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An Interview with Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson is the author of seventeen published books of poetry, most recently Limbos For Amplified Harpsichord (Presa Press 2007). He is best known for his long narrative poems, Idlewild, The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, The Travels of Ben Sira, and the four-volume Immigrant. He is the recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Poetry Award. His work has appeared in over fifty publications and several anthologies, most recently  Inside The Outside: An Anthology Of Avant-Garde American Poets (Roseanne Ritzema, editor; Presa Press 2006). He has been the editor of The Scene, an anthology of plays from Off-Off Broadway. The Unknowable Light of the Alien, one of his many works of fiction, received a Small Press Book of the Year Award from Library Journal. Over one hundred productions of his plays have been performed throughout the country and in England, and his play, Poe: From His Life And Mind, was cited in Best Plays of 1971 and given a national college tour by the New York Touring Company. He is a native of, and continues to live in, Brooklyn, New York.

Interviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

: I’d like to start off by asking if we could talk just a little bit about the Baroque, which is such a big influence on your work. What draws you to its language, its history, and its customs?

: You think my language is Baroque?

JV: Absolutely.

SN: Well, I have a great fondness, as the book Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord shows, for Francois Couperin and his harpsichord music. I also have a great fondness for Watteau and his paintings. What I like in Watteau is his playfulness, his buoyancy. Carly Smith wrote an article for Poesa in which he mentioned what attributes poetry should have. One of them was playfulness. I’ve always taken that very seriously, you know? I don’t want to be a sober-faced, straight-forward kind of person. That’s not who I am.

JV: I can definitely see that in terms of the language you use in The City of the Sun: “Bands become glands; Cocks become socks.” I love that! But how did you transcribe that playfulness into your work?

: I can’t remember the name, but I had been reading several books by a British lady who was an expert on Renaissance mysticism, and the guy who’s mentioned at the end of one of them came up with this idea of the City of the Sun. It’s a kind of Renaissance mystical concept.

: Tell me some more about it and how you wrote this into the poem?

: Well, it just came to me one day. I started to write the poem, and it just took me wherever it wanted, you know? There’s one part of it I’m especially fond of, where I talk about the pillar that has all of these images on it. I’m definitely a “putter-inner” not a “cutter-outer.”

: Let’s get back to Couperin a little. I’d never heard of him before receiving a review copy of Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord, so I had to do a little research. I was just fascinated with how much like a harpsichord score the entire book is.

SN: He was the poet/composer for the Sun King, Louis XVI.

JV: The sun, again.

SN: Yeah. And he gave very suggestive titles to his work. One is called The Mysterious Barricade. Nobody has quite figured out what that meant. They think maybe it’s a reference to the chords themselves. I don’t know if you ever knew a guy named Dick Higgins, he’s probably before your time.

JV: I suspect so.

SN: He had a press, Something Else Press. I sent him that book, Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord. He never published the book, but he also never returned it. He said he wanted to keep reading it.

JV: Wow.

SN: And he said he had a friend who listened to the Mysterious Barricade every day. And while I was writing that poem—it took me a year to write it—the only music I listened to was Couperin harpsichord music and the piano music of Erik Satie, who in my mind was like a reincarnation of Couperin. He was quite a character. When he died, some folks went to his apartment and they found eight corduroy suits in a closet, none of which had ever been worn.

JV: What about his work strikes you as being similar to Couperin’s?

SN: There’s the same playfulness, melodic inventiveness, and it just—you know, the French had their own kind of music. It’s different from German music, let’s say. You know, in the German we get Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. But when you go to the French composers, you get Debussy, Couperin, Poulnec, Ravel. The French composers had their own province that they inhabited. And it’s very different from the Germanic works that we’re used to hearing.

JV: In my study of music history and my own listening choices, yes, I’ve noticed a marked difference. The French, it seems, as we’ve been discussing, are a lot more playful, a lot lighter than someone like Beethoven, whose work is so heavy and emotional. So you spent a year writing Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord. What year was that?

: You know, JoSelle, I really have forgotten. But it was about twenty years ago.

JV: So you were writing the poem and you listened to only two composers for an entire year. How do you think their music inspired the poem, other than in how you arranged the piece to look and move like a musical score?

SN: Have you ever read Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher?

JV: Unfortunately, no.

SN: OK, he’s quite an interesting philosopher. He wrote a book called The Poetics of Reverie, and I was very influenced by that book. He says that poetry is written in a state of reverie. Not dream, not sleep, but reverie. I was very much influenced by his writings. In fact, I have a four-volume work called Immigrant. It’s heavily influenced by Bachelard.

JV: Tell me more about this, since I haven’t read it. What does he say about reverie? 

SN: He talks about anima. You know, animus and anima? He says that poetry comes from the side of anima. But he also says that you need animus to write about anima, so if you haven’t read him, I would really suggest that you check out his work because I don’t know anyone else who has written more insightfully about poetry than Gaston Bachelard.

JV: Another Frenchman, if I’m not mistaken?

SN: That’s right. Interestingly, I have no French background.

JV: But something about the French orientation really moves you and inspires you.

: Yeah.

: Looking at the imagery from Limbos, it’s quite amazing. You’ve got the Baroque cherubs flying around, the composer himself who is in a reverie, I think, and the Dutch painter who is in a similar one. I’d love to hear some more about the kind of Baroque and Renaissance characters you put in that poem. Like the Winter Queen and King.

: They’re characters from Rosicrucianism.

JV: Oh, I didn’t know that. Now, if I’m not mistaken, that religion was pretty contemporary to when Couperin was composing?

