James Koller lives in a simple cabin he and his friends built in the woods on the coast of Maine, the inside filled with few possessions but books, records, and photographs of his grandchildren. He writes the way he exists, a bit of a trickster, like so many of the animals and people in his poems, oftentimes inhabiting several places at once, straddling dichotomies of chance and fate, domestic life and civilization, east and west.
James Koller’s poetry is often deceptively simple and free, using language that can easily be understood by anyone when presented orally, yet at the same time his poems often cohere to some kind of form, often of his own design, and musical devices such as couplets and stanzas, metered verse, syllabics, rhyme and internal rhyme are frequently used.
Koller’s poems reflect his desire for daily authenticity and meaning, as well as a spirituality that is very much rooted in ancient wisdom traditions. He has an extensive knowledge of folk music and cultures, several titles of his works are derived from folk songs, such as “if you don’t like me you can leave me alone” and “didn’t he ramble.” His writing also reflects his views on human and natural history, living simply and modestly, with compassion for other beings. This is encapsulated in the following selections from Koller’s The Bone Show; the text is based on the I-Ching and contains Italian translations alongside the English.FREYA Be strong & friendly tell it all, as it is. Keep everything moving. Don’t settle in, get on with it. Give away as much as you gather. COYOTE It’s like the sky opens & a wall of water comes down. Nobody expects it. Nobody can do much with it. No reason to kill anybody – just get the word out. Get it all out–don’t hold back. Tell it just the way you see it.
“Tell it all, as it is,” is a mantra James Koller has included in his writing, publishing career, and life since the nineteen fifties – his poems read like film clips and soundtracks to his living – expressing images and feelings with simplicity and honesty.
Koller sees writing as record of a poet’s life, and he has been consistently making records for most of his years. He is author of several books of poetry: Snows Gone By, Ashes & Embers, Looking For His Horses, Crows Talk To Him, Iron Bells, After Days of Rain, In The Wolf’s Mouth, This Is What He Said, Roses Love Sunshine, Graffiti Lyriques (w/Franco Beltrametti), Fortune (w/Franco Beltrametti), Openings, Give The Dog A Bone, Great Things Are Happening, One Day At A Time, Back River, O Didn’t He Ramble, Poems For The Blue Sky, Bureau Creek, California Poems, The Dogs & Other Dark Woods, Some Cows, Poems of Civilization & Domestic Life, Two Hands; fiction: I Went To See My True Love, If You Don’t Like Me You Can Leave Me Alone, Shannon, Who Was Lost Before; prose: Close to the Ground, Road Work, The Natural Order, Working Notes, Messages; is publisher of “Coyote’s Journal,” “Coyote Books,” and, formerly, the review of books Otherwise. Prolific as Koller is, he is also someone who refuses to force anything, believing that one shouldn’t make themselves write, everything will come in its own time.
A young man when the Beat Generation was in bloom, Koller has roots in that era’s innovative cultural scenes, the ecstasy of that time, and the longing to be on the move. He has been consistently at home in alternative cultures that defend nature and condemn war. He has lived and traveled extensively in the US and Europe and many of his poems have been translated into Italian, French, German & Swedish.
James Koller has long been part of the “bioregional” movement, which is based on the view that naturally defined geographical systems such as watersheds, are life regions, which both create and define local populations, provide a basis for cultural knowledge and are a primary source for life based solutions.
The following is a collage of conversations with James Koller, from interviews with the international journals New!, La Nuova Ecologia, Lato Selvatico, my own questions, and my readings of Koller’s writing. –Lisa Panepinto
When did you first start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was ten. The first poems were much like the folk songs I often listened to. The stories within these songs expressed lives that were of emotional interest to me and gave me some idea of what to expect from the world. Telling such stories covers it all: artistic, cultural and existential. Certainly my writings have served all these ends at one time or another.
A story: before I knew anything about poetry, I once walked with my father on a beach. He pointed to a cabin situated to look out over Lake Michigan, and said, “This is the kind of a house a poet lives in.” I’ve often wondered what exactly my father meant by the remark, but at the time I knew instantly I wanted to live in this particular way, wanted to be a poet, live as this man did.
The man who sometimes lived in that cabin was Carl Sandburg. He was from the middle of America, Illinois, which is where I grew up. He was interested in folk music and had a socialist point of view. When I was ten or so, a substitute schoolteacher read one of his poems to the class. It was about how fog moves into a place, on little cat feet, he said. I liked the poem, started to read poetry, especially Sandburg, and to write poetry.
Would you talk about some of your socio-political roots?
I was born seven years into the Depression Era, hard times for many, including my extended rural family, an early “down home” introduction to economics. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the US into WWII, happened when I was five, & “the war effort” ended the Depression. Several in my mother’s family found themselves in the US army, including her little brother. Initially I was little concerned with what was happening beyond worries that my favorite uncle, who was captured by the Japanese in early 1942, might be killed. In the next few years I came to more fully understand the disasters of war, learned that there were economic causes for the war, as there had been economic causes for all the earlier wars the US had gotten itself involved in. As I grew I also noted when lies were told to serve government’s ends. Ultimately I learned that very little any politician said could be taken at face value – they were worried about keeping their jobs. Reading history I find one usually encounters several threads that need to be unraveled before real understanding can be made of any of it. You can only be patriotic, or nationalistic at the expense of common sense.
My sense is that one has a single life, which might be spent in many tolerable ways. The sole reason to put that life in jeopardy would be the intolerable. I will never seek military adventures as such. Were a war foisted upon me, I would fight as an individual or one of a group of individuals, never as a “citizen” of some country. There are many through history who I’ve felt akin to when learning of their struggles. Those who come quickest to mind include most all the native tribal peoples of the Americas who were driven from their lands & to near extinction by capitalist adventurers.
Ezra Pound came to my attention as a literary/political phenomenon years before I thought I had the background to read him. My understanding then & now is that he was imprisoned because he had spoken what he thought the truth, beliefs at odds with what was then & is largely still the US point of view. I understood that Pound was declared insane to make it possible to jail him without a trial. When I read about 1920s Paris I discovered Pound’s importance in that time & place, which led to my reading all of his own writings that I could find, then to the great many others he referred to. His ideas were & are of great importance to me. Like Pound I believe that things happen for reasons, i.e. “nothing exists without effective cause.”
How do your poems usually come about?
My life is lived as much in the present as possible, mostly a physical world, a world of natural process. My poetry and what I say come from this focus on my senses.
My poems are a record of my experience on several levels. They are often built from images or bits of dialogue that have collected in my mind – a process, these bits seem to gather themselves with other fragments to finally express some complete “message.”
Much of my poetry is concerned with the spiritual, as I experience and understand spiritual: the love that one feels for other living beings, the love given by others, the sensuality others elicit and I experience, the messages that the natural world elicits, the messages that come from dreams.
Those I’ve known who have died appear with regularity in my poems. They continue to live in both the poems and my mind. Even dead their lives evolve from my knowledge of them as living folk – life, like identity, as long as any vestige remains, continues to change as that life or identity is experienced by others.
I don’t differentiate between the experiences of physical reality and dream mind in my writing – they do all create my reality, which is what I’m expressing.
You started writing poems in traditional forms based on folk song; would you say your poems have maintained an allegiance to some type of form throughout your life?
Poetry has both content & form. Because each person experiences life in his own way, the content of a poem can only represent the individual who writes it, must be unique & true to the one writing that poem. A poet’s collected poems will represent when put together the best possible record of that poet’s perception, the most honest record of that poet’s insight & his or her ability to catch the unique moments of his or her personal interactions with the world s/he moves through.
The form of a poem, as Robert Creeley said, is inherent in its content, should evolve from that content. Some perceptions make for songs, some don’t. Certainly one’s understanding of the possibilities form might take is a big help. Another quote from Creeley: when asked if he considered form when he wrote, he answered, I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t.
