A short interview with Rachel Loden

Born in Washington, D.C., Rachel Loden is the author of Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta), which was shortlisted for both the PEN USA Literary Award for Poetry and the California Book Award. Loden’s first book, Hotel Imperium (Georgia), won the Contemporary Poetry Series competition and was selected as one of the ten best poetry books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, which called it ”quirky and beguiling.” Her new book, Kulchur Girl: Notes from Berkeley 1965 is out from Vagabond Press in the ‘deciBels’ series, edited by Pam Brown (http://vagabondpress.net/products/rachel-loden-kulchur-girl). Loden is working on an investigative memoir, Finding Krupskaya. Three new poems are in the current Journal of Poetics Research (http://poeticsresearch.com/?article=rachel-loden-three-poems).

 

Q: Your newest title, Kulchur Girl, is constructed from a notebook you kept when you were seventeen years old and attending the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. How did the book emerge from the depths of a decades-old notebook, and what was the process of transcribing those notes? Was there a revision process, or were you aiming to be as faithful to those original notes as possible?

A: I actually kept two journals in Berkeley – a brown ring-binder that I was in the middle of when I arrived and a green spiral-bound notebook purchased in town for my classes with Creeley and Olson (and Dorn, as it turned out, subbing for Olson on the first day of that week).

In the book we reproduce a page from the latter journal, notes on Olson’s talk on “Causal Mythology.” Someone told me that my handwriting shows definite signs of trying to keep up with what was happening in the room.

The published book begins the day after my seventeenth birthday. A close reader may notice that there’s a gap between the third entry (on 1 July) and the fourth (on the 14th). The reason for that is simple: when I hit July in the transcribing process, I realized that there was no way those two weeks would fit into the book. There were just too many journal pages. But I included the first few entries to suggest my frame of mind in the run-up to Berkeley.

At that point in my life, and for years after, I took notes on everything. I have file drawers full of them. It’s how I taught myself to write.

So inevitably not every word in the notebooks is in the book. But there’s plenty of embarrassing teenage giddiness and snark, as I half-regretted when a reviewer used the word “starstruck.” Ok, but I also have bratty things to say about pretty much everybody in attendance.

Q: What becomes noticeable rather quickly is the deliberate choice you made not to comment on your original sketched-out thoughts in any way, including only the shortest of prefaces in the final book. What was behind the decision to leave your current self, or any kind of commentary, out of the book? Really, the question becomes: what kind of portrait were you aiming to present, one of your seventeen year old self, the Berkeley Conference from the perspective of a young participant, or the combination of the two?

A: Definitely a combination of the two. I’m fairly certain that my notes are the only documentation of certain events, and an addition to the very little written or remembered about some others, particularly the classes. I wanted to put them into the public square (in as unvarnished a version as possible) before it was too late to do so.

It was also fun to see if I could make a poem out of those raw materials. For purposes of this project I didn’t want to be the village explainer, but there are two pages of notes in the back (plus “Instead of a Preface,” the two paragraphs in the beginning packed with scene-setting facts).

Since I finished the book I’ve been making notes toward a remembrance of Berkeley 1965 from my current perspective, since obviously there were some things that were beyond the ken of that seventeen year-old, but I’m also surprised by how wised-up she was, partly by the experience she was having.

I hope the book will be a way into the texts and subtexts of that intense period and that (without seizing on every root and branch) the reader will feel herself delivered somewhere down-river, and not too much worse for wear.

Q: While I’m aware of some of the response and documentation of the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, I’m far less aware of what emerged on and about the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. How much are you aware of on the proceedings or response to the conference? What elements of the conference do you feel might have been overlooked?

A: Of course Berkeley 1965 would never have happened without Vancouver 1963. When John Tranter and I were working on the excerpt from Kulchur Girl that appears in the first issue of the Journal of Poetics Research (http://poeticsresearch.com/?article=rachel-loden-notes-from-berkeley-1965-2), we had to seek permission from the Ginsberg estate to run a group picture from Vancouver because there’s nothing like it from Berkeley.

In any case, I paid scant attention to the conference for a couple of decades. Instead I finished growing up and made a life. When I did start looking, in the 1980s, it became clear that other than the impeccable work of Olson scholars there wasn’t as much material as one might have expected, especially on the event as a whole, and what did exist was often wrong and, in my view, badly caricatured.

