Jay Passer’s work first appeared in Caliban magazine in 1988 alongside such luminaries as William S. Burroughs, Maxine Hong Kingston, Wanda Coleman and Charles Bernstein. He’s travelled to several countries as well as all over the USA, and survived dozens of jobs in the service industry as dishwasher, barista, soda jerk, line cook, and pizza chef. He is the author of several chapbooks and has work included in three anthologies, most recently Four American Poets from the High Window Press. Passer lives, works, and wanders about San Francisco, the city of his birth.
Previous American Poets
THW1: March 1, 2016
The High Window is pleased to introduce Jay Passer, one of the poets included in our recent anthology, Four American Poets. Here he is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
This transatlantic continuous poetry talk took place on 23rd February, 2017 at 5 pm GMT and 9 am PT. Jay Passer had been awake a couple of hours and was waiting for the conversation to start, the editor had forsaken his usual siesta for a viewing of David Lean’s classic Great Expectations on Film Four (14.40-17.00 hrs)
JP (Jay Passer)
AC (Anthony Costello)
Jay, thank you for agreeing to be a feature American poet for The High Window‘s fifth issue, Spring, 2017. My first question is two questions in one. I want to ask you about place, the place where you are now, San Francisco, which is, like New York, an iconic city with a strong literary identity. And I want to ask you about travel, as I can see from your bio that travel features prominently. How has travel and place influenced you as a writer, as a poet? AC
Really a great hybrid of concepts, travel and place. I’ve always been a walker. I’ve had several cars over the years, mostly for ridiculous reasons that I’ve since rejected. Because people generally are lousy at planning ahead. So they take anything the industrial complex has to offer seriously in the material sense, and comply. You got to go to the store for groceries, or the mall, you got to buy something. But you got to get gas first. It’s devastating. I travelled the US extensively in my 20s, I went cross-country on Greyhound three times, and by car, I can’t really remember, but it was a series of myriad hallucinatory journeys with a lot of talk and sexual tension plus a lot of chemicals. It’s a serious question. I could go on and on like a verbose sort of gibbon about it.
I walk everywhere, which gives me time to think, great sidewalk theater, and access to the details. I explore San Francisco, always finding something new, then again coming across the same old verminous infestation of spirit-lapse you can find anywhere in the industrialized cityscape.
When I write something, though, it has nothing to do with where I am or how I got there, but with the residual impressions. JP
That’s interesting, being influenced by the journey but not at the point of writing. Because then what is written comes out of (subconscious) necessity and is not a cognitive act? Were your travels across the States a version of the Beat journeys? And walking? Walking would qualify you as a European poet! Do you think movement is central to creativity? AC
I’ve always identified with European culture’s ways of life. Since I’ve only ever been to (…) and Amsterdam I prefer coffee in a glass, without that clumsy/gaudy handle. When I was in India, and I was injured after being head-butted by a cow, I pilfered a glass from some rudimentary bar for the chai which was hollered about everywhere and to everyone. The chai sellers couldn’t believe or accept I was actively bringing my own glass. They’re the same here in the States, except the police don’t give a damn.
What you ask about subconscious necessity, that doesn’t play a part. It is a compulsion. It’s exposure to the elements. I’m hungry. Thirsty. You’re in the way. I tap on the keyboard.
Walking is my main form of keeping fit. JP
The way you describe things is in the now, as if your experiences are poems in the making; actually it sounds as if your life could be a surreal poem. (I am wondering here if you like the work of Charles Simic?) I am interested in the different aspects of travel. When I travelled through New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and south-east Asia I tried to work out what travel was, and what constituted travel poetry. Some wander, some journey, some go on a pilgrimage, some holiday, some go into self-exile, etc. But poetry, particularly, has a long tradition of movement, travel, migration. Perhaps walking is truncated travel, more than keeping you fit? Are you interested in the journeys that other writers make? And who are your favourite poets?
(ps…I run over hills in the Pennines, and it is more to do with compulsive keyboard tapping than fitness. It is social, psychological, physical and spiritual. Helen Mort, the English poet often composes poems when running long distances and John Burnside writes poems in his head (20-30 lines memorised) on the hoof – as did James Dickey.) AC
Simic is good, I remember one poem about death, how hard death works while ordinariness prevails all around him. To be honest I don’t have much of a stomach for most poetry. It’s not that I feel it’s just bad stuff, more that it bores me, people trying so hard to impress. There’s maybe one in a million that can pull it off. And usually that one doesn’t even write.
