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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




Poets' Talk

With Gary Corseri and José M. Tirado

30 May, 2015

“The Welcoming Wind”

By José M. Tirado

At dusk, his steps are rough,
with a dry grace of
flat-footed tenderness;
the spring is gone,
& forward is the march.

In the grinning breeze he stops,
faces the pressure, feels it, leans in,
pressing into the airy opposition:
the force, that strength of Time
which faces him
along the winding red walkway bricks
of the harbor.

In time, some bench may call &,
sitting down, he will face the sea, watching
the terns & spins of the gulls
as they follow the ships
to feast on ready meals,
tossed by the time-tossed,
up to
the welcoming wind.

(first posted at “A Deliberate Life”)

GC: Where do we fit in in ‘the march of Time’? Where... between this moment--and timelessness? This little poem, finely crafted, asks big questions and leaves us wondering--and in wonder.

In the 1970s, I read John Ashbury's work and I thought: he writes a kind of “tangential poetry”--words, ideas, phrases spinning off of the preceding, liable to go anywhere, but centripetally controlled, managed by a higher consciousness. One gets that sense of things reading José Tirado’s poems, too-- especially his longer work. The richness of the language and imagery lulls one into a dreamlike, almost trancelike state... but one is always drawn back to central feelings and ideas--nostalgia, loss, longing. And one is grateful for the journey.

As so much deteriorates in American culture, we may be on the verge of a renascence in American poetry—after a long, bleak hiatus. Many feel a need to rise above the dull-wittedness of political speech, TV punditocracy, Twittering potshots and Facebook platitudes. Poetry—the really good stuff, the relevant, timely stuff-- can help recall us to our senses. When language is corrupted, when thinking and feelings are corrupted, Poetry—the best of it—can rub the rust off our thinking caps, let the metal shine in the sun.

I wrote Tirado recently, wondering if we might try a little written tete-a-tete of the sort I’ve had with poets like Diane Wakoski, Rosemary Daniel and Charles Orloski. His response and the ongoing “jam session” follows….

JT: Thanks, Gary! I love your idea of poets talking to other poets and letting things roam from there. But, I have some "issues" here, and I want to be frank: I believe no poet should be constricted by anything--either the world, his/her commitments, or subject matter; and certainly never should he or she become a prostitute to the vagaries of the day-- political or otherwise. The essence of whatever we point our pen towards should be our focus, and I rebel against those who want me (for example) to be a more "political poet." I am/will be either a good or a bad poet, and I refuse to box myself in….

I reflect on those poets I so love and, frankly, I wouldn´t converse with a few of them over politics-- Pound, Cummings, say-- since they don´t share my vision. But their creative contributions to the world, of poetry and of "reality," were immense. Thoughts?

GC: Happy to share thoughts with you, José. We can talk about Pound and Cummings—both of whom I admire-- some other time! I certainly would never want to constrain a poet--or any creative soul--to be "political" (or to tackle any particular subject--like sexuality, racial identity, love, Nature, etc.). I do think we need to re-think the word "political." I agree with Aristotle that "man is a political animal." I thought that through and I believe he means we are hierarchical, and we are power-seekers and power-users; i.e., we play power games. We are ineluctably involved with power. There is, of course, tangible and intangible power. The Arts these days are mostly about intangible power. Unfortunately, the more tangible glory days of the late 50s to early 70s are generations behind us (as are the glory days of the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Age, the American Concord Renaissance, etc.). The Arts have fallen into an era of petite academicism, crass commercialism and manipulated populism. So, our challenges are many; they are harsh; let us hope they will be invigorating!

JT: Yes. I like the Aristotelian re-read. I think (and you, Gary, taught me this) the proliferation of earned MFA [Master of Fine Arts] degrees into the world of poetry made far too many too timid to tackle the world as it is vs the world as they like (meaning: a world where the proper degrees and contacts can garner one prizes, critical reception, money, etc.). I am just very, very leery of those who push us (me) to go the other way without understanding that, for me, the Art is first. Now, I know some who would respectfully disagree-- and that´s fine. But I am tender around this because I have several poet friends who have been pushing me to do more ostensibly "political" pieces and are piqued when I insist that I am a poet, period! If the day´s politics inspire me, then I write about that; if not, I follow my inspiration elsewhere. But I hear your point and agree….

