Buck Downs

Q: Remember how we were talking after a reading one time about how you would now be considered one of the "older" writers? And how astounding that was? I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit -- where others position you in the poetry world, and how that compares to how you figure yourself.

BD: It is still funny to me and unique to Washington DC that I am so-called an experimental poet. It is only in Washington that I could ever get called that. I think that the Washington part of that is this town is full of efking busybodies, what Burroughs called "a nation of finks, where nobody is allowed to mind his own business." It is contrary to the social fabric of Washington that one might be or want to be an unaligned, anti-partisan entity; it simply is not done, and if you do not have an affiliation with a larger group, in Washington you do not exist.

So I have been tagged, typically by (here come some terms of dubious relation) conventionalist poets as an experimentalist for two reasons: A) I spend too much time loudly insisting that, e.g., Mark Rudman, Garrett Hongo, and any dozens of others, are more or less completely and willfully out of touch with what poetry might be or should be in an age of media and continue to lean on the crutch of pre-20th century "literature" to keep their students in line and keep their academic hustle intact; and B) My running-buddies have been people who will put up with point (A).

Q: Speaking of people who'll put up with point A, I'm interested in your collaborations as a publisher. Like, how did it happen with you and CA Conrad? Seems like you applied some strategic pressure to make the Elvis poems happen, asking CA to create something you envisioned. Is that right?

A: I'll tell that story. You use the phrase "strategic pressure," and that's o.k., but a little misleading. What really happened is he sent me the manuscript of advancedELVIScourse, when it was about 40 pp. in length, and it was pretty much rocking my house; but 40 pp. is too short for a full-length book and too long for a chapbook. So my idea was to really get the gusto on, & publish a book with two Conrad manuscripts in it, like O Books did with Alice Notley a while back. But instead Conrad wrote another 60 pp., which really exploded it into the great bear of a book it is now. It is pretty rare, of course, that you get such a splendid payback; but Conrad's a pretty splendid guy.

Q: How do collaborations like these fit into your own work as a poet?

A: I more or less picked up the poet-as-publisher model right from the get-go; I knew really nothing about poetry when an old drinking pal, Tex Nichols, loaned me his copy of Pound's Guide to Kulchur, from which all my troubles begin. Ezra Pound was definitely a do-it-yourself kind of guy, with all the compensations and liabilities that result.

One lesson that I got or made up from the Guide and also the ABC of Reading is that basically all the literature that has ever mattered was initially either self-published or a small-press production, at least as far back as Tottel's Miscellany, if not the Pentateuch.

& then to further drive the point home Andrei Codrescu showed up in my life making sense of the mimeo revolution, NYSchool the Next Generation, and most if not all the aftermath of the New American Poetry & the subsequent & currently ongoing boom & bust of language poetry's argument with the New American Poetry. I mean all that stuff really makes my heart beat like poetry is supposed to; how could anyone stand, e.g., to be a Pitt Poet, or to publish with Norton, after a taste of all that?

Q: So that's really what it's all about--

A: So yeah, there's no question about it: "the tradition" demands that you pick a fight with "the tradition," and that you have a good time doing it. Which I mostly do, provided that I keep my head on straight. I say let the big houses publish the dead, whether they be buried already or not, and leave the living to the living, e.g., me.

Q: What about your growth and shifts within the Washington DC arts community -- where you come from. Like, I think of you as a source for support, advice, guidance, inspiration -- how's that similar/different from how you see yourself or the you you used to be at another time -- know what I'm getting at?

A: I moved to Washington at the end of the summer of '88. My experience of the literary community was pretty frustrating, since I was going to open mikes & stuff at the Writer's Center and etc. I still remember getting the hairy eyeball from people at the W.C., one very earnest guy advising me to "read some Hopkins," and another asking me if I "thought I was like Ashbery." So I lived in Washington for like nearly two years with no connection to a literary community, and mainly circulated my poems by mail, sending postcards to Brett Evans, Greg Fuchs, and a handful of other friends.

The terminal point of my institutional education was the academic anti-academicism of Andrei Codrescu, who taught at LSU where I got my M.A.; the starting point of my current education came from reading Ron Silliman's critique of poets like Andrei, by which I include many poets whose work really moves me, such as Anselm Hollo and Tom Clark. That critique boils down to this oversimplified point: that if you are so anti-academic and all that then why are you a schoolteacher? The implication being that Andrei, Anselm, Tom, et al., are only or mostly interested in being anti-academy as a bad-boy stance from which they can position themselves in the academic marketplace, as opposed to actually altering the retrogressive status quo of scholastic life. I could not fully assess the merits of Ron's argument, but the extent to which it pissed Andrei off (mightily) was to me an indicator that Ron was on to something. And Andrei adamantly defended the proposition that being a professor is the best if not only career path for a poet.

My own attitude toward academy life was pretty ambivalent, that is to say I wanted to murder many of my "colleagues" and ignore most of the rest, two very unrealistic attitudes. So for better or worse I had to bail out of the Ph.D. program at LSU, and commit to finding a life off-campus that would still allow for the possibility of new and future poems.

That's where it stands today, still. My thinking on the topic has been lately and greatly influenced by the essays of Dave Hickey, and it seems to me to be the single most important issue on the table, as far as poetry is concerned: the carving out of a space for intellectual life in America that is independent of both the pharisaical uniformalisms of the academy and the lowest-common denominator thinking that dominates broadcast media.

Q: Take a look at the list of poets that read in the 99-00 year. What can you say about these poets together, as their own body of work...do they help to create this carved-out space for intellectual life, or is it more like the push-pull you describe with the academic culture?

A: One observation to make about our list of 99-00 readers is that the distinction between Òacademic" poetry and Òexperimental" poetry is not of much use anymore, if it ever had a use before. The "official verse culture" as it existed in say 1970 has shifted to accommodate some measure of "difficult poetry"; about half the poets on our revue are primarily involved in negotiating and hopefully expanding that accommodation. & for all the radical social critique that peppers for example In the American Tree, getting U.S. English Depts. to make space for something other than sub-New Critical formalisms has been the first and maybe even only goal of the last thirty years. & it's certainly cool that poets whose work I enjoy, if they like to teach, they can get a teaching gig, & they don't have to write like Edmund Wilson or Allen Tate to do so.

But not interesting to me, finally: when I was in school, it was definitely considered to be a given that the best if not only possible job for a poet was to be a school-teacher. Since I have pretty much rejected the idea that teaching is the only or best or even a particularly good choice of jobs for a poet, it follows that I feel automatically distanced from poets who have yet to identify with that reality. And then I get to sound like a dopey old hippie by closing with a quote from the original fink himself, Timothy Leary: "The message is very simple: think for yourself, and question authority." Almost nobody including me can live up to that standard every day; but that is where the shit is at, as we say down home.