In What We Do: Essays for Poets (Chax Press 2016) Michael Gottlieb addresses poetry, poetry-making, and what it means to live among a community of poets. It’s a sequel of sorts to Memoir and Essay, Gottlieb’s 2011 account of his early days as a member of the Language poets, which remains a must-read for those considering a life of poetry. His affecting 9/11 poem, “The Dust,” hailed by Ron Silliman as one of the “Five greatest Language poems,” was staged by Fiona Templeton and company at the Poetry Project at St. Marks on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We sent questions about What We Do: Essays for Poets, and Gottlieb was generous with his responses.
First off, what got you thinking about writing the material for this book?
Well, this is the kind of thing I sit around talking about with friends: how are we supposed to live our lives? As poets? Or, maybe just …as people? How do I deal with this, or this, or this? How do I deal with having to make money? How do I deal with being responsible to myself, as a writer, and what do I do when my other responsibilities—like to my family—seem to conflict? What do I do as I get older?
In What We Do, you talk a lot about the poet in comparison to the artist. Why do you make this distinction?
There’s one section in particular when I compare poets and artists. In that section, I tried to compare poets, poets who are my age specifically, my generation, to our age peers among the painters and artists. What I was interested in discussing was how similar these two groups are. What we have always been interested in, the features and elements in our work, where we lived and went to school—all of those things are so similar. So many of us knew each other, know each other now. And yet: the painters we’re talking about are spotted sporting the Légion d’Honneur to openings of their touring retrospectives, while the poets are enjoying solitary ramen specials at… well, I describe them dining at what is now a closed lunch mill called Dojo, near NYU. I used to go there a lot. There were two of them, in fact. I never liked them. Very depressing joints.
And the reason why comparing these two groups is so interesting to me is that, I guess it’s obvious what differentiates us, what sets us apart from each other is the economic value that the world attaches to, and applies to our respective work. Otherwise, we are essentially identical: background, interest, what we think about, what we focus on. All of that, all the same.
A lot of your commentary centers on New York City, particularly the growth and transformation of it. It seems you correlate New York City to the life of the poet?
I have been writing about New York City forever. My first book, published in the ’70s, was made from lists of words that I found walking around in New York, and illustrated with photos of New York and collages made up of stuff found on the street in New York. I mean, New York has been so central to me as a writer that back in the ’90s, I published a book that was simply titled New York. And it consists of two long poems: “The Great Pavement” and “The Ulterior Parkways.” They are about, and from, built up out of the language of that city. What else could they be about, with titles like that? I guess it’s hard for me to get away from thinking about the city. And then there’s “The Dust,” a poem I wrote about 9/11. That’s a long list poem, and an elegy and I guess it’s also a New York poem too—it’s a list of what was in the dust that day, everything in the towers that was turned into dust, from the building to the people to their files and furniture to the fire trucks, too, in New York City.
I guess it’s been a focus in every thing I’ve written, all my poetry, my memoir work and these essays too, as Rae Armantrout commented. Why? Why has New York been the focus, the subject, the ground that my writing lives in, or sits on or stands upon?
First, because it’s New York. This is where I spent my youth. This is where I became a poet. While these essays try and surface issues, topics, questions, like I sketched out above, that I’ve been talking about with friends, with other poets, been trying to answer myself, since then, New York is where I started thinking about this stuff. And, I guess as I wrote those essays, and felt compelled to turn some of those questions into dramatic presentations—here is a person trying to figure this or that out, in a bar, at a reading, on the street, it’s natural that that street should be in New York—the New York of today or maybe the New York in the day when I for one started thinking about those things.
And because of where we lived then, when we were young, and the kind of place New York was then, thirty, forty years ago, it’s easy to describe it now as a kind of fabulously dangerous place. Not that it wasn’t. But just walking down the streets in the empty quarters where we lived, there was so much—from the street names, to the fading signs half-hanging off the buildings, to the history of the building itself—this was the first location of that brand, that chain, that now girdles the globe. How could you not write about this place?
But you asked specifically about the growth and transformation of New York. I’ve always been interested in how New York changes, how one of its defining characteristics, what it is famous for, is its unrelenting embrace of transformation. For so long that was what New York was famous for: tearing itself down and building something bigger, taller, fancier. While when we first came to New York, there seemed to be an eerie pause in that—which many took to be a sign that the city was over, done with, one of many signs. Of course, that was only a pause. Not an end point. And that constant tearing-down and rebuilding has again become a constant.
The fact is: every New York that we ‘know,’ or think we know, is itself a product of one or another wave of ‘transformation,’ of tearing down and rebuilding, of one wave another of new people, new money, coming in and pushing out the old. Since the Dutch, we’ve been doing that. The Native Americans were the first victims of gentrification in New York. We’ve been throwing people out of their houses ever since. Watching the city get changed, watching who does it, what happens to the people who get tossed, that’s important to do, someone has to. And it’s instructive, too.
