Interview with William Seaton
© by Kirpal Gordon, 4/16/09
KPG: After receiving my review copy
of Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
from Foothills Publishing up in Katona, NY, I dutifully googled you only to
discover that you were presently on the road giving a reading in Nepal.
Above a photograph of you reading from your new book the Kathmandu Post
of 9 Feb 09 called you “a poet of music” & quoted you as saying:
“Poetry is a craft. It takes
care, polishing & rewriting. Many poets believe that first idea is the best idea which I
don’t believe completely. My
poetic moment begins with an impression rather than an idea."
I thought it a more accurate description of the actual writing process if
less romantic than instant American Idol Slam Champion, but you’re in the land
that made the Vedas & that song wasn’t built in a day.
As for all the roads that lead to it, we’re circumambulating the temple
a bit, but here you are a classics scholar & poet who in your first minutes
of retirement joined with your just retired wife to visit ancient sites all over
the earth. So what’s it like in
India & Nepal? Jane &
Michael Stern in their review of Rory Maclean's Magic
Bus coldly called that scene “the hash-and-hepatitis”
trail. Is there is a literary
resurgence in Kathmandu or perhaps backlash from the beat & hippie &
punk eras as the review suggests?
WMS: I can’t speak about any trend over time since Patricia and
I had never been there before. We
did do pieces of the hip Cook’s Tour, quite consciously, in 1970-1, spending
time in Ibiza, Morocco, and Amsterdam, and that route to India and Nepal
definitely was on the horizon, but, after wandering for almost a year, we found
that Europe and North Africa were sufficient to chew on for a time, and we
The funny thing about that Magic Bus review is the quote from the
Turkish journalist saying the youth travelers were “the fireworks of
freedom.” Yuyutsu RD Sharma, who
arranged the reading in Kathmandu, had the sweetest romantic notion about
American hipdom (he had read at the old Colony Café in Woodstock) whereas you
would have thought those Nepalese would be about fed up.
Is it simply the old affluence allure kicking in even as counter-culture?
Did Frank Zappa mean more to the Czechs than to Americans?
Do the developing countries have to pass through super-consumerdom to
reach hip? The basic mindset of
non-American intellectuals, especially in poor countries, seems more formal, old
school colonial-influenced, so maybe anti-academic gestures retain their power
there better than here.
Incidentally, Yuyutsu is a first-rate poet in English and an excellent
place to begin if you want to get in touch with Nepalese writing today.
Have a look at his recent
Annapurna Poems for a start. He
really brought Nepalese poetry into modernity with his Kathya Kayakalpa (Content
Metamorphosis) movement that championed the abandonment of rigid formal
convention in favor of a unique design for every poem.
In general, though, the most evident impact of the intrusion of the rest
of the world into Nepal is surely the demonic pollution, said by some to be the
worst in Asia, generated by go-for-broke economic development and a lot of
people suddenly being able to afford a motorbike. Then there’s the sexual exploitation evident in nudie bars
and prostitution. Women are
exported; it’s a major center for human trafficking.
Then there’s the anomie experienced by peasants who abandon the land to
move to urban areas that have all the illnesses of the 21st century,
and find that, in addition to everything else, they feel inferior to every lout
who’s been able to afford a ticket to a place once the native’s own.
There remains, though a national life.
Nepal’s intelligentsia all know each other. My reading was one of a regular series bringing together a
substantial portion of the interested parties in the capital city, really the
only true metropolitan area, as opposed to our scene which is split into
countless bits, glittering here and there but largely unaware of each other when
not engaged in fierce rivalry.
KPG: How was the reading received?
WMS: The reading that Yuyutsu
arranged turned out to attract all kinds of fascinating Nepalese.
I was overwhelmed by the reception.
The press was there (see one strangely refracted interview at http://www.kantipuronline.com/kolnews.php?&nid=179109)
and many Nepalese poets attended: a scholar who writes in Sanskrit slokas, a
revolutionary who put down his rifle only recently after five years in the
mountains; a poet whose song lyrics, I was told, are sung by illiterate
villagers as they plant rice. What an enviable variety of intimate
connections to the people: through tradition, social engagement, and authentic
popular appeal! How many Americans
cultivate any of these? Have we any
The biggest reaction, actually, came during the question period when I
was asked my opinion of Bush and Obama. I
think one could visit practically anywhere on the globe and find the same
immense relief and hope for a change in America.
KPG: What of India?
Where did you go?
WMS: We only visited a few places
this first visit: Delhi, Khajuraho for the temples, Varanasi as center of Hindu
gravity and also for Buddha’s Deer Park in the suburbs, and Kathmandu.
