Poet John Thomas Allen is the editor of the newly released anthology, Nouveau’s Midnight Sun: Transcriptions from Golgonooza and Beyond (Ravenna Press, 2014).
WORD RIOT: Hello, John. I hope this email finds you well. As a general rule, literary and/or artistic movements seem to be fairly rooted in time and space: Modernism, Imagism, Romanticism, etc. But Surrealism seems to be much more mobile: the great upwelling of art and literature in France in the ’20s of course, but also poems by Georg Trakl from a bit earlier, Spanish poets and artists of the ’30s, Americans like Robert Bly and James Wright in the ’60s, and–to be sure–your new anthology of contemporary writing. But the subtitle of the anthology suggests links back to William Blake, 200 years ago. Where do you see the earliest roots of surrealism? In Blake or in other writers even earlier? Or in the more commonly accepted writers like Rimbaud and Lautreamont?
JOHN THOMAS ALLEN: Hi there. I hope you’re well also. Yes, indeed. Surrealism was rooted in literature way back in the same way that solar lights are rooted in the miles of your especially bored grandmother’s yard, if you have an especially bored grandmother with an obsessive affection for solar lights.
Quite rightfully many say: “Hey, this Breton fellow only captured a vibe that was cool and already making the rounds for centuries.” “Capturing a vibe” and making it the watchword of the day (and centuries to come) is no mean feat, of course, but said individuals are absolutely correct in the historical sense.
The first time I knew Surrealism predated Surrealism was my reading of Novalis’ “Hymns To The Night”. Mid-hymn, I had the sneaking suspicion that not only had Meister Breton read this but a lot of other people had as well. The German Romanticism that informs it leaves almost no room for consensual reality at all; it is Novalis and his dead bride with some mysterious intermediaries. And, of course, “Aurelia”, by poor Nerval, which is more or less a straight psychotic-lucid-dream transcription, weaving painfully in and out of waking reality back to dream.
In William Blake you are absolutely correct. The template for Breton’s manifesto is already in the work! Blake makes most of the legendary surrealists look tame in his everyday life–talking to spirits, his dead cousins, transmitting messages from beyond without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Surrealism is ahistorical, to my mind, which is to say numinous.
James Wright emphasized conscious craft and I could never see him joining, say, Franklin Rosemont’s Chicago group (though Frank Stanford did for a time.) When I read from The Branch Does Not Break, for instance, I am more conscious of his mastery of parallelisms than anything consciously or unconsciously surrealistic, though his sense of the uncanny (a synonym for “surreal”, really) is awe-inspiring. He considered Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Patchen to be the chief American surrealists of his time. As for Robert Bly, his “Leaping Poetry” theory never struck me as all that original. It’s this sort of ripoff of Breton and Lorca in an awkward hybrid.
One tale by Edgar Allan Poe should give the reader a sense of the Celtic “Wyrd” Breton and the gang parked in, or some of the stranger moments even in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Look at what Bergman does with it in “Hour of the Wolf”.
WR: Hey, that’s a great overview of sources for readers to dip into and out of. You’ve mentioned specific works by Novalis and Nerval. What about Blake? Which of his works, prophetic or otherwise, would you recommend as a starting point?
JTA: Kathleen Raine’s Golgonooza: The City of Imagination was an early favorite for me. For some reason the Proverbs of Hell seem to be where I begin and end, though the next week it can be the precise opposite. I’ve never been able to stop thinking about this one line: “One thought fills immensity.”
So much is attendant upon this. Clear thoughts resemble the angular, threatening precision of lab slides, you know, those little slides that might have the right or wrong DNA on it, or a thumbprint, or whatever? They have a diamond-like beginning and end. But these thoughts are organically dependent on other thoughts that may not be so accurate, that may be dipped in the waste of institutional ethos or evil ego manure. In physical and mental states of extremity–sleeplessness can grow the daddy longlegs of insomniac precision whereas the almost violently glandular thoughts of hyper-alertness are brought on by excessive exercise or narcotics–in these states you can recognize how vast one thought is. It can be as long as a mile. Blake was in these states most of his life naturally and I imagine that must have been hard to deal with.
