INTERVIEW WITH ED DORN by Effie Mihopoulos published in LETTER eX in December 1991
Ed Dorn was poet-in-residence at Northeastern Illinois University from 1970-1972, where he was influential in inspiring many of the writers in Chicago who are working at poetry today, myself among them. He returned this October to give a reading to a packed room (standing room only!) and to much applause. In the intervening years, along with his book publications of THE NEWLY FALLEN, HANDS UP!, GEOGRAPHY, THE NORTH ATLANTIC TURBINE, THE CYCLE, and GUNSLINGER (in four volumes), his new books include THE GRAN APACHERIA; COLLECTED POEMS; HELLO, LA JOLLA; SELECTED POEMS; YELLOW LOLA; CAPTAIN JACK'S CHAPS–HOUSTON/MLA; and ABHORRENCES.
His many books of prose include WHAT I SEE IN THE MAXIMUS POEMS, BY THE SOUND, THE SHOSHONEANS, SOME BUSINESS RECENTLY TRANSACTED IN THE WHITE WORLD, and VIEW.
The recipient of two Fulbright Lectureships, he is currently teaching in the English Department of the University of Boulder, Colorado, where he's been since 1982. He won two American Book Awards, in 1980 and 1989, the latter for Lifetime Achievement.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: What was your whole experience at Black Mountain like?
ED DORN: My life at the University of Illinois preceding that had been pretty confused and not focused, so going to Black Mountain didn't help the confusion much, but it certainly made me focused. In fact, the confusion only increased. Black Mountain was really good for confusing you. It was the dying embers of a once-great educational experiment. There would be lots of ways of characterizing it, but an intellectual adventure was what it was for me, and I hadn't had one.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: So it came at the right time in the development of your intellect?
ED DORN: I think so, yes. i was in my mid 20's. A bit late, in that sense, but it wasn't going to happen earlier than that. I just learned about it because I didn't have those kind of connections to know about a place like Black Mountain. But when I think of Black Mountain, I don't just think of that experience and not just the school, but also lots of other aspects of my life. The summertime was really full of famous artists. Painters from New York. The winter was another kind of population. Those were the grim, hunkered down, gritty regulars. It wasn't a happy place. Actually, it was wretched and miserable most of the time I was there, because it was just poor. That was a great lesson, but I have no idea what it taught.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: It taught you to be who you are. How did Charles Olson influence you there?
ED DORN: Charles Olson gave me my whole impulse to be a writer and the fortitude to hold out. Intellectually, he was the most important person because he was like being around some kind of expansionary force. He just made you get bigger somehow. It was really size, somehow, with him. He was huge himself. In terms of education and learning and the acquisition of information and knowledge of the world, really, there were lots of other people, too. The most important for me was Paul Leser. I took anthropology with him one year, and became a really active amateur anthropologist from that year on. That very much obviously influenced the way I looked at the world. It was in a way that I wouldn't have quite gotten with Olson, who was actually rather impatient with details a lot of the time. He tended to get grand and sweeping, and skip the details.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: I didn't realize that you had studied with anthropologist, though, with hindsight, it shows both in your writing and in your teaching, especially in the books that you recommended we read. There was always an "eye" there seeing things from a cultural anthropologist's viewpoint.
ED DORN: I'm glad you noticed that, because aside from the literature I got there–and I've had to go back, frankly, and really repair leaks in the plumbing, because at Black Mountain it wasn't a thorough education, it was a fanatical education. It did cover a lot, but there was a lot also they didn't cover. Nobody had heard of Milton there, for instance. You get out in the real world of literature, and you haven't read Milton, it's like a joke.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Though you're probably better off, not having read Milton.
ED DORN: That was the point encouraged at Black Mountain, but I found that later to be quite untrue. Ignorance is NOT bliss. But the other literature, in fact, that was most important to me there, was anthropology. Things like Morgan's study of the Iroquois, in which he reveals–long before all the current people who are so aghast to learn it, that the Iroquois had instructed the framers of our Constitution a lot. Anyone who read a lot of anthropology in those days knew that. One of the things that I find irritating is that the`people who have just woken up five minutes ago say, "See what they´ve been keeping from us all this time." It´s so stupid. It´s their own lazy habits of not reading that leads them into those problems. That´s all been there all along.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Did you ever study anthropology with anyone else?
