Excerpted from Riverside Interviews 4: Jerome Rothenberg (London, 1984). Edited by Gavin Selerie with Eric Motiram. (Available: Bookslinger, St. Paul, MN, and SPD, Berkeley. $7.95.)
Gavin Selerie: I am fascinated by the accounts of "Doings" and "Happenings". in Technicians of the Sacred and I presume that you follow T. H. Gaster in seeing drama or event as not merely artistic but also functional within the structure of communal life. Among the rites which you describe are "Dead Feasts" (A Seneca Journal), the Seneca Eagle Dance (Technicians of the Sacred), "Gift Event II (A Shaman's Notebook), and "Realtheater Piece One" and "Two" (Narratives and Realtheater Pieces). Having done a good deal of research on revivals of Shakespeare's Last Plays, I am mindful of the difficulties involved in bringing the mytho-religious-philosophical dimension alive for contemporary audiences. I imagine some such awkwardness arises with the presentation of Robert Duncan's plays, which have a very bold expression of mind and esoteric lore On the other hand, it is plain that the transposition to a modern context can be achieved by sensitive direction and acting – as for example, in Britain, with the recent Oresteia at the National Theatre or any number of productions by able fringe companies. I wonder how you yourself see this business of blowing new life into tested but half-forgotten ritual, so that the durative and the punctual aspects of the event are retained. Can the ancient be reborn and, if so, is the main intention to enable us to create new forms of ritual entertainment?
Jerome Rothenberg: I don't think that the question is one of "blowing new life into tested but half-forgotten rituals" but of rescuing ritual possibilities in our own lives for which the older ones in some general sense can serve as models or reminders. In the Seneca Eagle Dance, we were playing around with what seemed to be the structure of a Seneca Indian ritual. But that was being filled entirely with our contemporary work and contemporary gestures – and a desire to celebrate the possibility of our own community. I would be a little wary myself of taking the old rituals and trying to revive or live them. At least I've never felt myself attracted in that direction, whether it's the Indian Sun Dance, say, or those Tibetan tantric rituals to which many of my contemporaries have felt themselves drawn. I don't know if the ancient can be reborn as what it was. I do think that part of our yearning has been to save for ourselves the possibility of a ritualized experiencing of the world – as something sacred. So that the term you use, "a ritual entertainment", involves a kind of paradox, or raises the question in any particular instance: is it ritual, with the serious function and meaning that rituals have, or is it, as they say, mere entertainment/simple pleasure in the activity that draws many of the participants into the ritual event. And ritual devoid of entertainment can be the most agonizing bore and obligation.
Richard Schechner, to whose work I've felt close at many times, has an essay in which he tries to set out what he calls a ritual/entertainment dyad – seeing the origins of performance in ritual activity, and then, with major social-cultural-economic changes, the development out of ritual of a kind of aesthetics or poetics of entertainment, that Schechner sees being reversed in our own century by newly ritualized forms of theater. I would think that culminates in his own mind and in his own work in the theatrical and performance activities of the 1960's and 1970's. I'm not sure where he finds himself at present, but he was certainly one of the people who most clearly articulated the sense that twentieth-century theater and related performances and happenings were moving back towards ritual. Blowing life into ourselves, not into it…
My own observation of Seneca ritual or of other Indian rituals where I was present more as an observer than a participant, is that people there have a tendency to drift in and out of the rituals – sometimes to be participants, sometimes observers, who can view it and themselves inside it as a form of entertainment. I can never be sure at any particular point whether a Seneca Indian friend is in it for the ritual or for the entertainment, and maybe there's no separation there between the two. But I also should say that the Senecas themselves are notably contemporary people, not backwoods Indians but really and truly my own contemporaries, who have the problems of loss and secularization that face all of us: trying to keep some part of an old tradition alive, unfortunately doing very little in the direction of its actual revitalization, and probably in the process of losing most of it entirely. And I should add, I think, that many Senecas don't care beans about all this.
Jerome Rothenberg looking into the distance and holding a performance instrument
photo: Morgan Shannon
One of the things that disturbs me in my own work is that I tend, in spite of my best intentions and efforts, to give the impression that the Senecas are more traditional and romantically Indian than they truly are. I try to make up for that – at least in the oral part of my presentation - by taking some pains to actually situate the Senecas in the twentieth century as working-class Indians tied into a larger industrial economy and open to the same forms of mass communication that affect all of our lives – far more fluent at this point in the common language of America, i.e. English, than in the Seneca language itself. Only a small portion of them are now actively involved in the traditional rituals, and even those people are highly assimilated, industrialized, and English-speaking.
