This conversation with Gerald Stern is part of a longer interview conducted at his home in Lambertville, New Jersey, a few days before Thanksgiving in 2014. Mark O’Connor and I had been fortunate enough to visit with Gerald Stern during the City of Asylum, Pittsburgh 10th Anniversary Jazz Poetry Concert in September. He had generously offered SLAB poems for its 10th Anniversary edition and had mentioned that his latest work of poetry, Divine Nothingness, soon would appear in print. He also agreed to the interview below. The poems in Divine Nothingness, some of Jerry’s most autobiographical, are at once lyrical, tender, erudite, joyous, outraged, funny, and wise. They offer a window into his remarkable, as he would say, lucky life. If recognition came late to Gerald Stern, no one would know it now. For he is widely beloved for his enormous contribution to American poetry—always in his inimitable voice.
As I crossed Pennsylvania on I-80, in many ways it did not feel that different than crossing the fields of Iowa near Iowa City where Stern taught in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before retiring nearly twenty years ago, but turning south toward Lambertville I was entering new territory. Lambertville is a lovely, old town nestled on the east bank of the Delaware River. It has changed little over its one-hundred year history, its tree-lined streets still sheltering its Victorian homes, art galleries, fine restaurants, and antique shops. The walking path along the canal to which so many homes offer a back entrance is laced here and there with bamboo. The canal itself so perfectly reflects its old bridges that the surface of the water vanishes entirely. It was fall. The color was all rust, yellow, and red. I arrived on Thursday, shortly after one. After enjoying Anne Marie Macari’s hearty chicken soup, our conversation lasted until nearly seven. The rest of the interview was conducted the following day in the hope of finishing before they were traveling to New York for the weekend. Jerry had just returned from packed readings at several universities in California. If time has slowed him down as he approaches his ninetieth birthday, it’s hard to see how.
Let’s talk about your newest volume of poetry. When I read the title of Divine Nothingness I thought first of airy substance and soul, that old dichotomy between Being and Nothingness, things and spirit, and then I thought about all the small things and dead things that are the subject of many of your poems and of how you have said you have done what no one else wanted to do. So can you tell us something of how this book came together and how this particular poem became the title and how other poems came to coalesce around it?
Well, first of all, this poem is not a project. It does not realize or hope to realize a certain set of conditions that I thought of or imagined in the beginning. It’s just the poems that I wrote in the last two or three years. Even the title poem, which I chose as the title of the book because I like that title, is not a description of, necessarily, of what goes on in the book.
I remember when I was teaching at Iowa in the workshop—some of the teachers there would like to plan a book with the students. They’d spend hours, they’d spread the poems out into section one, section two. I never interfered with the students’ work. I let them. . . , as far as my own work was concerned, I’d more or less set it up in a book form in the order it was written, unless two poems were too much like each other, two long ones, or I wanted attention to a certain one at a certain time, so I’m not into organizing books in that way. Though critics, reviewers, sometimes talk about sections of the book, “this clearly means this,” and I let them go. It really is not the case with me.
So you are playing off of Plato’s the divine madness of the poet on the one hand and the love of the small things on the other.
As far as the title itself, it’s very Jewish. And I’m interested in God, who is nothing, and who has been defined by most Jewish critics or Jewish philosophers or theologians as. . . . It’s almost a Jewish definition—God is nothing. It’s another way of saying he is everything. But let me just take a look at that poem. Let me look at your book. Divine Nothingness. We’re talking about the poem “Divine Nothingness,” and it is on page eighty-five. And I’ll just quickly read it.
I have to say I can’t find The Book of Brightness
anywhere, not Amazon, not even the library at
Princeton, though I almost scream at the librarian
“it was carried across the border
from Provence into Spain and Portugal
and tied with hemp under the warm saddle
of the wisest donkey east and north of Madrid,”
and for herself I show her my ten fingers
and explain the separations and what the messages were
and how the years of baseball had interfered
through breakage and swelling now permanent and how
there are ten candles [this is . . . all of this is from Jewish mysticism]
there are ten candles waiting to be lit
and what the permutations and distortions were
and how I wasn’t crazy but had to find
the book to round out my education
and I was losing faith in Princeton, what with the
shoes and dresses in the windows and I could have
gotten in touch with the unfathomable
if only Princeton had it and I gave her the
title in Hebrew as well as a short lecture
and what came out of what but I had to go through
the glass doors with nothing but an egg sandwich
wrapped in plastic the way it used to be wrapped
in wax paper and either go down to Trenton
or figure out the permutations by myself
and I blamed Allen Ginsberg for all this
since I know they had the Book of Pure Suffering
written in the same century as The Brightness.
So, it’s funny. It’s playful. It’s serious. It changes the subject. It begs the question, all of those, and also it’s an attack on Princeton, which deserves to be attacked endlessly, which doesn’t let me use its library, by the way.
Oh, it doesn’t?
It’s the only major library near me, and I asked permission to use the library and they said no. I said “I’m the only person who was the poet laureate of New Jersey.” “Doesn’t matter.” “I used to teach at Princeton.” “Doesn’t matter.” If I lived in Princeton I could use it. So they’re snobs and arrogant. So I, I go down to Trenton, to the state library, or up to Easton, to Lafayette College. I mean . . , I hate Princeton. Okay so that’s so much for that question. Let’s just continue.
I know you have said that you are always writing on bits and scraps of paper and I remember you telling me once in Iowa City that sometimes you discover these scraps in stray places even years later. Were any of these poems partially rediscovered poems?
Absolutely. If I wandered through this first and second floor, I would discover countless beginnings of poems, thoughts, and first lines, last lines, and a lot of the poem started out that way. As far as the issue of sound or substance, it’s an endless argument when it comes to poetry. I’m more the musician and though it sounds like I’m just talking about things, it’s the sound that matters to me. That always comes first, or the music. I could elaborate on that but I think that’s enough to be said.
How does [your] gift for combativeness live peaceably with your affirmation in “Demystification” in Stealing History of “interconnectedness, infinity, and unity,” your dislike of hierarchy, which you equate with mystification, and your final litany in honor of the close attention we should pay to each other”? How does one balance such a life with the life of a poet, with all of your wanderings and ponderings of clouds and waves? Isn’t there an inherent need of leisure to write? I’m thinking here perhaps of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In “Out of the Blue” you fantasize about living in a hotel and collecting mail in the lobby and going up in the elevator to a “clean and vacuumed room”! The poem “Love” makes attentiveness seem like time-consuming work! When did you finally feel as if you had leisure to write? How does anyone “Mule” [title of one of the poems in Divine Nothingness] or poet find time to love? Was it this right to leisure that you were defending in railing against exploitation of workers?
I never was an absolutist in my pursuit of poetry. I never, to be honest with you, I really never sacrificed anybody. I didn’t sacrifice my children, or my ex-wife. Au contraire. And I never believed that the artist had special privileges because he was an artist. Jack Gilbert over there [points at picture], he did. Does. That was his whole life. That the artist is God-given and he can do anything he wants. He never paid for a meal. He never paid rent. He never paid for anything.
But you take care of people.
I’m a caretaker.
You are. So how did you find all this time to write then, too? Or is it that why you started late?
Now, of course is different. Now my life is given to writing, in the last twenty years. I’ve been blessed with a long life and a long life to come, I hope. And if not, not. But even before, you know, when I was. . . , let’s say, fifty years old, forty-eight, I bought a house, arranged for everything, came down weekends to work on it—alone.
Later, my wife did a little painting and she had a nice garden. I at the same time was teaching in a community college, I was head of the English department, head of the union, head of the state union, and head of poets in the schools in Pennsylvania, hired and trained forty poets, and was emerging into my vocation fully, teaching places like the Y, workshops at Columbia, NYU. I was doing all of that at one time, buying all of the food, buying the furniture.
In What I Can’t Bear Losi have you learned by writing so autobiographically in Divine Nothingness?
These poems are autobiographical. All poetry, especially that which pretends not to be, is autobiographical. It all comes out of the mind, the thoughts, the words, of the poet. There are various quarrels going on in poetic theory. There is a battle against narration. There is a battle against first-person, but it’s all bullshit. It just makes an opportunity for people who get a Ph.D. in poetics to have something to talk about.
