by Frankie Mastrangelo
JG with Meikai International Puppet Theater Puppet Buddies
FM: In a 2006 review of your book, The Passion of Phineas Gage and Selected Poems, poet and professor David Axelrod said: "As is often true, America exports its culture far and wide. With Jesse Glass, we have sent a fine poet abroad-to live in Chiba, Japan… where he teaches Literature and History at Meikai (Bright Sea) University. There he goes on creating some of America’s finest experimental poetry." As the theme of this year’s journal is "outsourcing," a concept that often involves the exportation of cultural products, how would you define you and your work’s relationship to this word?
JG: David Axelrod seems to put his finger on the whole issue of “outsourcing” when it comes to people who have left their country of origin and have taken up residence elsewhere in the world. But, all hyperbole aside, have I really been out-sourced and have I become more or less an unofficial cultural ambassador for America, as David Axelrod seems to suggest? Furthermore, do all outsourced people become unofficial ambassadors? And who is that “We” he mentions? Yes, I’ve been “sourced-out” in the sense of being the stranger at the feast for as long as I can remember, and “sourced-in”: a something generally not available to those around me in my country of origin and therefore cut off from what I was somehow “supposed” to be. Yes, even when I lived in America in the Red, White and Blue sense, I’d have to say that I have always been outsourced, but self-sufficiently so, like a motor that runs on tap-water and star-light.
Perhaps it also has something to do with “speaking to the higher self, or one’s Enochian “Angel” which occultists imagine they do at the end of a long, drug-tinged ceremony, or even the emptying out of glossolalia, or even the more extreme xenolalia: speaking in tongues unknown to one: like a medium or an evangelical Xtian. Embracing the metaphor and becoming one of its poles is a problematic business, for metaphor always indicates absence, or a pointing away from text, self, world—in short a real sourcing-out-- akin to sex and definitely akin to death. In fact, attempting to live metaphorically can be downright dangerous business. “Je est un autre” went pretty far in destroying Rimbaud, and variations on the same vatic schoolboy utterance in the cases of Baudelaire, Lautreamont,, Alfred Jarry, Hart Crane, Hijikata Tatsumi, Isidora Duncan, Artaud, the Marquis De Sade, William Blake, Simon Magus, Jackson Pollack, Chatterton, Kleist, Holderlin,, Sitting Bull, Simon Bar Kockhba, Michael Jackson, Charlie Parker, Christ, and others, show us—the children of the moment--the staggering extent and tragedy of this inner out-sourcing, or outer in-sourcing.
FM: After living in a Japan for over twenty years, what does the concept of “home” mean to you?
JG: Home, I suppose, is where my family resides and where my Internet connection is. That’s my concept of home. In that sense, I feel that I’m at the forefront of a rising community of dispossessed people migrating across the world, but perhaps truly at home almost everywhere. Fortunately my situation did not involve fleeing from despots, or seeking the bare necessities of existence as is increasingly true given the current economic, political, and now—environmental—troubles man and woman kind must face. In my home, I have a Currier & Ives print of a Mississippi steamboat above my easy chair, which is located right next to the glass doors of the balcony. From this vantage point, I can watch the trains arriving and leaving from the station until they cease at about one a.m. and resume at 5 a.m. I spend a great deal of time writing and reading in this chair and often I fall asleep in it. Sometimes, in the early morning hours, when a typhoon is lashing the balcony and I feel the fists of wind dissolved to mere compressions of air flowing in around the seals of the door, I imagine that this place is the first steamboat ever to breast the Mississippi River and that the typhoon is actually the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811 dragging the land under and refashioning the face of the world.
FM: I am thinking of how your work blurs genre lines and offer deconstructed takes on traditional artistic modes. When it comes to creative expression, what do you feel constitutes a boundary and why do we think we care about crossing them?
Yes, I admit that I’m a termite endlessly biting away at boundaries so that the liminal eventually becomes fore-grounded in the immediate. I was first inspired to write poems that are novels, plays, and movies by the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass. Just as a case was made by critics in the 1970’s for Pound’s, Olson’s and Williams’ use of the typewriter to impose structure and closure on their poetry, so the word-processor has helped me—and perhaps younger generations of poets—to exploit another way of structuring the poetic line and to achieve closure; one, paradoxically closer to an inclusive, Whitmanic, form. To continue with the out-sourcing theme: the middle-ground that I inhabit electronically most of the time, is also reflected in the intertextual ambiguities of my latest writing.
One gentleman said that I was “in exile” here, but that’s really too dramatic. What being out-sourced has done for me is to send me back into an intensely remembered previous existence—and when you go a day or a week at a time without encountering anyone who speaks your language or knows or cares who you are—the past looms up with a vengeance. What I’ve discovered in this Bardo of memory is a landscape peopled with fathers—fathers that I’ve found it necessary to kill over and over. (These fathers refuse to remain dead.) For my generation it was the Beats—which I like almost everyone else was influenced by, but which now I think is a pernicious blockage in the American literary psyche with eruptions of Kerouac’s “latest” discovered manuscript like some Clearasil-resistant acne, and whole bookshelves groaning with collected editions of the works of Allen Ginsberg and special tomes and study guides telling of the significance to world literature of City Lights, William Burroughs and all that jazz—I mean here’s the Buddha, as they say—just asking to be butchered. However, the Beats won’t die off but have become an American brand like Listerine Mouthwash, Coke and McDonald’s. The old creaky living Beats have become zombies continually crashing the party and seducing the boys and girls who don’t know any better while the Crypt-Keepers of the Beats continue to fatten at the troughs of rancid blood.
In the 1990’s I had a chance to have dinner with the wonderful Helen McGehee, who was for years the lead dancer for Martha Graham, a teacher at Julliard, a choreographer, a friend of Merce Cunningham, whom she had met as a fellow Martha Graham dancer, and widow of the artist and writer Umanna. Helen said something that stuck with me—so many dancers—she said--were patterning their range of movements with the screen in mind. This mind-set, she felt, has been terribly restrictive on new dance, and has proved a deadening effect on the non-reproducable elements of individual dances--which are so very much more than an image on a screen.
This, along with thinking about Benjamin’s idea of the “aura” coupled with an encounter with the marionettes of the Chinese National Puppet Theatre at Quanzhou, Fujian Province, during a stint as a visiting professor in 1993. The puppets were beautifully made, the puppeteers deft, and I had a chance to work with both. They had an orchestra, and I recall “playing” the Urhu, the Chinese one-string fiddle, to the infinite amusement of the children in the audience. The marionette play they featured was The Monkey King and it was a cymbal-crashing, acrobatic delight.
It was then that I began to understand the importance of not reducing art—or out-sourcing it, as it were—to a screen, or to think of it in terms of a screen-based activity, as per my earlier comments about poetry. You know, I like to think of Phineas Gage as the ultimate out-sourcing man: he sent a sizzling part of his brain 100 feet up into the afternoon sky on the tip of a three foot, iron rod way back in 1848, and LIVED! How can you really box that experience?
FM: The refusal to reduce art to a screen is seen in your own puppeteering work. Tell us more about your work with the Meikai International Puppet Theater.
The M.I.P.T. was conceived as both a learning and promotional device for the English department specifically and for Meikai University in general. The idea was to create a vehicle whereby Western culture could be taught using an age-old method: hands-on participation in performing its literature. The Western puppet theater, like its Asian counterpart, has a long history stretching back to the Greeks. Over the centuries, the old stories and archetypal themes were brought to life and passed on to younger generations with puppets. Puppeteers literally bring their own culture’s stories to life, as both actors and technicians using a set of learned and practiced skills. That is, becoming involved in a puppet production activates the intellectual, the creative and the physiological skills of the participant. In contrast to videos, television, Internet and even the theater, students who participate in puppet productions are breaking through the “third wall” in order truly to become active learners. In addition to its being a learned art, puppetry breaks down both linguistic and social barriers, and is just plain fun.
We “do” an outsourced version of Faust. This story has two famous forms: one by Goethe in which Faust ultimately ascends to heaven with the aid of his girl-friend and one by Marlowe in which the universal scholar who sells his soul to the Devil King for knowledge pays the ultimate price. The latter version is the one I chose because it’s much more clear-cut, and therefore has more potential for fun, and consequently the seventh and first floors of my university have been filled with marching devils and the giggles of students. Of course, this has raised concerns among our “born again” missionary-minded contingent (yes, they’re still here, acting as though the Xtian martyrdoms of 17th century Japan were still happening), three of whom secretly called the whole project “evil” without realizing what they were saying. The Faust legend has been central to Western culture’s quest for scientific knowledge, acting both as an incentive and a warning to the over-achievers who attempt to know “too much.” Interestingly enough, Faust was a yearly tradition at the Copenhagen Institute for Physics performed by the very people who developed the atomic bomb, and it has become a hoary truism to say that J. Robert Oppenheimer is the Faust figure of the 20th century. Another idea (among out-sourced hundreds) that we explore with the puppets in this land of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The script’s been translated into Osaka dialect, a pungent form of Japanese used by popular comedians here to bring down the house. The title is “Faust and the Golden Keitaei” (Japanese for cell phone) My script is filled with rhyming couplets, references to popular candy bars and satires on the pandemic of cell-phones. In fact, Faust is pulled screaming to hell after answering—for one last time—the “Golden” cell phone he trades his soul for.
FM: Do you plan to return to the U.S., or have you been exported for good?
JG: As I see it the penultimate out-sourcing is the broadcasting of the artifact of Self in the vehicles of literature and art. I've been engaged in that auto-out-sourcing (my small attempt at reversing the second law of thermodynamics) since my teens when I was forced to dance to the linear death-throb of factory work and stumbled one blessed 15-minute break-time across the words of Leonardo Da Vinci (paraphrasing here): make your business one that involves the eternal rather than the temporal. When I found William Blake saying pretty much the same thing, I knew I was on to something.
Will I ever return to the land that gave me birth? Probably not, but I have the final out-sourcing already planned. Maya and my family have agreed that after my cremation they will send some of my ashes via post to parts of the world I've never visited: the North Pole (or what might remain of it), South Pole, South Africa, Russia, etc. They will not include a return address on the envelopes. Maybe my cremains will end up in the dead-letter office, but that will be entirely appropriate.