Leonard Schwartz: Andrew, A Possible Bag is attentive to particulars (a wolf, a white raven and a white raven mask), as well as very particular and particularizing Arapaho words. Yet there is also a bag into which they all go—an ecosystem which embraces the particulars, let’s say. I certainly don’t think it is the particular in contrast to the universal for you. But could you talk about how a set of particulars is contained in a whole? Does the latter come from myth? From a scientific understanding of topos? From language?
Andrew Schelling: Let me say something first about place, topos, Leonard. A Possible Bag is the second book in a project I started as a way of getting closer to the Southern Rocky Mountain ecosystem. My work over the years with land use, ecology, place names, myth, economies, has originated close to home. I use them as a starting point for what my friend JB Bryan calls the postmodern archaic. I also like the phrase “archaic internationalism.” By “archaic” neither of us means old fashioned or obsolete. I also don’t use it quite as Jerome Rothenberg does, to refer to pre-literate peoples. Instead, it’s a way into bioregional concerns, a poetry grounded in deep time. What I tried in A Possible Bag and in the previous book, From the Arapaho Songbook, was to see how close my poetry could get to a kind of landscape. I did it with the particulars of two languages. First, of course, is the patois spoken by most people around here, anachronistically known as English—a language full of Spanish, Native and West African words and rhythms. Then there’s Arapaho, the language of the people who frequented this region before Euro-American settlers came. When I found this couplet in your book IF it jumped out at me:
If two languages of equal standing ceremoniously
Bow to each other before going to bed, together
I realize this likely originates in your own household, since your wife is Chinese and you translate her poetry. But it creased through my thought as an account of what I was doing. Landscape, or home territory, also being a place we bed down.
“All this began with a study of place names,” I say late in my book. Place names were the first Arapaho words I went digging into. Around that time, Scottish poet Alec Finlay wrote, asking for a ten-line stanza based on local mountains for one of his projects. I wrote a stanza, an impulse took me, or the locality took me, and I continued. The poems went many directions (into love, into music, into political anger, environmental fears, linguistics, science) while the underlying drone-note that holds them together is the old language. I found it coming alive in specific plants, birds, animals (kinnikinnik or bear clover, moose, beaver) as well as in an attitude, a kind of good manners towards others, both human and other-than-human beings.
So my poems, halfway balanced on an Algonkian tongue very few people speak any longer (and that far fewer are fluent in), seem quite provisional. This is why your title IF, and the way your book is structured on a feeling of if, seems just right. I use the term “bioregion” for that if place which I’m always learning new and surprising details about. You referred to psychogeography. Would you talk about that?
LS: I think this gesture or movement towards the archaic is absolutely necessary in order to move forward, beyond whatever might be the current trend. One finds this move in Artaud, in Pound, in the poets you mention, each time in strikingly different ways, and I know I’m drawn to that possibility too. The poet Gustaf Sobin’s book of essays Luminous Debris is a very important book for me in that respect. In that book Gustaf explored the “deep time” of his adopted Provence, examining toponyms of little, imperiled towns like Berre, bits of Neolithic relic found in the soil beside his writing cabin after a fresh rain had churned the soil, wave lines drawn on a pot, Celtic detritus, a prosthetic ear made from a seashell that perhaps belonged to a female shaman, all in order to correspond with a Europe before Europe. I’ve long hoped for a book that could do that for us, here, in a North American context. And it seems to me that your books do, with their attention to toponyms in Arapaho. Except that, while Sobin states he is exclusively interested in the human, you are interested in the animal, the plant life, the fungus life, possibly the divine too, as these might play crucial roles in shaping a name or word in a language—which isn’t only human.
There may be a key difference between the two books, Andrew, as embodied in the difference between the terms “bioregion” and “psychogeography,” which you so wonderfully line up next to one another in your comment above. I wrote IF from the point of view of unknowing. I never feel like I know anything, particularly in this case. Fanny Howe’s notion of “bewilderment” is very important to me, in which “bewilderment” means both confusion and wilderness, all in one. Although there was a conscious restraint in IF (how far could I go in reliance on one two-letter word?), everything else was in the dark, particularly when it comes to relating to something now called “Mt. Rainier,” or putting my hand into a clump of moss among the hundreds of kinds of moss that exist in the region, or putting an arrow into a deer, or thinking about the phrase “nurse log.” The term “psychogeography” allows me to acknowledge the unconscious in things, the event at a place in time as it shapes the language trickling from its ground, the stuff I don’t know and therefore must write in order to discover I’m a part of. Also I’m not “from here”; therefore I must acknowledge that I am an invasive species. All of my stupidity, even my evil, has to find a way into the poem, in order for the evolving eco-system of native and invasive species to be acknowledged. I’m much more apt to imagine I write from a moral lowground (or at least the moral foothills!), for fear of arriving at tautological ethical statements. “Good poetry / would prove best politics?” you ask in your book. And it is a question for me. I’m not so sure anymore.
I was appreciative—and also chuckled—about what you said about those two lines from IF. I should probably say that for me to write that two languages or two people are ever equal is probably an idealization. Each is stronger in different ways, and English and Chinese are both imperial languages, from the points of view of other languages all over the world—Tibetan and Uighur speakers just as surely as those threatened by English. God knows how that will all turn out. I think we have a household balance, Zhang Er and I, though who knows how she would answer? Certainly our daughter is bilingual. Actually I just asked Zhang Er what she thinks about those two lines: she suggests we try to incorporate a bow to one another into the evening rituals. We fear, however, that it will turn into a caricature of the Japanese. Chinese and East Coast American are pretty aggressive! So I think those lines may refer to the hope of a Pacific Northwest poetics after all, with an indigenous language and a polite Scandinavian tongue finding a home together. About Chinese poetry, I will say, however, that Thomas Meyer’s translation of the Daode jing, published by Flood Editions, was a big influence on IF.
But you, Andrew, are literally on a mountain top, or at least very high up. Can you say more about how you can be inside a bioregion and still be able to delineate that region? Because I do value that kind of vision, and I have argued in the past for the necessity of a transcendental lyric. And it seems to me that is one of the measures a mythopoetics can offer us in time and space. “Here on this earth stands this person” is the positionality of your book, isn’t it?
AS: When you say I’m interested in not just the human but plant, animal, bird, weather, soil, as part of the bioregion, I’d step in with a term Robert Bringhurst uses, in his translations from the Haida myth-tellers. They speak of the “other-than-human,” an order that’s clearly much larger than our own social world. I’m not too sure how the divine gets in there—or put it this way, I’d rather regard all these beings and elements as participating in a life-spirit. That spirit concentrates in different ways in humans, in each animal or plant, in the wind, the rain, the creeks, the high glacier-smoothed granite. I have no proof of it, but if there are tutelary deities, divines, or spirit powers in the region, it makes sense they would feel close to the older human languages (which they’ve heard for much longer, and which certainly contain more intimate knowledge of their habits) than to newcomer colonial languages like English or Spanish.
You are right: both English and Chinese are imperialist languages, and have been for centuries or millennia. Linguists like to say a language is a dialect with an army. It’s curious, when I began studying Sanskrit as a young poet, it seemed quite a radical move. I mean going outside mainstream poetry or literature, seeking out non-European archaic traditions. The Nixon administration set the tone for a sort of hostility towards India in the ’70s, which helped make things Indian seem anti-American, and I had to search a great deal to find any university training. Not only did Nixon threaten India with nuclear weapons, shore up a hostile Pakistani administration, and call Indira Gandhi “that bitch,” but he withdrew aid, and chilled diplomatic contact. Universities lost funding, and Sanskrit or Tamil or Bengali seemed ghost languages.
By contrast, my friends who studied Chinese received quite a lot of funding, often thrown at them by banks, the State Department, even the CIA—right after 1971, when Nixon reestablished diplomatic relations with China. India was kept alive in North American consciousness by Ravi Shankar, the Beatles, head shops, ashrams, the hash road that travelers took through the Hindukush, bedspreads, beads. In other words the counterculture. Sanskrit to my mind held all these scattered things together.
But I see now that Sanskrit was a vast, blanketing, imperialist tongue in its own day. Luckily, like English and Chinese, it drew into itself all sorts of trace elements useful to poetics, natural history, oppositional politics, and such. Working with Arapaho has been totally different though—and difficult. Thirty years of Sanskrit did not prepare me for the kinds of things you find in Arapaho. There are very few fluent Arapaho speakers left, and not many historical texts but for ghost dance song lyrics.
You asked about “Here on this earth stands this person.” When I had gotten pretty deep into writing stanzas for Arapaho Songbook I started to get edgy, nervous, working with old languages. I’d been including words, phrases, even grammatical structures from Sanskrit, Ute, old Hindi, Spanish, and there’s a Chinese ideogram in my poem. Is it right to work with all these? Was this just packrat accumulation? What psychic events was I ignoring? What dangers? Native languages in particular carry a tragic, heavily political weight. Plus, who’s going to read these things? Pound must have felt something similar in The Cantos when he said—I hear him growl—“It can’t be all in one language.” I used that as a kind of epigram for A Possible Bag.
This is not just about human languages either. There’s a definite grammar—if you want to think in metaphors—to any ecosystem. But I had some discouraging omens about excavating far-off languages for use in a poem. At some point I wrote Rosmarie Waldrop, who had worked with Narragansett, and asked if she’d had any troubling experiences or found anything that gave her pause. She sent back encouraging words: Keep at it, poets need to do this work.
I’ve also talked about using multiple languages with Sherwin Bitsui, who puts an increasing weight on his native Navajo, an Athabaskan or Na-Diné tongue, into his own poetry. A couple of years ago he told me he expects to use more of it. He opened Flood Song with:
—dripping down the page. The sound is water going over sandstone. It must be a similar impulse when I put into my last two books two concrete poems, both based on the word kinnikinnik. It’s the common term around here for Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, bearberry or bear clover. The plant is a hardy ground cover (thick leathery leaves, bright red berries), which kind of defines this bioregion at the 8000’ elevation level where I live. Kinnikinnik comes from an Algonkian word; it means “for mixing in.” It refers to a smoking mixture: tobacco, bark, leaves, herbs.
The other elements I’d mention, since you ask how my book is positioned, would be the ruminations on energy use—from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, to hydrofracking around the United States. Underpinning these concerns is an erotics, an allegiance to love, a love which is human, but also extends to the other-than-human. If we humans fuck up the planet a lot of suffering will happen to all of us, human or not. Hints of this I find throughout your book as well. What about “Animals and words by eco-location / Finding one another against vast odds”? It sounds to me like you’re treading an ecopoetics based on love too.
LS: Yes, that may be true, but first a question to you about some relevant lines:
A text that reaches for love
In the back-of-beyond…
Can you say a bit about those lines? About the back-of-beyond?
AS: Back-of-beyond refers to high, far-off places, often the mountains. In colloquial American speech: the backcountry. Traditionally these places are inhabited by spirit powers. Humans only visit high passes, cols, glacial cirques, mountain tarns, jagged summits and the like, for short excursions. Where I live, the only existent prehistoric structures are high-elevation game drive walls—meandering wall-lines of stone used to funnel elk, bighorn sheep and maybe a few other game animals onto snowfields or into steep, boulder-strewn terrain where they could be quickly taken by hunters. Strange pits up there, alongside the drive walls, make us wonder: were they to conceal bowmen, were they for shamans, did people sleep in them on vision quests? Whatever these oviform pits are, for Paleolithic people they had some more–than-ordinary purpose.
Back-of-beyond also refers to creative or spiritual states, a backcountry of the mind. The term first shows up anyhow in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. It might be eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Scottish vernacular he picked up doing fieldwork, backcountry work. You know, he compiled oral ballads for an anthology, a predecessor to Francis Childs, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. One hallmark of early traditions, world-wide, was to recognize that mountains or far-off desolate places are “another world,” where other-than-human powers wander. To go into these places is to cross a critical boundary.
LS: Thanks Andrew. That is very beautiful, very evocative. Roof tops, thresholds in space, borders between waking and sleeping, instants in which forms of consciousness we share with species older than ourselves (that are still present in our make up) flash to the surface: I’m convinced we pass through and across these thresholds on a daily basis, which the very literal backcountry you evoke calls to us on the basis of. IF does try to explore that, briefly glimpsed. Say:
If while driving on
One of those early mornings
With only a little bit of light
One peripherally glimpses
Emerging from a crushed porcupine
On the shoulder of the road
A seemingly human baby…
Not the backcounty, to be sure, but a threshold.
I had an intense compositional experience of this sort in writing IF, as a matter of fact. For a long time I struggled with a section which paired an account of an orca calf diving deep down into the sea with a section pertaining to time spent in a children’s hospital in Seattle, when my daughter was ill. And I worked and worked at that section, wondering why they went together, without knowing why. Much of the rest of this particular poem wrote itself, and these sections did too, but I still had questions. And then I was in the waiting room at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and I looked up, and there it was: a gigantic Native American mobile of an orca whale, hanging from the vaulted ceiling in the lobby, commandeering the room. Filled with dread, I had never consciously noticed it before. And then I did. I await further revelations from the orca! “Animals and words by eco-location / Finding one another against vast odds.” Without any diagnosis, all is indeed prefaced by a searing, central IF.