All poetry is autobiographical. There’s no question.
I’m more and more unashamedly autobiographical in my newer—I have sixty poems written since this book came out and I’m going to read a couple of them later to you.
What was it like when you first went to Europe? Did you even think of yourself as a full-fledged expatriate or did you know you’d return? At what point did you know when you’d have to return? How important are such experiences in the development of a poet? How did you support yourself? Is that what you mean in “Bio IV” by the government loving you and giving you time. Where could you eat for sixty cents? Was that in Europe?
I was on the GI Bill and I got seventy-five dollars a month, which I collected at the embassy, the American Embassy. And the reason I went to school is so I could get the seventy-five dollars a month because to go to school in France, you don’t have to do anything. You could hear the lectures on the radio, and so on, and I wanted to hear language in French. Abstract, ng you say you are surprised at how you are suddenly driven to write autobiographical essays but your poetry is autobiographical too. You said that you are instructed by what interests and excites you. What theoretical stuff so that I could understand French, which I succeeded in doing by taking, sitting down in classes in the Cours de Civilisation Française.
I was just going to Paris, like everybody did before and after me. Now, seventy-five dollars doesn’t sound much, but I think my room rent was twenty-seven cents a night, a room in a hotel. A meal cost about eighteen or nineteen cents. I couldn’t buy a car or a refrigerator, but I didn’t want a car or a refrigerator. And I was offered and accepted a job in the. . . , I went to see the Minister of Education. His name was Mr. Fox and he was on Boulevard Raspail and I asked him about these Assistantships [English word spoken with a French pronunciation]. Everybody, tout le monde veut aller en France” and he goes on and on and on. Then, he shows me seven or eight different job openings. One was in Brittany. And I always liked to go to far away, exotic places, and I took one in Brittany. He thought I was crazy because everybody in France wants to live in Paris, I mean all of the educated people. Later, I changed it to Toulouse. And I was going to teach ten hours a week, in English, at a high school, being paid, you know, a nice little salary.
But I turned it down. I chose to come home because I was engaged. I felt responsible to Pat, who I had forgotten what she even looked like. And I came back, and I fell in love with her again, and we got married and we had kids and we lived together for twenty-five years.
So you didn’t really go over there expressly as, to get “the poetic experience.” It was about the language, or were you. . . , you were writing poetry?
I was already writing. Life magazine and other. . . , Look magazine, treated Paris as a magic place. If you went there, you’d be touched by the magician or the muse or something. But, you know, it’s just a fucking city. Like Slippery Rock, PA.
Oh no, hardly.
Anyhow, that was my experience there. But, I had a wonderful time there.
In What I Can’t Bear Losing you take after the Calvinists for thinking of forgiveness and therefore, I presume, salvation as only God’s free gift. So how has your attitude toward forgiveness been shaped by what appears in “Bio IV” to be your gift for fighting?
Well, I guess they’re opposites, aren’t they?
Well, I was kind of thinking they were, but I didn’t know
whether that’s exactly what you had in mind.
I know in “Bio IV,” I mention a guy named Figgy Dutch.
And when I moved to the new neighborhood where I spent my tenth to my eighteenth year, I had to fight the toughest guy. It was Figgy Dutch. Neither of us could win. Eight years later, I fought him again in college. We wrestled. Neither of us could win. I could beat everybody up but Figgy Dutch, and he could beat everybody up but Jerry Stern.
So it was always a draw.
But, you know, I liked the guy. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. It was just a challenge to me. As far as forgiveness, I came to forgiveness slow. I grew up in anger, really, in rage. Part of it was the extreme Anti-Semitism that existed in the world that I grew up in. Extreme.
I was beat up on my way to kindergarten for killing Christ. When I came home, I said to my mother, “What is Christ?” “Who?” I didn’t even know what “beating up” meant.
I say, in a later essay, “Forgive but don’t forget.” And that’s my motto now, “Forgive but don’t forget.” Though, there are, some things happened to me, to be honest with you, that I don’t forgive. Is there a poem in this book called “What Happened to G.S.”?
Yes, there is.
Let me find it. You know, I don’t know if you know this. You may have read about it, when I was in the army, I spent six months in the hoosegow.
