Laynie Browne in conversation with Lisa Jarnot, on Jarnot’s biography Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012).
Laynie Browne: Do you recall when you first were introduced to Duncan’s work? Was your interest in his work immediate, or how did it evolve?
Lisa Jarnot: I didn’t like Duncan’s work when I first read it. I was very interested in the Beats, so Duncan seemed square. I thought maybe he was writing nature poetry. I was at the University of Buffalo and took a course with Robert Creeley where we read Duncan’s work. That was a turning point for me. Creeley’s enthusiasm intrigued me, so I started to read the poems more carefully.
LB: Do you recall which were the first Duncan poems you began to read more carefully? Do you recall what struck you about these particular poems? Or how Creeley taught them? Did you have a sense of reading Duncan as changing your conceptions about poetry?
LJ: Creeley taught just by reading the poems out loud and saying how much he liked them. He really moved around the issue of “teaching” in a delightful way. It was “The Venice Poem” that he started with, one of Duncan’s early sprawling epic psychodramatic pieces. The poem was a collage, so for me it was also a puzzle. I wanted to know how the different parts worked together. For me it was a question of form—learning that a poem could be a very complex machine. That’s what intrigued me.
LB: When did you first think about writing a biography, and when did you begin? What were some of the first steps you took, and what advice would you give to anyone considering writing a biography?
LJ: I was teaching at the Naropa Institute in the summer of 1997, and Ed Sanders was there to talk about his own book-length projects, including his history of America in verse. He suggested the biography. It made sense to me as I’d been studying Duncan’s work for a decade.
LB: What questions did you have when you first began the process, and what questions emerged in the process? What did you most hope to discover?
LJ: There were hundreds of questions, thousands probably. The whole project of biography is generating questions and finding multiple sources to suggest answers. Memory is hopeless—everyone I interviewed had a different memory, a different perspective. So, it was like a beehive of noise and sticky stuff. I wanted to come up with a chronology of what Duncan did over 70 years. The questions were fact-based rather than lit-crit in orientation. I really wanted to know where he lived, who he saw, what he wore, etc.
LB: Were there particular time periods of his life that were more difficult to pin down? I am fascinated with what you say about the difficulty of collecting multiple memories and having to make sense of the “beehive of noise and sticky stuff.” Do you have any advice to offer to potential biographers on how to work one’s way through the process? Are there any strategies you developed, beyond persistence, patience and multiple sources?
LJ: Every part of Duncan’s adult life was fairly easy to document because of his literary friendships. There were a lot of paper trails. His short stint in the army was lost because his files were destroyed in a fire, but in most other ways I had a lot of material to work with. Really I think that biography is a librarian’s task. It requires the collection of materials in a well-organized fashion. The things that were most important for me were having files I could locate very quickly (and there were a lot of them, about 50 three-ring-binders). I suppose staying power was a key too. It required years of staying power to distill all the materials.
LB: How did you begin gathering information for the project?
LJ: Interviews first—I knew I needed to talk to his friends who were older. Then I went to library archives. And there were several trips to the Bay Area, just to be in Duncan’s space.
LB: Was there anything that really surprised you that you discovered about Duncan in the process? How much were you aware of his life history before you began?
LJ: I knew his life pretty well because I had read his journals and diaries at the rare books collection at the University of Buffalo. Probably what surprised me most was how loved he was, and how much his friends and students saw him as a force of nature.
LB: Did you have a sense of how you wanted to position this book, as opposed to other texts on Duncan or biographies in general? You make brief mention of this—obviously choosing to keep an objective stance throughout. I wonder how you would articulate what you see as the role of a biographer.
LJ: I thought of myself as a journalist. I wanted to create contexts for the poems but not to explain them. I’ve seen some criticism of my approach, mostly I think from academics. I think Duncan’s poems demand an open reading. His goal was to let them sprawl, and he disliked the way the academy tries to nail down the imagination. So I simply positioned the poems in his life to give them context and stuck with the story of his life.
LB: Please share an anecdote about one or more memorable interviews/meetings you had with friends of Duncan and Jess. Pilgrimages, trips, personalities, adventures?
