Poet George Kalamaras talks about the Blues & Jazz, André Breton, Charles Mingus and Yogananda

"While Blues speaks of the depth of the human heart, Jazz riffs off of that emotion into exciting forays into the unconscious—not unlike a poem—relying upon associative leaps and a fanciful imaginative reach."

George Kalamaras: A Yogi of Poetry

George Kalamaras, Poet Laureate of Indiana, is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, a post he has held since 1990. Among his degrees, he holds a Doctorate in English from State University of New York at Albany and a Master’s in English from Colorado State University. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Cedar Lake, Indiana, in Lake County. He has published fourteen volumes of poetry, including seven full-length books—The Hermit’s Way of Being Human, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, The Recumbent Galaxy, co-authored with Alvaro Cardona-Hine and winner of the C&R Press Open Competition, Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair, Borders My Bent Toward, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series—and seven chapbooks, among them the award-winning The Mining Camps of the Mouth (New Michigan Press).

He has also published one book of scholarship; numerous articles in scholarly journals; and hundreds of poems in anthologies and magazines in the United States and abroad. In 1994, Kalamaras received an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship (from the Fulbright Foundation and the Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture) to conduct research in India, with joint affiliations at Banaras Hindu University and Deccan College. In 1993, he received a Creative Writing Poetry Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has twice received an Individual Artist Fellowship Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. In 2009, he won the Outstanding Researcher Award at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He has presented numerous poetry readings throughout the United States as well as in India, and has served as a guest lecturer at universities in both countries.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

My experiences in meditation and my work with animals have triggered my ideas the most. Regarding the former, I’ve practiced yogic meditation for many years. That practice has led to greater attentiveness and focus, as well as to a deeper connection with the universe. Regarding the latter (animals), I love the natural world and spend a lot of time reading and writing poems that deal with nature, biology, and other natural processes. I am an avid dog-lover and have an adorable beagle-hound named Bootsie who continuously teaches me about the world.

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

I have learned mostly how to pay attention. In short, writing poetry is an attentiveness practice for me, not unlike meditation. If we embrace poetry writing as a practice—something to delve into deeply as valuable in itself and not for fame and fortune—then we begin to reap the true benefits of what poetry can give.

How would you characterize the philosophy of George Kalamaras poetry?

My poems pivot around two points: 1. the presentation of the unconscious or intuition as an ally, rather than an adversary, of the intellect through the practice of Surrealism; and 2. the delving into and revelation of the interconnection of all things; in other words, my poetry attempts to deal with the processes of the world as reciprocal and interactive, rather than as something hierarchical.

"My experiences in meditation and my work with animals have triggered my ideas the most.  Regarding the former, I’ve practiced yogic meditation for many years. That practice has led to greater attentiveness and focus, as well as to a deeper connection with the universe." 

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

This relationship has been immense and immeasurable. I grew up at a time when music was exploding throughout the counter-culture in the United States. The pure physicality and vibrational frequency of the music expanded my consciousness—and it is probably one reason I felt a kinship with poetry, finding in it one way to express that widening of consiousness. Second, poetry itself is music without instrumentation. It is so deeply rooted in sound and in the evocative power of the musicality of language.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music has been a part of my everyday life since I first began listening to the lp recordings of Ray Charles with my mother (her favorite) when I was four or five years old! Then there were the early recordings of Elvis and the Everly Brothers, which she also owned and loved. Of course, when the Beatles hit the scene, that was it for me. But I have branched out beyond rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, into Americana folk “roots” music, as well as blues, jazz, and even classical. Some people, for example, who know that Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison are my all-time favorite music heroes are less surprised with my immersion in blues and jazz, but they are a bit surprised to learn that I am enthralled with Brahms, the genius composer of four great symphonies and a massive body of remarkable work, including two stunning piano concertos. I simply can’t over-emphasize the importance of music in my life—it is a part of each and every day. I turn to certain kinds of music to elicit, evoke, and deepen certain moods, as well as to inspire me.

What do you think was/is the relationship of Blues & Jazz music and culture to the poetry?

Blues & Jazz—some of my favorite kinds of music—are ultimately subversive. Their cultural roots go back to the longings of American slaves during a horrible period in American history, and the music—even after slavery was abolished—is still rooted in cultural oppression and a desire to democratize the world. Unfortunately, we have a world culture that is still based on dominance and hierarchies, and so Blues & Jazz are still relevant and necessary—not only as entertainment but as transformative art. Both forms of music also speak of triumph of the human spirit. I’m thinking of the great title of a dvd about Charles Mingus, for example, as relevant here: Triumph of the Underdog. While Blues speaks of the depth of the human heart, Jazz riffs off of that emotion into exciting forays into the unconscious—not unlike a poem—relying upon associative leaps and a fanciful imaginative reach. It is the expression of the longing of the heart, and the desire to seek connection in the world among all people by exploring interconnections, to which both Blues & Jazz speak directly.

"I miss most a more simple relationship with the natural world. I have to consciously seek this out, as there are so many technological advances, most of which are greatly beneficial, but which simultaneously divorce us from a deeper relationship with the natural processes of the universe."

What's the legacy of André Breton?  If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us?

Breton’s legacy is immense, particularly his theorizing of Surrealism and relentless pursuit of the unknown reaches of the poetic mind. If he were speaking to us in a direct way today, as opposed, say, through just his poems and manifestos, he’d likely say, The revolution of the mind and of the human spirit, my brothers and sisters, is still in its infancy. Delve beyond the unconscious into the super-conscious state in order to change yourself and the world!

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

I don’t know how to answer this question because I have been given such wonderful advice throughout my life—both directly and indirectly—in so many different areas and by a variety of people. It is difficult for me to quantify and measure the relative merits of each piece of advice. However, I keep returning, in one form or another, to the closing words of the great mythographer, Joseph Campbell, in that wonderful series of televised interviews and talks he gave in 1988 in Bill Moyers’ The Power of Myth, and that is to Follow your bliss. This, of course, does not mean to do simply whatever “feels good.” But it does mean to find what is most meaningful and joyous in your life—what gives you the greatest spiritual satisfaction—and to follow that thread with all your mind, energy, and heart. For me, that has meant the pursuit of yogic meditation and poetry. I would advise the new generation to similarly follow their bliss.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I miss most a more simple relationship with the natural world. I have to consciously seek this out, as there are so many technological advances, most of which are greatly beneficial, but which simultaneously divorce us from a deeper relationship with the natural processes of the universe. My fear is that the information and technological age will continue to bombard us with too much material, clouding out what’s really important. Even news, for some, becomes merely a form of entertainment. My hope is that our most primordial selves will recognize that we need to commune more deeply with the movements of a fire ant, to look at a star in the north as if it were our inner light, to learn to bow down—internally—whenever we see a dead possum or raccoon at the side of the road.

"The pure physicality and vibrational frequency of the music expanded my consciousness—and it is probably one reason I felt a kinship with poetry, finding in it one way to express that widening of consciousness."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the world news?

My beagle-hound always makes me laugh, because she is exuberant about the most simple things, like seeing a cat, or hearing someone knock at the front door for a visit. Every tragic event in the world news touches me emotionally. I have few filters.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

If I were to put items in a time capsule, I would include the holy relics of my life to this point: Autobiography of a Yogi (by Paramahansa Yogananda), the greatest book about spiritual seeking I have ever encountered; The Complete Posthumous Poetry of César Vallejo, my all-time favorite book of poetry; the book, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, because the Chinese poets of antiquity are invaluable as models of how to live and how to perceive the world; other poetry books by Chinese poets, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Po, Li Ho, Meng Chiao, Han Shan, and Stonehouse; the following Jimi Hendrix records: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland, and The Cry of Love; George Harrison’s lp, Living in the Material World; John Mayall’s Blues from Laurel Canyon; each of the Four Symphonies of Brahms, especially the late 1950s recordings in New York, conducted by Bruno Walter, of the Second and Third Symphonies, along with a note to listen to the third movement of the Third Symphony while viewing a magnificent sunset; a photograph of my wife and me in a Greek restaurant one summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I keep on my desk; a photo of my mother and me in our backyard in Indiana under an oak tree (beneath which my wife and I later married) when I was five or six years old; a tender fragment of one of many hundreds of letters from my dear friend, the poet John Bradley; the entire collection of poems by Yannis Ritsos, Scripture of the Blind; a photo of my beagle, Bootsie, lying in the “play posture” one summer evening in a hotel in Denver, Colorado, and a photo of my previous beagle, Barney, lying on our den sofa; a bird feather Barney found and that I keep on my bookshelf; Barney’s puppy teeth, which I still keep in a jar; a recording of a howler monkey in the Amazonian rainforest; a drop of sweat from my wife’s brow, when she comes in from gardening in our backyard with such joy in her face; a rock from the Poudre River in northern Colorado that I keep on one of my bookcases; George Seferis’s great poem, “Matthios Paskalis Among the Roses”; a copy of Robert Desnos’s magnificent poem, “The Voice of Robert Desnos”; Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space; my meditation beads; Bootsie’s dog collar; a dark green hosta leaf from our backyard; and several photographs of my beloved spiritual teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda.

How would you spend a day with Charles Mingus? What would you say to Odysseas Elytis? What would you like to ask Robert Johnson?

I would spend a day with Charles Mingus hunting for crawdads along the Maumee River in Fort Wayne, Indiana, making sure we placed each crawdad delicately back into the river without harm, and then going to my house and collaborating on a composition of his jazz music and my poetry about what lies on the river bottom. I would ask Odysseas Elytis to turn the light off in his room, or to walk out onto the street on a rainy afternoon, and to thank the brilliance of the sun for hiding inside the luminosity of the dark. I’d like to ask Robert Johnson what other elements were in his astrological chart—why he bopped so much from town to town given that he was a Taurus.

George Kalamaras - The Wabash Watershed

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