John Godfrey has been a poetic presence in the East Village of New York City for the past half century. He has mentored generations of younger poets, been an integral part of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church almost since its founding in 1966. He is as much a part of the fabric of the city as the sidewalks that he roams. Stacy Szymaszek, the former executive director of the Poetry Project, recently interviewed John Godfrey for PKM.
John Godfrey publishes all of his books, as a matter of principle and vow, with small, independent presses. He says he doesn’t have the “mover gene” that would enable him to hustle for some kind of something in “the literary world” (he taught himself French so he could read his favorite French poets in their language – what is more literary?).
I don’t want to say that something is “a name” or “a big book deal” because he pays little mind to that system, other than to note it as being part of the actual world that he lives in. Godfrey, in his words, is in “the luxurious position of not giving a fuck.” He cares that the young people he meets read him more than having an abstract public. He has been reading, writing, and thinking in New York City’s East Village since the 1960s.
I met John Godfrey at The Poetry Project when I started working there in 2005. He gave his first reading there in 1969, just two years after its founding, and he has led workshops, been a mentor for the fellowship program, and notably, been a regular audience member for over fifty years. My recurrent image of Godfrey is in a black leather blazer, sitting in the back rows of the parish hall with a toothpick in his mouth, at times with a Newsletter rolled into a cone and held to his ear so he could hear better. He is the embodiment of what Edwin Denby meant when he talked about the sophisticated listening audience one is likely to find at the Project. The mover gene he does have is that he is a peripatetic poet. This comes through strongly in images of hips (motion of the hip is the most important part of walking) in City of Corners.
With an enemy
like daylight who needs
the psychology dime
Hips do the work
and I cross the world
His poems are of the East Village, where he has lived in the same building for over forty years, and when that neighborhood started to get… less interesting, he also started to include his experiences in the North Brooklyn neighborhood where he worked for seventeen years as an HIV/AIDS nurse specializing in the neonatal and adolescent care. His poems always connect his associative poet mind to lived life, and that makes them necessarily unpredictable. Unpredictability, as he says, is his poetry ground rule.
Our interview took place in November of 2019 via email.
SS: Thank you for having this conversation with me, John.
Let’s start with what’s new. Tent Editions run, by Ann Stephenson, recently published a chapbook of your poems entitled Nifty Walls. For those who may not know, Ann also lives in the East Village, and she makes particularly handsome books. My first response as a reader being reunited with your work was to relish the form of the chapbook and its meaningfulness. I don’t know exactly how many books you’ve published to date – 15, I think. But I know that the first couple were done on the mimeo at The Poetry Project in the ‘70s and that you’ve exclusively published with small presses since then. Before I start projecting my thoughts about publishing and audience here, I’ll dive in and ask – what and/or who do you consider when you decide it’s time to publish a collection of poems?
His poems always connect his associative poet mind to lived life, and that makes them necessarily unpredictable. Unpredictability, as he says, is his poetry ground rule.
John Godfrey: To start with, Tent Editions. I’ve known Ann Stephenson for only three-four years. She had “worked” with Larry Fagin. He had shown me examples of her work. Larry and I were longtime friends and neighbors but not social buddies in any way. He was early on interested in my work. He tolerated the disorderly side of my life because of my writing. He edited two mimeo books—in 1971, 26 Poems, and in 1976, Music of the Curbs. At that time there was no NEA to fund magazines and book publishers. Earlier generations had had their best-looking mags, like Yugen, and Mother was as good as an underground mag could get in the early ’60s. The world was smaller, computers were yet far from luring zillions of young people into writing poems. There was a certain cachet to the mimeo book. Gratis art for covers was nothing to painters, and of course the poets grew their own specialists in Joe Brainard and George Schneeman.