As for why, apart from making a pilgrimage to the far-away Other, it’s also a chief source of spirituality and a fountainhead of story (medieval Europe seems to have received most narratives from either the Celts or the Indians). Thus it has produced an astonishing body of mythological material recording the activities of a set of deities who, unlike the Greek and Germanic pantheon, are very much alive in cult today, even modern and socially conservative Hindus are unapologetic about stories that seem to spring right from the backbrain, stories that feature sex and violence and metamorphoses and the most dizzying view of world upon worlds, aeons succeeding aeons, gods ruled by gods in rank upon rank beyond what one can imagine. It is a bit breathtaking even in old Annie Besant. Curiously, in the context of the incense and stinks, the appetitive monkeys and impetuous motorbikes of Varanasi, the visitor is led to rise and meet the vision.
KPG: What of Varanasi, the city Hindus seek to die in? Did any poems appear as a result?
(Varanasi is sometimes called by this name when regarded as the great
cremation ground for the corpse of the universe.
During nightly services at the Dasaswemedh Ghat, worshippers set tiny
I walked the ghats with holy men and
and monkeys eyeing every scrap of
The river Shiva loved flows by
with corpses, chemicals, and shit.
must grin at dissolution bright and
and welcome every shred of tender
though Mother Ganges hardly could
indifferent, hosting pathogens and
and bearing the brief flame of every
KPG: A very impressionistic take!
It’s like reading one of Jack Kerouac’s sketches.
You seem to create a portal or a way to fit into any ongoing scene
“whether I write about the Nigerian bush or about a slug in my yard,” to
quote you from the title piece. Throughout
of Desire you renew the element of pilgrimage in contemporary travel,
a world in which big bus tourism seems to have replaced personal discovery.
WMS: Travel is about liminal
flirtation, crossing over boundaries, transgressing, even potential psychic
space launch, but it doesn’t unfold only when passports are stamped.
The lover, too, treks off to inhabit another ego, largely for pleasure.
The embrace can only be warm, though, because it doesn’t work any other
way. The consumer of art
temporarily and in play with glad affection adopts another consciousness: this
is what the world may have looked like to someone once.
Modest though it be, this opening provides what looks very like access to
truth, especially when compared to the other contenders whether inductive,
deductive, authority, or analogy-based. The
first step toward doffing subjective goggles is to realize they’re there.
Travel like consuming art or making love not only reminds one of one’s
limitations, it results regularly in alteration of consciousness (not wholly
different, perhaps, from what happened in the dark caves of Lascaux or among the
soma-eaters). Certain chemicals
will produce a dramatic alteration of consciousness, but so will a great love or
hearing Don Giovanni or entering Delhi
or Creel or Česky Krumlov, each in its own way.
Let the neurons of each be stimulated by the frisson of choice!
As for myself, a cultured boy, I found plenty of interest in Europe when
I first visited at the age of twenty-four, but when I crossed near Gibraltar
from Europe to Africa, I found the world transformed. To a lapsed Midwestern Methodist it was as though I had
wandered into the land of Sunday School Bible illustrations, though these guys
were praying to Allah and puffing kief. We
stayed for months – I have a line: “Morocco’s tattered cap which fit me
well.” I recall sitting with
friends in a hut of sticks and thatch thinking, “One could simply live like
this.” It wouldn’t have been
the same at home or even with the comforts of Amsterdam.
I am reminded of the last lines of Spoor of Desire:
“As we sit in a hut with walls of fronds, we eat the meat with mint tea and
round leaves. White and whole wheat, while drummers and string puckers perform
keening warbling heartsongs and great rough clouds of smoke from cookfires that
have smoldered for centuries drift through this new and temporary Eden.”
Yeah, that was meant to set down in concrete detail one of the sublime moments
that strike us all, but which usually evanesce into the everyday before we take
KPG: One of the pleasures of reading
Spoor of Desire is the adept use of what W.E.B.
DuBois called double consciousness, moving effortlessly back & forth from
dialect to mainstream narration, from insider & outsider points of view,
leaving in the wake an image field integral & non-dual, as they say, &
resonant with multiple meanings, as if hip & square, now & then,
esoteric & exoteric are not in conflict but are making one fabric.
I’m thinking, for example, of how you swirl together Thales, Old Laozi,
Pindar, galaxies, the Grand Canyon & a bloated bladder in “Cold Water.”
Or your last three lines in “Prison Classroom”: “Seaton,” he
says, / “you and me down / like four flats on a Cadillac.”
WMS: And isn’t it a marvelous image, a quotation from Mariah Carey who got it from unknown coiners: apart from the primary affectionate meaning (however ironic), it’s the great American Cadillac/whale beached, sketch of an uptown dead-end street, loungers roosting on an old car that hasn’t moved for months, you take it from there. Isn't polysemy a kick if you have good material to start with?
Hip is one of the distinctive twentieth-century ironic aesthetics which
insists on double vision. Just as
the aficionado of African-American authors or of camp or kitsch appreciates an
object ironically, the hip viewer sees his take on reality as that of a
privileged insider in contrast to the contrasting “straight” view.
