[Kenneth Koch – Portrait of Kenneth Koch by Alex Katz]
Kenneth Koch Q & A from 1979 continues
KK: Maybe we should have some more questions. What would you like me to tell you about?
Student: What do you at Columbia?
KK: I teach three courses there. I’m a regular Professor. I teach a writing course with twelve students. It’s, I mean, in this writing course, it’s not just a poetry-writing course,
I have people writing poems and stories and plays. I even usually have them write, sometime in the year, one long lonely piece of criticism, because I think that anybody who’s really going to be a serious writer, sometime in his life, is going to want to write some criticism, just because, you’re going to know that some good writer is being neglected and you want to talk about it (and you want to know some that bad writer’s being praised), so you might as well know a little bit about doing it, but.. What I think is important is that poets and fiction writers and playwrights don’t think they’re all doing completely different things. I think particularly now that poetry and fiction have… it’s easier to see they’re closer together. And, you know, there are these people who write stories and you.. like guys who write stories, and you tell them to write a poem, and they think you’re asking them to put on perfume and a dress and high-heels and dance, you know! And they’re scared to death of doing it, and say,”No, I can’t write poetry”. And I say, “For god’s sake, if you can write a story, you can write a poem.”
So I.. I have them read William Carlos Williams‘ poems and D.H.Lawrence‘s poems. Sometimes they change over into poetry!
[William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
[D.H.Lawrence ( 1885-1930)]
But also, I think it’s very important for poets and good fiction writers to try writing for the theater. Because, I mean, the contemporary theater is really lousy (and it’s been lousy for a long time, I think). The main..the whole main tradition is commercial theater (and almost all the schools of theater are run by people who have been experienced in Broadway theater and Off-Broadway theater, which is almost entirely commercial). Then there’s this sort of kooky part of avant-garde theater, which is…there’s some good things in it, not an awful lot, but there’s some good things in it, but there’s a kind of confusion of what’s avant-garde in the theater, there’s a confusion of..,sort of, a previously-forbidden idea, or a currently-interesting subject, with, actually advanced artistic practice. Like, it doesn’t make a work of art artistic if you kill a pig in the middle of the stage and have some homosexual junkies jumping out the window nto the audience. I mean, that has nothing to do with avant-garde art. You can have a perfectly avant-garde work about a spinster sitting in New England, reminiscing. It’s (you know, you have to have it in) the language and the staging, Anyway, the great lack in the theater is good scripts, and everybody knows that. And I, like, almost never.. I get really bright students at Columbia, talented students, every year, and in the fifteen years I’ve been teaching now, I think two of them have been interested in writing for the theater, (out of, you know, five hundred!). Like smart, really gifted, writers, usually aren’t interested writing for the theater because they go to the theater and…they don’t see anything, and if it is interesting avant-garde theater, (like Robert Wilson), there are no words, or the words aren’t interesting, and I think that the real hope for the theater is…
Student: (that they don’t notice the absence of it?)
KK: ..poets writing for it, good writers writing for it. And, I mean, I mean I don’t tell you that because I think, in the spirit of sacrifice, you’re going to devote your life to the theater (to save it – why should you care?), but it’s a great pleasure. Let me tell you, it’s a great rush to see your words be acted out on a stage. I mean, it’s fantastic. I read a lot of plays, and there was a time when I. . I usually write plays when I think there’s a possibility of a production. All the plays I’ve written, except one, are just very short, one-act plays, and the same thing always happens, I mean..I have trouble with the director, I have trouble with the producer, the actors want to change their lines, the director wants to build a ramp, the producers doesn’t want to do the play, and the critics in the newspapers don’t like the play. And (or) some critic at some weekly paper or some arty paper likes it, but that doesn’t (matter, because) it’s already closed. But ..It’s still a tremendous pleasure to work in the theater and to see your plays done and there’s always a hope that somebody good will actually get a theater–school going (so there’ll be actors who can read verse, directors who know how to direct, good plays with good language, and there may be a theater where it will be done.) I remember Arthur Miller telling me fiftteen years ago,”Lincoln Center‘s going to have this small theater. We’re really going to do avant-garde plays there”, and I thought, “Like what?”
