Interviewed by Nita Noveno
It has to be said: Ed Pavlic is a cool guy. I met Ed in December 2006 at the Summer Literary Seminars in Kenya. He was a curiously calm, welcoming presence to a just-arrived, disoriented traveler. Eventually, I would discover his finely tuned powers as a poet and the inspired musicality of his writing. His most recent book But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (Achebe Center, Bard College, 2009) is jagged and beautiful and absorbing. Ed shares the back story of his latest publication and a few other observations about music and life.
Nita Noveno: Tell me about this book.
Ed Pavlic: Well: dhows and Swahili coast, roosters and donkeys, bioluminescent algae and special ops, abandoned beaches and Al Qaeda training camps, little girls searching out peppers and Bwana Mataka’s fort, you know, it’s “INGIENI KWA SALÁMA NO AMANI” and “SAY NO TO DRUGS”. It’s a part head-on collision, part dive-with-no-splash.
I never expected to write it, first. I took no notes as one might while traveling in anticipation of writing a piece or a book. But, in response to a request to do an interview about a trip to Kenya, I agreed to write 500 words against which the interview might take shape. When I finally sat down, on a Saturday, I remember, and I was playing Keith Jarrett’s Carnegie Hall Concert in the office, I remember that, too, but when I began to write I was shocked at the vivid, rhythmic sense of scenes that quickly took shape. I postponed the interview for a month, wrote the book, aligned some of the photos I’d taken into relationships to the images that had appeared in the writing. Then A.C. Hoff and I did the interview and I set upon editing the book for the next year or so. Finally, there it was. Utterly un-publishable. A book of prose pieces and color photos, set on a sailboat, a dhow, and in the islands off the coast of Kenya (near Somalia), and an interview at the end. At the center of the book is a conversation with a man named Muhammad Kubwa who was brother-in-law to a quite notorious terrorist named Fazul Muhammad (google him). So, it’s what amounts to a contemporary trip according to ancient rhythms, the dhow, the wind, the sand-path to a place ‘off the grid’ (no roads, electricity, phones, etc.) that is also amid the traffic of a volatile, international political struggle. Muhammad Kubwa had been imprisoned for years owing to his family association with Fazul Muhammad. Fazul Muhammad is still in the wind. That’s the book. Nine days after we left. The U.S. sent cruise missiles to within 60 miles of where we were in attempts (failed) to kill Fazul Muhammad. In fact, that incident also triggered my impulse to write the book, though, at first, I had no idea what I’d write or how?
Finally the book was done. At first I called But Here Are Small Clear Refractions “documentary lyric.” Since, I’ve come to think of it as an “instigated secret.” I had NO prospects for publishing this book, of course. Publishing a book of poems is difficult enough. One needs lightning in a bottle, a willing philanthropist, and / or poetry enthusiast. In the case of a book with extremely volatile, if unorthodox and off-hand, political content and loaded with color photos of roosters, donkeys and ancient mosques grown-through by vines and trees that would be perilously expensive to actually print, one really needs a miracle. We’d planned the miracle to occur in Kenya, actually. Printed in India, miracles in 2007 seemed cheaper in Kenya. However, when the 2008 election-violence burned cities and villages, killed over a thousand people, it also tore down the prospects for cheap, miraculous poetry books in Nairobi. Imagine. Then, in 2009, The Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, quite miraculously, decided to publish the book in the U.S.
Nita: Bless The Achebe Center! So who has influenced your work?
Ed: All the notable influences of my work are musicians. Different works grow from different musicians. My first book, Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue was a Miles Davis book, though poems refer to several other musicians. The next, Labors Lost Left Unfinished, was a big, chaotic Mingus book, though, too, there are dozens of musicians folded into that book. Next, Winners Have Yet to Be Annnounced, was centered very literally in the life of soul singer Donny Hathaway. . . .Refractions takes shape directly in response to Keith Jarrett’s Carnegie Hall Concerts, movement two – with the funky, percussive ostinato. I likely listened to that 4-minute movement a thousand times or more during the writing of the book. The title of the book comes out of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trace Elements.” There’s an influence, more than that, however, there’s a real friend. All the writing I love is an influence, of course, and that list goes and goes and goes. But, the musicians are the crux of it for me. Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Anouar Brahem, Oumou Sangare, Gilad Atzmon, Anthony Hamilton. Soul music.
Nita: What is your response to the gulf spill?
Ed: The gulf spill? Which gulf? Which spill? I was living in Nigeria when Ken Saro Wiwa was in prison. The whole world dared Abacha to go ahead sure that he wouldn’t. He did. Don’t get me started on gulfs and spills. That’s all day everyday. And, Anderson Cooper is no Ken Saro Wiwa. I’ll take Amy Goodman. The BP escapade in the Gulf of Mexico was just a particularly bad and long and public day. And, of course, what it revealed about the connection between government and oil interests is no surprise.
I thought it did make very plain an interesting feature of the relationship between profit and technology, however. That the technology for the money making part of an (which means every) industry is far in front of all other technological capacities. Think of that in terms of food production and pharmaceuticals, banking, airlines, and on and on and things become clearer and clearer. There was even a Representative, I think, from Louisiana, ex National Guard, who had suited himself up to “go to war” against the oil spill. Such spasms to bring things into light, William Carlos Williams said truth appears in the break-up of language. So, in any rupture like that, there are springs to look for. But, they close up quickly.
Nita: What’s next?
Ed: Well. I’ve got several books in the works, always, for whatever that’s worth. Running behind these three children (13, 9, 2) of mine who grow fast and force me to keep up. Living in GA. Gulp. In October we’ll call it fourteen years of marriage though Stacey tells me it’s more like 11 or so. . . or 9? We’re negotiating that. I say it’s more like 23. Or 97. Going back to Kenya in November. Lately I’ve been re-reading everything I can get my hands on by James Baldwin, including the new book The Cross of Redemption. And, wondering why people have made so little analytical, musical sense of his work. I’ve got ideas. That’s it. That’s enough I suspect?
Nita: Yes! And more exquisite poetry ahead. Asante sana, Ed.
Ed Pavlić’s most recent books are But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (Achebe Center, Bard College, 2009), Winners Have Yet to be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (UGA P, 2008) and Labors Lost Left Unfinished (UPNE, 2006). Ed teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia. He has taught poetry at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia and at the Kwani? Lit Fest in Nairobi and Lamu Town, Kenya. He lives with Stacey, Milan, Suncana, Mzée and I Am Pozzo in Athens, Georgia.