Q&A with poet, teacher & musician Max Orsini - his first book titled "The Buddhist Beats Poetics of Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel"

"On one hand, not as significant as it could or should be in our present global climate. On another level, literature is the net in which all of these phenomena are gently and tactfully caught. Like a net, literature is full of gaps and threaded apertures that allow us to see how issues of gender, race, culture and politics implicate and comprise our human reality. Music of certain ilks does this too."

Max Orsini: Poetry, Notes & Mantra

Maximillian Orsini is a poet, critical-essayist, teacher, and singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. Max received a BA in English, Creative Writing and Gender Studies from Washington College (2003), an MA in English from Drew University (2005), and, most recently, a Doctorate in Arts and Letters from Drew University (2016). For his literary dissertation, he received both the mark of academic distinction and the Robert L. Chapman award for creative thought and excellence in prose style from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.

Earlier this year, Beatdom Press released Max’s first book, The Buddhist Beats Poetics of Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel. Dr. Orsini has taught courses in Writing/Composition, Literature, Pop Culture, Cultural Studies and Vocational Life at Drew University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Montclair State University.  Max’s prime role at present involves working as Graduate and ELL Writing Specialist in Drew’s University Writing Center. He lives in Madison, New Jersey, but he has also lived in Maryland, New England, Italy and also Switzerland—where he completed his high school education in the French Alps.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Beats and the 60s folk counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In recent years, the Beats and the 1960s folk counterculture have played some pretty important and influential roles in my scholarly, creative, and personal life. From a scholarly perspective, exploring Beat Literature and lyricism of the ‘60s has opened up an important interdisciplinary road in my writing and thinking. In a lot of ways, the Beats were the contemporary progenitors of interdisciplinary thinking and scholarship. They were truly students of all human and scholastic disciplines and were like Renaissance people versed in a host of the world’s great ideas. When we read Ginsberg, Dylan, Ferlinghetti, di Prima, Kandel and others, we can hear each writer listening to and participating in multiple valuable human conversations at once. They used pens, strings, hands, ears, tongues and eyes to scrawl, bend, reach, listen, sing, and process what Ginsberg called the “textures of consciousness,” combing the waves of thought and experience with pithy lines of verse. Reading the Beats, we can hear a running scroll or reel of ideas on history, philosophy, religion, visual art, psychology, music, and meditational practice unfurling through poetry, fiction and folk music of the time.

And, yet, for as much as the Beats compose a body of lyrical writing engaged in what we could sort of call “meta-pluralistic” ideas, what’s perhaps even more impactful is the way that Beat literature of the 1960s speaks to us in very intimate and visceral ways that emphasize the eloquence of speechlessness. This latter face, this second identity, of the Beat Generation has been very important to me as an academic writer poet, and folk/acoustic song-writer. And this is in many ways the subject of my text, The Buddhist Beat Poetics of Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel. I have discovered a sacred performance of stillness and self-reflection, and I have jointly found both writerly inspiration and personal healing in the poems of di Prima and Kandel. I love di Prima’s passionate, but quiet poem “To a Buddhist Nun” from her Revolutionary Letters, I love equally the deep and quiet cosmic space that we float through in Kandel’s 1967 “Enlightenment Poem,” the sweet, dolorous moments of contracted breath and lineation that spring up spontaneously in the midst of Ginsberg’s poems, and the similar sweetness and longing that blows through Dylan’s Petrarch-tinged “Girl of the North Country.” These poems and songs have allowed me to negotiate the paradoxical boisterousness and fragility of a decade I did not live through, born as I was the month Regan was elected president. I have therefore looked to Beat Generation writing in recent years to help me understand the anxieties and impossibilities of contemporary America, as I did in some of my own independently recorded albums Magnet (2014), and American Stars (2017).

What were the reasons that you started the Haiku, Sufi, and Zen Poetry researchers? What's the legacy of East in poetry?

