Here follows an interview-via-correspondence on Peter O'Leary's upcoming book The Sampo (published by the Cultural Society: http://culturalsociety.org/texts/poems/the-sampo-by-peter-oleary/). Anyone with any sense will pick this book up; I find no one else working in such a particular, strange, prophetic mode.
SM: I thought a quite easy place to start would be to ask how you came to the work from which you've made The Sampo, what was the invocation (or, Calling), a word you use often when speaking of the Poet, in the finding of this work, and what moved you to the technique you've discovered, or a technique transposed from lyric to the epic (or at least, the epyllion), which you've called (privately and I think publicly) Imagist Narrative.
PO’L: The call to write The Sampo came when I visited the National Museum in Helsinki in July 2011. The building of the museum has a spacious atrium, crowned with a beautiful dome, the pendentives for which are decorated with four frescos by the great Finnish art nouveau painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The frescos depict scenes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, compiled in the early 1800s by Elias Lönnrot, a district health officer and folklorist, who collected orally transmitted poems from the peoples of Karelia, a northeast-central region in Finland, concerning the deeds of a band of heroes, especially Väinämöinen, the wizard-singer, Ilmarinen, the primordial smith, and Louhi, a sorceress of the north country.
Looking up into that dome, gazing at Gallen-Kallela’s frescos, I had a holographic flash, seeing as a sudden whole a poem I could write. I took note of the idea in a notebook shortly after, and then didn’t really do anything with it until January 2012, though I had written the first ten or fifteen lines the previous November.
During the previous few years, I had been experimenting with a technique for doing loose translations - para–translations I think of them – involving the use of the period as a measuring device, both to mark time and also to build and release tension. I first used this technique in two sections in Phosphorescence of Thought, for a loose version of Georg Trakl’s poem “Helian,” and a more adventuresome rendering of portions of Euripides’s Bacchae. I returned to this technique, testing it more deeply, in a version of the Actaeon passage from The Metamorphoses, which I called “The Dogs.” When I applied this technique to The Sampo material, the connection felt natural.
The experiment itself involves imagist flashes, you could say. I was inspired in part by Christopher Logue’s imagist epic in War Music, to a small degree. To a larger degree, I was inspired by Thomas Meyer’s poetry, especially his poem “Rilke,” which translates parts of the first and sixth “Duino Elegies,” but also his books Coromandel and Kintsugi. I was also guided significantly by thinking practically about how to envision in English poetry the discoveries presented in “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” specifically Pound/Fenellosa’s assertion that there are no verbs in classical Chinese, only the images of nouns in contextual motion. At one point in the essay, Fenellosa writes, “Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots… The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things…” This characterizes my technique: limited use of verbs, maximum sense of the animating force of nouns. The poem puts things into motion.
The question of the call moves to something deeper of course. How does a poem flash as an entire holographic thing in an instant? It came from some deep source, of course. What’s the source? Fantasy. In looking at Gallen-Kallela’s frescoes, I saw that I could write a fantasy poem, with a wizard, a magic sword, a sorceress, a mysterious talismanic object. Furthermore, and more richly, I was already keenly familiar with Gallen-Kallela’s frescos, though I didn’t remember it. As a teen-ager, I loved the Time-Life “Enchanted World” series, the first volume of which, Wizards and Witches, I pored over avidly. It begins with a story, “Singers at the World’s Dawn,” which retells the story of Väinämöinen and the Sampo. So, in effect, the call to make this poem came from the sixteen-year-old version of myself.
SM: Reading The Sampo, and with all the talk of snap-shots and flashes, I immediately think of several cinematic relations: the attempt of Brakhage to get an apocalyptic frame from the flux of camera movement, the stops and starts (esp. in something like the Dante Quartet--the time-sense is quicker between the cuts there but you and he are both isolating the luminous detail with similar technical premises separated only by the two media); another I think of is Eisenstein, who Kenner mentions in The Pound Era as “by 1925 ... applying ideographic principles to an art of blended snapshots: The Battleship Potemkin”; a last cinema man's comment: John Huston saying that the camera edit, the cut, frame-to-frame, was in his mind equivalent or approximate to the blink of the eye [in an interview somewhere--read years ago]. I wonder if you think of it in a cinematic sense (I think I've even heard you mention it at readings)? Part of Phos if I remember right was rooted in your seeing a movie.
