This past January 18 and 19 (2015) I had the great pleasure of going to Hallendale Beach, Florida, and having access to the great Cuban-American poet José Kozer in the home he shares with his wife Guadalupe. I packed some short sleeve shirts, escaped Seattle winter, brought the three books I have of Kozer’s in English, Stet, Anima and Tokonoma and readied my IC Recorder for action.
What transpired was all natural, and intense and extensive. My usual interview lasts an hour and at, or shortly after that point, one hits a point of diminishing returns. For Kozer it was two hours and I would come back the following day for one more half hour session.
While I usually post all audio of my interviews at the American Prophets link, I’ve had an offer for publication of this interview and so am including here some short audio links as well as a summary of all the audio segments, which are available via mp3 for folks wishing to make a small donation in exchange, as per Kozer’s wishes.
José Kozer Interview, Jan 19 & 20, 2015, Hallendale Beach, FL
José Kozer was born in 1940 in Havana, Cuba, of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland and Czechoslovakia. He left his native land in 1960, lived in New York until 1997, when he retired as full Professor from Queens College, where he had taught Spanish and Latin American literature for thirty-two years. After living for two years in Spain, he then moved to Florida.
His poetry has been translated into many languages, has been widely anthologized and has appeared in many literary journals over the world. His work is the subject of several master’s and doctoral dissertations, and has been studied on many graduate and undergraduate courses.
José Kozer was awarded the Pablo Neruda Latin American Poetry Prize for 2013. Tokonoma, his latest book in English, was published in 2011.
We sat in his study, on opposite sides of a small, folding table, with a view of South Florida from the 12th floor apartment he shares with his wife Guadaloupe. Our task was to get as much interview in before a 1PM lunch, as his mealtimes are regulated with the exactness befitting a man about to turn 75 March 28.
In the first segment José talked about the affinity he has with his current translator Peter Boyle, who he’d met in Caracas years ago. Boyle was the official translator for Eugenio Montejo, the Venezuelan poet. Boyle wanted to translate Kozer’s work, but was afraid because he felt his Spanish was not up to the task. Kozer describes Boyle as a fine poet and humble man. Boyle connected Kozer with Shearsman Books (UK) specifically for the book Anima (2011). Kozer felt that the book was in the middle of his aesthetic, being more difficult than work published in Stet (Junction Press, 2006) but not as dense as Tokonoma. He refers to the poems in Anima as “very connected, very natural.” He said Boyle struggled with tenses when first beginning to translate the poems of Anima, but Kozer talked of how he has now entrusted Boyle to translate one of his most difficult (& most “Jewish”) books Carece de Causa. Kozer calls him “the ideal translator.” Boyle has completed the translation of Kozer’s Índole, originally published in Matanzas, Cuba, which has been submitted to a university press for consideration. Part 1, 7:00.
In segment two Kozer addressed the recent change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, the easing of restrictions that had been part of the economic blockade for over 50 years. Kozer said he did not consider politics his realm, but also characterized his own politics as “center-left” with a “detestation for right-wingers.” He said they were the ones who persecuted his parents in the Slavic countries and were the ones who expelled him from his country in the “harsh 60s and 70s.” Kozer said that new aspects of the U.S. economy, typified by companies like Airbnb and Uber X, are part of a trend away from large chains and corporate entities and reflect his own values of frugality and independence and he agrees that this (sharing) economy is a potential path for Cuba and China as well. He discussed his hope for the generation now coming of age and his efforts to get people to understand the value of a poetry book in a capitalist society. Part 2, 8:12.
In the third segment he discussed how in 1958 he told his father of his desire to fight for the Cuban revolution and his father sent him to New York. He talked about moving to New York, his many invites to go back to Cuba and his clear rejection of the conditions with which those invites were offered. He also discussed why he thinks the poetry of Tokonoma is more realized than Stet and Anima. He talked about how he has to organize his daily life so that the poet in him can be integrated into that life. He also discussed how he is known as a “grafómano” but that is inaccurate. He mentioned how he has written (at this point) over 10,300 poems, which he says broke the Guinness Book of World Records. Part 3, 9:40.
In the fourth segment Kozer compared his books Anima and Tokonoma by saying one was a “highly spiritual Occidental moment” and the other a “highly spiritual Oriental moment.” He calls the Occidental moment, “harsher,” more Jewish and heart-rending. He says the Oriental moment is more lyrical, peaceful, harmonious and more fun. He says the Jew in him was always “happily unhappy.” He cites Kenneth Rexroth’s translations for opening up the world of Asian cultures to him, changing his life completely. He calls the Jewish culture one “of pain.” Whereas he says Asian cultures “know how to get drunk better than we do” and handle drink better, eat better and walk better than people in the West. He also discussed his notion that the poem should be written quickly, in twenty minutes or less and he agreed with the assessment that his poetry is organic/spontaneous. His says the act of writing the poem is as natural as defecating. Part 4, 9:08.
In part five Kozer discussed his process of writing a poem each day, how he can go for a walk with his wife halfway through the poem and then pick up right where he left off without reading what he’d written previously. He discussed how he was reading a biography of August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter and how a phrase came to him while reading the book, and so he wrote it down, not understanding its immediate significance. He understood the poem that he wrote as one of memory, but maybe also fiction or fantasy. He called it a reconstruction, a reality that “springs from some place.” It is a reality that leads him in his imagination to recall being in the house in Havana where he was raised, a certain place in Buenos Aires, his wife’s home town in Spain, climbing the Himalayas, and in New York when he was mugged by knife-point and attempted to convince the mugger that HE, the mugger should give him, Kozer, money, because he is poor and an exile. This led him in the poem to write about memory and dementia, which he fears may be “right around the corner” for him. He then talked about and displayed the lineation of the poem as it shifts gears into something he CAN remember, that day’s lunch. He then relates how he appended to the poem with the applause of musical instruments that he saw as accompanying the whole poem. He calls the poem “poesía performativa” and says all his poetry is “a performance.” In summing this up Kozer says in addition to the performance there is process, naturalness, practice, experience, habit as part of this as well. Part 5, 9:24.
In part six Kozer responded to the characterization of his process as “easy.” When contrasted with the method of Lorine Niedecker, for example, he said that there are two basic ways of making art, the “belabored” process of someone like Niedecker and his method, a quicker take which he says: “has to do with the Cuban in me.” He described it as “very fast, almost automatic.” After writing a poem he says he is happy, but also devastated by physical tiredness. He also discussed how there is so much misunderstanding about his method and work by people who are envious and project their weaknesses on him. He also discussed his iconic lineation and how that developed in response to the needs of publishers and his abhorrence to brackets. He said he hates brackets but loves parenthesis. He also discussed the publishing project of a book/DVD of 1,000 pages to be published in Brazil by Francisco Dos Santos of Lumme Editions. Part 6 7:52.
In the seventh segment Kozer discussed his love for using parenthesis, saying that his practice of using parenthetical thoughts happened many years ago and he does not know how it started, but thinks the practice has a connection to music, as well as to his “retentive” personality. He also uses parenthesis as a stop to “agglutinate” material and to pause in the intense process of writing the poem. A “way of interfering with myself” and “a way of resting” and “like an adagio.. or staccato” are ways in which he describes the use of this practice. When the Jean Houston quote was offered as a parallel explanation for parenthesis (we are the people of the parenthesis, after the death of the old gods, before the birth of the new) he discussed his frustration with monotheism which he called “absolutism” and suggested it was autocratic. He reflects this understanding in his work over the past ten years with many references to paganism. He said he is enjoying going back to the old gods and it is giving him joy and understanding and he appreciates their sexuality, eating and drinking habits, their communal nature and even their anger. Kozer said part of the inspiration for this hatred of monotheism was an essay on Ezra Pound (by Maria Luisa Ardizzone?) that suggested Pound was not antisemitic, but against monotheism. Kozer also commented on his use of the ant in his work, a repeated image, that he says: “Is beginning to bug me.” He said to him the ant represents hard work, and Cuba. “Cuba was an anthill for me” he says. They represent a “complete and complex society” like bees, he says and he appreciates their beauty. He says he likes insects more than dogs or cats. He also expressed his appreciation for earthworms, how they work for the earth by oxygenating the earth itself and he discussed some of the hired help around his condominium complex who harmed the worms and how he chastised this man and later forgave him for the actions. Part 7, 11:28.
In the eighth segment he discussed his time in New York, and the fact that he did not really have a literary community. He rejected his contemporaries in part because of his fascination for Asian culture, created by reading the translations of Kenneth Rexroth. He discussed reading Lorca, first in English, and then Spanish, and he considers Lorca to be a seminal influence on his work. He criticized Borges’ criticism of Lorca and discussed how he was Bob Dylan’s bartender in 1963 in Woodstock, NY. He talked about seeing Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning and other painters while in New York. He said he “never learned anything from poets.” Part 8, 5:48.
In part 9 Kozer engaged in a discussion of Cuban cursing, as well as the neo-barroco style of writing. It is not, as described by Mark Weiss in the preface to Kozer’s book Stet, “the dominant mode of Latin American writing”, but more like “cuatro gatos” in Kozer’s words. He said that the neo-barroco poets are those published in the anthology, which he co-edited, called Medusario. Kozer said the style is abrupt, dense, and different from the linear approach which guides most poetry in Latin America. He cited Roberto Echavarren, Eduardo Espina, Néstor Perlongher, Raúl Zurita and others as exemplars of the style. He talked about the criticism neo-barroco poets get because many poets are “afraid of them.” He said attacks on his work, complaints about its difficulty, slowed down by seventy percent once he was awarded the Neruda Prize. He also responded to his line stating: “he carried three tons of death on his back” by saying they represented the Cuban, the Jew and the Buddhist. Part 9, 12:57.
In the tenth segment Kozer responded to a question that likened his book Anima to the serial poem mode of North American West Coast poets like Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Nate Mackey and the poets of the TISH movement, but Kozer said he was not aware of this mode as described by such poets. Instead he said that he began to write in the mode of Anima “out of a personal problem.” He says that his most difficult issue with poetry is the title, which drives him “absolutely crazy.” He says that creating poems in a series alleviates the need for titles of individual poems and that he has 50 to 60 such series, including Autorretrato and Un día felíz. He said such series begin, expand, grow and die out. So, the serial poem approach for him started as kind of a game, a way around the problem of titling. he said that each poem is incomplete, but feeds the next one and there is continuity as there is in nature, with energy dying and being remade into something else. He discussed his recent interest in Scandinavian literature, including Lars Gustafsson and the playwright August Strindberg. He says the idea of the serial poem is so “congenial” to poetry, but says he learned it from painters like Philip Guston. Part Ten, 10:38.
In segment eleven Kozer responded to the notion that the poems of Anima are, in his words, “perhaps a last will and testament.” He explained that when he started writing the Amina poems they had such an intensity that he felt it was possible he would not write after these poems had concluded. Instead, the poems triggered a “tremendous mental poetics activity.” He also said he had “never first decided on what I was going to write” in any specific poem. “It simply happens to me” is how he described the process. “There is no conscious program when I produce a poem. He describes the beginning of a poem as puzzling and as a “force” and “a gift.” A force with which he cooperates. He says the sources of the poems come from the head being “filled with so much material” over the years and so much experience. He also cited the fact that he’s read voraciously all of his life as a factor in the success of his poetry practice. Quoting Nietzsche he says “you can only be a writer if you surround yourself with ghosts. Your ghosts.” He says the work has a spiritual component because it needs “an order, a structure, a form.” He says: “A little incident, or little thought, almost meaningless, a poet can convert into a major transcendental thing.” He discussed his love for all things and his inability to see inanimate objects, statues, wedding rings, goatees, as inanimate. They all are alive and create associations. He talked about the associations the word Anima has in a Jungian sense, that he is comfortable with the androgynous and had to overcome a macho culture in which women, homosexuals, Jews, Blacks and others were mocked and treated as less human. He had to overcome such prejudices in himself. Part 11, 11:19.
In the twelfth segment Kozer talked about his daughter’s sexual orientation, how she told him the news of that realization, and how he handled her disclosure of her sexual orientation. He also discussed how his work could be seen as androgynous, or from varied sexual orientations and genders, and the cultural differences with certain words like maricón, which is usually translated into English as “faggot” but in Cuba and Mexico this is not always the case depending on context. He also discussed how when he finishes writing a poem, he is relieved more than anything else. Relieved of a burden and blessed with “a deeper unconscious understanding of my self.” The poem is the entity that corrects his life; is his Confucius. He also agreed with the notion that his poetry practice serves his life much like dream work does for people who keep a record of their daily dreaming. He also said he has matured as an individual as his own work has matured and he claimed it was due to Zen and Zen Buddhism. He described how that maturity manifests. He also discussed how his poetry is akin to prayer, a spiritual practice or act of love or devotion. He discussed his 72 previously published books, has four on the way and published 8 in the last year. Part 12, 13:44.
In part 13 Kozer responded to the notion that he considers himself “Japanese” even though h’e Jewish, with ancestors from Eastern Europe who grew up in Cuba. He discussed the documentary being created about his life called: “Me Japanese.” He talked about his love for traditional Japan, their aesthetics and that of China, and Asian literature. He says it compensates for the “arroz con frijoles” Cuban in him and the “blintzes” Jew in him. He discussed his notion of complexity in identity and how would never say he’s “proud” to be Cuban. Part 13, 9:17.
In the 14th segment he discussed the idea for Tokonoma, his latest book in English, and how some people believe Kozer’s idea for Tokonoma came from José Lezama Lima, who mentioned the word in one of his poems. Kozer credits Japanese fiction, perhaps Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, for making him aware of the concept of the alcove in Japanese culture. He discussed his $10 Target Buddha on display on his book shelf. He discussed the poems in Tokonoma in which he describes in great detail the daily activities of Asian historical figures and poets, Go Toba, Chuang Tzu, Tu Fu, Wang Wei and others by saying he has a skill that enables him to “be there” and relate the experience of such spiritual seekers, likening it to the Keats concept of Negative Capability. He considers it an ego-less state. He says human beings are this, they are fragments that somehow crystallize through experience, through the unconscious and are a “cubistic composition” or collage made up of many different life experiences that manifest as behavior or mannerisms. He says his poetry has been capped a poetry of collage and that this aspect of being a human in the 21st century is more important that “identity.” He again mentioned the notion of the “anacoluto” (anacoluthon) and how interference in the act of writing a poem can abruptly change the subject matter, the content, can impose parenthetical thoughts and other sidebars that are marks of the neo-barroco approach to poetry composition. He says it is necessary for the poet who writes like this to have an “oficio” or someone “in control.” Part 14, 8:23.
In the 15th and final segment Kozer discussed the difficulty of translating his work and how work that is easy to understand, is the kind that usually gets translated from one language to another, leaving difficult work like his and others often untranslated. He discussed his love for critics of the 30s and 40s like Edmund Wilson, who “took chances” and went against the “laziness” of much work in literature, and Harry Levin. Poets who display the same kind of fearlessness in Kozer’s opinion, include Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and José Lezama Lima. He elaborated on his line in Tokonoma “what’s inaccessible usually is the sacred.” He talked about his obsession with hard-boiled eggs, more on his bartending experience in Woodstock in 1963. Part 15, 7:58.