An interview with Pierre Joris

Alexis Almeida

In his introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, Pierre Joris describes Celan’s work as “neither utopia or dystopia . . . a visionary-realistic land- and language-scape mapping the second half of the twentieth century.” Arising from the devastation of World War II and reaching beyond into the twenty-first century, this landscape insists on a reality that many of Celan’s contemporaries—who dismissed his work as merely imaginary, surreal, even psychotic—could not bring themselves to acknowledge.

The fiction of a centered, politically balanced world, as Joris notes, is starkly absent from these poems. What takes hold instead is the idea “that there has always been only a decentered multiplicity of centers.”

As I read the collection, and others translated by Pierre Joris, I recognized Joris’s tireless commitment to this decentralization—to the difficulty of mobility and the between-ness it entails. Celan wrote in German, both his mother tongue and the language of his mother’s murderers, which inspired him to “create his own language—a language as absolutely exiled as himself.” Pierre remains faithful to it in his translations, resisting the temptation to use a more commonly spoken German that might overshadow the complexity of the work’s origins and its multiple perspectives.

First and foremost a poet, Joris, much like Celan, approaches language in terms of both familiarity and estrangement.

As Tamas Panitz writes in his introduction to Joris’s most recent book,
An American Suite, a collection of poems he wrote in the 1970s, “in this work the contingencies of life are in vital communication with the constituencies of language. Each line and turn pitches us into the middle place.” His poems engage us precisely at their vanishing points, experimenting with genre, different modes of between-ness, and a radical, mobile sense of place.

Throughout his career as a poet, translator, scholar, and editor, Joris has advocated for these middle places. He has always been drawn to the minor, more difficult work of both well- and lesser-known poets, disrupting canonical ways of reading and practicing the idea that “there is no at homeness here / but only an ever more displaced drifting.”

Pierre Joris is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks of poetry, including
Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (2013), Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (2014), and An American Suite (2016), and two collections of essays, A Nomad Poetics (2003) and Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (2009). With Jerome Rothenberg, he published a two-volume anthology of twentieth-century avant-garde writings, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, (University of California Press), the first of which received the 1996 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. Beyond Celan’s poetry, his translations into both English and French, for which he has received two PEN awards, include works by Maurice Blanchot, Habib Tengour, and Tristan Tzara.

A former professor in the English departments at the University of Constantine, Algeria, and at SUNY-Albany, where he retired in 2013, Joris was the 2003 Berlin Prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, the artist Nicole Peyrafitte, with whom he frequently collaborates. We recently spoke over email.

I’d like to start with your essay, “The Millennium Will Be Nomadic or It Will Not: Notes Toward a Nomadic Poetics.” You delivered this essay as part of the “Naked Lunch” talk series at SUNY Albany in 1999, during which Brian Massumi was asked to be your “respondent,” and in a later version of it his responses are literally woven into the text. I love this format, and I am particularly curious about how it might point to your own aesthetics and political beliefs. The essay itself offers many definitions of a nomadic poetics, which include the breaking down of the division between the “inside” and “outside” of the poem, various critiques of the state’s drive toward unity, and the idea that language, to be truly nomadic, has to always be drifting, to be “'on its way' as Celan puts it.”

That format—the inclusion of a response to my own text into the text itself—is core to my, how to say, “pol-aesthetics.” Writing, starting with the first micro-line inscribed on paper (yes, that’s a metaphor, but at the same time, I still love handwriting with fountain pens), means creating difference in space, making a difference, a distinction, which opens up a complex space with an inside and an outside, with tensors that connect those spaces and make them more complex. Writing needs to account for both of these, and let them interact—what you mention is one specific occasion where I found a way of doing so in a very specific manner. These linkages are never Euclidean. The geometries are complex topologies that often can be connected only via collaged juxtapositions. I always loved Ed Dorn’s phrase: “the inside real and the outsidereal,” though I also think its corollary—the insidereal and the outside real—is just as true.

