1 Lew, when did you start writing The Birds, and what was your initial inspiration or motivation?
The last lines of the first poem speak of the moment, a beginning too of my interest in birding, which would be about the spring of 1997 or 1998. The poem reads: … I do not regret the first time I asked the question, was asked the question really, sputtered from its hiding place, the winter wren in the thick shrubs on Mount Davidson, a hermit thrush perched and silent nearby, “We are the Voices, the silence opening the gate of light, bright in us” but mottled, dim, scrambled in the fog snaking the cement cross at mountain’s top, the thick trees everywhere bright in us. There was that moment; they said so. I was told.
2 "We are the Voices …" I then and still experienced as an authentic hearing. My strong preference for secular language and formulation makes me resist a mystical interpretation or reference, but this is there if such language drapes such a notion stemming from personally understanding an experience walking down a trail on San Francisco's Mount Davidson. There was even a 'guide' to the scene, a passer-by with binoculars who stood slightly to the side of the path I was descending through woodland, and I asked him, more a remark to the air, 'what is it? It reminds me of the mountains, that wonderful flutelike voice.' And he said, "hermit thrush, they're subtler than the robin, to which they're related." He smiled; so did I. I understood in the same way I do today, that this incident could and would easily pass, as such moments do. But that it was no incident in a light sense, and that I was challenged not to let it pass. Some four years went by before I began The Birds, and I do not remember thinking about writing, but just acting, becoming a birder. I have been a writer all my life, while not writing much of it, almost by design. You describe an experience of “authentic hearing,” as if the birds were speaking to you personally when you were out walking on Mt Davidson. This sounds a bit like Jack Spicer’s concept of “dictation”—do you detect a similarity?
3 Yes. And yes specifically. Spicer was the first artist I ever met with whom I shared a very secular outlook yet who seemed to believe in, and respect the experience of, an unknown source, a contact with ‘the Other’ that was not wrapped in religion or traditions of mysticism, at least specifically ancient flavors of either or both. It was enough to speak of William Butler Yeats and his wife on the SuperChief from Chicago to Los Angeles, she indulging in automatic writing, if memory serves, a story he told with a serious and unmocking face, not always a level of respect he displayed for others, especially iconic figures. We heard a lot about ‘Martians’ and ‘radios,’ based on Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus, all relaxed but determinedly serious references to expressive styles from the then very ‘modern’ 20th century, none of it shaded by priestcraft. Fine. I only slowly came to understand a difference between what ‘radios’ and ‘Martians’ gave Spicer that differed from the practice of ‘automatic writing’ as ‘dictation.’ It turned out not to be all that different from the serious practice of any searching artist, to respect as fully as humanly possible the quality of authenticity felt at the initial point of experience of an artistic insight or inspiration, although with a bias toward preserving every aspect of that experience, including literal language. But blind adherence to anything was equally shunned. Martians could lie and play jokes; one was careful.
4 However, in a friendship experienced daily in the street / bar life of North Beach, there was never confusion about similarity of personalities, interests or personal objectives. I can see few similarities between Jack Spicer and myself at surface level except our shared alcoholism, homosexuality and poverty. He liked the idealism, the ‘High Romanticism’ of my outlook, as George Stanley once described it. I liked, and certainly respected, his commitment to ‘poetry,’ to an effort to live a life that took Spicer far from commercial and academic America. “When you hear the poem, get off the bus.” This was for me ‘absolute instruction,’ though something only very slowly understood at any depth. What I gleaned from Spicer, besides the pleasures, angers and anxieties of personal interaction, was an insight, that one does not tamper with gifts from ‘the Other,’ and alters nothing arbitrarily for effect, but only and if to enhance a display of what an original experience is understood to be, the focus ‘deepened’ and ‘clarified.’ And not much of that. Focus. Try to get it right at once. Don’t be dismayed by intrusions of the mind afterward. Abrupt turns are the same as straight lines. They are departures from the first moment of ‘seeing’, of ‘hearing.’
5 Let me ask you a bit about the form of the poem. Although frequently lyrical, the mode is generally more discursive, bordering at times on prose, and the length of the lines is often unusually long. The printed format reflects this—we've chosen a 10x10inch page size, since the typical 9x6 trade-paperback dimensions would have been too small for the long lines. With all the white space on the page, the type appears like clouds on a very large background. How did this way of shaping your poetry come about, and did you have any models for it?