You’ve mentioned that a few times although I’ve never known the details.
And I sort of describe it in general. Oh, I don’t get into details. In my book of essays, I have a long essay about a relationship with the police and it’s all contained in that book.
Is that in What I Can’t Bear Losing?
Yeah, and it’s four stanzas. And I’m really paraphrasing what the Provost’s Sergeant said to me, as a powerless prisoner, when we first met and fought.
Here is the Hole and here is the Sledge Hammer
you have your choice
since I am your guardian.
We don’t practice beating the genitals here
with metal pipes or removal of teeth with pliers
or dislocation of fingers; also you can
eat and drink what the others do
but you have to sit alone with me.
My favorite song is “Now the Day is Over,”
“Shadows of the evening steal across the sky.”
now that I have a knife in my chest.
I was teaching in Indiana [PA] and a guy arrived there, as a new teacher. And we went out for a beer. And it turns out he, though he wasn’t a lawyer, was a defense counsel in the army. At this very camp. I can’t remember the name. It was in Maryland, where they were doing work on chemical warfare. We blame Iraq, but we had. . . , we were the best.
I mentioned staying at that camp and my trial and everything and that I chopped rocks for six months. He says, “Oh, I know the guy. He was persecuting a young black prisoner. And the black prisoner’s brother plunged a knife into his chest in the courtroom.”
“Only I am no longer your guardian/now that I have a knife in my chest.” So it’s solipsistic. I don’t . . . it has to go with the language alone. But it does have a narrative underneath it. The song, “Now the Day is Over,” goes like this [sings “Now the day is over. Night is drawing nigh. Shadows of evening steal across the sky”].
Can you tell us more too about your embrace of fighting and love of boxing? What do or did you admire about it? Is it the victim you admire most? Of did that come later?
I knocked people out and then I helped them up from the ground. That was the important thing. I was always shocked when I knocked them down. I helped them up. I didn’t have enough anger and hatred to really be a boxer.
So what period of your life was this?
I was twenty-one . . . twenty-two. I was in the army. I had just gotten. . . . I was just found not guilty in a special court martial, from the time. . . , you know, in the army you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent. And I was given a thirty-day furlough. Big deal.
And I came back, and I was going to school in a place called Hollow Bird Signal Depot, which was in Baltimore, Maryland. And I was studying to be, don’t laugh, a secret agent in the Counter-Intelligence Corps. And I was studying, I was going to go over to Germany before the war had ended, to be in their program called denazification where you asked people who were journalists, school-teachers, whatever, where were you between 1931 and 1945. And where you had absolute power, got the biggest house in town. You could arrest a general if you wanted.
You were a staff-sergeant but the rank didn’t show. It just said US. In order to go over, the war-time draft ended. I had maybe three or four months to go till I would have to be legally discharged. In order to go to Germany and do that job, I would have had to sign up for two years and I didn’t want to sign up. I just wanted to go home and be rid of the army, and I went home and dumped my barracks bag into the Monongahela river. Later I regretted that I didn’t go.
So what year would that have been?
What have you been reading? I remember one day entering the library in Iowa City and you said you wished you could be a scholar, yet you read constantly so what do you call the reading you do? Aren’t you actually skeptical of the universities as hierarchical institutions? The wish amazed me because you read constantly and knew so much and had such liberty to read eclectically in a way a graduate student didn’t. So what is different about the reading scholars and poets do?
Do you see that book over there?
I got it at the Trenton library and a friend of mine down the street, Jean, drove me there. It’s [for research on] the last chapter of a prose book I’m writing about death, and I’m writing about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I can’t wait to get into it, to read it, though I know a lot about it already. So I love research and I guess I said somewhere I would’ve been a scholar if I wasn’t a poet. I think I would’ve been a labor lawyer or some activist of some kind if I wasn’t a poet. In fact, I was both.
So you weren’t really defending, well, what were you defending in defending the workers?
It was anger at oppression and it was always connected in its own way to Anti-Semitism, though they may have been Anti-Semitic themselves, you know, came over with hatred of Jews, Catholics from Southern, Eastern Europe, and felt oppressed, not by the Jews, but they didn’t know the difference, who the oppressors were, Frick and Carnegie and Mellon and those cocksuckers.
So that was interesting stuff. And for the same reason, I got involved in civil, in the sixties, organizing things, always local, always in towns where I was and stuff like that. The town I lived in, Raubsville, we woke up, one day, some people knocked on our front door. They lived there, about fifteen houses on that back street, some of them were unfinished like basements, poor people.
[A] mailman was there, a guy that owned the garage, but a real poor garage. And two people, friends of ours, sort of, said they learned that they were going to, that the county, the headquarters was Easton, that was the county seat, was going to seize that land. Which was really a kind of island because the main Route 611 had bypassed it, so we were an old 611, empty road, nobody there. And they were going to make a recreational park of it.
So, we organized an organization that I gave it an acronym: LOLA, Leave Our Land Alone. I was president of LOLA. I had this many papers, which are in my papers at the University of Pittsburgh. They didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and I found out what was going on, who the planners were, what the source of it was, what we could do. We had a huge meeting in the county courthouse in Easton, old building, and the county commissioners were up there, three of them, I think, and the artists, the guys with the drawings. And we saw the drawings.
And my house, that you saw, was turned into a canoe. They were going to have canoes. It was going to be all recreational. They kept using mystification. They kept confusing us about, they said they blamed it on the artists, and “well we didn’t intend that” and da da da. I got up, with a corncob pipe, which I used to smoke, and I said, “You know, I’m a little confused as to why my house is a canoe ramp now,” and I went on and on like that, after a while I had them against the ropes.
We demanded a vote at that moment. They said we’ll take it into consideration. We said, “You’re going to vote now. We’re going to vote now on whether you are, cause we had about four hundred people there, on whether you are going to be reelected or not. We’re going to take a vote right now.” They backed down and canceled the entire project.
What year would this have been?
That was about 1975. And after that, my town, there were plumbers and electricians, I never got charged for anything. It was amazing! So, I did that and why did I do that? Because I was called upon, somebody knocked on my door and I was summoned. I mean I could say—
But you respond.
Yeah, because I was summoned. I felt, and I did that with a march, you know, and when those three guys from Mississippi were killed, we had the biggest march in Pennsylvania. It was amazing. I called the Indiana PA president of the college and I said . . . first I called this woman, very close friends of ours, they were African-Americans, Mary Vowels and her husband was Bob Vowels, and they had two kids.
She knocked on our door on a Friday afternoon in tears. They lived across the street from us and said that they wanted some kind of march, or some kind of gesture for the black community which was gerrymandered out of the city. They had wells. They didn’t have city water, and there were only two people, two black [people] who lived in the city—Bob and Mary, and their two kids. He taught at the university. He had a Ph.D. from Harvard in economics. And a guy that worked for Social Security that weighed three hundred pounds of solid muscle and wouldn’t join our civil rights group. He says, “I integrates wherever I goes. I integrates wherever I goes.” And she had gone to this minister from the First Presbyterian Church, the enemy, because that’s St. Peters in Western Pennsylvania, the Presbyterians, and the guy said, “Well I have to go to the council of churches,” and he gave her the runaround.
So, I called 'em up, I said, “Mary, do you want to march on Monday, you’re going to have a march.” She summoned me. And I called this minister up, and he kept giving me the runaround. I said, “Listen, are you willing to say a few words for Christ?”
He said, “Well, I can do that.” So, I had a bank of people because I was social so I knew everybody. I knew the guy that ran the student union. He gave me a bank of phones. I got four, five, or six or ten students; we called up every church in Indiana, most of them Holy Rollers or God knows what, and told them there’s going to be a march led by the minister for the First Presbyterian Church, in honor of the people who had been murdered in Mississippi. They didn’t understand. I said, “Will you come, will you say something?”
So I got about twelve people, ministers, who made little talks and there was one rabbi and I had to write his fucking speech. Then, I called the president of the college, who had had a stroke and didn’t talk well, and he said, “Hard world we’re living in, Mr. Stern.” He hated me. He couldn’t be there because his brother-in-law had died. He was going to the funeral.
So, I called the provost and I said (I can’t remember the president’s name), [he] couldn’t be there but he wants everybody to go to this march. The provost said, “I’ll see that everyone is there” and he ordered all the departments to go.
I called the state police and asked for protection. They said, “Dr. Stern, we’ll have people with rifles on the roofs, the flat roofs, of all the houses. There will be no trouble, we can guarantee that.” The entire school—fifteen thousand people then, now it’s about twenty-five—they marched down Philadelphia Street. Biggest march they ever had in their history. And we were on the courthouse steps, and I was in charge with a friend of mine, Bob Burnett, a musician, and he said to me, cause my work was done at that point, and I was through, and he said, “Don’t laugh.”
And then there was a woman there who sang “We Shall Overcome” and everybody sang, in this fascist town, and the newspaper the next day, in banner headlines, like end of World War II, “We Shall Overcome, a New Song for Indiana.” That was the biggest march in Pennsylvania, one of the biggest of the country.
So that would’ve been in sixty-four?
Was that the Freedom Riders?
Yeah, what year was that?
Yeah, that was sixty-four, cause it’s the fiftieth anniversary this year.
You remember them, three guys. So I was summoned there too. And by the way, they had a swimming pool in Indiana, it was in the state park, the county park, but it wasn’t really publically owned. It was owned by McCrory’s Five-and- Dime, and they paid one dollar rent and blacks didn’t swim in the swimming pool in the mid-sixties.
I knocked on Bob Vowels’ door one day and I said, “Come on, come on down, bring your boys, we’re going to integrate the pool.”
He said, “I’m not going to.”
And I said, “You’re going to do it.”
We came over there and [when] the guy in charge saw me he said, “Dr. Stern, I don’t want any trouble. I have a bad heart.”
And I said, “We’re just taking a little swim.” I was the only white man who was permanently disbarred from the swimming pool. Lasted about a week, and then the students got wind of it, and they pledged to stop buying anything in Indiana. And like that [snaps his fingers] the pool was integrated. So, that was my activism. But I never, you know, it was sort of a thing I did, en passant.
Okay, so, one of your poems is called “Oaxaca,” so I wanted to ask you about your memories there and when you traveled there. I’m assuming you did.
I’ve been there many times. It’s a city in Mexico I love. As I recall, that poem is talking about being lifted up, riding as they do in Mexico and standing up ten or fifteen people in the back of a truck. But I had some great times in Oaxaca. It’s a city in central southern Mexico where every year all the schoolteachers congregate. They’re on strike every year and they make speeches against the government. I like that.
I know we wanted also to have you read the poems that you gave to SLAB.
One of them poured hot lead
into a bucket of cold water so he could
make determinations from the shapes
of the hardened metal for he was chasing
the odd intrusions in a small girl’s body;
the other had a small tobacco factory
on the third floor of his house and he engaged
a lehrer for the women there co-determinous
with Tampa and Havana though the language was different
so I was only half crazy at the most,
for there was a little sanity in both of them
though more I believe in him with the three floors
than him with only one workable room,
the kitchen and the bedrooms unthinkable,
and I am loyal to the nth degree
whatever they would have thought of me
and for one of them I would have carried one book,
for another, another.
It’s all written down in the steam of my bathroom mirror—
if you can read it.
So, they had a contract from the tobacco workers union, which was organized by Samuel Gompers, who also created the AFL-CIO. It was such boring work that they would have a reader, a lehrer in Yiddish, read them short stories while they rolled tobacco. The same thing existed in Havana, Tampa, only there it was Spanish. My grandfather was very kind to the people, he provided weddings in his back yard for the young women who worked for him, gave them dowries and stuff like that.
So Deborah [moves on to next poem] wrote, was the first poet in the Hebrew Scriptures. She wrote maybe the first poem in the world. I mean, I’m sure there were thousands of poems written by Neanderthals. The first one that was recorded.
Song of Deborah
When she gathered her people
she said “enough of hills” and “stop climbing”,
especially women, especially if you don’t want
muscular calves like that
and block the entrances for I will sing you a song of
lush meadows and show you where to plant your
corn, though your tomatoes nearer the tents,
and peppers too, for there will be soups, but in
the meantime I’ll start my song for that is
good for breathing, especially at these heights
and don’t look back for you could lose
your balance—after all, you don’t have hooves
to jump from rock to rock and, after all,
your babies make you heavy, the poets you carry.
So as a little kid, I had a series of prayers I made up, and that’s pleading for the blue jay.
At least I am luckier than that blue jay
hopping along the bulwark
his rubber leg falling back under him
absolutely doomed, the way it is out there.
My heart goes out to him
though he’s more a bully than
any other warm creature that came my way.
I never thought I’d plead for a blue jay
I who haven’t pled for seventy years,
I who got on my knees every night
to go through the ritual of my own devising.
I who had no grievances then.
This last poem, “Ich Bin Jude,” I’m a Jew, this describes what happened to Pat. We were in Europe for three years, and we had tickets to come back on a boat from France to New York, and it was called The Italia, I believe.
We had three and a half months to spend, we had just enough money for that, and the two cheapest places to live in Europe then, were Spain and Austria, believe it or not. So I said to Pat, “I’m going to make peace with the middle Europeans. We’re going to go to Austria,” like an idiot.
So we went to Venice, I mean Vienna, to Wien, and we did what we always did, we took a streetcar to the youth hostel, looked at the ads and found an apartment. We got into a streetcar, an old, little, wooden streetcar, maybe it held thirty people. And there were two or three people in charge, a conductor, a transporter, and so on, and they all had coats with medals on. It was in the fall. It was a beautiful day. And I was sitting at the edge and I crossed my leg and accidentally touched the coat of the guy sitting over here and he started to yell at me.
And I went crazy. I said, “I’m a Jew” and I said it in English and German, “and I’m going to kill every fucking person in this car!”
They emptied out the car, including the conductor! They all ran away!
Ich Bin Jude
Who was it threatened to murder
a streetcar full of fucking Nazis in Wien
when he was in the country only two hours
and watched the car empty
including the festooned conductor and the decorated motorman?
The rain wouldn’t stop.
The cheapest place in Europe—
September, October, November, 1954.
Your darling city.
Can you tell us a little about your life now as you approach your ninetieth birthday in February? Do you still feel “like a hare, like hare, like a hare” ? Are you still trying to catch up, or are you the tortoise roaring with virtue? You have lived, now many decades since those lines of “The Bite” in which you talk about having gotten serious about writing later than you would have liked. Do you still feel that way? Do you feel, now having had so many years and so much more time to write than many are allotted, that the scales of lucky life have evened out? Are you like Edith Piaf? Rien, Je ne regrette rien? Lucky? Grateful? Mournful? All of these at once?
Actually, it’s the tortoise trying to catch up.
Well, the tortoise was ahead of you. And you were like a hare, like a hare, like a hare trying to catch up because you were dillydallying.
Oh, right, right, right. That’s from Aesop.
I was a dillydallier. You know that fable is also, is called by James Joyce, what the hell does he call it, “The Ondt and the Gracehoper”?
“The Ondt and the Gracehoper” Well, I like how the question turns at the end, “are you like Piaf? I’m a little taller than she was, but I share with her the notion [sings: Moi, je ne regrette rien. La, La, La, La, La”]. I mean more and more everything seems to have been useful to what I’m doing now. That’s in a way obvious, it’s like saying this block . . . we needed all of those blocks for this final block.
But I’m now more contented than I was before. I didn’t— you know, other poets of my generation, they wrote their first book of poems, they published it when they were twenty-two or three. Then the second and by the time of their third book, they were at home. I didn’t publish my first two books. I threw them away, they’re in the attic someplace.
I was too thorough a critic of my own work. But I, you know, I’m getting the recognition now that is due me. I was just in California this last week and Bob Hass—who is sort of the main . . . big figure [out] in the Berkeley area—he said—he is ten years younger or so than me, twelve years younger— when he arrived on the scene, there were the New York poets, the academics, the rhymesters, and he named a few of the groups. And then when I arrived people had to move over cause I had my own thing. I really don’t belong to any group. That was the reason it took a long time for it to materialize. I’m lucky, I’m grateful, and I’m mournful. Yes, all those at once.
The editors of SLAB are deeply grateful for Gerald Stern’s generous gift of his time, and for the music of his words.