[Arthur Miller (1915-2005)]
“You know, I’ve never done a damned thing there, I know of, that’s really worth doing” – Well, anyway, that was then. But, anyway, it really is, it really is a pleasure to write plays. It’s also a good way out of the lyrical trap. I mean, the trap – that you can only express the main feeling that you’re having – “Oh Nancy, where art thou?” – Like, you really have to say what you feel about the grapes, or about the grape-pickers, or whoever. To write a play, you can be the bad capitalist, the good grape-picker, the bad grape-picker, the grape, the tree, the wine, the orange, you can be everything. And it’s like, you can be on all sides of everything (which, in fact, one is). What.. The position one takes is the result of choosing. But there’s a kind of poetic truth also in expressing everything. You know, one finally decides against violence, but there’s that violent self in one too. And so you have this Ape-man in your play – It’s very enjoyable. Yes?
Student: Did you find any problems writing for the theater, (working with a) different form, or..?
KK: I’m inspired by writing in different forms so I really liked it. I tell my students at Columbia, you know, to write a play for Monday (like, it’s Wednesday) and they say, “What?!” – (but that was the idea that I had, when I was their age, that a play.. because plays are so boring, you think they take ten years to write). But you can write a short play as quickly as you can write a short story or poem. You just.. Since they’re all poets, I give them rules, I say,”I will not read any play in which any of the followng characters appear – “Girl”, “Poet”, “Clown”, “Old Man”.. (you know, all this stuff that poets seem to write about).
Let’s see.. If you’re afraid of getting stuck in received ideas writing a play, try writing a play like Picasso did, Desire Caught By The Tail (Le Désir attrapé par la queue), in which all the characters are objects, you know (or all the characters are not human). Try writing a play in which there are no words, in which it’s all stage-directions, that’s a lot of fun – or try writing a one word play.
If you want to read some…if you want to escape, sort of, from the commercial general theater idea, I’ll suggest some kinds of plays to read which will inspire you, as poets.
Ezra Pound did some wonderful translations of Japanese Noh Plays [The Classic Noh Theatre Of Japan] (but, so, you probably know all this stuff, but I’ll just kind of sum it up,write these down). Read any Japanese Noh plays, There are some translated by Pound, some translated by Donald Keene (that’s a good book too, translations by Donald Keene).
There’s a.. Another kind of interesting Japanese theater is the.. these puppet-plays, the Kabuki plays (but I won’t write all this stuff down [on the blackboard]) – There’s a.. read Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, that’s a really inspiring play [Koch does write this down on the backboard] ..What (else) is there? – There’s a book called Futurist Performance, which is edited by a guy named Michael Kirby, and it’s a lot of writing, it’s a lot of writing about Italian Futurist plays – and the Italian Futurists. they did this just before, and during, and a little after. World War I.. But the second half of this book is a lot of texts of Futurist plays, and..I don’t suppose you want to write plays like that but they’re very shocking.
There’s one, by a writer named Cangiullo, for example, called “Light”– And this is the play (in its entirety) – “The audience.goes into the theater. It’s completely dark. They remin in the dark for a long time. Finally, the people in the audience get very anxious. People start to scream out.. (wait, they don’t yell out, somebody is planted in the audience doing it) – “Light! light!, for god’s sake, light!” – At which point, this blinding light comes on, and that’s the end of the play – It’s just called “Light” – That’s a very short one,but there are others that are more complicated and more interesting, but just to give you a funny idea of the… you know..
There’s some very interesting short plays by (Federico Garcia) Lorca (but any of his plays are likely to be inspiring) . There’s one very short one called “The Promenade of Buster Keaton”, which is all about.. it’s about a four-page play and that all the action is Buster Keaton taking a bicycle ride, and he sees a girl, he sees a dog, he sees a kitten, and a baby, an old man… What’s another good (play) to read? – Yeats’ – some of (W.B.) Yeats‘ verse-plays are interesting. You can get.. I think there’s a book called Twelve Plays [Twelve Classic One-Act Plays] by William Butler Yeats. [ (it) includes work by W.B.Yeats] He was very influenced by the Noh Plays, but he might interest you.. (I’m trying to think of the strange kinds of theater. Anyone we know?) Yes?
Student: (Peter Handke‘s plays?)
KK: Well, I don’t know his plays but I hear that he’s very good. I was trying to think of really short ones, you know that give a…. What should I read of Peter Handke? What should I pick?
Student (1): He’s got some short ones
Student (2): (Offending The Audience is a (relatively) short one)…
KK: I can’t recommend it because I haven’t read it. But it’s bad that I haven’t because some people that I like and trust say he’s good.
Student: What about things that are current, that are going on right now, that people are following..
KK: What? Like what?
Student: Is there anyone in New York who..? Any plays that you’ve seen there..?
KK: The most exciting things I’ve seen in the theater in the last few years have been by two directors. One is Robert Wilson (and have any of you seen his plays? – they’re fantastic), but the words are nothing in them – but, if you can ever see a Robert Wilson play, it might be (wild). (Every once in a while there’s (a lemon, but…) He’s really, like a choreographer and architect as much as he is anything else, they’re terribly dramatic
The other two best things I’ve seen recently are by an Italian director named Luca Ronconi If you can ever see anything where Ronconi directs.. Did any of you see the Orlando Furioso play that he did in Europe (and Harvard Square, and he did it under a tent in New York City at the Library)? – Orlando Furioso was an epic poem by (Ludovico) Ariosto, written in the Sixteenth Century in ottava rima, sort of like (Lord) Byron‘s
“Don Juan”, in full heroics and shouting and crazy love-affairs, and magicians and transformations and …And, he did an adaptation of this play (in which he had all the characters, all of whom were in carts, in his staging in Rome, and there it was done, like, outside in the public square, under a tent, it had these people (shouting) and pushing these carts, and the audience had to get out of the way, and it) very accurately caught the spirit of this epic whole poem – tremendously dramatic.
[Luca Ronconi ( 1933-2015)]
Another amazing thing I saw by Ronconi, which I just saw last year, in Italy, was, he did a version of The Bacchae by Euripedes. In case you don’t know what that play is – it’s a play about Dionysius or the God, or, it’s not Dionyius but some Dionysius-like figure who represents the Bacchic religion. You know, So the idea is to.. it was a great Mystery Religion, which swept over Greece, which came from the coast of Asia Minor, and was a.. not rational, like a lot of things in Greek life, (you were supposed to get drunk and have orgies and ride around with your clothes off, and everything – it was a religion that encouraged the expression of this, this part of human nature) . And, in this play, the God comes to this town in Greece and begins converting people. But he’s opposed by the ruler of the town, the great prude, he doesn’t want that kind of thing, you know, and finally he drives this man crazy, (doing terrible things) – but it’s a wild beautiful play. Well, Ronconi did it with one actor playing all the parts – fantastic! – and he did it in a municipal building in Prato, in a suburb of Florence, in a municipal building . And he (set all the scenes of) the play in this building. Only twenty-six people could watch the play, (I mean, sit down) – I mean, it sounds gimmicky but it just happened to be great, he was a great director. So you sit there and watch this one scene and then you have to follow the actors into another room and you have to crane to see inside and it’s like being in the play. But that’s…that’s not writing. You just have to see these particular productions when they come.. So Luca Ronconi….
