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Yo-Yo’s with Celery

Ron Silliman and Jim Behrle take in a minor league baseball game.
Illustration: Jason Novak

I’ve always wanted to go to a baseball game with Ron Silliman. I’ve admired and been frustrated and challenged by him and made cartoons about him and secretly have been a big fan of his for years. Poets historically can be pretty fun ballgame companions, and not only if they are on hallucinogens at a Red Sox/Yankees game like Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff in the great Yo-Yo’s with Money. There’s something about the way a game unfolds that makes having on hand a poet who loves to talk as good an idea having as a bag of sunflower seeds to munch on. Baseball is 50 percent sports and 50 percent talk: announcers, jabbering fans, yelling managers. The game is sometimes all talk. And both Ron and I love to talk.

The idea of interviewing Ron just kind of came to me, and I thought maybe we could finally catch that Phillies game in Philadelphia that we’d sometimes e-mailed back and forth about. Ron was interested in doing an interview, but he compared himself at Phillies games to the distracted talking dog in the movie Up!: “Squirrel!” I understand that. How can we talk about anything if Ron is sitting on the edge of his seat for the entire game? In East Coast baseball fandom, each at-bat is its own five-act opera. I can’t even watch Red Sox games with other people because I carry around a pink plastic Junk Ball bat during games so I can work on my left-handed swing between innings.  

Ron suggested a minor league game in Delaware at the home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a former Red Sox affiliate now associated with the Kansas City Royals. As I checked out the schedule for dates, I saw a big ad for Cowboy Monkey Rodeo Night at the ballpark on a Friday night, in which monkeys riding border collies lasso and round up sheep. They would also be having fireworks after the game. Sounded pretty perfect, and Ron was able to get off work early to meet me in Wilmington. I spent most of the trip down on the Greyhound immersed in The Alphabet. It’s a great book to be reading on a bus—or a desert island, I suspect—because there’s so much in there and all of the sections are written in different styles, so there’s no Cantos-like monotony. I had a flip camera running in my pocket to capture our conversation, so I ended up with about an hour and 45 minutes of footage of the gauzy inside pocket of my Hawaiian shirt. When the flip phone couldn’t take any more, we switched to an mp3 recorder on my phone, to lesser success. We sat on the first-base side in the sun, me eating jumbo sunflower seeds. We ended up playing the roles of play-by-play and color man, too, as the game unfolded around us and we chatted about poetry, blogging, and baseball and wondered about the mysterious nature of Mr. Celery.

Jim: When did you know that The Alphabet was going to be a sequence of books?

Ron: Well, I guess it depends whether you mean the sort of alphabetic sequence, or when I knew it was going to be a long poem. I knew the latter by the time I started Tjanting. I began to understand that what I was doing was building books in which each succeeding volume would be basically the length of what had come before. I was in the middle of writing Tjanting when I was beginning to think seriously, took notes, about working on this next project when, about a year before I was ready to start, the first section of Force just showed up all at once. I wrote it down and very quickly realized that it was not the first part of The Alphabet, but it was an early part of the work. I began to pull it together from that point. By the time I finished Force, I was already working on Albany, Blue, and Carbon almost simultaneously. So I would say it was before I finished Tjanting, almost a year before I was ready to begin. It sort of forced me.

Jim: But The Alphabet should be read narratively through, as if the first page is the first page of the poem?

Ron: I think that with any long work, there are a lot of different questions about how you read and how you need to read. I don’t necessarily think that reading it like a paperback novel is the only way to do it. You can jump around. I think you can read in and read out. I mean, in many ways a book of poetry is closer to an experience of walking through a museum or an art gallery, where you can go into this room and that room and then another room and then come back to this room and you don’t necessarily have to follow the same specific sequence. This is one of the reasons that The Alphabet is not in chronological order.

Jim: Was it a conscious decision for you to sort of take on different projects throughout the poem?

Ron: Yes. What I wanted to do was push it into— [Wilmington Blue Rocks Cuban defector “bonus baby” pitcher Noel Arguelles walks his first batter] His strikeout-to-walk ratio has gotten worse.

Jim: The ump is just not seeing it, he’s squeezing him. You see this ... there’s a hot dog and a peanut walking around. You see these guys?

Ron: Yeah.

Jim: I think that’s a peanut. It’s either a peanut or like an empanada.

Ron: Definitely Mr. Peanut’s sadder cousin. One of the things I knew really early on—I think you can actually see it in The Age of Huts—is that in contrast to Pound’s Cantos, where each section looks pretty similar, what really allows a long poem to take form is having a different sense of a part:whole relationship. Zukofsky, through the first six sections of “A,” follows the Poundian model—and then, from the seventh section onward, doesn’t. You can really identify the moment in which Zukofsky figures that out. My own work has sort of known that since day one. That’s one of the reasons why, in The Age of Huts, “The Chinese Notebook” comes second. And “2197” comes third.

Jim: I got the sense reading The Alphabet that California had such a big role in the poem.

