Can you tell me something extraordinary?
I made it with a dolphin yesterday.
How was it?
What kind of rock is that on the counter?
It’s a rock, or really more like a chunk of steel, that fell from outer space. I metal-detected it, while wearing a white jump suit on a full moon night – so the local carabinieri would not see me — on the slope of Meteor Crater, south of that corner in Winslow, Arizona. Actually, I bought the meteorite, but I like the story I heard from the thief who sold it. Sometimes I sleep with it.
How does your background in geology and astronomy impact your writing?
It permeates my work, seeps into everything, my lyrics and my prose poems that more directly ponder big space and deep time. It also permeates my being. Light years make sense to me. I helplessly see myself and the world of “now” in a very big context.
Can you discuss your poetic ideas?
I’d like to be able to speak more about the mechanics and mystery of poems and what makes them do what they do, but the necessary vocabulary is not yet in my bones. When I studied geology it took a long time to internalize the basic principles, i.e., time, tectonics, topographic reversal, etc. I am a slow learner.
I embrace paradox. I want music. Of course, my work is informed by my background in science, as well as my varied journeys, conversations with friends, living and dead, and my acquaintance with solitude. I love working on poems after the initial writing. I revise incessantly, probably too much.
A lot of my poems, regardless of subject, begin with rhyme, which I then work on, get rid of, reshape, or generally play with; one way or another rhyme often remains. Music, not rhyme, is of central importance. If rhyme encourages the music, or trajectory (as Luis Lopez calls it,) I embrace it. It was cool to just read Dylan, in the recent Zollo interview
You have an interesting combination of science and art, astronomy and poetry.
Well, my scientist friends think my brain is a bit addled, and my artist friends think I am hopelessly rational. After all, I am a Pisces, two fish connected at the tail swimming in different directions.
What was it like working in Namibia?
I was running an observatory in the heart of the Namib desert. The sky was incredible. Red wine, the southern cross, and Omega Centauri every night. During the days I’d walk precambrian dolomite ridges with cave paintings of giraffes and headless lions. I found 100,000 year old stone tools. I showed the president the stars. I hung out with friends of comrade Mugabe. I drank with bushmen, and white men not far removed from cavemen. I worked with some of the richest people in the world and some of the poorest people in the world. I found most at either end of the spectrum fine human beings and quite friendly. Some were bad drunks.
About that time didn’t you have some kind of a loss of faith, followed by an astronomical epiphany?
Yes. I had been on a mission with my work in the planetarium. I wanted to change the world. I thought all the new information about the universe spoke directly to age-old questions: Who are we? What is this place? Where do we come from? I thought the “work” of the poet, minstrel, storyteller, planetarium guy, was to help the greater populace internalize the new information. If that would take place it could have a great effect on how we behave, interact with each other, conduct business, how we solve our conflicts. Then came 9/11. I became involved in antiwar activities. While I found it a very powerful experience to stand in public and disagree with the actions of my government, I was also disillusioned by the brute dumbness of the war promoters. Also, many of my fellow protesters turned me off with their paranoia and disdain for the U.S. Then came the inevitable stumbling into Iraq. I started to believe that humans will never move beyond war.
I devoted myself to the sky. It was the only thing that made sense. Space is very inhospitable. Why should we expect this life here to be easy? It’s so improbable to be Here at all. What’s wrong with a little bit of stress? War results from stress. Thoughts of deep time and big space lead me to a new, dare I say, Meaning, based on the sheer beauty, wonder, magnitude, and helpless “rightness” of the universe. There are many dangers in this life.
Word has leaked out about some kind of an “organization” that meets at the ranch, all-night revelries, mercurial fires, poetic sacrifice, singing cherubim, etc. Tell us more.
First of all, it’s a ranchette. Our organizational meetings are very generative times. I must direct all other inquiries to commander Robert L. Jones, who can be reached at the Lithic Press.
How do you prepare for a reading?
I listen to “Desolation Row” from 1966, or “Man in the Long Black Coat.”
There is a purity to the delivery… so close to the breath, the voice so attached to and apart from the vehicle—giving it like it is, straight; take it if you want and how you may. The important thing is…the song. As Jack Mueller has written, “…when sound and feeling do the balancing act of poetry successfully, then the poem is… both timely and timeless, individual and collective, etc…”
What have you been reading lately?
I’ve just finished Band of Angels by Robert Penn Warren; poems and a memoir by one of Warren’s students, Tim Murphy; poems of B. H. Fairchild, Olson, Wilbur, Videlock, Pinsky; Gulf Music; Frank Waters; Book of Hopi, Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed. Jeffers comes by in dark times. Walt shows up at dinner time. Stafford stays within reach for difficult nights. Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar is always near. Herodotus is in the living room. Carl Sagan’s in the bathroom. I’m surrounded with books. I’m an osmotic reader, voracious and undisciplined.
Any early experiences of poetry?
My dad was the family poet, writing and reciting poems for the big family gatherings. He made people feel good. I also vaguely recall a poem I wrote, maybe in second grade, about being president… sleeping in king-size beds/with bullet-proof spreads. Walt Whitman has been in my bones from the very beginning—driving over him into south Jersey on the way to Granny’s house by the shore. Whitman was a bridge.
Any plans for the Lithic Press?
Before long, I hope, Lithic will bring out a book of Jack Mueller’s poems entitled, Boxwork. It will be something of a collected works. Jack has incredible piles of manuscripts, like The Budada Manifesto, and The Portolano Poems, that are crying out for publication.
What do you think about when you’re walking in the desert?
Same old stuff… Sky is big, time is long. We are a very young species. Any peace and quiet is a miracle. Everyone is nervous at the water hole. Hope the coyotes don’t get the dogs. On warm evenings I get a strong sense of living in the womb. I give a prayer of thanks that I have lived far from so much natural human cruelty. Then the cliffs flare up—the day dies dark—it gets very quiet, Mars rises in Leo, and I think: It is good.