"[the Internet] has saved me as a poet, writer and "connoisseur..." [of the literary arts] I discovered a majority of some of our finest voices on the Web."
-- Alan Kaufman
The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is available online through Amazon.com.
More of Alan Kaufman's work on the Internet:
A Writer's Choice
American Spoken Word Poet and Editor
_____interviewed by CK Tower
Internationally acclaimed poet Alan Kaufman is the lead editor for DAVKA: Jewish Cultural Revolution, and Tattoo Jew, a magazine of hip Jewish culture. His books include,American Cruiser (Zeitgeist Press), The New Generation: Fiction For Our Time From America's Writing Programs (Anchor/Doubleday), Before I Wake (Cyborg Productions), and Who Are We?(DAVKA). He is also editor of the newly released The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thunder's Mouth Press). Critics have equated Kaufman's work with poets such as Whitman, and Kerouac. Not only does his written work echo the sound and soul of those great poets, the same can be found in his Spoken Word verse. It is a pleasure to welcome Alan Kaufman to Riding the Meridian.
CK Tower: As I mentioned in the introduction, critics have compared your work to great American poets like Walt Whitman. How much, if any, has Whitman been an influence on your work, and how do you respond to such comments?
Alan Kaufman: Well, I never think about it, really but poetically I see it. I probably have more in common philosophically with the Baal Shem Tov, the bearded founder of Hasidism, then Walt. But Walt could have been a Hasid. Absolutely. And poetically I think that these critics might refer to the length of my lines, but more so to a sense of lyricism that is not often found in Spoken Word poems, which tend to be harsh. In truth, I think that they are made uneasy by two qualities in my work that I may share with Walt: unabashed tenderness and convinced spiritual zest. And like him, I tend to see things on an epic scale. I write long, long poems to embrace whatever I can. My poems unfold. I came to Whitman through Ginsberg. And through Ginsberg to Blake. An unfolding. I stand squarely in that tradition of contrarian epical oratorical poet of the people. I am a poet of the people, trudging in the path of not just Whitman but Mayakovsky, Neruda, Sandberg. Lincoln, who was a poet. I am a poet of the people. Of the human race. Not just of "my bummed out friend Melanie with whom I had a tiff" but of the blind woman who lives downstairs next to the boiler room in my building and of the tattooed cons I consort with on my volunteer visits to State prisons and of the shoeless Phillipino I once met crossing America barefoot and broke on a Greyhound bus and who almost cried when I bought him an Arby's roast beef sandwich in Cheyenne Wyoming during a rest stop and of the little Black lady with the shopping bag on her lap containing all her possessions and who sat next to me en route from New York to San Francisco and the transvestite hookers with Silicon tits who hang on the street corners of my neighborhood at night and of the little Chinese boy clutching his mothers leg and peeking out at me in the supermarket...I am the poet of these people. My poems are blessings on their heads.
CK Tower: Tell us about your early poetic influences, are there differences today?
Alan Kaufman: I wrote my first poem in kindergarten and got a heap of praise from the teacher, Mrs.Boozer (that really was her name). The poem was: "The Winter confetti/falls like/snow" Probably it was just a big accident, had meant to say the winter snow falls like confetti but that's how it came out and she went wild with praise and I thought: "hmmm", all this while wiping crushed caterpillar parts off on my muddy shorts. I continued to write poetry and prose and published my first poems, three in total, in sixth grade in the school's lit magazine. Continued Writing into high school where my interest in poetry really boomed, I became editor of the school lit mag and read Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas mainly and also Kerouac and was wild, wild with that stuff, language as a mental avalanche of surreal outpourings expended at the Smith Corona and which I then read in a strangled voice in local coffeehouses and church basements and bars around the Columbia University area, including the West End Bar, where the Beats Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs first hung out. So, right off, I had that connection with the counter cultural perspective, very Beat influenced. Kenneth Patchen was a huge early influence on me. I LOVED Patchen! But also, when I was 17, I met, curiously, one of the greatest American poets of the post-war era, James Wright.
He was the drinking partner of the father of a friend of mine, a schoolyard buddy from the Bronx, and this friend took me down when I was 17 to meet him in a bar near Hunter College, where Wright was then teaching. I was tremendously impressed, though little was said beyond "I write poetry" and Wright nodding and muttering a few words I don't remember. Mainly, I just recall how impressed I was, went out and read everything the guy wrote, his Minnesota poems especially blew me away, you know: "Good evening Charley/ Yes, I know, You rise/ two lean gray spiders/ drifting through your eyes..."Whew! And from him went on to read Galway Kinnell, particularly his poem "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into The New World" which astonished me and which I've been enviously attempting to emulate ever since. So, I began to acquire my influences. I saw Ginsberg when I was like 18, and Gregory Corso, at different readings in NY. I was a nervy kid. Went up to Ginsberg at one reading where he had sat the entire time chanting "OMMMMM" and asked: "Mr. Ginsberg, how come you don't write great poems like Kaddish and Howl anymore?" Never dreamed that some day he and I would perform on the same stage, breakfast with other poets in the same hotel, my girlfriend and I across the table from him, and then Allen and I had a press conference with Jerome Rothenberg in attendance. This was in Berlin. And I remembered asking Allen that question as a brash teen, which he patently disliked, but didn't ask him in Berlin if he recognized me. We got along. And were on good terms as the Spoken Word thing began to rise and he took an interest in it. Allen counseled me during the SF Poets Strike against City Hall in 93. But going back to influences, along the way I had a couple of supportive teachers, in high school, college...particularly Marvin Cohen at City College. But my attention drifted after College from poetry to prose and I kind of left poetry until I went to grad school for creative writing and realized some of the things I said earlier in the interview and the whole crazy direction was launched for me...and I guess, Bukowski opened my ear to new possibilities. But more then anyone else at that time, Whitman was the door to the future.<
CK Tower: In your article, Poets of the New Millennium: America's Spoken Word (Conspire May '99) you state: "...Spoken Word poets are multi-cultural in composition..." How has your own ethnicity played a role in your work as a poet?
Alan Kaufman: I grew up in the Bronx, the son of a French-Jewish Holocaust survivor who spoke English poorly with a Yiddish accent, so you might say that a sense of cultural specificity and displacement that seems to characterize most ethnic identity in America, kind of clobbered me over the head. My great uncle, Abraham Cahaan, was a famous Yiddish writer, a friend and publisher of I.B. Singer, Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, and founded the most famous Yiddish-language newspaper in the world, The Jewish Daily Forward. His legend helped inform my literary aspirations. And for most of my schooling and right through undergraduate at City College of New York, the world to me was ethnic, though not just mine. It was also: Jewish, Black, Latino, Asian, Italian, Polish, Greek, all this was natural, there was as yet no talk of "multiculturalism" because it was just automatically so. That's what school was for me, and that's what literature was too. In literary terms, particularly in poetry, I really never thought about ethnicity much. Being Jewish was part of what I had to say. As a writer, I freely and indiscriminately acquired influences from whatever moved me, Jewish or not, from Dylan Thomas to Nikki Giovanni to Sophocles, James Wright, Miguel Pinero, Allen Ginsberg and so on.
For example, in High School typically I read an Irish novel, Studs Lonigan by James T.Farrel, Native Son,a Black novel by Richard Wright, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas-a Puerto Rican, Call It Sleep, the great Jewish novel by Henry Roth. That's what American literature looked like to me. Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver thrilled me for weeks. So did Chiano Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I never thought to myself: they're Black and I'm Jewish so they don't speak to my experience. It all spoke to my experience. It became -no-- it WAS my experience! To think of literature and influence in any other way was unthinkable. So, in a place as provincial as the Bronx, I grew up with a global literary perspective. But today, that innocence is no longer the case in America. In Academia it's all engineered, cloned, which is so sad and in the society at large ethnic difference has become the great divide among us, one festering with hatred, ignorance and fear.
In college I ran into some pretty overt anti-Semitism in Hemingway, Pound, Eliot and that just killed me. I mean, I loved their writing, still do! But how I winced when I came upon "Kike" and all that other charming stuff. I wanted to rage at my American lit professors: "How can you peddle this poison without apology!" Instead, I buried it away, pretended not to see it, feel it. But after college, something, my Jewishness, exploded. I went to Israel, lived there seven years and became deeply immersed in the Israeli literary scene-and very active in poetry. I knew all the Israeli poets who are well known here in translation-Yehuda Amichai, Ted Carmi, Dan Pagis, Harold Shimmel, Dennis Silk. There was also a big English language writing community which I became active in, and I published some of my first poetry over there too and a lot of fiction and also articles about art. I met and interviewed V.S.Naipaul over there, who was an influence for a time. I also started a whole reading scene in the theaters and clubs and museums in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So I was already on the track of oral performance, Spoken Word, though without the theatrics that would come to characterize the current Spoken Word boom. When I returned I attended the MFA graduate writing program at Columbia University and that was a revelation. There were no Blacks or Latinos in the program at that time, not a single one. It was culture shock for this Bronx boy. I was enrolled in the fiction program but mainly hung out with the poets, especially Campbell McGrath, John Lane, others. Bill Wadsworth, who heads up the Academy of American Poets was also there. Among novelists, Rick Moody, Tama Janawitz, Jill Eisenstadt, Kim Wozencraft were all classmates.
CK Tower: Tell us more about your experiences while attending Columbia and how it played a role, if any, in your poetry.
Alan Kaufman: I wasn't happy at Columbia, and began to slum with a group of renegade poets from the downtown scene, real freaky types, some of whom were Black and who dragged me around to these little clubs where the Spoken Word scene was just starting up. This was in the late Eighties. There was no name as yet for what we did. No "Spoken Word" label. We just wrote the kinds of outrageous poems we'd never dare read in a workshop or submit to a magazine and flew them at the open mike and people cheered like crazy. It was fun! Then, one night, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe opened on 3rd Street in the East Village. It was a huge multi-culti emporium of poetry. It felt like high school again, the Bronx, all those Blacks and Latinos mingling with Jews and Italians and what not. The performed poems had the flavor of subway tracks, projects, stoops and schoolyards, graffiti-sprayed walled-in desires that I knew and related to. In other words, they told about my life! I was there reading on the first night at the first open mike and Paul Beatty, Miguel Algarin, Nicole Breedlove, Samantha Coerbell, Willie Perdoma, all were there. What can I say? They riffed Black, or Puerto Rican and when I got up there on stage, I riffed Jewish.
So Jewishness had always been one of my central reference points but now with my adoption of the role of oral poet, it became my liturgy, my 'davening' or Jewish prayer. For instance, in my first book, American Cruiser (Zeitgeist Press), which are all exclusively Spoken Word poems written for and performed on stages, I not only directly referenced Jewishness in poems like "Who Are We?" but the whole poem cycle, about a cross-country Greyhound bus trip by indigents and outcasts of every color and kind, is a sort of American Exodus, after the Old Testament, a flight from the Egypt of American poverty and despair into an unknown Land of Milk and Honey: California. The tragic pun of course is that California is no better. But until their arrival, the passenger's hearts are filled with hope.
As I began to write Spoken Word poems, I began to look back to the Jewish past, not just for content but for forms. It was all seasoned of course by direct influence of my Puerto Rican and Black compeers. But for Jewish influence, I looked equally to traditional texts and pop culture, from the extended breathed blank verse rants of Isaiah to the maniacal monologues of Lenny Bruce to the extended Haiku of Ginsberg. Bob Dylan, the poetry of Leonard Cohen, also factored big. And underneath some of it was just rap. Then, I came to San Francisco and fell headlong into a group of poets known as the Barbarians, who read at Cafe Babar-kind of the West Coast counterpart of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe-and these folks were mainly Jewish and writing in the style of Bukowski but with a kind of Jewish feel to it and heavily seasoned by Jim Carrol and the apocryphal pop journalistic phrasing of Hunter S.Thompson cross-fertilized with Bob Dylan and Rimbaud. It was insane. Ultimately, they had the most influence on my work as a Spoken Word poet: David Lerner, Bruce Isaacson, Julia Vinograd, David Gollub, Vampire Mike Kassel. These were one crazy bunch of Yids, let me tell you! They all published on Zeitgeist Press, which put out my first book with a preface by Jack Hirschman, who was, at the time, probably after Ferlinghetti the most distinguished poet in the Bay area, a kind of successor to Rexroth. He's in London now. He wrote a rave preface to my book which made everyone bitterly jealous and I was launched!
CK Tower: Talking further about Spoken Word poetry, do you feel it holds the potential for the kind of longevity written word poetry has enjoyed. If so, in what ways? Do you think the Internet might play a role in this, is it already?
Alan Kaufman: Absolutely. Not only does vast technological archives of film and video and CD assure its continuation, but as a social phenomenon, it's exploding. Among teenagers its one of the fastest growing activities of all time. It's positively amazing! The fact is, the poetry of our culture is experiencing a dramatic shift from the printed page to the stage. It's just happening. The oral upsurge is not dying this time the way it had with the Beats when that tiny handful of Fifties poets became, nationwide, the politicized, unliterary and drugged out mass movements of the prevalently music-oriented Sixties. I've now seen two new generations of poets spring up worldwide just from the very groundwork we first laid back in the Eighties in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
You know, I first brought Spoken Word to Europe, back in 91, when I toured Germany and Austria, part of the way with Bob Holman but mostly alone. I was sponsored by six different German literary institutes. When I returned in 93, it had already grown amazingly. But after that tour, again sponsored by literary institutions and cultural centers in three countries -Germany, Austria and Holland-and with the poets I brought on tour, including Patricia Smith, Luis Rodriguez, Paul Beatty, Dominique Lowell and Neeli Cherkovski -- I mean, we literally created overnight throughout Europe a Spoken Word revolutionary network that spread to England and Sweden and beyond. Today all the countries of Western Europe have some form of Spoken Word scene. And it can all be traced, literally, back to that first tour.. Maybe you have to see what I've seen with my own eyes to grasp it. How it caught on. Its so amazing.
This is one of the great blessings of the Spoken Word movement. Anyone, anyone, can wake up one day and decide: I'm going to change the world. And go do it. There are absolutely no rules. One can decide to bring Spoken Word to the Blue Ridge mountains and start a Slam. One can decide to bring Spoken Word to the Balkans, and do it. Just pick up and go with your poems on your back. This is how the Chassidic movement developed in Eastern Europe. And here, Spoken Word just keeps growing. I think it's going to continue and that in poetry we will enter-perhaps already are in-a new Elizabethan age. Certainly we have all the necessary suffering, violence, scandal and heartlessness that characterized that period. We only lack the courage of our language. And we now have a vast number of Spoken Word poets worldwide, with new teen generations coming up who think nothing of becoming a poet, without all the Sturm and Drang that attended such career decisions in the past. They just ARE poets, and that's it. It fits in with Big Mac, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Doom and The BackStreet Boys, no problem: "I'm a poet,". I think that's terrific. They are the future. From among them will spring new not only new Rimbauds but Berrymans too (a great poet, by the way, but who was a lousy reader, by the way: a pitiless mumbler, according to Saul Bellow).
The phenomenon will not only endure but flourish. The surface of its potential has not even been scratched. It will settle into more conscious modes of endeavor too, eventually: not be so scattershot or undisciplined. Eventually, they'll discover their predecessors, from Hellenic Greece to ancient Israel, China to Africa, and seek to link themselves consciously to traditions, and then subliminally. Even accredited schools to teach Spoken Word will arise some day, in my estimation.
But Spoken Word Poetry is struggling with its identity just now-is it just Pop Cultural? It's already gone way beyond a mere avant garde. It's looking to serious engagement but right now its just too big, too expansionist, to find any sort of reference point for itself. And yet, as undefined, as vast as it is its already taught in many university curriculums. Its centerless mass sprawl lacking all central authority is similar to the net, in that respect.
The groundbreaking anthology that Algarin and Holman put together in 94' from the work of all of us who first made the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Spoken Word what it was, ALOUD: Voice From The Nuyorican Poets Cafe (Henry Holt), is today a standard textbook in college poetry courses nationwide. I have young poets who approach me at readings all the time to say they first studied me in ALOUD. The anthology I've just completed and that's coming out this fall, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thunder's Mouth Press) is not just appearing in hardcover and paperback but has been bought by Book of the Month Club and so is coming out in a quality paperback edition as well. Now, do you know of any academic anthologies that are coming out as a QPB edition? None of us, back in the eighties, ever imagined as we stood there on the floors of rundown bars and cafes, up to our ankles in beer bottle empties, that someday our work would be released by the Book of the Month Club. And in fact, most established poets don't hope for as much. So, we are on the rise in a way that few can still comprehend, already squarely in the mainstream. And The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is taking this to the next level, bringing together the various "camps" from Slammers to Unbearables to Barbarians to American Renegades, all presented for the first time together along with their historical predecessors, the Beats and Meat Poets, Rock Poets and Punkers plus others, and explicated in intelligent text side by side with large selections of their most important work and all in order to establish not just a historical and curriculum line of approach to this heretofore unstructured and quite disparate material, but to establish guidelines as well for a new American canon in poetry. Sounds grandiose?
