Saturday, February 13, 2010
A GEOGRAPHY OF THE SOUL: An Interview with George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras is a large-minded and fervent writer whose poems throw a wide and generous net over the globe. A lover of world poetry, he draws inspiration from a wide array of geographies—from Spain and Latin America to destinations as varied as Greece, Turkey, China and Africa. Fearless reports on the subconscious and conscious workings of reality, his poems bend and curve language to faithfully reflect a lush continuum of experience. His work has appeared in a variety of journals in the United States and internationally, including Best American Poetry 1997, Boulevard, The Iowa Review and New Letters. The Bitter Oleander and Spoon River Poetry Review have devoted substantial sections to presenting his work.
His first collection, The Theory and Function of Mangoes, won the 1998 Four Way Books Intro Series in Poetry Award and was published by Four Way Books in 2000. Pavement Saw Press brought out his second collection, Borders My Bent Toward [sic], in 2003. Among his awards are a 1993 NEA Poetry Fellowship and an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship, with which he spent several months in India in 1994. Associate Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990, George Kalamaras lives in Fort Wayne with his wife, the writer Mary Ann Cain, and their beagle, Barney.
Alexandra van de Kamp: How did you come upon the Spanish poets: Cernuda, Lorca, and Hernandez, and others, as well as those from Latin America, such as Borges and Vallejo?
George Kalamaras: The poets of Spain and Latin America came to me when I was most in need of them. I had been reading a great deal of modern and contemporary American poetry. And although I very much loved what I had been reading, I was simultaneously becoming a bit disillusioned with “something”—some lack, some absence of engagement that I seemed to need at the time. I now understand that this “something” was “deep emotion”—or perhaps emotional urgency—one aspect of what Lorca refers to as duende. (He describes the duende, actually, as the feeling that you could suddenly be devoured by ants, or that a huge “arsenic lobster” could fall on your head at any moment!) At any rate, while living in northern Colorado and studying poetry in graduate school (nearly twenty-five years ago, now), I discovered these poets. My teachers, Bill Tremblay and Mary Crow, and several poet friends in Fort Collins and Denver—particularly John Bradley, Ray Gonzalez, Jim Grabill, Jay Griswold, Bill Ryan, and Phil Woods—were becoming increasingly involved with Spanish- language poets, particularly those who embraced Surrealism. We influenced one another to various degrees, and the whole atmosphere of that time was alive with investigating the duende.
I soon found myself intensively studying the poets from Spain, South America, and Central America, some Surreal, others not, reading them almost daily for years. Lorca’s remarkable essay “Theory and Function of the Duende” is still at the core of my poetics. I immediately understood it by “sympathy,” as one might say. That is, as I read this essay I had a deep recognition—almost as if from inside my own body—of the truths about which he spoke. Lorca’s poetry itself knocked me out as well, especially Poet in New York. My favorite poets were (and still are) Cesar Vallejo and Miguel Hernandez—two markedly different voices. I read them constantly for years, memorizing long passages, and still return to them even now. As I look back upon that poetic apprenticeship, I think that Miguel helped open my heart, allowing me to say precisely what I was feeling, yet also helping me ground that deep emotion in a landscape of human suffering beyond the individual. Hernandez’s pain is, yes, deeply personal, particularly in the early work prior to the Civil War poems (I’m thinking of his first two incredible collections, for instance, Skilled with Moons [Perito en lunas]and The Lightning That Never Stops [El rayo que no cesa], and even a somewhat later—and perhaps my very favorite—poem, “I Have Plenty of Heart”). At the same time, one senses in his voice that at the depths of his suffering is the interface of the personal and social, and also—I might add—of the larger cosmic order of the universe. Cesar Vallejo similarly drew me. However, his Surrealism and linguistic experimentation excited me like no other poet I had read to that time. I can’t help but think of a line of his from his great poem beginning “Idle on a Stone,” where, in a Surreal interpenetration of landscapes, he describes an unemployed man, saying, “and what an idea of a painful valve in his cheekbone!” I had never heard language like this before! And it quite literally changed my life. So, both Hernandez and Vallejo moved me in very different, interrelated ways, like two immense rivers saturating the very water of my cells.
In addition, though, I looked to others of the great Spanish “Generation of ‘27”—particularly, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, and Rafael Alberti, and across the ocean to Borges, Paz, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, Gabriela Mistral, Jaime Sabines, Alfonsina Storni, Vicente Huidobro, and many others. I also went deeply into poets from the prior generation, including Juan Ramon Jimenez and Antonio Machado, and (even a bit earlier) Ruben Dario.
AV: This reading of Spanish poets has no doubt contributed to the international feel of your poems. Could you comment further on the global sensibility that seems to run throughout your work?
GK: That comes, no doubt, from the poets I read, as I mentioned, many of whom come from various cultures outside the United States. The Greek poets—especially the “Generation of the 30’s,” who were quite interested in Surrealism—hold a deep place in my conception of a poem. From Yannis Ritsos I learned economy, distillation. From Odysseas Elytis, an expansiveness reaching into and illuminating every dark recess of the soul. From George Seferis, the melancholy of an observer who is, peculiarly, part of and distinct from the object of contemplation.
But the Spanish and Greeks are only part of the picture. I have spent the good part of the last twenty- five years seeking out poets from around the globe, from Turkey, China, Japan, France, Italy, Finland, India, Africa, and many other locales. My focus on Surrealism may have also contributed to this “international feel” in my poems that you mention, perhaps because Surrealism as a movement has constantly sought to redefine more traditional “borders”—whether those be borders of consciousness, or borders more social in nature, such as race, class, gender, and ethnicity.
That international sensibility, however, comes not just from my reading but, also, I imagine from growing up Greek-American. Three of my four grandparents emigrated to the States in the early 1900’ s. After my parents’ divorce, when I was very young, my mother, brother, and I lived with my grandparents, George and Helen Avgerinos, for several years before my mother remarried. Then we lived just a mile from them. While I knew I was “American,” I also grew up with a very strong sense of identity as a Greek. There are subtle things, difficult to articulate, where I can sense the inheritance in me of an “immigrant sensibility,” if you will.
AV: What American poets do you see yourself inspired by and drawing inspiration from?
GK: That’s a huge question because there are so many. And I go to different American poets for different things, so I am unfortunately bound here to leave out voices important to me. However, I am still most drawn to—and find essential—the work of Robert Kelly, Thomas McGrath, Kenneth Rexroth, James Wright, and a few others. These are the first to come to mind, but I read American poets widely and have recently reintroduced myself, for instance, to Muriel Rukeyser, who is incredible and with whom I feel deep resonance. Also, my contemporaries are writing quite remarkable poetry—truly revolutionary in how it approaches the transformation of consciousness—poets like John Bradley, Forrest Gander, Ray Gonzalez, Jim Grabill, Juan Felipe Herrera, Patrick Lawler, Arthur Sze, and John Yau. I want to mention Gene Frumkin here too, although he comes earlier, yet his work is incredibly vital to me. And from the younger generation now coming of age, I cherish the work of a rather amazing poet, Eric Baus.
AV: I would like to know more about your relationship to your reading and its seemingly wide range. How does it play into your writing process and philosophy? Is it a daily ritual?
GK: Reading for me is vital. I normally read at least some poetry every day, usually upon rising and again before sleeping. The great yogis and rishis of India tell us that the thoughts we have just before slipping into subconscious sleep at night, and again when first reemerging from it in the morning, are extremely powerful influences on our consciousness. So, yes, reading is not just pleasure or even important work. It’s certainly both of these, but for me it is also “ritual,” as you say. So I love the deeper significance of your use of that term!
But perhaps more to your question—I can’t imagine being a writer in this culture without being a voracious reader. When we write, we’re writing to and from the culture. We’re writing ourselves into and through and in relation to that culture. One reads not just to be overtly inspired or influenced, but more to participate in some great song, a conversation of consciousness from one person to the next, even from one particle to the next. Sure, influence and inspiration come. But I am suggesting that this should be secondary to the ritual of reading oneself, so to speak, through the consciousness and joys and struggles of those around us. Reading also grants me community and relationship (which is another reason, I would imagine, for my international focus as one way to widen the reach and understanding of what true community means). In that context, then, reading—and not just writing—is a highly charged political act.
I read poets and feel like they are speaking to me. Sometimes this comes in the form of poets who are friends or those writers whose work I follow closely. Other times, it comes from voices with whom I may have previously felt no connection but for whatever reason now do. The act of reading—as it’s been said of writing—is that a consciousness is reaching out to another. You know, you don’t have to be in the same room with someone to carry on a conversation. Again, we can turn to the yogis of India, and their exploration of the ways our thoughts participate in shaping other people (as well as the entire universe), for further perspective on the far-reaching implications of reading. Interestingly, and perhaps not altogether off the subject, I also intuitively feel that sometimes books are perhaps written for another time, maybe even unconsciously for certain people. I’ve felt this on more than a few occasions. I remember, as one example, my dear friend John Bradley discovering the Italian poet Dino Campana in the library at Colorado State University some twenty years ago. John brought that little book to my house one evening, and we both felt that, in some sense, Campana had been just waiting for us to find him.
AV: And your poems seem to be populated by just such discoveries. Your first book was on India, and your poems, in general, are peppered with the lands, voices, and viscous textures of “other” worlds. There is almost a plural tone to your poems, as if many poets were speaking alongside you. Could you further explain the roots of that “plurality” in your work?
GK: That “plural tone” may be present not just from my consonance with world poets and perspectives but also, perhaps, from my practice of meditation (from within the Hindu yogic tradition), something I’ ve engaged in for many years. Part of what emerges through that practice—or through most attentiveness practices—is an increasing perception of the world as highly fluid, dynamic, and interactive. Meditation quite literally changes one’s brain-wave patterns and helps realign one’s perception in more reciprocal, rather than dichotomous, ways. That is, one’s sense of “I” (or ego) begins to diminish (even if only subtly), increasingly dissolving into a consciousness that is less restrictive and perhaps shared by all humans, animals, plants, and minerals, all the way into the level of atoms and particles of thought. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very far from inhabiting that depth of consciousness, even after years of practice. But that’s the goal, at least, of my life and of my work as a poet.
Something similar occurs through the practice of poetry, which also has the power to transform one’s consciousness through engaging it as a writer (and a reader). And I use that term “practice” quite deliberately. In the final analysis, poetry—like meditation—has nothing to do with accomplishment, or prestige, or achievement. But it has everything to do with the life of the imagination and cultivating rich, fertile inner and outer lives that each feed one another in increasingly generative ways. Unfortunately, it’ s easy to lose sight of “the real work” of the poet, to borrow a phrase from Gary Snyder. Particularly in our consumer culture, the life of the imagination can easily become co-opted (by the artist’s desire for “success” or, even, for this or that kind of creation), and what was once held sacred may erode into just another commodity. This is not to say that “success” or a “readership” need necessarily be shunned in the name of humility. On the contrary, often times that readership (as I mentioned earlier with regard to reading) is vital to one’s development as a writer, giving one a sense of purpose, connection, and conversation. Also, shunning “success” can sometimes be a false humility that we’re just as attached to or caught by, keeping us from the deeper (and often challenging) integrative work (the ego is very tricky and finds all sorts of ways to protect itself from the necessary work of spiritual transformation!). But it is to say that we should never lose sight of “the gift” of what a readership means. This entails constantly offering back to the universe a practice of writing and living that always seeks the welfare of others—a practice that refuses to horde the wealth of the imagination for personal egoic satisfaction and, rather, continually blesses the world by offering oneself and one’s perceptions as a transforming agent and as an instrument of love. This, to my mind, is what it really means to be an artist.
