From George Oppen’s poem, “Route” (1968):
Your elbow on a car-edge
Incognito as summer,
I wrote. Not you but a girl
Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity
Oppen is often included in the Objectivist poetry movement, a movement (reluctantly) defined by Louis Zukofski as poetry exhibiting “sincerity and objectivity.” I bring up Oppen in conjunction with today’s interview because “clarity” is often a notion that’s counter to the popular assumption of poetry. As a poet, I frequently find myself in conversations with people who are insistent that poetry is riddled with hidden metaphors and secret allusions, or that it’s a category of private, encoded language, intended to be truly comprehended by only a select group of individuals.
The collected bodies of work between Paul Vangelisti and Standard Schaefer defy the “encoded” assumption of poetry. This doesn’t necessarily make their books easy or accessible, it makes them clear. Standard’s 2005 book, Water and Power (Agincourt Press) is still one of my favorite books, and Paul’s recent release Wholly Falsetto with People Dancing (Seismicity Editions) is my latest greatest affinity. Wholly Falsetto speaks with certain straight-forwardness that, I’m assuming, most readers can find some sense of application within. For example:
Because a tall man is a fool, says Aristotle, and traffic is unbearable, the days much shorter, your eyes often kind to me as the music too is lost at sea. Along the coast lights are going on and off, even if it’s too early to fall asleep and catch the leggy young blond walking off down the street spinning your fedora on her finger (pg. 22).
And from Standard’s The Notebook of False Purgatories (Chax Press), I borrow my favorite line of all time:
“Progress is progress / and never the other way around.”
In their collaborative fiction effort, which follows this interview, Paul and Standard alternate chapters. They offer two different viewpoints on a small fishing community feuding over water rights. An avid reader of both Paul’s and Standard’s work, I can’t tell who wrote what chapter. I say that to instill this: the way these two approach creating— their intention— seems mighty similar. I think Paul says it best when he mentions that the best part of working with Standard is that they never have to explain much to each other. To me, this is a gift that is almost as difficult to come by as sincerity, objectivity and clarity. Anyway, read the goods. Then go catch that leggy blond walking off down the street spinning your fedora on their finger. In dreams, or otherwise.
Sarah Suzor: How did you meet? And how long have you known each other?
Paul Vangelisti: We met through my good friend and colleague Martha Ronk, who was one of Standard’s teachers at Occidental College. That would have been about 1994-95, almost twenty years now.
Standard Schaefer: I met Paul through my professor Martha Ronk. I was aware that she wrote poems and that she knew people in LA who wrote poems. She hadn’t really won any awards or published much poetry yet. I think maybe I one of those kids who drive their professors crazy because even though they might really appreciate a literary education, they really want to create. And I think Martha might have had it in mind that if I met Paul and saw how hard he worked, I’d either drop the subject or at least stop hounding her because Paul obviously loved to discuss poetry. That was probably 18 or 19 years ago.
SS: What about your writing career would be most drastically different if you two hadn’t met?
PV: I’d probably have to say that I wouldn’t have tried my hand at a novel, that is, committed myself to spending the time and determination it takes to work through chapter after chapter or a significant length of time. Also, I don’t think that in the last 10-15 years I would have paid as much attention to, or at least framed questions about my own practice and poetics necessarily in the same historical manner had I not talked about and read through certain problems with Standard. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can certainly make him think more critically about the ones he relies on.
Schaefer: Well, I’d be a fiction writer with a drawer full of poems that I never finished. I was always more attracted to the formal and aesthetic freedom possible in poetry, but I just thought to do it well you really had to work hard. Paul assured me that you did. It’s just that I noticed that setting the constraints for myself was way more fun than following the constraints of fiction because whether or not it’s mainstream it is full of conventions that I began to realize kept from doing the thinking-through-language that I always understood to be the point of writing. Paul I think showed me that you just think through writing and use poetic constraints of various types forces you to think differently than you did previously.
