November 13, 2015

"Two Publishers: A Conversation between Polish Publisher Jerzy Illg and Douglas Messerli in Korea" | essay by Douglas Messerli on his discussions with Illg

two publishers: a conversation between polish publisher jerzy illg and douglas messerli in korea

Although many, if not most of the writers I publish think of me primarily as a publisher, I think of myself as a poet, fiction writer, critic, and memoirist who is also a publisher. I love publishing, to which the 400-some books I have published to date attest. But my heart is in the process of writing, not in the art of publishing; indeed if I had a great amount of money (or even any money to spend on publishing) I would pay someone else to do everything except making the initial selection.

These feelings were apparent when I was invited as an author to the 2010 World Writers' Festival in Seoul, Korea. Similarly, Polish publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose Znak press publishes much of the writing of Czesław Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, felt delighted to be there as a poet—even though he had published just one thin book.
     We both recognized that we (and perhaps some of other writers as well) were there only because of Ko Un's suggestion. Both of us publish Ko Un. But that didn't diminish the joy of being featured so prominently in banners and placards throughout the city and on the campuses of Dankook University. And I think we both admired each other's essay more than the writings of some of the prominent international writers and critics included in the event.
     Both of us also shared a sense of humor about the conference, whose seriousness was, in some small way, subverted by the "continually reincarnated" boy-genius, who we both agreed Ko Un is, a man with the force and energy of eternal youth, accompanied by the attendant freshness of thought. Despite their roots in traditional Korean writing and their relationships with Western narrative, Ko Un's poems are full of an energetic spirit that break out impulsively with dissociative images and sounds. He is, consequently, both a traditionalist and an experimenter, in the Modernist sense of that word. 
     Although Jerzy seemed to take himself less seriously than I as a poet, we both shared a kind of mad passion for literature, and, consequently, for much of our lives we felt driven to become publishers. Despite the fact that Jerzy worked for a much larger and financially sounder publishing house, I felt, in the fact that for many years he suffered under the Soviet repression (a much harsher environment than my penniless one) that as an independent publisher he was one the few people I had met in a long time who could truly comprehend just how lonely and difficult (logically impossible) it has been to publish all the books I have without money and hardly any staff. Talking with Jerzy I suddenly felt very old and tired, but perhaps it was just the beer we were drinking that made me feel that way. Both of us enjoyed drinking, and were delighted to find the small bar where we chatted for several hours. 
     There we discovered, through those shared "difficulties," that in some profound sense we understood each other—not that we felt sorry for ourselves; we had both chosen, even if by accident, our roles. And both of us expressed our love and pride in our endeavors. We agreed we still love what we do—at least most days! Each of us, in our own different way, has lived a remarkable life, he as a close friend and ally to Miłosz, Brodsky, and others (he is the Polish publisher, for example, of Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature while we were visiting Seoul), I with a whole array of very different figures described in these pages. Accordingly, we felt a deep rapport. 
     Hearing Jerzy's descriptions of his youth when he joined an atelier in a Polish industrial town with no connections to culture, and where several evenings each week a woman sat reading the German texts of Hermann Hesse, studies of Eastern religion, and numerous other writings, translating them into Polish as she read—texts, totally unavailable in Polish, that revealed completely new worlds to him—brought tears to my eyes.
     "When I first traveled to the West, to England," Jerzy continued, "I went into a bookstore and found, to my amazement, row upon row, in many editions, of my now beloved texts. I was astounded. There they were, in all their glory, waiting on the shelf for a people who no longer needed to care for them, while for me they stood upon those shelves as sacred artifacts. My wife was furious with me because I could not bring myself to leave that spot." 
      "How disappointed I was," continued Jerzy, "when I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was attending an editors seminar at Stanford University—an excellent series of courses—and called Ferlinghetti, out of my love of Ginsberg and the Beats, to ask if could meet him. Finally, he agreed, and I went quite expectantly to the famous City Lights bookstore. 
     "After introducing myself, he growled out, 'What are you doing at a dreadful place like Stanford?' I tried to explain the wonderful things I was learning, but he waved it away. 
     "I switched topics, attempting to ask him about the important events surrounding Ginsberg's Howl, its censorship and the trial. 
     "'That's old business,' he grumped. 'Let's talk about something more contemporary and important!' 
     "'What do you think is more important?' I innocently asked.'
     "'I've just gotten back from San Salvador,' he pronounced, 'where the rebels are successfully overtaking the government....'
     "'I'm sorry,' I responded, 'but I've lived years under Communist repression, and I do not sympathize with this.' 
     "He called me a Rightist. 'Tell me,' I came back, 'has there ever been a Communist or Marxist government that has lived up to its utopian claims? Look at Cuba or North Korea, etc. etc.' 
     "Needless to say, there was no more conversation between us. I feel saddened that one of my former heroes, who fought against government censorship, was now promoting governments that surely would not allow a Ginsberg, a Miłosz, a Brodsky, or any other poet I loved." 
     I have my own problems with Stanford, given what I know of the English Department and its negligent treatment of Gilbert Sorrentino and Marjorie Perloff, and when Jerzy began to praise the Hoover Institute, I reminded him that it had once been the home of Condoleza Rice. But I comprehended Jerzy's outrage and his dismissals of "correct" thinking. His perspective was simply more profound than Ferlinghetti's, an outsider's interpretation of reality. All of which reminded me that when it comes to international issues, an ignorance in world affairs is shared by both the right and the left. In order to understand another culture, one had to begin with humility, accepting one's stupidity along with any supposed insights. 
     Perhaps that's why, despite our vast aesthetic differences, Jerzy and I got on so well. I don't know how he felt, but I found in him a new friend.

