So the sentences I happen to write—this being non-fiction—tend to come from there. JE: I am so glad that you raised ethnopoetics. I was hoping we could update a prediction you made back in And you finished with I will quote it at length :.
American poets, in worse isolation that ever, symptomatic of the times, have stopped talking to strangers, stopped listening to the news from elsewhere. EW: Well, that statement was made twenty years ago, during the time of ethnic wars and before the rise of the unimaginable Internet.
And, in American poetry, a time when the poets—with the exception of a few old hands like Rothenberg—had more or less stopped translating poetry. Though shockingly not a boom in political poetry—another topic. Intellectuals finally became sick of their American selves, and started wondering what other people were thinking. And some younger poets are once again starting to get out in the world—though most remain in the sensory deprivation tanks of the writing schools.
This, of course, should be extremely healthy for poetry—what its effects will be remain to be seen. But the mythic sense, the sacred sense, the sense of poetry at its origins is largely absent again with a few, mainly older, exceptions. Book which has finally just been published, nearly fifty years after it was written is like finding an artifact from a lost civilization.
This is what American poets used to think about; this was the way they talked. I was always disappointed that ethnopoetics, of which Rothenberg was the tireless ringmaster, never had a second generation—never went beyond the parameters however wide-ranging that Jerry set, never evolved into other forms.
Perhaps it will happen: auto-therapy or irony only take you so far.
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We can see how recent acts of genocide have roots leading back to our earliest history. And the richness of that essay comes in part, I believe, from the depth of its research. EW: So glad you liked that. It was my farewell to the 20th century, finished at the end of December Many of my essays begin with a question. In this case, it was two questions—and two possible essays—which I quickly realized kept intersecting.
One was: Why did the Nazis think they were Aryans, the same as a bunch of brown people in India? This took me through some three thousand years of racial categorization. I pay a lot of attention to footnotes and bibliographies—one book leads to another.
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Which became, in turn, a metaphor in nearly all religions: the path, the way, the pilgrimage. Or the path suddenly branches off into something completely different. As Jack Spicer used to say, you sit down to write a poem against the Vietnam War and end up writing a poem about spring. Did you return to the original source? Blanqui, in prison, imagining what we would now call parallel universes.
And then I copied it. But it turns out that Benjamin left out some sentences, so I put them back in. That table will be there, with the candlesticks on it. The curtains, the wallpaper, the chandelier—everything will be the same, just a little different. Why did you include a bibliography in An Elemental Thing?
EW: Well, not exactly a hall of mirrors, but since Blanqui was writing about parallel universes, and it ties in with other things in the book, it seemed to lend itself to a Pierre Menard moment. So it bears no relation to the current practices of Google cut and paste.
I just thought it was part of its non-academic nature, along with the absence of footnotes. It proves how, unlike poetry, little has changed in the last four or five hundred years. The Artaud, not only for the indelible image of the witch burned at the stake, signaling through the flames, but how a book, ostensibly about the theater, could open with a plague ship. From there, the essayists who expanded those horizons tended to be poets: Pound, Olson, the Williams of In the American Grain , and more recently Susan Howe.
But mainly my models—if you can call them that—were poets. I try to write many of my essays in the way that one writes poetry: listening to how it sounds, juxtaposing images, making leaps, and so on.
An Elemental Thing (Paperback)
And, for the more narrative essays, the Icelandic sagas: the way so much plot can be conveyed in so few sentences. JE: Did you travel to Mexico as a young man to meet and talk with Paz? What did he teach you about poetry, politics, mythology, etc? EW: We met when I was twenty. He had resigned his post as the Mexican ambassador to India after the massacre of students before the Olympics and had bizarrely landed in Pittsburgh, where he was teaching for a few months.
I had already translated his book Eagle or Sun? At our first meeting, he was shocked that I had never read Vicente Huidobro and I was shocked that he had never read George Oppen. I went to Mexico many times, and we also gave many readings together in the U. Because I was not Mexican, he could talk to me of things about which he would have to be more guarded in Mexico, with its Byzantine nets of gossip and intrigue. Eliot Weinberger takes on a wealth of subjects in the thirty-five prose pieces that comprise An Elemental Thing. Described by his publisher as "one interlinked serial essay," the book expands and contracts the essay form, including pieces that look and read like prose poems, lists, or annotations from a museum catalogue.
An Elemental Thing is a book-as-wun-derkabinet, a collection of marvelous things. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the reader's part, a willingness to take Weinberger's authoritative tone at face value, and to disappear with the authorial "I" into a realm of myths and miracles.
An Elemental Thing (Paperback) | Skylight Books
This is not difficult, because Weinberger's control is faultless. In topics ranging from disappeared cultures to endangered animals to archaic beliefs, elemental things, such as seasons, the wind and the stars, fact and fiction are continually blended, or juxtaposed, or both. History and fable mingle, as do nature An Elemental Thing.