ED DORN: No, just that one year with him, then that was enough to set the foundation from which I knew how to read anthropology. I knew the basic books. One of the things about anybody's education that has any quality at all is that that's simply the foundation from which you then read the rest of your life. You learn how to put all that together to read the literature. My classmates that year–there were only about three of us–were Joel Oppenheimer and a guy who was a fabric designer later in New York, quite successfully. He was one of those graphic Black Mountain people; they were interesting, too. It's just that the last moment of Black Mountain seemed to be dominated by writing, but just prior to that, say, in 2948, 49, 50, 51–I went there the first time in 50, then I went back again later, in 51, and it was still the whole influence of the painters and the architects who had been there. Buckminster Fuller had been there earlier. His influence was very detested by Olson, who thought he was the most awful, horrible goof who ever lived. Olson would have liked that joke which came later, "Buckminster Fuller's entire mind was formed in a toilet of a 747." But he has his great fans, too; everyone does. Olson was the last rector.
From 45 to 50, that half decade, the influence was German refugees--intellectuals–who found sanctuary at Black Mountain, which literally took them in. Only what you got was only sanctuary, really. The salaries couldn't have amounted to much there; at the best of times, I think, those people got like $100 a month. $100 in the late 40s is not like $100 is now, but still, it wasn't much. You got room and board. You got food, and the food was good, because there was a farm. You got isolation and sanctuary and Shangri-la, but no money. It was a very different kind of barter system and conception there. It's unthinkable now, that you would do anything for anything other than money, because there doesn't seem to be anything other than money now. What would it be? Nobody's friends anymore, and food is dirt cheap. That's nothing anymore. even the homeless eat, presumably. There's nothing left anymore other than that awful printing press money that we have, which is just like a disease.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: How do world events, and their sometimes absurd surrealism, influence your poetry?
ED DORN: I just write about it, report the events; I don't invent it. In that sense, the early anthropology certainly taught me how to be a witness. I take that as a big part of writing, being a witness.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: So do you see the eye as the most important tool of the poet?
ED DORN: Being a witness is your whole presence. The eye is obviously important. The human race is so exclusively optical that it's programmed to seek what's coming. We don't smell it or hear it much, so we really see it. But obviously the ear's important to me. I like to try not to mimic people at all, but to try to take their language and dress it up with a little richer vocabulary than they might have.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: How did Olson influence your writing?
ED DORN: The big thing was that I didn't have to go through that struggle about what to write about, because his whole point was that you can write about anything, right off, so that's not going to be a problem. It's how you can cast it or, to use his word, project it (although I get much less out of that than he claimed to). How can you project content and make it your own and use it without restriction? That was the big thing, and how the questions about meaning and content have no meaning, they're unreal. So don't get side tracked by any of that stuff, don't waste your time with struggling with that kind of thing. Because the way the language works and its dynamic IS the important thing, that's the most important thing. Because if you can get force and power and subtlety and all the qualities you want into that, then obviously all these other things aren't going to matter, anyway. There are no proper subjects; that's a foolish idea. So that sounds like it's not technical, but I think it IS very technical.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: It actually sounds very true, like a working writer's technique, not some of those half-assed theories that you hear from a lot of people. It sounds like a formula that a writer can take and work with.
