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interview conducted by Kent Johnson

Kent Johnson: Could you talk a bit about the trajectory of your poetry? Where has it been, where is it now?

Carl Thayler: My intent has, from the start, remained stable: to articulate, in whatever weird order the world and whatever soul I've managed to aggravate into life. For ten or so years, sustaining a ten or twelve-fine poem tested me. After 46 or 47 years, I've managed the 300 or so pages that now comprise Naltsus Bichiden, a portion of which was recently published by Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen at Skanky Possum Press. The movement has steadily been towards longer, tighter, more complex poems - which I reckon is the case with most people who seriously persist with the art.

Q: Skanky Possum has just now (Spring 2000) published a second gathering by you, a chapbook entitled The Tailgunner's Song, starring Joe McCarthy. A forthcoming one, I hear, is 3 Lives Country, in which Richard Nixon, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Gram Parsons are introduced to each other - an odd reunion of characters around the maypole, to say the least. What goes on in these two books?

A: 3 Lives Country is a consideration, first, of Floyd and Nixon, rooted in a holding but fading frontier, in Oklahoma and California. The similarities between Floyd and Nixon, and their differences, I found interesting. And Parsons, coming along after that world was finally gone, seems to have been shaped by elements he longed for in that vanished, semi-mythic space. Rootless, he fashioned from shards, before he self-destructed, a powerful art. Those lives resonate among each other, and in me-- but I also covered that tale directly in a long poem, written years ago, and unpublished, Golden Orange Brand. As for McCarthy, with the release of the Venona decrypts, intercepts of messages between the Soviet Union and several of its agents here, McCarthy's accusations are now generally well-supported. So the major players in the government had the information by at least the late '40's. McCarthy's big struggle was to get the Eisenhower and Truman administrations to release some of what could have been made public without revealing that we'd broken the Soviet code. Notice that in spite of Venona, little has been offered to improve McCarthy's reputation - which isn't n my aim in the poems. He was a hick and a drunk and he chose his enemies badly. He was the trailer-trash of his day, and he had the bad taste to challenge the auto-deification of the wise men, the Ivy League liberals. He's an interesting example to me of an under- dog Innocent failing to be honored for taking on the entrenched political establishment The whistle-blower supreme and an object lesson. For me, he's just a sentimental favorite. The poems come out of this.

Q: For decades, you have been completely outside any "poetry community,” and your work, up until the partial publication of Naltsus Bichiden, had become "lost” so to speak, from public view. How do you feel about that isolation? I should add that your above comments about McCarthy are not likely to better your situation...

A: What should I say? I live in my skin; perhaps in my head, too. The poetry "community, if that's what lurks out there, isn't inside my skin. And thank God very few of them are inside my head. If the question is, How do I take to being ignored?-- it pissed me off for a long time. I got over it.

Q: I know that musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have been important to you. And you are also a connoisseur of American country music. Tell us why you think Lucinda Williams, for example, is a greater artist than Shania Twain; Steve Earle than Garth Brooks, Julie Miller than the Dixie Chicks. In doing so, could you please relate your judgments, if there is any application, to poetry?

A: First, I admit to loving the Dixie Chicks, but then again one of my favorite TV shows is COPS... Country music captured my ear in the 70's. I had listened to the music when young, but it seemed so Uncool when hip meant Parker and Miles and all that-- and all that was very good. I was backward enough in high school to play cool. Heard Parker for the first time at a “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert in'46 or'47. Later, I went often to Birdland. My response to the music was genuine, but backing off from country wasn’t. I did get over to E Monte and Cliffy Stone's Hometown Jamboree for Little Mollie Bee and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, who for a while was almost a regular there. And a bit later I was literally --in Topanga Canyon, California and NYC-- tripping over folkies... Early in the 50's I began acting with Will Geer's (Grandpa Walton) Folksay Theater, which - no surprise - had its share of folksingers. First Woody Guthrie and then Pete Seeger and Rambling lack Elliot were troupe staples. I joined after Guthrie had stopped performing but occasionally attended performances. In NYC the company shared sleep- ing space on the floor of the Albert Hotel in the Village, and the people I stumbled over to reach the coffee pot enjoyed positions in the folkie world I knew nothing about Seeger was teaching music to school children after his run-in with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. While his politics failed by a healthy measure to convince me, I appreciated the way it went against the grain of the period. Even found that endearing.

Anyway, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, Townes VanZant and Nanci Griffith, etc., respond to Planet Earth. Brooks and Twain on the other hand, it seems to me, keep their eyes on a place on the Planet Hollywood menu. That has to set off a bullshit detector. The question's the same as, Why do you value every word Ed Dorn wrote and not a single one of Charles Bemstein's?-- to snap the lash at the current whipping boy..

Q: George Oppen was a communist and you consider him a great man and master poet. In fact, you came to know him well, spending time at his home on different occasions and having a warm correspondence with him. And he expressed a good deal of admiration for your own writing. You are a man who has strong political opinions, ones that could only be described as decidedly right-wing and culturally incorrect. So let's say it's 1930's Spain, and you're a volunteer with the Francoists, as you've told me you would have been under the circumstances, and Oppen is with the Lincoln Brigade (as I've told you I would have been myself under the circumstances), and it's the outskirts of Madrid and YOU are shooting at each other. And then a charge at the barricade is ordered, and it comes to hand to hand combat, and Oppen is trying to slit your throat, and you are trying to slit his. You're grappling with each other and cursing and screaming. And then one of you manages to slit the other's throat and blood spurts all over the killer’s face. I don't have a direct question here; it's just that the weirdness of the hypothetical situation strikes me as interesting and I wonder if you could comment.

A. I'm on borrowed time now, so if I had to die at someone's hand...

But Auden's great poem on the death of Yeats is worth mentioning here. As you recall, he reels off a politically-charged list of considerable poets embroiled in various isms. And he got it right when he wrote that Time will forgive the lot, forgive them for writing well. Closer to home, I recall a couple of relevant incidents Oppen mentioned to me. In one, he boarded a plane to find himself facing Robert Lowell, and neither man offered a sign of acknowledgment. And not, according to Oppen, because of an ounce of ill-will. They plain hadn't a thing to say to each other. They could have cursed LBJ and Nixon, they had general agreement there. But Oppen implied that there was a mutual lack of enthusiasm for the other's poetry. It seemed to me that Oppen was unwilling to forgive Lowell the conventionality of his--considerable in my opinion-- body of work.

On the other hand, days after Pound's release from St. Elizabeth's, James Laughlin invited Oppen to spend the afternoon with Pound in his office. Apparently, on Oppen's arrival, there was an uncomfortable moment in which Pound hung his head and said simply, "I'm sorry, George' The afternoon went well after that, just two old friends talking after many years, and a batch of scars.

Time seems not alone in forgiving a lot when the transgressors write well. Among several truths, that one's a choker for the politically correct. Good, let them choke. The sound of it's sweeter to my ears than their poetry.

Q: Let's say you are on a panel with a leading "Language” poet, a prominent "New Formalist,” and the current U.S. Poet Laureate. A young poet in the audience asks, “What is poetry to you, Mr. Thayler?” What do you think you might answer?

A. It is precisely because in this unredeemed world the nasty situation you describe in your previous question is commonplace that one best respond with the full weight of his life. Steve Earle and Lefty Frizzell in music, singing and strumming through the horror of circumstance, partly to bear witness but also to tell a world that imposes such nightmares on one to fuck off. Said, of course, with grace. That's why these poetry cults dead set on driving a wedge between Speech and Language are practicing self-mutilation, left with neither grace nor balls. To paraphrase Hemingway: when one faces fire, best trust to balls and grace. Since poems are the responses I can best carry off, I write them.

Q: You also knew Paul Blackburn-- in fact, the two of you were very dose friends, and you were at his side when he died. A few years ago, Marjorie Perloff strongly criticized Blackburn for what she perceived was his machismo and sexism-- qualities, she felt, that diminish an already "minor” poetry. What is your estimation of Blackburn's poetic legacy?

A: The most I can say about his legacy is that, as long as I'm alive, Paul has a faithful, careful reader who loves his poems. 

As far as Perloffs comments, they amount to saying that Paul's attitudes, as they appear in some poems, offend her, and from a feminist perspective, naughty Paul. Here's all I have to say about that ideology, generally. It's often repeated that Clinton's in office thanks to the women's vote-- so much for the “feminist perspective”.

As for the qualities of Paul's work, I'll mention just one, but one that I particularly value: the deftness of his phonemic music, if you will, something clearly gathered from the Provencal poets he so loved. In 1974 I reviewed, in a magazine called sixpack, his Early Selected y Mas, and since I stand by it, here's a short quote (albeit I'd like to disown the prose).

 "The man, Blackburn, what he could do; who but Pound, Zukofsky, some few others, were capable of making language work this well for them.

The feast day and bells
tuned minds to joy:
fiddles reeled thin thru streets
dancing, dancing

the vowel so dear, the 'o' opening, sounding in 'joy' triumphantly,
 then the silence of the colon for the 'f' and double 'd's and 'I's and 'e's to reel into, a round of fiddles, and the 't' picked up and slowed down, the package of 'th’ and 'u' working off the 'tuned' and the section up again in the double 'e’s and the 's’ of ‘street’ to the joy sent out along it now, dancing, dancing. Not for nothing the esteem the man
received continually with 'Jesus Christ, his ear.’”

Lots of years have passed since that review, but Paul, you still come
through clearly.

Q: I'd say you're right that mainstream U.S. feminism is politically corrupt and self-defeating. But, of course, 99% of white male voters have their balls --to use your term-- tied to the wagon drawn by the twin-horse parties of corporate America. So the NOW feminists are hardly alone in blame for the current state of affairs. U.S. males are quite a bit dumber, by and large, when it comes to politics. That's my two cents on Clinton and misdirected estrogen and testosterone.

But to move on: Mark Wallace, a perceptive young critic, wrote a review which has appeared in both Jacket and Rain Taxi about Naltsus Bichiden. Therein he remarks,

These are in no simple historical poems, if one means by that poems designed to explore and reveal some time-bound historical context; instead, the characters and situations in the book range freely between times and places in an unashamedly anachronistic way. Thayler's book concerns the interrelatedness of various histories to each other and to his own history as a man and a poet, and the world of the past resonates both violently and intriguingly in the present. History here has been refigured into myth, into an epic story of what has mattered and why, while at the same time real histories retain remarkable specificity.

I think this is pretty well-put, though I wonder if Wallace really understood the politics inhering in the poems. I'm sure he didn't, actually. And to expand: As foundational as its thematic presence is in your work, History seems not so much the underlying frame upon which the poem is built, but more a substance, like mortar, between the blocks and stones, that gushes up and through. I mean, you are a poet who is dearly in love with history, and intensely with particular occasions of it, but it's not the past that is the main point, it seems to me; it's simply what happens for you in language. I'm fumbling, obviously, in this embarrassingly drawn out “question," so help me out, if you would. In this time where poetry has so decidedly become a minor mode of “self-expression,” what should history be, for the poet? What is history to poetry, or poetry to history?

A: Progress - to which you seem to, allude in your qualification to my previous answer-- is a dangerous myth. History is always the present-- the same good guys vs. the same assholes, repeating the same gestures. Kabuki. I try to freshen the retelling, catch an ear now and then. It’s also an indulgence. Since I’ll never enjoy the privilege of fighting with Capt McNelly’s Rangers along the Tex/Mex border, I can imagine how it was. Something that happened there needs to be recaptured. History's the gift that keeps giving. In a time that, as Howard McCord has said, people think they can opt out of the food chain, I'd say we damn well better heed the gift ticking in our genes.

Q: Why would fighting with Capt. McNelly's Rangers have been a “privilege”? These weren't exactly “good guys.”

A: McNelly and his Rangers were responsible for protecting the American side of the Tex/Mex border. They weren't nice guys to the Mexican bandits and Comanche raiders, etc. But, back then, the settlement of bloody disputes---rapes, scalp hunts, murders, burnings, and the like---fell to the Rangers and not, like today, to the ACLU. Atrocities by sonsofbitches of color weren't fluffed off as examples of the heroic struggle of indigenous peoples. And as Bill Jordon and Col. Charlie Askins have pointed out, in fairly recent accounts of life on the border, there were many a wild adventure to be had there.

We'd do well to recapture McNelly's sense of honor, his clear head, his courage and his stomach to do the necessary. He recognized social predators, an ability recently lost to airy abstractions. He killed plenty of folks who deserved killing. We don' 't even believe---if I'm to believe the death penalty debate---that anyone deserves killing. Will it take Rosie O'Donnell in the White House and the last handgun melted to jar awake a few battered souls? By then the tribe will be so docile it won't matter. Recall Nietzche's observation about how to make a people docile: first make them queasy, the function currently of the animal rights bunch, the gun-grabbers, the Let's Jump in the Sack with the Red Chinese Lobby, the list continues ad nauseam. Unlike Hamlet, we must relearn how often we must be cruel only to be kind.

Q: Well, that's one hell of a can of worms you open there, but we'll leave it for the next person who interviews you... though I should say it's interesting that Marx and Engels, two thinkers I know you don't much care for, would be in general agreement with your view of the "frontier,” seeing, as they did, the westward expansion of U.S. capitalism as a progressive historical force, the dispossession and suffering brought upon “backward,” native peoples as a regrettable but necessary consequence. So much for the “humanism” of Marxism, I guess. Anyway, here is my next question:

In the late fifties you played the man who shot Jesse James in the B movie classic The True Story of Jesse James. I read just the other day in the Chicago Tribune that there's been an official exhumation for examination of the remains of a man who lived to 104 years and died in the early 1950's. There are those, including some academic historians, who believe it is highly possible that he was, as the man apparently claimed on his death bed---with compelling supportive details---the real Jesse James. In other words, the story you played, if this is so, was absolutely false, a pop-culture fabrication that has helped, in its small way, to twist history away from the truth. Now you mentioned that it was important to "recapture something” about McNelly's Rangers. How important is it, in poetry, that this “something” be "actual truth”? What truth are you after in your imagination? In what ways are your "historical” poems any less fanciful than the half dozen or so Hollywood B movies you have to your acting credit?

A: The movie dates to '57 or '58. Nick Ray directed it immediately after he did Rebel Without a Cause and didn't intend to make a B movie. But that's another story. His cut differed greatly from the one released and enjoyed a complexity excised by the studio. History suffered in both accounts, but wasn't dishonored by Nick's. Since he was himself a nay-sayer he tried, as best he could, to be true to the tradition of Jesse James and Bartelby and Ayn Rand. That, however, invited a journey with a twisted soul, and 20th Century Fox ain't gonna pay for that ticket.

My mistakes and falsifications are mine alone, products of my ignorance and imagination; they're part of the pattern experience leaves across my skin.

Q: You'd said you were on “borrowed time.” I'm going to assert interviewer's privilege and take the liberty to be candid with some information. You have had, in the past 25 years or so, a number of personal difficulties: a major heart attack, a few years in rock-bottom poverty with no electricity or plumbing in rural California, two multiple bypasses, and recently a liver transplant. Now, still recovering from the latter, you are planning to buy a Harley and live on the road for a spell. My last question, which is one I think important for any poet to consider: What is poetry's relationship, for you, to death's approach?

A: Actually, rather than two multiple bypasses, I've had one quadruple one. That sounds a bit like a statement in Lewis’s pragmatic language of Rabbit-math. And whether I'll ever be able to afford the bike my fantasies thrive upon is, as they all too often say, problematic.

The relationship of poetry to death? To this particular poet it means I'm invulnerable. I've seen my life through that dark glass a few times when there was only a slim chance of waking the following day, and there wasn't a regret. Pissed off or dismissive critics and publishers and the so-called literary community can't harm me by forgetting my name or suggesting I read some awful poet published by Black Sparrow Press to see how poetry's really written. What I write, think, and say is seamless and so will it remain. I've done without electricity and can again, and God knows how long I've gone without that candy-red Harley.

Only the recognition of death, close-up, frees one. Yeats's grave stone immortalizes that information (and it irked me to admit, on a night I believed was my last, that I could not match it, could turn up only bumper stickers):

 Cast a cold eye

 On life, on death.

 Horseman, pass by!




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