“If you don’t know where here is …
how do you get to there”
Jackie Leven talking at Jockstock
Saturday 19 June 2004
not so much the highlights as
a chatty bibliography and discography
extracted from the whole
with additional italicized detail (book titles, context etc)
added by your humble transcriber
It all seems to have started when …
I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 and living in the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland and reading a book of Robin Hood stories that belonged to my father. It must have been a very simple book because I can remember the sentencing quite clearly & I’m not sure it was a child’s book. I was very moved at the end when Robin died and he was lain in the earth with [and here I extend the quote that Jackie quoth]:
“ … a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, for I loved best to sleep on the greensward of the forest while I was alive, and I would lie upon them in my last sleep” (Henry Gilbert).
I’d stopped going to school entirely so that I could hang out in the woods. Can’t really remember relating what I was doing to Robin Hood [but]
I let Robin Hood … look after me in some sense.
Two strands were coming up in my reading:
I started reading a lot of science fiction. My dad was very interested in American science fiction (not fantasy but fiction):
- Theodore Sturgeon
- bits of Ray Bradbury
- Algis Budrys
- Harry Harrison
- particularly Philip K. Dick
And the stories of his I liked were stories in which people whose lives were kind of disintegrating – or appeared to be disintegrating – so their lives were failing suddenly, found themselves through force of circumstance living in what was tantamount to a parallel universe. I don’t mean a literal parallel universe. Suddenly they were having to live in reality in an entirely different way, so that they couldn’t even get realistically back in touch with the reality of earlier life, which was very exciting. [Books specifically mentioned are:]
- The zap gun
- Flow my tears the policeman
- A maze of death
A golden age of science Fiction … it was a kind of privilege to be deep in that fantastically good writing.
And at the same time and for some reason I started stealing from the local bookshop lots of Russian poetry by women writers like:
- Anna Akhmatova
- Marina Tsvetaeva – the Classic Elaine Feinstein translation is specifically mentioned later
I very very much liked these simple and powerful images of nature and grief and loss associated with those images.
The music I was listening to then … when you don’t really have … a quest musically, you just sort of listen to stuff in the house. In the house my mother listened almost exclusively to really raw blues with people like:
- Big Bill Broonzy
- Lightning Hopkins
- Josh White
- Sonny Boy Williamson
It didn’t strike me when I was young that this was unusual. I particularly liked it because my dad didn’t. He’d come back to the house and ask, “Why is it whenever I come home there’s black men shouting in my house”.
An interesting thing then happened to me
… he saw a programme on tv about Beatniks in America which indirectly led to his being expelled from school.
To kind of cope with the stress of being expelled, I had this book of poems by the Belfast poet Louis MacNeice so I started putting lots of them to music. Some of those are still really good.
Returned to school against the headmaster’s wish, Jackie spent all his time in the library. The library was actually a showpiece library in a very moneyed school for the times… all our teachers were handpicked socialists if not communists except the librarian, who was an elderly Spectator reading woman who decided that I was all right … me and her were friends against the world.
So she said, “If you’re going to be here you might as well really make something of this and you should see it as an opportunity.” So I said “Thank you” and once again I was in kind of a parallel universey thing. One minute I was in the parallel universe of the beatniks etc and then suddenly I was entirely out of the school system properly, and in this wonderful world of books with this tremendous woman steering me towards all kinds of things.
The first thing she gave me to read was Catch 22 (by Joseph Heller). She just kept feeding me very, very good stuff. She was interested in my interest in Russian poetry and started showing me lots of American poetry which I really liked. But I noticed something recently which was, my strand of Russian interest poetry was feminine and my strand of American poetry interest was masculine. I became particularly interested in the poems of an American poet called Robert Bly and he had a poem called ‘Poem against the British’ – the title alone was fantastic. So I continued my development … this became a really serious mission that I was on …
There is much interesting talk of Rainer Maria Rilke (the Czechoslovakian poet who they call German) and his notion of “blood remembering”; translated as “people who call themselves poets when they are young are full of shit.” In the question & answer session at the end of the talk there is discussion of poetry in translation. As far as Rilke goes Jackie favours the American translator Stephen Mitchell, even over that of his friend Robert Bly:
- The selected poetry, Picador 1987
- Ahead of all parting: the selected poetry and prose
Titles of Rilke’s major works are:
- Letters to a young poet
- The Duino elegies
- Sonnets to Orpheus
Robert Bly has failed to notice the musicality in Rilke’s work, the cadence… a poem about the end of summer ends with
SM : “Lord it is time” (a single chord)
RB: “Lord it’s time, it’s time”
which is entirely wrong – it’s a single note of melancholy.
So there I was in the library and by this time I was reading all kinds of stuff … the beginnings of learning about thinking in images.
And here there is much talk of archetypes. But I think one of the reasons I’m talking about all this sort of stuff is that like all of us, to one extent or another, we carry on liking music and we get out of ghettos of music like when I was younger it was rock or blues. Now I just love all kinds of music and I’m sure it’s the same for you. You just like quality where you see it and find it and not worry about whether it’s jazz or country & western and all this kind of stuff. And I think the same is true about literature and everything as you get older it just becomes important to divine – possibly in the true sense of the word – what it is you like when you’re exposed to stuff.
And Make sure you are exposed to it.