Over the past decade, I have taken an increasing interest in Eastern literatures, philosophies, and ideas about art. On one level, I think this is because I was just born with a kind of contemplative demeanor or something. But I suppose my interest in Zen poetics, Japanese haiku, Sufi mystical poetry, and the Tao Te Ching has something to do with what is more broadly absent or lacking here in our America. Extroversion, self-certitude, and “branding” are very important in the United States, it seems. You know, a lot of “I/me sorta stuff.” But in the poetry of writers like Hafiz, Rumi, Basho, Issa, Muso Soseki, Li Po, and others that we have been lucky enough to receive in translation, the self is something much more playful, something less inherently visible or even locatable. And that seems to me to be nearer to what it actually feels like to be human, in daily life.

For instance, right now I am answering these interview questions, and I have a general sense of the trajectory of my answers. But because I do not rationally process my ideas on poetry or the world every waking moment, answering these questions becomes a process by which to move nearer to the shifting center of who I am, what I value, and how I derive purpose from art and experience. Eastern literatures, and the American literatures they have influenced seem to read like this. They seem to track a much less-self-assured version of day to day life. The writer Charles Johnson said that “self” is less a “noun” than a “verb.” And that’s why I have studied Zen poetics. Because I want a poetics of selflessness to teach me what selfhood could really mean, or imply.

I also just tend toward a shorter, minimalist kind of poem. As a writer, literature of this sort invites me to articulate insight with a more finite economy of language.

As far as Eastern influence in Western poetry goes, it’s very, very significant. I am in the process of looking into this even more. The introductory chapter of my book traces some of this lineage, for anyone who is interested.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

As a poet and a musician, I often found myself trying to separate these two entities into disparate categories. In recent years, though, I have started to see that poetry, and music, and scholarly/critical writing, too, for that matter, are, or can be, all of a sort, all of a kind. Reading the Beats has helped me see boundaries more porously. I have started paying greater attention to my lyrics in music, too, thinking more of my music as poetry and meditation. Because we do not often hear people reciting poetry in daily life, we sometimes forget it is an auditory medium, that it is song.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Good question. Hmm. I think all of my acquaintances and experiences have been important. My mother is from Italy, and I lived overseas when I was younger. Meeting people from different cultures was invaluable. Before college, I lived in the Alps of French Switzerland for a year, and that proved very important in the sense that I was exposed to new linguistic, cultural, conceptual, and environmental landscapes. I became acquainted with people from different parts of the world, but also with scenery that grafted itself ineffably onto my early consciousness. One  can see why so many writers traveled to and spent their later years in the country of lakes and mountains. Lake water and fog-curled mountaintops continue to live in me.

And as far as advice goes, two simple axioms from teachers reverberate:

  1. “Teach to your strength.”
  2. “Find good models for your writing.”

"In recent years, the Beats and the 1960s folk counterculture have played some pretty important and influential roles in my scholarly, creative, and personal life. From a scholarly perspective, exploring Beat Literature and lyricism of the ‘60s has opened up an important interdisciplinary road in my writing and thinking."

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I know that there has been a good deal of back and forth on this topic among Beat Literature fans, poets and scholars. And, from what I have read, the Beats themselves have said apparently diverse (and seemingly contradictory things about this matter). I think that chronology probably matters here in determining whether the Beats are more of a historical movement/phenomenon or an imagined artistic community. I am not sure that the debate matters that much to me actually, now that I think more directly about it. “Movements” are ever in flux, and so are “states of mind.” Beat literature seems immensely historical and vastly a-temporal to me. It floats ghostlike through the American imagination, and yet is also very grounded and earthen, very much a literature grounded in basic concerns for human well-being in daily life. So, Beat literature is made of soil and starlight.

Sociohistorical reality, on one hand, and cosmic and spiritual potentiality on the other.

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

I miss a great deal of the poetry (and music) of the past. I miss its lyricism, its wonder, its courage, and that sense of a world of poets, singers, writers, and artists in conversation with one another—like pretty genuinely engaged in one another’s ideas, styles, and writerly innovations. In fact, on days when I’m failing horribly at living in the “Zen present,” I think about the past with a kind of longing (though I have gotten much better about this in recent years. You know, that good old Greek concept of “nostalgia”).