Gavin Selerie: I suppose there's also the danger that traditional ceremony has a constraining effect on the people in a given culture. This is a tension which is brought out well in the novels of Thomas Hardy: the sense that, although these rituals hold the society together, they also prevent the individual stepping outside the limits of behaviour, as laid down by tradition. This must be one reservation that one has about maintaining ritual structures
Jerome Rothenberg: Yes, I think that where the traditional rituals exist on the fringe of some more dominant culture, they tend towards conservatizing and repetition rather than expansion and new invention. Part of what I've been interested in exploring in societies that have maintained a relative amount of autonomy is the degree to which ritual is involved with processes of change. For me the key contemporary figure in describing that is the anthropologist Victor Turner, from whom I've learned both through his books and through his personal presence. His is a dynamic rather than a static view of traditional rituals and cultures – that built into those systems are processes of innovation and of change. In that sense, I find Turner's view of ritual interesting, illuminating, and highly useful. There are in fact a number of anthropologists and students of culture that have gotten away from that static structuralist-functionalist model to more dynamic views of traditional cultures. It's those cultures that we've always tended to think of as static, repeating themselves over the centuries; so it's refreshing to find descriptions of traditional cultures with change and the will to change as a dominant element.
GS: I have often wondered how literal is the potency of symbolic gestures in some of those cultures. Compare, say, the eating of the wafer in Christian communion with the distribution of sweetmeats at a Greek play. Or, to take something more modern, the role of food – the crackers – in the Seneca Eagle Dance.
JR: Actual food, the shared meal, is really central to a tremendous range of ceremonial activity. What ceremony is complete without the food being eaten in common? Schechner speculates about that coming out of the rituals of early hunting bands – or even from some kind of pre-human situation where groups of primates come together and enter into ritual-like activities around a common food gathering site. Schechner then ties that up to such things as the presence of food at theater performances – the intermission in which food is served, the presence of popcorn at the movie theater, the bar at the commercial theater, the restaurants that turn up in fringe theater here in London. And religious rituals obviously have their food side – real and symbolic. For myself, let me say, I would like the full sense of food in ritual, rather than the symbolic dry wafer. But then I take my general attitude in art and life to be a little suspicious of symbolism – of symbols that aren't at the same time real.
GS: One of the things which interests me greatly is the degree of animation which one can attain in poetry, and it seems that you have been remarkably successful in "Declaring a behaviour for the word, as though sometimes, they better be shown as performing animals" – to quote Charles Olson. There are, for instance, the voices in *The Jew of Malta" (Vienna Blood) which are intensely dramatic, and the highly charged visual detail of the poems from Poland/1931. Would you say that one of your main aims has been to liberate words from the deadness of print?
JR: I would say that for many poets of my generation – and probably now the succeeding generation – there was an early recognition of poetry as a performative art, like music, like theater. So the text became for us largely a score for the work itself. It's much easier to read written texts of poetry than scores for musical performance – I'm not trying to absolutely equate the two. Nor am I trying to limit poetry to its actual performance. But in some sense the text of a poem more than the text of a novel relates to the way in which the poem would be sounded or performed. Most poets of my generation came into performance at some point. In the process of performing, language again became very physical for us – as it might in another way in the process of writing. It was very physical; it was connected with sound; it was connected with movement. The Olson quote that you just gave I like very much – the sense of words as performing animals. I think the guide in my own mind is something of Whitman's in The American Primer. He talks about words singing, dancing, doing various activities, performing the sexual act, the "male and female act", etcetera. It's very much a sense of little animals in action – an animated sense of language – and I would take performance in general as the key to that. I would tie it into performance, while recognizing that there is also the kind of visual animation that can turn up in Concrete Poetry, say, where you're still dealing with the written form of words – but words now taken, like the name of the movement itself, as concrete, physical entities. Increasingly, I've had to assert that what I'm involved in is not a denial of the powers of a written language, because that – the written language, writing – would be a part of the exploration also. Over the last couple of years, in fact, I've been trying to explore the uses of writing in cultures that we usually speak of as oral, non-literate, pre-literate, and so on. And the conclusion I'm drawn towards is that writing in some sense is also universal and shared among all peoples. Therefore, when human beings developed as human beings at some point in the far past – at the point where we became human beings we were probably already using some form of speech - and along with that, I would think, some form of writing, art-making, and so on. It's all very old.
Earlier you seemed to imply that you improvise to a degree in performance. Would this be most evident in things like The Horse-Songs?
I think my phrasing may change in small ways from reading to reading, although there is a tendency to fall into set patterns and to be over-determined by the way the poem sets up in the written form. With the Horse-Songs I've had a tendency to depart from the text in performance – that is to say, I've never memorized the text in detail, but I do know the key words that are going to turn up in sequence throughout the poem. In order to avoid constantly looking at the text during a performance, I'll improvise on the sounds…I'll be fairly loose in the reading of the meaningless sounds that accompany the words. Unless I become aware that some part of the audience is sitting there and following my reading from some published version – in which case I'll tend to become self-conscious and stick closely to what is written. When I do performances for recording – audio or video tapes – I also stick more closely to the texts. In performance, when I don't want the text impeding the performance itself, my tendency is to follow the general pattern but to change specific sounds and word distortions – just following my own impulses on that, but not trying to memorize it perfectly.
One of the questions which I asked Allen Ginsberg, when I interviewed him, was whether he would be happier to see his work produced in video or cassette form – for that to be the primary means of communication outside actual performance. Do you think we're coming to that and is it a preferable situation?
I don't know. I'm greedy – like him – and want both…although I must say I listen to records in a much different way than I read books. I think for certain kinds of poetry, recordings may be a viable substitute and give more of an illusion of presence than do books (though it's only an illusion). But, whether it's Ginsberg's work or my work or the work of any poet of interest, there's an attention to words and meaning that we get through the written form that's extremely valuable in itself. I find increasingly, too, that even the live performance of poetry isn't a substitute for everything poetry can do. It tends to be a very limited presentation of the work, partly because of the time element that enters into it. If I am going to give a poetry performance for, say, an hour or even an hour-and-a-half, I'm very much cutting myself down – compared to what I can present in even a small book of a hundred pages. There's a tremendous amount of poetry that can go into that. I couldn't get up and perform a book of a hundred pages unless I had an audience that was patient enough to stay around for three, maybe four hours to listen to the entire thing [laughter]. Even there it moves past them very rapidly, so that the poetry tends to become more of an entertainment in the performative situation. The poet entertains to hold attention, to divert an audience, or the poet thins the work out. Even if we ritualize it a bit and give it that kind of feeling, it tends to level out, to seem more simple than it is – or more complicated than it is. So there are two different ways of getting at the poem; and while I think performance allows us to do certain things, I don't think I would view it as an absolute substitution for what can be done in writing and with a book. The real question – where we come back to ritual versus entertainment – is what's intended by the poetry performance.
The big advantage of writing or print is that it gives the reader freedom to move at his or her own pace. It's less of an overlay, isn't it?
Right. It opens up certain possibilities for the reader that we may tend to close up in performance by over-determining it, becoming too authoritative. We may become even more author when we perform than when we present the work in the book.
I noticed, incidentally, that in your poetry readings you alternate between a halting manner of introduction and a fluid, continuous delivery of the text. It is like two modes of music and the second is extremely physical (with the resonance of the chest reinforcing or counterpointing the sounds issuing from the mouth). Is that something you're aware of?
Yes, it's something I'm very much aware of. It automatically comes up where the space, the venue, for a reading presents acoustic difficulties. Let's say in a large hall where you have to mike in, or, more acutely, a place where there isn't a microphone. I'm quite aware that, when I'm talking in the performance, there's difficulty for people in parts of the hall. They may not hear me because I have a tendency to speak softly and to reserve the large voice for the reading. Partly, that's a question of the reinforcement I get from the pre-arranged material. When the written text is in front of me there are no distractions to my voicing it, and I can let myself go, to do those various things that you describe me doing in performance. But the speaking of it is bound up with all sorts of inhibitions about spontaneous delivery and so on. My tendency there is to speak softly, to trail off, to interrupt the speaking with a series of ahs and stammers. I'm aware that when I go from speaking to the actual delivery of the poems – Boom Boom [beats the table] – there's a big change in that. I don't think I alter my voice all that much – not the way that somebody like Kenneth Rexroth used to do. He always had a good way of speaking and I don't think any difficulty projecting as a speaker. But (imitates dry tone of Rexroth's introduction): "I'm going to read this poem to you and explain something about the poem." Then when he starts reading the voice suddenly becomes very musical and lyrical – a paradigm, virtually, of the lyrical reader of poetry. I think Robert Bly also has a tendency to read in that way.
To dramatize?
I don't think that's what I'm doing in reading. But I certainly have much different control of the sound when I'm working from text or from memory, when the work is clear in my mind or when I'm trying to let the voice bring across the sense of what I have in mind of the sound of the poem. But, then, the quieter speaking, the hesitant speaking, has something about it too, and plays off against the poems and fills them out as well. Between the two modes, it's like a written/sounded text and an oral commentary, and I'm finally coming to accept it.