Then there’s the possibility that one might have had a role, however insignificant, in all this. When we walk those same streets these days, me with friends of mine from those older days, and we remember running in these streets in our youth, when the streets were empty, and dirty and dangerous, but mostly empty, we do ask ourselves if perhaps we had some role, however tiny, in turning these neighborhoods into what they are now. After all, it was people like us, and us among them, who first ‘found’ these neighborhoods—as if they had been lost. As if, in many cases, there weren’t people already living there. People who had to leave, had to move their homes or their businesses, when enough of us showed up, in the same way that we in turn have been moved out of the neighborhood because we in turn cannot afford to live here. All we can do is visit now, though there’s less and less reason to. God, just look what they’ve turned this place into…that’s what we say to each other now. Look, there’s a CVS where that bar used to be. There’s an Apple Store where the post office used to be… And so it goes, on and on…
You also address poetic life across the generations and over a span of many decades, the generational aspect of poetic life.
I think the generational aspect of poetic “life” is central. Don’t all poets identify themselves as belonging to one generation or another? How much of how we define ourselves is based on what generation we are part of? How much is based on what generation we are decidedly not part of? That generational “for and against” thing is so very important, isn’t it? As poets, to what degree to we define ourselves by who we are against? And how often is that a generation? I think this is entirely common, and not particularly troubling. This is just the way it is. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a boomer, and generation-related issues, challenges, boasts and curses have been associated with my generation all its life. And, concomitantly, I am part of a poetry generation that decidedly defined itself in opposition to a whole roster of generations.
But, on the other hand, it also seems to me—and I think this is even more to the point, when it comes to answering your question—that poetry communities are often much more multi-generational in their demographic make-up than, say, other kinds of communities of writers or artists. I think so, but I’m not sure. When I go to a poetry reading I’m used to seeing several generations of poets, friends and friends of friends, in one room. At a opening in a gallery I don’t often see that.
And, when it comes to the issues these essays try to deal with…how those issues are variously, differently, or similarly faced by different generations of poets—that is a fascinating subject for me. Are things different for you? Better? Worse? Are these issues, challenges, dilemmas, cul de sacs, dead ends, the ones I came across when I was your age…are they the same for you? Is the world a worse place for the poets? Better? The same?
Have things gotten better since it became possible to poet and an academic? I guess, that’s one of the questions this book tries to address. Have things gotten better even if you, you poet you, did get to be an academic, but you’re still working as a waitress to make ends meet? That’s another question this book tries to address.
There’s that area of the life of the poet that you talk about a lot regarding disappointment. At one point, you ask whether the things that are going wrong in the poet’s life are “something we’ve been ‘asking for.’” Do you think this is always part of the poet’s struggle?
Do I really talk about disappointment that much? Yikes. I don’t—or, I hope I don’t—spend more time on the topic of disappointment than one should. Disappointment, or accepting it, from time to time, or all the time, or sometime…is something that seems worthy of attention. No? I think that’s worth writing about. But is it the poet’s lot to experience more disappointment than others? I don’t want to suggest that.
I think there certainly are a range of factors that could tend a poet, could bend her or him, towards behaviors that will, yes, result, perhaps quickly, perhaps only eventually, in all manner of disappointment. Those behavioral factors are to be found in all kinds of folks though, not just poets. Having said that, I have an opinion as to whether poets sometimes brandish their vocation like a badge—justifying certain behaviors. But that’s another topic.
So, no. I don’t think poets are fated to meet disappointment more than others.
You evoke a lot of self-questioning and self-evaluation in this book, which is amazing. Did you intend for the book to be an interactive piece in this sense?
You are right! This book is all about self-questioning and self-evaluation. It is made up of questions. There are three long essays. Each essay has about thirty sections. Each section starts with a question, a question about what it means to be a poet, how to live one’s life as a poet, questions about all that. What then follows are possible answers to that question, or more questions, based on that question. And these are questions, like we’ve been saying, that I think all poets ask themselves, or will, sooner or later. These are questions I ask myself and I know others do too, because some of them come from them, from other poets. As I say, these essays are built out of those conversations. I list their names, there’s several dozen, at the back of the book. They were all so generous with their thoughts and their time.
My hope, my fondest hope, is that someone will come across this book, and see all of these questions, and find them, find them, somehow, helpful. I would not presume that the text which comes after those initial questions—the ones that start each section of each essay—are answers. They are not meant to be answers. I wouldn’t venture to claim that this book has answers.
I notice you call a lot of emotions into question, particularly those of the poet. Is that the part of the life of the poet that most engages you?
No, no, no. Of course not. It is the life of the mind that calls out to me. Am I not just like you, or you, or you? It is the theory, and then the praxis, and the iterations and the adumbrations which occupy my waking thoughts. It is how we, as Language poets, construed a complex, compound systematic complex of theory, that is what engages me, night and day. And how that theory has been instantiated in this writer and this writer, this writer, and from this group of writers and this type of writer to that and that and that.
