NL (New Letters): Your concept of "investigative poetry" (see Investigative Poetry, City Lights, 1976) is much like the practice of journalism or history, involving research and exploring facts, though with an attention to the poet's craft, of course. Is that what drives your American history project?
SANDERS: My mentor Charles Olson urged us to find out for ourselves. I have taken 10 years to build a library of hundreds of books, some of them very old. You open up their pages and make notes. You try to make accurate chronologies, and I list sources for each assertion.
When I was writing the Manson book, in 1970 and '71, I had pages all over the floor of our big loft in New York City, and a transcriber who transcribed my tapes. I found myself writing text in clusters, so for this new version of Thirsting For Peace in a Raging Century, I decided to transcribe my note pages as when I was writing the Manson book. It's a poem called "The Road to Investigative Poetry." I described the scene as police arrived. I wrote it in the short lines that I was typically writing at the time. And I realized as I did this back then, even though these were typed up in regular paragraphs, I originally wrote it in line breaks. That gave me the idea of investigative poetry, which I wrote four years later.
NL: How do you turn what is essentially nonfiction, or history, into poetry? I mean, the project could end up fairly dry, right?
SANDERS: Nonfiction is a kind of map of fragments of information sequenced together, like an elegant baklava with layers of meaning. You have to think of different arrays of sequencing information. If you want to entice a reader not to put down the book and turn on the television, you need to make it interesting, but you have to be true to the material. It's about data clusters and pathways to sequencing information. It's extremely important not to get trapped in a certain array. I used to encounter people in rock 'n' roll who would say, "I wrote those lines and I can't change it." I'd say, "What do you mean you can't change it?" I call it a lame-o lyric lock. You get locked into a lame-o lyric sequence. It's the same for nonfiction writing or playwriting or in putting together a sequence of stuff. It's important not to get frozen into a certain array, but to do some experimentation on the data.
The post-modern negative capability comes into play. I could write a biography of you; I could probably write 15,000 pages on you. But in nonfiction you have to say no to hundreds of things. You have to make an apt choice, or an artistic choice, or an aesthetic choice about what you put in—and what you leave out. It's an art form when to say no. Especially in investigative poetry, it's a mission.
Then the double problem is to make it euphonious, eurhythmic, to have emotive power and to have the structure of poetry. That is not easy. It's not only "first thought best thought" in investigative poetry. There's a lot of elbow grease.
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FATTENING BLOGS FOR SNAKES 2014