LJ: There are a lot, and many of the people I met became friends. Jess I had known for some time before I started the book. Duncan’s sister Barbara was a tremendous help as well. I suppose that was a highlight—being in Bakersfield in a little restaurant with her and her husband eating leg of lamb. They were thoroughly warm people, and yet had so little in common with me or Duncan—staunch Southern Californian Republican Christians. Somehow we really hit it off.
On one visit I was invited to a backyard barbeque with Barbara and her kids and grandkids. And then on the other end of the spectrum there were people I really hit it off with intuitively and creatively. In 1998 and again in 2000 I was teaching out in Boulder, Colorado, and interviewed Stan Brakhage for the book. He held a weekly film salon on Sunday nights that I went to whenever I could. So the project of the biography also facilitated whole other leaps in learning. And Stan was an immediate presence—his familial feelings toward Duncan and Jess quickly extended in my direction. I felt very blessed that Duncan had such great friends who then became part of my life.
LB: In what ways do you feel that your book most illuminates Duncan’s writing and his life? Are there aspects of his life that you felt unable to access as a biographer? Do you have any unanswered questions about his life?
LJ: I wonder if I’m something of an outsider in my heterosexuality, but otherwise I really felt good about knowing Duncan deeply. I certainly wanted to locate him in the cultural contexts of the 1960s and Vietnam. That fell into place fairly easily because I was so interested in that history. I don’t have many unanswered questions. Perhaps some desire to trace the biological family and his lost siblings, but I’m not sure that will ever happen. Duncan is such a common name. It’s like looking for Smiths.
LB: Throughout the book we get glimpses of Duncan’s reading and teaching methods, course topics or titles, including phrases such as: “tone leading of vowels,” “sounds, language, words,” “sensorimotor grounds of intelligence; phone, phoneme, sememe.” I’m wondering if you could elaborate at all on these topics and also your understanding of how they relate to his work. His ethos is very clear as is the intensive reading he pursued and required of his students, and his mythic presence in the classroom. I’m curious if you were able to find any information about what kind of techniques he used to explore language elementally as described. Are any of his teaching materials in print or online?
LJ: Duncan studied phonetics, so phonetic transcriptions were part of the classroom exercises. His course on Basic Elements floats around online. There are some recordings of those classes in archives and at the PennSound site. He really just didn’t want to hear the students read poems about their personal lives, especially not when it devolved to questions of “what is the poem about.” So he pushed craft, phonetics, etymology, meter.
LB: How did he push “craft”? I have the sense that you are using the word in a way that is much more particular than how it is generally used in conventional workshop formats. Can you say a little bit more about your sense of how he taught phonetics?
LJ: Duncan pushed craft as an organic construct. He wanted the students to see that any work of art had an internal logic. He started with the International Phonetic Alphabet. The students would do transcriptions of Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens into IPA to see how the music was running inside of the compositions. From there he moved on to syllables. Then words, and a lot of work with the etymologies of words using the Oxford English Dictionary. Then the line and the stanza, and then the idea of a poem as a whole entity. It was rigorous, but open-minded: a poem can be whatever it wants to be as long as it has its own reason for being—as long as there is a plan, conscious or unconscious.
LB: I wonder if you’d be interested in talking a bit about how Duncan’s poetry has effected your own development as a writer? Are there particular aspects of his work, or texts you can point to, which have been especially useful to you?
LJ: I don’t always see his influence but I suspect it’s in the sound play. He loved Pound’s use of internal rhyme, and that’s something I picked up on.
LB: I’m not sure quite how to put this, and I hope that it doesn’t seem entirely too strange in light of Duncan’s unusual spiritual upbringing, but I’m wondering if you think Duncan was communicating with you or guiding you in any way?
LJ: Occasionally, yes. But I was often overtired and up all night writing parts of the book, so lack of sleep might explain it too. I did always love visits to Jess at the house on 20th Street in the Mission. It was impossible not to feel Duncan’s presence there. It was a tremendously beautiful three-dimensional collage—rich with the efforts of reading and creating poems and art and appreciating life.
Lisa Jarnot is a poet and independent scholar. She has taught at Brooklyn College and the Naropa Institute and is the author of five books of poetry including Joie De Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012, as well as the biography Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus.