Lost Heartlands Found by W.K. Buckley will be released by
Tilt-A-Whirl Press in 1999. His latest book, 81 Mygrations, released by Fithian Press earlier this year, is available for $10.00 from PO Box 1525, Santa Barbara, CA 93102.
W.K. Buckley teaches English at University of Indiana-Gary.
He can be reached through
Gary, IN 46408 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Jordan Green: Scattered through your poems are the trailings of a subversive history contrary to the official story of history. So I wondered if you could say something about what is left hidden in American culture.
WK (Bill) Buckley: That's a great question. You ask me to talk about my imagination, which does what it wants to do without knowing why.
I really don't think I'm doing anything different from what other poets are doing.
I wrote a book on Lady Chatterley's Lover and I was roundly hated for it.
Jordan: Did you grow up in a family of political activists?
Bill: I was an orphan and I was adopted. I grew up with a father who was an Irishman, the only Republican Irishman in the city of San Diego. He ran for mayor of San Diego as a Republican. He was friends with Barry Goldwater. I went deep sea fishing with Barry Goldwater and my father.
Jordan: What was it in your life that shook you up?
Bill: Well, I ran away from home at 14 and I lived for three weeks on the Hopi Indian reservation. I saw the Hopi Snake Dance and that did it for me.
Jordan: Did they show you some hospitality?
Bill: Oh, they were the sweetest people! They're absolutely centered. It seems they have a pole running from their stomach to their head and down to the earth -- a whole, physical presence. When I met them at the age of 14, I knew there was more than Goldwater.
Jordan: Okay, something that really strikes me about this collection of poems (Lost Heartlands Found) that Tilt-A-Whirl will be publishing is that there's something really akin to Allen Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra", which is a resilience of the soul in the battering of industrialized experience. Do you think that's true?
Bill: Yeah. I worked at a fish cannery when I was dragged back home at 16. There's a little bit of that in the book. That sort of brought what you're saying home to me. After working there all day and seeing people lose their fingers and thumbs, we'd go down to the ocean and screw women on the beach to try to maintain sanity.
I'm not exactly a Beatnik, whatever the hell that means. I grew up a little later. But still (Ginsberg's) powerful presence was there in San Francisco and LA and San Diego, where I grew up. I read Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghetti in high school and college.
Jordan: Well, living this nine-to-five existence that is completely mechanized and out of the control of your own imagination, how do you maintain your sense of humanity and centeredness
Bill: They have to work hard; they have to work really hard. You have to find someone who's willing to work hard with you.
Jordan: A sense of community.
Bill: No, it's a sense of individuality. For a man, for me, I could only find it with a woman. If she wasn't willing to go along with me, then good-bye. She has to be just as radical as I am.
I'm talking about D.H. Lawrence really because he fought so damn hard with his wife, Frida, to find his own individuality. So I understand his efforts.
Jordan: You've really adopted the Region, as you call it, as your home. So I wondered if you could talk about that culture of downsized industrialization.
Bill: Oh my God! When I first moved here in 1985 -- there was a great lay-off in the 1980s from Pittsburgh to Chicago. One million men were permanently laid off from the steel mills. One million! I saw wives coming in whose husbands were permanently laid-off, who had either committed suicide, turned to drink, or turned to beating them up or their kids. I saw whole families hitchhiking on I-65, which runs from Chicago all the way down to New Orleans.
Coming to this part of the country is like walking into a time warp. When I got here I thought I was back in the 1950s. The women in my classes said their husbands hate them being there because they feel they might learn something new and leave them. Leave It to Beaver!
Jordan: Yeah, my mom teaches women who've dropped out of high school and have young children. The husbands see it as a real threat when their wives get educated.
Bill: That all twisted in my Western consciousness. It brought from the West: California, Arizona, New Mexico. It twisted me into the Midwest. And to me the Midwest is a place that I feel is repressed. In fact, it's so repressed, that when it does express itself, it expresses itself in happy perversions.
Jordan: Happy perversions? Like what?
Bill: I lived a year in Louisville, Kentucky, by the way.
Bill: But in northern Indiana, the happy perversions express themselves in the manipulation of power from the top on down. This is a mill town. The mills have dominated this area for one hundred years. It's characterized by "screw you", manipulation, "I'm gonna take my pleasure when I can get it", pure greed, no questions asked, "and don't ask me any questions when I do!"
Jordan: Your work is real rare, I think, in this day and age, in that it takes a real pro-working class stance. Some people might think it's archaic, but I think it's really the way we need to go.
Bill: I know it's archaic. Marx and Engler's dead. The whole country has been declared middle class. John Lennon was shot and Reagan was elected.
Jordan: But there's a history of working class action that is real proud and goes back real far.
Bill: It does. Oh my God. There's still a little bit of working class pride here in the Region, pride in the product you're making, which is ultimately alienated from you, if you believe Marx's rhetoric of alienated labor. It's all spelled out.
Jordan: Where does your commitment come from?
Bill: It comes from an outrage at this country's lack of any kind of language to describe what a human being really is. This country doesn't have any language left. I mean, the last person with the language to describe a human being was Huckleberry Finn.
What we see in Washington today is just a repeat of Nathaniel Hawthorn.
When I really felt like a human being was when I got picked up by the Taos Indians who gave me a ride to Taos and back. But none of it in Chicago. There's pockets in San Francisco, pockets in LA, pockets in San Diego. None of it here. But you can't say that. Everything works on an individual basis anyway -- who you connect with, who you love. You can't generalize. It's all about whatever you and your woman or your man have with each other, no matter what the goddamn economy does.
Jordan: Okay, another question is: your poems, to me, bring across the utter madness of poverty and the struggle of survival in the USA. I wonder -- this relates to the Beat writers too -- if you have a conviction that you need to subject yourself to a certain amount of madness to develop an empathy to connect and see it clearly. I told you they're gonna be complex and intense questions.
Bill: Could you say it again?
Jordan: Well, basically, I wonder if you feel you need to develop a certain sense of madness within yourself to connect with the madness that's going on in society.
Bill: I do. I do. How do I develop that madness and get in touch with it?
Jordan: And how do you maintain yourself through it?
Bill: I take anti-depressants.
Jordan: Oh, okay. Good answer!
Bill: But it's there. It's shimmering there on the surface. You can tap into the metaphors on the surface, but to understand it you have to go below the surface to understand its roots. And get below the surface to understand its roots, you have to walk on the shores of Lake Michigan along the Whiting Gasworks, and look at the flame lifting up from the gas flues. Then you can understand the utter wonder and beauty. There's this real connection between madness and beauty, tenderness and wonder. Poe knew all about it. Baudelaire knew all about it. Celine, who wrote Journey to the End of the Night was the master of it. I have to read Celine's Journey to the End of the Night every week to understand the relationship between madness and bitterness, consumerism and beauty.
Jordan: That's a good way to sum it up. You don't necessarily have that much of a choice in the matter though.
Bill: I've got no choice. I've got to make a living.
Jordan: I mean, we all have a certain amount of madness whether we like it or not. We don't necessarily chose it.
Bill: No, I'm kind of a loony. I hang around the streets of Chicago in the depths of the night, just like I did in the streets of San Francisco and LA and on the beaches in San Diego when I was young. Not here in Valpo. There's no madness here. It's all too middle class and Christian for me.
Jordan: Oh yeah?
Bill: Too goddamn Christian: "Don't smoke! Don't drink!" Come on! I know they love Bob Dylan, but it's a Christian college (University of Valparaiso), you know?
Jordan: Is it a Catholic university?
Bill: No, no, Catholics know about horror, but not here. It's clean-cut Protestant.
Jordan: You said you're mostly Jewish?
Bill: No, I'm mostly French, but I sure feel like a Jew. I'm French and Irish. A lot of my writing has kind of an Irish lilt to it that I got from my father. A lot of it has that (cadence) by Whitman and Ginsberg, of course, but even more than that, it has this Irish lilt that I pick up from my father. Everyone seems to like it and I've applied it to this mill town, this rugged, stiff, wicked mill town.
I'm not used to it here. I still don't like it here.
Jordan: And you've been here 13 years?
Bill: For near ten years! It's the longest I've ever lived on one place all my life. I've been on the road since I was 14. It's the longest I've lived in one place and that's because I had a kid, you know?
Jordan: It is apparently your home though.
Bill: No, I don't consider it my home at all. Wherever I go, I write the spirit of the place. This isn't my home. My home is the sea. I never felt more at home than when I was a waiter on a cruise ship on the way to Juneau, Alaska.
Jordan: The world is your home, whatever sense you connect with humanity, wherever you go?
Bill: No, it's the ocean. The sea, the way it moves. The way a woman moves in bed. That's my home. The womb is the undulation of the sea.
Jordan: Oh yeah, yeah. Okay, that's definitely good to hear!
Okay, this is a pretty complex question, but it goes back to being a poet of common folk. I wonder if you could talk about the process of connecting with an audience, taking the cadence of common life and making something meaningful out of it.
Bill: You mean in Taos, in Chicago, in New York?
Jordan: Anywhere. Anywhere you go. I think it's a mystical process. I don't think it's cut and dry.
Bill: It really is. I'm a teacher and it takes me about a week to get in touch with the presence of a group of people as a whole. When I do that, I can speak to them more eloquently and madly.
It takes me awhile to connect. It depends on whether I can sense immediately that the audience is hooked up with their own sense of place. If they're not, I can't read.
Jordan: A lot of people in the Midwest and in the heartland don't feel connected; they feel like Americans.
Bill: Well, a lot of people in Kentucky do. I lived there for a year and I found them to be the sweetest people I ever knew. They were really connected with Kentuckyism. They understood it.
Jordan: Kentucky has its Klan streak running through it too. People from Kentucky have a real strong sense of being from Kentucky, but people tend to denigrate themselves for where they come from and take it for granted. People have a strong sense of identity, but not a strong sense of pride. I don't know if that compares to northwest Indiana.
Bill: I was teaching Lady Chattersly's Lover. I said, "Well, what about tenderness?"
A Black woman said, "Tenderness! I wouldn't know tenderness if it hit me in the head!"
Jordan: Well, a lot of people here, I gather, are from Kentucky, moved up north to take those industrial jobs. Do you think that's the effect of mechanization, that it takes the connection to land away from people?
Bill: Oh, there's no connection to land here at all. Everything is used by everybody. Everybody uses everybody, from management on down. There's no community. There's no reason to be connected.
Jordan: You wouldn't necessarily want to be connected to this place.
Bill: I went to New Mexico for two weeks, and oh Christ! The people there were so powerfully connected to the land. It's pristine, and mysterious, and gorgeous. It's full of spirits.
Here there's no place. There's nothing but fight. Fighting each other!
Jordan: Struggle to survive at every moment.
Bill: Not even that anymore. I don't know what it is, but the tone of speech is nasal. The people's faces are pinched. People are pale. The driving is obnoxious.
Jordan: Oh, those are terrible things to say about people!
I think Kentucky is becoming a lot more like Indiana since it's all getting crossed over by super highways and people are moving from the land to industrial jobs. The land is still beautiful, but people don't interact with it much anymore. They just jump on the highway and go to their job, whether it's at Toyota or a construction job.
Bill: I know. It's becoming more and more rare to meet someone who talks about geography the way I do. I love geography. Geography means everything. It explains character, spirit, art, soul ...
Jordan: Aside from a backwards regionalism, do you think connection to place is a radicalizing notion?
Bill: Yeah, I really do now. I think it's an old idea that's new again.
Jordan: Some people have to embrace the land where they are to fight for what's rightfully theirs.
Bill: To preserve individuality.
Jordan: Yeah, to preserve individuality, but what about a sense of communal life, public life?
Bill: I don't know anything about that. I'm a migrant. I don't have any sense of community anywhere. The migrant workers of America have this great circle that they travel, from the Imperial Valley in southern California to Chicago, and then back to Sacramento and down to San Diego and Tijuana. I've jumped off at Chicago. I'm half way back.
You have more of a sense of community in Kentucky. The people I met in Kentucky had a sense of community that goes back into those hills.
Jordan: I think people in Kentucky feel like that sense of connection is disappearing and they're pretty distraught about it. I think people in a lot of parts of the country want a sense of connection and community, but are unsure where to claim it and where to look for it.
Bill: Where do you find it?
Jordan: Well, I'm trying to claim it as a community of poets and bad-ass radicals. I'm trying to create a home where people of color and hillbillies can feel comfortable together and feel emboldened to express their desires, but I don't really think I have a sense of lineage; I feel like I have to create it from scratch.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Monterey, and I've lived in five different cities since then.
Bill: You know, there's a place like that in Chicago just off of Clark Street. It's a neighborhood filled with Mexican-Americans, Croats, Blacks. There's a Socialist club there. The old-fashioned Communist Party is there. And they have poetry clubs dotted all over the place.
Jordan: The last question is I wonder if you could talk about your poetic lineage and then talk about what you're reading now, what your sources are.
Bill: Celine. Whitman. Hart Crane. And D.H. Lawrence.
I'm reading Sylvia Plath right now, but I'm not into it.
Jordan: I think Walt Whitman is someone who's inspired a vast array of poets, Black and White.
Bill: No, we can't get out from underneath his shadow, can we? The greatest American poet of all time.
Jordan: Well, I think he was the first to really promote humanity and a democratic vision.
Bill: D.H. Lawrence was in love with Walt Whitman when he first read him, but after awhile Lawrence eventually hated him because he said he spread his brain so wide that eventually his brain fell out. I kind of agree with that in a way, but I don't care.
Jordan: Well, he has a couple poems that really strike me. One about his vast wanderings across the U.S. where he talks about wandering across the vale of the Elkhorn. And that's a creek that runs about ten miles from my town! I was like, here's a poet that covers my ground, that embraces everything, all at once.
Another poem that's incredible is one he dedicates to poets to come, where he says that the greatest American poetry is yet to come. And he gives a blessing to poets who will come a hundred years after him.