SN: That’s right. And some of the characters just came from his suites. He had certain figures, such as the Lord and the Lady. As I say, he kind of had a Watteau-like character about his music, and both of them interestingly enough wrote about the Isle of Cythera. In fact, Watteau has a painting called “Departure from the Island of Cythera.” 

JV: I remember studying that in high school. So that clearly went into the poem. We’ve looked through the two books I’ve reviewed, but I’d love to move further into the past and ask you what moved you to write poetry?

SN: OK, that’s a good question. I actually started writing in my teens. You know Seventeen Magazine?

JV: Yes, I know it.

SN: Well, they had a poetry contest. And the mother of my girlfriend sent in my poems, and I won second prize and got my picture published with one of my poems. And then my sister—I had an older sister—she used to get the Sunday Times. In those days, and I wish they would continue it, they always had “Poet’s Corner” on page two, where they’d print a poem. One day they printed a poem by William Carlos Williams.

JV: Ah.

SN: And I just went berserk. I went on a William Carlos Williams binge. I took out everything I could at the library. I even went to hear him read. He read at the New School. He kind of made me feel less embarrassed about my Brooklyn accent because he had this flat New Jersey twang. Once I read William Carlos Williams, I was hooked. I just had to write poetry.

JV: What did you particularly like about his work?

SN: Well, actually, I like Wallace Stevens better. But I didn’t know Stevens at that time. William Carlos Williams is able to use language in a repetitious, but not monotonous, way. For example, we have one poem about a black lady who’s eating plums. He says “They taste good to her.” But the lines aren’t always the same. He repeats it about three times. “They taste good to her,” you know? I’m a big fan of jazz, and there seems to be a kind of syncopation to his work that appealed to me.

JV: I would dare say that I have seen evidence of that syncopation in City of the Sun.

SN: Yeah.

JV: Not only with the playfulness of things transforming into each other, like the socks and cocks, but also in how you use line breaks.

: Yes.

: Are there any jazz composers you particularly like?

SN: I’m crazy about Charlie Parker. I think the man is a genius. The thing about Charlie Parker is you can’t listen to him and do anything else. He doesn’t give you any chance. What he’s doing is so intricate that if you don’t pay attention, you’re going to miss it. I like Duke Ellington, Lester Young, drummers like Max Roach, piano players like Thelonious Monk. 

JV: You know, speaking of Stevens, I could definitely see why you would like his work, just thinking of his most well-known poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and the breathtaking, incredibly imaginative imagery he has there. So you found Williams, and what did you do after that?

SN: Well, I had a friend, a banker named Joseph Raphael, who won a Fulbright. One of the things that he had to do as part of receiving his Fulbright was design a book. I at that time was very heavily into Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hebrew mythology. I wrote a book called The Passion of Thamyris. Thamyris is pretty much the same as Orpheus in Greek Mythology. And Joe was amazing. He got people to send in money, he handled the whole thing, and it got published by a press in Florence.

JV: Have you done similar collaborations like that with bookmakers since?

SN: No. I haven’t. Harry Smith and I did a book together called Synesthetics/Edges of Sound. I wrote the poems, and he kind of wrote essays about them. Harry Smith has been my savior. He published my first book that really got distribution; its called Idlewild. JFK airport used to be called Idlewild. Harry liked it and published it.

JV: That’s fantastic. Are those two early books still around?

SN:  No. I don’t know where the Passion of Thamyris is, but I’m sure Harry has got Idlewild somewhere.

JV: Good! I’d love to get a copy of it. One of the things that really captivates me about your poetry, Stanley, is that you write long form, and that’s really not very common these days. I consider Limbos to be a single poem.

SN: Yes.

JV: And you have four very long poems in The City of the Sun. I just love seeing that because it seems like the shorter the better is the way to go today. What attracts you to long form over short form? Is it your ability to do more musical things with the text, or is it something else?

SN: I’m not really sure. I think that probably is it. I can have more fun within the text.

JV: Have you dabbled in short form at all?

SN: Oh, yeah. I’ve had short forms.

JV: Oh.

SN: I’ve written short poems, believe it or not.

JV: Well, thank goodness that you love long form so much; it’s such a huge benefit to readers, I think. And aside from Williams and Stevens, other poets you admire?

: Well, I mentioned Wallace Stevens. He had two periods. He didn’t get his first book published until he was well into his forties. His earlier work is very imagistic and solid. His later work, such as “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” is very abstract. At first people didn’t like that, but then certain critics, one of them being Louise Bogan, started to point out that Stevens’ later work, abstract as it was, was every bit as good as his earlier work.

JV: Just in a different form and more experimental.

SN: He and Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams had a friendship and corresponded. There’s a coterie of American poets at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that really constitutes a remarkable group. I’m talking about Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, Hart Crane. Though you can’t forget Eliot and Yeats, I think this constitutes the greatest outpouring of poetry since the Renaissance.

JV: One more question. In my reviews, I’ve compared your work to many writers in the New York School, particularly Kenneth Koch, interestingly enough The Sun Tries to Go On. Have you read or admired their work?

SN: I like Frank O’Hara. What he does seems so easy, but it’s not. I like him the best of that group.

: He’s my favorite also, though I very much appreciate John Ashbery.

SN: I like some of his books, like Some Trees, for which he won the Yale Poets Award. He has this poem I’ve never forgotten. He’s trying to write a technical manual and he keeps thinking about Guadalajara, Mexico. And it’s so amusing and so charming.

JV: I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you, Stanley.

SN: It’s been my pleasure.

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