A Conversation With James Laughlin
SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 1936 the publishing house of New Directions has grown in stature until it is now synonymous with the finest publications in avant-garde and imaginative literature, both from American and abroad. Its Founding Editor and President, James Laughlin, established the house to print work which was being left unpublished, especially that of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. And from this auspicious beginning, the list of significant authors whose work appears under the New Directions imprint grew: Borges, Duncan, Ferlinghetti, Levertov, Garcia Lorca, Merton, Miller, Patchen, Rexroth, Snyder, Dyland Thomas — the entire New Directions catalog could be cited. Yet James Laughlin is also a poet, and with the publication of In Another Country: Poems 1935-1975 (City Lights, 1978), a representative sampling of his work is readily available. Deceptively simple and ideal for rereading, these poems indicate another facet of Mr. Laughlin, though readers are sure to find indications of the taste which selected the authors New Directions publishes. However, breaking a person into roles of publisher, anthologist, editor, or poet is of little benefit and much loss: the sum of James Laughlin’s contributions to modern poetry is evident to all who read it. —Stephen Cape
Daniel Bourne: One aspect of New Directions is its strong identification with an individual. We don’t think of New Directions as being a faceless company. As an editor, do you ever think of yourself as an orchestrator, or that editing is a lot like conducting?
James Laughlin: Well, in the old days — up to perhaps six or seven years ago — I used to do all the editing myself. I didn’t do the copy editing, but I did the reading of the manuscripts that had been screened by the other people, and made the decisions on what was to be published. But in recent years, now that we have such a very good staff, and I’m getting on, I want to train them to make decisions. So that we have now a kind of a group editing-reading policy. I do read everything that we publish. We usually have to have two or three votes for a book before we take it on. So in that sense I suppose it is an orchestra.
DB: Have you ever vetoed anything — in the Security Council sense?
Laughlin: I can’t remember specific titles, but I do think there were probably two or three books that I just didn’t really like. And it’s always been pretty much my policy to publish things that I like, and fortunately the staff seems to have either acquired my taste or to have similar tastes. So that there are very few occurrences where I have to put my foot down on anything.
DB: When you’re putting together the anthology, for instance, do you ever think about how one piece works with another piece, even though there isn’t any connection?
Laughlin: No. The anthology is really just a kind of grab bag two or three of us work on. Peter Gassgold works on it, as does Fred Martin, and any of the others on the staff who turns up something very good, they bring it to us. We don’t attempt to have any theme for a number of the anthology, or to have any particular sequence. We just put in things that we like, and then we try to alternate the prose and the poetry.
DB: Is the decision to publish something ever made out of regard for the promise that a writer has rather than the work in and of itself?
Laughlin: Oh, very definitely yes. Often something comes in from which you can see that the person is good, the book may not be perfect as it is, and the person doesn’t want to do a re-write. That’s something we do almost nothing of. We do very little re-writing in the office. We often take on people who show great promise and who we hope will develop into somebody important and someone good.
DB: How much of publishing would you say is publishing the writer — and I don’t mean the name — and how much is publishing the work itself?
Laughlin: Well, once we’ve taken on somebody we generally try to stick with them for at least two or three books to see if they will develop, if they will grow. Then, of course, there are those sad occasions when a poet or a writer has not grown, and one has to let them go because they’re just not making headway. But we have a very clear personal relationship with the authors. We see them when they come to New York. They stay at my wife’s apartment. We have quite a correspondence with them at all times. They play a very important role, the authors in the firm, because so much of the material we publish is suggested by them. For example, I suppose we’ve published four or five books that Kenneth Rexroth has suggested, and other books that Denise Levertov has suggested. And there are numerous cases of that, where one of our writers discovers another writer whom he likes, and we then take that book on. So it’s a very close relationship. We can do that because we’re so small.
DB: That gets back to the fact that when one thinks of New Directions one thinks of you. Sort of like a family business.
Laughlin: Well, it is really a family business. We’re one big family, we’re very congenial in the office, and everybody gets along, there are no fights. It is like a small family, not like the Cosa Nostra.
DB: Are you very familiar with the small press movement in America?
Laughlin: I try to follow it. I subscribe to some of the presses, such as the Black Sparrow and Capra. I pick up occasional small press books, but there are so many of them now, these small presses, there’s just a multitude of them. I get these circulars from them but I have no way of judging whether the people they are publishing are interesting or not, unless there happens to be a blurb from somebody I know. The condition of the house, which is about to fall down from the weight of books in the attic and the cellar, precludes my buying everything. I mean I’d like to support these presses, as a matter of principle. I subscribe to a lot of little literary magazines on that principle, that they need support and I want to help them get it. I think the small press movement is a very good thing, because I think that with what’s happening in publishing, this tendency to conglomerate and to make big units that are only profit conscious rather than literary conscious, is going to make it frightfully difficult for the young writer and the beginning writer to get published. So that if we didn’t have these small presses, which will take a risk on them, these people would never get started. They would simply become discouraged as writers and start doing something else.
Stephen Cape: How serious is this, or how much damage do you think is coming from this, the practice of some of the real big publishers to, say, produce a movie and the book version and various children’s toys and things as a package, and limit the number of items they go with just to have these big sellers?
Laughlin: It’s bad, because it will mean that so many small-circulation writers will not get published, because these other firms are concentrating enormous financial resources on building up a promotion for these so-called packages — TV, movies, the book, and the paperback. I think it’s a very bad thing. I think it’s probably inevitable that it should have happened, because the whole tendency in American business is to centralize and to conglomerate and to cut out the small manufacturer. I think the development is part of the business climate of the times. But I think it’s a bad thing and therefore I’m very thankful to the people who have the guts and the time and the energy to run a small press and to put out four or five or half a dozen books a year of new writers. And I’ve found, too, from what I can learn about it, that most of these small presses have pretty good local distribution, regional distribution. There’s supposed to be one in North Dakota, though I’ve never seen their work, who sells something like a thousand or two thousand copies of books by North Dakota writers. But I think the important small presses are — well, of course New Directions is a small press; City Lights does a very fine job; Black Sparrow and Jargon under Jonathan Williams, though his output has been rather cut down since he started living in England most of the year, it’s interrupted his efforts to promote his books — all of these have had marvelous taste and marvelous imagination in seeking out things to publish.
SC: We’d like to talk a little also about your own writing and your attitudes toward writing. Throughout your books the great majority of your poems are written in relatively short lines. How indicative is this?
Laughlin: You see, that metric, which is based on typewriter spacing, is something that I sort of picked up from Williams. Not that he used typewriter spacing — though Robert Lowell once said in an article in Hudson Review that he did. But it wasn’t true. Bill used the typewriter more for making visual patterns on the page. Whereas I adopted that narrow line, and the rule of the thing is — most of the poems are written in couplets — that no line can be more than two spaces longer or shorter than the preceding line. Now this is a very artificial kind of structure, but it was what I wanted. I wanted a very artificial, arbitrary, visual structure, which would work against the free flow of the cadence, the verse, which is written in colloquial English, trying to avoid as much as possible any poeticisms or rhetoric or any unnecessary language. If you read the poem, if your voice reads the poem in a prose cadence — which those lines really are, I mean they’re not metric — and your eye is stopped by these limitations of the line, you get a kind of tension between what the eye see and what the tongue says, which produces the tension and the compression of the poem. And it is a very artificial, and intentionally artificial structure.
DB: I felt the effect of your style has been to produce the voice of a man being in a hurry. There’s a kind of urgency that pull the reader in.
Laughlin: Yes, I try to get a movement there, I try to get a drive through the poem, and most of the poems — except for the long one at the end of In Another Country — are perhaps, you know, twenty lines or thirty lines. The conception is very modest. I don’t try to write ambitious poems. Or you might think of the Elizabethan conceit. I will use usually only one or two ideas in a poem. One curious thing about the poems is that I don’t write them. They come to me psychically, from some person in another world. I don’t sit down and write a poem. I wait for this message to come, which will suddenly flash into my mind at the most unusual moments. Usually the poems arrive almost completely formed, with the beginning and the end and all I have to do when I sit down at the typewriter is just work out that type metric and occasionally change a word or two for length, so that a line doesn’t just out into the margin. But these poems do come from some person in another world whom, I regret to say, hasn’t visited me for some months, so that I’m feeling a little lost and waiting for when the next voice will come.
DB: That reminds me in some ways of Borges’ The Other, the wrestling of what he considers to be his central personality with the other writing Borges, only it seems that you tend to appreciate your other self more than Borges does.
Laughlin: Oh, I certainly am grateful to that person that sends me those poems. I wish I had with me my sheets of poetry and I could read you a poem called “The Person” — it isn’t in any book yet* — which tells about this other person, asks who he is, who this person is. And the poem concludes by saying that I probably will never know who this person is.
SC: What would you consider to be the basic unit of a poem: the word, or the line, or something else?
Laughlin: With me it’s the whole thing, it’s the conceit, the idea, what the poem is saying. And it goes on just as long as is necessary to say what needs to be said. Occasionally I will put in — I had one poem which explains about the metric. It explains my derivation from Catullus, who is a very strong influence, and how I mix things from Catullus, and how I try to write in plain brown blocks of American speech but occasionally set in an ancient word or a strange word just to startle the reader a little bit and to break up the monotony of the plain American cadence.
SC: That poem, Technical Notes, refers to common talk, American talk. Do you feel that ties you into an American poetic tradition?
Laughlin: I hope it ties me in very much, because of course that’s what I got so much from Williams. You see, Williams’ whole drive was to get the American idiom, and I hope that I am getting it. Of course many of the poems are written about European subjects, but I hope that they are written in an American way, the American’s view of Europe or of Italy.
SC: What about going earlier than Williams and the twentieth century. Was Whitman very much of an interest of yours?
Laughlin: I’ve always admired Whitman and enjoyed reading him, but I don’t feel there’s any influence there particularly. I mean he was more declamatory and more hortatory than I’ve ever been.
SC: How would you describe the difference between the difference between oral or performed poetry and reading poetry in print? There seems to be a real difference in the essence of what’s communicated in a poem when it’s recited by the poet and when a person is sitting alone in a quiet room and reads it from a printed page.
Laughlin: Yes, I think there is a great difference, in that when the poet is reading you get the whole personality of the person, especially if he’s a good reader. Whereas a person just sitting gets what he puts into it. Of course a poem is a two-way street. No poem is any good if it doesn’t suggest to the reader things from his own mind and recollection that he will read into it, and will add to what the poet has suggested. But I do think poetry readings are very important.
SC: There are hundreds and hundreds of poets writing in American today, and they’re turning out thousands and thousands of poems. how would you describe the difference between a merely competent poem and the few poems that really work? What is that little…?
Laughlin: That’s hard to answer, because for each person there are things in a poem which strike fire, which catch on, which have a special meaning. And I think that is where poetry reading becomes such an individual thing. I mean I have friend who like poets who just don’t say anything to me at all, I mean they seem to me rather ordinary and pedestrian. Whereas for me, every now and then, I strike something that just goes click, you know, in my head. As Gertrude Stein used to say, it rings the bell, and I feel, this is great. That’s the way I felt when I first read Dylan Thomas. Edith Sitwell told me about Dylan Thomas, and I looked up his work. And these I think are purely personal reactions based probably on what one has read and liked. I think one ages and one dates. I tend to have a good deal of difficulty in liking some of the new poets. They just don’t talk to me, though I was impressed — I was reading last night in bed that mammoth anthology that Willis Barnstone has gotten out — and I will say that some of the names that were totally unknown to me were very good and really clicked and I said, this is somebody I’ve got to look into, this is somebody who has something.
SC: How should the reader approach a poem? How do you think a person should go about the process of reading poetry?
Laughlin: Well, let’s hope they read it for pleasure and not out of a sense of duty. I think most people read and re-read the things that they have liked. That’s certainly true in my case. I re-read Pound a great deal, I re-read Williams, I re-read Thomas, I re-read the people whom I cam to love when I was at what you might call a formative stage. Whereas with other poetry, with modern poetry — though I get a good many modern poetry — I usually tend just to read them once, and say well that’s nice and put it aside, because I don’t think one’s tastes change after one’s about thirty. Just a personal impression. I think you get fixed in a kind of a mold. For example, I love Gary Snyder because he reminds me of the young Rexroth. And I love Levertov because she reminds me of poets whom I’ve liked very much in my youth.
SC: Are there any poets whose careers are entirely after World War II that you think are particularly promising, that will probably end up as major figures for this second half of the twentieth century?
Laughlin: It’s very hard to tell how far a person will go. Both Williams and Pound — Pound particularly — were continually changing and developing. Eliot, to a certain degree, changed and developed. Some poets just repeat themselves. I mean their poems may say a little something different, but metrically and in its construction it’s always the same little poem. They just don’t change. But a good poet, I feel, grows. He gets new ideas and new visions of what he can accomplish.
SC: Do you have any speculations on what American poets and the American poetic practice is going to do for the rest of the century?
Laughlin: Just haven’t the least idea of where it will go. I think that concrete poetry seems to have, as far as I can see, come to a kind of a dead end. It doesn’t seem to be going any further than it went in its high period of about five or six years ago. Concrete poets continue to turn out beautiful things, but to me they’re more visual than oral, and they almost really belong on the wall rather than in a book. I haven’t the least idea of where poetry is going.
DB: Speaking of the visual, I’ve heard Robert Bly comment that American poetry today seems to be too visually oriented. In light of the close affinity between Williams, between Stein, and the artists of the period, what do you think about that statement, and do you think it’s a tradition that goes back even further than the advent of TV?
Laughlin: There has been visual poetry since God knows when. I mean, even Ennius, a fragment of Ennius that survives in a monastery copy, how does it go — the poem that Pound quotes? “Saxo cere comminuit brum.” Now you see what he’s done there, he’s visually divided cerebrum into cere and brum, and put comminuit, which is the blow of the stone that killed the man, between the two parts. you get a lot of poetry in the medieval times, a lot of fooling around with visual patterns and visual tricks. And you get visual poetry in of course Apollinaire, who wrote Calligrammes, which is strictly visual. So that visual poetry is nothing new. You get it in Thomas, those strange diamond-shaped poems. You get it in May Swenson, the slant poems and those things. I think we will always have the impulse towards visual poetry with us, and I wouldn’t agree with Bly that it’s a bad thing. It depends on the ability of the individual poet to do it well, and to make a shape which is interesting enough to hold your attention.
DB: I think that Bly was meaning also the dependence on visual image rather than smell, touch, and things like that.
Laughlin: I wouldn’t have much commentary on that. I’m not particularly in agreement.
DB: Let me bring together your own poetry and also your publishing. In the afterword to Die Haare auf Grossvaters Kopf, Eva Hesse praised you for your restraint, your attention to traditional lyricism, and basically your classical tone. How do you think this fits in with the reputation for being a publisher of the avant-garde?
Laughlin: I think that’s just really a personal connection. You see, I had thirteen years of Latin, and then a good many years of Italian. So that I’m pretty well steeped in the classics. Unfortunately, I never learned Greek, which is one of the great sorrows of my life. I tried after I got out of college to go to NYU night school while I was working in New York, but it was just too much of a strain, that language was too hard, and I guess my brain had hardened too much by that time. But I have a deep affinity with some of the Latin poets particularly, I would say chiefly Catullus and Persius. Very often these messages that come to me, these persona poems — you might almost think they came from someone of the school of those poets. There is so much closeness and identity with what they have said and what I was going to say, and it makes a nice contrast with the very American poems. It sort of breaks up the book and carries it back and forth in time.
DB: In your chapbook Report on a Visit to Germany, concerning the post-war reconstruction there, you write about rubbing “your aching guilt on theirs.” And in Some Natural Things, there is that enigmatic page devoted to the war poems you wrote earlier but now felt to be too bitter, too painful, to print. All this shows that you hardly shared the feeling of national consensus of righteousness after World War II. Would you consider yourself at that time as searching for a third camp?
Laughlin: I’ve never been very political. I suffered through all the wars. I was very anti-Vietnam, and all the wars have been upsetting to me. But I’m not really a political person in the sense, say, that Denise Levertov is, who’s always getting involved in political movements and protest movements and going to jail, or Grace Paley, somebody like that, always going to jail, camping on the doorsteps of the Pentagon. I’m not very much that way. I’m really more withdrawn. But the German experience, as you can see, did move me very much, I mean seeing that terrible destruction and seeing the miserable state of the people, how they had been beaten down by the war through no fault of their own probably; I mean it’s all well and good to say that they were all responsible for the concentration camps, but I don’t think they were. I think that was the work of a small group of fiends.
DB: Do you feel that the artist — and this pretty well fits in with your feelings — is more or less a perennial outsider, a concerned outsider?
Laughling: Some are and some aren’t. There are a number that are — somebody like Kenneth Patchen, for example. He was completely outside of the normal course of workaday life, except perhaps for the period when he was working for me. He and his wife worked for me for two years in the early days of the business. They did all the bookkeeping, book-shipping and so forth. Now he was a person who was outside the stream. But I know other poets, I mean Williams would be the perfect example of the man who was completely in the stream of ordinary life. He probably spent ten hours a day working on his patients for the hour or two he would be working on his poetry or his writing. I think it’s a matter of the temperament of the artist and of what he wants to do, whether he wants to mingle or whether he doesn’t want to mingle.
SC: Williams and Rexroth both made statements in their autobiographies about this. Williams says something similar to “I had no intention at all of starving for art.” And Rexroth also makes a statement that if you want to be a poet you should get a trade that will support you, and then do your writing.
Laughlin: Well, Kenneth has worked. In his early days he had all sorts of jobs, when he was a young man. As you remember, he was going across the country, and he was a lumberjack or something up in the Northwest, and driving horses somewhere else. Then there was a period when he limited himself pretty much to writing, which was a difficult period financially for him, except again that he had a very devoted wife, Marie, who was a nurse in the San Francisco health system, who supported him and paid the rent and paid the food bills. But then after he lost her he went to work, and taught down at Santa Barbara, and he was more or less of a working man, though he held most of his classes in the cafeteria where there was a jukebox so that the students could dance.
SC: With some poets, Gary Snyder in particular, a very great percentage of the material for their poetry comes from their work experience — timber, the Northwest, and that sort of thing.
Laughlin: He still works — he doesn’t really work at a job, but he works tremendously at his place. He’s got a beautiful place on the foothills of the Sierras, where he has a house that he built himself, which is half Japanese architecture and half American Indian, and the smoke of the fire goes up through the ceiling. Sometimes. And he works very hard around his place, I mean gardening, raising pigs, raising chickens. He’s really in a way a farmer, which is a perfectly legitimate occupation. And then he does, too, a certain amount of teaching and reading. He’s working principally now on his big book about Zen and Japan. That’s what he’s been doing mostly for the last four or five years. Apparently he’s trying to cover very deeply the subject of the history of Zen in Japan, the Zen practice and what remains of it today, and about the community there in Kyoto. I think it will be a very interesting book. He was in the Zen monastery in Kyoto and learned Japanese and went through the training. He knows Japanese very well; he has a Japanese wife, and, you know, he’s a very perceptive person. I think it’ll be an exciting book.
DB: New Directions has always tried to channel world literature into the American mainstream. I was wondering, from your perspective, you think that American literature as a whole might be a bit too isolated from other literatures.
Laughlin: There’s so much translation getting published now that I don’t think it really is isolated any more, though it may well have been at an earlier period. I think this tendency to infiltrate from abroad probably began with things like The Little Review and The Dial. I don’t know that earlier magazines did much of it. But now almost every magazine that you pick up has got translations of somebody in it from another country. So that I think there’s no excuse for the American poetry reader not knowing a good deal about what is going on in the rest of the world.
SC: But this is a large mono-lingual country, and there’s no pragmatic need to learn languages well enough to read non-English books in the original.
Laughlin: I think that’s true. Now if you were in Ireland, for example, or in Sweden, the kids begin to learn other languages in grade school, so that by the time they’re up to college age they usually have a pretty good command of one or two languages other than their own and are able to read in them. We found that was true when we were doing the magazine, Perspectives, when I was doing that for the Ford Foundation. It was a magazine devoted to filling the gaps in knowledge about American culture that had occurred during the war. It had editions in France, Germany, England, and Italy. We were amazed at the number of copies that the English edition sold in countries like Holland and Sweden and Israel. The people could read the English perfectly well and were able to cope with difficult material.
DB: In the past it seems that most of American literature’s contact with other languages has been with French, German, and Russian, but recently there’s been a movement towards Far Easter, Eastern European — not meaning Russian — and so on. Are there any language areas in the world that you think are really turning out important new material.
Laughlin: Oh, it’s hard not reading the languages, it’s hard to say, but I would say that of course the chief big thing that has happened in the last twenty years is the influx of translations from Latin America. When I first started publishing nobody really knew anything about Latin America. They’d heard of Neruda maybe, or they hadn’t even heard of Borges when I started publishing. I think we were the first to publish Borges in the anthology. Various young professors at universities sent in stories, and we printed them. But in the last twenty years it’s just been a flood. I think we’re publishing now at New Directions about four or five Latin American poets. There seems to be considerable interest in their work. In the case of Neruda, for example, Neruda’s a bestseller for poetry. When Neruda used to read in New York, they’d fill the hall. I don’t know exactly why, he’s a good poet, but I don’t know why there was a tremendous fixation on him when there were other people who were almost as good. But as for the other languages, I think it’s hard to tell what’s going on, because you can’t read the stuff, and there are few translations, although I will say we recently received from an American professor a translation of a Hungarian novel by a fellow named Istvan Orkeny,** which is absolutely fascinating, simply fascinating. He’s got a whole new kind of technique. I don’t know what you would call it really, I haven’t made up my mind what kind of writing it is. I mean it’s narrative, it’s perfectly simple narrative, but he has such a wonderful underlying irony. It’s really superb. Now this just reached us because some professor of Hungarian here in this country had found it and translated it. But there may be, you know, great things going on in Rumania or Yugoslavia — of course we know about Vasko Poa in Yugoslavia, he’s a very good poet, he’s been in this country quite a lot. But one thing I was noticing in Barnstone’s anthology was the range of countries from which he had been able to find translations of good women poets. But to date, nothing much has come in from China. Now, the Chinese government puts out a propaganda magazine called Chinese Literature, which they are kind enough to send me for free. I’ve tried to look at it, but the stuff is just hopeless, I mean it’s just party line Maoism. It has no literary quality at all. But there may very well be, with the change in the climate now, there may be a relaxation of the literary censorship in China, and we may begin to find some things from China which will be promising.
*”The Person” appears in New Directions Anthology #39.
**Next year, New Directions will be publishing two novellas by Istvan Orkeny: The Flower Show and Batsplay
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