Along with this, I have always felt that it is my sincere privilege to learn from, and participate in, poetry as an apprentice. My sense of apprenticeship is not part of a hierarchical model of “Master/apprentice.” In the context of the non-dual, non-hierachical model of meditation, there is no such duality, except as it appears to our waking consciousness. In other words, in the yogic moment, to be an “apprentice” with complete attentiveness is simultaneously to be absorbed in the flow of a particular practice (and, paradoxically, to fully embody that flow is indeed to “master” it). This mastering, however, is not a dominance over, but—in the nondual paradigm of yoga—it is a consonance of complete absorption in that flow. It is, in essence, to lose all sense of a separate identity (self) and contact the more expansive Self of nonrestrictive consciousness. This talk of apprenticeship reminds me of the title of a wonderful chapbook by my friend Ray Gonzalez, Apprentice to Volcanoes. I’ve always loved that title because one doesn’t aspire to become the volcano; rather, one apprentices oneself out to it to discover the source of that highly-charged, dynamic flow!
AV: Continuing the theme of books and apprenticeship, you said earlier that reading is “a highly charged political act.” Is this because reading is opening ourselves up to other voices, points of view, and cultures? Who we choose to read is really what voices we choose to make ourselves available to. Isn’t politics, in the end, somewhat similar because it involves choosing our voices, the ones we will listen to, and sculpting our opinions and actions according to those voices?
GK: First let me say that not only reading, but everything—in the final analysis—is a “political act.” We are “individuals” constructing and constructed by the social systems we inhabit. Thus, on a very basic level, there is no individual, per se, but a reciprocity between the public and private. This is one reason poetry is so important in our culture. On a very concrete level it dramatizes, and creates a forum for, the enactment of this nexus of public and private. The voice of the “individual,” so to speak, shapes and is shaped by the broader culture—and we get that culture in many ways, including, as you point out, by reading. This interconnection is something the Surrealists understood early on. The early Surrealists wanted a true and complete revolution—not only of society but simultaneously of individual consciousness, and they understood that you cannot have one without the other. So, yes, on a very basic level I would agree with your assessment, and I would, of course, include writing as, equally, a political act, for the same reason—that the transformation of consciousness entails this kind of reciprocity between public and private.
At the same time, you have to keep in mind that my perspective is largely shaped by my practice of meditation—to my mind the most radical political act of all. Far too many people in our culture are so deeply divided that all they can see is the dichotomy between “quiet” and “action,” between “being” and “doing.” Thus, meditation, for them, would be antithetical to social commitment. This is a misunderstanding, though, of the yogic treatises and of other expressions of the Eastern wisdom traditions. Too often, nonpractitioners see meditation as “escapism,” as deep relaxation only, rather than its essence of radical transformation of consciousness. There is no outside without an inside, no action without inaction, or as the Buddhist D.T. Suzuki has stated in describing the Void of cosmic consciousness, it “is neither an immanentism nor a transcendentalism.” Ultimately, in deep states of meditation such distinctions fall away, and the vision becomes one of reciprocity and interconnection. We should all read the Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty if we want an even clearer enactment of this. Though not yogic in the strictest sense, these poets (many of whom were not just Confucian but Taoist, Buddhist, or even Shamanic) share this sensibility, recognizing the transparency between the realms of the social and spiritual. I’m thinking, in particular, of Tu Fu and Han Shan, two poets who approached the question of transparency from somewhat different angles, with the former seemingly more socially-rooted and the latter a hermit—yet each finding deep ways to integrate and express this reciprocity. Meditators are not blind to the world of the social. They go so deeply into the substrata of interconnection that they work on incredibly deep, often intuitive, levels to transform the social. It is often the same with poetry, at least as I see the work of the poet. Through the power of the Word and through the practice of making a poem, we are in the business of transforming human consciousness in ways that affect not only ourselves but simultaneously the entire cosmos.
AV: I sense in much of your work, a weather you want to create within the world of the poem by conjuring up other geographies (both physical and psychological) and by implementing an onrush and, often disorienting, collision of imagery. Reading your poems can be a breathless experience with one image piling on top of, and veering off from, another. You, yourself, have talked about the writing of poetry as a way of disrupting the expected. Could you comment a bit here on how the style of your poems leads to “unexpected places” and on what new directions you see developing in the “geography” of your work?
GK: Well, obviously, my work is deeply influenced by Surrealism, but that is only one aspect that contributes to these juxtapositions, and—as you say—disruptions, collisions, and disorientations (what I’d probably prefer to call reorientations). An equally strong influence is my years of meditation practice. This doesn’t mean that meditation makes one feel “disoriented”; if anything, it has the opposite effect. However, it begins to reveal to the practitioner the underlying unity of all things, as well as the illusion of dichotomous thinking. Thus, much of this “onrush” of images in my poems, as you describe it, is part of my practice of attentiveness and then bringing this practice over to the reader (sometimes as jarring juxtapositions) in order either to try to evoke those interconnections and/or to help neutralize oppositional thinking.
In The Theory and Functions of Mangoes, for instance, the entire book is written in the second person as one means of disrupting the expected “I-ness” of the poems. However, this is also a way of enacting the old yogic trick of talking to oneself in order to help increasingly dissolve the “I’s” attachment to things (yogis, for instance, might ask themselves, “Okay, what are you hungry for now?” Would you like to take a walk now or later?). This also establishes an interesting complexity in the book—who is the “you” and who is the speaker (another way for me to address the illusion of dichotomy). Along with this, I wrote over 90% of Mangoes, I'd say, in couplets to once again emphasize the neutralization of opposites—in this case the apparent contradictions not only of “self” and “other” but also of Eastern and Western cultures.
As you suggest, these stylistic qualities come through as a thread in nearly all of my work, even as far back as my first two chapbooks from the 1980’s. And I explore this reorientation in vastly different ways in my new book, Borders My Bent Toward. Here, I attempt to expand the “borders” of consciousness in different ways, particularly through syntactic slippages and mantra-like seed-sounds, along with my more familiar onrush of images, juxtapositions, and associative leaps. My hope is that, yes, for the poems to create a “breathless” experience. However, it is important to recognize “breathless” in the context I intend. Rather than someone panting through a race of images, I mean it in the yogic manner of neutralizing the rising and falling currents of energy associated with the inhalation and exhalation of breath. My hope is that, if anything, the “breathless” experience you describe is calmly integrative, slowing down the perceiving power of readers in ways that open them to something larger and more expansive within themselves.
Interestingly, I had a rather noted editor, whose magazine had published me in the past, reject some later work with the comment that he didn’t know what my vision was—something to the effect that it “was diffuse and did not bear down enough and settle on any one thing.” Unwittingly, he gave me a compliment and helped me clarify my poetics even more. First, I’m not the least bit interested in my vision, in the sense of the kind of “ownership” that “my” would imply. That’s such a narrowly romantic view of the work of the poet. Rather, whatever I have to offer the reader (and “myself”) is a gift for which I’m blessed to be the vehicle. Secondly, I’m glad that the sensibility of my poems suggests diffusion and dispersal, for as physical, psychological, and spiritual beings we are continually reconstituting ourselves every second. After reading his comments, I thought, “Wow—some of the poems actually achieve that? Terrific!” This is not to say that the poem should lack focus or intent or be intentionally diffuse. Nor does this give one license to write a confusing poem, just for the sake of disorienting the reader (a common misconception about poetry that my students, from time to time, experience). Sometimes, however, the poem’s focus may include, precisely, some aspect of dispersal. Yet, it needs to establish this through an intensely focused orchestration of its energy to achieve this quality through a keen integration of sound, rhythm, image, structure, syntax, theme, and various other elements of the poem.
You ask, also, about my current projects. Besides Borders, my new work is moving in a few directions. I’m currently at work on at least four other manuscripts, each at various stages (I tend to write across projects for many years at a time). There’s the massive, blurred-genre book that retells histories of my favorite non-U.S. poets from the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s (from which the poem for Cernuda that you’ve published here is drawn). There’s another book, more personal in theme, which explores—among other things—family and my Greek cultural roots. There’s even a second collection of poems about India. And then there’s a new manuscript that dives even more deeply into the possibilities and limitations of language. Each explores the dimensions of Lorca’s duende from various perspectives, but always in ways which foreground language as the primary vehicle for the transformation of consciousness. In this way, I’d have to say that the “geography” of my work is closer to an on-going project from book to book, rather than to a terrain entirely “new.” In that way, I might call it a “geography of the soul."