Sense of place seems to be essential to your “record keeping”?
Experience happens in a place. As one records experience, which is what I do as a writer, those places are brought in as part of the perception, to become part of the record.
As we move, we all carry with us the sum total of who we are: where we’ve been, what we’ve become, a record (like the collected poems) of the individual people we’ve known, the families or groups we’ve been part of, & what we’ve done in these places with these people. We even organize our thoughts, perceive what & how we do what we do, because of who we’ve become. The idiosyncrasies of the language systems we’ve learned become relevant as we use a language, as we think, as we write – we have, for instance, our sense of past & future, our concerns for whether a thing is male or female, for example, from the Indo-European languages.
The natural world has a large role in your poetry?
The natural world has created me, someone with little interest in the affairs of today’s people, beyond their real news, their hungers, the babies, the deaths.
Those who refuse to limit their views, who desire to include all of the intense world surrounding them, need to understand the natural world as primary, with all else evolving from it.
The poet perceives the world, & selects images drawn from his or her perceptions, with them recreates as s/he is able, with them describes the details s/he has perceived, nature as it made itself known to him or her.
Poetry becomes the “record” of the poet’s perceptions, giving his or her readers an opportunity to recognize & acknowledge that they as humans are each & all part of the same web of evolving & interconnected life systems.
Considering what remains from the human past is also important because through examination of that past we can more clearly realize where we’ve got to, how it has happened, what does in fact remain, has been sustained – maybe we can discover a way to the future.
Can you talk about animals and your poetry?
All animals have power; it is the power that I see. Birds are like rosaries, a link with natural power, with natural spirits. Magpie & Raven were the Ghost Dance messengers. They are all also fellow travellers. When I look at another animal’s eyes, I find we are the same, they have the same problems we’re having, often more of them. Even insects. Once, walking into a room, I saw an ant walking toward my path, but it stopped suddenly on seeing me, such a big monster, then as I waited for it to make its move, it zoomed past me. Clearly insects can relate noises from those passing to their own staying “out of the way”.
When I use “animal lore” in my poems it is because the animal is integral to the story or line of thought, & that information as such is what is happening – it’s not in the poem if it isn’t part of the story. The poems with animals or birds in them grew from my first hand observations of those animals & birds.
Trees too are alive, have senses, react, turn and relate to heat and cold. We often forget that the tree is part of a forest—the tree’s extended family—that the forest itself has its own relationships with other living forms and the energies that affect it.
I have a symbiotic sense of nature. Reciprocity comes into it. Everything is interconnected. We allow ourselves to think that we can function in nature. But the whole ability to be thankful for our food, to know who died to feed us, what contributes to our life, is not thoroughly understood by most western people. On the same level, I can identify myself with the animals, the life I see when I go into the woods. I am not different, I am part of the whole.
Themes of chance and fate come up a lot in your work?
Jacques Monod, the Nobel winner, wrote a book called Chance & Necessity in which he argued that once a chance event happened that event initiated a series of realities that would necessarily follow.
We can all begin only where we do begin, but we need to understand that what happens there happens because we allow it or make it happen.
My entire early life included, by chance, regular farm contact through my mother’s “southern” kin in central Illinois, while my urban life, by choice, included extensive boyhood exploration in most of the “forest preserves” & State Parks scattered through greater Chicago & northeastern Illinois.
That I began in Illinois, the middle of the country, with roads leading away in all directions, to other places, enabled me to become aware of differences, first a discovery, but subsequently, a mission, to pursue, understand both differences & similarities of geography & culture.
The point being that one needn’t follow anyone, or any group, that all choose to make their own lives.
Cause & effect functions on all levels, in all circumstances, providing perhaps the most inclusive lesson anyone can learn. The study of ecology develops from an understanding of cause & effect as they relate to the interactions of human & nonhuman systems in all environments. Such study is especially useful in educating those within their own home place, as the systems involved are commonly known, physical, not theoretical.