Ron: It does, particularly in the early sections. But I moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, just north of Wilmington, Delaware, in ’95. I didn’t finish The Alphabet until 2003. So it took 25 years. The last eight years were spent in Pennsylvania. In fact, the 18th section of You is a poem that begins P=H=I=L=A=D=E=L=P=H=I=A, which was literally the first piece I wrote after I moved here. I say “here,” but in fact we’re in Delaware at the moment.

Jim: And you’re working on something now called The Universe. Is there—

Ron: No. I’m working on something now called Universe. It’s not necessarily a noun. So there’s no “the.”

Jim: Oh. Universe. I’m sorry.

[Ball hit to shortstop]

Ron: Whoa! Double play!

Jim: Is your process similar to when you wrote The Alphabet?

Ron: Yes, it is.

Jim: Is it something you talk about? Do you write things in handwriting first? Or you type things up?

Ron: One section I’m working on writing with PDAs and cell phones. It’s called Feral Machines. And it will go into the computer, eventually. All the other sections are being done with pen. But I am doing some things differently at this point. I have been using basically the same pen for 30 years.  

Jim: Is it like a fountain pen or like a—?

[Rebecca Black’s “Friday” begins over the stadium speakers]

Ron: It’s a pen I bought at a stationery store next to Zabar’s when I was in New York and I’d given a talk at the church [the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s]. I felt good about the talk, so I gave myself a little reward. And spent, I don’t know, $30 or $40 on a pen that I converted to a felt-tip pen. Right there in the store, I asked, “How do you do this?” and they said, “Here ….” And so I converted it. That’s what I’ve used on almost everything. Except right now I’m working on a section of Universe called “Caledonia.” And I’m using the pen that’s in my pocket here for that.

Jim: That’s nice. It has like a wood face on it?

Ron: Yeah. I spend a lot of money on pens and then stick with the same old pen all the time. I wanted to try this one. Usually when I’ve gone away from the Waterman, which is what the other pen is, it’s been because the paper has been too porous. And it won’t take a felt-tip ink. Whoa!

Jim: That is to the fence for Blue Rocks outfielder Whit Merrifield. He’s in with two bags.

Ron: I wanted to try this one where actually the paper isn’t porous ... there’s no reason to do it with a ballpoint. I just wanted to get a different feel. I worry about those things. I’m very tactile.

Jim: You write in different notebooks?

Ron: Yeah, I buy the notebooks and assign them for specific projects. I have a chapbook coming out in a couple of weeks.

Ron: From Lines Press up in Red Hook, New York, and—whoa!

Jim: Nice bunt up the line.

Ron: It was a very good bunt. Got the runner to third base. Anyway, Wharf Hypothesis is the first section of a longer text called “Northern Soul” that I’m still writing in a little notebook that I bought when I was in England one day when I realized I’d left the hotel and I didn’t have a notebook and I was on my way to Liverpool. And that work’s called “Northern Soul.” The larger work. Part of which was published as a sculpture this summer in a—

Jim: That’s a foul ball I didn’t get.

Ron: It’s the line drives I worry about.

Jim: If it’s one of those, I’ll take one for the team. It was published as a sculpture?

Ron: Yes. I had a sculpture unveiled at the Bury Art Museum earlier this year; and in the fall, when the show it was part of is over, it will be installed in the central transit station in Bury, Lancashire [England]. It’s a giant neon sign. Letters are about the size of the letters that are in the outfield on the scoreboard. And it says, in three lines, “POETRY / HAS BEEN BURY BURY / GOOD TO ME”

Bury good to me

So that’s also from that section of Universe. With a nod to Chico Escuela. Not to mention Garrett Morris.

Jim: Do you remember your first baseball game?

Ron: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. Oh!

Jim: Eats up the third baseman. That’s an error!

Ron: E-5!

Jim: One to zip, Blue Rocks. Oh, whoa!

Ron: And there’s Mr. Celery!

Jim: Nice to see him make an appearance.

Ron: You thought I was kidding!

Jim: He’s much more impressive in person than in the pictures I’ve seen online.

Ron: My grandfather was always a baseball fan. Worked with Chick Gandil, who organized the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series. And Chick went to Mexico until he was around 40, using different names. And came back to Northern California and worked as a plumber in the same paper recycling plant in Emeryville where my grandfather was a foreman. So from early on I was getting all this baseball lore from my grandfather, who had only seen minor league teams. There were no West Coast teams.

Jim: Just the San Francisco Seals and—

Ron: And the Pacific Coast League until after World War II was perhaps as good as the Negro Leagues. It was mostly players who were on the West Coast. Maybe only a few of them ever got brought east. Lefty O’Doul and Joe DiMaggio. You know.

Jim: Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams.

Ron: But not a lot. But I’ve always thought that one of the things you notice through World War II is that if a Pacific coast leaguer went to the major leagues, their batting average didn’t drop.

Jim: Because they’d already faced great pitching.

Ron: Yeah, exactly. It really was a regional major league in many respects. But anyway, when I was 11, just the right age to catch on to this, Willie Mays showed up and brought Orlando Cepeda the first year. And then the next year, the hot rookie was Willie McCovey, and the year after that it was Juan Marichal. I was a fairly serious baseball fan for many a year there. Remarkably good teams, considering they never went to the World Series. The Giants were the second-best team in the National League year after year.

Jim: I guess if they’d had Sandy Koufax or something, if one of those guys on the Dodgers had gone the other way. . . .

Ron: If [Giants owner] Horace Stoneham had not been the alcoholic he was and had actually hired good baseball people…. Bill Rigney was about the only good manager they had the first 10, 15 years they were in San Francisco. Before Roger Craig. They originally played out at Seals Stadium, which in San Francisco is at 16th and Van Ness, about four blocks from where [Robert] Duncan and Jess lived. Not that they were baseball fans. Right across the street from the Hamm’s Brewery, where the workers would go sit on the roof and watch games. So we went to baseball games every year. My very first game was against the Cincinnati Reds. Starting pitchers were Bob Purkey, and Ruben Gomez for the Giants. Gomez walked the first four batters on something like 17 pitches and was taken out. A relief pitcher by the name of Paul Giel, who was the only Major League Baseball player to ever have been a student of Jack Spicer’s, and later on was the athletic director at the University of Minnesota for many years—he came in and pitched the rest of the game and actually got the win.

[Guy steals second]

Ron: Picked him off! Picked him off if you throw it right! Couldn’t get it out of his glove!

Jim: The second baseman should have put his glove up. I think he thought he was going to throw it over his glove there. That was odd.

Ron: That was lack o’ experience. That’s why you know you’re watching A-League baseball.

Jim: Some of these games get out of hand pretty fast and you’re like going, wow, the lack of fundamentals—

Ron: Another really short . . . what is this, four-foot batters? Bring back Eddie Gaedel.

[Foul ball headed our way]

Jim: Where is it? All right, we might be in trouble. I don’t have health insurance. Just drop me at the hospital and drive away.

Ron: Ha! No, no, no. We’ll take you up to the first aid station and you’ll own the city of Wilmington.

Jim: Silliman and Behrle Field. The mascot Rocky Bluewinkle is holding a large toothbrush on the field.

Ron: He just cleaned the dirt on the plate away. He should have flossed the second baseman! You know, I’m of the age where I got a chance to watch Enos Slaughter play. He was one of the players in the 1940s. It was at the end of his career.

Jim: He’s famous in Boston for making that run from first base all the way around to home on Johnny Pesky in the World Series. Well, you saw the Clemens thing went to a mistrial. They think they’ll get another trial, but I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s worth it or not.

Ron: Yeah. I have a condition. I don’t think it’s worth it, I think the whole thing is stupid. I think that they should in some way recognize that for 50 years [with] speed, and for at least 20 years with steroids, the majority of ballplayers were juiced. I mean, Willie Mays would talk about how they had bowls of “greenies” in the clubhouse for all the guys who had basically—

Jim: Yeah. “I gotta play a double-header today, what am I gonna do?”

Ron: Well, not only that. “I was out till six in the morning.”

Jim: Now they just have Red Bull, I guess. I thought the Clemens prosecution and the Bonds prosecution. . . . I mean, lying is no good. But I don’t know that it’s worth it to put anyone in jail forever.

Ron: Yeah, if they wanna do that, they ought to be going after everyone in the Bush administration.

Jim: Well, that would be nice.

Ron: But let’s use our money for something that makes sense along those terms. I have a condition called sudden deafness syndrome, something that I share with Phil Collins and Jill Scott. And every once in a while I lose the entire hearing on the right side of my head. Maybe once or twice a year. And I have to take some steroids to deal with that, because I could lose my hearing on that side permanently if I don’t address it very quickly. And I know firsthand what they mean by steroid rage, ’roid rage. You get really anxious and hyper and uptight. And you simply can’t control it. The minute I started reading about that in baseball, the image I had of that was Roger Clemens in the last game of the 1990 first-round playoffs against Oakland against Dave Stewart.

Jim: Oh, where he freaked out.

Ron: He got thrown out of the second inning of the most important game of the year for the Red Sox and handed the playoffs to the Oakland A’s. Now, of course, the A’s got swept by Cincinnati. So it was sort of a mixed gift.

Jim: I remember. I was listening to that game on the radio and I couldn’t believe he’d gotten thrown out, and they were trying to describe why he’d been thrown out. We also took it as Clemens spitting the bit when he needed to win.

Ron: Yes. But, you know, it really was, I think, probably, an example of—they’re talking about this as an aging star who did this to stay competitive. And I think that’s bullshit. I think that, in fact, actually probably a majority of major leaguers were using it for 20 years. The thing I haven’t figured out is how come the Latin American players haven’t gotten the message. Because they’re the ones who are getting caught. Whoa. That’s fair! That’s a double!

Jim: That’s nicely hit up the line for a double from Flacco. Why do you think it is that poetry and baseball kind of go together? Why are so many poets fans of baseball, in your opinion?

Ron: I think it’s probably because it’s the most philosophical of sports. Football is chess with concussions. But baseball has like this leisurely pace and requires a lot of different skills. And the strategy of each position is very different from every other position. There’s lots of different personality types. And everybody has played it growing up. That’s less true these days. My kids didn’t play as kids. They didn’t have any interest in playing basketball. They have no particular interest in team sports. And unfortunately, I feel that that is true more and more. That one of the phenomenons is that baseball, I think—whoa! That brings in a run.

Jim: That was the same pitch the other guy just hit. That went over the shortstop’s head. Mr. Celery won’t come out and celebrate the run for the Frederick team.

Ron: The Keys.

Jim: Do you think the grand experiment in blogs is over for poets? I mean, do you think there’s going to be less and less of that now?

Ron: Well, I think a couple of things are occurring. It’s absolutely clear that the heyday of the blog has passed. But that was because, among other things, it was the one medium like that, that was out there. And now with Facebook and Twitter and Google+, there are so many other alternatives that can be used as effectively. I actually think that Facebook Events is more effective than most blogs are about putting up events. There are some real specific problems with the structure of Facebook. Not simply the fact that the whole thing is done in mouse-point type. You know, four-point type or whatever that is. In fact, Google+ gets a lot of its points, I think, on day one from simply not making the obvious mistakes that Facebook makes. But it, too, will have a somewhat different function.

Jim: Yeah. I’m not quite sure, I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, almost.

Ron: Well, I think the circles will be a useful mechanism for communicating with subsets much more effectively than the various Facebook friends lists. And on Facebook, you have to approve everybody. So there really is a limit. I had 5,000 friends—

Jim: You’re the only guy I know who has 5,000 friends.

Ron: Yeah. But I have 400 requests sitting in my inbox from people who want to be added. I cannot add more. I suspect that the mechanism in Google+, although I only have 100 people in it—

Jim: So far!

Ron: So far. It will be a situation where anybody can follow me who wants to, but I can use the circles to do the things that I want to. For example, I have a circle for poetry, which you’re in. And I have a circle for New York City, which you’re in. But you’re not in my Southern California circle. And you’re not in the circle of people I owe money to, or any of those other subsets. So I think they’ll all have different uses. I think, actually, blogs are really good for putting up real content, and when I retire at the end of this year, I hope to be able to do more of that.

Jim: Well, I thought that you got kind of—you wrote that article, you posted that post that said you were going to be writing less on the blog. And I think it got really blown out of proportion in a way quickly that I thought was unfair to you.

Ron: Well, you know, it’s easy, by virtue of having been one of the first, and having gotten the most attention as a result of that, to be a target in those terms. And that just comes with the territory. That doesn’t particularly bother me. Because most of the stuff, you know, some of it is petty. And every once in a while someone says something that makes perfect sense—I could be doing more X, Y, or Z. Yes, that’s absolutely true.

Jim: Well, I’m not sure that you had a responsibility to give anyone that was reading anything more than what you were already giving them—which, certainly, a huge number of people responded to. It was an unprecedented spot for poetry for seven years or so. It was a long time. . . .

Ron: It’s in its ninth year right now. It will be nine years old at the end of August. And when I retire next January, I will probably change how I am doing some of the things I am doing. I might, for example, drop events lists and things like that. Or move them over into a series of pointers. Like I have a blogroll for other blogs. Into a page that has nothing but specific events by cities or something like that. Oh, come on!

Jim: The pitcher walks the bases loaded.

Ron: And he walked in a run.

Jim: So it’s 2-1 right now, Blue Rocks.

Ron: And just so you know, that’s $3.5 million for each run he has allowed. He’s had a fair amount of pitches in both innings. This does not look like it’s going to be a complete game for Noel Arguelles, even if he is the hottest prospect on the field tonight.

Jim: Do you think that you might take material that was on your blog and collect it in another format? Or do you think it should exist only on the blog?

Ron: Actually, several people have been talking to me about producing some books around some specific themes. Like around film. Or the New American Poetry. And around Quietude. I’m going to think about that. I’m going to start at least one of those next year, through BlazeVOX. Whoa! How many runs is that going to bring in?

Jim: Lined to the wall in the gap!

Ron: Two runs, three runs maybe.

Jim: It’s gonna clear the bases. Machado, the shortstop, gets a double and clears the bags. And that’s a lot of runs. It’s 5-1 right now. Did you—how soon, when you started the blog, did you have a sense that it was growing beyond your wildest expectations?

Ron: Day one. We’re warming somebody up out in the outfield.

Jim: Where’s their pens down there?

Ron: I think they are out of sight over there. [Points off to right field.] I can see the Frederick pen over here beyond the left field wall. Oh, they took him out.

Jim: Oh, he’s done. Maybe they have to protect him.

Ron: Maybe they’ve declared him injured or something, so that this guy gets as many pitches as he needs. We’ll see if he takes more than eight.

Jim: “The Macarena” is being played.

Ron: This has to be the only place in America you can still hear it. If Bluewinkle walks down here, you realize you’re going to have to get up and do “The Macarena,” kid.

Jim: I only know a few of the moves. You know, it’s like the Three Amigos dance, kind of. You gotta turn around at some point. It’s like the Hokey Pokey or something.

Ron: The Hokey Pokey is a real theological dance. You know, what if that is “what it’s all about”?

Jim: But the thing about blogs that attracted me is that you just never knew who was going to come along and discover your stuff for the first time.

Ron: I am quite amazed by who reads my blog. And the kind of readership it gets. I get, for example, a lot of readers who are strictly into haiku. There is a whole haiku community in North America that normally is not treated seriously, but in fact there is a fair amount of decent poetry being written by a number of those people. And a lot of them actually do read me, because I cover haiku. And when I judged the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and picked Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimalist Poems, one of the two finalists that I mentioned was a book-length series by Roberta Beary that, for all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of a novel written in haiku.

Jim: Hit to the second baseman. That’s going to be an easy out at first. I think your blog has daily readers because of your format, so that every day that you’d show up, there would be something new going on. But also because you were an affable voice that read a lot of stuff and would talk about a lot of different things that people were interested in. It just became, sort of, the poetry blog to follow. Twitter or Facebook might be able to get a few lines out well and quickly. But to write with some thought about something, it’s difficult to do that on Twitter.

Ron: Right. And from my perspective, the hardest aspect is this: that I’ve gone, in my job as a market analyst, from—like every job in America, I’ve gone through a series of speed-ups in the last decade. When I started it, I had a 50- or 60-hour-a-week job. Now it’s 70 to 90. And that difference has a huge impact. Which is one reason why I’ve told them in six months I’m retiring. I’ve had a full-time job pretty much since 1972, when I got out of school. But there was a time when a full-time job didn’t mean 90 hours a week. Nowadays, the average professional thinks of a 40-hour job as part-time work. We’ll see if the Frederick pitcher here went to sleep.

Jim: He’s got to give them back. He’s been in the dugout for about half an hour.

Ron: Yeah, he was. The number six hitter for the Blue Rocks is coming up for the first time.

Jim: This is the second inning. We could be here awhile.

Ron: And then we get to watch the fireworks.

Jim. Yep, fireworks. And monkeys. You can’t ask for more than that.

Ron: I think the monkeys are in the seventh inning.

Jim: I think monkeys and fireworks probably shouldn’t go together, if it’s at all possible to keep them separated. You’ve been sort of attracted to, over the course of the blog’s life, to some of the fads that have come through poetry.

Ron: “Fads” suggests they’re short-term. One of the things about poetry is that once something gets established, it never goes away. That’s one of the phenomena: none of the old forms ever go away. There’s still people writing sonnets, for example.

Jim: That’s a good form. Other forms don’t work as well. Now, I imagine your house to just be a castle filled with books. Or maybe the dinner table is made of books. And there’s a couch made of books.

Ron: My goal for my first year of retirement is simply to straighten up my basement. What it really is is a large finished basement filled with bookcases and mountains of books. And bookcases in the middle of the room. And tables with giant piles. I have about two bookcases of books that I haven’t even gotten written up for my “Recently Received” list. Because they come in faster than I can keep track. Any day when I get 10 books that come in the post, it’s more than I can do to keep track, let alone read. I’m always reading a dozen books at one time, but I’m also a slow reader.

Jim: I mean, is this just like a UPS guy comes by once a day and drops off a giant stack of books?

Ron: It’s mostly the post office. But both the UPS and the FedEx guys know me pretty well. Come on!

Jim: Double play.

Ron: Well, maybe this is going to be a quick mercy killing.

Jim: They got the monkey on ice. He can be released at any moment.

Ron: The monkey’s on your back, not on ice. Batting eighth, yet another player who isn’t five foot six.

Jim: So much has changed just in the last few years in terms of bookselling. And I was telling you I was at a Borders. They’ll probably be closed this week. Do you think poetry has a future as . . . as bound material?

Ron: I think the question of, and this is a real significant question of somebody my age, because I think in books—you know, I am right now involved in ... three outs … 11 different book projects at this very moment, that I am sort of working on. Now, not all of them are mine. Bob Perelman and Jack Krick and I are editing The Collected Poems of David Bromige. And then Ben Friedlander and Jeffrey Jullich and I are doing the same with David Melnick. But the other nine are mine.

Jim: Well, I went to the New York Public Library yesterday. I would either have to go to that library or to Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s house to read all your books. I’m glad that The Alphabet came out because it gives a reader like me a chance, for the first time, to see the breadth of the work and say, well, here it is all together.  

Ron: Right. Well, I am in this funny position of being a writer who is 60 years old and whose books you can go out and buy still. My complete works. They’re all available in those terms. And I’m conscious what a privilege that is. Because I can remember in the ’60s and early ’70s not being able to do that with somebody like Paul Blackburn.

