How can a poet converse with one of America’s preeminent visual artists and hold his own? How can a poet take part in a conversation further enhanced—and complicated—by the addition of music, and still be heard? I’m not sure, but I think David Breskin has done it with DIRTY BABY (Prestel, $125), a “trialogue” between poet David Breskin, iconic Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha, and experimental guitarist Nels Cline. I found Breskin’s comments on the writing of the 66 ghazals worthy of their own chapter in our interview. Read the beginning of our conversation, which focuses on the collaborative and physical elements of the book, here. Skip ahead to the complete collaborative examples here.
Let’s talk about how you came to the form of the ghazal for the DIRTY BABY poetry. I think that the rigid restrictions of the form led you to a heightened lyricism.
Well I hope so, but I do realize it might seem a perverse choice. I’ve always been interested in forms, but before this I hadn’t even attempted a ghazal. I first learned about it college, way back in the ‘70s, and I always thought it was a pretty bitchin’ form, but noticed that it had seemingly pinned a lot of people. You know, the results in English… not so good! But I have to take a step backwards to explain why I made this choice.
When the book started out, I thought it would be like the RICHTER 858 book, where I would invite in a lot of poets of different schools, different attitudes and styles and temperaments like I did with that one, where we had Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman and Michael Palmer and Ed Hirsch and Jorie Graham, we had Dean Young and Ann Lauterbach and W.S. DiPiero, we had a baker’s dozen, about half Bay Area poets, half not. And I thought I would do the same thing here, that I would be the curator rather than the primary voice, because I hadn’t really thought about it too much. But the more I got into it the project, the more I realized that Ruscha’s work has a peculiar kind of tightness to it—I won’t say insularity—but a certain type of air-tight, repetitive narrowness. I don’t think this narrowness is a weakness because inside it Ed can go anywhere. He has a singular voice, which is quite, quite specific, and I came to feel that it would be wrong-footed to try to match that voice with a chorus of diverse poets. I came to feel that going that route would be like inviting a massive accident, you know, one of those chain-reaction crashes in dense fog on the interstate, a real multi-car pile-up. I felt like the book needed one voice in dialogue with Ruscha, and for better or for worse I was the guy hangin’ around. I was encouraged to take it on myself by a few people who’d thought about it with me and sort of gave me the courage.
“WESTWARD HO!” ghazal by David Breskin
So once I figured out I was going to be the unlucky poet to stand up to Ruscha, I had to figure out what was I going to do. That was the Now What? moment… otherwise known as Uh-oh! or Holy Crap! You know, what had I gotten myself into? Given the formal tightness of Ruscha, I decided that I needed to find a form, some kind of delivery device. I knew the book would be divided between a Side A and a Side B, and that it would be the shape and size of an analogue record. I knew it would have this kind of duality between sides, and would explore doubleness. But I hadn’t even picked the pictures yet, none of the music was written or recorded, and there was a whole lot about the book that was just a complete mystery to me. I wasn’t looking for the most archaic form or anything, but something that would have a rightness to it. And so this was a moment where it’s good to unlearn everything you know: I literally went through the couple of poetry dictionary/encyclopedia thingamabobs I have, searching for something right. It’s not that real familiar Western forms like the sonnet or villanelle were out of bounds, it’s just that I was hoping to surprise myself. You wouldn’t probably guess that an ancient Arabic form would have a rightness with the most super-iconic American conceptual/modernist/pop/absurdist, but against all odds it did! I felt it did.
I think so too.
The fact that the ghazal appeals so much to the ear was a factor, also the repetitiousness, the restrictions, the formal tightness. To me the ghazal feels very rectangular—like the landscape orientation of Ruscha—and yet at the same time has a certain circularity to it. I was looking for something strict and severe because Ruscha is strict and severe. And the sound of Ruscha’s work is so important that I knew, eventually, that I wanted to incorporate rhyming to emphasize that. But I also knew that we were going to have sixty-six of these suckers, because I wanted thirty-three pictures for each side and there needed to be a 1:1 relationship between each picture and poem, and I thought if we had the rhyming at the end of the lines—moon June spoon loon tune—that I might want to shoot myself by the time I was writing the fifth poem and the reader would be, you know, only too happy to guide the gun into my mouth. I love the fact that with the ghazal the rhyme is always internal, always right ahead of the refrain and not at the line-ends, which allows it to be more subtle and less clunk clunk clunk.
Have you written any ghazals since the sixty-six?
David, is that a polite way of asking is my wife ready to commit me to a mental institution?
Something like that! I’ve written one ghazal and that was the end of it. The stamina for sixty six—
—Really zapped me. I didn’t write any poems for a long time after I finished the book. I was kaput. But then I had to write a poem—because I’d promised Nels Cline and Yuka Honda, early in their courtship, that I would write a poem for their wedding ceremony if they got married, it was almost a dare or a bet—so when they got married in Japan last November I had to write this occasional poem, and I found myself writing a ghazal again. It was almost like I’d become neurologically impaired: that after having done sixty-six, my brain was permanently rewired and only capable of producing ghazals. And then I wrote one more, an unsuccessful ghazal about the Tea Party, which I was finding fascinating in a sort of frightful way. So I was fearing: brain stuck!! But then I started sending people haikus on my Blackberry, because I have a love/hate relationship with both my Blackberry and the haiku, so they are sort of perfect together, dancing cheek-to-cheek, and now I’ve written Dean Young a poem in one long stanza, sort of mimicking his inimitable style, so I guess I’ve proven to myself that I’m finally through the ghazal tunnel and out the other side.
I mean, when I chose the ghazal for Side A of the book I had assumed I’d use a different form for Side B. The ghazal was going to match up with Ed’s Silhouettes on Side A and I was originally wanting a different form for his Side B Cityscapes. My early idea was to use the Japanese form of haibun—
The long prose poem with the haiku at the end?
Yeah! The prose poem, which I thought could be Ruschavian in a way, this kind of imagistic text block followed by a haiku closer. I thought that also might have a rightness up against Ed’s work. But by the time I writing Side A, I knew Side B would have something do to with America. And by two-thirds of the way through writing Side A, I knew Side B would deal with the American involvement in the Middle East, specifically the Iraq War, which was happening through the whole gestation of this project. At that point I thought, “Well, I’m in a groove, I know how to do these ghazals. I’m dealing with the Middle East, I’ve got a form that was originally an Arabic form and then a Persian form, which spread throughout the Muslim world, the Indian sub-continent, and the West… man, I’d be a moron if I didn’t also use the ghazal for Side B.” So what I did was make the punishment fit the crime: I shortened the line length and the number of couplets. On Side A, I used the old fourteener line, like a ballad line, a long, rolling line. Fourteen beats. And I let the poems vary between seven couplets — sher — between seven sher and fifteen sher on Side A. So for Side B, because we’re dealing with harder, more concise, drilled-down Ruscha paintings—the smaller Cityscapes—I felt the ghazals should reflect that by going to a shorter, ten-beat line, and making them each only eight couplets, unvaryingly eight sher per poem. Narrower and tighter and more uniform, to reflect the nature of the Ruscha Cityscape paintings.
Why did you decide to include the CDs of your reading the poems?
This one I can blame on someone else, specifically Paul Ruscha, Ed’s brother. I’m not uncomfortable reading, I actually like to do readings. I was a radio disc jockey for years, so I’m used to the microphone and the regrettable sound of my own voice. What happened was, when the book was actually quite far along, at one of the production meetings at the Ruscha Studio in Venice, I was showing sample spreads from the book, the design of how the pictures and poems would face each other, and someone there asked me to read a few of the poems. We were just standing around casually, in the back room, and I read a couple. And Paul, in his own crazily disarming way, just said, “DB, you need to record these and have them be part of the book!” It was a command more than a suggestion. He was unyielding in a quiet way.
The idea made me instantly uncomfortable. I’m not so comfortable putting myself so far out there in front. But then I started thinking about it, the fact that the ghazal is an oral form, as much as the blues, meant to be heard as well as read. Or more to be heard. One of my true heroes is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great Pakistani Qawwali singer, and I got to see him perform three times before he died, so I consider myself thrice lucky. And of course he sang ghazals, another thing which made me view the form favorably. So after Paul’s suggestion I canvassed about a dozen people who were involved in the book—including Nels and Ed—asking them how they felt about the idea of adding recordings of the poems, and the jury came back twelve-to-zero in favor of doing it. So I was sort of massively outvoted and by then I realized it was a pretty damn good idea even if it came late in the game and meant for an enormous amount of work pour moi. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my idea, that I hadn’t envisioned it. I like to say: Best Idea Wins. It did become an enormous challenge, technically, to record them. I had to record all sixty-six of them in two days—
—Oh God. That’s insane.
—Too true, I’m afraid. I ended up doing it at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley in the two days immediately after producing the Nels Cline Singers studio disc of Initiate, which was planned to come out after DIRTY BABY but in fact came out six months prior. After three days of recording Nels’ band, I just stayed right in the studio with my man Ron Saint Germain and recorded all sixty-six ghazals. Fair warning: you shouldn’t do sixty-six of anything in two days. It was a challenge—they aren’t always the easiest things to read—but I tried to make them organic, tried to record whole takes, and give them some range. As much as I love poetry, poetry readings are often deadly and the only thing worse would be a deadly reading recorded for posterity, there for all time, up against the work of Ed Ruscha and Nels Cline—two of the most righteous white-folk artists in the history of white folks.
I was re-listening to the first CD this morning and I think the form really comes to life in the recordings.
Bless you for saying that. You know, there is something to be said about the words coming off the page, about using intonation, various voices implicit or explicit in the poems, and a full range of phrasing and dynamics. At the same time, the challenge is for the poet not to lead the witness too much, and not to overly dramatize things in a ham-fisted way, and yet not do it too flat or “just-the-facts-ma’am” prosaic. I wanted to avoid the typical sing-song earnestness we’ve all suffered through at poetry readings, which always feels like special pleading to me and is DOA, Dead On Arrival. So there’s risk all around, in terms of how you record these puppies.
Another interest of mine, and something I hear often from Neoformalists and British poets like George Szirtes, is how the constriction of form can actually liberate creativity, or at least be generative. Did you find that to be the case with these DIRTY BABY ghazals?
Absolutely, and for more than one reason. For one thing, because the form is so strict, and the radif and qafia architecture so relentless, you must make the poem in a different way than the way you’d make a single regular poem, and given that I had a sequence of sixty-six to write, you had better. Since you need to come up with your refrain first and then your rhyme scheme, or vice versa, but in close relationship and most likely before anything else, you are really backing into the rest of the poem, and this inverts the normal course of discovery. You have to find muscles you’ve never used before, and maybe didn’t even know you had.
Secondly, I would say that the rhyming itself pushes you towards language you might have never seen nor had any use for if not for this need. This ain’t a bad thing. You discover combinations of words that you would never come across in a more natural environment. And given that my sequence was so long, I set up some of my own internal rules with a goal of preventing monotony or stagnation: one rule was no more than three poems in a row with perfect rhyme, and likewise no more than three in a row with slant, half, quarter—anything less than perfect. Another rule was not to repeat a rhyme scheme once in the run of sixty-six ghazals. In the most superficial way these rules are constricting, and might seem punishingly so, but actually—and this may sound bassackwards—they were freeing. Because they free you to find other solutions. In other words, if you didn’t ever know something was a problem you never would have blundered into that solution, but now you’ve got a formal problem on your hands, and if you don’t solve it, you’re going to have a thematic or aesthetic problem too… and air will be leaking from your balloon in a hurry. Where’s the ballast?
Complete freedom may be thought of, perhaps perversely, as the prison of possibility. In writing sixty-six ghazals, you get paroled from that prison and enter into a sort of backwards world where maybe you are in a prison of your own making, but you’re sitting right in the middle of a damn panopticon and the view really keeps you awake. Given that I had picked my form—had decided that Ruscha work demanded a form and then decided that the ghazal was going to be the form—simply because I felt it was the proper weapon for Ruscha, there were no poetry gods to complain to. In the end, I felt that I was writing while wearing the world’s most luxurious set of fur-lined handcuffs.
The word you use David, generative, I think is exactly correct and that’s what happens when you get so far inside a form: what seems like forbidding territory from the outside—you know, the sheer concrete walls, the abrasive surfaces, no natural light—when you get so far inside it, possibility sort of blossoms everywhere. I don’t mean to sound so rhapsodic about it. I guess that’s just the past-tense talking. I can assure you it was a motherfuckin’ challenge, but nothing beats a failure but a try. I mean, it’s better to fail and fall from a great height than fall from one-step above the stair landing.
I’m very happy to present two complete examples from the collaborative masterpiece. The first, from Side A, does not include Nels Cline’s musical contribution, as that side of the album is not divided into tracks that correspond directly with paintings or poems.The second example, from Side B, includes Cline’s music, as each of the 33 poems and paintings on that side are accompanied by a single track of music.The obvious must be stated: the book itself is the ultimate housing of this collaborative work, and while these examples do reproduce something of the originals, there is a good reason DIRTY BABY is featured alongside other books that fully embrace their physical form.
MY NAME IS ABSTRACT
OOOfor Spencer Glendon
I will put those critters in their place. I will turn the world
inside out. Turn wolf into dog. Learn. I will learn the world.
My cave’s but nascent condo, my arms thrown rocks for starters.
See this lightning strike lecture how to slash-and-burn the world.
Gaur becomes cow. Macaw becomes headdress. Elephant, spear
then grand piano. It’s all very much my concern, the world.
If the hunting is exhausted or too exhausting here,
bloody right I’ll go there. I’m hardly out to churn the world.
Mistakes, sure. There have been problems with rats and many things
too small to see. But I hang in there. I don’t spurn the world.
Take the garden. Early work, and no mean feat. Putting plants
in rows brought neat sliced bread and more, machines to quern the world.
This cuts that. I’m cold, that cat can be my coat. There’s water
under dust. As you can see, actually, I yearn the world.
A moving finger in the dirt made a huge but quiet
bang. Numbers: a brand new liquid. Now I can CERN the world.
There are headaches. Eels, goats, butterflies, they’ve got no worries,
no loose particles, no lost bits. Me, I can urn the world.
It’s a sexy gas—revved up by the voltage, the chutzpah,
the wiles, the nads, the art and the oomph to adjourn the world.
GIVE UP THE GOLD OR GIVE UP YOUR LIFE
A Rose Garden prayer for more gold and God
brought neither. Quaking before Gold and God.
Whatever hunger looked good on the stand
we bought, gorging on drugstore gold and god.
Bespoke preacher, multiplied and hidden
by screens, commands we adore Gold and God.
Riding cold caboose, the harmonica
paints a swollen tune: ignore Gold and god.
No materialists in foxholes? Sold
into war, poor soldiers wore gold and God.
Cradle of civilization, casket
of civilization, bore gold and god.
Lit by lipstick, in the blind and needled
alley lays the two-holed whore, Gold and God.
Give it up give it up give it up. Give
up your deathstyle. Carbon, gore, gold and god.