Can you talk about music in your poetry?
The sound patterns I use are generally enhanced natural speech patterns – enhanced in that they are recognized and added to, or eliminated, to effect what it is that the work seems to “want to say.” Some of my poems evidence a determined and sustained focus, functioning much as thinking about someone intensively often does, by bringing response. These poems are directly and consciously related to shamanic acts. Repeated words and phrases, words that sound like the thing spoken of, sometimes find their own way into these poems, in patterns of sound and silence, creating a music which differs from my normal cadence. When performing with a musician the poems take on still another reality, often a result of counterpoint. I am very interested in folk music and many of my poems can be sung or at least musically spoken.
Would you briefly describe bioregionalism?
In the late 1960s and early 70s a great many people turned back to the land, back to tribal values, to religious understandings that better incorporated the reciprocal dynamics of life within nature, or were at least one’s own beliefs. Many of these people, instead of trying to take on all of the natural world, including humans, thought it far more useful to define and describe the area and inhabitants of one’s home space: one’s bioregion.
Ecology tries to make sense of the relationships within the natural world. That natural world includes mankind. “Human ecology” describes the intricacies of human behavior as it has evolved in response to the natural physical environment including humans. Acknowledging that man is only a single part of a very complex system is essential. Understanding that everything happens in place, in context, is essential. Things and beings are what they are because of who their neighbors are, what their surroundings are. Change to any changes all.
Bioregionalists share the understanding that they live under unique natural & cultural circumstances. They share as well the desire to maintain & sustain what they share. Certainly shared sentiments have potential political force, especially within the bioregion itself, but the bioregional group is primarily directing itself by way of its own reeducation. You might argue that it functions as a learning group.
In recent years I’ve worked with the Italian Bioregional network and others in schools, national parks and elsewhere in Italy, promoting the ideals of understanding one’s life-place, of keeping what is good in that place for future generations, and of trying to educate the young as well as the misdirected.
I also wander extensively on foot around my own place trying to better understand and live with those (especially non humans) who live there with me.
How do you approach educating children about bioregionalism?
Kids are intensely interested in learning about the world they live in. Poetry, like song, provides an opportunity to express & learn with direct simplicity. The forms & devices of poetry & music are of interest in & of themselves, making the mediums themselves, whatever the message, of potential interest. Because a simple formulation is easiest to present, the image, especially the image of the thing itself (Pound says), is easiest for all ages to grasp.
An agenda should be prepared for the schools, one which allows an awareness of the unique social realities of a bioregion, but also those physical realities that transcend the social, an agenda which allows unique one to one relationships within the natural world, & particularly within the bioregion.
In your book of poems Close to the Ground you say: “Poetry celebrates all the living beings, all that is alive and has been alive”. Do you think human beings of today have forgotten the value of life?
I don’t believe it’s a question of having forgotten anything. We have in fact more information available to us now than ever before. What is missing is the awareness that we need to focus – that we as individuals need to step out of the flow, discover where we’ve gotten to, analyze all we feel is relevant information, & then rejoin the flow, create for ourselves the lives we want.
Most of the planet’s population now tries to function with the economic model we know as capitalism. I understand capitalism consciously tries to confuse all of us about what life is, about what is actually necessary to live. Capitalism creates product, survives by spreading that product to ever-larger populations, who will necessarily have increasingly complex life styles. Whole populations are convinced to work for & buy what they imagine will allow them to “better” their lives. Advertising goes so far as to delineate groups, target & “offer” them goods & lifestyles that they are likely to accept & buy. While family life is touted in many “markets”, the ideal family unit for capitalism stays small because it duplicates needs – i.e. it creates need for multiple houses, more goods, more communication, more travel.
For me a “good life” means that true needs, food & shelter & healthcare, & family & social interactions, are adequately – not excessively met, & met in a manner that also allows for the time to observe & reflect upon one’s natural & social surroundings.
It’s been said that we become what we do. It goes further than that. Social behavior drives biology. What is the basis for choosing a mate? What does it mean to have children? Are we perpetrating tribal or religious relationships? Are we unthinkingly contributing to the capitalist dream? The relationship of parents to children, children & parents to extended family & friends, all provide direction & support for the choices made, all contribute to the future & its genetic & social interplay.
You’ve said before that everything has a spirit?
I believe that everything that exists has a spirit, and that these spirits remain even as we change our shapes. I believe its possible to know these spirits.
I understand the planet to be a unified & integrated reality, a whole, with a spirit of its own.
I think it’s the business of humans to understand the spirits, to communicate & commiserate with them, for the well being of the planet.
Are you optimistic, in the long run, about the fate of the world? Do you see potential to reverse global capitalism?
I see the return of control over their own places to indigenous peoples, and generally, a return of socially responsible folks to public office, as good signs that the capitalist experiment will eventually run its course. But whatever follows will for a long time suffer the ever more disastrous affects of “late capitalism.”
A “better world” will come from individuals rather than organizations or governments. Individuals can adapt, ad hoc and as necessary, while organizations are cumbersome, self-interested, need “funding” and generally arrive too late.
Appropriate early education regarding nature and bioregionalism seems to help kids avoid the traps of social milieu (race, class, economics), gives them an awareness of those realities that transcend the social, allow unique one to one relationships, and enables them to set priorities in line with their own futures as well as the future of the planet.
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to continue, to keep doing what I can, where and when, in terms of writing, publishing, working with kids, reading my poems. I’d like to keep my life in order, new and old, home and away, simple, and in order.
*SONG (w/Stefano Panzarasa) A river I couldn’t find flows through my head. A river I couldn’t find leads me from my bed. A river I couldn’t find flows through my head. A river I couldn’t find leads me from my bed. You’re standing on the river’s bank below the cottonwood tree. I listen to the wind move the tree’s leaves. I listen to the wind the stories that it weaves. I listen to the wind move the tree’s leaves. I listen to the wind the stories that it weaves. You’re standing on the river’s bank, I can’t see your face. Your long dark hair’s wrapt round you, I can’t see your face. Your long dark hair’s wrapt round you, I can’t see your face. Nov 08 LAST WILL & TESTAMENT I want only blue sky over me. I want the clouds, so many of them, variations, passing, changing as they pass. I want the blackest nights filled with turning stars. I want birds to find me, want the hot breath of animals. The wind too will pass, on its way to places I have been. 30 Nov 95 BATTLE MOUNTAIN * They keep moving the streets picking up the paving stones & moving them somewhere else. We followed them around, watched the men work. Things happen like that – change quickly & many times. We met then on steep steps, a narrow hallway, hadn’t seen one another for years, at first didn’t know one another. Where would those streets be if we went there now? There is sand under it all. APR 1988 POEM FOR YELLOW HAIR who did you come with, you asked caw caw caw high into the trees I think I was too drunk to answer yellow light & all the greens yellow after the rain grass & willows out my window & the apple trees in blossom maybe time to know each other I don’t know why I came (not answering your question) I followed the crows (not answering your question) on the beach or in the mountains maybe time a few good moments if you get to where you’re going (follow the crows) I’ll be there the horses fat from apples
Koller, James. Looking for His Horses. Brunswick: Coyote Books, 2003. Print.
—. Crows Talk To Him. Brunswick: Coyote Books, 2003. Print.—. The Bone Show. Trans. Giuseppe Moretti, et al. Brunswick: Coyote Books, 2004. Print.
—. Snows Gone By. Albuquerque: La Alameda. 2004. Print.
—. Reciprocity comes into it: an interview with James Koller. By Claire Millerioux. New! 2 (2006): 88-93. Print.
—. James Koller interview for La Nuova Ecologia. 2006. Web. 8 June 2006.
—. James Koller interview for Lato Selvatico. 2006. Web. May 2006.