PO’L: I was thinking about film when writing The Sampo, but not any of the things you mention – not Brakhage, not Eisenstein, nor John Huston. Instead, I was thinking of animation. Specifically, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, most especially the films Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The former film avails one of the principle tropes of fantasy, what I think of as the “this world/other world” paradigm, in which characters – often youngsters – traverse from this world into a more magical world. The Wizard of Oz, especially the 1939 film, is archetypal in this regard, but also the Narnia books. The question is, where does this magical world reside? Often, it resides in the same place dreams arise from. In Spirited Away, Miyazaki envisions this entire world hidden within reality, populated by spirit beings. In my mind, it presents one of the richest, most sophisticated ideas of the spirit world – the mesocosm – in recent film. Princess Mononoke involves the other principle trope of fantasy, what I think as “the complete world” principle, in which the world depicted belongs to itself, resembling our world in crucial ways, but guided by its own laws and development. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is an archetype in this regard, especially as it hints that the world depicted is mytho-historical, belonging to our world but in a mythic foretime we’ve lost sight of. (As such, books like Tolkien’s or films like Princess Mononoke enact what Mircea Eliade called the “illud tempus,” the foretime of the absolutely saturated sacred.) Both of Miyazaki’s films include wizards, sorceresses, magically competent warriors, and talismanic objects. In a sense, The Sampo uses both tropes: Its world is one of mythical foretime, but it also belongs to a folkloric world still present in the actual world – not only the world of Finland, say, but also, through the gestures of fantasy, simultaneously present everywhere else. (This I believe is the inspirational core of that holographic moment in the National Museum.)
As I wrote The Sampo, I tried to imagine the mythical figures as characters in Miyazaki’s films, especially in depicting their behavior. Compositionally, I regard the phrases punctuated by the periods as cells in an animation. There’s a stop-motion element there. But when sequenced – when read and envisioned by the reader – the animation comes to life.
SM: Blake’s works were surely an influence on The Sampo? I’m thinking in almost every sense: diction; a continual BIG SOUND; archetype/myth/figuration. From a reader's perspective I think of Phosphorescence of Thought as having Whitman for its Daimon, for The Sampo there's Blake. What think ye?
PO’L: Whitman was definitely the Source for Phosphorescence, just as Dante largely was for Luminous Epinoia. Blake is almost certainly behind The Sampo, but in a way that feels submerged rather than involved in the “great companion” sense that Blaser explores in his major poems including that epithet. Then I think, you’re right, the archetypal, heroic, fantastic, phantasmatic elements – reverberated in a medium of sacred fantasy – are gestural permissions from Blake. That said, when I just went back to check the notebook in which I drafted the early sections of the poem, I found this: “NOTES: Thinking: so far following the model of ‘The Dogs,’ more or less trying to channel Blake. Shift to something more expressively free verse?”
In terms of active thought, active debt, I was principally involved with the source material, the Kalevala itself, which I engaged primarily through translation, reliant especially on F. W. Kirby’s two-volume Everyman translation from 1907, but also Keith Bosley’s Oxford translation from 1985, which has a really good introduction. I used a gorgeous 1963 edition of the Finnish poem, itself a facsimile of an edition designed by Gallen-Kallela. I entered this version with the help of a Finnish-English dictionary, published in Hancock, Michigan in 1916. Finnish is agglutinative, so even without knowing the language, I could muster my way through phrases by looking up the roots of words in the dictionary. Hancock is where my mother’s father’s family emigrated to.
Submerged, but differently from Blake, was Longfellow. I’ve been reading his poetry with increasing interest since the early Aughts, when I discovered his translation of the Divine Comedy, which I found to be a revelation of vision and syntactical invention. I’ve since taught it straight through twice. (And will do so again next year.) It’s one of the great poems in English, to say nothing of its virtues as a translation. It’s made me re-appraise received, prejudicial opinions of his poetry I’ve held. This includes, of course, his “Song of Hiawatha,” not quite as great as “Evangeline,” but full of vivid scenes and language. “Hiawatha” is Longfellow’s version of the Kalevala, written in the same meter, and with the same emphatic force, of the original. I had no interest in reproducing any of that, but I found Longfellow, in the epic sense of his Dante and a kind of North American shamanism, lurking in the pregnant gloom of my own poem as it came to life.
Vainamoinen. Rune-lord. Wizard-singer. Waiting.
"Ilmarinen! Brother. Smith. Tell me. Is it done?
Did you forage in the forest?
Did you forge anew the Sampo?
And Ilmarinen. Moving to his smithy. Not looking up.
Making ready. A new fire.
But seeing in his mind's eye. The Sampo. Secretly enthroned.
In the core of the Copper Mountain.
Converging to it--the world.
Emerging from it--an undiminishing energy.
Nourishing the earth it was suturing with its colossal roots.
Intricate interlocking lid.
Image of the starry sphere.
Mirror of underworld channels.
"Yes. My twilight machine. Yes.
I made it. I forged it. Anew."
----- (a particularly fine passage, the climax of the first part of The Sampo, called "Forging the Sampo") -----
SM: I don't know any Finnish--how much of your description of the Sampo (an enigmatic, form-bound thing yet seemingly limitless in generative energy and character) is in the original and how much have you enriched the object by alteration? Could you talk about the Sampo as an object in general, your sense of what it is, its relation to a person like Wasson, or anything else you might think of?
PO’L: What is the Sampo? Scholars suggest several possibilities: something like a cornucopia; a magical salt cellar; a treasure chest from Byzantium brought to Finland by Vikings (that was one of poet Paavo Haavikko’s ideas); a cosmic world pillar (so, something like an astrological index to suggest the precession of the equinox – signaling the shift from one age to another).
In Finnish, sampo defines itself. There are some words similar – sammio means “tub, vat, box” - but ultimately sampo means sampo. Looking at the source, I focused on its behavior. Since it was forged by Ilmarinen, it’s clearly a wrought thing, carefully formed. But even so, the scene in which Ilmarinen forges the Sampo shows the smith staring into the great fire in the oven he’s made, waiting for the object to emerge, shaped magically in the flames themselves. Once the Sampo has been forged, the sorceress Louhi takes it deep under the Copper Mountain where it immediately sends forth great roots into the earth. So, mysteriously, it behaves like a made thing but also like an organic thing. I began to think about its lid especially, which in the Kalevala is described as ornate. Because I’ve been writing about mushrooms and mushroom foraging for the past six or seven years, I involuntarily connected the lid to the cap of a mushroom, specifically to the white-pocked lustrous red cap of the amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, the toadstool of fairy tale lore. You can see Nicholas the bunny standing underneath one of these on the cover to Richard Scarry’s I Am a Bunny. (Or in any manifestation of the Mario Bros.) Thus “agarical jewels” in the passage you quote.
In a book that has been unreasonably important to me, R. Gordon Wasson’s Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality, I found in one of the “exhibits” that concludes the volume, a speculation from an ethnographic source that the Sampo, based on the linguistic musk, could be a fly agaric. (“T. Lehtisalo is of the opinion that the family of the Nenets (Samoyed) word sa:mpa: may be related to the Finnish word sampa, fungus, sea-foam.”) The mushrooms form around birch trees. The birch tree is pre-eminently the tree of Siberian shamanism, according to Wasson. Fly agarics are birch saprophytes, which means they have a symbiotic relationship – wherever you find birches, you find amanitas. Scandinavia verges on the boreal forest, where deciduous trees cease to grow. Much of the action in the poem happens above the longitudinal line where you would find birches. Therefore, it seemed to me, for a wizard like Väinämöinen who derives much of his power from trees and the earth, the appearance of a birch would be empowering, especially when coming down from the north country where there are none.
Rather than trying to prove that the Sampo is an amanita (which is beyond my abilities at any rate), I decided to draw this idea out in terms of the narrative of the poem, specifically in terms of the magical, euphoric, effervescent experience of foraging for wild mushrooms in the northern woods, something I do have experience with. The opening line of the poem compounds making and finding, almost like a spell: “To forge. To forage. To forge. The boreal forest.”
SM: Could you speak about your approach to the ballad form that enters toward the end of the poem? How much interest do you have in working in fixed forms, e.g. sonnet, sestina, ballad, etc.? (I think of Tom Pickard's The Ballad of Jamie Allan.)
PO’L: When Elias Lönnrot collected and organized the tales he recorded into the Kalevala, he modeled the poetry in part on the natural trochaic meter of Finnish, which tends to go from stressed to unstressed syllable. He was also, like many of his time, enamored of the trochaic tetrameter of Goethe’s Faust, part II, which spells out its magic and mystery. (Trochaic tetrameter is the meter of magical invocation and power, even in English. Think of the Stygian witches in MacBeth, Blake’s “Tyger,” “Twinkle twinkle little star,” or – one of my favorites - “BEAM 10” from ARK.)
A whole epic poem in this meter is truly compelling, propulsive. I don’t reproduce that meter in my version, except periodically as a whiff or memory of the original. I did, however, want to make a gesture toward the oral origins of the source. The final section of the poem, “Harp of Birch,” is an epilogue of sorts to the dramatic, violent, magical action of the third section, “Stealing the Sampo.” Väinämöinen and his band of thieves are successful in their effort to retrieve the Sampo from the harsh north country, but in the process of returning south they are attacked by Louhi, the wicked sorceress of the north, and not only is the Sampo destroyed, but Väinämöinen’s precious harp, made from the jawbone of the giant pike he had slain, is lost beneath the waves. So, “Harp of Birch” concerns Väinämöinen’s melancholic return to the south without his harp. In his dolor, he wanders into the woods where soon he hears a birch tree weeping and complaining. The tree tells him that its the victim of people who regularly strip its bark for no good reason but their own pleasure. Väinämöinen listens and then promised the birch tree immortality. He cuts the tree down and from planks he cuts from its trunk, he makes his second harp, called a kantele, very similar to a dulcimer.
I had an instinct when drafting the poem that I wanted to shift into a deliberately musical form at the end, not only because the subject concerned the making of a musical instrument but also to suggest something of the rhythmical integrity of the source. Trochees seemed too heavy handed to me. I settled on a ballad form, the natural song form in English, including rhymes on every other line. I suppose it is as conscientiously composed as the line/mode I devised for the whole, but I also like to think of it as offering a relief of sorts from the relentless, modernist pressure applied to the rest of the poem.
I like to work in what you call “fixed forms,” rhymed couplets and quatrains in particular. But generally, I work in free verse forms.
SM: A last question: There's a noticeable, operative use of repetition in The Sampo (phrases such as: its interlocking lid; Dreary Sariola. Darkness homestead, etc.). Your previous works involve repetition prominently too, I think as more of a core working unit than here, but here still you've used the device / technique a good bit. It's less litany here than epic-like--the epithets, etc.: the appearance of a god or hero or object almost calling out for intensification of the character's / object's meaning, clarification of its sublime qualities. I wonder if you could write a bit about how you used your past repetition-technique in this poem? I know John Taggart has had a lifelong influence on your work, but I wondered, in light of your more recent 'life & contacts' (as Pound says), if Joseph Donahue, his I think more intense recent use of repetition in Terra Lucida, served as a particular guide? Or did you use other guides? Or both? etc.
PO’L: The epithets don’t really appear in the Kalevala, not in the way I use them. There is a lot of repetition in the original, including descriptively and rhythmically. For instance, Rune 10 opens, “Vaka vahna Väinämöinen,” which means something like “old and steadfast Väinämöinen.” As you note, I use longer epithets, especially for the Sampo (almost every time I invoke the work, I include the sequence of epithets, beginning with its “intricately interlocking lid,” and so forth), but also with Louhi, who is often “the gap-toothed hag of Sariola” or “the north,” and then, as you note, certain tonal repetitions, such as the dreariness of the north, or the ancient weariness of Väinämöinen. It might sound a little trite, but I regard these epithets and the manner of their repetition, like seasoning in cooking. You’re layering in the flavor, increasing the depth.
Even after reading his poetry for over twenty-five years, I remain in awe of what John Taggart can do in his poems, especially the way he uses repetition as technique, as subject, and as theme. He has created an essentially unique body of work, advancing the creative ethos of Black Mountain but doing it in an utterly individual way. Though I’ve learned immensely from his work and advice over the years, I wasn’t responding to or thinking about this work directly in the composition of The Sampo. Since I’ve been working closely with Joe Donahue’s work from an editorial standpoint for the past few years, I can’t disallow that some of his moves have exerted force on my own moves. But I wasn’t thinking conscientiously of what he does in the “Terra Lucida” sequence either.
Instead, as I wrote, I imagined: What if I were listening to this poem aloud? When this name or this place is invoked, what would I like to hear about it in order to remind me what it is? I pushed forward with that in mind.
The greatest form of repetition in the poem is the participial sentence. Because each phrase stops and then starts so often, I feel like the whole poem is wrought in terms of repeated phrasing, repeated emphasis, repeated magic.