Tom Beckett

An Interview with Alex Gildzen

Tom Beckett: Alex, where did/does poetry begin for you?

Alex Gildzen: In a tree. Or so I like to say. I remember climbing a willow on the edge of our property in Elyria to write. I even carved a line into a branch. But that’s the legend (if I dare use such a word). Actually I began writing poems in the sixth grade. A teacher by the name of Martha Radachy introduced her students to art and literature and music. She was a major influence in my early life and I thank her daily.

That is the did. The does is more difficult. Like the origin of breath. I’m sure scientists can pinpoint it. I simply allow it.

TB: What inspires you, gets you going?

AG: Everything. Anything. Eyes, ears, nose, fingers: they take in the world I experience and suggest places for the writing to go. Movies and paintings. Music. Blossoms. Burlap. Each can coffee a poem.

TB: You’ve been fortunate enough to have interacted with some extremely interesting figures in the world of poetry, art and film. Paul Metcalf, Jonathan Williams, Tom Meyer, James Broughton and a host of others come to mind. Who do you think of as your poetic forebears and current comrades?

AG: In high school I read the classic poets. I considered Frost and Sandburg “modern.” Then came A Coney Island of the Mind. Ferlinghetti opened doors of possibility for a teenager. I’m not sure how early I read Allen’s The New American Poetry but I presume my reading of that was the reason I went to Wagner College in the summer of 1963 to study with Kenneth Koch and hopefully meet Frank O’Hara. About a year and a half after that I met d.a. levy. But at the same time I was immersed in Hart Crane and Marianne Moore. I wrote Metcalf a “fan letter” in 1970 and met him that summer. Then came Robert Smithson and Ray Johnson.

Comrades of today? I read less poetry than I once did. And much of it is by friends. I subscribe to no school (although I find the so-called quietude gang generally boring). The explosion of poet bloggers means much to me. It’s as if the internet has become a place—Bloomsbury or the Harlem of that Renaissance.

TB: What was your experience of studying with Koch like? And did you meet O’Hara?

AG: Koch deserves his reputation as a brilliant teacher. I was at a disadvantage. I was the quiet midwesterner in a class brimming with New Yorkers who were already publishing in well-known little magazines. But Koch read my poems in class with the same respect. Somewhere in my papers at Kent State is the portfolio of work I did for the class with his thoughtful and generous written comments.

The college was on Staten Island. But one night we all journeyed to Manhattan for a party at the swank digs of publisher Lita Hornick. I was being pursued by an aggressive Willard Maas so I spent part of the time sitting on the floor behind a large chair. At one point the current Mrs. Gregory Corso (a sympathetic Clevelander) crawled back to keep me company. She told me O’Hara was at the party. I sprang forth and found Koch begging for an introduction. We scoured the place but O’Hara had left. So I was in the same room with my favorite poet of the time but didn’t meet him.

TB: What was it that appealed to you about O’Hara’s work?

AG: In one of the first poems of his I read he wrote about “Whitman, my great predecessor.” For me he was Walt’s grandson. Both found no subject off limits. O’Hara was writing about James Dean. About his friends. About his romances. About his lunch. It was as if we were at a bar and he leaned over to whisper into my ear and what he told me made my knees buckle.

TB: So, back in the day (as they say), it was as much about sexuality as it was about the textual?

AG: I don’t know about you, Tom, but language can make me weak in the knees too. Obviously the sexuality of Whitman and O’Hara was/is potent to me. But both also offer freedom of line and topic.

TB: What do you want from a poem, Alex?

AG: This may be the toughest question I’ve ever been asked. I’m not sure I can answer it. It’s not unlike a love affair. We bring everything we are to a relationship. I can say to myself I want a 6 foot blond who loves mangoes and movies. Then along comes a squat dark-haired man with a penchant for beef stew and basketball and he melts me. Sometimes chemistry trumps intellect.

As reader and writer I want an adventure. I can expect that language and ideas will come into play. But often the unexpected is what is memorable. The poem becomes itself. It’s no longer about what I want.

TB: “Sometimes chemistry trumps intellect.” I believe that too. Take me into your laboratory, sir. Talk about some of the methods you use when you work on a poem. Perhaps you could take me through the decision process of a particular text.

AG: If my laboratory is my head I’m not sure you want to visit. My methodologies lack the precision of those of science. The process involved in each piece of writing is different. Sometimes it begins with me posing a problem to myself. For example, many years ago I was listening to a Judy Henske album. In the song “Snowblind” there’s a line “twenty sonnets bound in gold.” That got me thinking about the history of that form. I wanted to use every known kind of sonnet. But that became simply an exercise. So I got two parallel narratives going. By the end of the sequence I brought each story together.

When Richard Grossinger published my selected poems nearly a quarter of a century ago I began the collection with “Twenty Sonnets Bound in Gold.” Richard wasn’t happy with that. He thought the sequence too difficult to begin a book. However Robert Duncan once told me he liked that piece.

TB: In the email which accompanied your last response you wrote: “I feel awkward—& maybe pretentious?—discussing process. I’ve rewritten this answer so many times I simply have to stop.” Alex, I invited you do this interview because I—and I think others—would like to learn more about you and how you think about the work you have done all these many years. You’ve had a long life in poetry and the arts. Here’s your opportunity to discuss it in a public forum. Awkwardnesses can be overcome and discussions of process and craft don’t have to be pretentious. I’d be very grateful if you’d try to respond to my questions more fully.

AG: You deserve your mantle as our preeminent interviewer of poets, Tom. I’m unaccustomed to this kind of attention. And I’ve grown into a cranky old man. But I’m grateful that you’ve invited me to do this and I’ll try harder to satisfy.

Part of my reluctance to be forthcoming about craft is that of the magician. If a poem works the poet shouldn’t have to explain why. But maybe I can focus here on my major work Alex in Movieland.

Although I continue to write traditional poems the work that’s most exciting to me is that which falls somewhere between poetry and conceptual art. I’ve been doing list poems for nearly 40 years. Little Lists was my 1973 xmas card. The next year Lee Harwood and I were going to co-edit an anthology of lists which never happened. Liszt & Other Lists was a chapbook in 1976. That same year I edited “A Little Anthology of Lists” which appeared in Shelly’s. Contributors to that included Ira Joel Haber, Bernadette Mayer, Paul Metcalf, Tom Meyer, John Perreault, Lewis Warsh and Jonathan Williams. So lists have been important to me for some time.

I began writing Alex in Movieland at the beginning of 1996. Its origin was the notion of putting together a list of every movie I’d ever seen. In The Year Book I had listed the movies I’d seen in May 1972. So germs were afloat long before I had a date with the page. I soon realized that such a list would bore everyone silly. How it morphed into an autobiography I’m not sure. But suddenly I began the story of my life as a list. The movies are still there but so is the kitchen sink. From 1996 on it’s a matter of recording what happens to me. Prior to that is archeology. So the work will continue until they turn off the respirator.

The title comes from falling into the rabbit hole that is film. The interweaving movie titles are my cetology. And since no filmmaker has approached me to film my life this is also the movie of my life. Each entry is a frame. The reader decides if it’s slow mo or fast forward.

So far only bits and pieces of this massive work have appeared. Last year Mark Young published It’s All a Movie which concludes with the year 1981. I write everyday and it continues to excite me. The only sadness about this project is that it can’t be published in its entirety until I’m dead. So I’ll never know what its reception will be. But I’ve always been under the radar.

TB: I sincerely wish you’d revive the idea of doing an anthology of list poems. I think it could be an important and evocative book, one that you’re uniquely positioned to assemble.

Talk a bit more about the importance of conceptual art and of visual art generally for your work. I remember many years ago reading an article you wrote for Arts Magazine about Robert Smithson’s “Partially Buried Woodshed.”

AG: My introduction to art also came from Miss Radachy. She had her students keep art notebooks. We’d purchase small reproductions of famous paintings, paste them in the book and write about them. That persuaded me to beg my parents to take me to nearby Oberlin to visit Allen Memorial Art Museum. This little museum is a gem. When I visit it now I see again pieces I’ve known for a half century. In high school–and later in college–my friends tended to be artists and writers and theater folk. Art is as much a part of my life as poetry and film.

I can’t pinpoint when I first learned about idea-based art. I was reading art magazines as an undergraduate and going to happenings and discussing art with friends and frequenting galleries and museums. In January 1970 Kent State University’s influential Creative Arts Festival brought both Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson to campus to do new pieces. And the next year I invited John Perreault to campus to write the introduction to a School of Art catalog. In addition to being a poet Perrault was both a practioner of conceptual art and a critic who often wrote about other conceptual artists. Then I learned about mail art via Ray Johnson.

I had already been doing list poems. So responding to a mix of happenings and conceptual art and earth art and found art and mail art was natural. In addition to the flat-out art pieces there were hybrids. You, Tom, published Postcard Poems in 1977. Originally these were poems on postcards that I sent to specific individuals. The collection that came from Viscerally Press brought the poems together on postcard-sized sheets: poem on one side, date and person to whom it was originally mailed on verso. All put together in a 3.5” x 6.5” envelope.

A decade later I began writing memories short enough to occupy one side of a postcard. I sent these to friends for more than two years, finally bringing them together in 1990 as Postcard Memoirs (1-100). Another project using postcards was Tape Downs. In this 1999 piece I taped items ranging from “hair from 3 parts of my body” to “earth from Dad’s garden” to postcards and mailed them.

Ongoing pieces include “The Century Dimes,” one of several works featuring currencies, and “Underwear in a Box.” I’ve finally collected much of this work in Making Circles which has been waiting to be published for a year or so.

Boundaries between poetry and art mean nothing to me. Where do I locate Alex in Movieland? I don’t. Let someone else decide. I’m having too much fun making it.

TB: You’ve been blogging for a few years now. How has that affected your practice as a writer/affected your life?

AG: I enjoy blogging at http://arroyochamisa.blogspot.com. Although I have a core group of daily readers, I’ve never attracted a major following. Part of this may be that I’m all over the place. Cinephiles tend not to know who r.j.s. is while poetry fans don’t recognize Bess Flowers.

I don’t think that blogging has affected my writing. To me it’s an extension of the verse journals I did in the ‘70s. So in that respect technology is finally catching up with me.

But blogging—or the whole internet venture—has affected my life in bringing me to the attention of a much younger generation of poets. For the first time in my life I seem to have fans and that’s quite the humbling experience.

TB: Let’s go into your small press history/autobiography. Talk to me—with details and anecdotes—about your experiences as publisher, poet and etc. You’ve interacted with d.a. levy, Robert Duncan, Jonathan William, Thomas Meyer, James Broughton, Paul Metcalf and many, many others. Let’s hear about some of that. You’ve had some wonderful friendships with literary figures of renown.

AG: There’s no doubt about it. I’ve been a lucky guy. I’m old enough to have had significant friendships that have lasted 30, even 40, hell—50 years.

Let me try to recap some of the literary friendships in the context of my own publishing history. The year I turned 20 was my true poetic coming out. I spent those few weeks in New York in Koch’s class and also met Broughton (the two of them, in fact, were listening at the keyhole while I was being serviced by a much older poet). And my poems began appearing in little magazines. One of the first editors to accept me was Loring Williams of American Weave. He was married to Hart Crane’s aunt. It was at his house in Cleveland that I met levy in 1965. The following year levy published me in Marrahwannah Quarterly. In 1967 I co-edited the first issue of Toucan where I eventually published levy.

In 1969 my first chapbook Into the Sea was published by Abraxas Press (exactly 40 years ago this month) and at year’s end Gary Snyder came to campus to read. I invited him to my house in Twin Lakes for dinner. During the meal we discussed levy and afterward I brought out my collection. It was the first time Snyder had seen most of levy’s work. Later when I edited the levy issue of The Serif I invited Snyder to contribute. His essay “The Dharma Eye of d.a. levy” has been reprinted widely and often leads readers to the Cleveland poet’s work.

Certainly 1970 was a watershed year for me. In the space of 12 months I observed Smithson create “Partially Buried Woodshed,” took John Ashbery to lunch at Stag Bar, brought Gwendolyn Brooks (with whom I’d studied at Indiana University in 1967) to campus, hosted Lee Harwood and Stuart Montgomery visiting from England, survived the May 4th campus massacre, joined Ted Berrigan and Robert Creeley to attend the COSMEP meeting in Buffalo where Allen Ginsberg pounded on my door at night, met Metcalf in the Berkshires between stays at the homes of Jean-Claude van Itallie and Ron Schreiber, began working in Special Collections and had a poem published in Rolling Stone.

In 1986 The Avalanche of Time was published, in 1992 the anthology A Gathering of Poets co-edited with Maggie Anderson and in 2007 It’s All a Movie.

