Interview with Neeli Cherkovski
Chris Mansel: Now completing your memoir, there must have been times during the writing, or reflecting became too much to bear?
Neeli Cherkovski: Yes, there were such times. They came up on me at the most surprising moments. One way of dealing with some of the past is just leaving it there, not bothering to include it in my story. I had a short list of bothersome folks, friends, relatives, and acquaintances who I chose to leave out of the narrative. My interaction with them were either too painful or too irritating. I left out much of the “school years” because of so many negative feelings, and I had to no way make it interesting. I found a way to crystallize a lot of my “time” in a few emblematic moments.
The memoir I have written is not a confessional (in the tradition of St Augustine), but a literary memoir, literally the making of a poet or the shaping of a poet’s life. The first sentence sets up the entire project: “When I was two years old you could read me like a book because a strange disease left my skin looking like parchment.”
Perhaps the most lyrical section of the memoir is when I write about my relationship with a boy my own age. I was born July 1, 1945 and Richard was born on July 11, 1945. We were playmates and lovers for three and a half years, most of that time while we were in junior high school. The memories were pleasant, and I enjoyed writing them down, only later was his story too much to bear.”
When I was deep into writing about our time together, and what it means for me, I decided to search for him. What was he doing now? Married? Did he become an architect as he wanted to be? Was he teaching? Did he have children? Was he gay? I went to the Internet and began snooping around. I found a site that told me he lived with his mother in San Bernardino, Ca. where we both grew up. His mom was 95 and he was 62, or so it said. I contacted a cousin who lives in San Bernardino and put him on the case. “Get me an address,” I asked. Cousin Jerry obliged and went to work. Meanwhile, I called the church Richard and his family had attended. The church secretary remembered the family, but they hadn’t attended for decades. We had no luck trying to trace Richard. There were addresses, but all of them old. On the web I found a site telling me he had moved thirty three times in twenty years and had used several aliases: Rik, Rick, Ricky, Dick, etc. Then my cousin phoned to inform me that my friend’s mother had died fifteen years ago. He found the death notice on microfilm at the library. The notice mentioned my friend and his sister as the survivors. The sister now had a married name. I went to work on the computer, but got nowhere. In desperation, I asked a private investigator to find out what he could for me. At first, he had the same dead-end info I had come across on the internet, but at 10 pm one evening he called to tell me that my pal had died in a Salvation Army shelter five years earlier, not far from where we had grown up.
The news shattered me. I was angry for having looked for him and devastated that this middle class kid had ended up that way. My cousin did further research and found that “Ricky” had come down with cancer. He had been moved from the homeless shelter to a nearby hospice, where, according to all accounts, he simply lay in bed and waited to die, contacting no one. I finally found his sister. She lived in a college town in South Carolina where her husband taught at a local college. I phoned her and began to talk. She remembered me clearly, bringing up the time I went on vacation with her family. We hadn’t seen each other in forty-nine years. As the conversation progressed, I said, ”It’s too bad about Richard.” “What do you mean?” She replied. I realized she didn’t know that her brother had died. “We haven’t been in touch since the funeral” she told me.
I think the strongest emotion coming out of this experience was one of sadness.
I tried to imagine Richard back into being. He haunted my dreams. I heard from am old friend who remembered lusting after Richard when we were all in high school? By that time, he was tall and sturdy, not the short, rotund kid I had loved. As time went on, I was able to reconcile the whole mess I talked to a few of pals from later years learning that he was a college drop-out (UC Berkeley), that he couldn’t hold a job, nor was he able to sustain a meaningful relationship. He was described as paranoid. He hid behind his mother. He wore disguises when he went out shopping.
I have written it down and “out.” And have moved to other places. The memoir satisfies me, emotionally. I have left out some of the people who remain thorns in my side and have decided not to deal with some painful experiences and issues still unresolved.
