This Has Never Felt Like A Job: An Interview With John Timpane
Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson coined a term to describe his freewheeling, intellectually rigorous seminars: Mind Jazz. The term Mind Jazz perfectly describes a conversation I had with John Timpane, poet, musician, teacher, and editor. During the course of a three-hour conversation, Timpane talked about language, poetry, and science, weaving concepts and ideas together with ease.
When I met Timpane at a poetry reading he gave in a bookstore near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, I was struck by his gift for metaphor and rhythm. But something else drew me to him: his sense of humor and generous vision of the world.
In 2005, Timpane, Associate Editor of the Editorial Board of The Philadelphia Inquirer, received one of the first Fellowships offered by the John Templeton Foundation for journalism in science and religion. The award took Timpane to Cambridge, England. With a select group of print, broadcast, online journalists and scholars, Timpane was invited to “examine the dynamic and creative interface between science and religion.”
Throughout his career, Timpane has examined the two subjects, often linking them through poetry. In the first installment of a three-part interview, Timpane talks about his early years.
PART I — POETRY, SCIENCE, AND RELIGION
In addition to studying poetry, you began your career with the goal of becoming a teacher. How did that happen?
I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Irvine, where I took some writing classes with James McMichaels, who was and is a very fine poet. I took two classes with him and some playwriting classes with Robert Peters. For some reason I got a scholarship to study in England at the University of Sussex, which is where I decided to become a PhD and go forward to become a teacher. And the reason I decided to pursue the path of a teacher was that learning was so exciting at Sussex. I took this course called “Protest in the Arts Between the Wars”, and one of the teachers came in with long hair, and was wearing a denim jacket. I thought, he’s so cool; I’ve never seen a teacher like that.
He sat down and said, “Now, you may think we’re going to talk about literature and poetry, but I don’t care if you learn any of that; I’m going to teach you socialism.” And I was blown away because I’d never been in an environment in which teachers spoke so freely. But, of course, he turned out to be one of my best teachers. Not only was he passionate and smart — not only was he an excellent model for anyone who wanted to be a scholar, a writer, an intellectually and politically engaged person — but he also was excited by the good ideas of his students and colleagues. You’d see him ignite; he loved hearing an idea he hadn’t thought of, and he’d immediately run with it, see where it took him. It was infectious and almost scary — and it was the most important thing he taught us, not to be afraid of our own ideas.
Instead of the American-style classes I was used to, where you might have twenty to twenty-five students in a mixed instruction/discussion section, most of the courses I took at Sussex were tutorials, which meant that you had an expert in the field teaching a handful of students, usually four. I was surprised to learn that students were not actually required to attend! Of course, coming from a conventional American college, I’d be the only person there every week. So there I was, sitting in a study alone with some wildly accomplished Shakespearean scholar — and we would just kick it. He might say something like: “Well, you seem so interested in Richard III and the image of the crown. It might be a good subject for a paper.”
And then, he’d say, “You don’t have to write anything if you don’t want.”
But, I thought, Ohhh! Papers! I know how to write them. So I went into paper-writing mode, and in two weeks I came back with a paper. I’ll never forget the look on the lecturer’s face when I handed him a paper. Surprised is not the word. He looked at it as if he had just been presented with a cow chip. But then, he went off and wrote a commentary that was longer than the paper itself, most likely because I was the only person who showed up for his tutorial. And that’s the way that he and I did the course. There were four other courses like that. At the end of my year there, I had read so much and written so much, and everything was just exploding for me.
In those days, 1973-1974, Sussex was extremely radical and opened my eyes to another way of seeing the world. By the time I returned and attended Stanford University, I realized that to integrate it all, I would need something more expansive than the traditional PhD in English, and luckily, Stanford had a seminar program in Humanities, which allows me to say that I have a “double PhD” in English and the Humanities. At the same time I was auditing poetry seminars where I met very fine poets such as Dana Gioia, Vikram Seth, and Donald Davie. It seemed to me that poetry — something I had always written — was the one thing that linked all the other subjects together.
Among your many gifts as a writer, poetry is your passion. Yet, you never formally studied poetry.
It took a long time not to be afraid of a rather schizophrenic aspect of my poetry, which is that half of it is written in closed, traditional form and the other half is field composition, or open form. It’s always been like that. I wrote my first poem — in open form — when I was in high school and sent it in to a contest. To my shock, it won. The following year I sent another poem — this time in a closed form — and that won. I put out a book of poetry with one of my teachers, and later we put out another. I got some notice, but two years after my second book, I was embarrassed by what I’d written. I said, “I’ll never do that again.”
And as we sit here, that’s still the last time I ever put my poems in a book. It has always been an odd alternation. One day I would sit down and write a sonnet; the next day, I’d write something in open form. I was always interested in the traditional, musical forms — I still think they have a lot of juice and kick left — but I also liked experimental poetry. I was this high school kid reading Mallarmé, Piet Hein, Nicanor Parra, the Beats, César Vallejo, John Cage, the New York poets. I loved this one guy, Aram Saroyan, son of William Saroyan. Still do.