WR: Do you think the issue of madness enters into the equation? The popular imagination likes to assume that both Poe and Blake were madmen of some sort or another. Do you see any kind of tacit link between the non-linear nature of some Surrealist works and what might be considered psychosis?
JTA: I’m really dubious of that word, “madness.” It’s a antique term that’s done more harm good in the arts, that and “disturbed”–our cavalier version of “madness”. Plato romanticized “madness” big time for poets. And yes, we love to think (and I think this applies to Poe more than Blake) of both as being these self-propelling visionaries who were also crazy; it flatters our mistreatment of the mentally ill. One trip to the local psychiatric ward should disabuse you of any romantic notions about a psychotic episode. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Poe suffered very badly from a mood disorder and he drank to try suffering less–in the same way you see that disheveled, goateed guy with taped up headphones and drinking from a sampler bottle to suffer less while he picks through your garbage. This sort of academic, precious language is the enemy of writing. Poe made more than a few notes about his best writing being a clear process, and Blake was as insistent about revision as Samuel Johnson was: “Without Unceasing Practice nothing can be done. Practice is Art. If you leave off you are lost.” That said, in order to produce a Surrealism which rises above mere cartoonish irony or sterile images, you have to be willing to access some parts of your psyche which would make others mighty uncomfortable, or you probably should have been able to do that in the first place. But this is the specialty of Surrealism, not a byproduct as in other genres of poetry. One of the best examples of this is Unica Zurn’s “The Man of Jasmine” (which really should be available to readers at a more reasonable price.) If you abuse this ability you will suffer, and very badly after awhile. You are in that sort of liminal zone all the time. Surrealism is dangerous.
WR: Thanks for addressing those commonplaces, especially as in the popular imagination (which in a “democratic” culture inevitably bleeds into the “informed” imagination as well) there is such a blithe willingness (it seems to me) to equate writers with their work, and vibrant thought with insanity. You also tap into what I tend to think of as “easy surrealism,” a kind of comic-book version of the unconscious or dream or vision. A kind of making the unconscious and uncontrollable into the consciously controlled, and therefore comfortable. Some of our readers might feel there is a contradiction between the unconscious or non-linear aspects of Surrealism and the necessity to revise and, to use Blake’s word, practice. Would you comment further on how, perhaps, there is a distinction here between content and container?
JTA: You can tell when a surrealist (and this would apply to a lot of writers in general) is being lazy. It doesn’t have anything to do, necessarily, with their capacity for revision or a lack thereof. It has more to do with a spiritual malaise. If you are not, on some level, shifting in and out of imaginal and societal contexts within your own psyche and life and you’re getting stagnant, it shows through in the same way one can tell dry paint from a fresh coat. The pungency is lacking. I once had a lucid dream that I myself provoked with different techniques (you can read it in an otherwise embarrassing early chapbook entitled The Other Guy from Crisis Chronicles Press, also available on Amazon… not that I’m plugging anything) entitled ”Strange China.” The next day, after the dream, I was still inhabiting it. I was having a good time but it was also like my feet were being flamed into small nubs while inhaling CC’s of roller coaster air. I only revised it a bit, and well, I think, on the advice of my friend David Shapiro. Reading it now still creeps me out a bit.
Someone read it on YouTube: thought I died and went to heaven when I heard that. I think the main aspiration nowadays is to produce just enough strangeness to jibe with what everyone else is doing in the Universities. I can’t believe it. Not all surrealism is revised. I remember an English teacher in a college I attended for about two weeks screaming in my face, looking like his head like a turnip being roasted from within and slobbering ”YOU DON’T THINK SURREALISM IS PLANNED?” People are afraid of chance, and afraid of dreams, by and large. And change, of course. This applies to one’s predecessors just as much as the “rule makers” or whatever. But it has no place in what I can only call “real surrealism,” as authoritative and boorish as that might sound. To get the fresh coat of paint and wear it, you have to bathe in the materials first, diligently.
WR: I like that final image very much, to bathe in the materials. And I like as well the way you’ve refused to allow the unconscious as an excuse for lazy or sloppy writing. I wonder if you see–as I, an outsider, sometimes do–a probably unintended sympathy of manner between Surrealism and the Beats or maybe even Surrealism and the “New York School.”
JTA: Thank you. Kerouac and the Beats have that kind of reverence, that raging religiosity for everything and nothing all at the same time, that lack of respect for everything and respect for all.You find that in many of the early surrealists. The Beats were never a huge influence on me, but an example of the NY School refracting surrealism’s weird neon glow would be Jim Carroll. Though he’s most well known for his memoirs, The Basketball—Diaries (and his prescient punk-rock outfit The Jim Carroll Band) I very early on got into his poems, “Living at the Movies” and “Fear of Dreaming”. Talk about a Surrealist genius, just one of a kind. He said to an interviewer once that he didn’t want to be associated with Surrealism exclusively because it could be just be an excuse for bad, mediocre poetry, but that his mind just had a Surrealist bent without him trying. The Petting Zoo, his last book, was great. And he knew Frank O’Hara and Burroughs,though he was always looking from a distance, I think. He was an authentic genius.
John Ashbery is an example, as was David Emery Gascoyne (though Gascoyne was British and the two are pretty dissimilar otherwise) of a French writer writing in English, not an American writing in the King’s English. Sometimes our imaginal zones plant a seed that will blossom right out of our physical backgrounds, if the seed is planted early enough. This is partly what I mean by a sort of underlying mysticism being involved with Surrealism, though today people are terrified of magic or even the suggestion of it. Ashbery uses both–the conceptual and the imaginative in a baste that is one of a kind. I haven’t read enough of him, but I see what he’s accomplished.
You’re more likely, though, to end up being a David Gascoyne than an Ashbery or Carroll if refuse to budge in that “outsider” sense you mention, and even that would be pretty lucky. Gascoyne is in some ways my poetic idol. He had a specific vision and kept on though he was scorned both by the Surrealists and people of faith and he was both, though not in any orthodox sense. The story about him meeting Teilhard de Chardin is priceless.
Even the “successful” outsiders are still outsiders. Will Alexander and Andrew Joron are two of the finest writers living today, but if you walk into most coffee shops or whatever a very select few will know who they are. It’s sad, and when you do this sort of writing you really have to stick to your guns because if you’re too vocal about it, people who don’t like it (most) just laugh it off or actually get mad! I had one person tell me, literally,”Why don’t you stop this crazy bullshit and write about something that matters!” In other words, “matters” to them.That’s the challenge, but I also sort of relish the whole thing.
WR: Do you consider Simic legitimately Surrealist? What about the early strongly imagistic work of Strand or Gregory Orr?
JTA: You know, I really don’t think I’m in a position to qualify anyone as sufficiently “surrealist or non-surrealist” in some formal sense. Simic is a master of the craft and an inspiration to anyone who writes poetry, I’d say. Walking The Black Cat is a weatherbeaten sort of poetic gospel to me, as is his book The Renegade: Writings On Poetry And Others which I would recommend to anyone who wants to write poems. I like Mark Strand, and he’s a really nice guy in person. He could have been a first pick for the NBA or a heavyweight boxer if he didn’t get involved in this crazy word-smithing. (I once wrote something in which Strand beat up one of the Klitschko brothers after a reading, and became a new man in a new life within this cryogenic cubed Twilight Zone episode. He meets Maxy the Robot, etc.) Gregory Orr, the early stuff, yeah.
The anthology, Nouveau’s Midnight Sun: Transcriptions From Gologonooza And Beyond, was almost what you call a freak accident and that’s one of the reasons I associate it with Surrealism. I got sick with Lyme Disease, started to literally forget who and where I was, and all I could think about or feel was this liminal, odd state of consciousness that ended having to do with surrealism. It wasn’t just physical or something like De Quincey’s “Suspiria De Profundis” because I got things under control with medicine, etc., and it kept reoccurring and still does occasionally.
I thought I was losing my mind and at the same time felt something going on in what one calls “surrealism” textually and visually. As kooky as it sounds, it’s the opposite of Orr’s experience–it wasn’t immanent. It was transcendent. I am not unique. Celia Rabinovitch summarizes a lot of what I sort of knew at the time in Surrealism and the Sacred, and the unfairly obscure French theorist/poet Ferdinand Alquie in The Philosophy of Surrealism. But it happened to me. Some things I will write will be from that arena of consciousness and spirit, some won’t. I don’t see myself as some sole authority of one of the most important art movements ever.