This is the end of the book, the final words. You may see from it that I kept my emotional bearings, despite the “too much to bear” material. Here it is:.” Poetry makes a difference because it is a land without boundaries. It helps us to understand language as a determining factor in our lives. With it we re-order the cosmos, make it sing, or send it into the void,”
Chris Mansel: Do you have any plans to publish a book of your letters?
Neeli Cherkovski: That a good question. I have put together an archive of my work and am very weak in the letter department. I know how important letters are in literary lives. Recently, I read a fairly comprehensive compilation of John Keats' letters -- they are amazing -- and provide insight on his poems. I guess I'd have to day that a book of my letters would be a slim volume. Over the past years, however, I have written a blizzard of e mails. They tend to be short, even terse. The e mail form has been good for my hyper-active soul. In negotiating with a university library for my archive I found that the e mail exchanges are a vital part of the package, so I am keeping them now. I also have Real Letters form many poets, but not my responses. Someday I will search those out.
Chris Mansel: Why is it do you think no one ever asks a straight writer about their sexuality in relation to their writing?
Neeli Cherkovski: Well, that isn't necessarily true. Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Norman Mailer were certainly probed about their sexuality, especially in light of their work. Yet, it is mostly thee gay and lesbian writer who gets asked "about their sexuality in relationship to their writing. Bukowski once made that point to me in regards to poetry. He said there was so much attention on Allen Ginsberg's homosexuality when it should not have been such an issue. That reminds me. Some of the best "gay" writing I have ever read is by Mailer in HARLOT'S GHOST, his epic on the CIA, when he describes the leather scene in Berlin during the Cold War Era.
Obviously, gay sex is thought of as being "off the map." It fascinates people, and, of course, with the emergence of gay literature in the past half century, especially since the early work of James Baldwin and Gore Vidal, later followed by John Rechy (CITY OF NIGHT), there is a whole critical field. Early critics of Walt Whitman tried to side step the issue of his homosexuality, which for me and many readers, is so obvious. They had all kinds of terms for it/not it that they employed to erase his homo-eroticism from the record
As a poet who enjoys the sexual and sensual company of other men I have written love poems rather than sex poems. I "fall in love" and stay there. Some of the poets I know and admire, who are gay, like Ginsberg and Harold Norse, wrote sex poems, as far as I can see, and sidestepped the more lyrical love poems. Robert Duncan subsumes his sexuality in poems that make love to the planet with rare lyrical grace. There have been several studies of Duncan as a gay poet, and they add dimension and insight into his work.
I had an editor once who told me she could not "see" the gay element of my love poetry, and she is right, for the most part. I am so much in love with love.
Chris Mansel: I hope I express this question correctly. Do you edit as you write or do you stand with the theory that if you edit a piece it is another piece entirely?
Neeli Cherkovski: I rarely edit as I write, especially not with poetry. I let the poem come to me and then I usually will go back and do some tinkering here or there. On some occasions I have done more than mere tinkering, especially with longer poems. There is a great joy in watching the lines of a poem appear on the page. I used to do this on a typewriter, now the computer, that magic box we mostly take for granted, serves the purpose. I love to words dropout of my brain and my nerves and jump onto the screen and to see how they reveal themselves in relation to other words. Just as exciting is to watch for the lines breaks. Once in awhile, I will trek up and down the text to find where I might change the end of a line, move a word down one step, perhaps or bring a stanza break into being. But it is the sense of instant or spontaneous creation that intrigues me.
I write poems at rapid speed. If that doesn't happen, I will generally think something wrong and try over again (God bless the delete button). In order to try my hand at slowing down I try to compose on paper with a pen, but it won't work like with a computer. It reminds me of what Charles Bukowski once said on the phone the very first night he began writing on a computer: "The words sit there like they are on a throne."
So what is the deal here? Writing a poem is a kind of love-making. You are stopping from the activity of the world to dip your mind into something deeply mysterious and spiritual, I guess. There is no end to it. The poem rises out of a somewhere inside of you. It has been waiting to be un-earthed', so to speak.
