Poet Russell Edson comes out of his cave
Russell Edson isn’t like other writers. A visual artist himself, Edson’s twisted prose poems fit more with the work of collage artist Joseph Cornell and filmmaker David Lynch. But why worry about comparisons? Suffice it to say that Edson, born in 1935, is one of a kind. Author of The Tunnel: Selected Poems, novel The Song of Percival Peacock and several other books, Edson will read his work at Butler University on April 5 at 7:30 p.m. The next day, he’ll travel to Purdue University for another reading.
During his recent far-reaching conversation with NUVO, Edson wondered if a Butler University helicopter would fly him to West Lafayette. When told “probably not,” Edson joked, “Then I wouldn’t mind a sedan-chair. They’re a little bumpy, but what the hay.” A sedan-chair is one of those little covered chairs built atop two poles and carried around — usually with emperors inside. But it might take a while to get to Purdue that way. “With a liquor cabinet built in, it might be worth it,” Edson answered, chuckling.
Edson will be traveling to Indiana with his wife of many years, Frances. “We met in the maternity ward,” he said. “We were very young.” Although the Edsons never had children — just a cat — he’s figured out that perpetuating the species is the reason we’re here. “I’ve come to this after all of these years: The purpose of life is life. It has no other purpose. It just goes on and on,” he said. “Worms, eagles, whatever animal. It’s simply to keep it going until it can’t do it anymore.”
NUVO: What do you think of reading your poems in public?
Edson: I’ve often wondered why they want the writer to come and read when they could pick up a book of his or even get a recording. But they like to see the person who wrote it. I don’t know why.
NUVO: Maybe it’s just to see who it is behind the words.
Edson: You know, though, it’s like the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard is just a little guy with a microphone and a big mouth.
NUVO: People find your readings very entertaining, laughing like they’re at a comedy show. Does this reaction surprise you? Do you enjoy that response?
Edson: I do enjoy that response. When I first began reading, I was surprised. But now I expect it.
NUVO: Your work pays close attention to the idea of reduction and magnification. The big things get small and the small things big.
Edson: The miniaturizations.
NUVO: That seems metaphorical for poetry in general. Poetry has to do that, right?
Edson: Of course, it doesn’t want to carry a lot of extra baggage or words. The problem with poetry is that it spends so much time scene setting, locating. Most of my pieces are not really located. They just happen.
NUVO: Do you think doing something very different from what’s expected, trying something new, has been one of your biggest challenges as a writer? Was it hard to be innovating something like the prose poem?
Edson: It’s now become kind of a fad. But anybody who sits down to write and tries to be original is not going to get there. To try to be original is not to be original. You’re writing for a supposed public. I never write for people, for the unseen audience. I just write what comes.
NUVO: Do you consider yourself a person who works primarily in images or narratives or a combination of the two?
Edson: It’s actually both. For me, there are only two forms of writing, that’s poetry and fiction. The prose poem sort of teeters on the edge of both. It can be narrative, it can be imagistic. It can do almost anything. It’s really a free form. I got so sick of theory. Everybody’s got a theory on how to write. Breath and line. The Black Mountain Poets. God there’s so many.
NUVO: Where do your poems come from?
Edson: I hate to say it, but they really come from the subconscious. I think that’s where poetry comes from anyway. I have a theory that poetry is absolutely silent, like dreams. I’m not sure you can remember your dreams. But dreams are basically silent, like silent films. Let’s say they’re nonverbal because the subconscious, really, is babyish. It doesn’t know language. As it dreams, the subconscious thinks in images. And that’s what poetry is.
NUVO: Where does fiction fit into this?
Edson: Fiction taught poetry how to speak. At first, you have a hunting group that comes home. Primitive man. And they’re talking about what happened and what they killed. And I can see them exaggerating and, eventually, using fiction to make what they did even more heroic. And that’s the birth of literature really. Once man learned how to exaggerate or even lie, you had fiction. And that made it possible to have creative language for poetry, which is essentially non-language.
