Interview: C.K. Williams

by: Whole Beast Rag


WHOLE BEAST RAG: We were wondering if you could comment on the recent WikiLeaks file drop concerning StratCorp.

CK WILLIAMS: I don’t know what you’re talking about…Oh wait, something like 5 million…?

WBR: Yes, basically an enormous amount of emails concerning intelligence with the United States government and counter-intelligence, all that stuff. We don’t necessarily need to talk about WikiLeaks, what we are really interested in is the relationship between citizens (or residents) and their government. Do you have any comments about that?

CKW: Well that’s an interesting question; it’s not at all what I expected. It’s clear that the government keeps too many secrets and they’re very crude in the way they do it. It’s also clear that WikiLeaks reveals many secrets and they’re also rather crude in the way they do it. So I have very mixed feelings about it. I guess obviously the leaks they’ve made that have put people in physical danger; one can’t approve of that and there’s no reason to see why those [types of leaks] have to be released, but obviously they’re not interested in filtering, they’re interested in making as much noise as they can. So therefore I can’t actually see what particular good it’s doing because all it does is make the government make their computers more secure as far as I can tell; it hasn’t changed any policies in the least. But I don’t know what does.

WBR: Do you think it encourages civilians to be more knowledgeable or proactive about their government and the information it protects? Or do you think it just serves to alienate more people? Or other feelings entirely?

CKW: I don’t really know. I’ve never thought of it that way. I guess the major media has not been particularly forthcoming in revealing things that would be terribly embarrassing to the government. But there are always things that being revealed and people don’t seem to care. I think people think of the government as part of their sense of security, and even if the government seems to be working against their interests it’s part of the paradox of our political system, why people vote against their own interests—which has been said 10,000 times. Part of it is that government is part of people’s personal security apparatus and when it’s threatened it has to be threatened in a particular way so as to make people feel that they have to shift their allegiance to something else. Especially when there really isn’t anything else. And I think that’s why we get these crazy Republican, outlandish statements that you would think would just turn people off. Like the fact that Santorum got 37% of the vote in Michigan was stunning—it’s amazing that there would be that many people who voted for him. And I think his anger offers a kind of refuge for security; that’s one way to express your insecurity is through anger. Anyway.

WBR: Certainly. That actually brings up a question I wanted to ask you about your poetry: Correct me if I’m being presumptuous here—your poetry has shifted from a lot of your response/feelings in regard to external forces acting on the self; these issues such as war or anger directed outward, toward a more internalized state of alienation. So, I’m curious about your comments on the difference between these two forces. That which is outside us acting upon us versus that which is within us acting upon us.

CKW: Well always—from the very beginning—my poems that have had a political edge that has to do with the way outward forces act upon our inner life, or my inner life. And I felt early-on that poetry could really change something. So the louder I made it, in a way, the more of a chance there was of change happening. Then I realized that in fact that’s not the way people change and it’s not the way poetry works so—I’ve said this before—I brought the political-social tensions into the subconscious of the poems. The poem isn’t directly speaking, except in certain cases when it is. But that presumes the dichotomy between the inner life and the outer life I don’t really believe in; I think it’s all one continuum. It’s just where your focus happens to go at a particular moment or particular period of time. So there have been moments when I was living in Paris sort of non-stop for some years when I realized at one point that my poetry was becoming too introspective. I quite consciously changed that. I realized I had to get back into my American madness [laughs].

WBR: That’s a good way of putting it.

CKW: Because you’re in another country, you can live in a relative state of suspension; you don’t have to think about America every five minutes the way you do when you’re here.

WBR: You split your time between both France and America. I’m interested in your thoughts on the different kinds of government and policing or maybe whether they’re the same in the end given your experience with several kinds.

CKW: No—the big difference is that in France, you have this sense that people believe they own the place. Very small things, like the way people are in parks, to very large things, such as the way everyone is ready to protest if they feel as though they’re being taken-advantage of. Now, I’ve become a French citizen and have dual citizenship. My citizenship ceremony was in New York; when they finished, they showed a little movie about different parts of France and the government, and then they show people protesting at a protest march as part of the citizenship video. Can you imagine that happening in America? [Laughs] People know when they’re being screwed. And they are being screwed, but they know it and they’re ready to walk out and you know, sometimes it can be quite annoying when people go on strike when you’re on your way to the train. I always get angry at my wife—you know she’s French—because she always says that’s the way it is, and I’m getting more and more that way too. You have to trade this for that. And you know, the economy isn’t great there, there’s a lot of unemployment, but at least they count their unemployment honestly and when you do get unemployment they have retraining programs. I have a brother who was in the restaurant business and who lost his job—went bankrupt actually—and was without anything, and he got into a government program on music, writing music for performance, and for a year that’s what he’s been doing and he’s trying to get some movie people interested in his music.

WBR: That’s a wonderful way to circumvent despair.

CKW: It is. And you know, there is certainly a lot of despair but the benefits are so much better there than here, it’s ridiculous.

WBR: So you have a safe harbor it sounds like.

CKW: Yeah, well, I don’t know if there are any safe harbors anymore anywhere in the world [laughs].

WBR: Well that is a really good intro into my last question. It seems that in interviews people want to talk about your outrage and your political ideas—and that’s very important, the body is a very political vessel—however, at the same time, I’m interested in what gives you hope in this age, given all these things. How do you create that?

CKW: I have three grandsons. Who, of course, are above average—way above average, needless to say. And when I’m with them I feel sort of primeval hope; their vibrance, their optimism, the way they’re so firmly in the world without thinking about it. When I’m not with them and I think about the world, I am not in a very hopeful mood—I’m in a very fearful mood. I think obviously global warming is going to be a catastrophe: We’re already having these storms that the weather people are saying are a result of global warming. The events are going to be intensified. And the fact that that has become a sort of theological issue about belief like, “Do you believe in god?” “Do you believe in global warming?” There’s this whole vast political system that doesn’t believe in global warming, and you think: “Don’t these people have grandchildren?” And the big question, I think, is the definition of government—the anticipation of what-if. You can say government is the guardian of what-if.

So what government should constantly be thinking is, “What-if?” So if you’re ever in a theological mood you don’t think that. So I find it terrifying that this thing is sort of rising like a monster at us from a Goya painting—Saturn, for instance—and people are saying, “I don’t believe.” And if it’s a hoax…but you still have to say, what-if? What if it’s a myth or a hoax? But what if it’s not? They don’t say the other half, and I find that cruel. It’s one of the things that upsets me most about America in my lifetime. When I was a kid, I mean we had a very maimed society in terms of race—less so in terms of class—and for a while there was that period where it seemed that everything would get better and did get better for a bit, but we’ve gone back and become a culture of cruelty, and I can’t understand why that had to happen. Is that a result of Nixon’s Southern strategy taken as far as it can go?

Now we have a black president and people are really obsessed with that. And it’s like the last battle of civil rights and it isn’t clear whether we’re winning it. In the meantime, in order to arrive at a solution, what we basically have is the whole Republican platform, built on cruelty toward people. “We will save our taxes and therefore we will make a more productive country and if we don’t,” well there’s that what-if again. And we have to save our capital formation at the expense of human beings. I read an article this morning where Romney’s 20% cut across the board would make people who earn a million-dollar income save $200,000 a year. If you’re under $20,000 it would save you 79 dollars a year, if you’re middle class it would save you $700 a year. I mean this is insane. [Sighs] Well, anyway.

WBR: It seems like people are very short-sighted, and there are two kinds of people: your grandsons, who are very much immersed in joyful living and not getting spun up in so many unnecessary things, and then there are the people who use that to prevent any actual thinking from happening.

CKW: Actually my grandsons go to a Quaker school where there’s a lot of conscience. Every week they go to an elder care facility and my grandson has a woman there he eats with who keeps trying to convert him. And he’s a philosophical atheist.

WBR: That’s an amazing stance for an 11 year old.

CKW: Well, he’s a really smart one. They all are, but he’s been scarily so. I quote him in an essay of mine when he was I think 3—maybe even 2. He said to his mother, “When you step on an ant, does it say ouch?” and she said, “Ants don’t talk,” and he said, “Yes, but does it say ouch in its mind?” [laughs] and he’s sort of been on that plane every since.

WBR: Interesting to think about.

CKW: That was a really great interview. Such a nice change of pace from, “How did you happen to write long lines?” and “How did you stop writing long lines?”