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Interview with Larry Jaffe
by Ed Bennett

EB: First of all, congratulations on being chosen as Quill and Parchment’s Featured Poet in the February issue. You’re known as a “human rights” poet yet the selections in February were love poems. Do you have a preference?

LJ: Thank you kindly. Well I guess I consider myself a human rights poet above and beyond anything else. But there is that Romantic side… And my wife surely appreciates that. But when I think about this how can I write about human rights without writing about love? Loving humanity is of utmost importance, despite the foibles, the evils, etc. Man is basically good. You have to see past all that stuff and see the soul, the spirit, the being. Then all you can have is love.

EB: Your writing career began as a journalist in New York City’s underground press. How did you arrive at poetry?

LJ: Actually, I was writing poetry first. Well not exactly. I started writing when I was 9 I think. I was at camp and I wrote Uncle Larry’s Nature Column (please don’t ask me why that name; it just came to me in a flash. Lol. In high school and college I thought I would be a sports writer, and wrote and edited sports for our school papers. I attended seminars and workshops and the Columbia School of Journalism.

Then in college I really got lost in poetry, especially haiku. My girlfriend, (Joyce) at that time was a great literary influence. I don’t think she realized then or knows now how much she changed my life. Up to that point poetry was beyond my comprehension, I hated it. But I heard the muse and she was calling my name. I loved writing haiku. For someone as undisciplined as I was, haiku was revelation. I could feel it with my fingers. To this day I feel and hear poetry with my fingers. It’s the rhythm I guess!

The year was 1970 and I found this ad in the Village Voice: “Writers wanted for antiestablishment rock magazine. Call…” I spoke to the publisher and my career in journalism was launched. Lol. The magazine was called Zygote, the publisher Len Sutton. We had quite a crew and I learned everything about publishing that I could. I sold ads, I wrote, I handled circulation and helped with layout. It was quite a learning experience for me. I still wrote poetry, but really threw myself into what we called the underground press.

I remember riding the subway after attending a press conference gotten a couple of albums which they put in these big manila envelopes. By the time I would get back to the Zygote offices, poetry was scrawled all over the envelope.

These were good times, not much money. We lived on the largesse of the record companies, lunches and then PR conferences for dinner. We were subletting office space from an old school editor by the name of Pete Hunter, a really nice guy who mentored me quite a bit.

EB: Poetry flourished briefly in the late 60s and early 70s and much of this was due to the underground press. You were part of that movement as both a journalist and a poet. What differences do you see between then and the current environment for poets?

LJ: Oh I think it is a much richer environment now. The advent of slam, the resurrection of live poetry readings all over the world and of course def poetry all reinvented poetry to a great extent. Even those stodgy elements of academic poetry have come back to earth and brought poetry into the 21st Century. But the biggest influence is the Internet. Without it I would still be writing poetry on napkins and envelopes (not that that was bad mind you, I kind of miss it).

EB: You’ve said that no one is really a poet until he or she turns 50. How so?

LJ: Actually, I did not say that, my friend Jon said that to me because I had just had my 50th birthday and he was trying to make me feel better. He told me that now I had enough experience to really write.

EB: In the 1820s, Shelley said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. A century later W.H. Auden disagreed, stating that in his time the unacknowledged legislators were the secret police. As we begin this new century, which of these visions ring true for you?

LJ: We live in a genuinely scary time. I think we are at a crossroads. We have this incredible ability to communicate and get information in a blink of an eye. Humanity has never had such opportunity. Simultaneously, there are forces at work to dehumanize us. So I think it is a combination of Shelley and Auden that we face today.

Our lives are infiltrated with attempts to orchestrate them. The drugs and I don’t mean just street drugs but the shenanigans of Big Pharma to drug us into docile creatures. It smacks of 1984 and Brave New World. Psychotropics are the soma of today. The food system is a mess with genetically modified foods destroying nutrition. Obesity runs rampant. What happened to that vigorous American society?

Poets and artists must speak up and out. We have to make our work relevant and change society for the better, not just in protest but in creation of a better civilization.

EB: Your latest book, One Child Sold, was a tour de force of the abuses of human rights throughout the world, Your blog mentioned that the heightened awareness of the problems outlined in the book saved a child from a life of slavery. Have you seen other instances where poetry, yours or others, made such a direct impact?

LJ: I believe an artist should create beauty and hope. This should be our legacy. I believe in awakening the spirit because a gentle spirit can be so strong and withstand anything. I believe the artist should be creating a glorious civilization and not rolling around in the muck of the current one.

Poetry to me is the passion of language and the true language of all peoples. I have read in places where they did not understand a word I said but could feel the impact of the words in their hearts and in the soul. I am not speaking of Tinker Belle murmurings but truly reaching out to people so they know you care about them and you speak to each individual privately in verse.

I remember when we had the readings at the Moondog or the ones at the Onyx then Ben and Milo ran. There was a spiritual quality to these readings. You could almost feel the roof rising. This is the spirit of man unleashed, the artist speaking and being heard.

I have seen poets emerge from so many walks of life. I have watched the novice become a poet, from hands shaking and voice quivering off the map to delivering poetic homeruns. This is the power of poetry. The ability to create life with words. It is an incredible thing.


EB: One Child Sold has a section with the Terezienstadt death camp as a setting. It is the one part of the book that looks to the past and not at present day abuses. T.W. Adorno said that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz yet these poems are among the most moving in the book. What led to your inclusion of this group of poems into your book?

LJ: Terezin despite its horror was very liberating for me. I could see and feel the inhumanity and oppression. I could hear the children singing. I will never forget this and even as I answer your question, the emotion surges through me. I wanted to free the memories, unburden the ghosts and thus those poems had to be there.

EB: One Child Sold was released through an Irish publishing house (Salmon Press). Was it easier to find a European publisher than an American one for poetry of human rights/social justice theme?

LJ: I don’t know how to answer this other than to say that I always wanted to be a Salmon poet and I finally became one. It is not so easy to be published as a poet nor is it easy to be a poetry publisher. I love Salmon. I love Jessie and what she stands for.

EB: Stepping back to your formative years, who were the writers who influenced you?

LJ: Basho, Langston Hughes and Leonard Cohen, how is that for a crazy combo? Basho taught me to write with simplicity. Cohen taught me to write with my heart. Hughes taught me to stand up for what I care about.

I am an inveterate mystery reader and love Dash Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Incidentally, Chandler’s book on writing as well as Stephen King’s helped me immensely with the craft.

EB: Who do you read now?

LJ: I enjoy Joseph Brodsky, Frank O’Hara and Czeslaw Milosz very much. I like to read Mayakovsky for some crazy reason. My friend Ilya Kaminsky is a brilliant poet and would not miss any words from him.

EB: You are a proponent of using the internet as a means to get poetry to the public. How should a poet use the internet to its best advantage?

LJ: Phew, tough question. There is so much out there. There are many poetry communities. There is much on Facebook and beyond.

I like using Facebook, having my web site and a blog. I use Twitter as much as I can. Although tweeting poems can be a formidable challenge. I wrote and tweeted 30 poems representing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last year. That garnered a lot of attention with write-ups in major publications.

The Internet has been part of my life since I discovered it in the mid-90’s. I was on AOL and CompuServe before that. It is as important to me as my fingers. I live there.

EB: What advice do you have for those of us writing poetry today?

LJ: My advice is simple – write every day, go to readings every week. Listen to others, read poetry aloud even in your bedroom.


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