I knew some of them, but they all knew me
Amy Wright: You mention in Stealing History being drawn enough to the title The Master of Lucid Dreams to order the book based on it. Do you dream lucidly?
Gerald Stern: I sometimes do. There are two lucid dreams, lucid in this case meaning significant, central and memorable, that I carry with me. I spent the evening a few days ago with a Jungian psychologist whose name is Nathan and we talked about Jung and healing, shamanism and the like. As far as the book, The Master of Lucid Dreams, it also deals with the Central Asian mysteries.
The dreams I mention were so powerful that, in one of them, I confounded my awake state during the daytime with the dream state. I had the same dream night after night,
and believed in its reality day after day. The dream was that, though I was once a “runner,” I no longer was, and it was a sad thing for me. The fact is that though I ran competitively in high school, I was not really a runner in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, though the dream made me feel I was. Obviously, running meant something else. I’ll have to talk to Nathan about it.
AW: What was the other dream?
GS: The other dream was almost comic but deeply disturbing. That is, Abigail, a woman I knew very well 30 years or so ago, was the center of this dream. Only she had a ridiculous cardboard crown that circled her head but did not cover it. It turns out that—in the dream—she was bald but with a fringe of hair, something like my own. Abigail’s daughter, who rejected me when she was twelve because I was a threat to the marriage, has a serious illness now and I think the dream is about that. Why the comic representation of Abigail I do not know.
AW: Years ago, my parents had the opportunity to purchase a pasture that lies at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is bordered by Cove Creek and groves of walnut trees and a high bluff that gives the feeling of privacy. This landmark we call “the Meadow,” which is why I share the image with you—because you write that it is the word you most love in the English language. What is the word you love second best?
GS: I think my second favorite word in the English language is blue, the color blue; but when I think of blue, I am really thinking more of a kind of lavender. As I understand it, blue is the color of death in Egyptian mythology and culture, as
it is the color of life in Jewish culture and mythology. Mary, mother of Jesus, is represented by the color blue. Miriam and Mary have their root in the word bitterness, or salty, which relates to the sea, the sea is also blue, as we envision it. My favorite meadow was in Clarion County in northwestern Pennsylvania. It was also contained and isolated as yours was. I remember there being two flowers in that meadow, one of them was daisies, but I can’t remember the other. Several times I slept in that meadow for hours, staring up at the blue sky. I guess it was heaven.
AW: In a segment from Stealing History entitled “Yom Kippur Pear,” you confess a sixty-year-old memory in which your fourteen-year-old self breaks his fast with a rosy ripe bite from a Bartlett pear. Your confession, you say, is “exceptional” since it is told in offering of neither guilt nor fear for your soul’s fate, being at this point in your life “too far gone, too ruined, too free, for that.” Is there anything left from which you have not yet freed yourself?
GS: We are never free. Well, some of us might attain that. There is fear of death and sickness; there are family duties; there are responsibilities to friends and colleagues; there is work. Several poets, seeking, in their way, freedom, have written poems attacking responsibility. I have friends who fled to mountains and valleys, who lived by their wits in San Francisco, New York, or Greece, and who felt they were free, or at least said so. Maybe it’s a state of mind. I am free most when I am writing a successful poem. Maybe that’s why I write poetry. The pear was delicious.
AW: You include four essays on “Neighbors” in Stealing History as well as a number of anecdotes about various neighbors, including my favorites, Charlie and Elvira. Your interest in this former member of the World War II Signal Corps and his incontinent dog makes little sense, you admit. But it is precisely why this side narrative is interesting to the reader—because it connects to your overarching story along a thread so fine it almost explains the invisible pull that brings one person toward another, certain questions, repeatedly to mind. The lure of good narrative depends, to some extent, on that tug of connection. On what does the lure of a good poem depend?
GS: I would say, simply, that the lure of a good poem depends on the language you are lucky enough to find, and in having something “to say.” A good poem surprises, even overwhelms, the reader. At this point, I am making less and less of a distinction between prose and poetry, possibly because I am, to a certain degree, a narrative poet, although if you were to ask me if I were one, I would deny it. Charlie, whom I write about in three separate sections in Stealing History, has become a close friend. He has lived, for twenty-seven years, in a very tiny, somewhat dark, but nonetheless pleasant apartment, at the rear of a house. He spends most of the day listening to music and playing his recorder. He still loves to talk about his own life and, as I indicated in the book, he has replaced Elvira with a frisky, younger dog. He is a little bent over, and certainly smaller than he once was. A lovely woman in town—who was his lover 20, 30 years ago—told me that he was tall, slim, and the handsomest man she had ever met.
AW: What would it take for you and I to be neighbors? I already grasp that you don’t confine neighborhoods to mere next-door locations, but is there a quality of resonance or obligation or curiosity that inspires you to claim someone as “neighbor”?
GS: I have the oddest neighbors. Ovid, Blake, the Greek poets, Apollinaire, my next-door neighbor’s mother-in-law from Holland, Irene from across the street who has been advising me on my garden, all the people I meet through my walks and conversations in this small city. In my back yard, walking onto the towpath beside the canal, there was suddenly last night a collection of eight or ten people and four or five dogs. I knew some of them, but they all knew me. I claim them as neighbors. Certainly you are my neighbor. I would never want to be a neighbor with Romney. He would steal me blind.
AW: You say, “I am as cynical as they come, and as believing.” Cynicism is easy enough to keep firing, but what keeps your willingness to believe alive?
GS: Frankly, it is a bit of a mystery to me. I keep thinking, at
this late age, that I am starting over again. I think I start
over every morning. I talked endlessly about faith in a recent book called A God in The House, where a group of poets talk about this issue. I say a number of things there. Here is one sentence: “Poets—maybe all artists—get away from their own religious upbringing in order to arrive at a condition of faith.” For me, faith and religion are not the same thing. I guess mine is connected with the prophets to a degree, issues of justice, but by showing affection, kindness and love—if possible—and hatred of swords, in any form. For me, poetry is a way, though I may disguise it, a way of getting in touch with the “holy,” if that is the right word. I think the final goal is to find that what we call the sacred and the profane are not really separate. I sometimes have faith that that might happen.
AW: I think it happens—in hope anyway—every time two lovers climb in the sack. That’s another act, no matter the experience, one is always just beginning. It is clear from reading your prose that you have an incredible memory. How do you maintain it while arriving daily at a feeling of newness or innocence?
GS: I have an endless—maybe incredible—devotion to what has happened, good and bad. It is stubbornness certainly. It is also a compulsion stemming from an absolute longing for truth and justice. I guess that is what keeps memory alive.
AW: Edmond Jabès writes in The Book of The Absent that the “believer’s intransigence is like a razor blade: it cuts.” He goes on to add that, “Brotherhood means giving, giving, giving. And you can only give what you are.” Stealing History is an example of your great gift of yourself to brotherhood and sisterhood both. What would your belief cut us from or into?
GS: It would cut us from complacency, blind obedience, stupid cooperation, and compromise. It would cut us away from specialization and secrecy. It would cut us away from Billy clubs, and gas. Most of all, it would cut us away from The Lie. The brotherhood and sisterhood that you mention sometimes exists in words alone, in poems alone, but I think really that life is more important than art, but maybe it is absurd to separate them. I think basically that Stealing History has, as its underlying motif, this brotherhood and sisterhood that you mention, even if it is sometimes ruthless.
AW: Are you referring to the lie of separation or some other?
GS: I’m referring to the great lie that governs our culture—in politics, advertising, journalism, religion, and so on.
AW: Does the little man in your head who writes poems take orders? If so, will he write a poem to encourage young women whose reproductive rights are being assaulted by lawmakers? A poem for the survivors of domestic violence, the children of meth addicts? That is, what do you tell or ask him so he will channel his fury and address the issues that plague our society?
GS: I tell him that the overriding issues are greed, fear, stupidity, complacency, and selfishness. I tell him that the attack on women, in its various forms, really comes out of fear, and in so doing I condemn the fundamentalists in the three western religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I also tell him to be careful of Republicans, who will do or say anything for the sake of a vote. I also tell him that the biggest fool east of the Hudson is Trump, that his buildings are ugly and disfigure the skyline, that his hair is ridiculous and that his brain is smaller than that of a garter snake.
AW: Is it love of language or humanity or discovery or something else that inspires him to carry on “the swan tradition” described in “Swan Song”—mouth open, “drops of mercy pouring” from his eyes?
GS: I would say basically that it is love of humanity, it is always there with me, and certainly “Swan Song” which started in the movement of a swan in an artificial pond, came somehow to that conclusion. I don’t mean that swans are humane. Maybe only in my poem.