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Life and Works

As always with Jerome Rothenberg, one finds difficult to choose what seems the most fruitful side in his artistic and professional achievement: poet, anthologist, essayist, translator, teacher, performance artist, ethnographer, founder of literary tendencies like "deep image" or "ethnopoetics," and organizer of literary events. His artistic claims expand from realistic to magical realms. Not in vain, his relation to poetry is based on ancestral concerns, and can be called "investigative poetry" to use Ed Sanders' terms. Rothenberg's multiple themes and approaches become inflationary, since the teacher, the student and the general reader are in continual discovery of his new poetic developments. These are based on a call-and-response method of a poet who responds to other poetries, to music, to dance, and to various cultures. In fact, his ultimate goal is to encourage others to join in the reconstruction of a world culture damaged by politics or economic power. Rothenberg is responsible for another kind of poetry that has proliferated in the panorama of contemporary American poetry in the last decades of the 20th century and early years of the 21st century. It is the kind of poetry which had been marginalized by the establishment and academia in the past, though its alignment with the issue of cultural diversity in the United States has definitely imposed an effective influence on university campuses and big commercial presses. There is no question that the idea of ancestral poetry is derived from fundamental reflections on the controversy between the old "high" culture and the "low" culture. As a consequence, Rothenberg clearly pushed for the end of a limiting culture that conditioned new literary rituals.

Photo by Manuel Brito

Rothenberg's outline of a new poetic sensibility is also worth noting, quite close to the Deleuzian-Guattarian concept of "deterritorialization," which marks "the nexus where economic, social, linguistic, political, theoretical, discursive fractures converge" (174). Through his own poetry and his edition of anthologies, Rothenberg has extended this transcultural mixing from merely cultural production to a cultural globalization in which the same product is differently perceived and interpreted, though economic and political reasons continue to work on the values and judgments of these products. It is along this line of rethinking the relationships of multiple identities and the Other, where Rothenberg has brought language into discussion. All this has resulted in a kind of multicultural postmodernism of resistance, providing a counterpoint of new themes and forms to the fetishist practices of the old cultural power.

Rothenberg's interest in presenting a pluralist human approach essentializes his opposition to the rigidity of tradition, knowledge, and culture. The predicament of an alternative poetry facing old categories --Black Mountain verse, Confessionalism, New York School-- led to a new scenario in the 1960s, which was best absorbed by contemporary tests for experimentalism. Furthermore, environmentalists, blacks, Native Americans, women, Jewish, Asians, and Chicano poets found answers to their demands and arguments through several key developments in contemporary critical theories. This is seen in the redefinition of thinking about language and representation. An investigation of the nature and structure of this new American poetic scene at the turn of the 20th-century needs to revisit the older parameters of literary production, especially attending to diverse social groups, publishing enterprises, production networks, poetry awards, reading series, and academic programs may all play a part in the emergence of a different poetic landscape.

Jerome Rothenberg was born on December 11th, 1931, in New York City. His parents Morris and Estelle Lichtenstein Rothenberg were Polish Jewish immigrants, who provided him an education in public schools. Rothenberg has confessed that until he was three years old he lived in Brooklyn and the language at that time was Yiddish, which cooled off when the family moved to the Bronx. He married anthropologist and teacher Diane Brodatz in 1952. Precisely, this is the year when he got his B.A. in English from the City College of New York and the following year received a Master's Degree in Literature from the University of Michigan. In the period 1953-1955 he served in the U.S. Army, assigned to Mainz, Germany, and returned completing graduate studies at Columbia University from 1956 to 1959. The late 1950s saw how Rothenberg became interested in the edition of new American poets and foreign poetry. In this context, in 1958 he founded Hawk's Well Press, which presented young poets like Robert Kelly, Diane Wakoski, Rochelle Owens, or Armand Schwerner. Rothenberg's first poetry book was also published by this press in 1960, White Sun Black Sun. He translated from German the anthology New Young German Poets (1959), including Paul Celan, Gunter Grass, and Ingeborg Bachman among others. His editorial task continued with the publication of the little magazine, Poems from the Floating World (1959-1963), which published new American poetic voices like Jackson Mac Low, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, and Robert Duncan.

The 1960s was a very productive period in Rothenberg's poetic career. His books, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi (1962), Sightings (1964), The Gorky Poems (1966), Conversations (1968), and Poems 1964-1967 (1968), established a line of experimentalism exploring poetic structures, especially Gertrude Stein's experimentalism and sound forms. He has recognized various influences coming to him in these books, ranging from Whitman to Federico García Lorca, James Joyce, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, William C. Williams, Dylan Thomas or W.H, Auden. 19th-century influences were also visible in Rothenberg's poetic achievement, especially, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Walt Whitman. Many echoes from these poets can be heard in Rothenberg's next work, Poems for the Game of Silence (1970). He also co-.edited with David Antin the little magazine, some/thing (1965-1968). During these years he held some academic positions, like instructor the City College of New York (1960-1961); and at the Mannes College of Music, New York City (1961-1970). He also was a member of the so-called "deep image" poetic group. This term is applied to the poetry mainly developed by Robert Kelly, Diane Wakoski, Clayton Eshleman and Jerome Rothenberg himself, Influenced by Spanish Surrealism and French symbolism, poems should include free-standing images that fused the reader's inner and outer realities in an transcendentalist act of recognition. Most of these theoretical issues were formulated in the magazine Trobar (1960-1964), and though Robert Bly tried to extend this poetic practice in the 1970s, this tendency had definitely lost popularity by then.

From 1972 to 1974 the Rothenbergs lived at the Allegany Seneca Reservation in western New York State. The main motive for this move was Diane's research for her doctoral dissertation, though Jerome definitely realized that ancestral imagination was everywhere. Nevertheless, in 1968 he had received a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in Anthropological Research to conduct a two-part experiment in the translation of American Indian poetry. This experience led to a translation of a series of Navajo horse-blessing songs. This resulted in Rothenberg's "total translation," intendedly following the original language and its English sound and vocalic correspondences to the extent he even valued "meaningless" devices, word distortions and redundancies. These experiments and textual evidence are observed in his anthology, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972). As a teacher, he became associated with the University of California, San Diego from 1976 to 1986. Nevertheless, he also held various visiting professorships, including the Distinguished Aerol Arnold Chair in English at the University of Southern California, and in 1986 he was appointed as the visiting New York State Writer in Residence of the New York State Writers Institute in Albany. From 1986 to 1988 he had a tenured appointment with the State University of New York in Binghamton, and since 1989 he has been a professor of visual arts and literature at the University of California, San Diego.

 

 

In the decade of the 1970s Rothenberg's interest in American Indian and other tribal/oral poetries led to co-edit with Dennis Tedlock a magazine, Alcheringa (1970-1976), strongly associated to ethnopoetics. Tedlock understands ethnopoetics as "a decentered poetics, an attempt to hear and read the poetries of distant others, outside the Western tradition as we know it now." In this sense, for example, Rothenberg did not exclusively constrain this poetic tendency to the American context but also incorporated new contexts like Jewish Poland in his poetic production. This is the case of A Book of Testimony (1971), Esther K. Comes to America (1973), and Poland/1931 (1974). But at the same time he always looked for a broader integration of diverse cultures and he found a formalist means to undertake this task: anthologies. Rothenberg has been deeply committed to publish that obliterated poetry, which had been victim of the canonical competition, or simply disregarded by other confused strategies. In fact, he had published Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, [Europe], & Oceania in 1967. But in the 1970s he urged himself to sensitize American audience to poetries from the margins: America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, co-edited with George Quasha (1973), Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945 (1974), and Ethnopoetics: A New International Symposium, co-edited with Michel Benamou (1976). In 1978 the anthology, A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present, co-edited with Harris Lenowitz and Charles Doria represented a historicist aesthetic examination of Jewish consciousness providing a closer look to orality, visionary, and mythic sources in Jewish poetic tradition. An apparently similar interest in rethinking diverse modes of poetry generated all over the world can be found in Rothenberg's edition of a new magazine, New Wilderness Letter (1977-1982), intended as a "further exploration of the poetics of performance," ranging from Allen Ginsberg's breath prosody to a combination of Jacques Derrida and ethnopoetics, or to use Rothenberg's term, "an ethnogrammatology."

 

 

In the next decade Rothenberg continued to be a prolific poet, publishing Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (1983), co-edited with Diane Rothenberg. The editors' primary point of reference was to help readers see how a series of older poetic forms are present in contemporary culture. Thoughtful writings and disparate concepts derived from William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, or Tristan Tzara are exposed to a new closer inspection. Rothenberg's literary career was substantiated in these years through the publication of numerous poetry books like Numbers & Letters and Vienna Blood in 1980, That Dada Strain (1983), 15 Flower World Variations (1984), A Merz Sonata, in collaboration with Debra Weier (1985), New Selected Poems 1970-1985 (1986), Khurbn & Other Poems and Further Sightings & Conversations in (1989).

 

 

In many of Rothenberg's later works, he manifests a clear projection to improvisation, playful effects of language, free interpretations of other poets' work, and many collaborations and translations. It would be impossible to analyze all these publications, though titles themselves should be illustrative of his cultural experience based on systematically redeeming forms and the mythological issues in all kinds of poetries: The Lorca Variations (1-8) (1990), Improvisations (1992), Six Gematria (1992), The Lorca Variations (complete) (1993), Gematria (1994), An Oracle for Delfi (1995), Pictures of the Crucifixion and Seedings & Other Poems (1996), Delight/Délices & Other Gematria (1998), The Leonardo Project: 10 + 2 (1998), Paris Elegies & Improvisations (1998), A Paradise of Poets (1999), The Case for Memory, & Other Poems (2001), A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris, China Notes, The Treasures of Dunhuang (2), Twelve Russian Ikons, and A Book of Concealments, all these in 2003. 25 Caprichos: After Goya (2004). More recently Rothenberg has published choreographic books like China Notes and the Treasures of Dunhuang and The Burning Babe and Other Poems, in which he centers on some ghosts that have moved this poet's imagination undermining the western idyl of contemporary life. His latest production, Triptych, is a collection of previously published books like Poland/1931, Khurbn, and The Burning Babe, building as Charles Bernstein points out in the preface, "a liminal dwelling of inbetweenness... where objects are disguised as words and words are used as objects of resistance."

 

 

Another aspect we should mention is Rothenberg's poetry performances, including radio sound plays written and performed for Westdeuttscher Rundfunk (Cologne), among them "Der Dada Ton," which was staged in 1985 and 1987 in collaboration with bassist Bertram Turetzky and director Luke Theodore Morrison in California and New York. His book, Poland/1931, was theatricalized by Hanon Reznikov and the Living Theater, staged in New York in April 1988. A version of Khurbn--in collaboration with composer Charlie Morrow and Japanese novelist Makoto Oda--was performed by the Bread & Puppet Theater in 1995. His popularity has reached many foreign countries through the numerous translations of his work into French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Serbian, Polish, Japanese, Lithuanian, Chinese, and Finnish. As a translator his devotion for German artist, Kurt Schwitters, and Spanish creators Federico García Lorca and Pablo Picasso, marks his puzzling capacity for bringing into English various language and cultural forms. Other writers recuperated by Rothenberg for the American audience are Eugen Gomringer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Czech modernist Viteszlav Nezval.

Prizes and distinctions have recognized his long career in American letters. He has received the American Book Award in 1982. In 1994 he was the winner of both the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for his book, The Lorca Variations, and the PEN Center USA West Translation Award for PPPPPP. In 1996 he was the recipient of another Josephine Miles Award for the edition of the anthology, Poems for the Millennium, and in 1997 he received a Doctorate of Letters from the State University of New York. In 2002 he was awarded a second PEN Center USA West Translation Award for his translation of the Czech modernist Viteszlav Nezval's Antilyrik & Other Poems, published in 2000. He was elected to the World Academy of Poetry (UNESCO) in 2001. Later in 2007 this poet received the San Diego Public Library Local Author Lifetime Achievement Award (LOLA) for his writing career and significant role in the San Diego community. He resides in Encinitas and has one son, Matthew

 

 

1980s and 1990s postmodern American society took up and strengthened the power of diverse poetries, especially through its interest in a new language for a new society. Jerome Rothenberg has been an essential interpreter and leading figure in putting the poetic word back into the voice of an Other. In doing this, he has defended tradition and avant-garde as co-existent and socially interacting. Always interested in formal experimentalism, most of Rothenberg's literary achievements have found various formal expressions. His approach to tradition and visionary experience goes together with new models for the poetic practice and thought, vindicating the value of the Other. Jerome Rothenberg has pictured modern poetic movements clearing up the credentials of new poetic tendencies in the United States, and inferring that the poet should be aesthetically mobilized through the immersion into diverse cultural experience.

Manuel Brito (Universidad de La Laguna)