Interviews

James Laughlin, The Art of Publishing No. 1, Part 2

Interviewed by Richard Ziegfield

What follows is the concluding section of the interview with James Laughlin, the poet and publisher, which began in issue 89. In it, Mr. Laughlin discussed his upbringing in Pittsburgh, his years at Harvard during which he started New Directions, his summer abroad in 1933 when he stayed with Gertrude Stein, and subsequently Ezra Pound, the formative years at New Directions, his relationships with Pound, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, and Djuna Barnes, among others.

 

INTERVIEWER

Let's move into some questions about your relationships with New Directions writers. What features of Pound's art do you admire?

LAUGHLIN

The metrical innovations, the collage structure of the Cantos, the ideogrammic method. I think he was a tremendous technician. Perhaps the greatest of the century. He will endure. His criticism is remarkable and his translations are superb.

INTERVIEWER

Pound and Williams wrote poetry that was so different in many ways. Why do you think they were such good friends during the early years?

LAUGHLIN

They became friends in college at Penn in 1902. They were kindred souls who loved literature. Later Pound helped Williams to change the nature of his poetry from bad Keats to good modern. Ezra was a very loyal person who liked Bill and was supportive. Of course, they fought a lot, but it was a real friendship. Ezra was one of the first to appreciate Kora in Hell when few others but Marianne Moore and Kenneth Burke understood it. And that meant a lot to Bill. Ezra was a strong rooter for Life Along the Passaic River and for White Mule.

INTERVIEWER

This despite the fact that Pound was so very condescending toward him?

LAUGHLIN

Very condescending, but Bill took it. Bill was infuriated with Ezra for doing the Rome broadcasts. Bill had two boys in the service then, and Bill told him to go to hell, but when Ezra landed in St. Elizabeths Hospital, Bill felt sorry for him and went down to see him and made peace.

INTERVIEWER

In a recent book—The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths—a psychiatrist named E. Fuller Torrey argued that Winfred Overholser, the superintendent at St. Elizabeths Hospital, had protected Pound from prosecution on treason charges. Was Pound really as sane as Torrey argues?

LAUGHLIN

Not at first. When Ezra was brought to Washington from Italy I asked my lawyer, Julien Cornell, to go talk to him. Cornell called me up and said, “Jas, I can't do much to help this man. He's out of touch with reality. He has no conception that he has done anything wrong. He can't keep his mind on track. What will we do?” We corresponded with Dorothy Pound's lawyer in England and he said, “Go for insanity,” and that's what we did. A few days after I'd heard from Cornell I went down to see Pound when he was still in Gallinger Hospital. He was hopelessly confused. But he was given very good care in St. Elizabeth's, where he rapidly improved. He got over a lot of his paranoia and confabulation, but elements of it remained. After a year or so he was able to work and he seemed not unhappy. I'd go down to see him and he'd be cheerful, telling stories, but he still had some strange ideas. After three years Cornell wanted to try habeas corpus to get him out on the grounds that there had never been a treason case in law where a man had been held indefinitely for insanity. But Ezra wouldn't let Dorothy, who was his guardian, sign the habeas corpus papers. He said, “I will never leave here except with flying colors and a personal apology from the president.” He was not realistic. He thought he'd been right all along, that we should have been fighting the Russians, not the Germans or the Italians.

INTERVIEWER

Was Pound aware of the heat that you were taking for publishing him during those years?

LAUGHLIN

I don't think he paid any attention to it. There were some Jewish booksellers who wouldn't order his books, but, generally speaking, there wasn't too much stink about it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel that your differences with Pound on his anti-Semitism affected your relationship with him?

LAUGHLIN

When I was in Rapallo, in 1935, there were not quite nice jokes about Sir Montagu Norman, the governor of the Bank of England, and other Jewish bankers. I was upset. This despite the fact that I'd been raised in Pittsburgh in a very anti-Semitic atmosphere. But by 1935 I'd gotten some sophistication. I went after him on it, but all he said was, “How do you think a man whose name is Ezra could be anti-Semitic?” He wouldn't face up to it. Dr. Overholser later explained it to me. Anti-Semitism was a recognized symptom of paranoia. One should not, he said, judge Ezra on moral grounds but on medical grounds. Once Overholser, who was eminent in his field, had told me that, I accepted it. I have saved a characteristic postcard from Ezra. It was time to bring out another section of the Cantos and it had some rather unpleasant anti-Semitic lines in it. I wrote to Ezra to ask if I could take those out. He wrote back: “Again in Cantos, all institutions are judged on their merits. Idem religion. No one can be boosted or exempted on grounds of being a Lutheran or a Manichaean. Nor can all philosophy be degraded to a status of propaganda merely because the author has one philosophy and not another. Is the Divina Comedia propaganda or not? From '72 on we shall enter the realm of philosophy, George Santayana, etc. The publisher cannot expect to control the religion and philosophy of his authors. Certain evil habits of language, etc. must be weighed and probably will be found wanting. I shall not accept the specific word anti-Semitic. There will have to be a general formula covering Mennonites, Mohammedans, Lutherans, Calvinists. I wouldn't swear to not being anti-Calvinist but that don't mean I should weigh Protestants in one balance and Anglo-Cats in another. All ideas coming from the Near East are probably shit. If they turn out to be typhus in the laboratory, so is it. So is Taoism. So is probably all Chinese philosophy and religion except Confucius. I am not yet sure.” I never could get anywhere with him on his anti-Semitism. At one point I censored him. In one of the Cantos he talks about the Rothschilds and calls them “Stinkshilds.” At the time a Rothschild family member was living in New York. I thought it might be libelous to call her “Stinkshild,” so I just put a black bar through the name and that survived for several printings.

INTERVIEWER

You've been working recently on a film about Pound in Italy. What can you tell me about that project?

LAUGHLIN

It's being produced by a very interesting group called the New York Center for Visual History, which hopes to get the financing for a series of ten documentary films about poets, beginning with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and coming up through Hart Crane, Lowell and William Carlos Williams. They started with the Pound project because they wanted a contemporary figure who stood out as a key maker of modern poetry. We began in Venice, interviewing Olga Rudge, for so many years Pound's best friend, and then we shot scenes in Venice which Ezra had written about in the Cantos or elsewhere. Last summer we did Provence, or rather the Dordogne, up in the northern part of Provence, where Pound and T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Pound had made a walking tour in 1919 to find old troubadour castles. We were able to follow their route because every day Dorothy had written a postcard to her mother in London. These gave us the dates and where they'd been. The postcard would say, “We found Mareuil today and it was like this. . . . Today we walked to Hautefort.” We had a great time shooting those old castles. We got Yves Roquette, considered the leading speaker of traditional Provençal poetry, to read Bertrand de Born for us from the battlements of Hautefort. And we got another man who plays the vielle à roux, an ancient instrument, to sing canzone of Arnaut Daniel at Excideuil. It was a beautiful experience. Then we went to Italy, to Rapallo, where Pound had lived. We were lucky in being able to get permission from the present owners of his old apartment to shoot the Tigullian Gulf from his terrace. We shot the little house in San Ambrogio where he lived during the war. Next we went up to Sirmione on Lake Garda, one of Pound's “sacred places,” where the famous first meeting with Joyce took place. Then we shot the church of San Zeno in Verona, which Pound considered the finest piece of architecture of the Middle Ages. We also went up to his daughter Mary's castle at Tirolo di Merano. We got a wonderful interview with her. We went down to Siena, a place that he loved and shot some good things there. Then down to Rome, where I was able to recite the “Nox mihi candida” from “Homage to Sextus Propertius” on the Palatine Hill, but the director wouldn't let me wear a toga.

INTERVIEWER

What came to be your role in this film?

LAUGHLIN

It was doing whatever they asked me to do. Literary advice. Interviews. Commentary. Voice-overs. The film's going to have a lot of poetry in it, using the latest electronic techniques. I had to interview some people in Italian, old people who had known him, which was quite a strain since I've forgotten most of my Italian.

INTERVIEWER

Is anybody playing parts?

LAUGHLIN

No. Just interviews with people who knew him. But no one will play Pound, which is good. It would be impossible to find an actor who could play Pound.

INTERVIEWER

With respect to Pound's aesthetic theory, did you agree with him for the most part?

LAUGHLIN

I agreed with him almost completely. I reread his literary essays for a course I gave last spring at Brown and it continually astonished me how smart he was about distinguishing between good and bad writing and what in various traditions should be preserved and followed and what shouldn't. I'm amazed at his flair for that kind of discrimination. He was perhaps the first to recognize that Yeats was a great poet. He spotted Joyce and he spotted Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

I want to move on to some questions about Rexroth. You said in an earlier interview that “the role of Ezra in my life was taken over by Rexroth in that he advised me what to do and put me onto things.” Could you elaborate on what kinds of things he was doing?

LAUGHLIN

It's odd; Kenneth was very much like Pound temperamentally, though he detested him because he considered Pound fascist and Kenneth was an anarchist. But their wide-ranging interests in everything literary and philosophical were parallel in many ways, though certain things Rexroth emphasized more than Pound. Rexroth was a great teacher, as was Pound. Pound was one of the greatest talkers I ever knew, and Rexroth was right next to him. He'd ramble on about everything. He was very helpful to me, telling me what to read. He would lend me his books, just as Ezra had done. He took over as my teacher where Pound left off. Obviously their specialties were different, but they were both stimulating.

INTERVIEWER

Did the mentorship with Pound diminish at the beginning of World War II?

LAUGHLIN

Yes. He was in Italy and no mail got through.

INTERVIEWER

How early did Rexroth come into the picture as mentor?

LAUGHLIN

I became involved with the ski resort at Alta, Utah, about 1939, and I went down often to see Kenneth and stay with him on Potrero Hill in San Francisco during the war. We spent a lot of time together, camping and skiing in the mountains, in the Sierras. We went on trips in the early spring when there was still a lot of snow. We climbed into the mountains, and Kenneth would dig a little cave in the snow, lining it with fir branches, where we slept. This was very fine. When I was staying with him in San Francisco we often went rock climbing down the coast. Rexroth was a good rock climber, very much the outdoorsman. He loved nature and understood it in a philosophical way. That shows in his greatest poems, such as “The Signature of All Things.” I miss him. He was a unique character. He was cantankerous; he loved nothing better than going to read at a college and being the “insulting author.” He was a naughty fellow. I used to get angry with him about that. I said, “Kenneth, you know you're hurting the sale of your books by antagonizing professors.” He just laughed.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned earlier that one of your other special relationships was with Thomas Merton. What made you feel so close to him?

LAUGHLIN

He was so nice, so jolly. He wasn't a dour monk at all. He was a kind friend and interested in everything. I often went down to visit him at the monastery in Kentucky. The abbot would give him a day off, and I'd rent a car. Tom would get an old bishop's suit out of the storeroom and start out in that. Then we would stop in the woods and he'd change into his farmworker's blue jeans and a beret to hide his tonsure. Then we'd hit the bars across Kentucky. He loved his beer, and he loved that smoked ham they have down there. He was a wonderful person. He wanted to read contemporary writers, but the books were often confiscated, so we had a secret system. I sent the books he wanted to the monastery psychiatrist in Louisville, who would get them to Merton. I sent him everyone he wanted to read: Sartre and Camus, Rexroth and Pound, Henry Miller and many more. We talked a great deal about the Oriental religions. He was very ecumenical. We talked about his situation and why he stuck it out in the monastery. Once I asked, “Tom, why do you stay here? You could get out and be a tremendous success in the world.” He answered that the monastery was where God wanted him to be.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel he was misplaced in a monastery?

LAUGHLIN

He would have been misplaced if he hadn't been so determined to get what he wanted in the monastery—his own hermitage among the hills. He couldn't stand the “social life” in the monastery with all the monks talking sign language, having to go to church six times a day, going to chapter, and making cheese. He finally did persuade the abbot to build him a hermitage. Tom was a shrewd operator. He got out of sleeping in the communal dormitory by learning how to snore so loudly that the other monks got together at chapter and said, “Father Louis has got to leave the dormitory.” So Tom was allowed to use one of the old bishop's rooms. He believed that the old monastic tradition was so strict that it could no longer foster true spirituality.

INTERVIEWER

Robert Lowell has complained that Merton's poetry is soft; yet you have made a case for Merton as one of the underrated poets, especially in terms of the personal epic. Could you elaborate?

LAUGHLIN

He wrote only one personal epic, The Geography of Lograire, which he started about four years before his death. What he wanted to do was obviously modeled on Williams's Paterson, but he executed it very much in his own way. This was going to be the geography of a man's mind and interests based on his reading. He read widely in many fields. Unfortunately, he completed only one volume of Lograire. I was disappointed because it only got two serious reviews. I think it will some day be recognized as one of the big modern poems. What is particularly strong in it, apart from his continually imaginative treatment of his material, is his use of parody and myth, with which he does fantastic things.

INTERVIEWER

What is he parodying?

LAUGHLIN

Anything that came into his head. There's one section called “The Ladies of Tlatilco,” where he's writing about the beauty of the ancient Mexican Indian women; it is almost entirely cribbed from the ads in The New Yorker, for ladies' beauty products and clothes. It's exquisitely funny. He does that often. He will take a text of something he's been reading in anthropology and parody it. With myth he also does extraordinary things, as with the Cargo Cults literature and the stories of the Dakota Indians' ghost dances. He had a great gift for selective condensation from his reading. Pound had this, too. He was able to select the kernel, the core, the colorful detail that dramatizes history. Williams did this in In the American Grain.

INTERVIEWER

In an earlier interview you mentioned, with respect to Merton, that he was able to create an extremely vivid world; you went on to note that most of the great poets were also able to do that. What is the appeal in creating a “world”?

LAUGHLIN

Many people want to get out of the world they're in. They want to get into someone else's world that's more exciting and more interesting. The great poets create their personal worlds. Pound made his diachronic and intercultural world, Williams made Paterson, Robert Duncan is busy making his world, Merton made his in The Geography of Lograire, Hart Crane made his in The Bridge.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any shared element in these various poets' “worlds,” or are they all in a sense idiosyncratic visions?

LAUGHLIN

I think the best poets since Pound have taken something from him. Williams did, even though Paterson is unlike the Cantos, except in elements of its structure. Both are collages, big mosaics, built by association out of memory and reading.

INTERVIEWER

What was it Williams borrowed?

LAUGHLIN

Certain attitudes about how you write poetry and what you think about. Duncan has drawn on Pound. Over the centuries poetry is a continuous process of reformulation and adaptation. At a certain point Eliot and Pound decided that free verse had become squashy. So they read the Bay State Hymn Book, the poems of Théophile Gautier and Corbière; they read the Greek poet Bion, and out of that mix came the strict forms of Eliot's hippopotamus poems and Pound's “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” (By the way, Basil Bunting says that Pound once told him that “Mauberley” was a hoax, inspired by a hoax perpetrated by Samuel Butler. Well, for a hoax it's a great poem.) There is a continual plowing up of old poetic ground, from which elements are given new life. Poets have this instinct to seek forebears, to seek ancestors. Yet they want to be new, to do their new thing, to “make it new,” as Ezra said. Pound was constantly drawn to the past, picking out from the past what he thought was “the live tradition.”

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to have Delmore Schwartz working for you?

LAUGHLIN

Delmore, again, was one of the great talkers, particularly as a parodist. He was a marvelous mimic and fantasist and confabulator. He didn't do a great deal of work at New Directions. He put much of the work off onto his wife Gertrude, except the night the Charles River flooded in Cambridge. Then Delmore had to carry up the books from the basement. But he more than made up for it with his charm. Before he went off his head, he was utterly charming. He was very helpful in reading scripts. He had excellent taste.

INTERVIEWER

Did you realize right from the start when he began attacking you that there was something terribly wrong?

LAUGHLIN

I knew that he was ill and arranged to have him go to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist didn't do him much good. It became clear that he had a problem, and all his friends knew that. There was increasingly difficult and quarrelsome and eccentric behavior. I guess he was paranoid.

INTERVIEWER

You've mentioned several times in the past that you think Henry Miller is underrated. By way of developing the case for Henry Miller, could you offer some detail on what you value so highly in his work?

LAUGHLIN

One problem with Miller is that he wrote so much you must pick and choose to get at the best. Tropic of Cancer is a marvelous book. Did I tell you how I got to know about Henry? One day I was having lunch with Ezra in 1935 in Rapallo, and he threw a paperback across the table. “Well, Jas, here's a dirty book that's pretty good.” I wrote to Henry and we got into correspondence. I arranged to do a selection of his pieces called The Cosmological Eye. When Miller is good, he is very good. Probably his best book is The Colossus of Maroussi, the one about Greece. But he wrote many fine shorter pieces. You'd have to go through and sort them out.

INTERVIEWER

Isn't this the case with Gertrude Stein? You've described changing tires and rewriting copy to try to help her present her lectures in the States. But later things seemed to change quite a bit. You said in several interviews that you were afraid she wasn't moving on.

LAUGHLIN

I don't think that she did move on from her remarkable early work. She got deeper and deeper into automatic writing, which she was beginning at the time I worked for her. Automatic writing is a dead end. You go on writing “automatically” and what do you write? If you look at those later books that Yale published for her after she gave them her papers, they're pretty boring.

I used to watch Gertrude at it. That summer I spent in Savoie writing those press releases for Lectures in America, I'd watch her sitting in a bath chair on her terrace with a big notebook, writing just as fast as she could, the pen flying, no pauses whatsoever. No rewriting. And then Alice B. Toklas, sweet person—well, not all that sweet, sort of sweet—would be given these notebooks to type out. Her best work came early: Three Lives, Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, parts of The Making of Americans, Portrait of Mabel Dodge. Four Saints in Three Acts was beautiful, and some of the other plays, the opera plays. She really needed someone like Virgil Thomson, whom she respected, to sit on her a bit and make her devise some plot. In the automatic writing pieces there's no plot movement; they just roll on and become tedious.

INTERVIEWER

What's your feeling now about her importance?

LAUGHLIN

What's interesting is that now so many of the younger writers are reading her seriously, people such as David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, and Robert Duncan, among others. I think this indicates that something significant is there. Then, too, Williams was so much influenced by her. Those two essays he wrote about her. It's clear if you read Williams's Improvisations that he had been profoundly influenced by the work of hers which he saw in Alfred Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work. This doesn't come out in Williams's autobiography because Gertrude and Floss Williams had a fight. You know how Gertrude and Bill broke up? One evening at her place in Paris she took out a big stack of her manuscripts and asked Bill what to do with them. Bill replied in his “Billyums” way, “I'd pick out the best one and throw the rest away.” This was an impossible thing to tell Gertrude, who believed her every word was Great Art. Alice B. Toklas showed the Williamses to the door.

INTERVIEWER

Many times you've talked about how you met Tennessee Williams, but could you comment on why you think so much of him as a poet?

LAUGHLIN

He's a wonderful romantic poet. He comes right out of romanticism, and no one else has done that kind of thing so well recently. He has beautiful imagery. His line is perhaps a little loose, but he's a fine poet. I think that if he hadn't written his great plays, he'd be more recognized as a poet. Some of the poems have wonderful humor, such as “Life Story.” The poem about his sister Rose (the Laura of The Glass Menagerie), “The Paper Lantern,” is a little masterpiece.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think his poetry is good enough that readers will begin to recognize him as a poet?

LAUGHLIN

His poetry was swamped by his being such a famous playwright. Readers tend to pigeonhole writers. He was a magnificent story-writer. There are few story-writers today who touch him for pure narrative drive, psychological penetration, and that lovely fantastic, light, self-mocking style.

INTERVIEWER

Dylan Thomas. What was your relationship with him like?

LAUGHLIN

It was difficult, because he always wanted to drink. I went on one bender with him in London which lasted for two days and three nights. We ended up sleeping on the floor of some lady's apartment and neither of us knew who she was. He always wanted to drink, but I'm not such a great drinker.

INTERVIEWER

Did his drinking get in the way for you?

LAUGHLIN

Yes. When he came to New York he'd come in the office at ten o'clock in the morning and say, “Let's go to the White Horse Tavern.” I'd say, “Dylan, I've got work to do.” So he'd go off to the White Horse and meet various cronies and sycophants. Sometimes I'd join him late in the evening. He was a sad case, Dylan; he was basically a nice person, and when he started boozing he was very amusing, but he would never stop; he'd go on and on. It's very hard to get close to a drinker. There was always that thing between us, the boozing. He was a great talker, too; he was a wonderful talker, but I had work to do. When Dylan drank he wanted people to be with him, to listen to him. It was a method of attracting people. But he was very indiscriminate about whom he would attract. He had a bunch of hangers-on in New York, such as that jerk Oscar Williams, who were crumbs. That was a barrier, because he'd be with such crummy characters. You couldn't really have a conversation with Dylan when he was drinking. It wore me down. John Davenport had a good name for Dylan. He called him “Old Messy.” He was. He was messy because of the drinking. You couldn't count on him. If you wanted to do something you couldn't count on his turning up sober or on time.

INTERVIEWER

How about your relationship with Kenneth Patchen?

LAUGHLIN

Kenneth I knew very well. He and Miriam worked here in the Norfolk office. I was deeply fond of them both. I was sorry for him; he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about life. He had those big sad brown eyes. He had unendurable pain from his bad back. He was sometimes difficult to work with. He was a most conscientious employee, but as a writer he could be difficult to work with because he wanted to design his own books, and he wasn't that good a designer. His layouts were a bit heavy-handed.

INTERVIEWER

Did you get along pretty well with him?

LAUGHLIN

Except for a few arguments. When we did the Collected Poems there was a fuss because he'd written so many poems. If we'd included all of them it would have made a two-thousand-page volume. We argued over what length the book could be and what should go into it. He was mighty unhappy about that. But it just wasn't practical to do a two-thousand-page book. His public, mostly young people, couldn't have bought it. And he was uneven. Some poems were very good and some were not. I thought that I was doing him a favor by cutting out the repetitive poems.

INTERVIEWER

What attracts you to Denise Levertov's work?

LAUGHLIN

For me, she's the best of the organic form poets. She has that so important ability that Williams had: she knows where to end the line. Very few poets know where to end the line. This is terribly important in free verse. Pound had it. His finest free verse is in the “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” He knew where to end or break the line. And so does Denise.

INTERVIEWER

Is that something she's had to work at?

LAUGHLIN

Yes. Her first book, The Double Image, was somewhat in the vein of the so-called New Romantic School in London— rather conventional, not very original in technique. Then she married Mitch Goodman, an American GI, came to this country, and began reading Williams. Almost immediately she figured out from Williams how to write good free verse. Her two early American books sounded much like Williams's voice. She was beginning to learn his technique, but the voice was what colored them. Then when she found her own voice, when she was completely herself, she became terribly good. One thing that I admire so much in Denise is her social commitment, the way she goes to jail for things that she believes in and climbs over fences to picket nuclear plants. This is admirable. Carolyn Forché has the same dedication.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of her discipline as a poet?

LAUGHLIN

She constructs her poems with the greatest care. Listen to the sound patterns of her lines and look at the way the lines are placed on the page. She is a superb technician. She makes it sound free and easy. But you examine it and you'll see it isn't. It's very disciplined, very carefully done. I think a time comes when poets find that discipline becomes almost spontaneous. The line arrives in their heads in the shape and form they want.

INTERVIEWER

What is it that “rings the bell” for you with Gary Snyder's work?

LAUGHLIN

The limpidity of it; his sure, good technique; the mixture of thought content with human examples. Most of his poems are about a subject, but he will bring in persons to illustrate what he's talking about.

INTERVIEWER

Have you developed a fairly close personal relationship with Snyder?

LAUGHLIN

We write back and forth. We visited him once at his place in the Sierras and had a fine time. The little house that he built is a mixture of Japanese and Indian (American Indian) style. We met his nice Japanese wife and his two boys. He's a happy person to be with. Maybe it's his Zen training. He has a deep spiritual quality, but without any pretension. There's no pretension about Gary at all. He's one of the people I feel really has a soul. Gary is a charismatic figure. His ecological work is so important. I sometimes wish he would sacrifice his private life a bit to be more a public figure. He is such a good speaker and so charismatic that he could have wide popular influence if he would become, not a politician, but someone like a Ralph Nader, working to save the earth.

INTERVIEWER

Does this statement about Snyder fit in with your notions from way back about the poet as leader?

LAUGHLIN

He is a leader already. His books are widely read. But he could do more. He did make an attempt when Jerry Brown, the former Governor of California, put him on his Arts Council. I haven't seen Gary since then, and I don't know how much he was able to accomplish. But that is the sort of thing I'd like to see him do more of.

INTERVIEWER

There seems to be an unusual consistency in the quality of the personal relationships you've had with many of your writers. Do you have any sense of why you're able to maintain those relationships, even though you don't see these authors very often?

LAUGHLIN

I write to them occasionally and see them when I can. I hope they feel I'm someone they can turn to if they need something—advice or attention or a loan.

INTERVIEWER

Sounds as though you're returning to Pound's dictum—do something useful. Is that something you do instinctively?

LAUGHLIN

It's instinctive. You like someone, and you do what you can to help him out. I don't make anything of it. I've just been lucky to pick authors who happen to be great people. I look back over the people I've published and I think there've only been two stinkers.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say who these two “stinkers” are?

LAUGHLIN

That would not be in good taste. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

INTERVIEWER

You spent five years working for the Ford Foundation on Perspectives. What effect did your years with Perspectives have on your acquisition of Oriental titles?

LAUGHLIN

I met Raja Rao in Trivandrum and was greatly impressed with him. He's a remarkable writer and a true Vedantist. He put me on to his book Kanthapura, which is perhaps the most authentic novel of South India. Kanthapura carries on the tradition of village oral literature in India, which goes back thousands of years. Most of the population there couldn't read Sanskrit, so they got their religion and history through the village speaker. Raja Rao has picked this up in the narrative voice of the old woman in a typical village. She tells the story of life in the village and how Gandhi affected it. It's a powerful and perfect little book. Then I met the Frenchman Alain Danielou, the brother of the Jesuit Cardinal Danielou. He had gone to India as a young man and had become a Hindu. He was living, when I first knew him, in a tiny palace on the banks of the Ganges in Benares. I liked him immediately and we've become great friends. He told me about a wonderful old-time Tamil classic, the Shilappadikaram, The Ankle Bracelet, a beautiful mythic novel of early Chola days. He had already translated it into French. He's perfect in English, so I persuaded him to retranslate it into English. It is certainly one of the most important Indian books that I have published.

INTERVIEWER

Had you intended to concentrate so heavily on Asia?

LAUGHLIN

No, that came along later. The original project was to do Perspectives in four languages: English, French, German, and Italian. There'd been a big gap during the war when nothing cultural from America came to Europe, and the magazine was planned to fill that gap. We had articles on architecture, art, philosophy, etc., and, of course, stories and poems. The idea was to give a catch-up course in recent

Vladimir, Dmitri (now a famous opera singer), and Vera Nabokov at the Paul Keysers' (JL's first in-laws) swimming pool in Salt Lake City in 1965. That summer, Nabokov and JL climbed Lone Peak in the Wasatch Mountains in search of a rare butterfly often found circling the summit. Nabokov caught two with his butterfly net. On the descent, the two climbers began sliding out of control down a freezing snowslide towards a cliff edge. Nabokov managed to bring his net down over a rock as he slid past; the rock held, and Nabokov, with JL hanging onto his leg, kept the two from going over. The two laboriously cut steps into the ice with a pocketknife Nabokov was carrying and managed to reach safety.

American culture. Then later the Indian project got started. They sent me out there to work on the Indian Southern Languages Book Trust, which I set up and which was a glorious flop, because the Indians had trouble doing distribution in a businesslike way. At the outset, Perspectives was all “outflow” from the U.S.A. Then we decided that since cultural exchange should be a two-way street we must have some “inflow,” presenting the culture of other countries. To do that, rather than try to set up our own magazine with all the expense of building a circulation, we rode piggyback on the Atlantic, courtesy of Ted Weeks. Ted gave us forty-eight pages at the back of the magazine. They paid for the printing and distribution, so all we had to do was get the material together. We did nine of these special supplements. I edited the Perspectives of Burma and Germany and had a wonderful time in those countries.

INTERVIEWER

Do you continue to be able to draw the Oriental titles?

LAUGHLIN

Bob MacGregor, my former managing director, was the one who thought of reprinting the Irving Babbitt translation of The Dhammapada. It's one of the basic scriptures of Buddhism. We've not done much Orientalia recently— though there is a collection, called Rasa, of the essays and translations of a curious and very interesting Frenchman, Rene Daumal. Ferlinghetti published his beautiful little symbolic novel, Mount Analogue. Rasa is a strictly scholarly book, but it appealed to me very much because of my interest in Oriental religion from the time I'd spent in India and also the two years I spent working on Merton's Asian Journal, when I had to read, in order to verify his texts and quotations, so many Buddhist and Hindu sacred books.

INTERVIEWER

Your eyes seem to light up when you start talking about some of the German literary figures. Is there something about German literature in general that attracts you?

LAUGHLIN

I should say first that I find German very difficult. It's a language that I've never been able to master; the abstract words all sound too much alike to me. But I read a lot of Goethe and Schiller when I was in Harvard. I was crazy about Hölderlin, Kafka, Rilke, Celan, and Kleist. Kleist is one of my favorites. I think The Prince of Homburg is one of the great plays of world literature.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had much personal contact with your foreign writers? Michaux, for example?

LAUGHLIN

Michaux I knew when I was living in Paris. I loved Michaux. I was brought to him by Richard Ellmann. Ellmann translated a selection of his poetry for New Directions. And we did Sylvia Beach's translation of his travel book, A Barbarian in Asia. But then I dropped away from Michaux. I didn't like his drug books. I couldn't understand them. First of all—what was he talking about? And I've never been very sympathetic to the whole idea of drugs. Michaux became annoyed with me when I didn't take on those books. However, he seems to have forgiven me and we'll be doing his little book on Chinese ideograms. This is the book Pound wanted to translate in his old age but hadn't the strength.

INTERVIEWER

Céline?

LAUGHLIN

Céline I met. I once went out to see him when he was living in Meudon, an industrial suburb of Paris near the Renault plant. He had a small house, and outside it there was a high barbed-wire fence. He had two very fierce dogs that barked at me when I rang the gate bell. He had to come out and tie up the dogs. This was because Denoël, his publisher, had been murdered on a street in Paris. Denoël had been a collaborator, too. Céline was rather paranoid, but he was friendly to me. I had had contact with his wife, who was a ballet dancer. While they were in exile in Denmark during the war, she couldn't get ballet shoes for her practice. So she used to write to me and I'd go down to Capezio in New York to buy her ballet shoes and airmail them over to her.

INTERVIEWER

That's an interesting publisher service.

LAUGHLIN

She went through a lot of ballet shoes.

INTERVIEWER

Outside Europe, where are the strongest concentrations of writers?

LAUGHLIN

Latin America.

INTERVIEWER

Do you locate most of your foreign writers through contacts with individuals in the country?

LAUGHLIN

It varies. There's no general plan. Many manuscripts come to us from translators who are professors in American colleges who've gotten interested in a given writer. But others come on the recommendations of French or Italian or German publishers with whom we're in touch. Others come on the recommendation of writers we've published.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier we talked about some of the problems foreign writers have and Helen Wolff's comment that the foreign writers often do not get the reviews they need. Do you have any ideas about solutions or ways of going at the problem?

LAUGHLIN

No. American reviewing is hopeless. I think that Harvey Shapiro at the New York Times did his very best. He tried to be evenhanded and review all different kinds of books, but there are just too many. Generally speaking, there aren't enough places where reviews of serious writing appear. The New York Review of Books is good but can't cover much with such long reviews. There's also the space problem. The newspapers don't want to give space to an industry which doesn't advertise much. New York publishers usually confine their advertising to the New York Times and three or four other papers. So papers that don't get advertising won't give space for reviews. The good thing about the London Times Literary Supplement is that, except for the lead article, they keep their reviews short. Thus they can get in reviews of fifty or sixty books. That means exposure for many titles.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote admiringly in the thirties and forties in the New Directions anthology of the “pure” writers. Who are the pure writers today who are refusing to betray their genius?

LAUGHLIN

Jack Hawkes, Walter Abish, Raymond Carver, Jerry Rothenberg, Annie Dillard, Russell Haley, and a good number of others. They're doing their new things, paying little attention to whether the books sell or what the critics say about them. I think Abish's How German Is It is a very “pure” book. I always tell the New Directions writers, “Don't read your reviews.”

INTERVIEWER

Have you seen direct, negative examples where writers have started paying attention to reviews?

LAUGHLIN

Jack Hawkes reads his reviews. Sometimes he'll call me up, upset by a review. I tell him, “Jack, do your thing. Don't pay any attention to those bastards. How often does a good enough critic review your work so you're going to learn anything from him?” Many critics talk about themselves and then give very superficial opinions about the work. We don't have many Edmund Wilsons around these days. But a writer should pay attention to what John Updike writes. Or to what Hayden Carruth says in his poetry reviews.

INTERVIEWER

How did you happen to come across Kafka's Amerika?

LAUGHLIN

It came from England. Edwin Muir and his wife translated it in England and for some reason Schocken, who publish Kafka here, had not done it.

INTERVIEWER

It's clear that a large number of your acquisitions have come because you've listened to other writers and scholars. Do you think commercial publishers listen enough?

LAUGHLIN

I don't know. Fran McCullough listened, kept her ear to the ground, and then Harper and Row fired her after seventeen years. Said her books didn't make enough money. There are others who listen—Gordon Lish, for example. He reads the little magazines, and he gets around. Bob Giroux must listen because he is our greatest literary editor.

INTERVIEWER

You've said at one time or another that formal discipline is essential for good writing.

LAUGHLIN

There was a period when Delmore Schwartz wrote a sonnet every day. He didn't really like sonnets, but he wrote them for discipline. It certainly helped him. If you look at his best short poems, they're not sonnets, but they're very well structured. So too with Pound. There was a time early on when Ezra used to chant his lines to a metronome, though he gave it up after a while—another way to learn verbal discipline and control.

INTERVIEWER

What role has creative writing played in your own life?

LAUGHLIN

From boarding school on I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to go into the family steel business. I was not then attracted to the academic world, though I am now. I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a story, which won the Atlantic Prize. I won the Story Magazine Prize twice. I was writing unplotted stories and enjoying it and writing little poems.

INTERVIEWER

When Pound advised you in 1935 not to pursue a career as a poet, what was your reaction?

LAUGHLIN

I guessed he was probably right.

INTERVIEWER

Had you had your own doubts before he said what he did?

LAUGHLIN

No. I was trying. But I knew I wasn't turning out much that was up to his standards. I showed him my things. He'd mark them all up and tell me what was wrong with them. I wasn't much surprised that he told me to become a publisher, not a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever regretted allowing that exchange to lead you into publishing and in the process to minimize the amount of time for your own writing?

LAUGHLIN

No, because I don't think, to put it very simply, that I was ready in 1935 to do my later kind of poetry (which is quite different from what I was writing when I was with Pound). And when I was ready to do it, Bill Williams encouraged me. The new metric began to work for me, but it was entirely different from what Ezra had seen.

INTERVIEWER

Your self-imposed guidelines are visual, but the force of the American idiom comes through.

LAUGHLIN

That comes from Williams. The cadence in my poems is a natural-breath, American speech cadence. But to get tension I manipulate the line lengths.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever wished that you had more time to write?

LAUGHLIN

I'd like to. I'd write more stories if I could think up plots. I've written a few lectures about the work of Pound and Williams which I “perform” at colleges. A friend has persuaded me to start on a book of literary recollections. In New Directions 45 we included a story from my “Paris period” called “The River.” Reprinting it was pure sentimentality and nostalgia.

INTERVIEWER

It's a nice story.

LAUGHLIN

It's a tribute to and an imitation of Gertrude Stein; it uses her repetition. No plot; nothing much happens. A mood piece. But in my poems I try to make things happen quickly. They all come to me from somewhere in space (or my subconscious?); they arrive whole. So I don't need much time to write them. They arrive in my head in the cadence of colloquial speech; the beginning and end are there. Then I need only type them out and tailor the lines to nearly equal lengths in each couplet. I'm a “typewriter versifier.” We are typewriter, and now word-processer, people. Occasionally if a word won't fit the pattern, I'll have to find another one which sounds the same but is longer or shorter to replace it. I know this sounds crazy, but for my ear and eye it works. “Cal” Lowell once wrote in the Hudson Review that I learned this bizarre metric from Williams. In fairness to Williams this should be corrected. He was a master of visual patterns, but he never counted typewriter characters.

INTERVIEWER

You seem ambivalent about the publication of your poetry and writing, but you have continued to publish all through the years.

LAUGHLIN

I put out five tiny poetry books—all privately printed— and I've sent out poems to magazines. Then Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Robert Fitzgerald persuaded me to have a commercial book with City Lights. It is called In Another Country. I wouldn't have done it if Fitzgerald hadn't agreed to make the selection of poems for it. I didn't feel confident in my own critical ability to make the choice.

INTERVIEWER

In the Festschrift that Conjunctions did for you, an impressive array of well-recognized poets said your poetry should get more attention.

LAUGHLIN

That was very kind of them.

INTERVIEWER

Denise Levertov said, “Laughlin hasn't given himself the pleasure that one should derive for poetry well-wrought, and his is well-wrought poetry.”

LAUGHLIN

Denise, bless her, has been a great fan. Another friend who often urges me to write verse is Hayden Carruth. Marjorie Perloff has been encouraging me. She likes my love poems. And Aleksis Rannit and David Gordon help me. But poetry for me has always been just a hobby, for personal satisfaction, and I'm quite content to keep it that way.

INTERVIEWER

Does the prospect of attention beyond your circle of close friends bother you?

LAUGHLIN

I'm always nervous when I do poetry readings. The verse is so eccentric and so personal. Brendan Gill once said to me (he had read something of mine): “You have a pretty hard time, don't you?” I said, “What do you mean, Brendan?” He said, “Sorting out your private and public personalities.”

INTERVIEWER

Is that perhaps the reason you've been reluctant to have it go any further?

LAUGHLIN

I think so. Eliot told someone that when he gave a poetry reading he always felt it was a kind of indecent exposure.

INTERVIEWER

And you feel similarly?

LAUGHLIN

Yes. I feel I'm exposing myself, perhaps because so much of it is love poetry. I wonder what impression people get of what my life has been, writing so many poems about girls. I'm very romantic.

INTERVIEWER

I like the poem called “The Trout.” The image in there, the “blue-blonde trout.”

LAUGHLIN

Trout, the way it's cooked in Europe in those funny pans, comes out blue. The girl in the poem was very blonde, and I just put the two together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have to do anything to provoke the mood in which images come up from the subconscious?

LAUGHLIN

I think they come at a moment when I'm emotionally exhilarated, exalted by something.

INTERVIEWER

In a poem called “Empty Day” you talk about needing to clear the deck of everything before you can start. Did it have to do with getting ready to write poetry?

LAUGHLIN

I don't think so. Perhaps it was a reaction to overwork, being continually under pressure to get out the correspondence or to read the New Directions manuscripts. It was a complaint. I remember that Rexroth placed great importance on giving himself empty days for meditation. He and I were skiing once up at Mineral King, a very remote place in the Sierras. You have to walk in about twenty miles. We made camp there and pitched a tent. Next day I climbed up the mountain on my skis. But Rexroth spent the entire day sitting on a stump in the sun meditating. I could see him from up on the mountain. He never moved all day. He just sat on that stump and meditated. He was taking an “empty day” to think. To contemplate. He was a Buddhist, you know, as well as being an anarchist, though he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. It was his way of purging himself of surface preoccupations.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a poem called “Step on His Head,” in which children step on the shadow of their father's head. Had your children started stepping on your head when you wrote that poem?

LAUGHLIN

No, not at all. They were very little—I don't remember how old they were—maybe four and six. Though the battle between the generations is something that happens in almost every family, even those with the best of intentions to avoid it. I think that's the poem most people like best because it does mean something to them. They've experienced it themselves. Of course, it goes back to that passage in Gertrude Stein, which you probably know, where she begins The Making of Americans. A son is dragging his father through the orchard by the feet. The father is getting pretty beat up. They come to a certain tree and he says to the son, Stop. This is as far as I dragged my father. It's a marvelous opening to a book.

INTERVIEWER

Your demeanor is so gentle, yet a poem such as “The Summons” offers a scathing indictment of war. It's simply not a gentle statement. Do you reserve your anger for special causes or moments?

LAUGHLIN

Perhaps my hatred of war came largely from Pound. That was something he was always talking about—the causes of war and how to stop it. That became deeply rooted in my consciousness. I am enraged by these stupid, useless wars that we keep getting into. There may have been something tolerable about war in Provence when the troubadour knights would ride out in armor—it was like a game—but our recent wars have just been dirty. It's pure destruction. It's everything that Ezra was against. He ends the Cantos: “To be men not destroyers.” I'm angry, also again from Ezra, at our economic system, which I think is ridiculous. It's becoming worse every day because the bankers and politicians continue to pile up debt. That's in my poem “What the Animals Did,” the poem against the conglomerators.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry, then, seems to involve a mix of Pound's drive for the Roman keystone and Williams's drive toward the unique American idiom. Is that a fair statement of where you're headed?

LAUGHLIN

Absolutely. They were the two big influences.

INTERVIEWER

In one of your poems you described a plant as so fragile-looking, yet strong and solid. What's the meaning of that poem?

LAUGHLIN

That would be “The Wild Anemone.” It was the one written to my wife. The wild anemone resists the wind. In the wind the anemone sways so gracefully, but the wind can't blow it over.

INTERVIEWER

What prompted “The Mountain Afterglow”?

LAUGHLIN

I was out at Alta, feeling very depressed about World War II. I watched the mountain afterglow, and the idea came to me. That poem has something I like in the way I used hard consonants for the ending to give the feeling of the rock mountain.

. . . bright
rock and snow fade into
night and night clouds
fold dark on the stars.

That particular evening the afterglow was very red, which made me think of blood. That made me think of war, and then that made me think of Christ's blood, and it all pulled together just from that redness.

INTERVIEWER

You have mentioned elsewhere that you showed up in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift.

LAUGHLIN

Bellow was writing about Delmore Schwartz. It's a very accurate portrait. Delmore was always inventing fantastic schemes. One of them was that he would persuade Bob Hutchins, whom he had met through me, to have the Ford Foundation endow a chair of poetry for him at Princeton. Bellow handles this very nicely. Hutchins is called “Longseth.” There's a good portrait of Hutchins, who was a very debonair man as well as a brilliant one. And I was called “my playboy publisher.”

INTERVIEWER

Why “playboy” publisher?

LAUGHLIN

That came out of the fact that once Delmore sent a manuscript to me at Alta which got lost in the bottom of the mailman's truck coming up the canyon. It was some time before it was recovered. Delmore was very agitated. He said that I would have to decide whether I was going to be a playboy or a publisher.

INTERVIEWER

Are you amused by that portrait in there?

LAUGHLIN

Very much. I think it's funny and very well done.

INTERVIEWER

Hayden Carruth has said that he suspects you have a lot of unpublished poetry and stories hidden away in a file drawer somewhere. Is he correct?

LAUGHLIN

No. I've thrown away the poems that didn't work out, and most of the others are either embalmed in my little early books or have been in magazines. As for stories, I haven't written any since college days, so most of them are in the Harvard Advocate or Story Magazine. That's a long way back. But recently something strange has happened. At my age one doesn't normally branch out in new directions. I have begun to try two, for me, new kinds of writing. First there are poems in the tradition of the macaronic. These are poems written in, or quoting from, more than one language—English and Latin, English and Italian or French, or all four mixed— where the intention is to have the languages “work” on each other. Obviously, this comes from Pound's polylingualism and his ideogrammic method of incongruous (or congruent) juxtaposition. Then, from both Pound and Williams, I have been writing “collages,” abandoning my old short, visual pattern lines for a long, prose-cadence line. These sometimes come out as verse and sometimes as little prose-poetry paragraphs. The idiom is a mixture of colloquial and more elevated language. Again, the two tones “working” on each other. These are memory poems: my memories of others and memories of how their lives affected mine. And they are heavily studded with quotations from the work of earlier poets which comment on and illuminate the relationships. I hope these writings are not parodies; I don't so intend them. I mean them to be tributes, and, more than that, expressions of my gratitude to the poets who have done so much for me: Pound, Williams, Eliot, and many others.

 


Author photograph by Dorothy Alexander.