So you asked also about love-in-the-poem. That deep attachment that overwhelms everything else is certainly what makes everything suddenly IF when there is a lingering threat. But you know, the philosopher Michael Hardt and I published an e-book of conversations, The Production of Subjectivity, in The Conversant no less, and in the middle section, “Love As Such,” we thought together about love as a political concept, and the ways in which our idea of love and even experience of love may be hemmed in by dominant Platonic or Freudian notions of its power and limits. There is no question that in the chapbook there is a desire to try out ways in which love might address political nightmares like the ones you address directly in A Possible Bag, without ending up with something preachy, universalizing, or sentimental.
I think this is why the obstinacy of the particular is so important. I also want to say that Eros particularizes. But is that true?
AS: Love is as baffling as poetry for me. Two forces. They govern our lives, seem so much vaster than us, and with a bit of respect we can refine our approach to them. Yet looking for the principals of love is like trying to find the territory where poetry originates. Maybe the best I can do is go back to a stanza from A Possible Bag. For people of the plains and mountains, a possible bag was something you carried that you could sort of stuff anything in that you might need for the day. That’s how I saw my stanzas—provisional supplies, much like your “if.”
I wrote this one after a climb of South Arapaho Peak, a 13,400’ mountain that rises west of here, and sits at the head of the watershed. Actually there are two summits, North and South, connected by a crescent-shaped ridge, both on the Continental Divide. In many ways, those peaks have been my finest teachers of the past decade. The stanza runs:
ptarmigan & four chicks on
South Arapaho Peak
the 13,000 year dream of this continent
dream of an equitable society
we saw it collapse in the 20th century—
what’s left to oppose
naked self interest?
Marx showing us new social relations
Freud to say that love has
forms & delights we’ve never imagined
Darwin to renew earth’s contract with species
that living cells are what’s holy
Gods, spirits, religious weirdness
throw them all out
we feed at the same table
My climbing companion and I were chewing over what was left of that long political experiment that kind of died last century. I guess I was hoping to salvage those three philosopher-poets from the wreckage, and see what insights love might hold for our future. At the time I had in mind a Sanskrit poetry collection, The Amaruśataka, which contains exclusively love poetry. It opens with a couple of benedictory verses (quite traditional) praising the gods. Then come two verses that wickedly dismiss the gods. Love is the principal of life; the gods are powerless by comparison. They can’t properly govern their own lives, let alone take care of ours. This leaves all of us earth-born creatures, human and other-than-human—bound as we are by complicated metabolisms, food chains, family relations. It leaves us to feed carefully alongside our messmates.
Maybe this is what you saw, with the orca appearing first in your poem, then as a mobile swimming above you in the hospital.
By the way, I think animals enter poems much the way they enter dreams. Which is to say, we can invite them to visit, but their comings and goings are pretty much their own.
LS: “Every word was once an animal,” as Emerson famously wrote. Perhaps every dream is still an animal. In IF I offer: “A stand of birches appears, flashes / And then is hidden.” Who knows who was flirting with whom amidst those trees? In my previous book, At Element, I offered: “We can only write a Nature Poetry worthy of the ecological imperative when we realize we are inside both nature and poetry, vulnerable to the encounter, able to surrender a certain control. Not above Nature, not positioned so as to write about Nature, but speaking from inside it, as if Nature were the Unconscious. This poem may not even resemble a ‘nature poem’. As in sleep, bereft of the capacity to dominate, lost in the forest of language, guided by elements seemingly in dialogue with one another.” It is from this perspective that your A Possible Bag poses so many questions for me. And from which I am glad we are in dialogue.
Andrew Schelling lives on Colorado’s Front Range. He has taught poetry, bioregional studies and Sanskrit at Naropa University since 1990. He is the author or editor of twenty books. Recent volumes include From the Arapaho Songbook, a sequence of 108 stanzas located in the drainage of the Indian Peaks, that draws on Algonkian language studies. A Possible Bag continues the project. He has published six book-length translations of India’s classical poetry, and numerous essays on Asian poetic traditions. Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India received the Academy of American Poets Translation Prize in 1992. About once a year Schelling visits India to teach at Deer Park Institute in the bird-rich Himalayan foothills.
Leonard Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” radio program provides a forum for wide-ranging discussions concerning contemporary poetic, translation, critical, curatorial, publishing and performance projects. Schwartz’s most recent books of poetry are At Element and IF.