The following interview too place via email in April 2011 between Heidi Lynn Staples and Michael Rothenberg:
HLS: What is the 100,000 Poets for Change initiative?
MR: 100 Thousand Poets for Change is a global action of poets and artists scheduled to take place on September 24. So far we have 70 cities representing 15 countries organizing events. The idea is that each city, or group of individuals within a city, will have a poetry related event with a focus on “change”, and this should be the change of their choice, not a change dictated by an official organization or the main office. So this event is a global concept but dependent on local vision and initiative. I suggest that peace and sustainability could be “change” guidelines, but local needs are very specific. And the only other thing that I am asking in the design of the local event is that a part of the event, even if it is only ten minutes, will take place outdoors. Of course if an outdoor event is not possible then that’s okay too. After September I am inviting participants to send us documentation, poems, photos, and a “statement of change” from their event participants and I will post this on a 100 THOUSAND POETS FOR CHANGE blog.
HLS: What sort of change do you envision?
MR: The first level of change I envision is that poets around the world will show solidarity. That is a big change. I feel that poets have become alienated from each other, in many ways, by locale, aesthetic politics, language, class bias, race bias, and that we have squandered our voice as a community. I wonder how we can even think of changing the world if we can’t change the way we relate to each other as poets and artists. I know there is a debate that goes on from time to time about whether poetry really changes anything and I don’t really feel the need to get involved in that debate. Poets can change things. If they can gather in trade conventions and discuss curriculum and publishing then they can also get together and discuss how business is being done in their community, address inequality, racism, war, health care, education, etc. Poets are competent beyond discussions of tenure and publication. So beyond the initial change that will take place because poets will get together across various boundaries and barriers, there are broader change issues they can address.
HLS: Poetry is marginalized in U.S. consciousness and culture. How do you see marginalization in relation to a need for a wide-scale shift in consciousness?
MR: The first step to changing the way people see poetry in culture is that poets need to change how they see themselves. As long as they feel ineffective, view themselves as marginal actors and thinkers in the world, they will be perceived as ineffectual by others. Poets need to leave their hideouts, their garrets, classrooms, literary experiments, books, and take action. I am very impressed by one poet in Wisconsin who ran for State Assembly.
HLS: How did you get started editing Big Bridge?
MR: I became dissatisfied with the way literary magazines did business. I didn’t like the long waits for submission responses. I thought that the poetics and aesthetic judgments of the established literary journals stifled creativity, were narrow in their understanding of poetic individuality, original and unique expression and voice. The internet was inspiring because it opened things up. It allowed new communities of creativity to flourish. I liked the idea of having the world at your fingertips too, to speak with other poets and exchange creative work by e-mail, rapidly and regardless of sanctions from entrenched art bullies. I liked the multi-media aspect of the internet as well. As artists we were promised a future of multi-media art, and although the mainstream publishers have not addressed that promise very well, the internet has. I liked the fact that I could put a literary magazine together, with multi-media features, without spending tons of dollars on printing and distribution headaches. You could make a literary journal on your own, at home, samizdat. The first issue of Big Bridge went up in 1997. I had just returned to California after working as a songwriter in Nashville, TN and had seen how “industry” and “establishment” in the music industry confounded creativity and broke a lot of hearts. I didn’t see why poets should succumb to the same type of monopolies, creative bad habits, that afflicted the “entertainment industry.”
HLS: How do you imagine the role of literary magazine editor in creating and sustaining culture?
MR: Big Bridge doesn’t make pretenses about “great poetry”, we don’t say what we think is GREAT poetry. We say what we find to be compelling work. What we try to do is put forward some really good poetry, work written with passion and insight, and let our readers decide what they personally think is great, if that is what they need to do. That is how I have been most comfortable functioning as an editor at Big Bridge. I am wrong too often to make foolish pronouncements about GREATNESS. Readers need to learn to make choices. Of course, I don’t publish everything that is sent to me, but I try to keep things open, to be democratic in ways, and foster creativity. That would be my role.
HLS: What does poetry mean to you? What is its significance in your life?
MR: Poetry is my illusion. I embrace it whole-heartedly. It is my idealism, and therefore my blessing and curse. It is a kind of religion where there are no gods, only beauty, humanity and vision.
HLS: How are you reading? How are they influencing your thinking in this moment?
MR: I am reading a lot of Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen right now. I have done a lot of editorial work on Philip Whalen and will be putting out his unpublished short story, Invisible Idylls, in the next couple of months through Big Bridge Press. Whalen, Miller, Patchen keep me busy right now. I see in these writers, these artists, a grand sense of humanity and imagination that inspires and nurtures me.
HLS: What are you writing?
MR: I have just finished a first draft of an autobiographical, memoirish book called THE FAN. And working on another redraft of a novel that has been haunting me for 15 years, THE DRUMS OF GRACE. My interest in form continues, the journal-poem is always there, the breakdown and build-up of language engages me. I try to put the cart before the horse as much as possible! And certainly there is plenty of news in the world to keep me worried!
HLS: What role does writing play in your political engagement?
MR: Is there a difference between politics and poetry? I have seen some people say they keep their politics separate from their poetry. I don’t even think that makes sense in any way. It seems to be a statement of words but of very little meaning. Every act is political.
Born in Miami Beach, Florida in 1951, Michael Rothenberg has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 30 years. He is co-founder of Shelldance Orchid Gardens in Pacifica which is dedicated to the cultivation of orchids and bromeliads. He is a poet, painter, songwriter, and editor of Big Bridge Press and Big Bridge, a webzine of poetry and everything else. His most recent collection of poems is CHOOSE, Selected Poems published by Big Bridge Press, 2009. My Youth As A Train will be available from Foothills Publishing in September 2010. He is presently living in the redwoods.