As of this writing, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has taken 79 snapshots of PennSound’s Amiri Baraka page. For about four years, that page offered a clip of Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) reading at the Berkeley Poetry Conference. He wasn’t there. They’ve corrected that but not in time to prevent the repetition of the mistake. So if you go to various sites around the net, you can download an MP3 of Baraka from the “album” Berkeley Poetry Conference.

A book published by Oxford University Press mentions Frank O’Hara’s participation in the conference. And on and on.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter that on the website of the now-canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference 2015, on a page called “Looking Back to the BPC 1965,” LeRoi Jones’s first name is spelled “Leroi.” Or that this “look back” lists (with important-looking bullet points) three week-long seminars at the original conference but omits the fourth one, run by Robert Creeley.

We all know that Charles Olson’s reading on July 23, 1965 was “an absolute travesty.” Right? The cartoon view of what happened that night is the widely accepted one (http://thisrecording.com/today/2012/5/14/in-which-we-lather-our-sensibilities-at-length.html).

In addition, as has been noted of late, brilliantly and hilariously, the poets of the Donald Allen anthology were (at the very least) unreconstructed sexists, and ploughing through that book is seriously chastening. So why should we even care about these men and their moth-eaten conference? They are dust.

Relentless misogyny was hardly news to me back in ‘65. That was the poison pill we had to swallow with our rock and roll. My notes from Berkeley show my struggle to be present (even silently) as a girl. Once I got over seeing the Allen anthology come to life I was in it to steal, as ruthlessly as possible, whatever was there for the taking.

I think it’s wonderful that there are people today who simply do not understand the literary climate of that time. It means we have moved on. Find a copy of New Poets of England and America (1957) if you want to know what I’m talking about.

It’s probably impossible to convey the cool drink of water this conference served up (for all its grotesque defects). It may also be impossible to convey the force of Charles Olson as a teacher. It completely took me by surprise at the time.

As for his performance at the reading: it was Shakespearean. And actually it moves me even more now as an older poet, understanding his worries and anxieties better than I did that day.

I wanted Kulchur Girl to be an invitation to scholarship on this conference. I guess we’ll see if anyone takes me up on it. So far, I’m not optimistic: only one North American library has purchased the book from the Australian publisher – not even UC Berkeley. That surprised me.

Q: I would imagine that one of the issues with such an event is in the apocrypha, the shifts and the myths, that emerge afterwards, especially given that the event existed in the pre-internet age. I’m sure if it were to occur now, a detailed conference schedule would have been distributed far and wide. Why do you think the original conference, in your mind, has been so poorly documented?

A: I can only puzzle over it. Certainly there is more now than when I first went into the stacks at Stanford with a borrowed library ID (the only way I’ve ever had access to an academic library, but that’s another story).

If you go to WorldCat and type in “Berkeley Poetry Conference” you’ll get about eighty hits. Only fourteen of those are categorized as books. Six are transcripts of single events from the conference (WorldCat, to my delight, calls the audiobook of Olson’s lecture The Casual Mythology).

One hit looks like pay dirt: “A transcription of Berkeley summer days” featuring Duncan, Persky, Blaser and Spicer. It is held by exactly one library: Simon Fraser University. Another is a broadside announcing the conference (only Yale has that). And then there’s Kulchur Girl, owned by five libraries, four of which are in Australia or New Zealand.

But actually there’s more that WorldCat mostly fails to note – like Libbie Rifkin’s fine Career Moves, and the biographies or considerations that started coming out over the last ten or fifteen years of figures such as Blaser, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan, Olson, Spicer, and others, all of which touch on Berkeley ‘65 in some regard.

Far and away the most enjoyable for me is Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, which fills in some of the back story that I lacked and craved as a teenager. I felt particular joy at seeing the picture of Spicer with Sister Mary Norbert Korte, who also comes up in Kulchur Girl: “Nuns. In Olson’s class.”

