A poet that has seen the rise of everything from the Beats to blogs keeps moving forward
Ron Silliman, an American poet with 40 years of experience and part of some of his country’s most important movements, is returning to the University of Windsor.
Born and raised in Pasco, Wash., Silliman studied in California and eventually found himself living in the San Francisco Bay area. There, he became one of the early members of the Language poets, influenced by the New American and Beat poetry schools. Today, Silliman lives in Pennsylvania, and had made frequent trips up to Canada throughout his career.
“During the Vietnam War, I knew a number of American writers who thought about becoming Canadian writers, if you know what I mean,” Silliman said. “I certainly at least considered it.”
Coming to the university next Tuesday, Silliman has visited Windsor multiple times during his career, the first occasion being in 1974. The most recent was last year, when the University of Windsor’s English department held a symposium dedicated to his 950-page poem The Alphabet.
Despite his career being composed of several works of considerable length, The Alphabet, which he worked on for 25 years, has been one of the most attention-grabbing works of his career. Retiring last year from other areas of professional life—including editing, community activism and a 20-year career as a market analyst in the computer industry— has given Silliman plenty of time to work on his next poem, Universe.
“The Alphabet has left me in a position to write a seriously long poem,” Silliman said. “I find myself right now in the middle of five different sections of a new work. So I’m starting out in the process of something that might end up being 10 to 15 times as long. I finished one section of that, part of which I read when I was in Windsor last, and I am currently in the process of finishing two other sections. One of the great joys of working on a long poem, when there are all these parts and sometimes those parts are quite different, is that there is always something to do.”
For the last 10 years, Silliman has also run a weblog, appropriately titled Silliman’s Blog. With over three million visitors to date, it is one of the most popular poetry blogs online. Designed and launched on a computer at a whale watching station in Nova Scotia, Silliman saw the format as a way to transcend some of the barriers that exist in poetry.
“When I was starting it, my concern was that there really wasn’t an opportunity for poets to talk to poets about what they were interested in directly, without having to go through the gated communities of academic journals. It very much felt as if one were not in the academy, circa the year 2000, there never were any opportunities to have any serious discussions about poetry. The blog was an attempt on my part to simply put out things I was thinking about poetry without thinking about those other formats.”
Through both the blog and his travels, Silliman has had a great deal of opportunities to interact with young poets at every level. Although that suggests he embraces poets being as forward-thinking as possible, he still emphasizes the role of being aware of poetry’s past.
“If I have any complaint, it’s that I wish more of them had taken more time to do a lot of reading and had a better sense of the history of poetry and poetics. I was reading a story in the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an interview with Ursula Rucker, about the title of a work of hers (“Fuck You”), which they were comparing to the title of a song by Cee-Lo Green. And nowhere in this article did they have any recognition that Ed Sanders had a journal with the same title in 1960s and ‘70s. That kind of gap makes me feel that there is as much erosion as there is growth. It makes me feel like the waves coming in at the beach. They deposit sand and pull it back out. You don’t get more sand, it just gets rearranged.”
However, Silliman recognizes that the environment as a working poet was very different in the past, and doesn’t envy the type of work new poets have to do in order to stand out from the crowd.
“I was listening to Michael Layton talk about his father (Irving Layton’s) role in getting poetry started on its modern phase in Canada after World War II, and he’s able to list off the people active in that scene without getting up to 10 names. In the U.S., historically, there have been no more than 100 poets listed in that same period. Today, that number has to be around 20,000. If you were an Alan Ginsberg in 1954, getting yourself known only meant that you had to reach out to a couple dozen people. That same situation does not apply today.”
While that type of competition could be discouraging, Silliman believes that in the right hands, it could be a source of a creative spark.
“At an early stage, you really have to figure out to whom you are trying to communicate and what, because otherwise, it will feel like you’re throwing your words off into the wind. I think that change is so significant, that a thoughtful writer is really going to get some advantage of having to think that through. Change is invariably a state in which imaginations get great ideas.”
Ron Silliman will join a discussion on March 13 as part of the University of Windsor English department’s Language of Contemporary Poetry series. It takes place at 5:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the CAW Student Centre.