We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first performance by Allen Ginsberg of his poem Howl, which he gave at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1956. I can remember reading Howl in the library of my Catholic school. I might have been in eighth grade. I don’t even know if the nuns knew it was on the shelves. But, I saw something new going on, and I resonated to the sense of discovery that simply quivers in Howl.
You also work in other languages. How did that begin?
The first language I learned other than English was Italian. I was taught by Italian nuns at St. Helen’s Catholic School in Schenectady, N.Y. The nuns couldn’t speak English very well, so we all learned Italian.
The next language was Spanish because my family moved to California, first to Santa Ana and then to the town of Orange. I was playing with Spanish-speaking kids. An Argentine family, the Sepulvedas, offered to give me lessons, and I took them up on it. I learned as much hanging out at their giant midday family meals as I did from Mrs. Sepulveda at my actual lesson. It dawned on me that Spanish and English were just part of their lives. I can’t overemphasize how important that discovery was because I learned not to be afraid of each new language I encountered.
Spanish is woven into my spinal system. When I began reading poetry in Spanish, I recognized features in the language — such as syntactical arrangements, uses of reflexive verbs and pronouns, the subjunctive mood, the rhythms and forms idiomatic in Spanish but less so in English. For example, dactyls and anapests are much more natural in Spanish than in English. And forms from Arabic poetry, such as the qasida, slid into Spanish more easily than into English.
The language is much more readily liquid than English — which can be beautiful, but isn’t unless you work at it. Rhythms and vowel sounds in Spanish allowed poets to write things I couldn’t write as a poet working in English. And I thought, “Gee, I wish I could do that with my native tongue.”
I picked up Portuguese because I wanted to understand the lyrics of Brazilian pop music. Luckily, I met a woman from the province of Minas Gerais in Brazil. The first thing she did was give me a long lecture about the differences between the kind of Portuguese you’d speak in Lisbon and the kind you’d speak in São Paolo. It was a great lesson in the subtleties of language. Other languages followed: German, French, Latin, classical Greek.
A monk tutored me in Hungarian, easily the hardest language I ever learned, much harder than classical Greek or Sanskrit. He got me to the point where I could write a letter or read a newspaper in Hungarian. As a way of celebrating — and also bidding farewell to — Hungarian, I tried translating a couple of poems by János Arany. For me, learning all those languages was a lucky accident of life.
Yes. Take Pablo Neruda. The things he does with language, both the specific characteristics of Spanish and the way Neruda himself thinks. When I first read some of his poetry in the late 1960s, I saw right away why it was poetry. First, his choice of subject — the material world, life right here on this Earth — was highly original. Second, he was using Spanish against itself, speaking straightforwardly, with aggressive clarity and materialist joy, against a tradition that was baroque.
Although we lose a certain amount of the original when we translate a poem, I still think it’s worthwhile to read translations. For me, the least intrusive translations tend to be the best. I like W.S Merwin’s translations of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair because they are not very intrusive: they preserve the essential character of the poems (at least, the way they feel to me) and capture their passion. One I especially value is his translation of “Leaning into the Afternoons”
Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.
There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.
I send out red signals across your absent eyes
that smell like the sea or the beach by a lighthouse.
You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.
Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that is thrashed by your oceanic eyes.
The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.
The night gallops on its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassels over the land.
You’re describing the wonder of self-education where one discovery leads to another.
Yes. When I was young, I would go into a library and I wouldn’t come out for hours. I think a lot of people are like that. They go into the library and let their fingers do the walking.
In my book It Could Be Verse, I talk about the day when everything changed within me regarding poetry. I’ve never forgotten it. I went to this tiny branch library near my house in Orange County, and no one was in there at all. They had maybe eight poetry books on the shelf, anthologies of American poetry, and I read them all.
That was the day I first read Wallace Stevens. I read “Sunday Morning.” It was so good, and I felt myself right in the center of it. I read “The Man Moth” and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. I read “Poetry” by Marianne Moore. Some of these were poets I knew already, and some of them I didn’t. I read “The Death of the Hired Man” by Robert Frost, which to me is still a very cherishable poem.
Recently, I went back to Frost, to read his narrative poems as in “Hired Man” and “Home Burial.” I wish more readers of poetry knew that narrative side of him. It’s amazing how many fine individual lyric poems he wrote. One of my tests of a good poem is whether it can be memorized. And Frost passes that test. People will object to this, and say, “Well a lot of contemporary stuff you can’t memorize at all.” But, I believe you can memorize the good stuff.
You’ve also done work in Sanskrit. Why such an ancient language?