ED DORN: It is, I think. For one thing, it's general. It's not peculiarized so much that it only applies to one person or a few people, because things that are like that are just less useful. One of the things that a lot of people said at the time and have said since is that my generation (and a little bit before and a little bit after it) was diminished because it had no critics. I've never bought that idea. I think we were absolutely fortunate that we had no critics; critics are really useless. What I think these people mean is that we really didn't have that condition, although they don't say that. And that may or may not be true. But looking around and seeing what the connection in poetry is, it can be really disgusting and banal and not elevating and not enobling and, in the end, except for an isolated clutch of a handful of people, unremunerative. So we're not even talking money with it, because except with the very obvious exceptions, all the attempts to get money out of it, are extremely demeaning. More than other things. A prostitute actually is the oldest profession, and it is legitimate, no matter what society thinks about it. You can name a lot of things like that, the most awful examples that you can come up with, and they have their own legitimacy. And poetry, in that respect, does NOT. It's free to the spirit, and there's no way to corrupt it. It will always be incorruptible. All you can do is corrupt yourself.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Do you think poetry is a dying artform in our society?
ED DORN: Poetry itself is as unchangeable as the orbits. People write it more now, and writing has become one of the great human activities.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: But it's essentially catharsis, because nobody reads it.
ED DORN: Yes, but the whole readership of anything has been so inflated. What we call literacy now actually is just those things--if you get, say, some washing up liquid, it's got a picture of a lemon on it, meaning it's got that fragrance. If you know enough that that's not salad dressing because of the lemon picture on there, then you're literate. That's ALL it means. That's all literacy now means. And if you don't put that on salad, then you're illiterate. There's the same number of readers relative to the population now who can read a poem without a lot of prompting and a lot of problems, as there always were. I don't think it's increased at all. Literacy has nothing to do with that. Literacy is a function now that enables you to get around town: to locate addresses, to drive a car, and read the signs and not put the soap on the salad--all sorts of practical things that if you can't do, if you can't read, you can still get by, as we know people do. It's just more difficult, and they're always sort of living in fear if someone actually asks them what that says--because they know what to do with it, but just don't know what it says. they don't know how to read the word walk, but know when to walk, anyway. You can fake this stuff. Literacy is so low that you can not even possess it and still get by. And apparently a lot of people
are doing that.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: But if the population has increased, shouldn't the readership have increased?
ED DORN: I say relative to it: it has. Sure, I think maybe there are 50,000 total readers of poetry in the country now and 10,000 of them might read John Ashbery and say, 3500 of them might read Joe Blow in Montana and maybe 25 might read some guy who's living in the neighborhood. It all gets covered somehow. But that's all there are. In London, say, in John Keats' time, right after the turn of the century, Shelley's time and those people, there were maybe 5,000 readers of poetry. We know that from the sales figures. That can all be reconstructed. Books were quite expensive then, and not just anybody and their dog had a book. So that would be about the same number. That was considered an interest great enough to publish for, and it still is now. I don't think anything has changed in that sense.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: You don't think the attitude has changed? In those days, there was an elite and other people were more illiterate, but writers were respected more. Whereas now, especially in American society (it's not as true, say, in Canadian society, or even in England), Americans are totally indifferent to writers except for blockbuster books by people like Judith Krantz.
ED DORN: The collected poetry of Jimmy Stewart sold a lot.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Yes, and so did Rod McKuen, but can we call that poetry?
ED DORN: The people who bought it called it poetry, obviously. But this is publishing by famous people. You get famous for something, and you can publish a book on anything. It could be poetry, or anything else. Like all the famous people who do their biographies. Somebody else does it, because they're ghosted, or they're as told to (and the as told to character might be ghosting it, who knows–these are contract jobs). The fact is, it doesn't matter what these books are to sell: poetry, biography, adventure, travel, my idea about this or Shirley MacLaine and how to go to Peru and get shook. It doesn't matter. Because they're famous, and that's what's selling. That's a book trade. I'm not willing to say that Jimmy Stewart can't write poetry; anybody can write poetry. To me, they're absolutely disgusting, but they're no more disgusting than that guy who says he learned everything in life in kindergarten. That, in fact, is worse. Robert Ludlum, or something. He's the successor to JONATHAN SEAGULL. That kind of writing has been around a long time. It's stuff that if it was squished in between your toes, you'd just jump and run to the shower and get it off.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: That's a great description. It makes your mind do that.
ED DORN: There we get back to how we define literacy. If we want to widen the scope further and further till you finally do get out to the detergent with the lemon in it, then you've taken in everything. So if that's the definition of literacy, fine. Then all this stuff can be explained on that basis. If you're more exclusive–I don't think, by the way, that any true reader of poetry is an elitist. I know what you mean by that, but I think that the English reader of the first 20 years of the 20th century was a pretty serious character, and might have been quite a democrat, actually. There were, after all, followers of Coleridge in that group. Of course, there was also Lord Byron, who was having everybody on, and he was like a great lord.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Well, it is a paradoxical kind of elitism, because there was a larger portion of the population at the time that didn't have the opportunity to become what those people were. In our society, if you're illiterate, in a sense, it's your own fault. You do have the opportunity to learn. Not always, because there are always certain environments in which it's harder; it's not the same growing up in the ghetto as growing up in the suburbs, where everything is at your disposal. But at that time, I think, there was much less of a choice than there is now. You're responsible, in essence, for your own literacy now–and/or, illiteracy.
ED DORN: Let's just invent a term here. It's called reverse elitism. Would that consist of the competition that arose between Clarence and Anita about how far they had to walk to the toilet when they were growing up? It's worth thinking about; it's certainly interesting. I still maintain anybody who can read a poem well and enjoy it and be informed by it, and actually exchange their own perceptual information with it (which I think is what reading's all about), may be part of the fortunate few, but I refuse to call that elitism, because elitism would be refusing to do that, in some way. It would be knowing how to do it, and not doing it. There's a whole new class, and you'd only know this if you were in the academic racket, but there's a whole new class of people called aliterates, people who can read but won't. This is the going body that we're talking about.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: That's true.
ED DORN: Yeah, and they're not doing me or Jimmy Stewart any good. They're all at Blockbuster Video.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Right. If your poetry was on a video, they'd listen to it or watch it then, but won't read it in a book. Do you think books are going to become obsolete?
ED DORN: Books are obsolete right now, and have been for a long, long time.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: So then it follows that poetry must be obsolete.
ED DORN: It's obsolete, yeah. But so what? There are lots of great things that are obsolete. Kerosene lamps are obsolete, but there's no light like it in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin. And maybe it's a good thing not to have electricity. Think of the best things in the world, actually, and they're all obsolete. Sure. But that's because a world that grows more and more venal and greedy and opportunistic makes things obsolete at a great rate. And what they replace it with is something pretty awful and fowl and cheap and temporary and terrible. So poetry is REAL obsolete.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Well, that's what I meant by dying artform. So how does it make you feel to be working in an obsolete artform?
ED DORN: It makes me feel great. It makes me feel like I'm working with something that's good enough to be obsolete. I'll tell you, horses are obsolete, and horses are great. A 19932 Packard Phaeton is obsolete, one of the great cars ever made. Need I go on about obsolete? The giveaway, actually, was this. I grew up with this; I was 15 years old in 1945. really, post war, the curtain came up, and life began. At that time, there was this word that came on as one of the most smart, zippy ideas ever uttered. it came from Detroit, from automobile engineers, and it was called obsolescence. It was going to be the savior of everybody: it meant that if you had the engineering right, this car door, after 10,000 openings and shuttings, would fall off. And you had to send it to the junkyard. It would keep people employed: let's start things over again, let's start turning this over.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: We are a disposable society now.
ED DORN: But the 1991 version of that is recycling. You don't even wait till it falls off: you just pour everything out of it and recycle it immediately. And that becomes a polluting industry in itself. Because nobody wants to live down wind from a polyurethane recycling plant. Like those diet pop jugs that people throw back in. Nobody wants to live down wind from that.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: But what about in terms of us being a disposable society in terms of it's being cheaper to buy a new one than fix the old one? It's almost the same concept, in terms of, make it in such a way so that with the smallest thing that goes wrong, dump the whole thing and get a new one.