I came of age in the sixties and that’s certainly where my politics were formed—in a kind of double movement, a nomadic drift or transhumance between Europe and the United States, followed in the mid-seventies by a three year stay in Algeria. Maybe an anecdote can shed light on my continental drift, a drift that is also an interference pattern. Coming back in the early summer of 1968 to Europe, I was appalled by the fact that my generation was still joining the old Stalinist French Communist Party while on a heavy reading diet of Marx, Mao, and Lenin. So I would tell my friends to relax, smoke a joint, or take some acid to clean out the doors of perception, and suggest they switch to reading Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and heavy doses of Allen Ginsberg, plus Charles Olson’s and Robert Duncan’s poems and essays. When I got back to New York later that year I was just as appalled at all my friends being zonked-out beyond control on dope while trafficking all too much in psychedelic psycho-babble, so I’d suggest they start a diet of reading Marx, Gramsci, and Foucault. You could call such actions or thinking as situationally located, and indeed the Situationists have always been core to my political thinking. And not just the by now sanctified/sanitized Guy Debord. I am still an avid reader of Raoul Vaneigem and pick up each new book of his as it comes out.

There is also a section in which you inscribe many other writers into the scope of nomadic poetics. Among them are Muriel Rukeyser “as necessarily political,” Abdelwahab Meddeb’s practice of “allography,” which inscribes an “Islamic” calligraphic textuality into a Western system of writing, Henri Michaux’s “drawing poems,” and Nate Mackey’s sense of “discrepant engagement” as it points toward “the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation.” Can you talk about the ideas or writers that have been particularly important to you, especially as you were getting started as a poet and translator?

I have often pointed out the influence of Paul Celan, as it was on first hearing his work read to me in high school that I realized that there was a use of language different from all others I had experienced until then, from everyday language to literature, including most of what I had been told was poetry (“poesy” may be the better word). It was that use—“Dichtung” in German, true poetry—that would determine my life. It was just a few short years from there to the day I sat in Shakespeare and Company in Paris and discovered the man who defined poetry as “dichten = condensate,” i.e. Ezra Pound. I was already carrying the beats—Kaufman, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs—in my satchel, at the bottom of which there had been for quite some years the early poems of Gottfried Benn, the collection called “Morgue,” which remained important for me even after I decided not to return to the actual morgue I had to dissect bodies in and gave up my medical studies to turn to writing. I was a voracious reader from age five on, so it is difficult to give you a coherent list and impossible to give you a comprehensive one: I basically read everything that fell under my hand in German, French, and English. In Paris at that time I was also reading up on American prose writers from Hemingway to James Baldwin. In that so-important bookshop (Shakespeare and Company), I also met Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, the Moroccan poet who introduced me to Maghrebi literature, the poetry published by Abdellatif Laâbi’s magazine Souffles, and the great novels by Kateb Yacine and Mohammed Dib. The first person who asked me to translate poetry for his magazine—called Two Cities, and obviously Anglo-French—was the Mauritanian poet and psychoanalyst Jean Fanchette, since deceased. I started on a dossier of new German poetry in French and English, but it came to nothing as I left for the U.S. and his magazine folded.

Then, in the U.S., I was lucky enough to meet Robert Kelly right away. He opened up the new spaces of U.S. poetry for me: the Black Mountain poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, etc. Two years later, in 1969 in New York, I met first Paul Blackburn, who was one of the first readers of my work and gave essential advice, then Jerome Rothenberg, who had just published his ground-breaking Technicians of the Sacred anthology. Paul passed away in 1971, but Jerry and I have been friends and collaborators ever since.

You end “Notes Towards a Nomadic Poetics” with a reference to older Bedouin poetries—the pre-Islamic mu’allaqat or odes—which are “so often described as stilted, over determined, static poems because of their presumably predetermined closed structures and monorhymes.” You go on to suggest that these poems can be seen as rhizomatic structures and nomadic dérives. Can you talk a bit about working on them as a translator? I’m specifically interested in your work with Ibn Tarafah, whose ode you worked on with an Iraqi friend in the late seventies. You have called this translation a “nomadic process.”

This happened in the late seventies when I was living in Algeria and teaching at the University of Constantine. I was trying to learn Arabic, which turned out to be impossible to do there for a number of reasons, but a friend of my then compañera came to visit us. He was Iraqi, had to leave his country because Saddam Hussein was killing anybody who was a member of the Communist Party, and he sought refuge in London. As a present he brought me an Arabic copy of the Collected Mu'allaqats. I thought that maybe I could imitate Pound, who had taught himself enough Chinese, it seems, to translate or by translating poetry. The way I tried to go about this was to record Mohammed reciting the poems, which he knew in the main by heart. His father had owned a second-hand bookshop on al-Muttanabi street in Baghdad and he had grown up with the sound of classical Arab poetry in his ears.