SS: Standard, what’s your favorite line or stanza of Paul’s work?
Schaefer: There’s a line of Paul’s in a poem called “Rime”: “who can deny the sincerity of hot dog stands envisioned as hot dogs.” I was partial to it for a long time because it seemed to capture the vapidity of LA at time when it was trying to cast itself as the creative center of the universe and where I could see a lot of good ideas were being milled and refined into hopelessly literal, one-note affairs.
SS: Paul, what’s your favorite line or stanza of Standard’s work?
PV: There are many but how about this one for starters, from Desert Notebook, 2004-2008: “Perhaps there was never a desert and we made it the first time we looked up to Mars.”
SS: What’s the most exciting project you two have collaborated on together?
Schaefer: We wrote a novel about our affection for the Eastern Sierras and the Owens river. It’s about the wars over water.
SS: Paul, what do you enjoy about collaborative efforts?
PV: What I enjoy most, as with poetry in general, is that it takes me out of myself. What Kenneth Burke points to with his general definition of poetry: “What keeps us from being hopelessly ourselves.” Collaboration forces one outside of one’s familiar territory, to rethink mannerisms and linguistic habits, ultimately making one attend to the subject at hand. It also forces preoccupations with process to remain just that, preoccupations, and not to be confused with a poem or piece of fiction, no matter how fascinating that writing process might have been.
SS: Who’s the better fisherman: Paul or Standard?
PV: I’m probably a better caster than Standard, a lot more experienced at it and learned from the best, back in the early sixties in San Francisco’s casting pools in Golden Gate Park. As for the catching, Standard has the right temperament and lives in a lot better place, Portland, than I do to practice the art.
Schaefer: This isn’t even close. Paul is the better fisherman. But he talks the entire time, so it’s also a listening event for me when we go. The air is filled with Paul’s looping, frenetic thoughts, while I stare into the water looking for something equally dazzling. I do have to say that fishing was more fun in those days, in Southern California and the Owens valley. Trying to catch a trout where there is essentially no water seemed quixotic and pataphysical. Now in Portland I’m surrounded by water and the fishermen who are so busy catching massive fish they really only want to talk about basketball or something whereas Paul and I frequently discussed books and culture.
SS: Standard, what about Paul’s creative work is most appealing to you?
Schaefer: Two things: first the life-long search for a way bring a workingman’s language into a diverse literary realm, and to do it while experimenting with form in the way only life long practitioners really can. In essence, he found an intellectual life not wholly dependent on intellectual or academic fashions. But it’s also funny. So it’s the tug of the hard-nosed against the playful. A genuine pursuit of the comedic form of life, as Giorgio Agamben might say.
SS: Paul, what’s the most critical comment you’ve given Standard about his creative work?
PV: Keep your eye on the subject and don’t try to please anyone, including yourself. Poetry is essentially a conversation with the dead and sometimes the living. But then Standard isn’t a follower by nature and certainly needs no prodding to avoid fashion and convention. I think his early training as a fiction writer brought that lesson home.
SS: Standard, what’s the most critical comment Paul has given you as feedback about your own work?
Schaefer: While Paul’s critical comments tend to focus on the words within a specific poem, there’s a question he asked me very early on, a question not obviously related to artistic production (but totally central to it): Who do you work for? It’s a multifaceted question. It goes to the political thrust of the work, but also the formal considerations. Does your work serve the forces in society you would otherwise oppose? Does it repeat the conventions and thus the ideology of the day? This was incredibly liberating to me. It allowed me to attempt the strange things I wanted to do. Part of the joy of poetry for me is that it’s not valued by the parts of society that I don’t value. I could stop trying to write the way I thought you were supposed to (which I couldn’t do very well) and start writing in a way that affirms values I wish were held more in common.
The idea that your project could be historically based, for instance, but needn’t prove itself value in the terms of those who claim to be master’s of history. We’ve both applied this to publishing magazines, often for giving them away.
