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"Writing about me means nothing. It's all in the poetry" — Taylor Mignon speaks with poet Cid Corman

Japan-based American poet Cid Corman passed away in 2004. He lived in Kyoto since 1958 and his legacy in Japan continues to inspire. Topojo's Taylor Mignon talked to Cid Corman back in the early 2000s. The resulting interview was in the archives, in need of a new digital home and this is exactly that.


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Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1924. A selection of Corman's poetry from the 80s and 90s, Nothing/Doing was published by New Directions in 2000. Other projects include completing the five-volume set Of (Lapis Press), the trilogy The Despairs, The Exaltations and The Silences (Cedar Hills Press). As the editor of the seminal poetry journal Origin, Corman published work by Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen and Gary Snyder.

Photo from Jacket2

When did you get your start as a poet?

The first day I started to write poetry was the 21st of December 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbor, a Sunday. I began on that day and I have written every day since then. I don't think there's another poet in history who can say this. And it means, of course, that I have written more poetry than any human being ever before, or probably ever will again. I write a book of poems every day - that means I write more poems in one day than Philip Larkin could in his best year.

It must take a long time to edit.

Oh yes, that's the real chore. To put together 125 pages of poetry, I have to go through 10,000 pages of poetry, at least. I started in 1941, but it took me until 1950 to write my first real poem - what I regard as my first real poem, which is "An Orthodoxy," which is in Of, which is about my grandmother. It was the poem from which I began to feel that I was doing what I could do. So it took me that long and then I went to Europe, and suddenly, so many things were happening to me.

An Orthodoxy The truth of it is a fastening, as a wick fastened in a glass of wax gathers its light, a dying within a death. As my grandmother in a world hardly her own, alone and kind, her home her synagogue, holds my frozen hands in hers (rubbing the blood up) under the running tap.

You went to France on a Fulbright [grant] with the intention of recording French poets?

Right. All they had - you must remember tape recorders were just coming in - was a wire recorder. But I knew from the start that I would never use it for recording French poets because it wasn't professional enough. I thought, "What am I going to do with this machine? Hey, why don't I try inventing a poem on this thing?" This was in 1954. So in the middle of the wire, I started to improvise poems.

And you went on to use this technique quite a bit, right?

Yes. But my style is not like rap poetry because rap poetry is largely rehearsed in advance. My way of working is absolutely empty, nothing, no plan whatsoever. There's no doctoring of the stuff: I don't change anything, even the blank spots I leave in. But oral poetry is so completely different from written work that you can't write it down on the page. And it's not a performance - it's speaking to somebody from heart to heart, from the deepest part of my being to the deepest part of someone else's. So what I write now is very close to that work. This is always my orientation, poetry that comes out of speaking language, not writing language.

So it was in Europe that something crystallized. Then you got a teaching position after applying at 27 different universities?

Well, no. I tried at 15 different places:14 in India, one in Japan. I wanted to come to Asia because I wanted to see it before it changed, became too American, too Western. India seemed to be the obvious place. Plus, I used to draw maps of India when I was young; sometimes I say it was because it looked like a woman's breast. My contact in Kyoto was Gary Snyder. At the time, Gary had only published a handful of poems in a Canadian magazine, where I had a very close friend. And so I wrote to Gary. He was leaving Japan at that point. He gave my letter to a friend of his, who was teaching here in Kyoto, and he got me the job.

One of the pluses of living in Japan is that silence is not something to be suspicious of.

[After] living in Japan for so many years, words like "silence" and "nothing" have taken on a positive tone for me. They're not negatives. But then, the negative words for me are the ones most people find positive. Words like "truth" and "reality" and "beauty" - these are all negative words for me, they're all really lies. They're us trying to kid ourselves into belief, but I don't believe anything because I don't doubt anything!

You have talked about your dislike of anthologies and you turned down a chance to be included in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. If you had allowed more of your poems to be printed in them, wouldn't you have been better off?

I've done things that seem contrary to making things easy for myself, that is true. I've always done that. Shizumi [Corman's wife] thinks I'm crazy of course, and I guess I am in a way. It wasn't that I was looking for something hard, but I wanted to go with my life. And so this is almost a way of life because I've had other such opportunities and I've done the same thing over and over and over again. I didn't go into an anthology until New Directions, 1970, did my books. I'm not a beatnik, I'm not a Bohemian, I don't fall into any of the types and I don't belong to any particular school.

I think the things you write about are your attempts to make change in people.

Yes, not so much to make positive change, but to help people live what they are going to have to live. To live and die. That's what's given us. I just wrote today, "No human being ever chose to live/We live because life wants us to." And this is the truth of it - it isn't a truth, it's just the way it is. These words are always with capital letters, sooner or later, and this is killing. It's like "God," which is a killing idea because it makes us God. We have to realize, if we want to mute the word, that everything is God. Even nothing is God. To mute ourselves, we have to realize that we tend to exaggerate ourselves. Every life form is trying to become bigger than it is, at all times. This is part of the life process. And of course, if you live long enough, you find yourself shrinking. Not shrinking from it, but just shrinking anyway. (laughs)

Where do you see yourself in the scheme of contemporary American poetry?

I don't really think of myself in such a way. When I'd been away from America for six years already, a friend of mine said, "Why don't you come back to your home?" He said that Boston was my home and I should be coming back to it. But words like "exile" or "expatriate" don't make sense to me. My folks came from Russia to Boston. I came to Japan and this feels like home to me. America doesn't feel like home to me.

What I'm trying to say is that your place in poetry is being recognized by more people.

That would be true. I think there is a growing interest and I'm willing to feed into that. A friend of my older brother's wanted to do a spread for me in the New York Times. I said if you want to write about my poetry, beautiful. But writing about me means nothing. It's all in the poetry. Shakespeare has no biography and that's the beauty of Shakespeare. He is so completely in his work that it isn't necessary to have a biography; we know that his whole life is in there. I've discouraged publicity all my life. I want the attention now for the work. Although there are getting close to 150 books, that's only a fraction of my work. The bulk of my work probably nobody will ever see, they won't have time to see it. It takes time to digest. The words are simple, as usual, but there's much more happening. Every word has weight and meaning - more than meaning, it has feeling. And you have to live with it to really get what's happening in the words. They're offerings that you must respond to, if you can. I'm not telling you to be this way or that way. I'm just telling you the way I am, the way it feels, the way it is. Take it whatever way you can...

getting into the jazz Living is trite and death is banal. what is it all about if not to amuse the body for as long as it's about? Baseball - fudge - fucking - music - anything to wean the mind off what is happening and all that isn't. One and two and three