Prose is a different beast. I re-wrote the beginning of my memoir many times, and worked and worked entire sections, not an easy task with over 354 pages. That does not include the many, many pages I took out of the manuscript for one reason or another.
Even in short pieces, reviews, letters, etc. I find that editing is a wonderful tool.
Chris Mansel: You have mentioned love several times but I wonder, what is the political responsibility of a writer or an educator? Is there one?
Neeli Cherkovski: I wrote a poem years ago that reads: "When Neruda wrote blue/he wrote blue/but when Neruda wrote Stalin/he wrote Neruda." This is a warning of sorts. I believe in a poet's responsibility, but while the great Chilean wrote paeans to "Joe," his hero was slaughtering millions of his own citizens."
At the same time, Neruda's poem on the United Fruit Company is a magnificent, and, I think, necessary comment on injustice. One of my favorite Spanish poems is Garcia Lorca's famous Ode to the spanish civil "Guard," haunting and memorable because it surrenders none of his poetic powers to the message, which is about the banality and evil of the "Guardia Civil" as they strike terror across the land
What is the political responsibility of the poet/writer? Rimbaud explodes old myths of homeland and culture in "A Season in Hell" through the largeness of his vision, which pushes far beyond the political travails of his time and reaches across the centuries to challenge fundamentals. There is Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" and "Masters of War," two politically charged works of grave beauty that ask for social and political justice. Those two songs became anthems for the reform movements of the 60s and beyond. "Blowing in the wind" helped galvanize feelings for civil rights.
At the same time, what is not politically responsible about a poet who writes on the beauty of a garden or on the mountains glimpsed from a window. Cezanne focus on Mount St Victoire? Was he avoiding politics? Or did his dialogue with nature “Hoist" us into new realms of thinking and being? Which leads me to Pablo Picasso, he is commissioned by the Spanish Government in Exile to do an art pieced for a world exhibition. While pondering over a subject, Franco bombs the Basque town of Guernica. The saturation bombing turns the town to powder. Picasso has his subject and he paints a "political" work, one that shows war in all its horror: man and animal torn to pieces. Today the paintings has its own room in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and remains both aesthetically pleasing for viewers as well as informative regarding our ability as destroyers. During the Second World War he did not choose to continue along those lines.
Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is a political poem, toppling Walt Whitman's Manhattan. Suddenly, the city of dreams and hope becomes a place where the poet sees the hand print of Moloch rising form the streets. The city is a madhouse. It drives people crazy. "America" is another AG (Allen Ginsberg) poem that strikes a deep political chord, laughing at anti-communist hysteria and calling for sexual freedom. One of the first truly powerful indictments of our "bomb culture" was "Bomb" by Gregory Corso, which begins with the line, "fat budger of history. . ." Thoreau gives us Walden, a textbook on living right, living free from too many things; living in harmony with the natural world. It is an animistic text. Everything is alive. The political and social/cultural commentary in that book rises gracefully out of the writer's intense observation of the world around him. He becomes a natural philosopher, not just a philosopher of nature. Then, in his essay on civil disobedience, we get a more pointedly political work. Each has its value. But Thoreau, like Emerson, being a poet, spent most of his writing time letting intuition and a broad turning of the mind instruct him.
Neruda writes blue and the land erupts. He takes his readers to Machu Picchu and hurls them down to the steaming jungles. He tells them that they are a part of an ever evolving process of creation and re-creation. In his early book of love poems he writes viscerally of "my peasant body." Sexual desire and energy is made palpable. When he dances with Stalin he might have been better served writing an editorial, a piece of prose.
Writing about a flower or a war, expressing outrage over injustice of one kind or another, or offering a feeling about the sun setting, they are all "in the flow." My own inclination is to let my feelings lead me to my responsibility. It all gets mixed together I spent a lot of time along the California and Oregon beaches these past years and wrote a lot of poems on sea birds and seals. I love the, somehow. I want to walk up to a sea lion and offer my hand to a flipper, but that might be dangerous. The poems are coming out of a deep need to explain the animals, the birds; maybe I feel I am speaking for them in some way. I like to think that I might eventually have an impact on protecting their environment. But I am not striving for anything more than to watch them, the seals, diving in the sea or stretched out on the sand, and to watch the birds soar.
Chris Mansel: That leads me to ask you your opinion on the new interest in the environment we are experiencing lately. Do you think this enthusiasm will last long enough to make a difference?
Neeli Cherkovski: Since most of the poetry I have been writing lately leads to a forest or a seaside, a bird or a seal I guess the environment is on my mind. Yesterday I drove to a nature reserve South of SF to see the colony of harbor seals who bask in the sun there. But it remained overcast, and I simply walked on the cliffs then drove to a nearby shopping mall. I was thinking how we "go to see nature." It is in a reserve. I remember the impact of THE SEA AROUND US by Rachel Carson, a 60s book that pioneered in the kind of environmental thinking that is current today. She warned of the coming catastrophe, the loss of the rhythms that old the sea together, the cheapening of the dialogue between man and this planet. It is the sea round us and the land we live on that is dying. And yes, I think a new relationship with the environment is taking old, and will sustain, but I also believe it may be too late already. Maybe everyone should write a haiku, a glimpse of nature, a mini moment and we will link them together and see if that helps. 6 billion haiku!!
Chris Mansel: In your book Whitman's Wild Children which I am sad to say I have never seen a copy, you wrote of several important poets who had touched your life, if you were to do a second version whom would you include?
Neeli Cherkovski: I am probably writing a biography of Gregory Corso. He is in the Whitman book, but this would be a fuller portrait. I have thought of doing essays on Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, Diane Di Prima, Emily Dickinson (everyone thinks they get her right -- I believe Adrienne Rich did a great job in her essay "Vesuvius at Home"). The possibilities go on and on, and, if I do all of this, it may make a book of "literary" essays. Then there is Thoreau and Poe and, Ahh/ One model could be Studies in Classic American Literature" by D H. Lawrence. What really got me going on my W.W.C. book was a wonderful book called, My Friend Henry Miller by Alfred Perles, a grand tour of the Miller mind, mixing memoir, appreciation, and literary criticism together.
Chris Mansel: As an educator what is your opinion of the new crop of writers coming out these days?
Neeli Cherkovski: My eyes and ears have been focused on the deep past. I don’t know why that is, but in my teaching I held to cave art, The Odyssey, Heraclitus, Lao Tzu -- o what a headache. Then, pushing forward, I leapt to Emerson and Thoreau. I do manage to look at new poetry now and then, and at a lot of non fiction.
There are some younger poets going in interesting directions, which should not be surprising. A few of my own students have written powerful poetry. Not everyone is a tech star or a tech drone. I even know younger poets who write with pens. Astounding. Samuel Delany is not new, but he is not as old as Homer, and is still alive. I am reading DAHLGREN, an epic novel pushed as science fiction. It was written in the 1970s and is well worth reading. It is about a city in mid America abandoned by all but a few intrepid souls. Delany grew up in Harlem, is gay, and is hailed in the field of sci-fi --- his work goes well beyond that genre.
Chris Mansel: To finish this interview I wonder if you have a favorite artist or painter and what brought about this opinion.
Neeli Cherkovski: I have traveled the world just to see art. There is a pantheon of painters for me, but I have to say that Monet strikes me to the bones. Nobody ever painted a tree as he did. I have seen his paintings in books, online, and face-to-face in museums all over the world, the elemental quality, the sense of deep meditation come together so powerfully. He did many seascapes that make me want to taste the ocean and the seaside cliffs on his canvases, and his landscapes are just too emotional for words, so I stand before them in the museum I have built in my head and fall into a meditative state, thankful for the somber and amusing colors. As an elder he grew increasingly wild, pouring his energies into those great lily pond paintings in his garden at Giverney. He was as challenging as that other holy monster, Van Gogh, and as forward going as Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Monet's later work constitutes a one-man revolution. People look to Picasso for the breakthrough in modernism, but it is all there in Monet as well.