An Interview with Edward Sanders
from New Letters, Volume 76, Number 1
Ed Sanders shares his small home at the base of Mead Mountain in Woodstock, N.Y., with his wife of nearly 50 years, Miriam; two chirping parakeets; countless books and magazines stacked on almost every flat surface; and a crowd of orchids queued up in sunny windows. Outside, his wooded yard is populated by what, on an early spring day, must be the friendliest herd of deer around.
A small stream runs behind the house and near it lies an array of gray stones in the strokes of a Chinese character that Sanders placed as a prayer for ailing fellow poet Gary Snyder, who once wrote, "each rock a word." Snyder, of course, is among the last of a generation of poets pinned loosely with the label of Beat, an association that comes more by friendship and influence rather than aesthetic stance. Although Sanders, a decade younger, caught the attention and friendship of the likes of Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, he considers himself a kind of tweener: too young to be a Beat and too old to be a flower-carrying hippie child in the 1960s. Nevertheless, he was present at enough important poet-activist culture clashes of the decade that he, too, seems now like the elder statesman of the crowd: the march on Washington (1963), the Pentagon march and "exorcism" by music (1967), the siege of Chicago (1968), the set of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" with a drunken Jack Kerouac (1968), the bloody wake of the Manson family murder spree (1969), which he corralled into a still-vital work of narrative nonfiction, The Family.
Sanders, who turned 70 on August 17, 2009, had planted himself in the New York alt-culture landscape of the early 1960s, steeped in ancient Greek verse, poetry pamphleteering, Bohemian bookselling and the wild musical satire of the band he
co-founded, the Fugs, specialists in songs of dope and sex. (At the time I dropped in, Sanders had been tinkering in a recording studio, refining some new Fugs tracks he'd made with band co-founder, Tuli Kupferberg, now 85.)
Over the course of two March afternoons, Sanders talked about his evolution as a poet, from the rhyming formalism of his English class at Blue Springs (Mo.) High School to the Charles Olson-inspired practice he developed and labled "Investigative Poetry" in the mid-1970s to the extensive immersion in history that underlies his ambitious and long-running project—recounting the history of America in verse. Sanders' poetic history of the United States in the 20th century spans five volumes, not counting a separate book entirely devoted to 1968, and lately he's been filling binders, reading and making progress on the previous three centuries ...
Sanders also is the author of a sprawling fictionalized memoir, Tales of Beatnik Glory, which has been optioned by Hollywood, as has The Family, his nonfiction investigation of Charles Manson and "family."
In the fall of 2009, Coffee House Press issued a two-volume collection of Sanders' poetry, the first half being a revised edition of Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century, his selected poems from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the second an all-new selection from the last two decades. The latter, Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War, owes its title to Simone Weil, who made a similar declaration in an essay after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Sanders has an impish sense of humor and a mellow demeanor that would suggest an unruly absent-mindedness if he weren't so focused on making things right in the world and on the page. What else is a poet to do?
"Basically," he told me, "I hate to say it, but no one reads poetry. Nobody reads history. I write history and poetry. Therefore, what?" Here's what.
NEW LETTERS: Everyone comes from somewhere, of course, so maybe it's of interest only to those of us in the Midwest that you hail from Blue Springs, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb. But how did that contribute to your development as a poet?
ED SANDERS: I was raised in Missouri. All my poetry was rhymed until I came to New York.
NL: It rhymed because you were raised in Missouri?
SANDERS: I had this great English teacher who taught us about the silver age of literature and the golden age of literature. We read William Cullen Bryant. We memorized Poe, and "The Cremation of Sam McGee," "The Road Not Taken," Shakespeare's sonnets. We memorized a lot. All my poems rhymed. So I realize now, as I'm getting on, I'm starting to rhyme again.
My friend Robert Creeley, a rock-ribbed New Englander from Worcester—his late poems started to rhyme, too. Rhyming is a well of the muses a poet can drink from later in life. Look at Thomas Hardy, at those beautiful, rhymed poems he wrote in his 80s. Some of his best work was when he was older. The rhyming circuits are the last ones to go in a poet's mind, I think.
Some people have rhymophobia. But rhyme was as American to me as my aunt's homemade ice cream. Everything was rhyme.
NL: So you were actively writing poems in high school?
SANDERS: Oh yeah, sure. I have all my life's poems arranged in three-ring binders in one of my storage sheds. I got all my stuff returned from one of the heirs to my English teacher, Mrs. Hall, Lecie Hall, in Blue Springs. I was quite religious once. She, herself, was religious. She would read some of my high school poems to her Sunday school class, and this was after the Fugs, too, when I was writing erotic stuff. She forgave me some of my transgressions. I always visited Lecie Hall when I went back there.
If it weren't for her, I probably wouldn't have been a poet. She saw my wild, Poe-like, strange mindset, and she encouraged me. Under her tutelage, I started shifting away from rhyme, and I became aware of Dylan Thomas and Ezra Pound. I began reading modern poetry in high school.
NL: In Tales of Beatnik Glory, you write about the period in your senior year in high school after you discovered Ginsberg's Howl and went wild over it.
SANDERS: I bought Howl at the University of Missouri bookstore, and I memorized it. I used to shout it out to my beer-drinking buddies as we drove around the Independence courthouse square drinking Griesedick Brothers beer. They ignored me. But they let me do it.
Note: Sanders attended the University of Missouri for a year before transferring to New York University. Following his late mother's advice to learn from the classics—she died during Sanders' senior year in high school—he studied Greek. By the early 1960s, he had settled into the Bohemian district of lower Manhattan, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore and published broadsides and stapled, mimeographed booklets of poetry.
NL: How did you end up in Ginsberg's circle and getting noticed in general?
SANDERS: I used to go to readings of beatnik poets in the coffee houses on Bleecker Street. I wouldn't have dared to introduce myself. A fellow needed to write something worthy of my generation. Finally I wrote Poem from Jail (City Lights, 1963). I sent it to Ferlinghetti. And I started writing to Ginsberg. I started to put out Fuck You magazine, and I sent it to my heroes: Beckett, Picasso, Castro, and I sent one to Allen Ginsberg in India. He wrote back. I sent one to Charles Olson. They all started writing back. All of a sudden I had more fame than I should've had. I was still in college.
I opened the store in the fall of '64. Allen lived nearby. Jack Kerouac used to walk by my store on his way to visit Allen. So I was a wild young man in the midst of all that when I got out of college. But then I became their friend, because I started writing things worthy of my generation.
NL: Being up here in Woodstock, N.Y., as long as you have, how does it, as a place, contribute to your writing? Is it any different than writing in the city?
SANDERS: It's pretty good to write here, because people leave us alone. No one would dare call me before noon. I'm usually up at 6:30, and I write till noon. Then I do community work—fund-raising for causes, raising money for gravestones for writers, auctions. I was a key person in writing a Woodstock zoning law, a ban on aerial spraying, a pesticide law. I'm very controversial locally. I'm always trying to protect the water. I was a Yippie, after all, so I can be controversial. In a small town, it becomes a matter of personality ... but Miriam and I have many, many, many friends. We don't want malls here. We biased the hotel economy toward bed and breakfasts, and no Motel 8s.
NL: And you also published a newspaper.
SANDERS: For eight years we did a biweekly newspaper, the Woodstock Journal. Now it's a desultory Web site. It was a little bit like military duty. It paid for itself. It was a lot of work. I was touring, traveling all the time, sometimes editing the paper from a hotel in Vienna or Frankfurt or Rome in the middle of the night. I did it for eight years, then decided I couldn't do it any more. At the same time, I was writing a verse biography of Chekhov, a verse biography of Ginsberg, and the first three volumes of America: A History in Verse. I could feel my hair turn whiter each day. Running a newspaper—all the anguish, dealing with advertisers, proofreaders, getting honest distributors. It's like running a rock band. It's full of hundreds of details that no one knows anything about.
NL: Your concept of "investigative poetry" (see Investigative Poetry, City Lights, 1976) is much like the practice of journalism or history, involving research and exploring facts, though with an attention to the poet's craft, of course. Is that what drives your American history project?
SANDERS: My mentor Charles Olson urged us to find out for ourselves. I have taken 10 years to build a library of hundreds of books, some of them very old. You open up their pages and make notes. You try to make accurate chronologies, and I list sources for each assertion.
When I was writing the Manson book, in 1970 and '71, I had pages all over the floor of our big loft in New York City, and a transcriber who transcribed my tapes. I found myself writing text in clusters, so for this new version of Thirsting For Peace in a Raging Century, I decided to transcribe my note pages as when I was writing the Manson book. It's a poem called "The Road to Investigative Poetry." I described the scene as police arrived. I wrote it in the short lines that I was typically writing at the time. And I realized as I did this back then, even though these were typed up in regular paragraphs, I originally wrote it in line breaks. That gave me the idea of investigative poetry, which I wrote four years later.
NL: How do you turn what is essentially nonfiction, or history, into poetry? I mean, the project could end up fairly dry, right?
SANDERS: Nonfiction is a kind of map of fragments of information sequenced together, like an elegant baklava with layers of meaning. You have to think of different arrays of sequencing information. If you want to entice a reader not to put down the book and turn on the television, you need to make it interesting, but you have to be true to the material. It's about data clusters and pathways to sequencing information. It's extremely important not to get trapped in a certain array. I used to encounter people in rock 'n' roll who would say, "I wrote those lines and I can't change it." I'd say, "What do you mean you can't change it?" I call it a lame-o lyric lock. You get locked into a lame-o lyric sequence. It's the same for nonfiction writing or playwriting or in putting together a sequence of stuff. It's important not to get frozen into a certain array, but to do some experimentation on the data.
The post-modern negative capability comes into play. I could write a biography of you; I could probably write 15,000 pages on you. But in nonfiction you have to say no to hundreds of things. You have to make an apt choice, or an artistic choice, or an aesthetic choice about what you put in—and what you leave out. It's an art form when to say no. Especially in investigative poetry, it's a mission.
Then the double problem is to make it euphonious, eurhythmic, to have emotive power and to have the structure of poetry. That is not easy. It's not only "first thought best thought" in investigative poetry. There's a lot of elbow grease.
NL: What did you accomplish today?
SANDERS: Well I got up (laughter) about 6:30 a.m., and as I was doing yesterday, during my four or five hours of writing, I was working on America: A History in Verse, the 18th Century. Today I've been researching things like Thomas Paine's quarrel with George Washington. This was when he was in prison under the Terror in Paris, and Paine felt that Washington should have worked harder to get him out.
I did some research to try to figure out those years, but I was also writing a draft of the first 30 pages, up through the Tuscarora Wars. The Tuscarora was a tribe in North Carolina, which battled German, Dutch, and British settlers. The early part of the 18th century is very complicated and interesting. So that's what I did this morning, I wrote and printed out 30 pages of the 18th century. Then I switched to my local political role. I'm refereeing some disputes in local government as a town father.
Then I printed out some poems.
NL: I wanted to return to something you said yesterday, an offhand comment speculating as to whether you were literary enough for a literary quarterly. What did you mean by that?
SANDERS: I was more or less jesting. I did not follow an academic career. I was offered all kinds of jobs as a professor, which I turned down. I have by my bed Aeschylus in Greek. My Greek is still pretty good. I always read quite a bit of Greek, but I am not up on post-modernist theory. So I was joking. I don't write for The New York Review of Books. I'm not much of a careerist. I don't go out of my way to get published in the right venues. There are in-crowd places. I used to try to do that, to write stuff for the Village Voice or Paris Review. I don't know the answer to forging quote a career unquote. So I deliberately didn't take a faculty position. I wanted the personal freedom of seven-hour writing days or really writing around the clock if I wanted to.
NL: I was hoping you'd talk about your Greek studies.
SANDERS: Well, the lead poem in my new collection is my translation of that new Sappho poem that was discovered in 2004. They matched two pieces of papyrus, and they pulled out the texts using modern technology. It was underneath something, some kind of commercial text. I translated that. This particular poem by Sappho, which I translated a couple of years ago, is written in a meter called choriambics. Choriambics is long short short long.
It's a beautiful meter, which I found in Eliot, in "Four Quartets." I like to parse poems that I like, such as the "Four Quartets" or Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking": Out of the cradle endlessly rocking. It's like a metrical phrase that repeats: OUT of the CRA-dle, ENDlessly ROCKing. To me those are matching metrical units.
So this Sappho is beautiful. Once I realized that it was choriambics, I decided to translate it. When you translate Sappho on a religious topic, you have to explain the mythic theme, so you have to add stuff. I added a few lines to explain the story. She brings up her own aging. She says she used to dance light-legged like gamboling fawns. She says you can't live forever, then she tells this story of Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn, who fell in love with a Trojan prince, Tithonus. The Greek gods liked to date humans, which is one of the key differences between Christianity and the ancient religions. Tithonus was mortal, and Eos was kind of randy; she went to Zeus and said please, daddy, make Tithonus immortal. But she forgot to ask, as Sappho points out in the poem, to keep him from aging, so Tithonus kept getting older and older and older and older. Goddesses are eternal beauty queens, but he aged on her. I guess you can't go back to Zeus and ask again. So that's the poem by Sappho, on that legend and her own story of aging.
So I keep my hand in. I go to all these conferences. I'm the only beatnik who can yodel. No, I'm just kidding. I always tell that to European interviewers, especially in Austria. I yodeled on Austrian state TV.
All of this was introduction to Sanders' impromptu performance, sitting on his couch, of the poem. He walks off and returns with a small stringed instrument.
I have set this to music. I put a melody to it because Sappho, just like William Blake or Robert Burns, they almost set themselves to music. That's how I discovered it was choriambic. I figured out the long and shorts as best I could, then I just kind of breathed into it. Just like Yeats, I guess. Yeats, when he was polishing his poems, kind of beat time with his hands, sing-song it, until he'd get the sound. It's the same way working with Greek texts, to try to figure out the meters for complicated texts or to get the melody lines. I play the Sappho with this little three-stringed dulcimer-like instrument.
I genuinely try to give the flavor of what the Greek was like. Of course, no one really knows how the Greek was pronounced. Until they work out time travel we'll never really know. So I do the best I can. I give it a little Missouri protestant hymn inflection.
NL: Considering the way you've immersed yourself in the metrics, are you conscious of metrics as you write, or are they so internalized you don't need to think about it?
SANDERS: Sometimes the metrics seem internalized. I tend now to write more in rhyme, but it's a difficult thing. All metrics are a sequence of vowels and consonants. It's a sequence of stops. The vowels carry the melody, and consonants are kind of the drums of poetry. Basically, the music in a line comes from vowels, or diphthongs, and consonants, and you bring to it meaning and sequence.
Everybody writes in meter. You can take any well-known poem and break it down into Greek meters. If you memorize those, or internalize those, and then you read Eliot or Ezra Pound or Robert Lowell or especially the most dense and open-field writers like Robert Duncan or Charles Olson, you can break their lines down into ancient meters—the iambs and the trochees and the dactyls—but also the anapests (dada dah), the spondees (two longs, dah dah) or various combinations of the basic meters. But how do I arrive at my lines? Well, the first thing a professor points out, line breaks are important.
Sanders recites William Carlos Williams' short poem "The Red Wheelbarrow": So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens.
I think it was Yvor Winters who pointed out that if you just ran this out as a couple of lines, ho hum. It was in the line break where the genius came forward. I grew up on Allen Ginsberg and Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan and decided to use a lot of line breaks. I have a lot of indented lines in my work, so I pay attention to that.
NL: That's what is interesting about America: A History in Verse. This could be prose, except for how you distill it and distribute the words.
SANDERS: I really work to make it poetry. I rewrite and select. First, I didn't want to write a kind of verse that's difficult to understand. I didn't want it like an ancient dithyramb, which is like the ancient Greek method of writing poetry that was difficult to understand. I wanted people to understand what I was saying. Yet I wanted it to have mystery and be referential and wanted to encourage people to explore for themselves. True, it's not prose. It is carefully chosen, and I work on it over and over again trying to breathe life into it, breathe the spirit of the bard into it. It is true you could take all of Shakespeare, run it together, run all his sonnets into prose. I use line breaks to facilitate the verse. It's true, I could break it into prose.
NL: Is the breath important in where you make those breaks?
SANDERS: Olson said this: "from the breath to the line." And Duncan, too: the state of your body, the breathing apparatus, your heart—he called it body tones—gave meaning to the way you write, and breathing had something to do with the length of the line. Allen Ginsberg had really good lungs, and he could write these 10-league lines that went on and on and on.
In the actual writing, sometimes you get poetry like Rilke's Duino Elegies, where it was kind of dictation from the sky. In that case, you're a transcriber, and you write it down. That's a graceful form of poesy. However, more often than not, you get an idea and then it's bardic elbow grease. You have to write it and rewrite it and polish and listen to it. It has to thrill the eye. It has to have intellectual content, but it has to thrill the ear, too. So, like Yeats, beating the time and chanting, I try to see what it sounds like.
NL: It occurred to me that when I write about this book, America: A History in Verse, it would be useful to compare your project to conventional history.
SANDERS: The thing about it, I've learned, is that historians are not a violent group, but they're contentious. Each point in history can be debated. There's a fact blizzard, an unbelievable amount of facts in the timelines of history. There's an unbelievable number, trillions of factional units one can choose. Then your own taste and your own abilities, your own historical outlook, your own politics, your own ethics, your own set of what's right and wrong, your own beliefs about the goodness or badness of something, your upbringing, your belief in spirituality and the afterlife, your non-belief in spirituality and the afterlife, your education, and everything comes into play as you choose to pluck the heart of your verse with all those possible notes. So in writing my history, I reject a lot of stuff. I agonize about this stuff. You have to say no. Like when you're selecting poems for a book. You're always breaking the hearts of your poems, if they were alive, when you don't put them in a book. It's the same way with history.
The biggest problem is converting thought and passion into poetry. That's where it all lies. I do my best. I work hard at it. Was it Olson who said, there are no weekends for poets? That I know.
University of Missouri—Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Betsy Beasley
Editorial Assistant: Ashley Kaine