ED DORN: It may be, too, actually, with robots making the stuff.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Years ago, you taught a class at Northeastern Illinois University called "Classical Greek Mythology and the American West." It blew everybody's mind, especially at the time, that you could even think of connecting these two things. The fact that you did it successfully totally mystified everyone. How did that relate to your writing, since you were working on GUNSLINGER at the time?
ED DORN: I think I was thinking about it. I was in the middle of writing SLINGER in those years. I think, in fact, I did a lot of Book II here. It was just that the whole preoccupation with Homeric and Virgilian characters–Virgil a lot because THE AENEAD is really kind of that post-Homer going West. A Western book, of those big classic epics. It's really just soul searching sojourning and meeting phenomena and populations. What's going on. There's usually nothing going on, and everything going on. It's that kind of thing, like raw, human, ordinary life. Dressed up in sort of legendary, fantastic figures. And that's what I was talking about. I don't remember as much of that, because I don't have my notes. The one time I ever lost a notebook was in Chicago. That stuff, plus some other writing, would have been in that notebook. I left it somewhere, and I didn't get it back. Or maybe it just got taken out and thrown into the dump; I have no idea what happened to it. I left it in a class at Northeastern or on an el. I just left it behind somewhere. But you know, the whole Western question, after Black Mountain and Leser and Olson, that was my preoccupation with the subject, and it still is. People who set out to write for the long haul have to–I think one of the problems here is that they don't see the mountains behind the forest. They don't start looking behind each thing that they're doing.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: They only see the craft, and nothing else, like the Iowa people sometimes.
ED DORN: I like craft, but when you only concentrate on craft like that, it's hideous: like link sausages.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Does the place you're living in influence your writing? You were already working on SLINGER, set in the West, when you were living in Chicago, this very urban environment.
ED DORN: Chicago is the capitol of the West. There's a whole book which is based on the premise that Chicago was the colonial exploiter of the Great Plains, in the same way that London controlled Kenya or India, in that same sense. It loaned the money, it bought the crops, it laid down the law. It's fascinating. Chicago as an imperialist place, in that sense. Because you were talking about an area and a gross national product and a transaction far larger than many countries for that relationship, of Chicago and the Great Plains. At one time, I'm sure, it was more true than it is now. So it's part of the West. You know, people call it the Midwest, but really the West is the West. One of the convenient things about Boulder, where I live (although it's an artificial place in many ways) is that it IS the center of the West: it's 1,000 miles in every direction, you're still in the West. I like living at high altitude, where the air's thin and life is cranked down a bit. There's not many bugs. There's less life, and I like that. Because there's just less that can live over 5,000 feet that can live below it; it's pretty simple.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Does it make it more intense, then, for the few that are actually there?
ED DORN: No, it makes it more desperate. There are not enough people to be intense. Just desperate–that's why you call people living out there desperadoes.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: That's a perfect example. You have this amazing facility for making connections like that, a preoccupation with language that results in making connections that most people just don't see, but that are really obvious, though, once you've pointed them out. Does that stem from anything in particular?
ED DORN: No, it just stems from the will to do it, and a lot of practice and a certain kind of metabolism. When I stopped smoking, it got worse, actually. Smoking is a narcotic. I know why people smoke. It's one of the great tranquilizers ever discovered by mankind. The reason why it's so horrible is that people invented cigarette machines and packaged them and made them terrible. But tobacco itself is really a great medicine. No doubt about it. The Indians thought about it and called it medicine. But as a habit, it's hideous.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: It's so strange not to see you smoking anymore.
ED DORN: That's because we haven't seen each other since the days when I was a walking
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: I always had a vision of doing a film with you and Ted Berrigan, putting the two of you together, just sitting there talking to each other, about anything. You, with the cigarette that you were always going to light, that would take probably about an hour, and Ted, who would have gone through about 10 of them during that same time, but with the cigarette just sitting in his mouth after he lit it, and the ashes just dropping all over his beard and the floor. It would have been a very conceptual portrait of two American poets talking about poetry. But now he's dead and you're no longer smoking. So now it's a completely OBSOLETE idea.