As for travel I’ve been to Israel, India, Guatamala, Mexico… but I’m certainly not a tourist. I don’t care about the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. I let the agenda for the day unfold on its own, organically you might say. India made the strongest impression on me. Indians simply have an alternate perception of time, which attracts me. The city of Varanasi is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to. I stayed there for two weeks, and returned for another few days on my return to New Delhi from Kolkata. The antiquity, the vibrant color, the chanting of prayer, the kids flying fighting kites from the rooftops, the terraces, just lush. Streets of pandemonium by day, utter calm by night. I wrote a lot in my hotel rooms, primarily prose. Travel for me is more a prose thing, it’s just too difficult to shove all that information into a poem. Unless you’re Pound or something.
Walking stretches my vision, just being outside with the huge sky and the rich texture and fabric of the city. In San Francisco we have highly vertical terrain, the ocean and the bay, we have Golden Gate Park, which is an oasis when you have to get away from the tumult. I need space around me for my mind to breathe. I need high ceilings. I read somewhere that Rimbaud was a walker, didn’t he cross the French Alps on foot? I suppose it’s not exclusive however; Emily Dickinson was an isolated recluse.
If I had to mention poets and influences: when I was a kid, 14 or 15, I found, literally on the sidewalk, e.e. cummings’s 100 Selected Poems. Like say God dropped it out of the sky. That started it for me. Before that I imagined myself being some kind of a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Tom Waits. But I never really practised guitar enough because back then I was rather indolent, as well as stoned most of the time. Cummings fascinated me with his inventiveness and wordplay and musicality. Out of the Americans of that era, it’s him, W.C. Williams, Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Patchen. Some Europeans: Villon, Baudelaire, Lautremont, Apollinaire, Artaud. Mayakovsky. Tristan Tzara. Max Ernst. Some moderns: Jack Micheline, Bob Kaufman, Frank Stanford, Scott Wannberg.
As I said before, I don’t have much time for poetry. I write it, that’s enough, and a high percentage of what I do I’m ultimately skeptical of. Prose is much more up my alley, and most of the influences on my work have been novelists and visual artists. But there are some who’ve left an indelible impact. Emily Dickinson is a marvel, like perfectly cut jewelry jelling on the page. What I do is caress the page as if I took that third photo of her, the one which doesn’t exist. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, that droll scientist, said it well:
I tell it the way it is
Either we know everything beforehand
Or we never know anything.
The only thing they let us do
is learn to speak correctly. JP
The travel in India sounds fascinating and it is lucidly remembered and beautifully described. Did you publish any poems from that experience? It is interesting that you say travel is made for prose, because that is what I found when I researched travel literature. I sought out poems and poets who travelled and wrote in something other than prose. (I may include it as an appendice to this conversation as it seems relevant.*) Yes, Rimbaud travelled through Europe on foot, Rilke travelled, Germaine Nouveau, Verlaine, Dino Campana (as a vagrant poet), Corso and Langston Hughes. But, yes, there are others who make a virtue or a stand of being at home (Dickinson, Millay, Tomlinson). One quote from Hart Crane that I am probably misapplying, but I think these two lines say something about the travel experience:
Relentless caper for all those who step
The legend of their youth into the Noon (Legend)
Yours is a really interesting mix of poets for someone who isn’t interested in poetry! Before we had this conversation and knowing something of your work from your poems in Four American Poets I figured you might be influenced by Parra (and his theory of the anti-poem – wasn’t Ginsberg influenced by Parra?). In fact looking at some of your work including one of the poems you have sent for this issue of The High Window – ‘Even Goodbyes Have Given UP’ – I can see Parra in the form and intent and tone. Parra a kind of alternative to Neruda if one recalls those famous lines:
burn this book
it’s not what I wanted to say
though it was written in blood
it’s not what I wanted to say …
There is a poetry of protest here and a truth, a truth that might find its expression in the odd or the outsider, in the surreal or even in Dada, maybe in Situationism. Mayakovsy lead such a big life and Dickinson travelled mentally as a recluse at home. Frank Sanford has been mentioned also by Joanna Solfrian and Nicole Callihan, but Micheline I know only vaguely (a San Francisco poet? A street poet who made San Francisco is home?). In Apollinaire and Artaud and in Mayakovsy I can see how these writers were great collaborators, worked in diverse art forms. Do you believe then in a kind of hybrid approach to art, and that poetry can be found in places other than poetry? And is there a poetry scene in San Francisco right now? Do you avoid it!? But what of it? Is there a poet or an artist out there that challenges you or refreshes you? When I was thinking of some of the more well known poets of the past who lived and worked in San Francisco I didn’t come across many women poets, apart from Kim Addonizio who has a small but growing fan club in the UK cemented by her appearance at the Aldeburgh Poetry festival last year. Is this my ignorance? AC
A few of the ‘India’ poems have been taken, one about Howrah Station in Kolkata, a scene I absorbed while waiting for the train, which systematically is 2-3 hours late on any given day. Sharing the platform with cows, monkeys, a guy peeling hot potatoes with his bare hands, men openly urinating onto the tracks. Another, called Me and Kali, describes how I took a couple digital photos in the Kali Temple in Kolkata (which might or might not have been forbidden, I didn’t ask anyone) and upon leaving was saved from an enormous bough being cut off a tree outside the temple that I was walking just underneath; about half a dozen Indians snatched me out from under it. I wasn’t paying attention; walking while looking at the photos. Don’t piss off Kali. I bought them all a cup of chai; they thought it was the funniest thing in the world.
