I will be reading with Rebecca Hoogs, John Olson, Vis-á-vis Society (Rachel Kessler and Sierra Nelson), music by Ken Benshoof and The Half Brothers. Our reading will be emceed by Brangien Davis of Swivel and Brendan Kiley of The Stranger. It’ll be at 9:30 on both nights at ACT and I think costs something.
The ACT Web site promises the event will be a cabaret referencing the DaDa Cabaret Voltaire. Although most people I think associate the Cabaret Voltaire with Surrealism — which has in turn been emptied of its political and revolutionary content and come to mean basically a literary excuse to act wild and crazy. Roethke as a source for a Surrealist party sounds good to me. I wrote a story called “The Penile Colony” about a young girl from the country who goes to the U of W and meets Roethke.
I don’t think the event would meet with Roethke’s approval. Roethke thought that poets should be as important to the civic life of a city as business men. He felt they should be recognized as people of importance — at least according to his biography — and I suppose this has become the case with poets that hold academic positions. There is a certain civic importance Jeff Bezos and Heather McHugh. Roethke was also not particularly fond of music (oddly, considering his amazing rhythm.) Nor did his work really contain any of the influences of DaDa or Surrealism. From what I gather he wrote steadily, with much effort, with a calculating perfectionism that would make the effusive, spontaneous, and slapdash efforts of the Surrealists seem like play (which would be fine by them). DaDa wasn’t even this. DaDa was a fart. It was a protest against the professionalism and logic of businessmen and politicians whose polices resulted in the slaughter of Verdun. To reference the Cafe Voltaire and Roethke seems like an odd juxtaposition, unless you consider that Roethke was mad and that the Surrealists held a special kind of reverence for insanity.
But are the mad responsible for this symptoms? Roethke’s poetry wasn’t a symptom of bipolar disorder. If they were, the halfway houses of the nation would be awash in National Book Awards.
This weird veneration of sickness showed up last year when Syd Barrett died. The schizophrenic founder of Pink Floyd who suffered a longish, LSD-kindled break down in the late sixties was dredged up. That era of the band was a vastly different thing that the depressing prog-rock band. But in the myth of the poet or artist as madman there is a kind of conflation of madness and talent. Syd Barrett made music when he was well. When he got sick, he stopped.
I’ve begun to find the simulated madness of surrealists unsettling in the way people now find blackface unsettling. On one hand, it provides a kind of mask that gives a writer permission to simulate another state. But on the other hand it confers an illusion that the mad are somehow not human — they are something else. So to me surrealisms as a bag of tricks and as an atmospheric parlor dressing. Good. It’s fun. Surrealism as access to INSANITY! Well, not so good.
In point of fact, much of the surrealism is a result of very lucid, very simple techniques. It is founded on a lot of Frued’s ideas of the subconscious — but generating random text and images, freewriting, and substitution are a library of pretty innocuous techniques.
Roethke in fact didn’t write using these techniques. He did share the surrealist’s approval of nonsense rhythms and Mother Goose. When he was well he wrote poetry. when he was sick he didn’t. When he was recovering or when he was manic — he wrote poetry. He was lucky to have held a position as a professor in the mid-20th century when people were willing to cut him some slack. He did have trouble in his early professional life due to his break downs. At the University of Washington, he found an administration that allowed for him to operate when he was operational and let him take time off when he needed to take time off. Toward the end of his life, a Washington State representative looking to cut funding at the University of Washington tried to portray the University of lax by harboring lunatics like Roethke. In a move that would be even more startling today then in the early 1960s, the University showed that Roethke had taken off no more time due to illness than any other professor. In fact, the majority of his leave during his tenure had been related to various grants and prizes. The letter proved in fact that the lunatic Roethke was far from crazy and far closer to the sober, reputable businessman that he aspired to be — and certainly a far cry from a Surrealist-approved poet such as Arthur Rimbaud or novelist such as Leonora Carrington. Unlike the disreputable and eccentric surrealist poets, Roethke belongs to the mainstream of mid-20th century lit — Stephen Spender, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. They weren’t strangers to madness, either.