NUVO: And you’ve written some fiction yourself lately. Were you communicating differently in your novel?
Edson: It’s sort of the way I write anyway, just enlarged. And it’s not very good. See, I work best on very small things. I mean a prose poem, or even a regular poem, really ought to be short. A long poem becomes fiction. The reason why a poem is a poem is because there’s not much room and you have to be very quick in its images. Whereas a novel, a real novel, can describe and take its time and develop stuff in language.
NUVO: Your work has been compared to Joseph Cornell and others connected with surrealism. Do you consider yourself a surrealist?
Edson: I suppose I fall there. Surrealism is more of a style than a technique. That is to say that most surrealism is not too interesting. It is in paintings. But, in writing, it’s not.
NUVO: Why do you think it works better in visual ways than it does in words?
Edson: A painting is an image. It’s dreamlike. It doesn’t move. But it’s an image. Poetry is difficult because it has no home organ. You could read poetry by seeing a distant light flashing in Morse code. You could hear it or you could read it. Whereas as a painting needs eyes, music needs ears, sculpture needs eyes. Poetry is a weird and very human thing. But, of all the arts, it seems to be the most artificial.
NUVO: Maybe one of the goals of a poet who works in image is to give it a little more physical presence?
Edson: Of course. To make things out of words is very strange. Writing of any sort is the most human of the arts. We are a language beast. Even the worst painting you can imagine still has a reality. It is a physical thing. Whereas a bunch of symbols on a piece of paper, it’s something else.
NUVO: When you first started, you printed your own books. Did you enjoy that approach to making books?
Edson: Believe it or not, I was more interested in printing than what I was going to print — although I knew my work was interesting enough. But the letterpress interested me greatly, and making woodcuts and exhibiting them, that kind of thing.
NUVO: Your father was a cartoonist and you’ve worked in other visual arts, right?
Edson: Yes. I’ve done a lot of covers for my books. I grew up thinking I was going to be a painter. But paints are very messy and writing is so simple. You just need a typewriter or, now, a computer.
NUVO: It seems that poets are often also visual artists.
Edson: That’s good. I have a theory that a lot of poets would do themselves a lot of good if they had another art they messed with — be it painting or whatever. A lot of our poets, they write, they teach, they write blurbs, they write some criticism, but they never get out of language. To be able to do something else is a nice thing.
NUVO: Do you have something else?
Edson: I play an instrument.
NUVO: What instrument do you play?
Edson: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. It’s called the recorder. One term for it is a “block flute.” The fingering on it is the pattern for the clarinet, oboes and all kinds of other instruments. It’s very complex, the fingering on a recorder. I don’t know if you’ve played one.
NUVO: What kind of music do you play on your recorder?
Edson: Bach. I play Bach. He wrote for the recorder, you know.
NUVO: I bet that’s relaxing when you’ve been working on poems.
Edson: When I don’t want to think about anything, I just play a recorder.
NUVO: There’s not a lot of information about you available, even on the Internet. I understand you don’t get out too much.
Edson: I’m known as a hermit, a recluse.
NUVO: How’s that work?
Edson: It works well. The only problem is the cave gets all full of bones.
Who: Russell Edson
Where: Butler University’s Robertson Hall, Johnson Room
When: April 5, 7:30 p.m.
For more info: 940-9861 The Philosophers I think, therefore I am, said a man whose mother quickly hit him on the head, saying, I hit my son on his head, therefore I am. No no, you’ve got it all wrong, cried the man. So she hit him on the head again and cried, therefore I am. You’re not, not that way; you’re supposed to think, not hit, cried the man. … I think, therefore I am, said the man. I hit, therefore we both are, the hitter and the one who gets hit, said the man’s mother. But at this point the man had ceased to be; unconscious he could not think. But his mother could. So she thought, I am, and so is my unconscious son, even if he doesn’t know it … — Russell Edson