Seoul, South Korea, October 7, 2010

November 11, 2015

"The Madness of the Tongue" | essay by Douglas Messerli on a Jerome Rothenberg reading for his anthology Barbaric Vast & Wild

the madness of the tongue
by Douglas Messerli

Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman, editors Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present (Boston, Massachusetts: Black Widow Press, 2015)

They’re mad, O gods,
                       keep their madness from my tongue!
Siphon a pure spring
                       through my sanctified lips,

From “On Nature: Fragment 4” by Empedocles of Akragas

It certainly does not seem like it was six long years ago that I read with others at the venerable Venice, California poetry center, Beyond Baroque, in celebration of Jerome Rothenberg’s and Jeffrey C. Robinson’s anthology Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & PostRomantic Poetry. Yet reading from Jerry’s most recent continuation of his presentation of international outsider poets, Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, I realized that in the interim, during which Jerry and his wife Diane have traveled across the continents, that I only seen him perhaps two to three times.

      For all that, except for perhaps a slight diminution in height, Rothenberg seems unchanged, as always a kind of chuckling gnome with lit-up eyes, as if he might secretly be taking pleasure in something he ought not. Reading everything from Mother Goose lyrics and a selection from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart to a selection from his own “A Further Witness, for Anselm Hollo,” Rothenberg reiterated his incredible ability to bring poetry off the page into the performative space of a room, however large or small. Were the Beyond Baroque audience just a little larger, particularly given the energy of Jerry and, even if am slightly patting myself on the back, the rest of the evening’s performers.


Will Alexander, as always preferring longer, more narrative works, read from Empedocles of Akragas, “On Nature: Fragments 1-10,” Egyptian, Pyramid Texts (“The Dead King Hunts & Eats the Gods”) and Mayan works of the 17th century.
       Somehow he made these ancient works his own, displaying how his own surrealist-inspired cultural responses belong to the bardic tradition upon which Jerry and his co-editor have attempted to focus in this new anthology.

Christine Wertheim briefly described the work Shea Zellweger, consisting mostly of models and charts, before presenting a quite remarkable performative reading of one of the curing poems of the shaman Mexican María Sabina. Her reading seemed to me to be a quite faithful to the kind of trance-like quality of the selection from “The Mushroom Velada.” Rothenberg writes in the commentary notes about this poem:

A major Wise One (=shaman) among the Mazatecs of Oaxaca, Mexico, María Sabina received her
poems/songs through use of the psilocybe mushroom at all-night curing sessions (veladas): a practice going back to pre-Conquest Mexico and witnessed by the Spanish chronicler who wrote: “They pay a sorcerer who eats them [the mushrooms] and tells what they have taught him. He does so by means of a  rhythmic chant in full voice.” The sacred mushrooms are considered the source of Language itself—are, in Henry Munn’s good phrase, “the mushrooms of language.”
   The selection presented here departs from the more extended, even “grandiloquent” language of some of the Chants, relying in part on techniques of fragmentation and the use of non-sematic sound (meaningless syllables, humming, clapping, whistling, etc.) The session itself goes on for a whole night, with many of the images, “self”-namings, etc. established early and repeated throughout in full or fragmented form.

    Rothenberg was slightly aback by my selection of three poets, Ko Un, Larry Eigner, and Robert Musil—the first two of whom I had published—because of their more modernist and less bardic tendencies. But, as I pointed out to the audience, since I myself did not belong to the bardic tradition and had come to poetry quite late, diving only into new end of the pool, so to speak, I had simply been unable to imagine how to read some of the other, often longer, works. I had certainly been attracted to reading composer Harry Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, but that entailed both reading and singing, and I had not had the proper time to devote to learning the music and performing it without instrumentation.

I read two Ko Un poems, “Beggars: Husband and Wife” and “The Widows of Chaetjŏongji,” from his Ten Thousand Lives, published in now 30 volumes, which purport to dedicate poems to everyone the poet has ever met in his life.
     The selections from “Air the Trees” by Larry Eigner allowed me to dramatically convey their spatial relationships and the poet’s overall sense of fragmentation as poetic expression.
      I found the second narrative-like “microscript” by Robert Walser, far more difficult to read, precisely because of its zany, disjointed tale which, I am sure, in the original German (written in the original in a tiny miniaturized Kurrent script, the German form of handwriting preferred until the 20th century) played with various accents mocking the social standing and self-approbations of the Good Mr. and Mrs. Brown in his opposition and harmonization to Mr. and Mrs. Black.
     Beforehand, Jerry, Diane, Christine, Will, Pablo, and I, along with the Rothenberg’s friend, noted sinologist John Solt, enjoyed Thai food (my pumpkin curry was excellent) at a nearby little restaurant, Wirin. I only hope that it doesn’t take another six years before I can again so enjoy the Rothenberg’s company.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2015