So many colorful people have drifted through my life. I close my eyes and see Jacob Leed preparing gins and tonic, Jonathan Williams photographing Tom Meyer and I skinnydipping in the pool at Twin Lakes, Richard Grossinger doing tai chi in my livingroom, Ira Joel Haber and I laughing so hard our sides hurt, R. B. Kitaj introducing me to David Hockney on my first trip to Europe, Robert Drivas coming at me with a knife, Jean-Claude van Itallie in the Berkshires giving me a cat to bring home, Ned Rorem pausing during lunchmaking to smash a cockroach, Jim Provenzano housesitting for me on Morris Road, Robert Peters portraying Mad Ludwig in my diningroom, Gerald Mast and Peter Burnell preparing lobster for David Meredith and I in Provincetown, Richard Martin giggling through lunch at Barrymore’s, Edward Field gossiping at an Indian restaurant in Akron, James Ellroy wearing a kilt while howling like a mad dog, Todd Moore introducing me to the bookstores of Albuquerque, Matthew Wascovich spreading the Century Dimes on a bridge over RTA tracks in Cleveland.

But I’d be amiss not to pause for a special word about Paul Metcalf. Our friendship lasted nearly 29 years.

In the summer of 1970 I read a review of Genoa in a magazine. It sounded intriguing. Since Melville was one of its subjects I went to my great teacher and friend Howard P. Vincent, author of The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. I asked him if he knew the book. He shuffled through the mess that was his office and found his copy which he loaned me. That was the beginning.

When I visited the Metcalfs in Chester, there was always a great deal of merrymaking. Both Paul and Nancy were adept in the kitchen so meals were a treat. Sometimes we worked together in the garden. Every night Nancy would excuse herself early and go upstairs to bed. Then Paul and I would talk literally for hours. There was nothing we didn’t discuss: literary gossip, our own writing, movies, sports, current events. One summer I was there when they had the famous Baby Picnic with guests including Clark Coolidge and Peter Bertolette, Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh. They visited me often in Kent. I stayed with them when Paul was teaching in San Diego. Paul and I once gave a joint reading in Michigan. And the only reason they didn’t come to Santa Fe was the altitude (Nancy had an inner-ear problem which prevented that).

I published the first Metcalf checklist in First Printings of American Authors in 1978 and expanded it for Credences two years later. Paul wrote a review of my New Notes (which unfortunately was never published). And we wrote many, many letters back and forth over the years. He suggested I meet Jonathan Williams and later Todd Moore.

He was a good friend and valued critic, an inspiration. I miss him.

TB: I’ve always thought, Alex, that you have a gift for friendship. It’s no small thing.

I have to ask, at the beginning of James Broughton’s memoirs Coming Unbuttoned, a truly terrific book, he thanks “Alex Gildzen who embellished it.” How did you embellish his book?

AG: I was afraid you were going to ask that. I’m not sure what James meant. One thinks of “embellishment” as improving a story with fictitious ornamentation. I would never do that. I suspect he was using the word in the sense of providing detail which brings out the memorable. During my tenure in Special Collections, I catalogued the Broughton papers which were purchased in 1977. From that experience I wrote an article “A Walk in the Starlight: Emil Oppfer and James Broughton” which appeared in Visionary Company in 1982. It investigated the relationship between Hart Crane’s lover and James. During his writing I vaguely recall he contacted me for exact details of his life which I had gleaned from working through the papers.

In inscriptions in various books of his James called me “custodian of my secrets” and “my special confidant, my guardian” because I knew so much about him from reading all the letters he so meticulously saved.

My first conversation with James was on Staten Island in the summer of 1963. He and his beloved Joel Singer were my houseguests in Kent over the years. I visited them in San Francisco where they introduced me to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kevin Killian and they visited me in Santa Fe. The last time I spoke on the phone with James he was quite frail and his voice weak. Jonathan Williams called to tell me of his death. In the subsequent decade I’ve seen Joel in New York where he photographed me for his wonderful portrait series. He e-mailed the other day to say he’s packing for Bali.

TB: Anyone who knows your work even casually knows that you’re truly obsessed with movies. Have you appeared in any films, participated in the making of any? Did you appear in any of Richard Myers’ work? Jake Leed did, I believe.

AG: Yes. I’m in a couple of Dick’s films. It’s hard to believe but the first was 40 years ago – “Akran.” In 1983 I saw the film for the first time in years and wrote a poem “In the Bus” about seeing myself and friends in it. In “Jungle Girl” (1984) I’m a dummy sitting on the lap of ventriloquist James Broughton. Two years later Dick shot James and I again with a camera on a sort of homemade dolly but he didn’t like that footage and never used it.