Just a P.S. about the Internet's relationship to all this. One of the great services it performs right now is through list serves where these huge communities-particularly among the slammers-stay in touch with each other. It's pretty remarkable. We all know what's going on all the time, a kind of swirling "Allover" poetry social communication web-reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist paintings-so that simultaneously we can hold in perspective
shifting activities of poets in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, San Jose and Des Moines. It lends a certain grandeur to the work one does, a keen sense of purpose and responsibility, and an excitement that's hard to match. And the possibilities for engagement, activism, audience: for readings, publishing, slams, alliances, protests, are breathtaking. Overwhelming, really. To see the poetry fixed in place on a web site is a kind of calming breather, actually. Also, I see the Web as the place where the first serious engagement with essayistic conceptualization and exploration can take place. A chance for us to develop our own lines of discourse and Talmudic Spoken Word exegis. Conspire and Riding the Meridian, for instance, are great for providing such an intelligent forum.
CK Tower: For those readers who may be uninitiated when it comes to Slam Poetry, can you give us the anatomy of a Slam?
Alan Kaufman: A Slam is a performance poetry contest in which two or more poets compete before audience judges, and often for cash prizes. The poets are ranked on a scale of one to ten and in most slams there are percentiles used. Bob Holman, who was one of the greatest Slam M.C.'s of all time, used to say: a poem scored with a 1 is a poem that should never have been written; a poem that gets a 10 is one that makes the stage rise before the very eyes of the audience. That's accurate. Slams have changed from the old days too, of course. When I first performed in them in the early day of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, you could not imagine the raw, unbridled energy in the place. Roars, jeers, shouts, laughter, gasps. It was like some kind of mob of French revolutionaries at a beheading, the poets aristocrats getting their heads lopped off, one after another. But God, it was beautiful, the tension, it meant so much to the poets. You'd see a poet like Gavin Moses, about to go up there, on his knees praying by the bar, things like that. It moved the hell out of you. It meant so much to everyone. And it meant nothing. We were able somehow to contain both feelings at once. Which made it magnificent. Now, well, maybe I'm just a cranky old-timer or something but its changed. The poets don't come with the same determination. The motives have changed, I think. Its like a social club or something. Back then, it was life and death. And it was fun. You needed to have four poems, to read one in each round. Then the last two poets left standing had a slam-off and one was declared the winner. You won ten bucks and the right to compete in the finals. From that has grown a nationwide movement of Slam teams that meet once a year in an agreed upon city and hold the National Poetry Slam. Marc Smith is the inventor of the modern slam and until recently was the head of the Slam organization but he only recently stepped down in a gallant gesture to permit the younger bloods to run things. Marc is the reason that all of us, wherever we are, find ourselves in a world quite hospitable to poetry. It amazes me to see the younger poets who think that its always been this way. I remember a time in the early eighties when poetry was the most downtrodden and dull member of the arts. It belonged to a small handful of elitists. There were no cafe readings, no slams, none of this stuff. People heard poetry, they yawned. No one thought about it. Well, Marc Smith did. He was a Chicago construction worker and he started this thing he invented, called "Slam" after Grand Slam as in baseball and took it around Chicago until he and it ended up at the Green Mill Tavern, where Al Capone and other mobsters used to hang out and that's where it stayed to this day, though of course it branched out, next going to Ann Arbor and from there to I think Cleveland and from there to New York so that by the time I arrived on the scene in late 88' there were already a few slam teams around the country, though not yet a National Poetry Slam. That took place in 90 in San Francisco. It was New York, Chicago, San Francisco. I was there. Chicago won. They blew everybody out of the water. Paul Beatty competed for New York, Ruth Weiss for San Francisco but Chicago rolled out this TEAM of unbelievable talents, including of course Miss SLAM QUEEN herself, Patricia Smith.
That's some sketchy history, but getting back to the Slam, you now have a three minute time limit, also rules against props, things like that. Effectively, the Slam poem has evolved into a kind of haughty, taunting, slightly hysterical but well-crafted form of diatribe which I find, well, frankly....they've all come to sound exactly alike. They're all imitating Patricia. Its an extraordinary kind of flattery but it was so much richer when any style of poetry went. Today, there's a great surging impulse towards conformity in the Slam Movement, its become largely about personalities rather then the poetry itself, which I think is a shame, so that you've had some pretty ridiculous occurrences, like what happened to Russell Gonzaga in Austin, where he was accused of rape or some such nonsense and threats of law suit flew back and forth. I attribute that not to healthy growth but rather to the perversion of Slam's essential purposes through over-regulation (the minutes of a Slam Masters Meeting read like those of Del Monte Corporation's stockholder's board), a kind of nastiness among the constituents that's become endemic, and the fact that a bunch of inflated old farts sit on the board who should get out of there and stop spreading their bad mood to the rest of the folks. Some of them have been poisoning the air for years. They perpetrate it. Its very much a subculture, though, with its own rules. Its become a social development as weird as the community one finds in an RV camp.
CK Tower: As with everything, Spoken Word has its critics. Some say of Spoken Word poetry, much of it does not stand up on the page. How do you respond to that claim?
Alan Kaufman: With 700 pages of brilliant poetry, much of which is Spoken Word in origin: The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. With poets like David Lerner, Patricia Smith, Luis Rodriguez, Dominque Lowell, Paul Beatty...HELL! With ME too!!! I've had San Francisco audiences of 500 people up on their feet cheering a poem and the same poem published in a major American magazine and then watched it journey out translated and published in German, Swedish, and then went on invitation to Europe and with the same poem bought audiences to their feet in Glascow, Berlin, London, Amsterdam. It stood the test or stage and page. Which of Spoken Word's critics can claim that? None, I venture. As Clement Greenberg, the art critic, said of Abstract Expressionism: "Any really revolutionary new art is by definition 'ugly'". I think that's sometimes so for Spoken Word. The failure to grasp its audio dimension when reading it is not a shortcoming of the poet but of his reader, whose ears are stopped with I.A.Richards, The New Yorker, Allan Bloom and post-structuralism. He should hear the words with his eyes. Also, there has been no serious assessment, until The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, of what is really good out there. Even ALOUD was a little indiscriminate, hurriedly slapped together, whereas, for the most part, the selections in Outlaw represent what is genuinely excellent. I think this will lead to a new assessment. I think that Spoken Word lacks a critical language. And the critic's challenge is to learn to read our poems with your ears and hear them with your eyes.
CK Tower: So who makes up the majority of the audience for Spoken Word performances and is this changing?
Alan Kaufman: I've never seen a particular "type" at a Spoken Word performance. Of course, in a small cafe reading you may have the weekly habitués, and that's fine. But when you get to the bigger towns, like New York, Chicago, S.F. or even Ann Arbor, the audience is anyone and everyone. At the National Poetry Slam in 95' in Ann Arbor I sat next to two women in their sixties, as conservatively dressed as slumming nuns, who were thrilled by the work and talked incessantly about each poem and argued about the scores.
Today's Spoken Word audience has expanded to include many, many more teenagers. In fact, I'm willing to bet that teenagers have become the largest audience right now. And College kids. But also, because of the music industry crossover dimension of rap and such, there are also a lot of your average plain old FM radio music listeners getting into Spoken Word: one hears it mixed into new tracks from up and comings. Also, academics have become profoundly interested: here's new turf for all those exhausted doctorates looking for fresh thesis meat. You can even watch Spoken Word on film in a movie theater.
What is changing is less the audience, I find, then the poets. The kinds of poets and poetry being done out there. Just today, I had a visit from Daniel Higgs, in from Baltimore, one of the greatest Spoken Word poets of the Nineties, and who was, with me, one of the second wave of 'Barbarians" poets to come out of San Francisco and also with me one of the original "Horsemen of the Apocalypse" who included David Lerner, Steve Arnsten, Ken Dimaggio and Mel C.Thompson. And we were talking about the new readings and he said that he'd just been over at the Paradise Lounge which is one of the oldest spots for Spoken Word in SF, and he couldn't relate to the new kind of work being put out there. It's all a kind of deadpan reportage of personal relationships, but devoid of any real emotional charge and read in that awful ululating sing songy reading style that everyone does their poems in these days and he got up on stage he said and read and felt like he was reading into a void. They didn't get him as much as he didn't get them. And he said to me: "I'm glad I was in the scene when I was, and not today" and I agreed, we had been lucky to be there from the get go. The late eighties to the mid-nineties were the amazing time. Maybe you had to be there to fully understand how tremendous it was in those days, the sense of unbridled excitement we felt each time we read. No one jaded. Not yet a hundred thousand self-conscious weekend poets doing this-but raw, visceral, living for our art and deadly seriously wild getting up there at Cafe Babar in SF or Nuyorican Poets Cafe in NY and one after another the poet bringing down the house. You didn't dare get up there if your intention was less then the complete annihilation of every last lie in the universe and the destruction of numbness. And the audiences in those days was mainly poets, but I mean POETS! You wouldn't get up there and read some diary entry about your "tiff with Melanie." I saw those kinds of poets crawl out crying from the hostility they met. As David Lerner said in one of his poems: "I come not to bury poetry/but to blow it up/ not to dandle it on my knee/like a retarded child with/beautiful eyes/but/throw it off a cliff into/icy seas and/see if the motherfucker can/swim for its life."
CK Tower: Where do you see yourself going with Spoken Word poetry in the new millennium?
Alan Kaufman: As far as where I'm going with it, it's hard to say. My agent is currently in the midst of a possible three-book contract negotiation for a completed novelistic memoir, my collected short stories and an anthology of radical Jewish culture. I'm also about to have my first one man art show in New York. So, I'm branching out. I think, when all the dust clears from these various books, I'm going to go out and see what's abroad in the spoken word scene. You know, for the most part this past year I have been at my computer banging out books, four in one year! Sold and published one and the other three now under negotiation. I have discovered a real love of books! I LOVE Books! But also, I love audience. I think that what I'd like to see is a development in Spoken Word away from the popular cultural and music club/MTV and Slam shtick (I mean, after a while all the Slam poems sound exactly the same) into something either closer to the high seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists or else altogether subversive, like the Pop Art painters, Rauchenberg, etc. Note my reference to visual art. I guess I'd like to see a honing of images blended with the expressionist power of a Jackson Pollack or the considered disruption of a DeKooning or the trembling somber spirituality of a Rothko into something new, else, other, coherent and yet not obviously so but with a fanatical sense of parameters, style, personal pride reflected in the doing, as in their paintings-acts of explosive controlled desperation and articulation. Poems like that would reference visual art. Maybe there will be Spoken Word Exhibitions, very stark, the poets dressed in Dickey work shirts and word-spattered construction boots, offering very little beyond the controlled violence of their poem's delivery, to a hip audience of discerning, intelligent folks. And lots of discussion about what they're doing, articulating, grasping, groping, instead of numbing. That would be cool.
CK Tower: Tell us about DAVKA and the web site, Tattoo Jew.
Alan Kaufman: DAVKA, which is Street Hebrew roughly for "To Do Something in spite of..." was a print magazine of transgressive Jewish culture that I edited and which has since left the print world to join the Internet. Its now Tattoo Jew.
How it started is there's a magazine called Long Shot out of the East Coast that I publish in-- it was launched in the eighties by Ginsberg, Danny Shot, Bukowski, Ferlinghetti, Wanda Coleman and many others who were regulars, as well as many well-known visual artists. The editor, Danny Shot wrote to me back in 96 and said "Kaufman. We're both Jews. And sons of Holocaust survivors. Lets do a special issue of underground Jewish poets and writers" and so we pulled in Hirsch Silverman, this old beat poet friend of Ginsberg and Co., to edit with us and contacted every Jewish poet we could think of from Ginsberg to Adrienne Rich to Marge Piercy to Hal Sirowitz, Sparrow, Bob Holman, Jack Hirschman, etc., and put together this wild issue with a photo on the cover of a Chasid standing next to a naked man on a Brooklyn beach and we called the issue "Its The Jews'. Anyway, the issue sold out but more so we had simultaneous readings for the issue in San Francisco and New York at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the readings were jam packed! In San Francisco and New York these crowds turned out we'd never seen before of young Jews, a lot of professionals and what not, and the space in SF was so tight that the owner of the club had to knock out part of the ceiling to in let air.. I'm serious. Who were these people, I wondered? We should start a new magazine of radical Jewish culture, I decided. Anyway, I had four friends who were children of Holocaust survivors and three of them in some fashion involved in the publishing world, one at Addison Wesley, the other two in the graphics end and another a big banking exec and they put out word that they wanted to start a new avant garde Jewish magazine and twenty five real hot shots from the world of business, culture, you name it, showed up and that's how it started. It was professionally designed, edited, produced. I was appointed editor. The first issue had a picture on the cover of a naked woman with tattoos and covered with a Jewish Prayer shawl. Needless to say, the Jewish establishment were shocked but the young people adored it and the media went ballistic. That issue rocketed, literally, around the world, appeared in full length feature articles in every major American publication from Utne Reader to USA Today to the Los Angeles Times and was featured on Good Morning America and CBS's 'The Osgood File " and in the major newspapers of Israel, England, Brazil and Germany. Overnight, it awakened a new Jewish generation to the matter of their identity. They are now called "Generation J" in the media. I'm proud to say that DAVKA was the clarion call. Today, reincarnated as Tattoo Jew we're online, getting upwards of 1,500 hits a day, not shabby for a web zine that does zero promo. Its all word of mouth. Underground. Reports are that we've got followings all over the US. Its a magazine of transgressive Jewish Culture, everybody from Annie Sprinkle to David Mamet and Lenoard Nimoy and Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, to Lenny Bruce. We're at the intersection of Pop Culture and High Brow, and our whole purpose is to say "We don't know what it means to be Jewish. Lets find out. Lets ask questions. Lets seek new avenues. Lets experiment." For instance, the lead players in this phenomenon turn out to be Gay. Gays are the chief proponents of Yiddish culture today. Young gays! So, we did an issue of Queer Yiddishkeit. And so on. Or we had a look at Jews and Sex, which we called "Jews in Heat" or a section on Jews in Hip Hop which involves of course, the at-times explosive interface between Blacks and Jews. We have no answers. We just ask questions. Which is of course very Jewish.
CK Tower: While we are on the topic of embracing and celebrating ethnic diversity and diversity in general, let's jump forward to consider the impact of a still emerging influence in contemporary literary movements, electronic mediums. Do you see the Internet as playing a role in breaking down barriers for females, minorities, gays/trasnsgendered/the disabled, in other words, offering more than what we have traditionally seen filling the pages of popular and acclaimed literary journals in the last several decades, the male WASP, college grad. writers?
Alan Kaufman: That's an interesting question. I don't know for certain what sort of reception minority poets receive in internet magazines. I've been well-received everywhere with work that is sometimes overtly Jewish. However, I don't feel like I've read much ethnically-premised poetry on the Internet, but I don't attribute this to prejudice. Rather it strikes me as the byproduct of the inherent anonymity of the Internet. Often, I can't tell, unless the poet directly references it, what ethnicity the poet is. That has its advantages. A Black poet might get tired of being "A Black Poet". I know for myself that I get sick and tired of being " A Jewish Writer"-- even though that is, inescapably, what I am and choose to be. The Internet gives me, gives anyone, the freedom not to be that too. One can reinvent oneself. On the other hand, ultimately, we are what we are. And the idea of culture is not to run from what we are, or hide behind the mask of cyber-facelessness but to manifest ourselves to the fullest possible extent. Now is this anonymity something that is going to poetically homogenize our diversity and culture- is the Internet the final melting pot where we all blend into cyber-cultural generalities? I don't know.
CK Tower: How do you think the editors of internet journals are doing about offering more in the way of multi-cultural voices in their selections? Enough, not enough, better?
Alan Kaufman: I think that Internet editors could make more of a conscious effort to proactively open their doors to minority work. Instead, the case may be to fall into a rut and stay where they are comfortable. There are ways to signal your openness to "minority" writers without banging one over the head. I'd like to see special issues on African-American writing or Latino writing on the Internet, or more special issues on Women writing, such as you and Jennifer Ley recently produced. The great thing about the net is that if one feels that ones group is underrepresented one can easily start up a magazine to make up the deficit.
I also think that the Internet can stimulate dialogue between groups that might never encounter each other. We tend to ghetto-ize on the Internet, I think-because what we are lacking are the next stage of Internet activist, cross-cultural mobilizers and ambassadors who can visit and link up disparate communities into new combinations-or bring to the table groups that might never encounter each other. Diaghalevs of the Web. You know, maybe now that I've opened the door on this, I'll go visit an African American lit mag and say: "Hey, you've got your Black readership, I've got this Jewish readership, lets do a trade of poetries-we'll publish a joint special issue of Black and Jewish poets and present them side by side to both audiences. By the way, if any Black or Asian or whatever editors are reading this and interested, let me know. I'm game (Akpoem@aol.com). It would be terrifically interesting to see how that worked out, wouldn't it?
CK Tower: Let's talk a little about another movement in contemporary poetry which like Spoken Word is moving and shaking its way from the traditional toward a new multi-contextual, multi-layered image of poetry: Hypertext. You recently edited the West Coast East New York/San Francisco Poetry Collection for the hypertext- hypermedia internet journal, Beehive. Tell us about that experience and your take on hypertext and its influence on contemporary literature.
Alan Kaufman: Well, Talan Memmott first contacted me about The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He wanted to obtain rights to present some of the highlights on his web site. Rights-wise, it didn't work out with my publisher but Talon and I promised to stay in touch, do something. We then ran into each other in San Francisco at a reading for a web magazine in which we both appeared and he asked me come up with something I'd like to do, he'd present it in his hypertext journal, BeeHive. So, you know, the San Francisco-New York connection is something that I have been keenly aware of for years now, not only because those describe the major poles of my own experience as a poet but because they define a certain historical phenomenon in counter-cultural poetry, even before the Beats but certainly including them and the San Francisco Renaissance and moving right up to the present, these two cities have enjoyed a strange kind of cultural commerce, especially in poetry. In some respects, San Francisco makes the revolutions that New York exports to the world. And anyway, I knew these great poets on both coasts who never met but ought to have and I thought to put them together, a kind of bi-coastal assembly. Ralph Ackerman had been shooting a photo portrait series of New York and San Francisco poets and I asked him to throw it into the mix, which he did. I wrote a little intro. And Bob's your uncle. It's amazing how quickly one can assemble such a thing through the Internet and for the Internet. Now Hypertext, well, it mystifies me, to be honest. In a way its a more accurate reflection of the way the mind of the writer works. Its the way, for instance, that I see literary texts. And yet, there is the firm resistance of traditional text forms, genres, that arise in the mind to defend against the esthetic Y2K breakdown implicit in Hypertext, which the average reader cannot compute. A rise in reader interest would make sense, in that one has, seated before the computer screen, a different relationship then to a book or a classroom or a reading hall or whatever. Its an interesting question to ask oneself, in a literary sense, as either reader or writer or critic: what is my identity as I sit here interacting with the screen, the information, the images, the technology. What kind of costume does my identity wear? What am I transformed into? How would I describe myself. Well, I say: "Writer" but I mean something different then the man who writes books, the Alan who performs poems, or produces anthologies. I'm more experimentally inclined on the Internet, before my computer, and this is largely due to the insanities access to painless revision. I can revise image or text, whatever, and manipulate them towards really unseen, unarticulated objectives. So, I am freed up to imagine in a way that requires less parameters, or can allow for different portals of engagement, paths of information-gathering, trajectories of memory, impression, event, action, which is what Hypertext is about. So I would suggest that an increase of interest in Hypertext suggests on the part of the reader an increased ease with not only the possibilities of form but with redefining ones own esthetic and philosophical premises and even shifting identities. I think that the Web will redefine what a writer is and also what a poet is. I don't know what new definitions it will yield but I find myself either through osmosis or else plain drifting involved with the Web at a level I never would have imagined for myself, really, its quite surprising how this place has become one of the homes important to me as a poet and how people like yourself or Talon and now Jennifer become part of my community as a poet, though most of us have never met each other face to face. In a way, Hypertext is the formal equivalent of this experience-a new way of meeting oneself through a new way of experiencing text. It changes not only the reader but the creator as well.
CK Tower: What do you feel are the most significant contributions the non-traditional poets i.e. spoken word & multi-media/hypertext poets have contributed, and/or are contributing to poetry overall?
Alan Kaufman: To be an articulating, intelligencer, and an engine of esthetic and social experimentation in a society that has lost its moral and spiritual bearings, and which is drowning in a great Babelesque ocean of pop cultural junked artifice is probably the greatest role model gift we can provide. It takes tremendous guts to take the field in such a landscape and declare oneself, come hell or high water, a poet to the end of ones life. Believe me, there is a huge turnover in this field. I see them come and go. Few stay the course. I even honor my enemies in this profession and if you think you won't make enemies as a Spoken Word poet, you're in for a shock. So, I think first and foremost, is the example that the poet provides. That precedes his esthetic contribution. James Joyce knew how important this was. His "Portrait of the Artist" is a study in a new kind of modernist dedication that is almost religious in commitment. In a way, I see Spoken Word poets and multi-media/hypertext poets as firstly neo-modernists rather then post-modernists, in that the serious ones are here for the long haul and committed to a sense of engagement that is practically moral in its implications and historically dramatic. I know that this is as true of someone like Patricia Smith as it is of Talan Memmott, who is really more a fiction writer. They are changing not only the way we see and hear and read and experience poetry and literature, but the way we communicate in our lives. They are restoring literature to a more fundamental role in society, even though unacknowledged by that society. And their very concept of literature is dramatic and poetic. One performs in a tribal passion rite before vast audiences. The other reconfigures literary text on a computer that potentially communicate with millions of people at their terminals. Each are fashioning prototypes for new forms of inspired human dialoguing activity. Also, as people both will be in the game twenty years from now, for better or worse and though the world by then may have turned its back entirely on all that they have achieved. Or not. Regardless, they are examples of dedication in a field without much monetary reward.
