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Poems are Always Moving Through More than One Dimension of Consciousness

December 19, 2008 by · 8 comments

Interview with Marilyn Kallet by Matt Urmy

Marilyn Kallet was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in New York. She is the author of 14 books, including Circe, After Hours, poetry from BkMk Press, and Last Love Poems of Paul Eluard, translations from Black Widow Press. In 2009, Black Widow will publish Packing Light: New and Selected Poems. Kallet is Lindsay Young Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, where she directed the creative writing program for 17 years.

In your years of experience writing and teaching poetry, how has the consciousness of American poetry shifted around the dream/spirit world? In other words, how have you seen our culture deal (or not deal), with that kind of content?

When I started teaching, in the late Sixties, ethno-poetics was beginning to have a huge impact on American letters, thanks in part to Jerome Rothenberg’s TECHNICIANS OF THE SACRED, and a few years later to SHAKING THE PUMPKIN, Margot Astrov’s THE WINGED SERPENT added to our appreciation of vision quests in Native literature, as did William Brandon’s THE MAGIC WORLD, Theodora Kroeber’s THE INLAND WHALE, and John Bierhorst’s, IN THE TRAIL OF THE WIND: AMERICAN INDIAN POEMS AND RITUAL ORATIONS. American poetry was immeasurably enriched by this infusion of the oral tradition, and the commentaries helped to provide some context and lots of appreciation. BLACK ELK SPEAKS, was in everyone’s hands.

But these books were edited by non-Natives. By the early Seventies, we had also read the work of Kiowa writer and orator Scott Momaday, who was teaching oral tradition lore at Berkeley, as well as poetry and fiction by Leslie Marmon Silko and Paula Gunn Allen. The next generation of Native poets, among them, Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan, helped us to hear that the poetry of Native experience had to come from tribal people–and that while that experience had some commonalities, there were more distinctions of place and culture to be made than had been drawn in the Rothenberg books, say. Women had different cultural experiences than men, for example.

I still use TECHNICIANS sometimes, but will surround it with work by contemporary tribal poets. And my students ask key questions about context and ownership and appropriation of songs.

I wouldn’t give up that impact of the oral tradition in the Sixities–that was explosive and mind-expanding, world expanding. But it does cry out for a more critical view these days.

During the Sixties and early Seventies, it was easy to teach tribal and visionary literature, in that many of the students and teachers were involved in some form of spiritual quest that often involved drug-taking. The sense of boundaries was very permeable. The positive side of this was an open dialogue and a wide open-mindedness. The negative was that these experiences were mostly unguided, and some of our writers just went crazy or lapsed into speechlessness. There was no shaman at Livingston College, Rutgers, to help people focus their dreamwork.

Poets wrote from dreams in the Sixties and some still do so. Lucille Clifton comes to mind. BLESSING THE BOATS includes a fine dream sequence. Her book, MERCY, consists of “received” poems (from those who have died.) Lucille is African American, some of her ancestors were Dahomey. So there’s that ancient tradition within her modern song.

But I think one impact of my beloved William Carlos Williams has been a literalness–a cruising on the surface level. Williams himself went on an involuntary vision quest (“The descent beckons,” he wrote, when he was ill). Think of the work of Billy Collins. It’s wonderfully entertaining, but all surface.

The other strain we should mention is that of Surrealism. In Europe, Dadaism and Surrealism began in 1916 and still has a major impact on European poetry. Now, in the U.S., Black Widow Press is bringing the Dadaists and Surrealists into American letters in translation. Look at their website for a fat, juicy list of terrific Surrealists, now in English. My beloved Paul Eluard is among them, and I am translating uncompromising Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret (“The Big Game”).

As far as dealing or not dealing with dream material, that seems to be more often than not a matter of personalities–some people are open to the dream material, and others will resist, hard. Culturally, the Eighties seemed to slam its door on inner work and to crave consumption. People surprise us, though. One of the best dream-workers last year was an air force fighter pilot, who had dropped bombs in Iraq. His dreams were powerful and healing, confronting every aspect of what he had done personally, and what the military had done. I think Yusef Komunyakaa is a worker in that field as well.

Are there any experiences you could share from your process of creating poetry that you consider to have involved more than one dimension of consciousness, or to be in any way supernatural?

Poems are always moving through more than one dimension of consciousness. Many years ago, I had a quick vision of light under the floor. I wondered if I was going crazy.

I mentioned the perplexing vision to one of my students at Livingston College–he was of the Taino tribe in Puerto Rico. He said, “That’s easy. In my culture, the story goes that the sun was born out of the earth.” The fact that he treated what I had seen as part of a story and Genesis myth, helped me. Something wanted to be born in my writing.

I wrote the poem, “How to Get Heat Without Fire,” which became an ars poetica, and developed into a book of poems by the same title. Here are the first few lines:

Beneath the dark floor
there has always been love,
but the trick is–how to
get down to it?
Shall I tear my way down
like a tiger clawing
the floorboards, when this
tearing down is what scarred you?

The poem follows the old descent myth, leaving the rational and discovering the emotional, ethical, and musical layers of what it means to love others without hurting them.

It has been set to music by Tom Cipullo, a New York composer–and I had the thrill of going to Cooper Union in Manhattan and hearing my words flll the hall in the voice of a great soprano.

Melanie Mitrano, who is one of the great sopranos of our time, has re-imagined this in her voice, and one can download the song, free, from I-Tunes on Melanie Mitrano’s website.

But another way of answering this is that in dreams ancient speakers and actors show up–including animals–(I had a bison in my living room!) And no one is dead. Everything speaks, or sings, in a certain frame of mind. I’ve had scorpions give me songs.

But, harder to bear, my mother has shown up from time to time–and though I worshipped her–she makes trouble.

When I practiced reciting a poem about her, she turned off the lights. I tried again, same thing. When I tried to write a story about the visitations and the censorship, all the power in the house went out and my computer went dead. I tried to tell my daughter about these events, and the oven light starting blinking in the kitchen where we were sitting. “Stop it, Ma!” Heather said.

I practice outside. The trees don’t mind, and the dog next door comes over and listens. He’s old. He likes my voice, and he likes poetry. The fresh air seems to disperse spirit intrusions.

You have taught a class on Dream Work at the University of Tennessee for years now, (and I count myself lucky to have been one of your students), so how has devoting so much of your energy to helping others to explore the more subtle, or elusive realms of themselves, affected your perspectives of the tradition of poets, and their roles, responsibilities, and their power in society?

Over and again I read poems, stories and diary entries in which the writer/dreamer treats the “dark” side as “other.” There’s a dark stranger outside the house, or a man with a knife following behind, or a zombie, or some other “other.”

When the dreamer is willing to meditate on the imagery, to ask questions, or dream further, to shine a light on the stranger’s face and to ask a name, then the real art begins to be born. This is part of the ethos of writing–to name, to recognize, to shape. Jung called this “active imagination.”

Not grappling, persisting in treating the “other” as separate from self, has historically lead to war and widespread destruction.

There are monsters “out there”–killers and child molesters, dictators and rapists. But once they enter the dreams, they are the dreamer’s responsibility. Sometimes it takes more than person to confront and defeat the scariest dreams (the therapist, the healer, the priest, or even the teacher can be helpful at times.)

Your friends the good Maori healers know all about the team approach! The healer holds the dreamer’s hand while he’s chanting.

Have there been any predominant trends of resistance or eagerness in your students to face the Dream side of themselves? How have you dealt with those issues in your years as an instructor?

The hunger for dreams and dream-talk is constant. I have not seen a decline, though, as I said, during the decade of drug-taking, the dream language rose more to the surface of everyday life. A nod of the head could summarize a great deal.

Some of my students refuse to try active imagination. So, though they have signed up for dreamwork, and they are writing down their dreams, they don’t want to look too closely. Others “get it” and their work deepens immeasurably. A person has to be ready to dive into the inner material. The willingness to let the rational mind take a back seat, to let the imagination and the lyrical senses drive for awhile–can’t be forced. So everyone works at his or her best level and makes shapes from the chaos of daily life. The shaping itself, the craft, is worth doing. Sometimes the shape can be filled with wonders.

By the way, at a Klezmer concert last night I learned that Klezmer means “the shape of the vessel” or “the vessel is the music.”

Let’s turn now to your view of your own work, your own place in history…Including all 14 of your published books as a composer and translator, as well as your work as professor, and your Dream Work, what tradition of poets do you feel you are closest to? Which poets of that tradition do you feel you resonate with the most?

I feel closest to the poets who have been my teachers at Squaw Valley. These include Yusef Komunyakaa, who is very humble and generous. He has helped me learn to be more concise and to tackle big subjects (race); he blurbed CIRCE, AFTER HOURS, in a way that made me cry. I think of him as a brother–we are almost the same age. Lucille Clifton is another generous teacher from Squaw Valley–many of my poems were seeds in her workshop. Sharon Olds as a teacher has taught me not to flinch from the most difficult subject matter, and not to cling to old material. The poem becomes an artifact once its written. Robert Hass taught me to take the authority for my own work and not to look to others for so much feedback. He said, “No one else sounds like you. You have a distinctive voice.” I was trying to get him to tell me what to do with a poem, and he handed the authority right back to me! That’s a blessing.