I wrote a good 70-page prose piece weaving the India trip with my 2-month stint in the King County Jail; I had just been released when I went on the trip. Not published however.
As for poets who travel I guess we ought to throw Whitman in there. Yes, some people don’t like traveling though. Bukowski hated leaving Los Angeles.
I felt I had to research somewhat, when I was younger. But the bulk of my reading has been fiction, classics, biography, art history and theory.
Other than Howl and Kaddish I haven’t read much Ginsberg. I admire his photographs however. Parra is definitely one of my heroes. I love his satire and directness, his simplicity, his irony, his restrained volatility. One of my oldest books is Emergency Poems. There’s one in there called ‘Viva Stalin’, where the cops rough him up and take him down to the rail yard, a la Lorca. The difference being Lorca didn’t get out of that one alive. Simplicity, elegance and directness, to me, are essential to the poem. I don’t always adhere, but I try. In this manner, haiku poetry certainly played a role in my development. My first purchased hardcover book, in 1984, was Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. ‘Sick on my journey / only my dreams will wander / these desolate moors.’ Basho was quite the wanderer as well.
Micheline was originally from New York, hung out with all the jazz guys in Greenwich Village and with abstract expressionist painters like Franz Kline and Mark Rothko at the Cedar Club. He moved to San Francisco in the early 60s where he remained until he died on a BART train in 1998. His is the poetry of the street, of song, of protest and vitriol, of rejoicing the spirit and glorying in existence; but also of championing the underdog, tramp, and loser. Apparently he was a vivacious reader; he belted his words out with abandon. He also was a notorious self-publisher. Many of his works have been compiled into great volumes like Sixty-Seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints and One of a Kind. As far as the Beats go, he was the real deal, along with Bob Kaufman.
Collaboration? Absolutely. What keeps me engaged and alert is visual art. I’ve drawn, painted, sculpted and photographed ever since I was a kid. During the 90s when I lived in Seattle I assembled several conceptual art installations which are all now packed in a large Coleman cooler and stored in Tacoma (waiting for my posthumous retrospective). One of my assemblages is called The Game, which I conceived of when I picked up a playing card off the street here in San Francisco in 1988. I resolved to make it into an artwork. I decided to try to find an entire deck. But I made strict rules: if I come across several cards strewn about, I could only pick one. I had to rely on memory to identify missing cards. Friends I explained the project to would always bring me cards they’d found, but that was against the rules. The project was completed in 2005, 17 years later.
There’s a long tradition of poets and writers who’ve also drawn and painted, from William Blake to Kenneth Patchen, who was renowned for his ‘picture-poems’.
There is massive poetry scene in San Francisco which I completely avoid. Litquake, Lit Crawl, Beast Crawl are only a few examples of the several literary festivals that have grown in scale since the late 90s when they were first organized. I can’t stand readings however, and rarely if ever read myself. I went to a poetry slam once and was appalled. It just seemed like a spectacle of shock value, a competition by which the most bombastic and supersonic ultimately reveal a shallow core. I guess I’m more the Emily Dickinson type. I just want to build a house and be left alone. Like Jeffers did on the coast of Carmel.
Some of the female poets that spring to mind are: Daisy Zamora, Kim Addonizio, Daphne Gottlieb, Michelle Tea, Julia Vinograd, Noni Howard, Michele McDannold, Jayinee Basu, Cassandra Dallett. Some live across San Francisco Bay in Oakland, but Oakland very well may have more of a scene these days than The City. I wouldn’t really know, since I rarely participate in the poetry community; I only know these names from having read their work from one time or another. I did see Cassandra read once, she was amazing, and Jayinee is a very lucid and provocative young voice.