ED DORN: It would have been pretty funny, actually.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Do you think about longpoems like GUNSLINGER as narrative poems?
ED DORN: Sure. Maybe that's a bit gratuitous, I suppose. It tells a story. It's not much of a story; it's a thinnish excuse. The bare bones of the thing. It's the simplest thing, just taking a trip. Just on the road. Like ON THE ROAD didn't invent on the road. Everything was on the road. That's what the Greek epics are, on the road. THE ILIAD is fixed; that's the difference. But THE AENEAD and THE ODYSSEY are on the road. SLINGER is just on the road in more modern times, with horses and stagecoaches and fake technology. I think most technology is fake, anyway, so I easn't doing it any favors. Really I just dumped into it what I thought was going onduring the time that I was writing it, which was essentially 1967-68 till about 1976, which was the decade of it. I thought that was the decade that was THE decade. THAT was the 60's. The early 60's were totally different. People who weren't around in those days don't seem to understand, and the historians don't seem to straighten them out on this. The early 60's were nothing like the late 60's. From 1960-65 was like the other side of the moon from 1965-1970. I liked the early 60's. They were really interesting times. The Blacks were burning everything down, the whole population as far as I could tell was on amphetamine. People would say, "Love? What are you talking about? What's that supposed to do for you? Because I KNOW what you mean by that, what are you talking about? Things are more serious than that, surely." The suddenly that half decade died, and everything was love, and the branches started sprouting green twigs and everybody said, "Isn't it great?" the world was full of walking twinkles and crazy people and abandon, and it was altogether different. And pretty smart and hip. One of the things that was so special about the late 60's was that those were boom times. Everybody was employed; there was a lot for everybody. I don't know how you'd adjust the figures for inflation, but everybody had some money. I didn't know anybody that didn't have some money. The homeless, if they were out there, were homeless because they said, "Fuck you!" to their home. It wasn't because they don't have one. Everything was totally different. Everyone knows about the student rebellions and the beginning of ecology (which was, of course, not true, anyway), but one of the most important things, less talked about, was the economic conditions of that period which made all that possible. You can't just abandon everything unless things are pretty cushy, basically. The reason you don't have anything going on now, of any kind, actually, let alone like that, is because things are not cushy. People have to watch it. You trip now and you've got people on your back, if not elsewhere. This is a fearsome time.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Well, the reason I asked if you think of SLINGER as a narrative poem is that even though it's so long, there are whole individual sections. It's very concise, in a sense. Do you think of it as a longpoem or a narrative poem–or both?
ED DORN: The period of its composition was
really stretched out. It was really a portable poem. I could write it in Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas, England–which is, in fact, what I did. It's because it started off with the kind of distance I got on the subject and my feelings for the West, and all the times I had been transported back and forth across it, I had that out there as one big vision. Because I was a long way from it, and I could see it all, in a sense. I was free of its surroundings. That's the only time I got to have that experience with a work of that kind. It was a great experience to have. It affected the poem a lot. It freed me up from feeling the pressure of making the narrative be true or make sense or whatever–I just let it be its own thread and what people are saying to each other, the kind of, sort of vague, abstract sort of irrepressible mind.
page two, Dorn Interview
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Well, the reason I asked if you think of SLINGER as a narrative poem is that even though it's so long, there are whole individual sections. It's very concise, in a sense. Do you think of it as a longpoem or a narrative poem–or both?
ED DORN: The period of its composition was really stretched out. It was really a portable poem. I could write it in Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas, England–which is, in fact, what I did. It's because it started off with the kind of distance I got on the subject and my feelings for the West, and all the times I had been transported back and forth across it, I had that out there as one big vision. Because I was a long way from it, and I could see it all, in a sense. I was free of its surroundings. That's the only time I got to have that experience with a work of that kind. It was a great experience to have. It affected the poem a lot. It freed me up from feeling the pressure of making the narrative be true or make sense or whatever–I just let it be its own thread and what people are saying to each other, the kind of, sort of vague, abstract sort of irrepressible mindlessness at times, and the vocabulary that generates and all that, were natural to the time. That's what I was hearing around me. When I look at that poem now, I don't see it as anything but an empiricism of the language that I was hearing at the time. I'm not making that up. I'm just giving it a kind of expression. You mentioned before about making connections with the obvious. Well, that's true. The reasons why most people recognize something as obvious but don't necessarily make the connection themselves and therefore dispense with that service that I can provide, is because they just don't want to be involved with that kind of energy that makes them preoccupied with that, and, I think, that's probably good. Because if you couldn't point out the obvious and make it fresh and stunning, for instance, what would life be? Because except for things that are extremely esoteric and only a few scientists know about, everything IS obvious. So if we couldn't constantly claim a new connection for the obvious, we'd be in bad trouble real quick. life would get insufferably dull. And TV wouldn't be able to save us.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: But can TV save us from anything?
ED DORN: Well, it fills in those spaces. I don't think anybody, even the most diehard addict, and the most brainwashed and programmed under-control video freak lives entirely with video because you can't do it. The instrument itself disallows any real attention. It's its own worst enemy, in terms of the ultimacy of its control. In the sense that it doesn't have the power to actually capture you: that's one of the hilarious things about it. People who have the habit the worst pay the least attention to it. Because they're already phased. The flapping of the lines just drives them away. There's something really strange, psychologically, going on. Conversely, people who don't watch very much or who don't have it and want to see something on it, can pay the most rapt attention when they do. I have a TV, but I have friends who don't. There is a kind of affectation in Boulder, a lot of people don't have TVs. Once in a while, they want to see something, and they come around. I mean, I couldn't watch TV like that. I watch it–I'm not an addict, but I watch enough of it–but I see them watching it, and they're really on it. But that's because they don't watch it regularly. Otherwise, if you watch it a little bit, you can either take it or leave it. The narrative is essentially linguistic, because it starts out with a series of–it's a standard setting, in cowboy times, with a coach in Billy the Kid country and it's on the border. It goes through all those kinds of references: this is the excuse for using a kind of Spanglish: not exactly, but a kind of Chinook jargon Spanish which runs all the way through it. Because it is the Southwest, but that's in there for flavor, and to sort of zip it once in a while. But what's happening all the time is that it's just a series that moves along and somebody looks out the window and says something like, "Hey, man, it's a crazy landscape." Then the talk goes on from there about what's actually in it. Then I'm all the time collecting strange words–like along around that time I discovered the word "hoodoo," which I thought was some kind of magic or religious thing. It turns out to be, not spelled quite that way, a geological term for certain kind of moundy-like things. So that gets conflated with a certain drift of the conversation which might be about magic or perceptions or stuff like that–so that becomes increasingly the poem's preoccupation. How do the puns and ambiguities of language enter into everyday life? Because this is like everyday life back then: it's a time trip. These people are taking a stagecoach. I've tried to make it more exotic by having six driverless horses. At first, I thought, "Wow, six driverless horses, fantastic! That's amazing. Boy, what am I going to do with that?" Well, I did nothing with that. Because by the time it came around again and it was time to do something with it, I thought, "Well, I'm not going to go back and do it. So they're driverless, to hell with it. That doesn't mean anything. There's just no driver." In other words, the whole idea is just generating this in the reader also. We're like dogs to a certain extent. We go around and sniff here and there, and we may not go back. The circle may never be completed. That's why I said, "Alright, if that's what's happening, then that's what's happening." Driverless horses because really I don't want to have to bother with having to deal with a driver. I don't want to describe him. I just want to stay inside the coach. So these horses know where they're going: The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, through the something and the drifting snow. Maybe it comes from that kind of stuff: over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go. It's the same thing. He didn't have a driver, either. The horse knows the way. That's what horses do.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: It's archetypal.