SS: What’s the best part of your “working relationship?”
PV: That neither one of us has to explain much. We both consider reading an essential ingredient of one’s practice and self-expression rather a dead end.
Schaefer: I think it’s just that we are both constantly reading and alerting each other to things we find that might provoke or inspire us.
SS: Why do you think it’s important to cultivate these “working relationships?”
PV: I think I tried to answer this in the previous question about “collaborative efforts,” how they allow one a certain distance from oneself and the unavoidable self-consciousness of a poetic practice.
Schaefer: People still insist on writing being this lonely, individual endeavor when it’s really cultural interaction and a conversation with the dead and living.
SS: Paul, if Standard was forced to only read one book of poetry for the rest of his life, which one do you think he would choose? And why do you think he’d choose that book?
PV: This is a truly hard question, as Standard is such a habitual and voracious reader. Maybe Jack Spicer’s Collected Books or Baraka’s Transbluesency, I can’t really say. At least those are two of my favorites.
SS: Standard, if you were forced to only read one book of poetry for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
Schaefer: Well, Paul turned me on to Jack Spicer, so the Collected Books would be right up there, followed closely by Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.
SS: Paul, what do you think is Standard’s favorite memory of you?
PV: Another tough one. I can’t presume to get into his head but I would suspect it might have to do with some goofy thing we did on one of our fishing trips, and there have been plenty
SS: Standard, what’s your favorite memory of Paul?
Schaefer: Paul is one of the best readers I’ve ever heard. I remember the night he and Guy Bennett read Mohammed Dibb’s LA Trip. That’s my official answer. Otherwise I’d have to try to explain how we got ourselves into so many silly adventures while fishing, and I can’t really explain that. We seem to giggle our way into all kinds of mayhem.
From a collaborative novel, How to Succeed With Women, by Paul Vangelisti and Standard Schaefer.
Across Line Street past the book store, pivot in the window, cross Line Street again in front of Brock’s Fly Shop, trying to light a cigarette, I envy the sunglasses in the window. But that’s the trouble with this place now. Over a certain income level, it’s all Los Angeles, not just the water. And God knows there was plenty of land thrown in with the deal. That’s where most people are fishing anyway, down that stretch of bramble either side of the river that occasionally flares up because some drunk drops his ashes there. Or they leave their used condoms hanging on the limbs at the edge of one of the few remaining thickets, a pile of Schlitz cans beneath and a nest of fishing line tangled around a willow dipped in the edge of the water, where a glint comes off a can of motor oil sunk at the bottom.
Now, I’m not saying that’s the fly-fishing crowd. They’re ok, and doing it “God’s way” as my father called it when he first taught me on his old bamboo rod up at the ranch. The city fly-fishermen have got shiny graphite rods now and big shiny reels of every color. They’re strictly genteel, but I don’t mind them. It’s the hayseed locals and the spics up from the city, that’s who gives democracy a bad name coming up here and shitting up our woods.
It’s possible I’ve been saying things just of this sort the whole time I was in the bar, possible I’m only thinking it now.
But it don’t matter, don’t matter none at all, as I like to say it, with a little country now and then slipped in to make them not suspect a thing. Behind all my yammering or all my talking to myself, I’m shrewd as a badger under a log, low, always moving low until out and up and the whole place gets sold to the Japanese or the movie folks, don’t matter at all. And I’ll have me some fancy Polaroid lenses like these here in the window of Brock’s to keep the sun out of my eyes while I stare up and down the legs of their daughters. An old country boy like me.
Until then it’s shop windows, signs, maybe an antique catches your eye walking up and down the street in the hot, high arc of the day, telephone booths or not, keep walking. A door opens and a blast of A/C hits me. The Java place is full of city mice, trying to play country by not shaving and or combing their hair in weeks. Hardly take any notice as I beat straight for the john, piss out a little more of the day’s drinking and am alone at last with a snort of the old Bolivian marching powder. Coming out from the john, the lights are bright and the nerves in my eyes start to ping. I almost walk right into this shaggy-haired geezer of a hippie stacking dishes in his tattooed arms. He lets them slide back out on the table and clack sharply, then with his palm gives me a playful shove in the chest. A bell rings inside me and I’m lost in the reverbs, riding inside a wave, off balance but suddenly clear, clarity everywhere.
“Aw shit, Jack. What are you still doing in this one mule town?”
His eyes are as dazed and red as my own. I suspect I know the answer.
“Shit, Al. I haven’t seen you since they…locked you up, man.”
“I was sent away, Jack. To school.”
“What the fuck ever happened to you, man?”
“What happened to you, Jack?” Jack used to be a junky and then wasn’t and then was, always a musician in town who’d play with anyone of any age at any time, in a bar or a garage. It made no difference. How old is anybody’s guess. He looks about seventy to me. But he’d looked fifty when I bought my first bag of grass from him. He’d lent me a copy of the Monkey Wrench Gang. I’d lent him my Hustlers.
“We’ll I don’t play with dynamite any more, man.”
The night he, Stapp and I decided to blow up the Pleasant Valley dam, we didn’t have dynamite. We had gasoline and were out of our minds on crystal meth. Had it in our heads we’d resurrect the town’s reputation for civil disobedience. There’d been some years back when they’d first built that dam our forefather’s had blown a chunk of it up, and down the desert a ways someone else had blown a bit of the aqueduct up out of solidarity. But today, it’s all about enclosures. Enclose or be enclosed.
“Stay right there, man. I’ve gotta make somebody’s coffee real fast. Then really, man, you gotta tell me where you’ve been.”
A sour, metal in the mouth taste hits me. Then a sinking gut and panic. I turn and go out back to the big parking lot where I’d left my car. Sitting there inside it, fumbling the keys. For some reason. For some reason. Then finally in the ignition when snap! up against the passenger window. It’s Jack and he’s got a brownie in his hand.
“Man, I’m on break, man.” He yanks open the door and climbs in.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Get a fucking grip, man. Have a brownie. Just take the brownie, man, and come back in when you’ve cooled out.”
No good. I can’t be here. I got to be a ghost here. I got to get my mind right. I got to drive. I take 290 out of town, arcing up toward the Sierra, but below the dam, I turn off. The brownie is a brick of harsh, gold-medal pot. I cram the loaf. It’s no good they know me everywhere, and no good I’m on the road toward the dam where the cops know my first name and I’ve got a load of contraband scattered all through the car. Get off the highway, turn around.
I turn around. Back to town. I get off the highway. I cram more brownie. I need a beer.
McSweeney’s door opens and a figure enters, the most tender figure, a man from the grasslands, half asleep. No, too kind, too kind. A cadaver fresh from the voting box, practically a sky scraper himself and certainly not from Lone Pine, Bishop, or Olancha. Something about the way he slouches in his stool now, he’s sort of metaphorical. The kind of guy a Captain of Industry might send out here to buy up all the water rights upstream. Lo and behold, if he ain’t a talker, too. I take a mental note that the locals down around the jukebox hardly even face him before they pick up their drinks and slide down a ways. No one looks him in the eye, the man from the grasslands. Just as it looks like he might start heading my way, it’s time to piss.
It’s urinal trough. I try to stand, try to stand. But the mind races while the body sways. The first urinal troughs were introduced in 1938 in Detroit for Tigers fans, I think to myself. One thing I’m not is a dummy. I got a mind for facts and figures. I’m standing in front of an exact replica of the Detroit model. I adjust the turtleneck on the little worm with which I am infelicitously endowed. Infelicitous. I know some words, too. When he appears behind me. Who? Him. And as I crane my neck around to get a glimpse of his face, poof and adieu. Gone. Finishing up, I look out from behind the bathroom door. No one. So I settle back on the stool. THE FAT ARE HARD TO KIDNAP says the sign over the mirror. The place is covered with punch-lines, mottoes going slow or wandering or not, the morning fleeing or not the morning any more, and the man from the city hasn’t sat down in ages. Hands in my pocket I approach the jukebox and retreat and approach. There are voices around me and inside it is questions, outside only more questions and the men address me or do not, hands in my pockets seems some kind of answer. I approach and am silent. It is he who thinks his decision that decides when or where to move on in silence, say some witness, but witness what and what but deeds is he who is not worth arguing with, and closes the eyes of those who are an open space. “Did you ever see this face?” I think I hear. But I keep to myself, listen to my inside, for he who has done so must address the deeds and whys of now, the hows plus the idea of an external cause though it is nowhere like a witness and who does so speak violates both word and deed. Not even I get it. But I don’t worry about that, don’t worry about turning away quickly or how it seems to lower the sky, soundlessly as a chink in the dark curtain of music, silent.
No, I’m just outside now. I have left the building. There is no external cause. The big wheels of outside leave everyone limp sooner or later. Sooner or later, this soft inconstant world bites impatiently or next stop go to bed in protest of he who thinks his decision decides. No, got to stick to the fundamentals, direct the ending toward how much has yet to happen. Guys like me don’t get designated hitters. Got to focus on the ball. Got to swing at something. You bet, it is despicable, hands in my pockets like those who have nothing to say because it is the turn of deeds to speak. Deeds speak here. The mind is the prosthesis. Talk on, talk on or let him who talks while others stick to the fundamentals no longer speak, and certainly not personally. THE FAT ARE INDEED HARD TO KIDNAP. That much I can be sure is true, though I have no experience. It’s insignificant. A deed with an internal cause or not, perhaps only an idea external. Goddamn city education, clogs up the mind. Stick to the facts. But I must let him who has nothing to say step forward and be silent.
Outside is real quiet. The light trickles in like the legs of a blonde spider. Beady eyes, beady eyes all about. And the sun, blood-red, throbs like a beating heart. Perhaps it is mine or only the idea of internal cause but worry follows me, worry follows me everywhere I go. Or is it my metabolism that makes the sidewalk such a long elevator shaft to fall through. The men on the streets are all still. Were they still before they saw me? Are they following me? Stick to the facts. The still men keep following me. The fundamentals are nowhere to be found, birds overhead like ceiling fans or is it the ceiling fan from before when I was inside and how can I be sure I’m outside. All the men are still. The birds slice the day into amoebas. And clouds dance themselves to smoke. That’s insignificant. I turn around. And seeing the still man, I grab him. I grab the man by the shoulders “Why you following me? Why you following me?”
“I’m not,” says the man who is still.
He promises me that he isn’t following me. I turn the corner and keep going. Pretty soon there he is. I let him follow. I slow down. Then he’s on me and I turn around and say, “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not following you.” He shrugs.
I turn another corner. Maybe it’s another guy. Maybe the same thing happens, is happening though it’s a different guy. Maybe he’s moved. He would have to in order to follow me. But I demand to know why he who has done some deed and the others are following me, who decides I know. That’s what matters. “You’re all following me. I’ve seen the others.”
He says he isn’t, but he says what matters is that I think someone is following me. That, he says, is significant.
Seville Dair Dago
Touson Busses Inaro
He’d been staring at the old, laminated sign right in front of him at the end of the bar nearest the door. It was a little bigger than all the rest and perfectly square. The place, McSweeney’s, seemed to specialize in barroom slogans, mostly hand-lettered, a few printed, and stuck on the wall behind the bar. The usual fare, nuggets of what a friend used to call “bartalk,” stuff that made great sense and was terribly amusing when you’d had a few drinks and were sharing a long, narrow space with a roomful of semi-strangers. McSweeney’s had more than its share:
Tipping is not a city in China.
Don’t call yourself a failure consider yourself an incomplete success.
Prices are subject to change according to your attitude.
If assholes could fly this place would be an airport.
And so on.
But that one sign, so well-printed and preserved, must be some double acrostic or other word game in macaronic Latin or pidgin—Summit Dux. He finally sipped his beer and willed his eyes away from the confusing words. He let his eyes drift down the length of the bar where there were some geezers and the big blond guy from across the street turned on their bar stools listening to a scrawny gent in a cowboy hat holding forth while the others chuckled and drooped their heads. The old guy in the hat slapped the young guy on the back, reached for his drink and looked down the bar. He took a slow pull and carefully, almost with two hands, put the mug back up on the bar. Hitching his pants, the old gent headed his way.
“Howdy, I’m Jim Porter,” sticking out an arm like an old chunk of wood, “I live here.”
“John Rossi. Pleased to meet you.” They were both standing.
“Looks like you come up from L.A. You on business or maybe just fishing?”
“Hope to be doing a little of both.” He noticed the bartender, a tall, skinny brunette in her fifties, with ponytail, leather vest and a string tie, was there on the other side of the bar.
“Don’t get that many visitors up here during the week this early in the season and my friends and I got curious about your line of work. Sorry about being a little nosey but I’m just too damn old to mind my own business.” The old gent looked tipsy but at the same time focused.
“No offense taken. Looks like you have a nice town here. I’ve driven through a few times but I’ve never had the chance to stop over.”
“You know, Lou,” the geezer turned to the bartender, “I’m being downright inhospitable. Let Mr. Rossi here have another one of those beers on me and the boys.”
“I insist. Things always go better this time of day with a couple cold ones. Besides, it’ll make it a lot easier to read all those damn signs in here.”
“I think the signs are fun, work isn’t always.” The old guy had kind of perched on the stool next to him with his back to the bar. He followed suit.
“One of the boys thought you was a DWP man but I said no, you looked too smart and educated for that.”
“Oh, no, nothing that official. I teach college at Occidental, down in L.A. In fact one of my students has spent the whole semester telling me what a great place the Owens Valley is and I guess I really have to agree.”
“See there, just as I was telling those knuckleheads, you look like you got too much on the ball to be a DWP man.” The old man’s hard, bright eyes were nothing like a drunk’s.
“I don’t know about that but my student was right about this place. No wonder she’s in love with it, Long Valley she calls it.”
The old boy’s eyes got a little narrower. “Long Valley’s what the Paiute used to call the next valley up on the river. Now they opened that casino at the end of town.”
“Well, here’s to Bishop and the Owens Valley. I’m glad I took the time to come up here.”
“I’ll drink to that too, when I get back to my beer. Maybe I’ll keep drinking to that the rest of the night.” The old gent stood up straight and put out his hand. So did he.
“Nice meeting you and thanks for the beer,” he said to the old boy’s back already shuffling along the bar.
He put down his empty glass and sat back up on the stool facing the square, puzzling sign, beginning Seville Dair Dago. The bartender was coming over with a fresh bottle. He stared at the bold printed letters as the bartender replaced the empty. Their eyes met and he couldn’t help asking, “What kind of language is that, some sort of code?”
“No, just somebody’s idea of fun,” said the lanky brunette. “Kind of the way some good old boy might talk. You know:
See Bill dere dey go
Two-ton busses in a row
No Joe dem’s trucks
Some with cows in
Some with ducks.
No big thing but it’s kind of cute.” She smiled her thin-lipped smile and went back up the bar with the empty bottle.
As she drifted toward the other end of the bar, he heard one of the other geezers say, “Hey, Lou, you’re just in time.” He decided he ought to pay more attention to his beer and not even look up as the young raw-boned guy passed on the way out.
http://www.amazon.com/Wholly-Falsetto-People-Dancing-Vangelisti/dp/0986017302 Here is a link to Paul’s book, Wholly Falsetto With People Dancing.
http://www.agincourtpress.org/book3.htm Here’s a link to Standard’s book, Water and Power.