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An Interview With Jesse Glass, Jr.
by David F. Hoenigman

Jesse Glass, Jr., (1954- ), a writer, artist, and editor, is Professor of American literature and history and of comparative literature at Meikai University in Chiba, Japan. Raised outside Westminster, Maryland, he holds degrees from Western Maryland College (B.A., 1979), Johns Hopkins University (M.A., 1980), and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Ph.D., 1988). He was closely associated with avant-garde periodicals, Goethe's Notes (1976-1980), Cream City Review (1982-1988), and Die Young (1991-1996). After moving to Japan in 1992, he became involved with the Abiko Quarterly. In 1998 he established Ahadada Books, which publishes both online and in print. Published works of his poetry include The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems (2006), The Life and Death of Peter Stubbe (1995) and Lexical Obelisk (1983, 1990, 1996). He has also written on the history and folklore of Carroll County, Maryland, in The Witness: Slavery in 19th century Carroll County, Maryland (2004), Carroll County Newspaper Wars: Know-Nothings, Alms House Scandals and the Death of a Civil-War Editor (2004), and Ghosts and Legends of Carroll County (1982; revised 1998), respectively.

Also see: Penn Sound, The Guardian, Ubuweb, Jacket, Michael Heller on Jesse Glass

I met Jesse Glass for coffee in Tokyo the day after Christmas. Given our common interest in literature and years as expats in Japan (10 for me, 17 for him), I figured we'd have a lot to talk about. Nearly seven hours later, as we parted in the train station I still felt we had only grazed the surface of what we had to talk about. To say that Jesse Glass can talk the hind legs off a donkey seems quite fitting given his upbringing on a Maryland horse farm. Perhaps Jesse can talk the hind legs off a mustang. For nearly seven hours – from coffee shop, to restaurant (we were asked to leave having stayed hours after eating), to bookstore, to yet another coffee shop –we talked on about a variety of things: poorly attended funerals, one-armed house painters, the murder of his great grandfather, arcane ways of contacting spirits, writers, reading, writing and horseshoeing. It was a great pleasure to me as each of these topics and dozens more were infused with Jesse's knowledge, insight and humor. In fact, I'd say we spent most of the afternoon laughing. Also a great listener, he was more than happy to hear me go on about my life, my interests and my writing. It must be said that Jesse Glass is a very generous man, he gave me a stack of books, insisted on paying for coffee and lunch and had to be dissuaded from buying me Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces on the spot when he'd heard I hadn't read it. It must also be said that Jesse Glass is an extremely physically unattractive man, capable of, as Comte de Lautréamont said of his protagonist in Les Chants de Maldoror; making hogs vomit just at the sight of him. Because of this, he insisted on carrying a large screen with him painted with garish scenes of rural Maryland life, from behind which he answered my questions and occasionally ordered coffees and ice waters for the two of us.

David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?

Jesse Glass, Jr.: I've currently finished a book-length poem based on texts from an odd, 17th century book purporting to be transcriptions of conversations with angels and spirits, titled A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. I shipped a copy of the same tome to my good friend the poet Alan Halsey a few years back and he has created text and visual poetry from the proto-surrealistic visions of the 1659 volume. Hopefully we'll have a melding of the results in a future volume, although Alan's take on the text is somewhat different from mine. I actually tried to replicate some of the séances using scrying stones and a small crystal skull, with abundant applications of spirits (of quite a different kind) and my own imagination, assisted as well by random text samplings, cut-ups, fold-ups, and all of the other ways one can open up a text in new and--hopefully--surprising ways.

DH: Were any of the séances successful?

JG: Did my séances actually work? I would say they yielded about as much "true" information as automatic writing, or "active imagining" might render up. It was all stream of consciousness, waking dream-type stuff. A bit like the psychopompic images one has on first settling into sleep. I had no feeling that I was contacting anything other than myself, but sometimes the results were transcendental indeed.

DH: Anything else in the works?

JG: I have numerous other projects I'm engaged in, including creating tiny editions of hand-painted "illuminated" volumes of my own work under the imprint of the "Hand of Glory Press."

A selection of my plays is in the works at Geoff Gatza's innovative Blazevox Books, and I am actively recording my work and promulgating my cracked and beaten-up vocal interpretations on the Internet and elsewhere.

DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

JG: I grew up attending Southern Baptist tent meetings with my mother. I remember one in particular in Hampstead, Maryland, where a thunder storm boiled and rolled over our heads. The preacher's eloquence rose above the boom and crack of the storm as he told us how a merciful God created men and women and children just to send them to Hell if they didn't mind their step. I must have been about five then, with a head full of nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss, but this preacher taught me two things: not to believe in such a fearful construct, and to admire the lilt of gritty, American speech. The King James Bible with the eyed wheels and the valley of dry bones and the mysteries of the Book of Revelations as well as the moving simplicity of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Job, the Psalms and the Song of Solomon all gave me a feeling for the visionary told in direct fashion. In addition, my father, a grade-school drop-out, was a powerful cusser and he and his hunting friends bequeathed to me a sense of the absurd and working man's wit. I grew up in this heady atmosphere, and by the time I was ten or eleven I attempted to capture some of it, but it wasn't until I was about 12 that I applied my sense of absurdity to paper for real in a retelling of the Walpurgis Night section of Faust. I was also attempting to invent perpetual motion machines, and decided that the only perpetual motion machine possible (besides nuclear devices) were machines that I "invented" in my imagination. I would sit in school and visualize various types of machines and learned to keep them turning, even when I was not really thinking of them in the present. I felt that these machines had lives of their own and if everyone somehow found a medium whereby such a device could be imagined communally and handed down over time, then of course perpetual motion would last as long as there was human consciousness. I now understand that this was one of the impulses that caused me to create poems, which I considered then, and now consider to be "machines of the mind."

DH: Who inspired your writing?

JG: I have hundreds of avatars in my hall of heroes. However, I suppose the greatest influence was and is William Blake. As Kathleen Raine said to me in a letter, "He made you a poet!" She was absolutely correct. Blake's poems in the Pickering Manuscript were the ones that really impressed me the most as verse, though later The Four Zoas and Jerusalem were also added to the list. I remember reciting "The Grey Monk" to myself over and over--especially the magnificent penultimate stanzas.

"But vain the Sword & vain the Bow
They never can work War's overthrow.
The Hermit's Prayer & the Widow's tear
Alone can free the World from fear.
"For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing,
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King,
And the groan of the Martyr's woe
Is an Arrow from the Almighty's Bow..."

But I guess my real soul-shaking moment was when I butted heads with Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Not only did this introduce me to Blake's "original energy," but it also gave me a sense of polyvalence in my writing, of "serious" humor, and of a poem that could be a series of pictures, and a collection of various forms to be played off each other. I guess you might call it a sense of intertextuality. And also, Blake sent me scurrying to find out about Swedenborg. I ended up a Swedenborgian for a season. I remember ordering boxes of pamphlets and copies of Heaven and Hell and handing them out at the beach at Ocean City, Maryland, along with my own "illuminations" printed off on a gel hecto-printer.

On further consideration of Blake, Swedenborg, spirit-seeing and the libidinal underpinnings thereof, I'd like to recommend what to me was the final piece in the puzzle--the wonderful Why Mrs. Blake Cried; William Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision by Marsha Keith Schuchard. William Blake's mother, a widow who married James Blake, the poet's father, has always been a mysterious figure. What Ms. Schuchard did was to make the startling discovery that Catherine Blake's first married name was Armitage, rather than the misspelled Hermitage, and, on searching through the archives of the Moravian church in London, found some fascinating letters written by Catherine Armitage, Thomas Armitage, and John Blake, the uncle of the future poet. Both the Blakes and the Armitages attended the Moravian Church when it was under the leadership of the controversial Count von Zinzendorf during a particularly innovative time in the 1750's. Zinzendorf encouraged church members to imagine the wounds of the body of Christ and the "marriage" of Christ and the Church in explicit, sexual terms. He urged members to celebrate this union through the arts: hymn-singing, poetry, drawing and painting and to engage in rituals that expressed these ideas in powerful ways. Swedenborg published his works through a Moravian printer in London and no doubt attended these same services. The connection that Schuchard makes between Zinzendorf, Swedenborg (and their borrowings from the Kaballah-- the Zohar in particular)--makes clear the context from which Blake arose, and brings me back 360 degrees to my days in Carroll County, Maryland. Zinzendorf and his followers brought these same ideas to Ephrata and other German outposts in Pennsylvania, and they spread throughout that part of the country among the "Pennsylvania Dutch." I grew up seeing the simple, but colorful designs of "Fraktur" drawing and calligraphy, little knowing that William Blake had drawn inspiration for his own "illuminated books" from the same source!

After Blake it has to be Walt Whitman of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Then Emily Dickinson, Lautreamont (especially Poesies), and Rimbaud. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, I believe, the King James Bible, Milton, Vaughn, Donne, and the lesser Metaphysicals. Of course Shakespeare's influence need not be mentioned. Every modern poet writing in English has to tip his or her hand to the greatest. As I said, I have many others, but those are the ones that come to mind at present.

DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

JG: My first successful experiment in perpetual language was a series of Pound-like Cantos which I composed at 16. I still have them in one of my old journals, and they're not too bad. I date the beginning of my considering myself a poet from my 15th to 16th years. During this time I read Swedenborg, Blake, and Dryden's translations of Virgil. I also tasted Coleridge for the first time, but liked Blake much better. I leapt upon Hopkins and bought all the Oscar Williams anthologies I could find. I read Paradise Lost, but learned to love the prosody of Samson Agonistes even more. I suffered from severe bouts of asthma in my teen years and would stay up all night struggling for breath, over-medicating myself with inhalers of artificial adrenalin, and writing poems like those were my last nights on earth. Puberty had also kicked in well before this, so sexual energy was part and parcel of the project, as it is now.

When I first began reading Rimbaud I recognized a kindred spirit. His Illuminations kept me going. Whitman too. Then a wonderful English teacher named Miss Ayers handed a copy of Howl to me and it suddenly all fell into place. Around about that time I found a copy of Hayden Carruth's The Voice That is Great Within Us and David Meltzer's San Francisco Poets at the Westminster Shopping Center on route 140. I discovered Lew Welch, Cid Corman, and all of the latest and the newest voices, and I set out to be the person that I am.

DH: How exactly is/was sexual energy part of your work now & then?

JG: It was Renoir who first said "I paint with my penis," though some folks say it was Picasso. I imagine this idea is about as old as the first cave-painters. I do believe that sexual energy actually has its place in my work and infuses the best of it--both written and visual. You know the old joke about the writer's choice of first writing a novel, and then getting shaken in the sack, or of first getting shaken in the sack and then trying to write a novel, don't you? The first choice works; the second usually results in a lyrical poem.

DH: What about Ahadada Books? Could you tell us a bit about your connection to the world of small press publishing?

JG: What excited me about Blake was that he was a printer too. His passage about the printing house in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell excited my fancy! My earliest attempts at publication resulted in deep trouble with the high school that I attended. There I published an "underground" satirical newspaper that promptly got me hauled up before the Principal. About the same time I started a flying saucer zine called "UFOs Unlimited," which still on occasion brought in letters from UFO believers and orders from Ebsco in the 1980's! My next venture was "Goethe's Notes," and "Goethe's Notes Press." I styled this tiny venture "Notes" because, after my great infatuation with Goethe, modern poetry seemed so fragmentary, as mere footnotes to Dante, Blake, Goethe, and other culture heroes from the past. Of course this was the day of the mimeo revolution, which eventually changed to the xerox revolution. This was the beginning that eventually led me to co-edit "Die Young" with Skip Fox, and finally led to "Ahadada Books,"--a cooperative book publishing venture, which I run here in Japan via the Internet with my friend the Canadian poet Dan Sendecki, supplemented by the efforts of Joe Zanghi of Printed Matter Press, and others. Ahadada Books (now 10 years old!) is soley a labor of love, and a financial loss. It's meant to be that way.

DH: I notice some well known authors among the books you've published.

JG: Yes, it's my pleasure to have helped bring out more work from fine writers like Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Di Prima, Michael Heller, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Skip Fox, Elizabeth Smithers, Lou Rowan, Eileen Tabios, Catherine Daly, David and Christine Kennedy, Hank Lazar, Mark Spitzer, Hugh Seidman, David Axelrod, Yoko Danno, Peter Riley, Rane Arroyo, Philip Terry and Burton Watson. Equally exciting is the fact that as in the old small press days, when the mail brought the vital scene from all over the world to my rural country home, the Internet brings new talents my way. The first new name was the fine poet Paolo Javier. His work does indeed help to put us "on the map." Yet another discovery is the exciting work of Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, whose texts dance with the language of power, repression, revolt. Yet another is the accomplished Oulipoian Philip Terry. A new, shining talent we hope to publish is the African-American poet Grace Ocasio. We have her chapbook under consideration. We also have works in process from Jonathan Monroe, the talented short story writer Tom Bradley, and Judith Katz-Levine and others. And oh yes--there's another fine talent I forgot to mention. He's based in Japan and has written a fascinating book called Burn Your Belongings. I hear he's also working on a manuscript for us!

One writer who has been with me "in spirit" from the earliest days is the very fine poet Judith Skillman. Her work graced the first issue of Goethe's Notes and her latest writing can be found in a down-loadable e-book on our site.

DH: What about the e-zine Ekleksographia?

JG: That's in process through the efforts of Jane-Joritz Nakagawa (who has come up with a selection of great work), the ever-dependable Dan Sendecki and myself. Dan's been my buddy now for 10 years. Through thick and thin this guy's come through.

DH: Gosh, this is starting to sound like the Academy Awards!

JG: And why the heck not? As Jerry Rothenberg says, "We are all geniuses!"

About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of
Burn Your Belongings.

© 2013 Word Riot

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