Since moving to New Mexico I’ve been an extra in three films. In “Santa Fe” (1997) I’m in a couple of shots done at a local restaurant called The Pantry. In “Maniacts” (2001) I’m quickly in the crowd greeting the queen of England. In “Swing Vote” (2008) even I couldn’t find myself as part of the audience at the rodeo grounds for the debate scene.

TB: How do you think about performance in terms of the practice of your art and life?

AG: Good question, Tom. Working on Alex in Movieland made me realize my art and my life are now inseparable.

I try not to “perform” in life. But in many ways that’s what we all do. Sometimes I find myself guiding my life so that I can document it in the work. For instance, to mark Lila Lee’s centennial I made sure I saw one of her most famous silent films, “Blood and Sand.” However circumstances can get in the way. For years each week my mother has sent me a business envelope full of clippings she thinks will interest me. At one point I began to save the envelopes thinking I’d use them for a piece. Her approaching 80th birthday gave me an idea. I bought manila envelopes one size larger. On the fronts I pasted a Xerox copy of the portrait of Mom that Dad had with him during the war. I was going to put my mother’s envelopes inside the larger ones and mail them from Elyria on her 80th. That birthday was 14 September 2001. Because of the tragedy three days earlier all airports were closed and I was unable to be in Ohio that day. So “An Envelope Within An Envelope” didn’t happen. But I didn’t give up. Five years later I was in Elyria for that birthday. I sat Mom in a chair in the middle of the livingroom and around her made a circle from 85 envelopes she had sent me. A month later I was giving a reading at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Before starting I made a circle around the podium of the same envelopes. During the reading I read a poem about mother then paused to explain what the circle was. I picked up the envelopes and gave one to each member of the audience.

So I guess I do perform in life because everything I do is grist for the writing.

TB: You’re a gay man. You’ve always struck me as a caring, cheerful and vibrant person. But I know life hasn’t always been easy for you. Not least because of the friends you’ve lost to AIDS, but for a host of others reasons too. How has your sense of self—as a sexual being and a person in society—changed over the trajectory of your life? This is both an intimate and a political question.

AG: Let me be blunt. I haven’t broadcast it but I don’t know how to avoid it and still give an honest answer to such a powerful question. Earlier in the year I had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. I’ll spare you details but currently I’m taking an anti-depressant and engaging in another kind of interview—a weekly chat with a psychiatrist. So it’s been fascinating to me that suddenly I’m reviewing my personal life with him and my writing life with you. And just as I mentioned this interview to him this week suddenly I’m being asked to examine my personal life here. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

My sense of self? I had no idea when I began this, Tom, that you’d be requesting blood. If I was nervous and unwilling to appear pretentious by revealing too much about process, you can imagine how I feel considering this.

My poet identity came early. I had no spirit to visit me like Broughton but I simply knew that was forever a part of who I am. My sexuality also came early. Although I was able to embrace my poet identity, the acceptance of my sexuality was more complex. However, by the age of 23 I was openly living with another man.

A few years ago I put together a manuscript called Territory of Men. It was a collection of homoerotic poems over a 40 year span. The earliest poem was written in 1964. When I wrote it I didn’t realize what it was. Years later someone told me it was a love poem. I mention this to illustrate how slippery a sense of self is.

Being gay is a gift. Some societies understand that and others don’t. Although there remains a good deal of hate in the world–and much of it fostered by religion–I’ve lived long enough to see real change. It seems to me that most young people in this country are more tolerant of diversity. However there will always be pockets of ignorance and gay people will always be targets for some for whom difference is an overwhelming fear.

How is my sense of self adapting to becoming old? I’ve never had a bigger challenge. Early in life I struggled with alcoholism. But I’ve always been a stubborn person and when I knew I had to stop drinking to stay alive I stopped. That was a quarter century ago. However, getting old is scary. My generation was prepared for the magnitude of loss by the AIDS epidemic. But now those of us who survived that face the falling away of the others in our lives. At this stage I believe my writing is what keeps me alive and resonant.

With thoughts of the great nude studies of Whitman and Broughton as old men, I shed my clothes for a photo spread at age 60. Later this month I turn 66 and next month will visit a clothing optional resort where I’ll damn the mirrors and proclaim myself alive. I remember Howard Vincent, supplanting his literary scholarship for a study of sex and gerontology, telling me years ago, “I can do anything you can do. It just takes me longer.”

TB: I admire your candor and courage, Alex. Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with me.

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Blogger Runechris said...

Very nice interview.. looking forward to maybe meeting him.. during Tres Versing the Panda.

12:59 AM  

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