Aram Saroyan Interview
Dirt: The poems of your first, eponymous collection aren't easy to pin down. Some call them flashes of Buddhist tinged insight; others dismiss them as salvaged typos. When you look back all these years later, how do view your minimalism and skin-n-bones concrete poetry?
Aram Saroyan: My big early influence was Robert Creeley, who was very generous about letting me in on a sort of living tradition, as he himself had learned it, and as he then helped it to evolve. He mentioned Zukofsky to me right away, and Ian Hamiltion Finlay, who at the time, 1964, had a magazine called 'Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.'—which is a line in an early Creeley poem, so either Finlay got it there or Creeley took it from Finlay—and that magazine, a sort of poetry newsletter, had concrete poetry in it, which I’d never heard of before, and took to immediately. I was 21, and those are years when you take things in so easily, you're very open, and I started playing in that genre, sort of riffing off concrete poetry motifs I found in the magazine, and then got carried away on my own. A lot of my better known concrete poems, like 'eyeye', were written very early on.
Ted Berrigan, who was about ten years older than I was and a sort of mentor, saw that poem one night among a sheaf of papers I had with me at Le Metro Coffee House, where we used to read our poetry on Wednesday nights—it was right around the corner from St. Mark's Church, where the Poetry Project started up a year or two later…Ted saw that poem and said in this slow, wry drawl that he had: 'What the fuck is this?' and laughed quietly. That was a promising response, I thought.
D: You mentioned Finlay before. Is it safe to assume that your work was shaped by artists operating outside the realm of poetry? Beyond that, who were your early influences?
AS: My first big interest, pre-dating poetry, was photography (see my book Words and Photographs, Big Table, 1970), and for a while I had a sort of unspoken agenda, perhaps only half-conscious: I wanted to make a poem as immediate as a photograph. Eventually I realized the immediacy of a photograph had to do with it being instantaneous, and a poem necessarily has a reading process. However, a one-word poem, or a two word poem, and maybe a slightly longer one, is virtually instant, has virtually no reading process. I was influenced too by Warhol and the sculptor Donald Judd, and American advertising. I wanted a poem that would look good on a billboard:
And this was the Sixties, so it was sort of in the atmosphere. You're young, and the economy is still in a sort of boom phase, and you're discovering who you are, what you like. There was a nice period in there before things got dark in the later Sixties.
D: Which of your early poems holds the most resonance for you now?
AS: One of my favorite pieces is from Aram Saroyan:
It transcribes a specific small event: I was living in a two story house in Cambridge, Mass., and my room was on the second floor, and I found a leaf in the room, and the poem sort of transcribes the cognitive process I went through picking it up and wondering about it. That's it, it's nothing much, but it's the mind negotiating word by word toward some sort of understanding. Another similar piece is from the section 'Sled
Hill Voices' in Pages:
something moving in the garden a cat
In this one it's another cognitive incident in which for a moment the eye is looking without knowing what it's seeing and then it knows. So it's an infinitesimal time frame in which something happens between the senses and the mind. I think those pieces are interesting sort of neurological transcriptions, a kind of realism that has to do with very small time frames.
D: I've heard that 'lighght', perhaps your most (in)famous poem, was the result of a typing error. Can you give that rumor a thumbs up or down?
AS: No, that one wasn't a typo (one or two others may have been). The poem adds an extra 'gh' to the word light—a silent addition that adds an element to the word as if to make the phenomenon more palpable, as if the word holds the phenomenon. I could have added another 'gh', so it would have been 'lighghght,' which I think is more than is needed, or I could have done it—as it's sometimes misspelled on the internet —'lightght, ' which doesn’t work at all by my lights (no pun intended).
I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I thought I'd do a Christmas card of the word, embossed white on white. What I discovered was that if the word is embossed then the extra 'gh' isn't necessary, because embossing makes for the equivalent palpable effect.
D: What about the fierce reaction from social and political pundits – a furor that persists to this day – over your recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts for 'lighght'?
AS: I comment on that in my piece, 'Flower Power,' which you can take a look at on my website (www.aramsaroyan.com) under the Works link. At the time, it seemed silly and self-serving, a tempest in a teapot, as it still does, but it certainly got the poem around.
D: These tiny poems are so delicate. It often strikes me that they could only have been born from a moment of overwhelming 'subtle perception.' What was the creation process like?
AS: It's that thing about catching yourself thinking, which Allen Ginsberg talks about—mindfulness, to use a Buddhist word. It was a good early callisthenic for me as a writer.
D: So you're writing these poems near the peak of Sixties turbulence. The burning ghettos, the kids marching in the streets, the cops kicking ass, the sudden wave of political killings…the country is on edge. Do you find an element of reaction in the Aram Saroyan poems?
AS: Broadly speaking, there were two primary cadres of the Sixties generation. There were the 'flower power,' more or less apolitical people—who didn't respond to Bob Dylan, for instance, until his Bringing It All Back Home album—and there were the political people, who may have regarded that album as a betrayal of the social protest movements of the period. I was conscious of the social and political inequities and most of us were against the war in Vietnam, but as an artist I was apolitical. In retrospect, I think I got caught up by what I was exploring in those small poems and didn't really look up for a couple of years.
D: My favorite poem of yours is 'A man stands on his head…' Its tone and diction, its amazing direction continue to captivate me. What's the back story?
AS: As I got into language, I would sometimes see and feel it as a medium with its own rules, its own laws and limits, and during the Sixties, one had a sort of permission to play with that a bit, sometimes to look at it in a half-comic light. That particular poem has a straight cause and effect scenario.
a man stands
So it's sort of Newtonian. But if you stand on your head—as I learned to do in grammar school and consider an important lesson of my education—and then, after a minute, come back to being right side up and sit down, you feel differently than you felt before you did it. And that's sort of Einsteinian, if you will. And this part of the poem, the second stanza, takes liberties with grammar to register a bit of the subjective effect, the verb 'sit' and the adverb 'different' being incorrect grammatically, trying to render a sort of physical traction into the surface of the poem.
D: For those readers who are more familiar with the Aram Saroyan of Ubuweb and Princeton's Eclipse site, tell us what you've been up to since the Seventies.
AS: Well, again, let me refer you to my website. I've published a lot of books in a variety of other genres—novels, biographies, essays, short stories, etc.. Most recently I did a series of plays. I also went on being a poet. My book Day and Night: Bolinas Poems (Black Sparrow, 1998), collects the poems I wrote from 1972 to 1981, very few of which are minimal. And I have a third manuscript called Autumn, comprised of poems written from 1987 through 2003.
D: Whose poetry do you enjoy today?
AS: I like very much the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, and admired Louise Gluck's poems in The Wild Iris, and I find good poems here and there all the time. Generally speaking, though, the literary culture seems a bit locked down at the moment. However, there are always wonderful poets around, doing their work.
For further reading, visit Mr. Saroyan's website at www.aramsaroyan.com.