Actually, no. All that was a lie. I don’t think about theory that much any more at all. When I was young, yes. It was by living out the theory that we claimed to uphold that we enraged so many others, those who were older than us and those who we saw as beholden to those older ones. Nowadays, I do pay attention to the theory and the theorizing of those who’ve come after me, but I don’t need to spend all day on topics like that.
Do I spend more of my day on things like emotions? Yes. And if, as you put it, I ‘call a lot of emotions into question,’ it is because I look back at my life and see how much of it, in particular my life as a poet, was in fact driven by emotions—like, ambition, envy, anger, jealousy, and yes, occasionally, joy. That’s an emotion too, isn’t it? And in that way, to that extent, I don’t think that I was, or am, any more ambitious, envious, angry, jealous or, all in all, venal than any of my friends. Or, maybe, not too much more.
You do bring up academia, specifically the creative writing aspect of academia. Do you think there is a schism between the classic academic, the literary scholars that generally comes to mind, and the creative writing academic?
What a great question! This is a topic that I get close to discussing in the book. But there my full focus, every time the subject of the academic life came up, was all about the academic life for poets—compared to other poets, poets who weren’t, aren’t, can’t be poets…Specifically, what does it mean to make the choices we are obliged to make? Choices which lead us to that kind of life, this academic one or that “non-academic” one?
But that’s not the comparison you’re interested in…and is it indeed a “schism?” I’m not sure. While I know lots of academics who are poets and lots who aren’t I’m not sure I see them as oppositional in any particular way, at least not constitutionally as it were. I don’t see them as particularly at each other’s throats. But then, I don’t see them together, in the sense that I don’t sit in their offices or in their meetings—maybe just that interaction model, those sets of relationships, that’s enough to prompt a question like this.
Was it your goal to address everything regarding the poet you could think of, or did you not have any particular plan for writing the book?
It’s funny. I was just finishing my response to the last question and I found myself asking myself a question just like this one. I was asking myself if I find the poets I know as the as more apt to toss off aperçu any more frequently than any other group of people I know, or, for example, than a hypothetical control group of New York cabbies. And, further to that general question, I found myself asking myself if I am more or less likely to have a conversation with my poet friends that is more focused on those big question matters, about the world, discussed above, or whether any of them, any one of us, is more or less likely to toss off one of those aforementioned aperçu. And the answer is, I’m not sure.
And when I tell you the reason why, you’ll see that that’s also my answer to this last question. I can’t say that when I hang out with my poet friends, we talk any more about these big question topics than I do with other people, because I have to say that a great deal of the time when I do get together with other poets we end up talking about the topics that this book attempts to address: how do we live our lives as poets, what happens to us, what’s to become of us. Those are very different topics. At their most abstract, they don’t rise above the level of ethics. There is so much else that we could talk about, that art—for example—can be, or indeed should be.
But this book doesn’t address any of that. This book does not ask questions like: What is a poem about? Nor does it focus at all on topics like: How do I write a poem? This book doesn’t care about any of that. This book only focuses on: how do I live my life as a poet?
When it came to writing this book, I wrote it essay by essay. There are three principal essays in the book. Each one focuses on one of these how-do-I-live-my-life topics. Each one arose out of conversations with poets. Those conversations I mention above. We sit around, and this is what we talk about, at least a lot of the time, at least these are the conversations that I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in having them with my oldest friends and all my other friends, the ones who are ten, twenty, more years younger. How do we live our lives? And those people are listed in the book. There are a couple dozen folks. And, after writing three of these essays, which came out originally in different magazines, or appeared in books, I came to believe that maybe they could go together.
I don’t think I think about these kind of questions more than anyone else. I’m interested in talking about them, which is why I’m so appreciative of all those people who talked about them with me. I have also been writing about them in one way or another for a long time. I can remember the poem where these topics, these questions, first appeared. It was also about taxi cabs, taxi cabs in New York City. This was still in the 1970s. The poem was made up of quotes overheard in taxi cabs, and lists of the names of taxi cab companies, which used to be painted on the back door of every New York City cab. Also included were other kinds of language and dialogue, including overheard questions about career and an individual’s choices and personal integrity.
So this is not everything I can think to talk “regarding the poet,” as you put it. There are a lot of other things to talk and think about, a whole lot of other things going on. At least I hope so. And now that I’ve written this, I’m wondering if I have to write about any of these topics anymore. Maybe I’m done. Although I have to admit that I have found myself asking theses kind of leading questions about a new topic, asking them to myself …questions of the sort I end up asking friends. A new set of questions. They are about “late.” What is “late?” Is there a “late style”? What does it mean to be in a “late stage”? What comes towards the end? Are there artists or writers who, when they were late, when they were in their late-styles, had special going that something we can learn from? So, maybe there is yet another essay coming. We’ll see.
—interview by Mackenzie Johnson