But part of my questing towards where it is my songwriting was going and how I was going to stay alive in a relationship with my songwriting and my performing … All the time I’m trying to find a way to strengthen what it is I’m doing and intensify it so that the world somehow can’t deny it and continues to allow me to do it in my own way …
And In the course of worrying about that and wondering what to do about it, it’s bought me latterly in my life into contact with some of what I think are some of the greatest thinkers on the planet. They’re nearly all American and that’s people like:
the great American thinker Robert Bly
- Iron John : a book about men
- The sibling society
- Eating the honey of words : new and selected poems, 1999
The psychological thinker James Hillman whose work in archetypal lore is possibly the best in the world
- Archetypal psychology
- A blue fire : selected writings
- The dream and the underworld
- The soul’s code: in search of character and calling
- The Puer papers (ed. JH) has a cover that may seem familiar
And lesser but really significant figures like:
Robert Sardello :
- Facing the world with soul : the reimagination of modern life, 1995 (… the historicity of bread, how Christ changed that – just a great great book and that’s just one of the subjects he touches upon. He says, Dear friend … one of the clever-nesses of that book – and its one of the 30 or 40 books I hold dear if not sacred – it puts an arm around you properly so that you don’t feel uncomfortable because it’s a stranger’s arm. It takes you into this fold of understanding things which we all know but have lost a ready articulacy of.
- Love and the world: a guide to conscious soul practice, 2001
- Love and the soul: a guide to creating a new future for earth, 1996
And the French-Canadian thinker Ginette Paris with her fantastic books on paganism and how that affects women, the feminism of paganism. Tremedously good stuff:
- Pagan grace: Dionysus, Hermes and goddess memory in daily life, 1990
- Pagan meditations: the worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia, 1986
So I kinda started living in this tremendous body of work which in a sense, although some of it is presented intellectually, its effect is to be non-intellectual. It’s effect is to persist in the idea that one of the things that can heal western civilisation – if indeed it needs healing – to some degree is to adopt the idea of thinking more in images and thinking with the heart …
From the Question & Answer session:
When I’d read people like e.e.cummings my English teacher was fascinated by what it was that I liked about it and I’d say, “I like the words on the page,” And he’d say, “Yes but what is it about the poem that you like?” “I just like the way the words look.” And I meant it just the way it all looked and the words that he’d use were what I liked
There is much talk of translations and translators and the difference between poets and songwriters:
I think very few singer-songwriters or songwriters can say that their stuff is truly poetry. I thinks it’s a different job and it’s important to accept that, as James Hillman says:
“We should endeavour to operate from a poetic basis of mind.” Which once again would include thinking with the heart and not necessarily the head. I hope I do that, but to me that’s a duty I should carry as a citizen – it’s a proper citizenly thing to do – to try and operate from a poetic base of mind.
You work with someone like Robert Bly and there is an energetic difference in the way he’s thrusting into the world to what I do which is so immense that it makes you want to be in a collaborative position, not an identifying position.
The rag and bone shop of the heart : poems for men
(edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman & Michael Meade)
Dylan a great storyteller … the images tell the goddam story
There’s a great book by a guy called Edmund Carpenter(not Edward Robinson as Jackie said on the day) called Oh what a blow that phantom that phantom dealt me. At one point he goes to record a lot of the stories of the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso in the ‘30s. He goes back 3 years later and records the same stories and the stories have changed and he points out the changes to the elders of the tribe who are seriously pissed off and say, the stories haven’t changed, there’s something wrong with your machine.
And essentially they’re correct because to take a mechanical view of this is to say that imagery must be fixed and apart from your own proclivity and cannot change, The whole point of Dylan is … I listen to his stuff all the time to see how it’s changed, y’know, and the way it’s changed is fascinating because it’s me that’s changed and therefore the imagery’s changed . We need this fluidity not this achievement-fixed sense of why you’re writing.
So who do you listen to for just your own pleasure?
I’ve been really enjoying an album lately called
- Where’d you hide the body by James McMurty. I noticed the other day he has a band called The Heartless Bastards which really endeared me to him (his father Larry wrote the last picture show, says someone in the audience). Someone just sent me the album. It didn’t have a good cover so I didn’t bother with it. It’s got some of the greatest songwriting I’ve ever heard on it.
- I would listen to – rolling along in the day – Rahsaan Roland Kirk, albums like Now please Don’t you cry, beautiful Edith and The Inflated tear
- 69 Love songsby Magnetic fields
- I find myself singing lots of the mid-period Joni Mitchell songs – stuff like Shades of scarlet conquering which I’d love to cover
- Kelly Joe Phelps: I can’t think of his songs individually, I just like the overall effect and it’s particularly the first album – Roll away the Stone – I like . One of the things that I noticed about KJP recently is I’ve become less interested since he’s become less mysterious. It’s a peculiar principle I think that – the way in which mystery is important to us as part of what we think it is we’re buying … When that first album came out I bought it on spec. No, I’ll tell you why I bought it; I heard someone playing it in Talking Heads in Southampton. I said, “Who’s that?” It was just the way the girl said, “Kelly Joe Phelps” just gave it …er … I had to have it.
- I also felt the same about Johnny Dowd’s first album …Wrong side of Memphis
- The same with Jim White I loved the first album with its kind of mystery and humour …Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted)
- Tim Hardin : “I owe him a big inflection debt in my own singing …I just like the classic songs. I think when he’s not good he’s very average indeed and I’m sure that’s true of a lot of people … Red balloon, If I were a carpente,Reason to believe, Hang on to a dream, even Misty roses at a pinch.
JL (transcribed, edited with title details etc added by DQ
from a recording made with permission by Alan Ewart)