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2004 Writers' Forum
Richard Denner

Richard Denner was born in 1941 in Santa Clara, California. Street poet of the 60s, he was the Poet of the Berkeley Barb. Self-exiled to the Alaskan outback, he graduated from U. of A. in Fairbanks, and in a wilderness cabin began printing chapbooks on a handpress with worn fonts of type; thirty years later, there are over one hundred titles in his backlists. Cowpoke, treeplanter on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens after the blast, longtime proprietor of Four Winds Bookstore and Cafe in Ellensburg, Washingtion, Denner is presently living near Sebastopol, California, and still reading his poems in coffeehouses. Visit his website www.dpress.net
photo credit:
richard denner
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 5, 2004, Richard and Belle discuss personal influences, 'poetry,' pseudonyms, printing & publication, craft, Buddhism, existentialism, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
36:39 / 14.6MB
RD "Hanging J Floating Eye"
[reading follows]
BR




Thank you. I'm here with Richard Denner. Poet, founder, and sole operator of D-Press and maker of beautiful books. I'm very tempted to talk about your books Richard, especially as you just produced a kind of work of art which is your collected works in, I think, nine volumes?
RD

Well, eight volumes in the collection, but I'm working on the ninth volume.
BR





Which is a gorgeous artifact. But, I've sort of promised today to try to stick to the subject of your poems, so let's do that. Although even now I kind of want to ask you about being a cowboy, because, you know, 'the shit is ten feet deep,' and you weren't raised in the country, how did you take to that so naturally?
RD






Well, for many years I lived in the East Oakland Hills, which in those days was a rural area, a few cattle ranches and many horse corrals and stables for horses. My father \had been raised on a farm and he bought a cattle ranch up near Willets, and we ran a few head in kind of a mountain ranch and I learned to kind of build fence, and rope, and we had horses. I was an urban cowboy, a weekend cowboy.
BR


Yeah, I guess you had more of that in your background than I realized until now. Um… back again to poetry. Talk about your influences a little, because I know you're very eclectic.
RD












My first personal influence is a poet named Luis Garcia, a poet I met right after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. The poets that I'd met there were famous. Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Lou Welch, others. I was in awe of them and, they encouraged me to read with the new poets, but I was shy. Right after the conference I met Lou Garcia in the Mediterranean Café and he took me under his wing and it wasn't long before I was wandering the streets with him and reciting poetry extemporaneously. His influence is very profound in my work but I mean of course I've read many of the classic poets from Chaucer, Homer, the Romantics, the Modern American Poets, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound.
BR

You talked about the Metaphysicals when we were talking earlier today as being an early influence.
RD




I was struck by them taking English classes at UC Berkeley. John Donne, William Blake… the profundity of their work affected me, instilled an interest in philosophy as well as literature. And I feel that much of my poetry has a metaphysical bent.
BR

Could you read another poem as an example? I have this poem, "Having Tea With Blake."
RD I'd read that. "Worn to a Phrasl." Okay.
[reading follows]
BR Thank you for that Wuly-Oolong. Thank you Richard.
RD Well there are many poems that I think have this.
BR



Your poems do seem to reflect your sense of your life as kind of a pilgrimage. We haven't even begun to talk about your involvement with Buddhism, which is serious and long term.
RD


Well, to some extent that's a metaphysical subject as well, a psychological subject. I could read a poem from that series. The one called "Tara, Peach Transmission."
[reading follows]
BR


Do you want to talk about the relationship of the Buddhist practice and your poetry? Your poetry is very spontaneous in its feeling.


RD












In the Vajrayana tradition there are instances of spontaneous arising poetry, often in what is known as a 'tsok,' a puja, which is a sort of spiritual feast. There is entertainment and one is often called upon to give a poem and hopefully it rises from emptiness. In some ways, at first I found it difficult in my practice to reconcile the creative process with the process of meditation. Meditation being one of training the mind to relax and the one of writing poetry often is more energetic and so they seem in the long run not to be compatible but there's time for both. And in the years that I've practiced and written poetry I find that they balance and… and some poetry that I write has a more Buddhist flavor to it and other poems perhaps have more secular themes.
BR







You didn't use the word "intensity," I guess [you] used the word "energetic." But I've been thinking lately of understandings and misunderstandings of where the intensity of poetry comes from. Sometimes I would feel I was borrowing intense experience, uh, writing about criminals or writing… and began to question that. And a friend said to me very clearly, that's not where the intensity of poetry comes from, I thought that was interesting.
RD













Of course, William Wordsworth once defined poetry as 'powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.' I've contemplated that definition as one where I've felt that the powerful emotions might be difficult to write in the heat of the moment, although a young poet, the surrealist Arthur Rimbaud, could write in the heat of the moment, and many many poets feel that they can create spontaneously in the moment. But I think Wordsworth had, that there was a certain reasonableness to his view that is not perhaps that one could make notes and then later edit their work, but deeper than that I think that the powerful emotions of an experience are best experienced without the writer entering into it. And that later after it's been integrated into one's being, thoughts arise that are clearer.
BR



Well that sounds very Wordsworthian. But, your poems often seem playful. They have the intensity of concision and a great deal of reflection. But they don't necessarily seem to reflect intense emotions. …Some of them seem casual, like jazz….
RD





No, maybe… and more contemplative. And I don't particularly adhere to the belief that poetry is only made up of intense emotion. I think often it's in the beauty of the words and in the uniqueness of the insight and it can be actually, if I follow the Buddhist path of writing, it can be more contemplative.
BR




You've made a place for yourself as an artist, while pretty much maintaining a place for yourself outside of the mainstream, which is something that we don't see examples of much these days. How have you done that? I mean you seem to have just believed in yourself and done it.
RD




















































Yeah. I think I had a strong wish to be a writer at an early age. Charlie Chaplin, I remember reading him having said, that if he hadn't have found the Tramp that he didn't know what he'd have done with himself. I began as a student to study medicine. This was a track that I was on, pre-med student. And, well, the sixties came along, and Telegraph Avenue lured me to its Cinema Guild and to its Mediterranean Café and to various haunts and of course the drugs and free love and Rock and Roll, so many of the cultural revolutions, it seemed like really the education of the streets was more promising. And my path led me perhaps astray, but I was lucky, I met good teachers. Like, I referred to the Berkeley Poetry Conference, and the people that I met at that time, and in and around that time have remained friends in support of my creative endeavors. And many of the older poets gave me the nod that I had potential. Creeley said that he thought my work was solid. Allen and I met a number of times and we got to travel about and talk, and he was always very kind. So I… later as I came to Buddhism, one of the standard examples are that when a student reaches a certain point the teacher appears, and so by that sense by being able to meet these people at certain points in my life I was given further acknowledgement so that later I could learn to acknowledge myself and wasn't so much in need of their instruction and approval. Also when I was at the Berkeley Conference I asked Gary Snyder about, I had plans to go to Alaska and to make some money and to go back to Berkeley and to start a bookstore. And he said 'well Berkeley really doesn't need another bookstore,' he said 'you really should take the nuts and bolts of what you've learned here and take it to someplace that is in need of this kind of culture.' And after some years in Alaska where I did finish a degree at the University of Alaska, I returned to Washington, my wife of that time's parents lived here, and we lived near Preston, which is near Issaquah, and I worked at Queen Anne, and then while working at Queen Anne I saw a newspaper ad to work on a cattle ranch in Ellensburg. Where's Ellensburg? And so we went over the mountains and found this windy city, and it had a small college and a lovely 19th Century village of brick buildings that needed repair, and we settled down. After a couple of years of working on a cattle ranch I found a small spot on a side street and started a bookstore. A bookstore was just what I wanted. A bookstore and a coffee phenomenon like Starbucks, we distributed their coffee and books and tea and posters and we started a little gallery and there were many artists and we started an arts festival and a literary anthology and friends were on the city council and people were on the architectural review board and we got a historical grant and we all felt like we were somehow living the sixties over again but maybe without Vietnam, so there wasn't… the threat of war. So we kind of found middle ground-like I had lived out in the woods-and we found our roots again.
BR

Well, a way of embodying the social consciousness of the sixties in your real life.
RD





In the real life, and also to be able to do it our own way. You know, I could have my hair long, if I'd hidden around the corner I could smoke a little reefer if I didn't get caught by someone. And there was, the town had a lot of music, a lot of painters, good writers, the community was full of a lot of creative people.
BR




I'm sure a lot of people still remember the Four Winds Bookstore, with affection. Richard, lately, in the last couple of years, you've been writing persona poems, or under a pseudonym… you've got a couple of different names as a writer, is that true?
RD Yeah… six I think
BR Oh six. Tell me their names, what are they?
RD


































Well the first poems that I read, the Buddhist poems, are the Songs of Jampa Dorje, and Jampa Dorje is the Tibetan name I was given when I took refuge. That's not so much a pseudonym as a, a spiritual name. When I first had a computer I discovered chat rooms, and I went to the poetry chatrooms and I was asked to give a nickname, and I happened to have a copy of Artaud's anthology, or Theater and It's Double was sitting on my desk so I just typed in Artaud. And then, as I got to be known as Artaud I wrote some, well, what you've called forgeries, such as the Artaud Anthology, in which I had myself photographed in the same positions as Artaud and had drawings made as Artaud, and made poems in the dark mysterious insane way that Artaud could do. Nothing quite as great, but still… I enjoy acting and getting into a character. In Tantric Buddhism we do a lot of characterization and incarnate as tutelary deities. But, when I was introduced to Pessoa, a Portuguese poet, a modern, of the earlier part of the 20th Century, I was struck by the whole pantheon of characters he had created. And it struck me that, in some ways, I had been writing poems in personas, even though I felt these personas were myself but they were like aspects of my own personality. Again, in Buddhism we're always attempting to deconstruct our ego, and I thought, well, here and throughout the years I have written this more metaphysical kind of poem, a poem that simply observes, and then I've written poems of love, seductive poems. I've written poems of a psychological nature, poems of a political nature. If I collected some of those together and gave them new names, much as Pessoa had, and created little biographical sketches for them, I could… present these, perhaps online… posit them. I think after having written eighty books of poetry it was not so important that my own name be on these books, and that it was an attempt to distance myself and look at myself in a new way.
BR Tell me some of the other names.
RD
















Well, there's Luis Mee. Luis is somewhat of a tip of the hat to my dear friend Luis Garcia. I spelled it in the way that it's spelled in Portuguese. The Mee is like a "me" with two e's. There's Jubal Dolan. Jubal Dolan was the name of a gunslinger I saw on an early television program when I was just a teenager and for some reason the name stuck with me, I liked it, it had a sort of religious sound, like Jubilation. And I've used him as a character's name in a number of short stories, so I thought, well, he should write short stories as well. Then there's Bernard Pécuchet. Bernard Pécuchet is a little different than these individual characters because he's more of a critic. Of course there's the novel by Flaubert, Bouvard, and Pécuchet, but they're both… idiots, and so I thought if I put them together I could have half and idiot, at least. And Bouvard seems to have quite a diverse… like belle lettres, he's written letters, he's written most of a novel, he writes criticisms of other novels that don't exist.
BR He's quite an intellectual.
RD


Yes, he's an intellectual. And he with the aid of the babel fish in the computer can translate poems into many languages.
BR

Are we going to have a collected works of each of these characters?
RD
















Each of these writers? Well, each of them so far have at least one book, some two. Some prose, some criticism by one. A book of essays by Luis Mee on the "Red Wheelbarrow." And then... Each has their own book and then I have one selected book called Denner and Company, much like the classic book by Pessoa called Pessoa and Company. I believe it's by Harper Row. So there is the collected of the selected works of each. But then these interests fade with time and once I've reached a certain level of completion something else will evolve. We weren't going to talk about the books, but in some ways the writing and the books at this point are so intertwined. The book is a kind of process of the way I write. I start with a template and I find a cover and a title. Or I begin to put some poems onto the page, in a certain order, and feel I'm gonna go for sixteen pages and then poems start to... maybe I draw a poem from the past and a new poem arises.
Now, actually a new persona in a way has evolved. I've been working with David Bromige, who's an English poet who taught at Sonoma State University for twenty years, is retired. And he and I are collaborating on a group of cantos called Spade, under the name Richard Bromige and David Denner. So in this way we're fusing our styles and our approaches to poetry and blending them into a kind of a mock epic.
BR

Yeah, well this is unheard of, it's almost never done, I mean I can't think of a time when poetry is written jointly.
RD












Well people write line-poems and they pass them around in a round robin way, but this is a little bit more serious. I mean we aren't attempting to out-Ezra… we were reading some Poundian criticism and where once Ezra Pound was thought quite difficult, and I'm not saying he's less difficult, but people take him more in stride today. He's simply a mad prophet raving to his disciples and we just accept the difficulty and the collage of… all these various elements is much more readily accepted as a style. So in this way David and I—or is it Richard and I?—We talk and we take notes and then we find lines and we add on our asides and our insights and whatever we feel we want, and we throw in the kitchen sink.
BR




That sounds like a lot of fun. I will have to invite you to consider a partnership with me and we'll do something together. You need a female in all of this. But you're so prolific, everybody must've thought 'eighty books!' Is that how many books are in the collected works?
RD






