Jim: Yeah. Or Robert Duncan now.

Ron: The whole question of what is a book is is becoming more and more nebulous. But I still think in that unit.

Jim: Do you have an Amazon Kindle? Or any of that stuff?

Ron: No, actually, I don’t. I’m waiting for the form to get a little bit older. I basically want something the size of a Kindle with the power of a laptop. And I don’t want it from Steve Jobs. That would be my ideal format. I do have a really old Palm Pilot TX that I still read novels on. It’s easy to carry around. I can keep a large book; I can pull it out at a meeting.

Jim: So you use, like, Google Books?

Ron: PDF files.

Jim: I was able to read a lot of The Age of Huts as a PDF online. But do you imagine that if you had to come up with some kind of format for what a poetry e-book would look like—

Ron: For all the limitations of PDF files, they fix the format. So spatialization remains exactly as the publisher and the author intended. Or at least you can get to it. On the Palm Pilot they allow you to read line by line in the pure PDF. The biggest problem I have with it is that the Palm Pilot is basically a dead format. But I think in 15 years there will be a lot less of the proprietary variant formats fighting each other.

Jim: Dropped by the first baseman. I thought that was going to be a double play.

Ron: Well, it would have been close. You are missing Rocky Bluewinkle. He is right behind you.

Jim: Whoa. We got the Moose behind us. I’m more of a Celery fan myself. I heard you read at the Bowery Poetry Club, and at the Penn Sound site reading part of “The Grand Piano.” And one of the things that struck me the most was how funny it was. I’m consciously trying to be funny in my poems—

Ron: I guess in my situation it’s a little different. I mean, when I was growing up as a poet in the ’70s, there were a group of poets who were clearly working on the idea of poetry as stand-up—Jim Gustafson and a lot of the Actualist Poets. That, to me, was not interesting. Just as I’m not interested in the Post-New-American-Where-It’s-Quietest variants today. Both of those exist. But I’ve always thought that humor was an important part of literature. And I’ve always been very attracted to the scatological in Joyce and in Sterne and in Anthony Burgess, for example. So I’ve always tried to build that into my works. When I was younger, in about 1973 or 1974, I was invited to hold readings two weeks apart in these totally different contexts. We’re going to have monkey rodeo fairly soon.

Jim: They got more cowboys around.

Ron: One context was the maximum security library at Folsom Prison. And the other context was in the visual arts program at UC San Diego under the auspices of David Antin. I read the same works in both places. And it was very interesting to see the different responses that I got. The only group I couldn’t reach were these sort of white convicts who were functionally displaced cowboys from the California Central Valley, for whom what I would characterize as the Nashville ballad form was the narrative form they could understand.

Jim: Cowboy poetry.

Ron: Not even that at that point—I would say closer to Robert Service in that sense. But those guys didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But urban—

Jim: Whoa. The end of the third inning is when the cowboy monkeys begin.

Ron: Get them out here before—

Jim: The monkeys have to be back in their cages by 9:30 or else there’s big problems.

Ron: Well, I would say before the fireworks go off, or else they might have monkeys all over the city of Wilmington. 

Jim: “There’s monkeys everywhere!”

Ron: Yeah. “Totally freaked!” But you know, the urban convicts from Oakland and San Francisco and Compton, they all saw what I was doing was some kind of verbal jazz. So they had a context for it and had no trouble with it. And everyone at UC San Diego was trying to figure out if I was Structuralist or Post-Structuralist.

Jim: That sounds fun [laughing]. I think humor is also, in terms of the poetry, in some of the cities I’ve seen, it’s different. Some places you just won’t get a laugh no matter what happens.

Ron: Yes, absolutely, if people are not comfortable with the idea of the poetry reading. You go to a small college, and they’re taught to be respectful of stuff they don’t understand. You might as well be reading at a funeral home. If I ever have a funeral, people had better laugh.

Jim: [laughing] Is that the pull quote from this interview?

Ron: That’s a pull quote.

Jim: If you ever have a funeral? [laughing]

Ron: Right.

Jim: When your blog returns, or when you get back to doing writing on your blog in whatever format it takes—

Ron: Whenever I start doing more of what I am going to do next, yes.

Jim: Do you think you’ll miss the sort of comment-box fray of it? Did stopping that—I understood there was a lot of—I did a lot of insane things there that I don’t feel very good about. Other people probably feel the same way. But did it give a sort of talk-radio sense to the blog?

Ron: Well, it was very A.M. radio. And the part I didn’t like was that it really divided my readers, particularly along gender lines.

Jim: Certainly.

Ron: And that I didn’t care for. There were some people who—now, I’m not going to name names here . . . .

Jim: I think we know who [laughing].

Ron: . . . who literally do not understand how their words resonate or fail to resonate with certain audiences. And it’s the jaw-dropping racist and especially sexist material that I don’t miss. And I often—because I never had the time—I would often, you know, let the comment streams build up over a couple of days without reading them myself. And that’s one of the places that I got into trouble: there would be things that crept through there that, if I had read it in advance, I would have deleted it.

Jim: Would it be helpful if you had more assistance with the blog? I said to you after you first did that blog post, “Does it make sense for you to enlist other people to sort of write?”

Ron: Well, it changes sort of what my job is. A couple of people who help me on a regular basis, Don Wentworth and Lynn Behrendt, need, functionally speaking, no management at all. They know what they’re doing, and they do it, and I don’t have to tell them much in those terms. I’m just grateful for their assistance. But I don’t want to become a manager.

Jim: I think what attracted me and a lot of people to the thing was your voice and your presence. And then interacting with you was sort of the other thing. It was like, what if I have something to say to Ron, or what if I have something I want to add something here?

Ron: Right. See, that’s one of the areas where I’ve found Facebook and Twitter useful, and I use Tweetdeck to post simultaneously throughout. I’m looking for the day when Tweetdeck will allow me to do Google+ as well. Oh! That was a good play.

Jim: Nice throw. I only have 20 more minutes of tape on this thing. If I think of more questions—I don’t want to wear you out, either.

Ron: That’s OK. You know I can talk. This is the power hitter for the Blue Rocks. He’s the number four hitter. He’s got 14 home runs.

Jim: He’s the DH, so he’s got nothing else going for him. A stocky lefty. They have men on first and second. They have two outs. They’re looking for Whittleman to make something happen.

Ron: Three outs.

Jim: Maybe it’s almost monkey time. You were big on Bill James early on. And a lot of his early publications. Am I right on that?

Ron: Yeah, you’re more or less right. I’ve never been obsessive with sabermetrics simply because I put that energy into my poetry. But I have a long-term interest in baseball. And some of the stats do make real sense—walks and hits per innings pitched. It’s easily the best index of a pitcher’s quality.

Jim: I liked the book Moneyball. And the movie’s coming out this year. I don’t know that I buy into the lore of it necessarily.

Ron: Well, all you have to do is look at how many World Series Oakland won during that time period.

Jim: Yeah, it’s like, how does that movie end? “Oh, we lost in the second round!”

Ron: I was very sorry that my grandfather wasn’t around to see the Giants win last year. He died in 1971. Because he waited. He waited for the Giants to get him that. The year they would have got into the World Series in ’61, if McCovey’s line drive had been a foot higher, Bobby Richardson wouldn’t have caught it and Mateo Alou would have.

Jim: I went up to the Polo Grounds when the World Series first started. And to go up there now and see the Polo Grounds housing projects and just a little woodcut of the field is a little depressing.

Ron: Well, in San Francisco today, I think many of the young poets around there now don’t know where Seals Stadium was. The catcher doesn’t even know where the ball is.

Jim: It’s a wild pitch and he’s going to score.

Ron: 6-1.

Jim: A rough night for the Blue Rocks.

Ron: But people don’t necessarily remember that the Mission Gardens housing project on Valencia Street is at the location of the old Mission Reds. Another minor league AAA team that didn’t last, like the Seals. The Seals were the Red Sox AAA team before the Giants moved out west.  

Jim: They’d gotten Joe DiMaggio’s brothers, Dom and Vince. Are there things you’ve wanted to do, poetry projects you’ve wanted to do, that you just didn’t have the time or the technology to do? Collaborations that you’ve never thought were possible that you hope to work on someday?

Ron: No, I can’t really say that there have been. I may have taken longer working on projects than I would have otherwise. But any time it’s a choice between my poetry and the blog, for example, it’s my poetry that’s going to win my allegiance. Probably the thing that’s been most useful to me about writing the blog has been having to pay attention to all these different universes of poetry, particularly the younger writers, whom I might not otherwise be paying that much close attention to. One of the things that I am quite conscious of, among my elders—poets who were once called the “New American Poets,” but who’ve always been the age of my parents, just as I am the age of your parents—was that relatively few of them would ever read work written by younger people. I don’t think there’s any question that Lawrence Ferlinghetti has not had a handle on what has been going on in poetry for 40 years. And, you know, he doesn’t do the selections for City Lights Books. And there’s no particular reason he needs to. But it feels sad to me because he seems very disconnected in that regard. Whereas somebody like Michael McClure, because he taught, has tried to stay much closer in contact to that. Somebody like Jerry Rothenberg has been very supportive of younger writers, both of my generation and younger generations than me. That’s something I’ve really appreciated from older poets when I was younger. And now that I’m not younger, I like the idea that I can actually pay attention. I can’t see myself, for example, ever writing flarf. But I can’t see my writing at this point going forward without being conscious of flarf and understanding how it changes the landscape. I do think, at least as a cognitive project, it does more to expand people’s idea of what poetry can be than maybe anything else in the last 20, 25 years, whereas so much of the neo-Conceptualism feels like it’s dripping with the trickle of nostalgia.

Jim: Does it seem to you that there’s more poets than ever now?

Ron: Oh, there absolutely are. One of the advantages that I have. . . .

Jim: There’s two on and no outs for these Blue Rocks.

Ron: Doesn’t that seem pretty normal? No. Two on. This has not been a pitcher’s duel. Even though the Blue Rocks only have one run.

Jim: They’ve had men on base in almost every inning.

Ron: Yeah. But when I was starting to write, there were maybe 1,000 young publishing poets around. And I would say half of them are still writing, 30 years later. In the generation of the 1950s, you can’t find anywhere a portrait of 1950s writing that suggests there are more than 100 writing and publishing poets. I personally think you can find that number of 100 in a few places—I think that’s low. More likely there was something on the order of 500 poets. And if you do the kind of excavation of the ’50s that Cary Nelson does of the 1930s in Repression and Recovery, looking at American poetry from the perspective of left-wing doggerel—the most despised poetry—and build a picture of the phenomenon from that perspective.… I think there’s at least 20,000 publishing poets in the English language now. Oh, that will score a run. At least one.

Jim: Whoa, what a throw. It hits the guy coming across. The Rocks got a run. Sacrifice line drive. 6-2.

Ron: Mr. Celery is back.

Jim: Ha, ha. Mr. Celery is on the field.

Ron: He doesn’t have the moves of the Philly Phanatic.

Jim: The Phillie Phanatic is the greatest, perhaps by far the greatest mascot. The San Diego Chicken had his day, but the Phillie Phanatic has turned into the greatest modern mascot of all the teams.  

Ron: The idea of the Phanatic being modern is a, well, it’s a whole new conception of Modernism.

Jim: Do you think young poets are hemmed into whatever is the idea of what a poet is now, as opposed to how it was different when you were growing up? Like when you first became aware that you wanted to be a poet, what was your plan?

Ron: I was in high school, and I knew I was going to be a writer of some kind. But I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do. But I was really not interested in narrative and story. I sort of thought that that was what you did, or what you had to do, to get to the interesting parts of writing. And when I was 16, I was at the Albany Public Library and pulled out this yellow hardback, a brand-new book at that point. It was published in, I think, ’54. And it was called The Desert Music by William Carlos Williams. The irony is that it’s the most narrative thing Williams ever wrote, poetry-wise. I read it in the most opposite way. It was the most free of narrative of anything I’d ever connected with. And I saw that I could make the parts of writing [in which] I was most interested the foreground. So from that point on, I sort of knew that poetry was the deal. But I didn’t know what I was going to do about that, particularly. I grew up in a house without books, without music. So I knew that poetry fit into a general program to get the hell out of Dodge, as it were. But I also grew up in Berkeley, which really helped. So even if I didn’t know, even if my family didn’t know, that there were books or music, all I had to do was walk out of the house to find out. And I started going to open mike readings at Shakespeare & Co. In those days it was called—Go! Go! Go! Go!

Jim: A run will score. A bad throw to second on the steal. Mr. Celery is back. He may have hurt himself. He’s holding himself kind of oddly. I need Mr. Celery to show up at my house and get me kind of psyched whenever I do something good. It’s a fair ball down the line! Prades is at second. The Rocks are putting something together. Mr. Celery is getting tired.

The tape ends abruptly, but the game went on. It was clearly not the Blue Rocks’ night, and our talk about Obama and socialism got eaten by the cheap app on my Android phone. The monkey rodeo was more fun and impressive, and ultimately emotional, than one could ever guess. The fireworks were fireworks. The traffic after the game was insane. But Ron was able to drive me, Dukes of Hazzard style, back to Joe Biden’s train station in plenty of time to catch my ride back to New York. I thought I’d be doing some sleeping on the train, but I felt too jacked up after all the talk and baseball. I opened The Alphabet again as New Jersey blurred by me in the dark.

  • An influential figure in contemporary poetics, Ron Silliman became associated with the West Coast literary movement known as “Language poetry” in the 1960s and ‘70s. He edited In the American Tree (1986), which remains the primary Language poetry anthology, as well as penned one of the movement’s defining critical texts,...

  • Jim Behrle lives in Brooklyn. His latest chapbooks are SUCCUBUS BLUES (Editions Louis Wain) and IT SERVES ME RIGHT TO SUFFER (Hotel Poetry). Photo credit: Greg Fuchs


Yo-Yo’s with Celery

Ron Silliman and Jim Behrle take in a minor league baseball game.
  • An influential figure in contemporary poetics, Ron Silliman became associated with the West Coast literary movement known as “Language poetry” in the 1960s and ‘70s. He edited In the American Tree (1986), which remains the primary Language poetry anthology, as well as penned one of the movement’s defining critical texts,...

  • Jim Behrle lives in Brooklyn. His latest chapbooks are SUCCUBUS BLUES (Editions Louis Wain) and IT SERVES ME RIGHT TO SUFFER (Hotel Poetry). Photo credit: Greg Fuchs

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