Out of my contemporaries, I can name two in particular. One lives in San Antonio Texas. Her name is Misti Rainwater-Lites. She writes poetry and prose and makes collages. Her work is quirky, vivid, revealing and inventive. I envy her work! Another lives in Melbourne Australia, the best confessional poet going in my book, his name is Ben John Smith. He publishes an innovative and provocative e-zine called Horror Sleaze Trash. JP
It is such a privilege to have the authentic (on the ground) knowledge you have just shared revealed within the pages of The High Window. Your rich, stratified and panoptic insight is perfect for the American poet feature. Our readers have the names of poets they might not have otherwise known, but now can seek out. I share some of your antipathy towards poetry readings and the poetry circuit. Nothing beats the idea, words, art, accident, the work itself. I think your interest in art, and your art work, could have a place in your poetry bio, because it seems integral to your writing and who you are.
Well, our two hours (divided by storm Doris here/computer crashing in your hotel) is nearly up. Let us bring this conversation back to you and your work. Your poems have appeared in print from 1988, where your work appeared in Caliban magazine with writers like W.S. Burroughs, and last year in 2016 you were one of four poets whose work featured in an anthology Four American Poets (The High Window Press). Thomas Lux (very sadly recently deceased) reviewed the book. He said and wrote complimentary things about you and your work including that you had ‘a big heart’ and that your poetry was ‘fearless’. And this is true, your poems and titles (‘Sinatra Like a Bulldozer over Paris’) take no prisoners, they have energy and pace and verve, the poems, however studied seem to land on the readers’ ear at a fast spoken pace, as if the mind of the poet was fired up with something important to say. Like an original punk. Somewhere between Isadore Ducasse and Charles Bukowski. So, whatever form your language and thoughts take, keep saying it, Jay, keep doing it at a slant in San Francisco, India and elsewhere. AC
And here are four poems by Jay Passer
at the thrift store
the radio blared Hot Hits as
I went through the books,
found a biography of Rimbaud
whose nickname for his mother
was The Mouth of Darkness
and who said funny things about
the lice living in his hair:
“I use them to flick at priests”
(Previously published in Your One Phone Call)
SINATRA LIKE A BULLDOZER OVER PARIS
In my mind I crowd the world with my tongue
Heroes wield gilt-shining microphones
Geniuses lounge in European cafes sipping absinthe
Wait a minute
As all Europe burns exceptional scientists export nuclear devices
In my mind the grass is black moss of indigested peace treaties
Progress determined by American barrelhouse gag-reels
The film industry gamut on all rational thought deluding intellectualism
And Europe moans like a porno queen chained to the bedpost
I woke up lying on my back in the grass of the park off MLK Blvd.
Kicked awake by a rookie member of the Police Department
Told I was unwelcome I rose to my feet in a swoon
Along the promenade the savant nouveau of my generation
I look to a history of heavenly skies ultimately ablaze
With the push of a button a hot glass of cappuccino
A tiny incision in the temporal lobe a microscopic implant suddenly to appear
Europe Africa Indonesia
NASDAQ, Dow, Oil and Gold
Standards by which merit versus the spiritual are weighed
Velveteen throat a very high dose
The stripe of the skunk painting roads across worlds
(Previously published in 3:AM Magazine)
EVEN GOODBYES HAVE GIVEN UP
the trees are sick of it
the animals are pissed
the land swallows bile
the sky darkens like a slapped face
birds quit singing
volcanoes bow to mere holes in the ground
baseball players sleep till one in the afternoon
priests run after whores
whores run to church
churches surf the net for poltergeists
oceans spit mermaids up onto the beaches
candy canes turn black on Christmas Day
flowers sweat like crack-heads
down on the corner fiendish
pregnant with shark litters
stars cancel their cable providers
blink off one by one
until the constellations resemble not Gods of Myth
but chances missed
it’s the New World
take a seat
Ma’am and Mister
even goodbyes have given up
on train platforms and kissing cousins
(Previously published in Graffiti Kolkata)
OUR BEST AND BRIGHTEST
the come to haunt day or night it matters not
the atom smashers
degree of origin
debris of ocean floors
zip open the sunflower
reveal the handcrafted erosion
of condescending stones
a portrait of romance hung
backwards on the wall
(Previously published in Four American Poets)
* Anthony Costello’s ‘Travel: a theory’ can be read here.