We then made a word-by-word, interlinear, English translation. I also had at least two older translations with me, one English and the other French, which I decided not to consult until we had a basic interlinear one. But I had read them before and I had picked Ibn Tarafa’s ode as the first to attempt because he reminded me most of the young Rimbaud. Mohammed went back to London soon and I was left with our interlinear version and Mohammed's recording of the poem. As I kept working on the translation, I realized that the problem with all the versions that I had seen—French or German or English—was that the classic Arabic ode used a very coded rhetorical and metaphorical language inside the classic structures or strictures of the form, namely its fixed meters and its mono end-rhyme. Attempts to render these features more or less faithfully made most translations sound like bad nineteenth-century poetry. What was lost was exactly Pound’s sense of “dichten=condensare,” that tightening of the language needed to get away from that late-Victorian / Edwardian flab. How to go about making a translation that would be readable to my own contemporary ear? I began to leave out the rhetorical flourishes, to concentrate on the core images. Two possibilities came to mind: the Japanese renga, i.e. linked haiku chains, and William Carlos Williams’ stepped lines. It is with those permissions in mind that I came up with my Tarafa versions—thus nomadic in the sense that the translation process held in mind or moved from traditional pre-Islamic poetics in the Arab peninsula via Japan to New Jersey.

And speaking of nomadic processes, I am also interested in the turn that occurred in Celan’s late work. Atemwende, or Breathturn marks a movement away from euphony in order to focus more on “accuracy” in language. Can you talk a bit about what led to this turn, and how you adjusted your practice as a translator to capture it?

I didn’t need to adjust my practice as a translator because I started translating him right at the moment when that turn occurred. In 1967, I bought Atemwende in Europe just as it came out and took it with me when I moved to the U.S. that fall. In 1968, I started working on translating it as my B.A. senior project at Bard College. I had of course read the earlier Celan ever since I was fifteen, but until then had not thought of translating him—in fact, I couldn’t have, my English would have been too poor. It was only in 1965 that I decided to write in English (rather than in French or German, my cultural languages, or in Letzeburgesch, my oral-only mother-tongue) and so it was the 1967 move to the U.S. that gave me the possibility to completely start living in the American language. Undertaking the translation of Atemwende may have been a major case of hubris, but I saw it essentially as a double quest: first, to try to understand difficult, complex poetry there is no better way than to translate it, translation being the closest reading you can give a poem, and second, to discover—& stretch—the possibilities of American English, and make a home therein. Also, no matter how you came to that book, Atemwende was baffling, even for native German speakers. The book had gathered just a few—mainly puzzled when not negative—reviews, with the general consensus being that Celan had gone overboard and disappeared into a private hermeticism. Reading Atemwende I had been totally blown away. So for my own nomadic (dis)equilibrium, it was a fascinating dance to do moving between this deeply European work while plunging headfirst into the new American poetry, now beyond the beats, into Olson, Duncan, Spicer, etc.

Now, your question is about what led to this turn in Celan’s poetry. We don’t have the time to go into detail here (an interested reader can check my introduction to the volume Breathturn, where I explain this in detail, and/or all the other intros to my Celan translations) but essentially it was the realization on Celan’s part that his poetry was being misread, misused—and that that was easy enough to do for a reader with bad intentions—because of its lush Rilkean or near-surrealist language, mirroring the cultural richness of his origins, that gone world of an Austro-Hungarian Bukowina. The “Todesfuge, ” for example, had been called by one major German critic a gorgeous dream-like surrealist fantasy with no reference to the actual world. Celan realized that the “euphony” this early writing still worked with could be misread and that poetry post-Khurbn had to become barer, that lush metaphors were an inappropriate luxury. Also, in 1960 Claire Goll, the widow of Ivan Goll, faked manuscripts and accused Celan of having ripped-off her husband’s work. This caused untold pain and psychic harm to Celan. His late style—no, not style, it is a full poetics that we are talking about here. His late poetics—the work from Atemwende on—is the quest and realization of that poetics.

I’m thinking now about your work as an editor, and your commitment to including a wide poetic range in Poems for the Millennium, for example. This anthology, which brings together avant-garde writing from the pre- and post-war periods, is not only subversive for breaking with established canonical modes—in part by including many underrepresented authors and lesser-known works—but also for creating its own organizing system, inserting “galleries” of individual poets and commentaries throughout. What were some of your guiding principles when putting this anthology together with Jerome Rothenberg? What were some of your initial ideas about its structure? It seems almost collage-like in itself.

It was sometime in the early eighties that we started to talk about the possibility, and the need, for a wider anthology of avant-garde or experimental work on a global level, as the nationalistically-inclined traditional anthologies by that bias miss out on much of what really happened—namely that the twentieth century was a story of cross-fertilization with complete disregard for national borders. Thus, anthologies like the Nortons are really deceptive, claiming wide coverage of given national literatures when, in fact, their original ideological starting position is that of “major dead white males,” even if, under pressure, they started adding some women and non-white poets, or else created subsets of identity-based selections. On top of which their aesthetics (which are political deep down) correspond to traditional salon-fähig models of poetry that are unexciting, safe, and pedestrian. Now imagine someone proposing a book on the history of twentieth-century art that would omit Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, exactly those movements that shaped twentieth-century art. The proposal would be laughed out the door. But that’s exactly what those mainstream poetry anthologies do. We saw our Millennium series as a response to those lacks.

Jerome had already put together several major gatherings in ethnopoetics, such as Technicians of the Sacred, while I had put together a few smaller anthologies, such as Matières d’Angleterre. Formally, these books had tried to come up with solutions beyond the traditional structures of either chronology of birth dates or alphabetical order of authors, while also adding an informational structure that would help the reader while not over-simplifying content (by explaining difficult words, for example, as some of the other anthologies were wont to do). We also wanted to shift focus away from “the greatest poem” or the “masterwork” to a more contemporary vision of the poem as an instance of work in the process of being made, thus as something more mutable, open to change, responsive to its environment, rather than as a fixed, final, packaged product. This combines with the attempt to choose poems rather than poets, constituting a further switch of focus. All this thinking led to the building of a complex structure involving what we called “Books” with “galleries,” with sections focusing on specific movements, and adding—beyond a general introduction—smaller, more specific intros to specific subsections and what we called “commentaries” to individual poets and occasions. As you noted, there is a collage quality to the books. And rightly so as we consider collage one of the most fundamental techniques of twentieth-century art.

I’d like to end with your own poetics. Your new book, An American Suite, begins with the lines “the limits / wch belong / belong to / the poem,” and continues to explore, among other things, the expansiveness of language, situating itself between lyric, philosophy, and diary. The poems themselves were written in the seventies, and many are accompanied by dates, times, and reference to place, including the Belgian coast via London; your room in Oued El Had, Algeria; a New York-bound flight; and a North Carolina lake. They are very immediate and self-interrogating and seem to want to capture the space between memory, experience, and politically drawn borders. What was it like to put the collection together? Can you talk about some of the main concerns you were working through while writing these poems? These were some of your earliest days as a poet, anthologist, and translator.

We started this interview by reflecting on how Brian Massumi, as “respondent,” entered the Nomadics manifesto. The new book, An American Suite, in a different if related manner, was also the result of an interaction between me, my work, and a third person. On this occasion it was the young poet Tamas Panitz. He helped me get all the early work that was still only in paper form typed up and stored electronically. During this process Tamas mentioned that he had come across a batch of poems I had never published in book form and that had only appeared in magazines or not at all, but that he liked very much. So I suggested he put together a ms. of such poems he believed were of interest to him and in some way meaningful for poets of his generation, wondering if I had just forgotten these or had not published them because I didn’t think they were strong enough. When I went over the ms. I was pleasantly surprised by the result. I had indeed forgotten that I had written some of them, while others I remembered but had simply never found a way of placing in a collection. The way Tamas put them together, only slightly reshuffled by me, did make sense in that it documented (before I ever started using the term) my natural nomadicity, both actual, as the poems move between the U.S., the U.K., and Algeria, and in terms of investigating ways of making writing formally responsive to such movements. I was simultaneously exploring ways of writing that I was discovering at that time, so you can hear sorts of homages to poets as varied as Ted Enslin, Louis Zukofsky, John Cage, Ted Berrigan, Robert Kelly, and others. Not so much a writing through others (although there is some of that) but rather an exploring of compositional modes. And an overall quest, still with me today, to go beyond any pre-given form and let the poem’s coming-into-being be open to and informed by the place of the writing. The poem as the event of itself in situ—a given, momentary place that is moving and changing as I pass through it and is itself composed of a “natural” landscape and of the various cultural overlays that enable one to read it. It goes on today. I’ll revise this interview on Delta flight #1019 tomorrow afternoon on my way back from Paris to New York, along what Ed Dorn called the “North Atlantic Turbine, ” though I’ll extend the line into a triangle, Delta, as I’ll soon fly out again to Morocco, and then back up to France again, before returning as I always do, to New York, my American suite.