The poet is half lyric-prophet, half monk-historian. One eye is backward glancing, and the other is downward gazing, like Buddha, into the sentient ground of himself. And poets have been glancing back and peering in forever. My favorite quote on the subject of the past is from the poet who produced probably the best past-searching writing in English, and that’s William Wordsworth. “I’d rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” Wordsworth said in “The World Is Too Much With Us.” I feel that way a lot. And Yeats half echoed his predecessor, “In the Second Coming,” where he asserted that “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Both poets were dissatisfied with their eras in certain ways. Out of quiet desperation, they looked to the past—into mythology, folklore, and mystical traditions—for some answers The Beats followed their footfall.

“And I am waiting / for a rebirth of wonder,” Ferlinghetti famously confessed. My hopes for the future are no different than Ferlinghetti’s. Like a lot of other people, I, too, “am waiting,” half-skeptically, for Godot, “for the discovery / of a new symbolic western frontier.”

What was the status of women in the Beat movement? What touched (emotionally) you from Diane di Prima & Lenore Kandel?

It has obviously taken longer for women of the Beat Generation to gain critical acclaim. Part of this belated recognition has to do with the 1950s and early 1960s climate of gender orthodoxy and gender straightjacketing. But respect for women writers of the Beat has been gaining steady momentum over the past couple of decades. There is still a lack of primary sources available in certain areas from what I can tell, but I hope that nascent efforts like my own will help inspire others to write about women of the Beat Generation.

To be honest, I think that American women of the twentieth century have produced some of the most profound, inspiring, and truthful literature in the history of the Western canon, and I do not hesitate in saying this. American female poets possess pinpoint observational powers, and recesses of immense and capacious feeling. As a mentioned in my book, they, like di Prima, possess a rare blend of “spirit and sense” that speaks to the total experience of being human. Look through the best poems of Marianne Moore, H.D. Amy Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, Alice Walker, Anne Waldman and more, and an unparalleled honesty will soon become very audible. 

And it’s there in di Prima, and the very under-rated Kandel. I had no idea who Lenore Kandel was until a professor of mine suggested I check out her work. When I first read through Kandel’s 2012 Collected Poems I felt like a child again inside a planetarium. All the stars seemed impossibly aligned. Many of Kandel’s poems feature indelibly touching, lines, lines like “that I shall never grow up / not if child means sense of wonder” (“Phoenix Song”), and “What a pleasure it is to be a honey plant / and / open wide” (“Joy Song”).And I think that di Prima’s “Song for Baby-O” could be one of the most touching and dolorous poems we have on the subject of motherhood. It’s oft anthologized. And I discuss it in my book.

What is the impact of music and literature to the racial, political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?

On one hand, not as significant as it could or should be in our present global climate. On another level, literature is the net in which all of these phenomena are gently and tactfully caught. Like a net, literature is full of gaps and threaded apertures that allow us to see how issues of gender, race, culture and politics implicate and comprise our human reality. Music of certain ilks does this too. I think we should encourage our students to read more poetry, song lyrics, short fiction, novels, etc. because literature can be antidote to TV news and to the excesses of social media. Those latter mediums posture as real, but often seem to somehow end up perpetuating delusion or confusion. Literature, on the other hand, readily more frequently admits it is the stuff of imagination (unless its initially teasing or testing us, like Shakespeare, Twain or Salinger), but when we finish reading a poem, short story, or longer work of “fiction” we oddly often feel closer to reality than we were before we began reading. Well, at least I often do.  

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

8th Century rural China, Renaissance Italy, Wordsworth’s North Yorkshire, Paris in the 1920s, Avant Garde New York of the 1950s, San Francisco of the 1960s. There are many places and times to travel back to. With literature, though we can, we always can.

And there are many possible texts and albums to take with us through time. I’d probably take a good translation of the Tao Te Ching, some music by Ryan Adams or Dave Matthews, an anthology of 20th century American poetry, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. Oh, and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, for the friendship and hope it offers in the presence of the unknown!

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