WR: Let’s talk a little more about the anthology before we finish up and give our readers a rest. I found it very interesting to see a villanelle (Lee Ballentine’s “A Jewel”) in the book, as well as David Lehman’s rhyming quatrains. Even though I suspect that many of us tend to think of Surrealist in a prose or free verse context, Surrealist poems have often been formal.
JTA: Oh yes, David’s are minutely structured and over the years (my favorite is “Prophecy”: “nor remembrance of splendor/to counter the paper bull’s power/will/cover the lake with ice/when gamblers spill the dice”.) in our group (The New Surrealist Institute, irony intentional) Lee Ballentine has given us all the privilege of showing us the evolution of his craft. Lee is the real deal in terms of surrealism, I will say that authoritatively and without hesitation. Even prose poems are structured, and Max Jacob did us all a service vis-a-vis the prose poem by writing in the introduction to “The Dice Cup”, his last collection before being killed by the Nazis:
“The prose poem is a constructed object and not a jewelry store window. For instance, Rimbaud is a jewelry store window, he’s not the jewel: the prose poem is the jewel.”
But I think my point, and partly just my point forming this group and anthology, is that there are so many misconceptions about surrealism that it can become a mere non-sequitur or a name for cute nonsense. Surrealism is not unlike a sacrament in poetry, one that has been cheapened and debased. It’s about as cute as voodoo dolls spitting out single, cinemascope bars of carbon monoxide tinged with food coloring; bit of an exaggeration, but it is deadly serious at root and is not cheap fun. Over so many years the Universities have sanitized it, along with the writing programs, making it seem tame or an antique or a mere ground of permutations.
Here, in this anthology, you see how structured and formal it can be as well as symbolistic (as in Allen Parmenter’s poem “O Woman of the Dark Equation”). It forms a constellate diamond of points that the psyche blinks at with its innumerable and sometimes unrecognized eyes. Those who read the books will understand, I hope. And I hope they will find that weird soil themselves and maybe even find an editor as fantastic and tireless as Kathryn Rantala. Thank you for your patience with me, Cooper, and for being such a patient person to dialogue with.
WR: No patience required on my part. This has been an enjoyable and instructive conversation, and I appreciate your willingness to engage. I wonder if you would care to close by telling us if you have a particular touchstone, a singular poem or piece of fiction which has remained closest and most meaningful to you in all your years of interaction with Surrealism.
JTA: There are so many, though you’re right to ask me because I have a definite lexicon. It’s sort of like I have an ice tray in the back freezer of my neurons that has little feathers tickling it, and when someone mentions “Surrealism” the ice melts and the eye at the bottom can gets really happy. I think Antonin Artaud (using his name is, of course, a bit like invoking the name of King David or Frankenstein or whoever but I’m going to do it anyway) could have advanced the surrealist quest had he been just a bit more lucid. Or more than a bit. What Breton termed in an interview “Artaud’s abstract hall of mirrors” seems more than that to me, but we’ll never know. One would be absolutely correct to wag a finger at my Icarian romanticism when I feel that in this world the surrealist’s vocation is partially summed up in this stanza of this poem:
Dark Poet, a maid’s breast
Embittered poet, life seethes
And life burns,
And the sky reabsorbs itself in rain,
Your pen scratches at the heart of life.
This isn’t the whole poem, just the first stanza. Somehow the imagination as celebrated by surrealism always escapes the label itself and ends up frustrated in some idiosyncratic but earnest quest that the culture at large cannot even approach, let alone absorb. The hatred for consensual contexts grows the poet wax wings of a sort. I am not suggesting all surrealists or surrealistically inclined people are frustrated cranks or invoking the corny, really precious “I’m a secret dreamer” stereotype perpetrated by most movies about poets or mainstream television shows which charitably feature a fictional rendition of us now and again to remind us that we’re legitimate in existing at all. I only mean to say we are so often dowsing rods wanting to be lighting rods. Sometimes even dowsing rods don’t grow through our hands twice, let alone lightning bolts striking, and this is what we spend our lives doing. Poetry is no hobby, and if it is, it will turn into something else for the person who likes it enough.