Mindlessly. And your ‘white clouds’ image is gorgeous in this context. Of course Charles Olson’s notion of ‘projective verse’ and ‘composition by field’ come to mind in this context as well, and it is certainly true that I read this essay in the late 1950s, but to say that I ever argued for the idea, or even thought about it would be to exaggerate. I remember the first time I actually felt I was observing an accommodation to Olson’s notion of form (Olson attributes it to Robert Creeley) was with Joanne Kyger's early work, The Tapestry and the Web, which displays itself so physically one cannot help but notice this is more than ‘free verse,’ it is verse centered on its physicality, it’s a picture like a Chinese ideograph or even an Anasazi pictograph. This was a presentation far removed from the mnemonic ordering of verbal lines to tell a story or create an
6 emotional impression by way of language; this was a picture. It all seemed, and still seems so utterly obvious and natural to me, a way to go, a sure way to go, the only way to go if ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ are thought to be direct points of access to the actuality of ‘the poem,’ the means to its authenticity, its dress the language as it flows. The only things I ever think about in composition that might be understood as consciously selective are the variety of the wording and the placement of lines in relation to those near each. This is rarely more than a decision made in a quick pause; then onward. Conversely, I might sometimes render a prose composition in specific line breaks, not allowing the recording device (once upon a time, handwriting or a typewriter; now a computer word-processing program) to determine the decision. And sometimes I let the computer follow its own lead, making prose. I never ignore the surface appearance of what I write creatively, and always worry that when something finds a new home on a page, it might look awful. I’m glad to say that I have been pleased with how The Birds and Other Poems looks, and have had this judgment reinforced by the unasked responses of people I trust.
7 The underlying inspiration for these poems is your experience as a bird-watcher, or perhaps as you suggest as a bird-listener. It seems to me that birdwatching is an occupation that almost everyone finds attractive, but there are few that obey the summons. Would you like to say a few words about some of your more outstanding, pre-poetical birding adventures? I don’t separate a before or after where birding and poetry are concerned. I have only been a birder for a dozen years, while a poet since a young man, if intermittently. I have been posting some of my experiences at the local birding website (SFBirds) from early on. Here is one such description, a version of which one finds in my poem The Birds, that shows the marriage of these two ways of seeing the world — birding and poetry — joined in their foci, presumably extending to a deeper focus invisible to any human eye: the Invisible World: "At about 8, giving half an hour before and after for all that I saw this morning, the hooded oriole pair which has occupied the Mexican fan palms to the east of the J-car tracks near the corner of 20th-St-&-Church LRV stop, were teaching two immature hooded orioles to fly. This must be the pair's best year; I have never seen two offspring before in the park. The young birds, tumbling about each other in short flights, stayed close to their mother, all atop a conifer along Church St. in the park. The father called in mild
8 single notes from the home tree, the middle Mexican fan palm in a line of three across the LRV tracks, some 100 feet from his family. Bright morning light from the east rendered every gesture, aerial and perchhopping, a clear and intricate spectacle. "A pair of yellowed-chevroned parakeets manned their station at the park's tallest tree, a Canary-Island palm dead center in the park by the clubhouse/bathrooms, with repeated vigorous morning squawks. Occasionally they would head off toward the south and east to circle the park and sometimes go a bit beyond, only to return. I wonder if this tree is this species' Alamo? From time to time throughout the summer I have seen half a dozen of these birds flock and scream as they do, circling the park (an Alamo reunion?), but the decline of the Mission-district yellow-chevroned parakeets has been evident for years. On the other hand, red-masked parakeets more and more are seen in the area, overflying and sometimes stopping here and there. "A red-shouldered hawk, large and lustrous, landed in a waxy-leafed evergreen by the bronze statue of Miguel Hidalgo that stands just east of the footbridge at 19th St crossing the J-car tracks in the park. A small flock of lesser goldfinches whispered about various verges where unmown grass still yields seeds, along walks and rail tracks. Otherwise just the usual suspects, robins and starlings, Brewer's blackbirds and ravens, house sparrows and house finches,
9 pigeons in their usual large numbers, brightened the lawns and plantings with their movement and song. High summer. Soon the orioles will be gone, hopefully to return next April." Lewis Ellingham: (4-VIII-2007)
Published on Nov 28, 2009
Ithuriel's Spear editor James Mitchell interviews Lew Ellingham on the publlication of his new book "The Birds and Other Poems," November 20...