Monday, October 25, 2004

a response to an email from Richard Lopez

Define the influences.

No poetry.

Science fiction (my brother) & crime novels (my parents). Some intuitive sense of discernment. The writers I liked most were those I later realised were the best. Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Blish, Leiber, Bester; Hammett & Chandler. In them the seeds of my later socialism. The writers I didn't like were right wing (realised later) even fascist – Heinlein. Think about the movie of Starship Troopers.

My mother wrote light poetry (typewriter). My father was a freemason & gave talks on aspects of the Craft (exquisite penmanship). Came down on the side of the typewriter. Something about touching the keys, approaching them, pushing the air away. A separatedness not found when I held a pen. Not yet realised. To come later.

Jazz. From age 12 or 13. Shortwave radio. The Voice of America (the beginning of one part of the duality; the other part started with the Vietnam war). Willis Conover at 11 p.m. local time. Ellington's A Train. Clunked Chords. Deelyeeda. Deelyeeda. You……..must take the A Train. & busstops. Never underestimate their importance in the way you grow up. People you meet. But mainly the shops near by.

So one busstop had a record shop. With a salesman who also liked jazz. Where I started buying. The boppers. Post-bebop. Charlie Parker dying. Tadd Dameron dead. Fats Navarro dead. But Miles very much alive. & the Modern Jazz Quartet. & Dizzy. & Monk. & Gerry Mulligan. & Rollins & Coltrane coming through. & also King Pleasure who put words to jazz solos.

& somewhere in there from somewhere before Bach. I remember playing Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring on a harmonica. Aged 8.

Hit parades. Nat King Cole & Frank Sinatra. Billy May & Nelson Riddle backing.

Movies. Lassie Come Home at age five or six. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator at age twelve, the night before we moved to Wellington. & in between the biblical epics, westerns, film noir. I loved Bogart. & Gary Cooper. Do not forget me oh my darling.

Then the overlapping that / shapes us all. 14, 15, 16. Blackboard Jungle & Rebel Without a Cause. Poitier, James Dean, Sal Mineo. Juvenile delinquent; but at the same time learning to play the contrabass, arco, classical. College orchestra. Joyriding at night; & coming across in one of the escapades the beginnings of the university jazz club. The bohemians of the Uttar Pradesh. Digging them. Angelheaded hipsters, but the words barely writ yet across the Pacific. & at the same time, somehow, on the nights not joyriding or kept at home, joined the local film society, 16mm prints, Satayjit Ray, Renoir, Cocteau, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bunuel.

The melting pot. Add rock n roll & then black r&b. Start playing jazz. Add reading the writers you came to through film, Cocteau, Jacques Prévert. Discover the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico & Magritte. Move on to the Surrealist writers. Kerouac falls into your lap, On the Road recommended by a drummer you thought hadn't read a book in his life. Hear an album called Poetry & Jazz that has pieces by Whalen & Ferlinghetti on it, plus Hoagy Carmichael reading the master WCW. Discover Ginsberg in the daily papers. Write your first word piece, The Pied Bopper of Harlem, about a Charlie Parker character who comes along & knocks down all the oldtime jazz musos. Write your own music for your own group.

Get brought down by young man's angst. Decide you have to work it out & words seem a sensible way to go. Write your first poem. & another. & another. Colloquial words. Broken lines. A natural way of writing. Uninfluenced. Your mother says send them off to The Listener, a national weekly. You do. They are accepted.

So poetry.

As a Poet you are expected to write, to mix with other writers, to be influenced. So I did, & wrote shit. Angry young man shit, surrealist shit, school of quietude shit, imitative shit. But whilst doing it started discovering people whose writing I liked. Through Evergreen Review mainly. No local poets, never any local poets. & serendipity. Discovering a paperback in the stuff left over by previous tenants of a house which some friends of mine were moving into. Thinking the Miller on the cover was Arthur Miller, husband of Marilyn Monroe, author of Death of a Salesman. Halfway through realised it was Henry M. Had never heard of him before.

Which is where the other busstop comes in. The busstop opposite which was a secondhand bookshop. Where over the next few years I found more Miller, & through him Rimbaud, & Baudelaire, & 1930’s surrealist journals, & Paul Eluard & J.P. Donleavy & Borges & Apollinaire &

But the book that changed everything for me was NEW. The Book. Probably brought in through the Japanese Embassy where I started working in 1961, & out of where because of (a) no currency restrictions & (b) no inspection by Customs I managed to buy more (banned) Miller followed by the rest of the Olympia Press catalogue – Genet, Trocchi, Durrell, Burroughs, Nabokov, Southern; took out a subscription to Evergreen Review followed up by the rest of the Grove Press list; a lot of New Directions books; all the City Lights list, plus Totem/Corinth & the other small presses that were springing up in the U.S. (& which is why I have only ever read minimal amounts of Zukovsky).

The Book. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen. Sadly passed away this year. It is probably impossible to over-estimate the influence the poets, individually or collectively, in this book had on the writers of my time, my age. (Though not in New Zealand where it was the end of the decade before things started to change.) It is one of only two books I have managed to keep with me for most of my adult life. (The other is The Ascent of Man, Jakob Bronowski's book from his TV series of the same name.)

For me five poets in the book – Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Charles Olson & Frank O'Hara - became my major influences. Many of the poems I wrote between 1962 & 1967, as I was developing my own voice, carry the influences of at least one of them. & other poets in TNAP, like Kenneth Koch, showed me that poetry could be / should be humourous.

From outside, add William Carlos Williams. I never got over Tract. & slightly later Paterson & Pictures from Brueghel. & there are other poets that I like, or at least poems by them – Eluard, Apollinaire, Rexroth, Whitman, Yeats, Celan – which helped keep me on the curved & wide. But it is the five + one that I owe most too.

They provided the diction. The voice comes from the other influences I've mentioned above. Include things physical or geographic - mountains, sea, trains; getting places by walking to them for most of my early adult years; & don't overlook such things as the music professor at university who would grab me in the corridor & say 'come here jazz man' & sit me down & play Bach for two hours at a time on the harpsichord he kept in his office; or a double-feature continuous movie house that changed its bill every two days & where I was exposed to the complete American International canon of Roger Corman & others during those years I was supposed to be obtaining an academic education from an English Department that hadn't read a novel written since 1900.

Why
does it
not surprise me

that
when I
am alone it

is
music that
I seek out?

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