ED DORN: They're known for their intelligence in mythology, although anybody who's been around horses knows that they're dumb as shit. They don't even have an intelligence, what they've got is an incredibly active and really dangerous and vibrating nervous system. They're all nerves. In so far as maybe their brains are extensions of their nervous systems, then the nervous system IS their intelligence, except draft horses. I grew up with draft horses; they're really placid. They weigh about 1500-2000 pounds, like a ton. The only thing is, you don't want to have your foot underneath when they take a step to the side and shift weight, because you're talking big. We better get off horses, because I'm sure no expert, and there are a lot of experts in horses.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: I bet there are a lot more experts on horses than there are experts on poets. Incidentally, why haven't you ever wanted to live in a writer's community like Bolinas, for instance?
ED DORN: I never visited Bolinas for more than one day in my life. I never even stayed overnight. I would never even consider living there. California to me was San Francisco; it has always been two things to me: San Francisco or LA. In recent years, I've enjoyed going to LA. But when I lived in California, I loved living in San Francisco. In the 70's that was a great town to live in. Some of the best years. But I would never have lived out in the country, like Bolinas; it's too far away. I would get real bored out there. San Francisco was a town, and I moved around in it a lot, living in various parts of it. I had a lot of friends there, and we were really active. I saw them a lot. We had a lot to talk about; we did a lot of things together. In those years, in the 70's, there was that run-down from the 60's boom, and it was still possible to work around, pretty much on your own terms. I's do a job here, a job there. I read a lot in those days. So I'd paste it together. It was a kind of scrappy way to make a living, but we were really happy. Then inflation came, and I had to get a place to raise the kids and put them through school. That wasn't going to happen in San Francisco. It was under that stupid, mistaken civic irresponsible moving people around in school busing: it was wasting the kids' time and not giving them an education, just moving meat around. Just in the name of somebody satisfying their own guilt about not having an integrated society here, which they haven't solved, anyway. In the meantime, we screwed up a whole generation of people. So when I saw a chance to get out, I took it, because I knew what was coming. Kit was in the first grade, and Maya was in kindergarten, so we got out just in time. When we moved to Boulder, I knew we weren't going to have to worry about it. And it would free my time up a lot. We'd been in San Francisco most of the 70's. We didn't live there the whole time, but that's what we called home. We'd been to England a couple of times during that period. We'd had the best of it: the 70's were marvelous in San Francisco. It was the last moment before the plague struck, before everyone got really self-conscious about who they were and taking exception to every little thing that happened, which I take it they're embroiled in now to no effect whatsoever. The 70's were free of that. It was the down time. The 70's get a really bad rap. They say, "What decade was that?" Or, "Oh, there was a 70's? I thought it went from the 60's to the 80's." But actually, it was a very restful and nice time. It was cool.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Do you view your poetry as political poetry?
ED DORN: Absolutely. It's my way of voting early and often.
EFFIE MIHOPOULOS: Political poetry can often veer into diatribes or dated nonsense. It was interesting in your comments during your reading at Northeastern that you said about selecting the poems for ABHORRENCES that you had to throw out a lot of them, because, "It was just trash." How do you distinguish between writing poetry that's true, but still has a political message, and political vehemence?
ED DORN: I think, in the case of ABHORRENCES, the standard there was rather overwrought and a little too vicious and a little like really getting a knife in. But then you could look at this and say, "But actually, the knife's into what, when it comes right down to it?" You're not separated enough from it. So I tended to choose the things that got off a little bit, lowered the temperature on things, got a little bit cold, a little high-minded, a little superior, not too involved. That would have been the kind of things. Therefore, less messy. A lot of stuff was just like this was spinning around some kind of pointlessness or it's a rant pure and simple. One of the things about political poetry is that you have to sort of imply to the reader that this is a rather intimate situation in which I'm going to say something that's rather stiff to you, and you're going to like it, because actually you agree when it comes right down to it. You sort of have to have the kind of–you just have to feel how you do that in a poem. It's presumption, but it's with a kind of presumption that you can't offend the reader with or alienate the reader into saying, "Wow, that IS a presumption." You have to include the reader.
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Note: This interview with Ed Dorn was first published by Letter eX in 1991.