GC: Thanks for your candor, José.

"I am just very, very leery of those who push us (me) to go the other way without understanding that the art is first"--you write. I agree! When pushed, I always try to push back harder! (Sometimes that means living long and staying true!) I agree with the great poet Theodore Roethke when he wrote in his splendid villanelle, "The Waking": "I learn by going where I have to go.”

JT: Right! THAT is the mission of the poets-- to go where they have to, uninfluenced by anything other than the movements of their inner life. All else is journalism or worse…. However, I think this, too: Poets who do not see, who do not confront what is out there and around them-- are cowards! Which needn’t mean that that is ALL we must do. But… we must see and confront what surrounds us at some point! Not always…, but when it’s right to do so. To advocate that we always do it is asking us to be propagandists.

GC: I take your point about not being a “coward”—those who do not “confront” when necessary. I think of Lorca, for example. I think he would have been happy to be a Romantic poet, to write his beautiful, poignant verse-dramas— but the times required a revolutionary stance, as well….

JT: Right…. I just think we have to be careful when we take our stand…. I mean, I have all kinds of righteous poetry lying around, but I remember well an early “intervention” on your part with something I’d asked you to review and you said it was little but polemics. Which you thought was fine, but you asked me to do more with it. Which I haven’t finished!

GC: Just so people who are less familiar with your work can better understand where you’re coming from, could you send a link here to one of your longer poems? I especially recall one you wrote about your boyhood in Puerto Rico. That was so sensory-rich— with sights, smells, voices, sounds. …

JT: Thanks for asking! Here’s the link:

El Viejo & Mama Boricua

But, I’m not sure I’ve ever clarified my background for you. So, here goes: Iwas born in NYC, left around 7 to Miami where I was raised. I bummed around after HS, entered college at 21, then left for Japan at 23 and stayed till I was 28.

“El Viejo and Mama Boricua” is an imagined conversation between an old man and his grandson (estranged from his culture)

I recall that you liked this one, too:

The Street Now Taken

That one’s a rumination on gentrification in general and NYC specifically. I incorporated elements my father told me about, stuff I’d seen on trips back, and on my own plugging-into-the-Universe.

Recapturing that lost, diluted, and initially rejected connection to PR has been my life since I was 28 when my grandmother died and I was unable—in my last conversation with her—to say all that I wanted. (That was the subject of another piece I did for CounterPunch, called “Thinking About a Recovered Identity.”)

So, the first half of my life was pulling away from my cultural heritage, the second half has been spent (I’ll be 56 this summer—so it’s exactly a half-and-half thing!) recovering it.

GC: I think life at its best is a struggle for awareness (I’m getting a little Buddhistic/Taoistic here). We expand awareness as we integrate outer and inner worlds. There are no hardcore, universal rules for how that is achieved. Your work appeals to me because I find that struggle within it. You have this varied background: growing up in New York, moving to Miami… and now, a family-man-Buddhist-and teacher in Iceland! A rich loam for seed-planting!

We're long removed from the glory days of Stephen Vincent Benet, or, for that matter, the Beats like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Corso, Levertov, Baraka, et. al. (Fortunately, nonagenarian Ferlinghetti is still going strong!) Robert Bly did notable work in more recent decades--with his own poetry and championing other poets in his edited books like NEWS FROM THE UNIVERSE. His non-fiction book, IRON JOHN, about the "Men's Movement," (men growing up and taking responsibility!) was a best-seller. Nonetheless, there has been a real decline in the appreciation of poetry among the general population. I attribute a fair bit of that decline to poets becoming "specialists"--even obtaining advanced degrees--M.F.A.'s or Ph.D.s, then setting up "Poetry Workshops" in universities, etc. This transformation of the Venerable Art began in the mid-70s, and, as you have suggested elsewhere, the reign of terror of the "gate-keepers" has only gotten worse. The gatekeepers have, I believe, crucified American poetry upon a cross erected by "language poets," "identity poets," "politically correct poets," "apolitical poets" and general nincompoops... The other trend of recent decades has been the rise of "slams," etc. While this populist approach is promising and offers some hope for the revivification of the Art, it is unfortunate that many slam poets are fairly ignorant of literary craft; so, as with so much of American culture, we have showboating egoists simply taking a different approach to the primping and preening we find among the academics. How do we free ourselves from these imbroglios?

JT: When I was a kid, I read everything! Particularly, I liked how words sounded and how they gravitated to poetry. Along the way, a few great teachers saw a light in my eyes and they directed my attention to exploring the power of words. But… I also washed dishes, worked spraying citrus plants with poisons, labored on construction sites and bummed around Miami—while my friends left for school or the military…. I never got a degree till I was almost 40, and wasn’t published till 8 years after that—about 8 years ago…. My whole life has been devoted to doing other things and, quietly, with the dogged passion of a closeted “artist,” I wrote poetry.

I remember wanting to go to school to learn poetry (and I aimed for Naropa, where I eventually ended up, at 35, but in their Buddhist studies dept. I watched Ginsberg mug around the school, but I was a shy writer (the only area in my life where I was shy) until I reached out to editors/writers like you and got some good advice….

My point is that I know there are many good, decent people writing good, decent, and, sometimes, great poetry, but they never get the chance to get something read or reviewed. Knowing the feeling myself, I remain determined and am dogged… but, it is exhausting, and I know many who have been discouraged. The walls have to be scaled, but even then, we must change the attitude that poetry is either ragged ranting or rarefied rhapsodies no one gets. It is a dilemma; our society loses something precious when we lose those who would write poetry and I think it is no coincidence that Utopias of many kinds banned or despised the poets, who, alone of all types, were neither predictable, nor governable, and, therefore, a threat to all forms of authority.

GC: As usual, you’re expressing —cogently— personal and macro truths! Your allusion to "Utopias of many kinds [that] banned or despised the poets" recalled to my mind that Plato had banned poets from his REPUBLIC. He was especially hard on Euripides--the "younger generation" of his time. Fortunately, Plato's former student, Aristotle, broke with Plato on this (and other) matters--and was laudatory of Euripides' work! (It really is "a long and winding road"!)

JT: Plato wasn´t the only one... For Muslims (who ironically wrote phenomenal poetry from Iran to Morocco) there is this Hadith: The Prophet said, "It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 175.) Other societies and notables mistrusted the poet who had neither spiritual nor political license but who could still inspire people-- thus making enemies of those in the 2 most powerful societal groups. Heather McHugh understood the (potentially dangerous) outsider nature of real poetry when she wrote: “I think one of poetry’s functions is not to give us what we want… [T]he poet isn’t always of use to the tribe. The tribe thrives on the consensual. The tribe is pulling together to face the intruder who threatens it. Meanwhile, the poet is sitting by himself in the graveyard talking to a skull.” Poets are an unknown quantity and that is why poetry is supported only when (as now) controlled-- and therefore rendered completely toothless. I think Boris Balon has it right--it´s out there, but the gatekeepers are afraid to look for it and refuse to acknowledge it when it comes knocking.

GC: There is another Hadith that I prefer: "The ink of a scholar is better than the blood of a martyr" (or, "the ink of scholars outweighs the blood of martyrs"). Some question the authentication of the "chain" of that Hadith... but, you makes your choices and you pays your dues! (choose what works for you!). I agree with your theme above that "poets are an unknown quantity," and "separate from the tribe"--as McHugh said--, and therefore the tribe seeks to control the artist…. There are just so many people writing now, jockeying for their place--such a plethora of bad writing that the good is often overlooked. Great odds against the Truth-tellers, always! I take heart from those who strive against all odds--people like Kathy Kelly (in our day), John Lennon, MLK, et. al. in the past.

JT: In my personal life, and in my artistic development, I’ve been guided by and inspired by, the words of sages. I like this, for example, from Oscar Wilde: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is humanity's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” So we must rebel – even if it is to rebel against being considered a rebel.

GC: My favorite Wildeism goes something like this: “America is the first country to go from an initial period of settlement... to decadence--without an intervening period of civilization!”

JT: That’s precious! BTW, here’s something new from me:


I pledge no allegiance to any flag
which dips its toes in red blood
and writes on the ground, wherever it goes:
“We own you all, body and soul,
to slave and to suffer,
all huddled together,
one people, disempowered,
slinking completely
and obediently
to their flag-covered deaths.

GC: Perfectly stated! There's a pledge I'll make, too! (Let’s start a “Pledge of Allegiance to Planet Earth” Movement!)

By the time I was in the 7th grade, I decided I didn't want to "pledge allegiance to the flag" anymore. (I was already a budding "rad"!) The only way I could get past the owlish eyes of my Homeroom teacher was to put my palm over my heart, and "mouth" the words without uttering a sound.... No one ever caught on... and I felt a lot better about that whole ridiculous exercise.

BTW, I did a little research. The quote attributed to Wilde is actually better than my recall of it (from decades past). His is sharper; viz., "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

JT: Another point I’d like to make here—probably my final point for this “Talk” (and I hope we do more of these in the future).

There is a story about 2 of my mentors: the first, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who just died this past year at 107. I spent summers with him--rigorous, nasty-assed Zen trainings of 15+ hours a day, meditating. He was friends with a man who also just recently died, Taitetsu Unno, a Pure Land teacher and professor who later became my mentor into Pure Land Buddhism and became one of my sponsors when I sought ordination in 2003. Anyway, the 2 of them were talking and Prof. Unno said of some calligraphy that it "wasn´t very good" to which Sasaki Roshi said "it doesn´t matter if it´s good, what matters is if he is in it"-- or words to that effect.

The point being that the techniques and tools and even the ostensible "artistry" was less important than the true individuality expressed in the art form. This is what I have been trying to get at: That the "Truth" of a poem is how much it truly expresses that “something” the poet is attempting-- even though his/her tools are not sufficiently sharpened. Perhaps that is why we sometimes see bright gems within otherwise non-descript poetry.

So…, I think, yes, the Truth of the poet is more important. Of course, the “artistry” used has merit, too, but if artistry is alone with no Truth then that "art" is dead in my opinion. If Truth is present but the artistry weak, then that should still be applauded because the tools can always be sharpened. The Truth, though, is a much more tenuous beast to tame. Thoughts?

GC: Sure, José, I like what you write above. (Oh, man, must I wrestle with Zen truths, too? Pedestrian Western truths are not enuf?) OK, I'll focus on your concluding paragraph and say that I agree with this: "the Truth of the poet is more important but the artistry used has merit but if artistry is alone with no Truth then that "art" is dead in my opinion." But, I will also say that I disagree with it! (I like Zen, too!) We are getting into metaphysical realms here. What is this Truth you are talking about? Is it the same as my Truth?

So... if the Artist has failed to convey Truth that is applicable to me and other perceptive, striving beings then I am not interested in delving into his/her work?

One of the greatest Truth-tellers was Emily Dickinson, and she put it this way: "Tell all the Truth/ but tell it slant." Telling it slant is where Art comes in.

JT: Let’s take this up in Round Two!

GC: Sure!

Gary Corseri has published poems, fiction and articles at Countercurrents, The New York Times and hundreds of periodicals and websites worldwide. He has published 2 novels, 2 collections of poetry, a literary anthology (edited), and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and taught in public schools, universities and prisons. Contact: [email protected]. José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, La Respuesta, Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at [email protected]


Poets' Talk

Gary Corseri

José M. Tirado








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