Orson Welles Interviews Poet Dick Bakken,
Copper Queen Hotel Saloon, Bisbee, Arizona,
Labor Day, September 5, 2005
Dick Bakken at home in Bisbee, Arizona on June 26, 1989, anniversary of
Custer’s 7th Cavalry discovered massacred.
ORSON: In another interview, in inimitable style, the interviewer asks, “Where does the Dick Bakken story begin?” You reply, “In Montana wild horse country. I got arrested in Helena when I was seven for riding a man killer bareback.” That is how a lot of great stories of the West might begin. But . . . really? Where did you grow up and what was it like?
DB: It was just like that, there yet swirled in the mists of the old West. In 1948 on the outermost edge of Helena, the last house against the surrounding hillsides full of pines, caves, one mountain lion, and a clobbered jail breaker dragged back down through our yard—I was seven. Custer’s Last Stand was only 100 miles and 65 years away. The valleys from there to where I waited in camp with the women cooking beans for the men to whoop over the rise with their roundup were yet running with the offspring of Crazy Horse’s mustangs. Downstairs below us lived a real bronc buster, Rex, with his wife Dotty and cowboy sons Toby and Star. Rex’s white stud—his share of the annual wild horse roundup—bucked in the corral just out our back door. It scraped me off with the pine branch that overhung its corral. But this wasn’t the killer that had already trampled two men. I came upon that one out in the hills tethered to a log, where owners believed isolation from people assured. I didn’t know it had sprung from the gore of Medusa.
I was born in 1941 in Custer County, Montana, grew rapidly there in Miles City, then Glendive, Bozeman, Helena—swirled in the myth of the wild West—but from eight years old on, I evolved more leisurely in that valley west of Spokane, Washington, steeped in the myth of archetypal farmland, backdrop for my poem “Learning to Drive,” propelled by plunging energy I’d inhaled headlong back in Helena wild horse and gold fever country.
ORSON: I’m asking only because somewhere down the line, if beauty wins out, people who love poetry will want to know, for the usual reasons. I want to know. Your poetry is unique. There is nothing like it. I hope I can say this so that it makes some sense. After reading—specifically the poems in your Greatest Hits—other poetry makes me feel like, for a while anyway, Dracula watching old Dracula movies. You speak elsewhere of the vehicle for your poetry—energy, imagery, and voice. You say, “I don’t think my poems up. They aren’t a message or a viewpoint or an idea. I’m working in another realm.” Right. And you’ll leave saying what that is—to the critics. So, I’ve looked at what they say and mostly it doesn’t get at what’s there and not there in your poems.
DB: My whole mortal job is to receive the poems, not to explain them or how or why they work.
ORSON: However, talking of receiving poems you write, “I’m here—
—but in open partnership with a god, a force, a Muse,
whatever you want to call it. It may just be the breathable,
inspiriting possibilities of language and words and sound.
So who is the god, what the force, what inspiriting possibilities? I’d say, whatever god, force, or possibilities rise above a suffered world into a realm I can compare only to that accessed by fairy tale—the realm of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen territory.
DB: I feel the echo of “What immortal hand or eye . . . What the hand . . . and what art . . . In what furnace . . .” Yes, William Blake’s “The Tyger” in his Songs of Innocence and Experience is a perfect touchstone for your questions about source, fairytale, the realm of innocence co-existing with what is fierce and dark.
ORSON: Your poems make me entirely happy because I experience unique beauty, of the sort that somehow finds its way pointing to a strange star that, for the instant, absorbs the viewer with its own aura that has nothing to do with this world—in that moment feels truer. Ah, the god. More later. But—instead of telling us what your poems mean, can you tell us what makes you happy with your poetry and, yes, can you maybe look into what I am saying and tell me what I am trying to get at? I’m a reader—maybe beholder is better. Your poems have affected me this way. Talk to me.
DB: When I speak of that god, a force we call the Muse—I am making literal reference. She exists. Not if you open from your head. Only if, like a child, you open from your heart—to the realm of invisible friends, monsters under the bed, and magical incantation. When you grow up into and profess from your head, you lose that burning brightness, the truest poetry.
ORSON: OK, one day in 1970 you just walk away from your professorship—life tenure, years of MFA sagacity, department meetings, the official poetry world. They require a resignation letter but you give them an incantation that blazes from another world. You exit to become that poet. So, how did you know this was the way? You were reacting against university corporate complicity in the horrors back then but also going on the road towards something and that was years ago. What did you feel you were moving toward and are you happy how it turned out?
DB: I was so young and ignorant—not yet 28—and foolish. Thank goodness that killer let me ride, even after I sprawled off under its hooves! Fairytales say it is always the untried child, that one laughed at, a foolish innocent, who steps right into the dark forest—after two worldly brothers have failed—and one day rides back out, lips ashine, showing that he raised the grail.
ORSON: I love how you talk about poetry—so much usually confused clarified—especially a reminder, apropos to titling your weekly poetry column, that a poem isn’t the words on paper:
I don’t feel that poetry is just words on paper, that it’s movable type, that it’s just books. I feel that what’s on paper is simply the notation. We never get that reality confused in music. We know that the score, the sheet music, is just the notation, that the music is something other. But for some reason, everyone thinks that the poem is the ink that’s on the paper, that it is the page. It’s been only 500 years since Gutenberg. For thousands and thousands and thousands of years there was no movable type, no printing, no books like there are now—and poetry was a magical force and not an object. One of the panoramas that the image “Ink that Echoes” flashes to me is that, yes, there’s print, the way we do it now, but print is in actuality a translation of the more fluid luminous streaking of a handwritten stream of ink, that echoes a deeper tradition, a more primal source. Poetry still reverberates that torrid orchestra of the original star-raining creation. It’s not simply dried ink on paper. The ink is just one more tool.
So may I read some luminous ink from your Greatest Hits? A really fine poem:
THE BLACK-RATSNAKE RITUAL
for Marge Piercy
Through her pampered beanyard
comes the well repairman snorting
in his overalls.
—Be careful of my beans!
He cuffs spider thread out of his way.
—Don’t hurt them!
He feels like throwing his toolbox—right
down her busted well—at the
four-foot snake hissing in that hole
full of bugs. The woman,
hair shooting out thick, black, jumps out
of her vines. She never lets him spray the bugs.
Because spiders in the well
eat them. The mice eat the spiders. The snake
eats the mice. She dumps beans
out of a paper bag,
glaring at his heavy boots and hammer.
—I don’t want you hurting my snake.
He tromps around the well bitching to himself,
sidestepping her beans, while she
disappears deep into the hole with his flashlight.
He slaps his overalls
when he hears her wooing and clucking
and rolls his eyes up at the sky.
There’s something like a kiss.
Then she’s up grinning with the furious snake
round and round in the paper bag.
Down goes the grumbling
repairman. Snorts and scuffs resonate up
through the well.
She keeps watch on his flash beam,
on his sniffing and clanking.
He feels her watching, feels bugs all over him,
curses, slams off the light to kick
at dusty gobs of webs.
—And don’t you hurt any of my mice either!
He sneezes, bumps his head hard.
—Son of a—
—What? she calls down, wanting to see, nearly
stepping on her beans. —What?
Hand on forehead, he blinks up dazed
through the long narrow dark, sees stars and stars . . .
around a black shape, a vine-haired woman
leaning far above, peering
down, holding a big lumpy bag.
ORSON: I promised I would get back to fairy tales and this is a prime example. Here is Jack and the Beanstalk inverted. You present a descent from the bean yard into a well where an abiding snake (with everything glittering and rich and ambiguous it represents) is safeguarded by that mythic silhouette, hallucinated by our hero as he looks up into light after conking his head deep in the well:
a vine-haired woman
leaning far above, peering
down, holding a big lumpy bag.
It’s hilarious and cool and would make Joseph Campbell so giddy. The action depicted is “ritual.” There is a zaniness and happiness, having fun and more with the poor guy in the well, that I haven’t found in other poets. And by “zany” I mean that attribute linked with the spiritual as suggested by Robert Bly. Discerning listeners will know what I mean. You said that this 1975 poem “was created in Allendale, Michigan, after a walk through a cemetery with Marge Piercy, who told me her true story there.” So, whatever that story was, you have transmuted it using and renewing those universal figures. Can you tell us how the original story became the poem?
DB: The universal is most powerfully present in the particular. I had just met Marge and we were fast becoming companions. She was a little goofy herself, fun-loving, and a strong feminist who tithed 10% of her earnings right back into the Movement. As she laughed that story of her busted well, infused with the outlandish particulars of her own character, I sidestepped new graves, flashing the symbolic confrontation between an ardent, outspoken woman and a good old-fashioned man. Of course, I shaped and embellished a bit. But I had such fun composing it, the joke of the seriousness of such collision, year after year, each time her well went haywire. Thus, a ritual. It was after I was getting all the hilarious particulars of caricature in place—which is what inspired and goosed the poem into being, such a wildly funny story—that I recognized deeper archetypal dimensions of well, snake, and lumpy bag.
So it is interesting that you mention Robert Bly. “The Black-Ratsnake Ritual” scared him silly. A couple years after creating this poem, I was driving Bly the half hour from Tacoma to Sea-Tac Airport when he asked what I was working on. I replied Origin of the Valentine, a book of poems about well-known women, each in dramatic confrontation with a male. Bly asked me to recite one. He was aghast, flashing a huge Freudian nightmare. The dark hole full of bugs, surrounded by vines, was vagina, that clutched lumpy bag, castrated testicles. Bly saw a horrid triumphant Medusa, poetry too intimate and invasive of non-posthumous personal character. He warned me how dangerous my project was—on the level of black magic—and demanded several times, “Don’t write one about me.” All that fun I had with the poem just made it more luridly terrifying to Bly, our contemporary poet champion of fairy tales and mythos.
I have found that any story with great particulars gives auto-manifestation of the archetypes, the pure foundation of fairytale, myth, my own life, and my poetry. All I have to do—more often than not, hard and longtime labor—is get the surface detail of the story as specific and concrete as possible, and the archetypal underworld surges up to meet it. I must set a foot in temporality—this mortal world of particulars that it is my job to present—and the other in eternity—that force world of the Muse and all archetypes—eager to meet me if I open.
ORSON: Is that how you got the finale? Mine eyes dazzle. All your poems have such a sense of ending as you avoid what is usual to go off just right. I’ll mention that your poem “What Is Sleep” flourishes so wonderfully. I know you work your poems for years. So what can you tell us about how you finish . . . when and why you are satisfied a poem does what you want it to do?
DB: While I was working out the details of this yearly drama between the wild-haired woman and well repairman, I flashed a factual phenomenon heard as child, that from deep in a well, you can see stars in daytime. By having our repairman bonk his head—which doubles the layers of stars—I put him into a dazed, alternate dimension of perception, and with him take the reader right out into eternity, where the confused woman and the dazed man are looking to each other across vastness, unable to clearly see, hear, or connect. This cosmic joke seemed emblematic of the comic male-female difficulty these two caricatures play out down in the carnal bean yard.
What I want a poem to do is not the secret. What does the poem want to do is what I must open to. Then the Muse will meet me with all her force. If I try to invent, to think up poetry out of my head, I will get Dracula watching old Dracula movies, the zombie art of our cerebral faculties endlessly looping their own obsessed synapses without any greater spark of true life, which jolts from a far deeper jugular. It is my function as poet, not to think up information or ideas, but to get the down-and-dirty details exact, tell the story in all its color, with all its sound, and while doing so discover what archetypes are present, for all of us, not by explaining or philosophizing them but by sharpening the detail, images, and sound that carry them. My job is to be receptive and to do the grunt work. The Muse—co-creator with me—breathes inspirational hints and clues into my receptivity. The grunt work consists of sorting out which are the gift bits from the god and which are my own ordinary head babble. What I am supposed to do is recognize and follow the true clues while jettisoning what is my own mere pedestrian invention. Thus step by step, clue by clue, revision by revision, gallop by gallop, I am following where the poem wants to go. The poem is wilder and wiser than I. I am thus coming upon the poem, not inventing or self-creating it, though it does take a poor dumb mortal like me to ride it into manifestation. So the Muse needs me too.
ORSON: And what does our lady have you working on now?
DB: Ahhh, the Robert Bly question. A quarter of a century later, I’m still laboring those Origin of the Valentine poems that he asked me to recite from. The first—Marge Piercy and the well repairman—is finished. The second—Diane Wakoski and the hitchhiker—is so close to finished. The third—Charleen Swansea and the brother—is finished. And the next five are underway, have been for over 25 years. I hope to finish at least two or three more before I am tramped into this earth. And of course I am also working on other poems started five, ten, twenty years ago.
ORSON: How can we keep up with what you are doing? Periodic cheery galumphs to Bisbee?
DB: You may not want to do that. I haven’t told you that this ten-poem sequence is a journey through Hell and out the other side. “The Black-Ratsnake Ritual” is its symbolic beginning—that descent down into darkness. It is innocent enough, with its comedy and good nature, that an audience might elect to join the damnable ride, rather than hang back like Bly. The second poem, “Hitchhiking on Halloween,” spills all critters, varmints, ghouls up out of the depths onto this plane at midnight, with as much caricature as the first poem, but far less humor. The third poem, “Three Snapshots Thirty Years Old,” is gut-punch sexless rape of a pubescent child by male ego—the under-darkness loose here in broad day of ordinary life. And the poems just go more and more horrific after that, until the last few gradually drop us on out the other side of Hell exhausted of torture and terror.
So Bly was onto something, though I’m not sure he stated it correctly. My own life was certainly going to Hell at the time. The third great romance of my heart had just imploded. And I’d taken that glorious old nosedive into a psychic black hole. These poems—each colliding a celebrated female with some archetypal male—were coming to me one after another. I knew they paralleled my own psychic predicament. I knew to come out the other side I had to plummet the flames of Hell. I felt it my job to manifest these poems to play out a full-hearted plunge and survival.
ORSON: Whoa! do you mean—
DB: Yes. I claimed earlier, archetype is foundation of fairytale, myth, my own life, and my poetry, that if I get surface detail of a drama particularized just so, fully concrete, an archetypal underworld surges up to meet it—and in this case, met me, my own life opera, my poetry so ferociously. But I have proof. I can document that such so-called pathetic fallacy actually occurred.
I was finally off the road—where most of these Origin of the Valentine poems were inspired—and living back in Portland, Oregon, where the poems, this whole project, the Hellish journey of my own failed life and loves, the magma within Mount St. Helens were welling up beyond the measly power of the Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima. I was on the wildest ride of my life, with the shakes, big flashback visions, unfathomable sobs, increasing breakdowns, rumblings from the deep earth bearing up that mountain only 50 miles away. I sat with Carolyn Forché in my car outside a party during one rain of ash, asking how to redirect an unworthy life into committed poetry, while the windshield dirtied over. I broke in half during a tremor, standing upon my bed weeping “The Bleeding” too loud while friends downstairs suffered me and my poem along with the quake. O I crumpled completely. Then miraculously I stood high upon a roof almost in the plume, chest booming that May 18, 1980, force of 500 atomic bombs.
Somehow I knew, as post-eruptions continued, that my own life story and its ritualistic poems—a set of ten in the tradition of Rainier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares—were in synchronicity with upsurges of headless St. Helens. My own psychic and bodily throbs and throes were biofeedback instrument more trusty than seismographic squiggles. So I slammed the whole psychotic marvel into 25 copies of a 24-page Xerox booklet—True History of the Eruption—along with prediction of an ensuing big St. Helens eruption, all raving writing-pasteup-stapling Hiroshima night, and by dawn August 7, 1980, dropped them at the downtown post office, addressed to Robert Bly—I think—and 24 others, including myself, so the day’s postmark would punch them with time and place just before explosion. Then I crashed.
I woke late afternoon to cries from the street down below my open windows. St. Helens was exploding ash eight miles into the sky—yes! hours and hours. This is all documented in the 25 postmarked copies of True History and Martha Bergman’s review of that book on 91 Northwest over KKSN-AM 910 from Portland on August 28, 1980. I possess a cassette of her broadcast.
Two months later as I drove south out of Portland to save my heart and mind and life, all my clothes and manuscripts jammed into my Volkswagen, everything other abandoned behind, I could hear reports on the FM that the mountain was going off again and again. In San Francisco the next mornings I was the one who knew what that was rained down all over our cars. As I continued looking for a home in the Southwest, where I’d never been, through Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, I kept hearing staticky radio reports of the shaking volcano. On that day I arrived in Bisbee from El Paso—November 20, 1980—she ba-roomed a finale violent spew—for a couple years anyway—possibly as I sat down into this very chair at the Copper Queen Saloon.
ORSON: Ah, I hear the chimes at midnight. Anything you would care to add?
DB: That I twitch their echo. Each bewitching hour. But poetry is not black magic. It is also not pretty little moments apart from all the horrors of reality. Never forget that our winged steed of poetry sprang from spurting Medusa after Perseus scythed her snake-writhing head off. Poseidon fathered Pegasus on a Gorgon so ugly and fearsome that just a glance at her would jolt you to stone. That white ride so beloved of the Muses, with moon-shaped hooves releasing inspiriting fountains wherever they struck earth, was mothered by the most terrifying face in all history.
Thus you may want to ask yourself why, what this might possibly mean about poetry. Or you may, like me, just accept that poetry and its Muse are paradoxically fused with the worst ferocity imaginable. “Tyger, tyger, burning bright / in the forests of the night.” It is in such night, especially now at blackest hour, that our stars burn brightest.
And surely I should say—Pegasus was the constellation just breaking that Big Sky horizon the moment I was birthed back there in Montana 1941 wild ride country.
Dick Bakken, Copper Queen Hotel Saloon veranda, June 25, 1989, the 113th
anniversary of the slaughter of Custer and 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn in
Montana. Photos by Swiss photographer Andreas Rentsch.