Secondly, though they seem to have been around for a while now, both types of writer are relatively new arrivals on the scene. A decade ago, only ten years, none of this existed but for a handful here and there. It was a completely different world. The differences between 89 and 99 are vast! So, I think that we're still in our evolution, and still uncertain about what impact if any we have yet had upon poetry or literature. Is there really, for spoken word poets, say, any difference between what we do and what Beats did in the Fifties? Ultimately? No. Just slight variation. We haven't pushed the envelope hard enough. We are very, very conformist by nature. It comes out at the readings. Everyone sounds like everyone else. The appearance of true experiment in this milieu is quite rare. The social and economic pressures don't allow for it. And what experiment has taken place has been largely shallow, to be truthful. I'm sorry to sound so harsh but I'm not doing my colleagues a favor by bullshitting them. So the best thing a poet can do is to relate to his own impulse to experiment and develop an integrity that can withstand the ostracism and ridicule that he may face. In the end, he will be left standing, he will win his voice. And he will continue to grow as an artist. I think that I have noted the same conservatism and cliquishness in the hypertext community and think they should remain more open to receive experiments, newcomers, less determined to control the field. It may seem in the short run like its important to stay entrenched, but in the end you lose, everyone loses. I saw this happen in Spoken Word. Some of its greatest figures, organizers, etc. are adrift, aimless, lost, having over managed everything to the point where there was no point and some even lost their own art forever. So, I would think that the Spoken Word poet, or hypertext poet should certainly find his/her milieu but also beware of group-think, find your own integrity and work for that.
CK Tower: Do you have a different process for working on written poetry compared to your spoken word pieces?
Alan Kaufman: Yes, I read my Spoken Word poems in front of audiences and often edit in performance. The first thing I might do after a reading is jump down and furiously revise one of the poems even before the applause has faded. You see something in the text when in front of live audience that eluded you in the self-deluding ego sanctuary of home. But before a crowd, its undeniable. Some piece of irrelevant text or clumsy word choice or faltering rhythm or maybe the very presence of "Rhythm" appears glaringly evident, and often I will in mid-sentence revise, delete or add, whatever and later jump down and note the changes. I often revise poems in my published books. They're all unfinished. The audience is the spiritual editor of the Spoken Word poet. When I write exclusively for the page, though, well, I still work for surprise. I have shelves of notebooks filled with drafted poems. I'll pull one out, regard it with a cold, impartial eye, and note that an interesting line begins in the fourth stanza and proceeds to development until half-way through the fifth so why don't I ruthlessly grab that and lets see what's in the poem directly following (because poems written in succession are always developments of the other) and hmmmmm, yes, that line is great. Take it. The hell with the rest.
And so on. You have to be quietly, thoughtfully ruthless and have distance towards your own work. So I let things steep on shelves for days, weeks, months, even years before I'll bring them into play for the next stage of composition. When I have a completed poem I then revise it several times, or neurotically until its rendered useless and toss it or something emerges despite me, something solidly and effectively communicative. That's what I'm looking for.
CK Tower: How has the Internet been of benefit to you as a poet as well as a connoisseur of the literary arts?
Alan Kaufman: I'd say it has saved me as a poet, writer and "connoisseur" as you put it. I was at loose ends before I got onto the Internet. The lit magazines were fast disappearing from the bookstore shelves, including my own magazine, the Spoken Word had become too sprawling to be able to retain communication with it all. It felt like time to retreat. To my astonishment, I discovered a majority of some of our finest voices on the Web. And a world of literary ferment that I'd known nothing about. This awakened two compulsions: to produce work as part of it and to comment upon it. So, the two hats I wear as poet, writer and also occasional commentator. I can assemble things too, as experiments in contextualization. I'm hoping I'll soon have more time to really hit the Web running with some ideas I have about organizing literary presence. For instance, in the Fifties, the poets and painters in New York had a place they called simply "The Club" where they gathered once a week for a lecture to a kind of select constituency. They all knew each other and each took turns making presentations on some subject. There were guests too from other disciplines. Primarily, though, it was about visual arts. I'd like to see something like that: a site with a certain membership of poets and artists and where each of us would present a weekly presentation on some subject of esthetic concern and then offer comments on it. We could have guest "speakers" from other disciplines. And we could have group "exhibits" of our poetry, writing, art over the Internet. CK, you're the first to be invited.
CK Tower: What things do you envision for literature and the Internet in 2000 and beyond?
Alan Kaufman: A lot more novels published on the Web. Full-length poetry collections. The emergence of serious web journals of critical thought on poetry. The Club.
CK Tower: What is coming up for you regarding your poetry?
Alan Kaufman: Well, the anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is apparently set to have a revivifying impact on the poetry scene, or so claim some of its more enthusiastic supporters. We'll see. I'm excited by the Outlaw gatherings coming up. Maybe for me it will mean a commitment to a more aesthetically and socially disciplined/focused presentation. A renewed determination to hone my pen, sharpen my eye, catch the cosmos in my fist.