Pacific Rim Review of Books

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An Interview with Lou Harrison

By Richard Kostelanetz

Lou Harrison lived with his life-partner William Colvig in the Aptos hills above Santa Cruz, in a sun-drenched compound that includes a ranch house where they sleep, a trailer where he composes, a woodshed, a stage that doubles as a crash pad, and a small vegetable garden. Born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon, he went to high school in the Bay Area before beginning a distinguished creative career that has so far encompassed not only composing but writing about music, in addition to poetry and painting. Thanks to his rich and various cultural experience, as well as an outspoken temper, he had a lot to say in September 1990. A broadly built, ebullient man with a hearty laugh and a full-bearded healthy resemblance to Orson Welles, Harrison talked mostly over his dining-nook table. He and I share the same birthday, the high Taurean May 14th, which may or may not show in the following conversation; we also share predispositions to both laughter, especially at ourselves, and digressions.

Richard Kostelanetz: What’s your poetry about?

Lou Harrison: It divides itself into two: informal Whitmanesque line business or Dickinson or Blake in the early period. The second is when I discovered isosyllabic verse forms. The majority form on the planet through history has always been counting syllables per line. You know of the haiku as one small example. That has been a dominating form unrhymed. So I started doing that.

RK: How?

Lou Harrison: You can invent them, or you can do classic ones. Of the seventeen poems in [W.H.] Auden’s last book, ten of them are isosyllabic. For instance, the first poem in his last book, “Thank you, God,” is what is called St. Ephrem’s verse of seven syllables per line. You can actually chose to create the number of syllables in a line, but you have to stick to the form. It can be done stanzawise or longwise. Alexander Pope did not write iambic pentameter; he wrote decasyllables. You can tell how to pronounce certain words by this means--whether you have an extra syllable or not. So I’ve done a lot of that, both invented and lifted forms from classic lines.

RK: Do you have favorite countings?

Lou Harrison: I like the Sapphic stanzas, though I can’t yet do the actual metrics; but I can do the syllabic outlines of them. I wrote a lot when I was going around the world, because my instruments weren’t there and painting is a little hard to do; but you can always write. And I’m just beginning to get that out. And also I’ve written a lot for composer friends about them. And those are available.

In [my book] Soundings a few years ago were a couple of them. In the Cage piece I took his name and put a syllable gap between them too and came out with a line length:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Because of his square root form, I multiplied that. I told him how I did it--9 x 9 equals 81. His response was, “I’m not yet 81.” Leave it to John.

And then last year I noticed in the Advocate [a gay monthly] a little ad for the world’s poetry. And a handsome bearded man asks you to send your poem if you have a 21-line one. I happened to have one, so I sent it in. And it got a golden poet award. Then a few months ago I got another letter from the same group that I was to go to Las Vegas, because that poem not only won that for 1989 but for the last four years it won a silver award.

RK: You portray yourself as both a formal poet and an occasional poet.

Lou Harrison: Yes, I have a number of unfinished ones that I want to go to. Right now I’m working on a poem on the work of Claude Lorraine [1600-82], the great painter. For a long time I’ve been devoted to Claude’s work; I still am, the divine Claude. He’s the one whose concept of landscaping and painting brought about the whole of Capability Brown and of eighteenth century landscaping. In the poem I’ve been working with fourteen-syllable lines, which turns out to be the same length of line as Golding’s original translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It’s a long line, very bucolic in quality. I found that either my poems are lyrical and rhapsodic and sexy, or they’re bitter diatribes against society.

RK: What is your literary experience? Who have been your favorite writers?

Lou Harrison: When I grew up they were Blake and Whitman and Edward Carpenter.

RK: How’d you discover Carpenter, who to my recollection was no better known then than he is now?

Lou Harrison: The husband of Carol Beals, a dancer for whom I worked, introduced me to Carpenter’s writing.

RK: Did you like these three because they were gay?

Lou Harrison: In part, but Blake wasn’t. Of course, I loved Whitman’s “Calamus.” I finally set one section of it. Early on, when I was in the gay movement, I decided that all of us who are gay composers ought to take a section of “Calamus” and make a great big oratorio. That was in the 60s. San Francisco is much earlier than New York.

RK: Did you have any principal teachers who were not musicians?~

Lou Harrison: I studied painting with the Japanese Chiuro Obata when I was quite young, and also a bit of poetry with Robert Duncan, who was younger than I was, in the mid 40s in New York.

RK: Did Duncan teach you anything of use in your music?

Lou Harrison: Not really. As a matter of fact, I brought him down here and recorded the songs he used to sing in his readings. In some of his poems there are little songs. I recorded all those, they are available somewhere. I’m also going to put out some sort of memorial edition. When we were working with Kenneth Rexroth, we made tapes. We played Chinese instruments, and he read his Chinese translations. Carol Tinker [his widow] has agreed that if I can find them we should process it, because it’s an important item, his whole concept.

RK: I see Rexroth as a literary analogue to yourself.

Lou Harrison: In what sense?

RK: His Californian culture, his interest in Oriental art for inspiration, his universal literacy, and the eclecticism reflected in his creative work.

Lou Harrison: Maybe so, but I have actually the lyrical impulses of Robert Duncan more than Kenneth.

RK: But remember that Kenneth’s very best poems are long lyrics.

Lou Harrison: I just met a man who played the lead in Kenneth’s Beyond the Mountains with the Living Theatre when I was there in New York. I was so mad for Judith at that point. I didn’t realize it until her book [The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947-1957, 1984] came out, and it was there.

RK: You went for women as well?

Lou Harrison: Oh, yes. Both of Bill and myself have had our experiences--miscarriages and abortions.

RK: You once told me that your fifties were your best years.

Lou Harrison: When you are forty you think you are going to have another half of your life, and so things go on. But when you are fifty, you are almost sure you’re not going to have another half, so you say “to hell with it. I’m going to do it my way.” You are beginning to have fun. And you are still full of your powers; you’re not getting old all of a sudden. So between 50 and 65 you’re at your very best.

RK: Does the epithet “postmodern” mean anything to you?

Lou Harrison: It means rather silly surfaces on buildings that ought to have some depth.

RK: When did you become interested in Esperanto?

Lou Harrison: I was sitting at the Coliseum in Rome on day when I realized that my Latin wasn’t doing very well with Italian. I was there at a conference in 1954, where Stravinsky handed me a prize I had won. And then I remembered that in my early adolescence I had a girl friend whose father was a professor at Stanford. She had given me a book about Esperanto. So I recollected that, and when I got back I went to a sort of left-wing bookstore in San Francisco, where I also found oodles of Esperanto. I began to learn it and worked with a friend who is a linguist and knew everything about Esperanto. I started to use it; and then when I went to Japan, that was all I used, except in the bank. I’ve used it around the world. A lot of governments broadcast in it, including our own.

RK: Was it hard to learn?

Lou Harrison: One coast hears Japanese vowels and on the other coast you would call it Italian vowels. The only phoneme that’s difficult is the “ch” as in loch, and that’s passing out into “k” in the words that use it. And the accent is always penultimate. Grammar can be memorized in a few hours. Vocabulary is anywhere between minimalist and a lot. And it has a literature. There are poets who write in nothing but Esperanto. That’s what I like about it. You get the feeling of being part of some big symphonic enterprise, because it’s a designed thing made by a man, like you were playing in a piece. And I also like that [L.L.] Zamenoff did not release it publicly until someone wrote fluent verse in it.

RK: You have written in Esperanto yourself?

Lou Harrison: Yes, sure. I’ve even talked in it and designed [typeface] fonts for it, because it looks funny in a Bodoni, for example, because all the plurals end in “J.” It is full of cases too, one letter one sound and also one word one meaning. So naturally there is an underground vocabulary of dirty words too, which get properly published. And there is an academy, where any Esperantist can ask for an opinion linguistically. It’s a world academy.

RK: Where is it located?

Lou Harrison: All over. It’s a corresponding academy. And publishers are everywhere. One of the finest is in the Canary Islands.

RK: Do you have an Esperanto library in the house?

Lou Harrison: It’s been randomized [in the wake of the recent earthquake], but I can get you a few things.

RK: Will it save the world?

Lou Harrison: Nothing can save the world, Richard; we’ve gone beyond that. I concluded a long time ago that people really don’t want to solve anything or even improve it; they just want to mess around. And that’s why English is going around the World, because it is the easiest language to mess around in. It has no academy, there is nothing correct, it has a new slang with every generation. It has how many pidgins? Varieties? That’s why it’s winning. It is the easiest language to mess around in and still be understood. And this is true gradually. People don’t want to solve anything; they just want to mess around.

Richard Kostelanetz is a prolific American artist, author and critic. A passionate defender of the avant-garde, he has also been a contributing editor for Liberty magazine since 1987.