I’ve been inspired a little bit in my plays by seeing certain movies.. like, particularly movies with a high artificial content like old Mack Sennett shorts, where, like a million things are going on in five minutes before you can.. jumping off boats… (and) a whole bunch of Buster Keaton – I don’t know, I find them quite inspiring.
[Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)]
Student: What do you think of (Jean) Cocteau?
KK: Oh, some of his plays are very good. Yeah, yeah. None comes to mind that…Yeah, they’re good .
I don’t know if I’ve said enough… .Anyway, that’s enough to get you started
I like.. I like that very gruelling play by (T.S) Eliot called “Sweeney Agonistes”.. Do any of you know that play? “Sweeney Agonistes”. He thought it was a failure. It’s called “Sweeney Agonistes: A Fragment of an Agon” – (Agon is some kind of Greek pleasure). T.S. Eliot – Sweeney Agonistes. [ Koch writes it on the blackboard] . He was inspired by.. There’s a kind of entertainment in England..I think it’s called.. Do music-halls still (exist) in England?
Student: Some of them. It’s just like… almost like the museums, but (backed by strong followers)
KK: Anyway, Eliot was inspired by the kind of language and the rhythm of the way comics talked in English music-hall, and he thought that would be a good a good medium for a play. Poets of the twentieth-century get.. A lot of them have wanted very much to write poem-dramas.. And they’ve all found it – you know, regular Shakesperean drama in blank verse – you write Shakesperean blank verse, you end up sounding like Shakespeare (did, and that wasn’t quite it) – and they tried all kinds of things, but Eliot tried this play. I thought the results were very interesting – there was this kind of very quick rhyming, sort of like, “We’ve got to sit here and have this drink..”.. . “We’ve gotta sit here and have this meal, we’ve gotta sit here and drink this booze” – I ‘ve gotta use words when I talk to you.
I know this. You know that. Boo-boo-boo. Boo-boo-boo. That sort of very quick stuff – and it’s interesting, it’s interesting, (for the poets anyway).
W.H.Auden in his early days wrote some interesting poetic plays. One is called “Paid On Both Sides”. That’s probably the most inspiring one. Somebody should do the anthology of (Auden’s plays) – that would be easier [Editorial note – It’s now been done] – I don’t know where to find “Paid On Both Sides”, you probably have to go to the library. The trouble with the library is, (once you’re in there), you can’ t correct things or change things. There’s no way of eliminating things he didn’t think, you know, were up to his standards, (he didn’t like some of his early stuff)
Student: There’s another thing by (Auden) that’s more recent. It’s something like “Celebrating the Senses”, (or something like that, or “Tranquilizing..?) [Editorial note – “The Entertainment of the Senses”, an “antimasque” included in his last (posthumous) volume, Thank You. Fog ]…
KK: I don’t know that. He wrote some plays in collaboration with (Christopher) Isherwood which were (interesting). I suggested to the… the Dean at Naropa asked me for some ideas, (since Naropa was always looking for good new ideas), and it seemed to me that one good thing that could be done here would be to make more of a.. I mean, to make some connection between the writers and the theater. I mean, it would be great to come here and know that if you wrote a play there’d be some kind of performance of it. I mean it would be great if there was some place in America where people could write experimental plays and at least there’d be a reading of them, where you could see as many plays as you hear poems, I mean, it would be terrific. Because it’s in in that kind of atmosphere that things really happen. You know, I can see a Robert Wilson play maybe once or twice a year, to see Ronconi I have to go to Italy. Every once in a while, I’ll see a good Shakespeare,Chekov. There’s not enough going on in the theater that’s…There’s not enough of a turn-over. There’s a lot more turn-over in poetry. And that’s really good for art. Anyway, I hope they do something about it here. You might re-suggest it.
What shall we do in the last ten minutes? What shall I tell you? – Yeah?
Student: I wanted to ask you a question about work habits. You were talking about the speed of writing.. I was wondering about some of your longer poems, whether you returned to them in several sittings, whether you’ve got several pieces going on at the same time?
KK: Ah, well, let’s see. It’s varied from time to time.I always try to finish a poem the first time I write it but I almost never do. As I said to the class last time, talking about the poems in my book The Art of Love, the title poem took me more than three years to write, and, of course, I mean, I was writing other things at the same time, I ..after a certain.. I would concentrate on it for days a week at a time, but then, seeing I hadn’t gotten where I wanted to get, I’d do something else. “The Art of Poetry,” which I read last night, I wrote in two days. (I think that’s the longest thing I ever wrote so fast.) So, ” Some General Instructions”, which is in that book, I wrote in one day, “On Beauty” took me a month. Usually.. I mean, I find it a good idea to concentrate on.. if I’m writing a long poem, or even a not-so-long one – usually I’ll try to not write anything else at the same time. On the other hand, on the other hand, sometimes one gets.. I don’t know, it’s just depends and you.. I would suggest trying it different ways. Sometimes the long work that you’re working on that you think is so important won’t turn out to be the best thing you’re writing. You know, some lyric that gets inspired in the middle of your epic may be better. So it’s hard to tell.
When I wrote.. I wrote two.. I wrote a book-length poem called Ko, [Ko,or A Season on Earth] in ottava rima, when I wrote that I.. I just disciplined myself, I didn’t write anything else.
Student: : What about your prose, like The Red Robins?
[Kenneth Koch -The Red Robins (1975) – cover by Larry Rivers]
KK: The Red Robins? – Well, it took me about fifteen years to write The Red Robins, so I would have to be writing other things. I would try not to, but.. I just kept getting stuck, I didn’t know what to do with it, and.. Well, what sort of (doubt) is that in the question?, what..
Student: Oh, I was just thinking about continuity of occasion..
Student; (How a) poem could be a single poem written over a long period of time and the self-consciousness of knowing that a part of the poem is a (section of what) you wrote next…
KK: Yeah, well it does get into that effect, but both effects are kind of nice. I believe one gets a different effect if one writes something straight on, or if one stops, and then has (the) writing the first part of the poem already in one’s head, and then one’s … I always try to (go) straight on, like I say, because I think I will get…
Student:: Have you changed the tone, changes of intensity…?
Student: : A poem that would seem to be very inclusive on one day (on Monday) might not be the next day
KK: Yeah – Did you have a question? – If you could ask me something more precise about that. I usually try to work straight through. On the other hand, sometimes I find it hard to do it. Sometimes I find when I’ve written a good poem or something that I think is good, that it’s not a bad idea to write another one – instantly, you know, in the same day, because, it’s as though one has gotten into the… into poetry country. You know, you feel so good for having written the poem that I’m inspired to write another one (like there’s a big clearing for a minute). Sometimes I find that.. (well I said that in a poem last night, didn’t I), that completing a poem that I’ve been working on is inspiring. What happened with those poems in The Art of Love is, after working on them (studiously) for over three years,
I finally finished it, but, in the next week, I wrote “Some General Instructions”, which is a ten-page poem and “The Art of Poetry”, which is twenty pages, just because I had all that energy from the other poem. I don’t know what “energy” (that’s a spooky word – I don’t know what that means). Anyway, that happened.
Q: What about a poem like “The Pleasures of Peace”?
KK: “The Pleasures of Peace” was very hard for me to write. That took me a couple of years. I was doing other things but I kept saying, “No, I musn’t do anything else” and then I thought,”Well, I’m not a masochist, I don’t want to… you know, I’m stuck”..That was very very hard. Parts of it were very easy and then other parts were very very hard. I talked about that last time too that I..I decided I wanted to write a poem about the Vietnam War because I was very concerned about it. And I kept writing all these parts about suffering and everything, and they just jumped out of the poem, the way the body rejects an artificial heart sometimes, you know, they wouldn’t stay in. So I finally had to figure out how to write this poem about the pleasures of peace, you know. It was hard, it was very hard because of the subject-matter. It makes it a little easier sometimes if you have a regular form. For the two book-length narrative poems I wrote, where I used ottava rima I really liked to do that sometimes..
Q: Yeah , I just wondered if there’s a book that you can suggest that has different styles different forms of writing in them and explains them…?
KK: (A book to) explain the different forms.? I know, there are some books around, like The Poetry Handbook, [Editorial note – Perhaps Koch is referring here to Lewis Turco‘s The Book of Forms, most-recently updated, indeed superseded by Ron Padgett‘s edition of The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms] but – or Rhyming Dictionaries in the front (of dictionaries) – but, if you get one of these books, I advise you (you can read them, (but with caution) – they’re often somewhat hacky.. you know they have conventional ideas about poetry – “And you must come to a climax in the last three lines” and all that stuff… But I don’t.. does anybody know the name of any little book? There are little books which have all the poetic forms in them.
Student: (There’s someone at the back there)
Student; When you leave something unfinished, does that create, like, a nervousness in you, that affects you with the things that you’re at work on?
KK: Well, of course, it’s better if one could finish things, but.. I don’t know.. What do you mean?
Student: If I’m not inspired that day, I may decide to come back to something, (but then)
I feel, like, “Oh, I can’t do it. Maybe I’m not a good writer? and then…
KK: Oh yeah, right, right, okay. That’s one of the depressive type of experiences that writers always have. When you.. when you write the first version (I’ll be brief, I have to stop in a few minutes), when you write the first version, it often feels like everything is alright because you know, you’re this superior person doing the thing you didn’t know you could do, and it’s all working out, it’s wonderful, it’s like somebody running up to you (and taking your face) and kissing you and saying, “Isn’t this wonderful! I mean, everything’s alright, after all”. It’s alright (that) I was mean to grandma, it’s alright I forgot to buy the groceries, it’s alright, this and that. It’s okay. It makes you feel like winning a tremendous amount in gambling, You feel wonderful. Well, you go back the next day, you look at it, and realize the high is over, you know. You may be okay or you may not be okay, but the poem is.. doesn’t prove it. And you have to work on it (the way that one has to work on almost everything – I mean maybe there are a few lucky moments, but..) So you realize.. I think it’s coming down from a kind of euphoria.It’s hard, one thing that’s hard about revising. I mean it’s so exciting and then.. but I don’t think there’s anything you can do about that. I mean, one of the pleasures of writing, you write a poem and it seems wonderful. (And) the reason it all seems more wonderful in the first version than it seems afterwards is that when you’re writing it, the poem seems to actually contain your spirit, and the air, and the roses, and lips, and everything. And then when it dries out, it just doesn’t work. And sometimes they still contain the experience and sometimes they don’t. I was giving a poetry reading and my friend, the painter, Alex Katz, asked me “What are you reading?’ – And I said “I’m going to read some things I just wrote.” And he said, “Ah, you’re reading some wet ones”.
And, like paintings, when they’re wet, you know, and they’re all shiny with paint. But, yes,
I found some ways (that) I like revising as much as I like writing the first version. At one point I found revising… I have a messy desk and I just write the poem and then I find it in a week, or a month, forgetting I’ve written it, that way there’s no pressure on me. The problem with (my writing) is pressure – “Okay, I’ve started it. I’ve had this baby, you know, I’ve got to educate it. And you can.. There’s no obligation. When you sort of .. Under pressure, it’s hard to feel that freedom that you need to write well. I don’t know, just try various ways to revise. Don’t be afraid to cut things out though (as you can always put them back).
I have to go as I have to leave town Let’s see, about the sestinas [the class assignment], I think I have to.. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read them all (I didn’t think I would). Why don’t I.. Why don’t you come and get them (so you’ll have them) – and thank you.
[Audio for the above can be heard here , beginning at approximately sixteen-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at the end of the tape]