Sanskrit arose directly from what linguists call Indo-European, the hypothetical mother tongue of most of our Western languages. Sanskrit is a language of great complexity, great flexibility, and subtlety. Its sound system includes not only vowels and consonants but also head-tones, which themselves lend shades to the words that contain them. It is a language of shadings, very precise, very passionate, excellent for poetry and philosophy, and science. And I was drawn to all that.
I’ve recently finished a translation of Canto 11 of the Bhagavad-Gita, the great Indian epic. Bhagavad-Gita means Song of The Blessed One, or Song of God, and in Canto 11, the warrior Arjuna has a vision of God. Arjuna goes from only partially seeing the divine through a human lens to seeing it for what it really is. To me, there probably have been very few things ever written that are absolutely frank about the human interaction with the divine. And this canto is one of them. What is God really? Tear away what books and institutions tell us to believe — what is God really? There’s beauty and exaltation in encountering the divine, but there’s also terror. We all have to face that terror, and I wanted to be true to the original text to keep that concept intact.
I composed the translation with two sets of hypertext notes. One is a conventional set of footnotes to gloss words and facts. The other is a parallel set of poems, reacting to the text as it translates. One of the things computers have allowed me to do is to include hypertext notes into the translation. That way, whenever you see a note marker in a line, you can click on it, and it will expand into this interplay, this commentary, a conversation of sorts with the text itself.
You’ve had a lifelong fascination with science as well.
That probably stems from my dad who was an obstetrician. He wanted me to do pre-med, and I took a number of science courses. But poetry beckoned, and I decided I would become an English teacher instead, because that’s what I really wanted to do. But I loved science and would go into the library and read science journals. A lot of my friends were scientists. We sat around and talked about what was being discovered and what could be discovered. Heck, that’s still the case!
When I learned quantum mechanics, I’d tell people what I was learning, and some would say, “Okay, the whole thing’s wacky and it doesn’t make any sense.” A lot of people look at quantum mechanics — especially the principle wherein we can’t know how things behave — we can only establish probabilities about how they behave — and conclude from such uncertainty that quantum mechanics shows that life is meaningless.
It just doesn’t strike me that way. I might be wrong, but I think quantum mechanics is excruciatingly lovely. Much of it, to be sure, is counterintuitive. For example: If you have a particle, and it starts out from Point A and arrives at point B, in many cases you simply can’t determine the path it took to get there. So that’s one frustration. But there’s another frustration: some investigators say they see particles getting from point A to point B before they start! In other words, either these particles are traveling faster than the speed of light and are going into the future, or perhaps time in some circumstances runs backward. Or perhaps we don’t know, can’t know enough to sort out which answer is true, or whether there’s something else.
To me, that adds meaning to life, not subtracts from it. It challenges our assumptions that we can know it all, that our knowledge is certain, that there’s always a right answer. But it’s a kind of beauty we simply are not prepared for before we discover it. It’s time for a new mindset, that’s all. Learn this new beauty.
How does this relate to language?
Poetry enacts the disjoining coherencies of quantum mechanics. What is more frightening than the indeterminate? What is more lovely? And what is more characteristic of poetry? Yes, language is our way of making our versions of the universe available to one another. But it’s also shot through with unknowable origins, destinations, trajectories. The observer changes everything.
Poetry shows you such things. As a writer, you can guide, direct, and determine some aspects of your poems — but other aspects escape you and set up their own networks of meaning. Others may see them, but at the time of the poem’s creation, you often can’t.
But, I’m glad I have English as my native poetic language, partly because, it seems to me, American English is poetic only against its will. In other cultures, other languages, other ways of seeing the world, you don’t have the march of little tin soldiers like you have in English syntax. English is a stripped-down language and has substituted syntax for grammar. We have a skeletal grammar in English, and that’s because we’ve evolved a very useful, utilitarian language. And yet, English also has these bottomless depths of poetic possibility.
It’s ironic that the English language, which can be so unlovely, is also a language in which so much poetry can be done. And we haven’t gotten anywhere close to plumbing those depths because that’s what poetry is. What else is poetry but exploring the universe using language?
So if, while writing a poem, something doesn’t happen that surprises you, or challenges you; if you don’t discover something in the process of putting the poem together, if you don’t encounter what the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius called the clinamen — or a swerve-against-our-will — you haven’t gotten it right.
Here was Lucretius, this nobleman of the last century before Christ, here’s this Epicurean who didn’t necessarily see a personal god in the universe. But he did see that reality swerves away, that it has a clinamen to it.
I keep telling my students, “If you don’t encounter that clinamen in a poem — if the process of writing doesn’t lead to a discovery of something you didn’t know you were getting at, if it doesn’t take you and inform you and point you in a new direction, then the poem has yet to arrive.”
And I think that’s probably right for art in general. You can sit down and write a poem and know exactly what you mean. There’s nothing wrong with that. But even the act of writing often produces something slightly different from what you thought you were going to mean. And I just love that.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul