ROBERT GIBBONS, Author of the LABORS IN VINEYARDS OF DESIRE
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
What comes to mind in this age of COVID-19 for a writer in greater exile than ever, having lived in four different residences in the past four years, is the importance of correspondence in my life. In the autobiography I express a wish that I’d kept what I wrote to Guy Davenport to sustain his interest during our correspondence between 1987-2003, & yet just last year I was made aware that hundreds of items sent to him, letters, poems, & ephemera are kept in his archive at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. (The first 350 items from the first 3 of 5 boxes have been copied & sent to me.) Over the years my dependence on friendship & creative dialogue via snail mail & email with Peter Anastas in Gloucester; Bill Heyen, Brockport, NY; Marilyn Crispell, Woodstock, NY; Bent Sørensen, Denmark; Ben Bollig, Oxford UK, David Anfam, London; and most recently David C. Driskell, here at his studio in Maine & home in Maryland, have been indispensable to my life as a writer. But relationships in letters present their own form of precariousness: Guy passed away in 2005; Peter died on his mentor Charles Olson’s birthday on December 27th 2019; & the virus took David Driskell from us on April 1st of this year, making me value the importance of this ongoing correspondence all the more.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
My first poem of any worth was written by hand while sitting on the back edge of a green van with doors swung wide open parked down the road in Napa Valley outside one of the wineries with its gates locked. It’s untitled, yet dated 1971, nearly 50 years ago now. First poem in my book Below California, Below This. It’s alluded to in this autobiography, Labors, citing the title coming from a line in D.H. Lawrence’s, The Plumed Serpent, “They say the word Mexico means below this!” The gist of it is a complaint that as we rode along up there, having left Los Angeles a week earlier, in order to secure a spot without reservations at various campgrounds we’d have to get there early. Wineries along the way didn’t open back then till afternoon. Hundreds of pairs of doves spoke to us, while it seemed the roads themselves said nothing. I was forced to say that this nothing to drink quenched our thirst.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
The title of my autobiography, Labors in Vineyards of Desire, is based on the sole painting ever sold during Van Gogh’s lifetime, The Red Vineyard. First shown in 1890 at the annual Les XX exhibition in Brussels & purchased by Anna Bock for 400 francs. I’d already been enamored of the piece for multiple aesthetic, historical, & personal reasons, when after a reading of mine at a bookstore in Gloucester, Mass with then Atlantic Monthly Poetry Editor, Peter Davison, a man named Jim Lynch introduced himself, & invited me to his house two doors down from Olson’s former apartment on Fort Square. It was there that I met his wife, Irina Borisova-Morozova Lynch, then Head of the Russian Department at Wellesley College. She bowled me over with her story that The Red Vineyard ended up on the walls of her grandfather Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin’s estate, which later became the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It seemed like a miraculous dream of coincidence, & every time I visited, or if we all went to dinner, never failed to ask her to retell the sequence of provenance.
The impetus for writing the book itself must have had numerous underlying causes I’m no longer aware of, but one thing puzzled me, something I thought perhaps tracing my origins back to the beginning I might solve. Here I’d been writing & publishing for over forty years, & never once wrote about my mother. A real enigma. So the book begins with her crying on the sidewalk in Salem with me in her arms, unconscious again because, according to the doctor in Boston, infant braincase had not closed. However, it takes another almost 200 pages in the book before I say to my wife, “Today I’m going to write about my mother.” “That’s a first,” she replied. With Jung’s help, & sudden dream processes I began to peel back layers to unravel the mystery.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
It took 14 weeks to write & cobble together Labors in Vineyards of Desire. Method is of great importance to me. Mine rose out of the difficulty in my twenties to reconcile the balance between my desire to write & the inability to write. I never took any writing classes other than a couple of creative writing courses as an undergraduate, where the teacher once commented on my work that, “These are publishable.” That’s all I needed. I’m self-educated in that sense. Gary Snyder points out that language is learned at home & in the fields, not school. Olson, whose work I studied for 20 years harped on method. Kerouac’s spontaneity & Jazz improvisation are huge influences. I write quickly & a lot! Rarely revise, if ever. In Labors I allude to the fact that a correspondence burgeoned between then Poetry & Fiction Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Janus Head, Claire Barbetti & myself, wherein we might have shared as many as 10 emails daily! I trace that as the habit/root/source of my later published online Log, in which I wrote, & webmaster posted, work daily for two years & two days, the first year & a day published in book form as Travels Inside the Archive, 2009.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I doubt it. But my habit may differ from someone’s need to feel they have to get something down, or a certain number of words. Back to the relevance of Labors in Vineyards of Desire as others see it: say Ben Bollig at Oxford University, who interprets the volume as “the story of an ethics of writing,” or Richard Hoffman, whom I quote within the text saying that I don’t write just for the sake of another poem. Those views are crucial to me. It reverts back to the notion of method. One example is the discovery of the work of Julia Kristeva in Paris in 1986 (I had the pleasure of meeting her at Harvard in 2013) in Desire in Language, where she outlines the source of the chora, from Plato’s Timaeus, as an internal entity similar to an amphoric vessel, or womb, containing nothing other than preverbal reverberations. She goes on to examine what might lift that silent noise into words. It’s her notion of a cathexion, or an erotic charge that is the tongue within those enclosures that sounds the bell into words. I wait for that event with heightened senses, & not until that validation arrives, near electric, do I trust the phrase or sentence I put down.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
My previous book, Animated Landscape, began as a collage sketchbook. I’d just spent 7 grueling months writing a long 350-page poem titled, Anatomy & Geography, a work based on the link between walking & the land itself, or if walking on the treadmill in the cellar back then, walking & the imagination. I was spent. But needed to do something creative. So not totally unlike Matisse took scissors to paper & began to fill the grey pages in the Strathmore sketchbook with images based on a maritime theme: living in Portland at the time; memories of Gloucester cropping up; Olson’s & Melville’s work in mind. It wasn’t long before the pages begged for language. As is my wont, I began to dig. The title poem is based on Dean R. Snow’s observations in his The Archaeology of New England, that up the Kennebec River from where I live now, in Solon, Maine, petroglyphs reveal evidence of shamanistic power: birds & phalloi, vulvas & snakes, canoes & dogs, river transport that revealed an early animated landscape. From there I went to Altamira, where young Picasso joined Abbé Henri Breuil mapping the newly discovered contents of the cave. My travels to the cave at Pech Merle in France merged with Olson’s observations of similar latitudes between Gloucester, Mass & the cave at Castillo in Spain theorizing that red-painted tectiforms represented wiki-ups that could have traversed ice-floes by early man between the continents. Other poems examine the landscape of Detroit, then in the midst of bankruptcy; Thoreau in Old Town, Maine recording Penobscot Governor, Old John Neptune saying, “Moose was whale once,” as the animal walked up out of the Merrimack River; or listening to Nina Simone sing at the same time Baltimore blew up with rioting. David C. Driskell later wrote in response to the poem that, “She grew up in Tyson, NC where my father had a church and we knew her as Eunice Waymon, the best gospel singer in Polk County.”
The collage sketchbook verges on a work of art to the extent that I recruited a visual artist to help mount the images as I arranged them onto fabric 80 inches long by 30 wide. We presented two pieces to an audience at the Press Hotel in Portland. I wanted to turn the hanging tapestries into a six-column roofless temple. I told him the next piece would be purely erotic. But my collaborator on the project found my directions too demanding, & abandoned the project at those two separate, isolated pillars.
Additionally, in 2018, I collaborated with the great jazz pianist Marilyn Crispell, who based her Leo Records compilation, Dream Libretto, on my poem, Sound of the Downward.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Dostoevsky first & foremost, The Idiot, how at 18-years-old reading it on my own identified with the utter simplistic naïveté of Prince Myshkin. Symbolic, I imagine of my own ignorance of the world back then, & potential futility of attempting to transform that lack into art in language. Much later, reading how his wife observed her husband standing for two days running in front of Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb speculating that here in Basel one could lose their faith. Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. Rimbaud’s lettres du voyant. Olson’s Archaeologist of Morning. Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination & A Balthus Notebook. Ed Dorn’s Geography; North Atlantic Turbine; Idaho Out; From Gloucester Out; & What I See in the Maximus Poems. Don Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. Rothenberg & Quasha’s anthology, America a Prophesy. William Carlos Williams, everything! Pound, as much as I could take in & try to make my own, but especially his Gaudier-Brzeska: a Memoir. Joyce’s Dubliners. Miller’s Tropic. Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review. Genet’s The Thief’s Journal & The Screens. Proust. Apollinaire. Ponge. Char. Freud. Jung. Benjamin. Read Rilke, but one is not influenced by such a poet = let him be like Rumi. Károly Kerényi’s Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life & Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter.
Kristeva, all. Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing; Rootprints; & Stigmata: Escaping Texts. Duras, all. Akhmatova’s The Complete Poems. Tsvetaeva. Mandelstam. Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text; Mythologies; & A Lover’s Discourse. Derrida’s Of Grammatology; The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond; & Archive Fever. Hemingway. Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose; Windblown World: Journals 1947-1954; Book of Sketches: Proving that sketches ain’t verse, only what is; & On the Road: The Original Scroll. Bergman, scripts, interviews. Godard, scripts, interviews. Cahiers du Cinéma if only I could read them all, instead of just watching as much Nouvelle Vague as I can find of the Criterion Channel. Jean Douchet’s French New Wave. Auteur, Louis Malle. Voyeur, Bernardo Bertolucci. Henry Miller. Roberto Bolaño’s The Unknown University.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
Right now I’m obsessed with film. Quarantine now isn’t far from my usual existence, but offers the chance to feel less guilty as I track down Breathless & Le Pierrot Fou. Last year I tried to make something of Bergman’s Trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly; Winter Light; & The Silence. It’s currently in manuscript as Interstices of Winter: Notes toward a 2nd Autobiography. Incomprehensible, really, at this point, but recently I’ve watched & taken notes on his Port of Call, 1948; Thirst, 1949; To Joy, 1950; Summer Interlude, 1951; & Summer with Monika, 1953. Harriet Andersson stares directly into Bergman’s camera just as Jean Seberg will in Godard’s Breathless after she asks the novelist at Orly Airport what his greatest ambition is, answering: “To become immortal, then die.” In Truffaut’s The 400 Blows the young, abused hero tears the photo still of Monika off the theater lobby wall, & runs away with it. Erotic! I adore that. Image without words.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I don’t think about an audience. Olson speculated that he/we’d be lucky to have five readers. My cast is similar in number, but I don’t write for them, or anyone, other than the call of the blank page, my friend.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Read. Practice. Listen to the chorus of your own internal organs Kristeva calls our “Divinities.”
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
“Start from where I am.” -Charles Olson
How many books do you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
Just like when after spending 7 months reading & writing the 350-page poem Anatomy & Geography, I took to scissors to cut out imagery in order to collage a sketchbook, right now I’m watching more film than reading. Although I recently purchased Tennessee Williams’s 828-page Notebooks in perfect condition for $8 hardcover discarded from Princeton Public Library, digging his constant bitching bout almost everything everywhere!! I can dig it!! Bill Heyen’s new book of verse, Vehicles has come in & I’m enjoying it in relation to my own observations in Labors as the libido & language become vehicles. The above mentioned French New Wave by Jean Douchet. Godard: A Portrait of the Artist by Colin MacCabe. Godard on Godard by Tom Milne. Projections: A Forum for Film Makers, edited by John Boorman & Walter Donahue. The Euro-American Cinema, Peter Lev. Boundaries: Writing and Drawing, Yale French Studies, #84. I keep Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God translated with a fine intro by Anita Burrow & Joanna Macy by my bedside table attempting to read a piece to start the day, along with Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned, which I might pick up at night. Jacques Réda’s, The Ruins of Paris.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
In Labors somewhere I quote Benjamin quoting Goethe wondering if it’s possible for a writer to understand himself & his Time at once? I’ve been obsessed with Time. The jury will take its own good Time deciding.
Remembered by readers, however few? If they can pick it up: subtlety of rhythm.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
This is a question fairly out of my league. My league is as an outsider. My most recent manuscript of poetry is titled, Citizens of the Other World: Boundary-Crossers & Out-Laws. Title is from Hélène Cixous’s, Guardian of Language: “Literature is a transnational country. The authors we read have always been citizens of the other world, border-crossers and out-laws.“If in this interview I can take it back to Labors in Vineyards of Desire, then, the publishing industry was of no use to me after writing the autobiography. I outreached over a hundred agents over a period of a year. One agent in Boston asked to see 50 pages, & passed. Otherwise, no takers. Put the manuscript away. Most publishers won’t look at anything like this without an agent. I wrote other things. Then, in 2018 I decided to skip agents & go directly to a publisher. Adelaide was the first publishing company I submitted to, & to my surprise Stevan V. Nikolic asked to read it in its entirety. I don’t follow trends. The “industry” itself seems to crank out forgettable books.