This claim to esoteric knowledge will, perhaps with some justice, annoy
the square, but it is only a recent version of the poet’s claim to vatic
status, channeled through the Romantic assertion of the superiority of
individual sensibility over reason and the artist’s displacement from a niche
among the ruling class that has led poets to oppose the status quo for the last
few hundred years. This view is
inevitable to those who see the current economic system as an enormous three
card monte game with Wall Street financiers in the role of pitchmen and everyone
else as marks. The educational
system, to such hip eyes, offers the unsatisfactory choice: submit or rebel; the
mass media seem like effective if diabolical programmers of hapless brainpans;
consumerism excites the hungry ghosts to scratch against the walls of our souls
when we should be rejoicing . . . wherever the hip person looks, the received
view contends against the individual. This
structural relationship is not the only constituent of hip – there are
specific values, too – to Mailer in the fifties the T-formation was hip and
the Single-wing square – but the double vision is essential.
KPG: I understand that you recently read in Hungary as well. What’s the literary scene like in Budapest? Is their appreciation of hipness different from ours, given their Old World appeal & post-Soviet freedoms?
WMS: I mentioned the Czechs before – we’re more suspicious of hip as a commodity whereas to them as well as the Hungarians, when they were under a sort of last-ditch Stalinism, even the commodity felt liberating. I think there’s a regional sensibility in the Eastern European delectation of the absurd, the pleasure of pushing metaphors to the end. Look on the web for a very bright young poet and translator from Budapest -- Danyi Daniel – in addition to his own fascinating work, he’s translating the Beat writers. Foreign poets visiting there should visit Treehugger Dan’s bookstore which has regular readings (and concerts) and is a center for expatriates.
KPG: To return to double
consciousness as a Taoist tactic, it’s all over Spoor
of Desire, even in the section title, “The Metaphysics of Everyday
Life.” I noticed a similar
double-edge in poems like “I’m looking,” “Apologia for Shaving after
Twenty Years,” “Kasyapa’s Flower” & “My fat grape eyes can hardly
bear the sight” with its killer last line, “for Dionysus Lysios is skipper
now!” That is, while reading, I
recognized them from a performance you gave at the Bowery Poetry Club last year.
On stage they were rhythm-driven, long lined in full breaths; the words
grew wings, the act of intonation liberating the vowels from their consonant
clusters. But on the page the eye
can go wherever it likes, & in reading & rereading the same poems, the
effect is indeed quite different---quieter, the pleasure more image-driven.
seems like you have your eye & ear pitched to the values of poetry both as a
one-on-one phenomenon of writer to reader as well a spoken event to a live
audience. I think it a rare gift: to be able
to write verse that satisfies both sides of the equation.
WMS: I have always cultivated orality in my own work and
studied it in others because it requires some sort of communion between author
and consumer. In a coffee house you
can hear gasps of revelation and sighs of boredom.
Nonetheless, there are poems best read from the page – for instance,
those difficult to grasp the first time through – I go further into the
generic distinctions in my essay “Winged Words.”
Reading out loud and scrutinizing a written text are both illuminating
and useful pleasures. Doesn’t
each text tend toward either oral or written form?
KPG: What of your work with the
Cloud House Poets in San Francisco back in the day? How are your travels related to the Poetry on the Loose
Reading & Performance series you have been producing in Middletown up in the
over the last fourteen years? Is
this part of a method to bring the Hudson Valley poetry community in contact
with writers from all over the world?
WMS: It’s all about getting a fix on other people’s views of
Reality, still finding out “if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a
vision to find out Eternity.” At
Poetry on the Loose we say “the door is open wide.”
I have people read whose work I don’t even care for, if they have a
sufficiently worked out body of writing, it’s worth having a look.
I might be wrong, and, besides, aren’t we all Buddhas?
In San Francisco we read on the street as a form of poetry missionary
work, reaching out to the community. See
Art Goodtimes’ As If the World Really Mattered for a collected volume by one who
KPG: Now that the publishing companies are going the way of the
record companies, what opportunities inherent in the Global Village/world wide
web scene of today can poets & writers seize?
WMS: The internet is certainly
stubbornly democratic in many ways – someone with greater technical expertise
than my own would have to figure out the details, but I’m certainly a
proponent of seizing the medium, just as copy centers and then computers have
allowed anyone to make decent-looking books.
I’ve already here made several references to online sites.
KPG: Looking through Spoor
of Desire’s Table of Contents, I count six different collections of
work that you have drawn from in these selected poems.
Yet, for all of that, it reads as one poem from start to finish.
How did you manage to cohere such a range of work over so many years?
WMS: Let me go back to the introductory words in Spoor to which you had earlier referred. I quote Florio’s lovely translation of Montaigne which has the essayist declaring that, in spite of apparent variation, his theme remains always the same: “my selfe, fully and naked.” What else can any of us do?
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