Brenda Hillman has taught me to laugh, and to juggle, to keep more than one poem going at once on the page, to use more of the space of the page, to admire fragments as part of the whole. She’s an imp. She’s my sister spirit.

Marie Howe gave me permission to write “No Makeup,” a signature poem about appearances, lovelessness, and the flip side to authentic selfhood and a life in art.

Do I write like any of them? It’s less a matter of style than of values. My work consists mainly of narrative lyrics bitten into by an experimental tinge at the edges; I’ve also written some important historical sequences about the Holocaust–important because that story is still being told, and it is much larger than the self.

What advice would you give the people reading this interview, (that have never had the luck of being in any of your workshops), if they wanted to wade into the world of Dream Work, and Vision-Questing in their writing?

I would start the dream quest by getting a notebook and writing down dreams in the morning. Otherwise they vanish.

Make friends with fragments, keep lists of key points or images if you can’t remember the whole dream or don’t have time to write it.

In a quiet moment, ask a question of a character or of an object in the dream, and let it speak. Sit back and let the voice happen rather than trying to control the speaker as you would in a work of fiction.

Good books on dream imagery: Jung’s PSYCHOLOGY AND ALCHEMY, Robert Bosnak’s A LITTLE COURSE IN DREAMS. Andre Breton’s MANIFESTO OF SURREALISM, poetry by PAUL ELUARD, Anais Nin’s DIARIES; the art of PAUL KLEE, HANS ARP, MAX ERNST, PICASSO, and CHAGALL.

There are Jung Societies in major cities–join one and begin to attend lectures that interest you. Start a small dream group with writers you trust.

One of the joys of sitting in your workshops is when you tell the class a story. Is there a particular story, from your own life, or another mythology, or tradition that you would like to share with any of the people reading this interview?(feel free to type out a story if you like, or you could reference some that the readers could research for themselves).

One of the stories I love to tell in Dreamworks is that of Jumping Mouse. There’s a children’s book out by H. Storm that tells the story–it’s a Lakota Sun Dance tale. The tale belongs to Chuck Storm and I would not type it up! It’s worth seeking out though.

Since this is the Chanukah season, and I have composed a book of children’s stories for the holiday (ONE FOR EACH NIGHT: CHANUKAH TALES AND RECIPES, Celtic Cat Publishing), I will attach one of those stories here. It helps to know that “kugel” is noodle pudding, sweet and rich and creamy. Our main character, Kugela (a female version of the noodle pudding), is lovely to look at!


Once there was a very lovely and zoftig young maiden who lived not far from Minsk. The boys of her village had noticed that her skin appeared soft and milky. But Luchshen Kugel–or Kugela, as everyone called her–held herself as aloof as a cat.

One day a handsome strapping fellow named NiceJewishBoy arrived in town. He was a wealthy young man with his own beautiful black horse, Impala. “Come with me to the town dance,” he pleaded, to Kugela. “We’ll have a lovely time, and I’ll bring you home well before the moon rises too high, before there’s any danger of Cossacks!” Kugela was tempted–it had been so long since she had danced. She couldn’t even remember how. Her arms had grown sore from doing the daily chores. She needed to swing them, to loosen her poor muscles.

“I’ll go!” she said. “But only if you bring me sweet berries from the woods. Blueberries from the forest,” she insisted.

“Are you nuts?” responded N.J.B. “It’s winter. Snow has fallen and has covered even the forest. There are no berries, my sweet.”

Nevertheless, Kugela was firm. So N.J.B. had to use his wits. He went to the town winemaker and said, “Please, my good man, is there any chance that you have saved a few berries from your winemaking? Perhaps you have dried and pressed a handful?” N.J.B. was in luck. In exchange for some fine fabric cut by his father’s hands, he received a packet of dried blueberries.

He took them home and gave them to his mother, who enrobed them in sweet cream from her blue cow. And then he presented them to his sweetheart. “My Kugela,” he swooned, “now will you dance with me?”

Lucky Kugela tried to answer him, but her mouth was full and blue. NiceJewishBoy knew, he had always known, that her answer would be “Yes!” To joyful strains of klezmer, they waltzed beneath the moon. Even the Cossacks had sweet dreams that night, dreams of potato pancakes with blueberry maidens dancing on top, on their beautiful blue toes.

Marilyn, thank you so much for your time and your Insight. Just one final question: What is your wish for the readers of Public Republic, the online journal that is publishing this interview?

Love and cheers in the Season of Lights!

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