from which you draw your poetic raw materials. Was it difficult writing after Katrina, or was it—so to speak—cathartic?

[“It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—”]

JD: Katrina spawned a lot of things: reconstruction, displacement, suicides, divorces, widespread fraud—and I have to tell you, HK “inspired” a lot of terrible poetry. Of course HK affected me personally, as you point out, but in terms of my writing, it added a layer, another post-apocalyptic level. We literally started over here and did without numerous comforts people take for granted. There was no mail delivery in Orleans Parish for weeks, so the Swoop rented a po box in nearby Metairie in order to receive and send dispatches; we published an issue with Joe Brainard’s adapted and adopted beloved comic character Nancy on the cover screaming “Help!” We’re the better for having experienced HK I think; the city is stronger and making a comeback. It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—we foolishly convince ourselves that we’re secure. Olson’s warning comes to mind, “Beware of Permanence!” Part of returning to the ‘normalcy’ of my life after HK was getting back to writing; the hurricane changed many things but not my continued and continuous absurdist view of the world and peddling it through new poems.

the historic Nancy issue

CM: Are there any top-secret projects in the wings that you’d like to spill to WikiLeaks?

[“We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed.”]

JD: I wish I had a top secret or a top hat project to give you and your readers a scoop, but o and alas. We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed. He is a very interesting writer whose work I obviously value, a writer who’s sort of flying beneath the radar, but his work pushes limits and buttons and it does and has been doing so since the 60s. Another recent single author number is The ABC Of Duck, by a creature named Duck Martian, an alphabetical work; this feathered fowl definitely knows his ABC’s. So interesting material is still being created, and Fell Swoop is proud to offer these works to an adoring public……

CM: Rightly so.

I’ve known you for a long time, Joel, yet the marrow of your being remains a mystery to me. My Psychic Dogs My Life opens with a devastating autobiographical exposé:

A little about my life
Remove shrinkwrap.

Please help your fans understand: who’s the real Joel Dailey? Who or what will we encounter under the layers of shrinkwrap?

[“We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..”]

JD: You make me chuckle, Camille….What’s inside your shrinkwrap? I looked up the meaning of my first name once; Joel was defined as “lover of literature,” and that’s true, I am. I often teach British Lit. Survey; the Romantic Age is my favorite period. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies. My two daughters grew up hearing, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” I can leer like Lear. My tastes in fiction tend to be conventional (Jane Austen is the berries, as Al Capone might have said) rather than experimental or just plain old mental. We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..It’s like my Uncle Walt was fond of observing, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes….” In point of measurable fact, I’m an extra-large——

CM: Thank you for sharing, Joel.

For our readers: Below is a bonus package of Dailey chapbooks. Click on any one to get the gallery view.

Camille Martin