Well they're small books. Many of the books are only… many twenty pages, some are forty. The collected poems, which I published through Comrade's Press using the online publishing methods of ex libris, it totals about 540 pages. Now, of course some of the poems are narrow so they don't take up the whole page. But a poem is a poem and on a page it's… as significant as it can be. In the Collected Books, which are all of my books that I've done on my own, including my books under other personas, they amount I believe to 80, 84 books of different lengths. And, I wanted to organize the books in the order that they had been published. And that included the original formatting, the typefaces, the artwork, the introductions in the cases where they were, or occasionally a newspaper article… and with the original covers which contained the collage work of many well known artists: Jane Booth, a very excellent artist in Kansas... this is a work by Claude Smith, a well known artist in California. Some of the collages of Lou Garcia as well as collages of my own. These works I wanted to have, to be as close to the originals as they could be, although I couldn't have them included in their hand sewn versions, but I could glue them together and they would reflect the total process of writing and publishing I had done over a period of forty years.
BR





Yes, I think it's probably hard for listeners who can't see. These are chapbooks, they're really exquisite. Some of them you did woodblocks for, illustrations…. So the books that you're collecting are really made by you cover to cover. I mean, sometimes it's true other people's collages are used on the cover, but...
RD
























Well I mean, it's also a history of, in a sense, printing. I mean I take a bow, I give obeisance to William Blake and Jack Spicer and many great small bookmakers. But the books, some had been mimeograph, some had been offset press, some had been letter press, most had been, since the development of the copy machine, Xerox machine, are in this format, but this allowed me to do inexpensive books, and also to do them in limited editions. I mean, to set up a book in offset, to really kind of, if you'd planned to sell it for a few dollars to get your money back for the time and energy spent you'd have to make at least two, three-hundred copies. A letter press edition even, is very time consuming. But a copy machine, which prints very well, um… I would often just make a dozen copies. For a friend I make like 30 or 40 copies. I also discovered that it was an interesting way to complete a series of poems and have, and then, as of now, like the way David Bromige and I are working, I make a copy for each of us, and then we edit it, right in the book, and then I go back and maybe in the process we've written another canto, and then I add that canto in the next edition and make the corrections, and then we sit, each with a copy, and then we edited it again, and… then we go back and we make two more copies. So, maybe by the time we have the 99 cantos, there'll be… well it's almost 200 books or so, that each one will be different.
BR










Well this is partly in answer to the question of how you've made a place for yourself as an artist. You've done it by, not waiting for other people's approval or acceptance or green light on a magazine, in a way. And I think it's a stunning example, now when I'm teaching poetry writing, I show students some of your books, because the technology you use is available to anyone. I don't think everybody's as good at designing beautiful little books as you, but, it's very inspiring. And you know me, I've gone out and made a couple of books myself, both of my own work and other people's...
RD They're fine.
BR

…using your example. And it is a way of bringing a group of poems to completion, and you can give them to friends.
RD















I sell them at readings, In the past I've put them in bookstores. I mean, there's a certain marketability to them. Poetry on the whole, I don't think, is that well respected as an art, I mean-maybe that's not the way to say it… I mean, people have difficulty with poetry, and they don't always want to spend money for a small book. But, for me it isn't the money that's important, it's more the process of creation involved. I like the feel of paper and I like the smell of inks and I like the handling of my work at a number of levels and following through, and I give them away often 'cause I feel somebody will remember me and… and I suppose over the years, I once tried to think of how many books I'd made, I may well have made 10,000 books, which, if you have that many books in circulation, that… will you be remembered or will your books, will they last? I mean there's some possibility...
BR Oh, I think—
RD





Yeah. And I archive my books with certain people. Well, one to you, one to Lou. Lately Lee Harris has been receiving books. Jane has a great collection. In that sense, I… sort of think, well, it's sort of silly, but I say 'well there should be some in New York and some in Kansas and some in the Northwest.'
BR


No, I thought that today even about your collected books. I thought, you know if there's a fire, he knows that I have a collection.
RD







But again, I'm not, perhaps it's my Buddhism—the idea of the longevity again isn't quite as important as the poem in the moment and the book in the present and the experience of the here and now with the work. I mean, we may all fall in to a giant black hole for all we know, and it may have no meaning, in that sense. But in the terms of an interrelationship between the reader and the writer in the context of the person that can enjoy this... to me that's eternal.
BR




Well that sounds like a good place to end, we're running out of time. I wonder if you could close by reading us a poem. And he's turning a page and it has a kind of Matisse-like woodblock there, those are so good looking. I wish people could see these books.
RD I'm gonna read "Maid of Mist"
BR Thank you.
RD [reading follows]
BR





Thank you. That was Richard Denner. If you'd like to get a glimpse of what Richard's books look like, they're gems, and you can see some of them if you go to his website. His press is called D Press. And so you go to www.dpress.net and see his book covers and read some of his poems. And some poems by other people too, there's even one of mine there.
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