In the wake of recent events in Berkeley a well-known poet asked, on Facebook, what was the source of the information that Jones/Baraka was invited to Berkeley ‘65 but recommended Dorn instead? An answer was found in the Baraka-Dorn Collected Letters but no one quoted the most direct account of which I’m aware, which appears as a note before the transcription of Dorn’s conference talk The Poet, the People, the Spirit, published in 1976 by Talonbooks:

I was not actually asked to attend the Berkeley Conference of the summer of 1965, but went as a substitute forced on the organizers by LeRoi Jones, who had begun to withdraw from such contact. And that’s how I went along as the indian [sic].

A version of this statement appears in the Baraka-Dorn correspondence but the last sentence is, in my view, badly misquoted, losing a good deal of its power.

But to take this a bit further, as I do in my conversations with myself, when I am longing for scholarship on the conference, Lisa Jarnot has a completely different version of this story in her book on Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus. She states that “Duncan had also pushed to include LeRoi Jones but had second thoughts when Jones appeared in the Bay Area that spring espousing a newfound belief in black separatism.”

So . . . did he jump or was he pushed? I’m not a scholar, but questions like this would seem to me more than ripe for exploration.

Q: How do you see Kulchur Girl furthering the conversation on the original conference? You’ve obviously done a great deal of research on the subject; are you planning on doing any further work around the subject, whether through poetry, sketch/notebook or more formal critical pieces?

A: I hope it adds something of substance to the record – for instance, I don’t think there is another account of the class Dorn taught, stepping in for Olson. (Something he said in that class actually rocked my world, for better and worse, more than anything else that happened at the conference.)

I don’t know of another written account of some of Creeley’s remarks, or (just for example) Duncan’s crack about Ginsberg, which is funny and telling. I hope Kulchur Girl supplies a few useful details, some local color, and a bit of context, from one obviously eccentric teenage point of view.

I’m actively keeping notes (and screenshots) for an essay on how the conference changed my trajectory, and how the years that followed informed me about what I saw there. Inevitably it looks different now. I still revere what was worth revering but am also aware of some of the contradictions, foibles, and posturings that helped to shape the very imperfect “poetry world” we live in today.

Q: I’m curious how this project fits with your other work, such as your Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta Press, 2009)? Is Kulchur Girl an exploration of early influences on what you’ve accomplished since? Is this a matter of you attempting to return to a consideration of “basics” in your writing?

A: Not so much basics as building blocks. Which is to say that I would have been a different poet without Berkeley ’65 (although it’s hardly the only hallucinogenic mushroom I nibbled on in my formative adventures). The fifty-year anniversary of the conference seemed like a good time to look back and put these notes, in a way, behind me. That was freeing. Since completing the book I get hailstorms of thoughts about the conference and the cast of characters and have done a bit of research that pleases me. It’ll be fun to share that. At least I hope so. It’s also possible that I’ll offend people, because some of my conclusions are not particularly flattering and in fact have present-day implications.

Q: Now that you’ve this project under your belt, what are you working on now? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I still write “poems”: a new one a few days ago came in a rush, which is always enormous fun, like riding a roller coaster. Or like trying to get to the hospital before the baby arrives, but then it all happens in the back seat and you make the evening news. Usually I have to work harder. Both ways have their pleasures.

But most of my energy right now is going toward something larger and ambitious in a different way. A working title is Finding Krupskaya. (Nothing to do with the press, a fantastic one based in San Francisco.)

Krupskaya was Lenin’s wife and reputed to be an even more disciplined communist than he was.

Before he died, my father told me that Krupskaya was his secret name for my mother, when she was taking what he thought were dangerous risks. Fifty years later, he still spoke about what she was willing to do with fear mixed with admiration. They were both party members. She was also a party courier, and, as executive secretary of Russian War Relief in Seattle, in the early 1940s, well-positioned to be one, since she was in contact with Russian military and economic officials.

The name Krupskaya was secret in that he never told her about it. For me it hints at something almost unknowable in her, what you might call (at one stage) party discipline and (later, when I encountered it) psychosis.

That is the heart of my book. It’s still taking me into archives all over the world and, sometimes, hundreds of years back in history. Right now I’m braiding a couple of strands: the woman who named my mother in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mary Stalcup Markward, and my eighth great-grandfather Lt. Philip Smith, a deacon of Hadley, Mass., who was, in the winter of 1684 (to hear Cotton Mather tell it in Magnalia Christi Americana), “murder’d with an hideous witchcraft, that fill’d all those parts of New-England with astonishment.”

 

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Submit a comment