The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: When we discussed this poem as an editorial staff, there were a few differing theories on how its two sections were meant to complement one another. What did you hope to convey by having the poem split into two stylistically, tonally distinct pieces, and how did you intend for the pieces to interact?
Ashton Kamburoff: Excellent question. Thank you for taking the time to discuss my work. It always feels great to know that fellow poets and writers are in conversation with something I produce. “Elegy for Bob Kaufman” is a bit of departure for me, poetically. A lot of my work exists in couplets, and a lot of my work functions in longer lines. Furthermore, my work rarely ranges into sections. I think the shorter lines in that first section are an attempt to praise Kaufman. They are meant to give testament to him as a poet as well as acknowledging the absurd realities of Kaufman’s life. He was a mendicant, and by all accounts, a madman. He was a genius. He was anti-academic, anti-establishment, and anti-anti. I think that’s what I was trying to capture in my use of “pleasant” and “peasant”. That first section was the trickiest to write because I wasn’t necessarily concerned with grounding the reader. Instead, I wanted to push them off a cliff and tell them “hey, this is the world you are entering and there is an exit in here somewhere, but I’m not going to tell you where”. The second stanza is meant to be a bit more of my personal relationship with Kaufman. It deals in loss and forfeiture. The loss of a poetic icon. The internalization of a prior musical experience and its manifestation into city-sounds, and finally, those sounds of the city giving themselves up to silence. And that, in my opinion, is also something Kaufman himself fought with. He took a vow of silence from the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and held that silence until the end of Vietnam in 1973. He refused to write down any of his own poems and his wife, the late Eileen, transcribed all of his work. Silence is a remarkable, powerful tool and it is one I think of often. As far as the interaction between the two sections? I think it is their opposition to each other which demonstrates their unity. Poems can do that. They can simultaneously fight and French kiss. What I wanted to show my readers was that Kaufman was both the hectic absurdism of street life and he was also a person of great compassion and sorrow.
RR: The many clusters of thickly repeated sounds in this poem, especially in the first stanza, call to mind both the Kaufman beat poetry that inspired your piece and the jazz songs that influenced the beat style of his own writing. Were there any particular pieces, either of beat poetry or of its close genre cousin, jazz music, that inspired you when writing this poem?
AK: I don’t know. I’m wary of saying “yes” because when someone says “he’s this” or “she’s that”, I get a little turned off. It’s wild because when we think of “The Beats”, our minds tend to go straight to guys like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady, or Snyder. And there’s nothing wrong with those guys, but I just feel like they are tired. They’ve been worked over for so long. I can’t take anything away from them because they’ve accomplished so much, but I’m also bored by them. And Kaufman’s work, to me, was always much more daring, more ambitious. So much so that I always felt like he transcended The Beat movement. His work was more in conversation with poets like Lorca and Crane and jazz musicians like Charlie Parker. Innovators. I think that is what I love most about Kaufman – he wanted to be on the outside and had no desire to look “in”. He said it best when he said “I want to be anonymous… my ambition is to be completely forgotten.” For the most part, he’s succeeded. Academics won’t touch him. A lot of poets writing today disregard him entirely. There are two contemporary poets that I admire greatly, Yusef Komunyakaa and Adrian Matejka, and their poems dedicated to Kaufman are beautiful. I can’t put my name alongside Komunyakaa and Matejka because, hey, they are legends, but I can say that my work was influenced by their poems. I’ve recently been writing a series of essays about Kaufman’s poetry and they’ve been very insightful to my own understanding of his life and work. When it comes to being inspired by jazz, yeah, that’s somewhere in my work. Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” was very important to me when I started writing poems. I’m also thinking of “Blue in Green” by Davis. There’s a beauty in both the immediacy and the distance in “Blue in Green” which astounds me every time I hear it. That said, I can’t say that a specific jazz piece influenced this poem. I think I was thinking more of the transformation of music into sound and sound into absence when I wrote this poem. It’s an elegy. Sometimes I get all morbid with myself and I’ll spend a day guessing what will be the last sound I hear in my life. This piece is about losing music, losing sound. Once I find a silent space, I become very protective of preserving it.
RR: In writing, it can be suggested that we are writing through our obsessions. When you write, what themes or images do you find yourself most drawn to?
AK: It is a simple question, but there is a lot to unpack here. Obsessions are tricky things. I live in Texas now, but I am obsessed with my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and not because of the familiarity. There is a certain grit and a certain despondency that Cleveland embodies, and I can’t forsake that in my poems. It is in “Elegy for Bob Kaufman”. The 51 is the bus I took to work. I’m also obsessed with the The Kübler-Ross model for staging grief. Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope opened my eyes to the beauty of grief and I think you can make a case that that heartbreaking book of poems speaks from those five stages outlined by The Kübler-Ross model. I’m obsessed with baseball, conspiracy theories, bad coffee (I mean, like bad coffee), watching and photographing freight trains, identities of the working class. There’s a lot in this world to be obsessed with, and for that, I’m grateful.
RR: How has your work as an editor of the literary journal Opossum, which explores the intersection of art and music, informed your work as a poet?
AK: I have to be fair here. Opossum is not my child. Jon Ross, John Edgar, and my fellow poetry co-editor, Rebecca Olson are the brains and the brawn behind that beautiful creation. John Edgar told me about their vision and I asked if I could be a part of the team. They’ve been absolutely wonderful to me.
Working as an editor has been a very educational experience. For one, I get to collaborate with three very talented people. I also get the chance to read what is currently being written and shared. Approaching poems that are not my own on the page has helped me develop more of a “poetic eye” of sorts. I see what decisions work and what decisions fall short. It has helped me sharpen my own aesthetic. Lastly, it has given me a sense of appreciation for those who are in the business of publishing. We just released our first issue and I had no idea the painstaking work that was involved with putting out a literary journal. I know I am very pleased with our debut issue and I think that Jon, John, and Rebecca feel the same way. We are currently accepting submissions for issue two. Check us out.
RR: Given your interest in the relationship between poetry and music, what are your thoughts on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
AK Ha! What a great question. I’m going to preface my response by saying that I love Dylan. I do. I remember growing up and falling in love with his use of language and being in complete awe of how lyrics can emotionally resonate. He did everything – love, loss, the politics of the working class, Civil Rights – and he did it well. That said, I don’t put much stock in awards. I know, I know, it is the Nobel, and this is coming from someone who hasn’t won anything, ever. Who am I, right? Seriously though, I don’t think he is any more or any less deserving. I read books by poets and writers who win major awards and sometimes I walk away saying “well, that wasn’t for me” and it makes me question not only the purpose of awards, but it makes me question my own understanding. Like, what am I missing here? Dylan getting the Nobel is awesome because I am a fan, sure, but if he submitted to Opossum I would still be critical.
Ashton Kamburoff’s work in Issue 4.1: