Sunday, March 11, 2007

Walt Whitman

May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892

After my interview with Dante turned out to be somewhat of a bust, I decided to brace myself and try again with another major figure in poetry. This time, I went American, and managed to summon the extraordinarily influential forefather of American poetry, Walt Whitman. When I met him in my study, he seemed quite amicable and friendly. He appeared as the later images of him depicted: Old, large beard, and somewhat of a Christ figure / wise hermit sort of man. He was taller than I'd thought him, and when he sat down opposite me, his posture slumped into the chair in a way that demonstrated a comfort and relaxed nature that I, myself, could never posess. Unlike my earlier interview with Dante, Walt Whitman seemed to be able to fill up the entire room with himself. He also had the keen ability to make every single syllable out of his mouth sound strongly important.

RS: Do you feel your contact with Emerson played a role in your revisions of those early poems?

WW: Everything plays a role, certainly. The ant in the dale, the horse-rider’s bit, the britches you choose for a particular day. Ralph affected me, yes, but not in the direct fashion. It was more of a quiet racket that you couldn’t ignore, but could scarce hear, as of those impensions often shot from buttocks.

RS: Impensions shot from buttocks?

WW: Precisely natural, as is your response.

RS: Are you referring to farting?

[Whitman seems to ponder this for a moment, and ultimately shrugs, giving no verbal answer. I begin wondering if he has used a grand metaphor and I’ve ignorantly misinterpreted it, making myself seem silly and of a lesser mind. After a weighty silence, I decide to simply continue.]

RS: How many drafts did ‘Leaves of Grass’ go through? There were nine published versions, but most can’t but wonder how many drafts you went through, by the end of your life. I know most consider ‘Leaves of Grass’ to be your greatest achievement.

WW: Well, it was one of my only achievements, bookwise. I mean, I didn’t write a lot of things, preferring to spend my time rewriting what I already had. Mostly. And yes, I went through many, many drafts, though they weren’t drafts so much as versions, because I felt all of them were publishable (and most were published). Most of the ongoing changes were aesthetical and imminent, and I went back and forth in the versions, trying to enforce a sense of ominous self-explosion, you know. Or at the very least, a hearty resonation, something with clarity but that could reverberate well, as if that meaningful breach of an odious expulsion.

RS: Breach of an odious expulsion?

WW: Of course. There is strength most in life when releasing what life no longer needs. Life is in the traces, you see, not the source.

[Again, I can’t help but think he’s using flatulence as a metaphor, here, but ultimately decide against saying anything for now.]

RS: That sounds semi-eastern in tone, and certainly it’s known you were influenced by eastern philosophy in your time. Can you describe the force eastern philosophy had on you, and how it may have infiltrated your work?

WW: Force? Infiltrated? That sounds a term more with war than poetry, my boy.

RS: Well, yes. I meant only that your work seems effected heavily by the more Eastern doctrines of thought, particularly for the time and location of your writing life.

WW: Philosophy has always created a duality in me. It both lifts and lowers me, reaching my mind through brassy shouts, as well as through more undulating burbles, as of those in a foul breath trickling from a moist pipe.

[There it is again: That strangely suspect terminology he keeps using.]

WW: Of course, little of it is true. There is only one truth.

RS: Which is?

[Whitman leans back in his chair, lost in thought. After a moment, gives a decisive nod and sits up. I watch as he licks his lips. He then lets out this kind of abrupt and weak honking noise. After, and seeming to have gained some satisfaction with this nonsensical and silly noise, he closes his eyes, keeping them closed and remaining still until I decide to try another question.]

RS: Your political views have been a subject that decades of criticism can’t seem to fully unearth. Can you explain to some degree your thoughts on, say, the support you held for the Mexican-American war?

WW (trance-like): Unearth...

[Several moments pass without further answer and Whitman almost seems to have shut down, physically. He makes the honking noise again, but much quieter, now lost in the serene moment he seems to have created for himself by making the bizarre, flatulant sound with his mouth. It’s as if this sound has taken him to a weird, Whitman-only place in his mind.]

RS: So... did... let’s talk about Song of Myself.

WW (snapping out of it): Sorry. I lost my line for a moment. Song of Myself, you mentioned? Hoo, yes. I worked hard on that book. Let’s see... All me, derided supremely, but always turning in the last laugh, so to speak. Americans were worried, you see. Masturbation, the male body, pleasure, the natural state of flesh and senses... the people were so puritanistic and worried, which is sad. ‘Song of Myself’, in essence, was a more real purity than even puritanism. What is more pure than the love of life? It coddles to the touch, a hearth-dog, or a man in the squat while making his tremulous cut.

RS: And ‘tremulous cut’ refers to?

WW: Oh, of air.

RS: You’ve referenced a squatting man making a tremulous ‘cut of air’? I- listen, I deeply respect what you’ve done with your poetry, Mr. Whitman, but—

WW (waving): Walt.

RS: Okay, Walt. I very much admire your work. The way you write has won over my ear more times than I can explain, but I have to be honest, here. I keep noticing these metaphors you’re using in this interview... and I can’t help but ask: Are you... Do you... No, okay: Are you purposely making metaphors about farting? Or am I an idiot and I’m just not getting what you’re really saying? I mean, I write a lot of poetry, myself, and I’m really just sensing that you’ve been continually bringing up farting since we started the interview. So... yes? No?

WW: Ha! This is the meat. I came to dine but this... this talk now is the hearty portion, don’t you agree?

RS: You like my last question more than my prepared ones?

WW: Hurrah! Speak!

RS: Uh, speak what? I don’t—

WW: Ask more! Quick! Top of your head!

[It seems Walt wants me to question him in a more improvisational manner.]

RS: Um, shit... uh, how come you’re naked in that picture I found of you?

[Whitman makes the weak honking noise again, grinning.]

RS: Is that supposed to be your answer?

WW: Ask another!

RS: Uh, did you wonder if your ego was out of check with ‘Song of Myself’, because it was a large poem about yourself?

[The honking noise.]

RS: Can you give me a yes or no? Or elaborate?

WW: Hurrah!

RS: Yeah, hurrah.

WW: This is promise! We’re to it! Keep going.

RS: Are you gay?

WW (eyes widening): Oh God. Not this again.

RS: Sorry, you said top of my head. That’s what came up. There’s been controversy since you died over whether you were gay or not.

WW: We were to it. Now it’s ruined.

RS: Well, that’s why I prepare questions, to avoid awkwardness.

WW: The gay thing. This interview just became a base endeavor. [Whitman sighs here] All right, once and for all, I’ll answer that question for the public and private. I say this, and this only: I love having sex and being in love, and mostly with women.

RS: I see.

WW: Now, let’s rummage in what we’ve learned, eh questioner? I’ll ask you a question.

RS: Well, I don’t really think—


RS: Jesus, okay. Shoot.

WW: Why would you take up a pen in this day and age, young man?

RS: Shit, I’m compelled.

WW: No. Incorrect. You get no hurrah.

RS: How the hell can you tell me what I feel is incorrect?

WW: No questions, it’s still my turn. Whose poetry do you enjoy most?

RS: Oh, that’s huge. I’d have to start with—

WW: No hurrah! No, no. Incorrect.

RS: It’s opinion! And how would you know? I didn’t say anything.

WW: The only truthful answer is ‘mine’.

RS: Do you mean ‘mine’, as in my own poetry, or ‘mine’, as in your poetry?

WW: Unimportant. And it’s still my turn. Last question: What do you feel is the real solid in my poetry?

[I debate this in my mind and, due to the question being thrown on me so quickly and unexpectedly, find myself more trying to dodge the question than think deeply on it. I’m discovering I don’t like being interviewed, myself. In the end, I slowly lift my head and look at him.]

RS: Um, is it this?

[I make the honking, flatulent noise he seems so fond of. Whitman beams with a sparkle in his right eye.]

RS: Hurrah?

WW (proud): Hurrah, indeed.

[Then he stands, gives me a strong, bracing pat against my shoulder, and begins fiddling with his microphone.]

RS: That noise must be pretty special to you.

WW (smiling): I think we’re done here.

[The microphone now removed, he nods at me and his eyes disappear into that other realm for which he seemed to visit earlier. Possibly an estranged nostalgia, or a happy place.]

RS: Well, I guess... thanks for letting me in on your special sound. Uh, and for the interview.

[Walt Whitman winks at me then, concluding the interview.]

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