At heart, Larry was a champagne-and-mink kind of guy. End of ’70, when the manuscript was decided, he found out that an “aristo” college friend of mine, Willie Eisenhart, was involved with Robert Indiana’s former studio assistant, Bill Katz, and he engineered without my knowledge a cover by Indiana. His first silkscreen ever. I have artist’s edition 10/14 framed on the wall all these years. On top of that, every one of the 300 covers in the Adventures in Poetry mimeo edition was a serigraph using the artist’s screen, executed by his studio on fabulous imported card paper. For Music, I asked Mike Goldberg for the cover art. I had made his acquaintance while still in college, visiting his studio on the Bowery — the old YMCA gym he inherited from Mark Rothko.
I would probably not react to the streets in the way I do now without a time perspective, the time when this island was a proper and inclusive city.
John Giorno was down the hall in his first large room to which he later added other rooms in the building. John was such a great guy. I hitchhiked back from SF the fall of 1969 and was crashing on floors. John let me spend a dozen or so nights in his place — he always spent the night out, usually at Wyn Chamberlin’s loft in the Flatiron District. So Mike Goldberg saw the Indiana cover and was indignant because, having got to know each other, I hadn’t asked him first. I explained my non-complicity. At the time Mike was working with a hobby store word-burning tool, an electric stylus so to speak. He had supplies of exotic handmade paper from France, grayish with prominent quilting. His technique was to wet areas of the paper and apply the tool to warp and even create small tears in the paper. So he did this, Music/of the/Curbs, written with the hot tip, and a dear friend, Jeff Steinberg, figured out how to make a b&w image of it photographically, utilizing nothing more than naked light from a clamp lamp in his studio. It looked perfectly like a tinned-over tenement derelict window.
Tent Editions I became more familiar with two years ago and Ann Stephenson and myself had become familiar during the last months of Fagin’s life. Based on my healthcare experience, Larry asked me to be his documented Health Care Proxy. I said yes and it turned out to be somewhat taxing. Ann was involved along with other former student-proteges with his care. In 2017 ,Tent put out three chapbooks of appearance equal to my recent Nifty Walls. One was work of Ann herself. She writes cleverly, airily, which she subtly undercuts with, how would I say, the terms of existence. The other two were by Marcella Durand, a smart somewhat philological project, and the other by Carol Szamatowicz, clever, abrupt and kind of aggressive poems. Ann asked me for a 20-or-so-page manuscript and I used poems from fall ’17 to winter ’18, plus a poem written in its first form in ’12, during the Sandy crisis, lightless. I did not expect the letterpress cover. I’m very grateful to Ann.
About independent presses: For one thing, my dive — my chronic infection with poems — into this tough vocation came about as much out of rebellion as out of a fledgling aesthetic core. In 1965, I made a vow never to write a poem that would be acceptable to the Poetry of those days. None of the “New York Poets” had yet overcome mainstream scruples. In this day, with the proliferation of poets from MFA prep, and along with the formation of an industrial assimilation of latter-day advanced writing, I mean to continue indie publication. I’m working now with Kyle Schlesinger and Cuneiform. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a New Directions or Grove imprint, but I’m not inclined to go after it. I don’t have mover genes. I aspire to writing like a guy with a decent mind and who does lots of homework and who simply lives a life, and I do not have a desire for a literary life. Any press makes a collection exist. I am responsible to making it known to my chosen 30-or-so readers of import. I am more interested in being known by younger writers than by the public.
In 1965, I made a vow never to write a poem that would be acceptable to the Poetry of those days.
And, now that I have winged out in every direction at too much length, the audience I intend my writings for. My earliest interests, before 1965 when poet Lewis MacAdams — ever since an inspiration to read — introduced me to the New York and “New American Poetry” scene, were Frost, Williams, Pound, and Baudelaire. There was also the slight matter of Dylan’s electric lyrics that appeared in the spring of 1965 on Bringing It All Back Home. I think we never shake our first inspirations. I write with the standards — not the style, the standards — of those writers. That’s how I read. If I find standards that I can applaud — it would take a long time to explain what I mean by that — in poems that are somewhat against my grain, I get enormous pleasure and am filled with extreme questions about my own practice. Arguing internally is a Jekyll and Hyde trip but a major part of homework. In a way I write for dead poets in order to show what one guy out here does in today’s terms with their inspiration. The number of such dead has expanded a lot since I started out. The other audience is younger writers I hope to show something about how words add to our comprehension when right out of our existence, rather than about our existence. So, this applies mostly to people who write poems and learn — the learning never ends — how to read discerningly. I like a poem that requires good reading. I don’t want to make poems that are not difficult. Addressing a general readership is not the point of being obsessed with such a difficult task. I was often put off by Fagin’s near preciosity, but he read very carefully. He also told his students, “Writing a good poem is the second-most difficult thing to do.” They ask, of course, “What’s the most difficult, then?” And Fagin would say, “The pole vault.”
I aspire to writing like a guy with a decent mind and who does lots of homework and who simply lives a life, and I do not have a desire for a literary life
SS: I really appreciate your “winging out.” You are one of my favorite conversationalists and I count myself among the not young but younger-than-you poets who have learned from your work and from being around you. When we talked as friends, I always wished I could take out a notebook and pencil to transcribe. That would have gotten awkward. So here we are with a platform! Now that we are emailing a bit I have the smart things you say for the record. You recently encouraged me “do your homework against the grain.” That stuck with me. The Poetry Project as a structure and nearly everyone in my life was of course immensely supportive of working “against the grain” with a similar enough idea of what that meant. It just occurred to me that part of “against the grain” is this idea of continuous learning – not this “I know something you should know” position that can arise, I think, when poets don’t write from their existence but about it. As I was saying, now that I’m not at the Project anymore or living in NYC, my sense of how much against the grain I am is heightened. It has been an adjustment and/but allowed me to make work I could have never made before. I think the fact that you extend “against the grain” to include against your grain is one of the things that make you and your work extraordinary. Your answer made me think of your poem “The System” where you say “The system that works/is one of the forgotten.” Maybe like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, you can either say something about that poem in relation to what we’re talking about (“latterday advanced writing” or poet simply living life), or take a stab at talking about what you mean by “standards. Or both.
John Godfrey: I think I’ll take that stab after dealing with “The System.” If I warm up that way I might get a clue about “standards.
I write trying to make the discontinuous experience fall together with a number of absent quantities. At times weather slips in for a moment, an influence by suggestion. But how to do with climate change? There is a lot of information to eliminate because a poem has its own kind of autonomy from sheer information. I read poems that seem to be – my own coinage – “infomercials.” I went online more often up to June 2018 because maybe five days a week there’d be a Tom Clark blog arrived on my email, the blog he called “Beyond the Pale.” Tom was full of attitudes. A lot of his writing is in a fairly high classical mode, deriving from about 400 years of Anglophone poets. Then there’s a lot of Cendrars-like flat delivery. Tom loved to decry. Among things he decried was the death of earth. He could write a facetious-indignant diatribe in high style (dudgeon) as well as anyone. I was already in mind of similar outrage and thought to do a poem that would not be different from how I generally arrive at a poem. So while taking care of my activities of daily life two-three years ago I hear a set of words and write them down: “The system that works/is one of the forgotten.” I’m not going to follow this up explicitly or spell out where I’m coming from. I didn’t “conceive” the workings of the poem, what happens after the opening “happened.” I like lean writing, as free of grammatical demands as possible, so the succeeding lines wiggle and slide a bit to associate “law” with systems, and the human part is non-intellectual, a kind of erotic prioritizing. I think this has to do with my appreciation of the baseness of human response to our existence. I end the first section with a reference to extinction in the Kolbertian sense. The second part I start with quippiness because I feel that in my writing I am inevitably going to use my best bullshit – I mean that in a good inventive direction – because serious matters like the depredation of earth’s system, or racial victimization, are absurdly wrong and are not worthy of dignified treatment.
There was also the slight matter of Dylan’s electric lyrics that appeared in the spring of 1965 on Bringing It All Back Home. I think we never shake our first inspirations.
The earth is the system I’m talking about here. Until a thousand years ago, while the human population was about one-two billion, the earth’s system went about its profligate business. Religious indoctrination, especially in terms put out by eastern Mediterranean history, assured humans of dominion over all of the earth’s system, which was entirely forgotten after overlay upon overlay by self-interest and avariciousness. So that is how my mind started its activity in the poem.
For more than a hundred years there have been serious scientific insights into the earth’s system and the accumulation of data and defenses of the earth, but these higher minds have had no legislative powers. Now everyone can hear the good arguments, but humans have an extraordinary ability to shit in their own front yard and piss in their sinks, so self-interest and prejudice have ensured that humans’ best interests are overridden. The earth’s system was not meant to include its own rape by humans, who have removed such a multitude of its moving parts and its organs that its own system will not be in play again for a number of million years, and who knows what will emerge from the wait. Not us.
Five hundred years have passed since Brahe started the fall of the Aristotelian system. Almost two hundred years ago Hegel admitted that no system of thought in language form could include all of being, especially erotic and other ecstatic experiences, which any verbal description can only fail. Now, I find “language” to be the most overlooked and unquestioned of systems. Western languages have only been standardized grammatically for 400-600 years. Grammar and language parts are of no help in getting over the power of words. I have found in Asian languages an inspiration for off-loading as much of the American English system as I can. In Asian language there are no conjugations, no articles, inferred prepositions, etc. Words, in my view, are threatened with impoverishment the more they are used in “correct” explicatory ways.
Systems are always to be distrusted, flouted, ridiculed and paraded naked whenever they assert conclusions. Conclusions are riddled with many sizes of holes. Conscientious science studies an endless wealth of holes. Since we think in a language system, a writer should be aware of his/her complicity if she/he adapts to a phantom confidence in what is written rationally. Language systems should not be accepted as law. If you write it well you can get away with your infractions.
Well, on to what I mean by “standards.” They are not beholden to laws. You know what I mean if I say “high standards,” but even that is a subjective tag. What I call standards is, when reading I can see a decisiveness in word selection. Simple or obscure, the word choice “works,” which makes it right. This includes daring and insouciance, which combined with a sensation of “right” decision making convinces me of the writer’s freedom. This applies to reading ancient, superseded and “old system” writings. I can get the feeling of standards from texts I disagree with on grounds of their subjects, prejudices and historical wrongness. Narcissistic writing can contain high standards by me. I’m put off by innocence, insipidness, more than a wisp of sincerity, harmlessness and laziness of imagination. Laziness of imagination is what I call logic and linearity. In writing a poem you have these tools made of letters. Dreaming up a rationale for using your choice of words can be seen, and I call that imaginative, even if it doesn’t include an image. In other words, I don’t think I can pin “standards” down.
Read widely and repetitiously. Never read a poem only once. If its standards fail, you can learn a lot about how to approach your vocation from what disagrees with you. The more a poem fails you the better off you could be for the examination of it. You want to be able to say often, “Boy, remind me never to write a line like that.” I almost blush to use the word “vocation” but what else suffices? “Vocation” obviates any attempt to tell why one writes. Anyone asks, play ‘em. If I exercise my mentations much more I reach that wonderful state in which existence is too much for words to deal with. So I choose a few to write down.
SS: The first image I ever saw of you was the photograph on the cover of Where the Weather Suits My Clothes. You are mid-step, walking on a NYC sidewalk. I literally just realized I unconsciously riffed on that cover for my Journal of Ugly Sites. Huh. John Yau and others have noted that your work is attuned to and echoes what it’s like to walk in a city. When I think of you, you are in motion. In another parallel, we both hurt a leg part last month – you your knee and me my ankle. You’ve given me some good advice about foot positions during sleep. How are you getting around these days? And what are you perceiving on the streets of NYC this week that’s ecstatic or at least interesting?
John Godfrey: I like that photo. Kenward told me a photographer friend of his and Joe’s would be in touch. His name is Jean Boulte. French, I’m thinking. I’m also thinking foreign guy with camera in the 1984 untamed East Village. I should have known. The EV was becoming the slumming ground of the moment. Turns out Jean was from the French community of Rio, like many South American countries with exclusionary European groups. He also was very familiar with and comfortable “carrying” in the EV. He had previously scouted abandoned storefront shutters that had lively graffito spray jobs. Because of the light, we settled on the corner just across Av A on 12th St. He included a corner of a Bell Telephone ad – the monopoly then – that was in Spanish and he captured a graceful feminine forearm and hand holding the old fashion cradle receiver. The bag was my small bag, because after the shoot I would make a light Saturday afternoon delivery over WV way. I haven’t seen Jean for five or so years, he lives around here. On the left of the cover photo you see the plate glass window of a used clothing store, which tells you something about commercial rents in the day. I like the hat with sun brim.
I have one copy of that collection, the one I used to read from. I don’t care to read from the past. I mentioned before the role rebellion plays for me in writing poems. Staying on the edge gives me the illusion of staying in play with modified goals and capabilities. The older I get, the more I appreciate the boost it gives me to generate with what I know and have learned about writing and to not give a fuck where it goes, as long as it seems to work. In my own, not necessarily shared, estimation.
About the streets thing I get hung with. I love the clichéd anonymity of this city. It’s what’s around, indoors or out. I love seeing people once in my life, which is the case in 83% of the passings someone by. I try to imagine what goes on in their minds in a grimly realistic way. The accents oftener are Ohio, Connecticut, Jersey — mainlanders. Most people around here might be less than half my age and their socio-economic background is totally unlike mine. They are not observant. In the old days there was plenty of accent range, and only a few came from white people, the old Sicilians and Eastern Europeans, all died out now.
The earth’s system was not meant to include its own rape by humans, who have removed such a multitude of its moving parts and its organs that its own system will not be in play again for a number of million years, and who knows what will emerge from the wait. Not us.
I often walk up to two miles in a day – plus the sixth-floor walkup one to three times – just doing errands or attending events, which I give too much time to. During my walks my mind goes off the leash and it pumps out my native language. I never stop to jot down special riffs, but the experience of the riff becomes part of what I call the “daily rushes.” When I am at my work table with one of my Pelikan fountain pens and a (colored) 4 x 6 index card, I review the rushes and summon up the floating multilevel sensation of “digging the streets.” Stuff starts happening in words, silently, and I grasp savory riffs as I might a fly, out of the air. Discontinuity and the surface-to-depth app kick in at times. But to walk the streets where the familiar undergoing change meets with the novelty of one-time individuals is an ideal nutritional supplement to writing a poem. The streets and their sociology have changed radically, but they have always been among the elements that slip into a poem, no more. A poem is a narrative of my mental activity so that a reality, the street for instance, gets fantasticated and colored and then I shift into a meditative narrative or a wise-ass narrative. I have trained the sequence to happen, just happen. My writing shows the (dis)order in which my mind works and the sequence is as the words come to me about 86% of the time. The illogical and the inconclusive are freedoms. Nothing Williams didn’t play a hundred years ago. My freedoms are different from his because freedoms of language are different from those Williams was pushing. I use the present indicative because I want the actual experience – of the writing — to stay alive instead of taking on the preterit’s remove.
Ecstatic sidewalk experiences are not much happening and I am resigned to begrudge and forgive being surrounded by young people of all races who have a different sense of survival. What I pay attention to most are the delivery guys on lightning accelerated bikes, grandmothers of color with a “gran’” or two they might be raising, multi-brown students from the middle school on 3rd St. who walk and tween and teen their way to the L train at 14th and First. Streets east of First Av around here used to be teeming with young people of color. And over the age of 13 they would be already young adults. Now I note few oldtime kids. Mostly white professionals pushing 50 with their clock-watch 5 year old. They might slip sometimes into the writing with a definitely snide tenor to it.
I would probably not react to the streets in the way I do now without a time perspective, the time when this island was a proper and inclusive city.
John Godfrey is the author of the books Push the Mule (The Figures), Private Lemonade (Adventures in Poetry), City of Corners (Wave Books), Singles & Fives (Fewer & Further), and Tiny Gold Dress (Lunar Chandelier), among many others. Wave Books published The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 in 2016, and Tent Editions just published a chapbook called Nifty Walls.
Poetry Project reading, with John Godfrey and Anselm Berrigan, September 2011: