For over thirty years, Donald Sidney-Fryer has been billed as The Last of the Courtly Poets and Northern California's only Neo-Elizabethan Poet-Entertainer. The third volume of his Songs and Sonnets Atlantean was published in 2005 by Los Angeles' Phosphor Lantern Press, completing a cycle began in the 1960s. The omnibus volume The Atlantis Fragments will be published in 2008 by Hippocampus Press of New York. Apart from his creative work, Sidney-Fryer is noted for his contributions to the study of Clark Ashton Smith (Auburn’s fantasy author who made headlines as a teen poet nearly a century ago) and for his translation of Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard de la Nuit. In performance, he reads his own work as well as that of his poetic forebears – Edmund Spenser, George Sterling (San Francisco's "King of Bohemia"), and Smith – sometimes accompanying himself on a custom chittarone, a Renaissance bass lute.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him at my home in Oakland, California in February 2006.
The Role of Form in Poetry
AG: Let’s begin with the current scene in poetry and work our way back to a discussion of romanticism and the roots of your work. Somewhere along the way, we should raise the question of whether poetry matters. But first, the “obligatory” question: What advice do you have for aspiring poets, young or old?
DSF: Be prepared for a lot of work! And cultivate something to say that is your own; if it has been used before, then make it your own. You can also write directly out of your own life, your region, and so on.
AG: Two popular contemporary manifestations of poetry are rap and poetry slams. Do you think they are they a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, are they good because they help popularize poetry, or bad because they are so limited in style and often negative in tone?
DSF: I think they are overall a good thing, because first of all it’s a form of communication, which is what all writing is about. If they are often negative in tone, then maybe they will eventually become more positive. It’s a chance for people to express things that are bothering them. I don’t consider it poetry on the highest level, but it has its place.
AG: Does it bring poetry down to such a commonplace level that it threatens poetry on the higher level?
DSF: No, I don’t think so, because the highest level of poetry is kept alive in the academies, colleges and universities. And poetry slams? That’s basically a form of free-form improvisation. If people can do that, that’s a real skill! Again, I don’t want poetry to be limited to just rap and slams, but they are a valid form of communication.
AG: In traditional or pre-modern poetry, there are so many technical restrictions that you would think the craft would impair the art, since you are limiting yourself to so many syllables per line with the right accents and the right rhymes at the end. Or does it become “second nature?”
DSF: If you practice it enough, it does become second nature. The use of rhyme words neither compels nor impels; if you use them skillfully they will emphasize the meaning. Rhyme and meter also help you remember, so you can carry a short form in your head and work on it anywhere.
For me, there is more here than the question of rhyme words: there's the question of tone. I just avoid certain words because they give the wrong tone. Obviously, I’m aiming at a fairly high level of achievement. It isn’t just what the statement, the surface of the poem says, but it’s how you achieve such things as tone. This is a problem with traditional forms in all languages. I define rhyme somewhat loosely; in general, it’s some kind of correspondence in sound. You can’t push strict rhyme too far in English – you wouldn’t have anything to work with!
But I should define what it is that is desirable in the traditional forms, as distinguished from modern or free-form poetry (I don’t like the term free verse). That is, each time you create a poem you create a new form, which will nonetheless fall into a kind of structure, depending on the individual poet – which seems to mimic strict form but which is purely coincidental. The beauty of more-or-less strict meter and rhyme is that it makes the statement with more incisiveness than free form or a form like rap that’s based on the everyday speech can achieve. “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?” is fairly close to real speech, and you could make it even closer, but would it have the same effect?
For some of my work, especially the last series, I worked very hard to make the language as close as possible to real speech, but of course people do not speak in rhyme – especially complicated rhyme such as that in the Spenserian stanza or sonnet. There is one obvious problem or disadvantage with form: when people just pursue it as a type of virtuosity, it becomes trivial, a kind of a game. Obviously I’m not speaking of using form as a game. That’s always been a problem, especially in languages where you can rhyme fairly easily. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Italy, there were poets who specialized in writing sonnets; they went from court to court amazing everyone with their ability to create sonnets on anything. But the best work is always unusually thoughtful, which you cannot always achieve with an instant improvisation.
So if there’s a danger with free form becoming trivial and commonplace, there’s also one in strict form. But as you know, some of the best work that can be done, has been done, and is now considered classical. Even though it might be Renaissance and very romantic in feeling – a very powerful feeling, with a serious subject – you can’t bar all sense of play. A good number of my poems are playful, and I want that. The best poetry, no matter how serious, is still play, and it should be.
AG: Play in the sense of artifice?
DSF: Play in the sense of, “Look what I’m doing!” and “Aren’t we having some fun here?” There’s a ballad in the third series, an old-fashioned ballad but pretty loose, with only lines two and four rhyming. It’s called “The Bitch with Tits of Bronze,” and whenever I’ve read it people go, “No! What?!” The tone is very dry and it makes a good poem to end the session with, it puts everybody in a good mood; first you think, “what’s going to happen” in this encounter with this giant wolf … but of course it ends up in a nice way. Like some of Arthur Machen – you don’t know, you think, “He’s getting me sucked into this weird thing here.” Of course, Machen is very cultivated, he doesn’t have to give you a break.
My ballades are also playful, even though they are quite structured. By the way, a ballade is a very difficult form to use to push a specific agenda, so the “A Ballad of Prospero” didn’t quite turn out the way I had wanted. It was supposed to celebrate the sea and the liberty given by the sea; instead, since the sea has the ability to be calm or to be angry, I gave Prospero a more malign personality than what he presumably has. He could make ships sink by his magic, so what if he were not such a nice man? That was fun.
On “craft versus art” in poetry – it’s a constant interchange between them; that’s the best way I can answer that.
AG: Do you ever make a list of rhyming words to find one that works?
DSF: Yes, one does use a rhyming dictionary. Originally I didn’t. The way I would do it, if I needed rhyme words, and of course, using that form, you do – is I would run through sounds alphabetically. Some of them just came, of course, and some are traditional. But if you are going to use rhyme, it does help to have a rhyming dictionary.
AG: Is there any sense in which you “practice” without producing (e.g., studying scansion)?
DSF: No, I have never practiced unless I was producing something. Of course you have to study scansion – I studied prosody in a variety of languages, but from the poems themselves, not “here’s a poet who can help me understand form” – I had to get that out by myself. A cookbook is very useful – try cooking without it – but after a while, once you’ve been cooking long enough, you learn “Don’t use too much arrowroot, too much flour” – you know? There are certain ingredients, you have to be careful – you can ruin a dish.
AG: You’ve reported that the first and second series took some ten years each to complete, while the third series took only three…
DSF: Yes, the first series took from about 1961 to 1971, series two from 1988 to 1998, and series three from 2002 to early 2005.
AG: At Borderlands bookstore in San Francisco you said, “The Muse was good to me.”
DSF: That’s the way I look at it; I mean, it’s external to me. I had worked very hard on the first collection because I was learning, because what I was trying to express wasn’t just an exercise. The reward for this came in the shape of this increased facility, because I never thought I could ever turn out what is the largest collection in three years – and with pretty good notes. In general, when my notes are factual it’s for real; but if it’s for fun, I have elements that are made up, make-believe – which is part of the play.
By having the figure of Michel de Labretagne as mediaeval translator of some of the pieces, I have another major area of play, because I know that period in France and pretty well. In France, there’s no major break from mediaeval French from the 1200s or 1300s there’s no break in the language as we have in English – there was a major change between Chaucer and the generation of Spenser.
AG: Was there a down time, a fallow period in your life?
DSF: Yes, were there times when I just wasn’t thinking poetically? Of course my subject matter is outrageously poetic – that’s intentional.
AG: What did you do between 1971 (after the first series was complete) and 1988 (when you began the second series)?
DSF: Maybe I was doing more living than writing? In the ’70s I began performing, something I had put off a long time. The hippy period was more or less from the latter ’60s to the mid-’70s and things were much more open than what they are right now. I was going out as my own agent and I was performing poetry from memory, in costume, at colleges and universities.
I moved to Sacramento in 1975. In the autumn of 1980, I began work on my huge dance manuscript and that essentially kept me in one place for quite some time. I had no idea that it was going to be such a colossal project. It’s a work I did on a shoestring budget; Fritz Leiber gave me $500 so I could go to the Library of Congress and see what they had on Tsarist Russia – they had newspapers from St. Petersburg, my main area of inquiry. I got in touch with a wonderful scholar-researcher through the Milan Conservatory of Music to cover the early Italian period. The scope of the work is immense. It’s not just out of books – I use my own synthesis – there are some excellent histories, especially by Ivor Guest and Cyril W. Beaumont, which are the basis of all modern ballet scholarship. Guest did a marvelous job; but being an American, I like to have more detail. I decided I could not compete with him, but as long as I was going over the same territory that he deals with, I had to do something different. So it’s a compilation – it’s like preparation for another book, which I am not going to write. For the earlier part, I had to go through quite a bit of work, three or four drafts per chapter; but it became easier, so that, by the end (again, “the Muse was kind”) – you’re focused.
AG: Again, it’s because you had done the preparatory work?
DSF: Yes. It took almost twenty years, from autumn of 1980 through December of 1999. I had to write a lot of letters to the Library of Congress and others… Sometimes I used researchers. I had one great researcher, Patricia Salvi; some things she could not find. And I had one main Italian translator who lives in San Francisco. The Complete Book of Ballets came out in 1938-39 and the revised edition came out later; printed on thin paper, it’s a thick volume of 1,100 pages. If my study were published and printed the same way, it would be not one but two volumes of 1,100 pages each! It isn’t just a compilation, I go into much of the background, the stories told in the ballets, and amalgamating all of that took time. Sometimes I had very little to go on and I had to extrapolate – not falsify, but I had to develop some of the main thrusts of the ongoing narratives. It’s sort of like the Arabian Nights, structured with a main story and then the stories told by the linear narratives in the ballets. So there was a great deal of work involved, though toward the end it became a bit easier. I wanted to let the 19th century speak for itself, especially since it had become not so well known or known in a negative way. A friend is scanning the manuscript and I will edit it online – no printouts – and then we’ll publish it on the web. I’m 71 and I don’t want to wait for it to be published as a book, I want to get it out there for those people who are interested.
AG: This may be a silly question, but is it a coincidence that dance and poetry – your two main interests – are both metrical?
DSF: Well, in dance it is a more or less strict rhythm –
AG: Unless it is modern dance, free form…
DSF: It depends on the music. Usually there is a definite periodic rhythm or tempo – slow, moderate or fast. Whereas in poetry, when you read it or recite it – or as the Russians do, declaim it – poetry by its very nature, as you make it expressive, from line to line, you vary the rhythm. I think it also holds true for something free form, written in a kind of prose – not to be confused with a prose poem or poème en prose, which is a strict form.
AG: A free-form poem may have rhythm in it, but it’s not a strict meter.
DSF: Right, but in much of traditional prosody, you give it a metronome, as with most strict dance – waltzes, polkas, fox trots – there is this strong beat. Sometimes people may do something eccentric, to slow it down and so forth, but that isn’t the rule of thumb.
The main difference is that with poetry, as you make it expressive, from line to line, it has a different rhythm. You slow it down or speed it up according to what is being said. There is an element of rhythm, but you use it for emphasis.
If it’s poetry of any kind of merit or thoughtfulness, you have to vary the rhythm. For example, if you went to see a play by Shakespeare and the blank verse was recited with a certain set speed, it would become unbearable for the audience, because the dramatic expressivity would be lost, and people aren’t going to attend a performance to see a perfect example of metrical precision in speech. Because it’s already precise, you want to work against that. So there is tempo in poetry, but the meter does not act as a metronome. A lot of people don’t appreciate that because they don’t hear it read or recited by someone with skill.
AG: I thought of an analogy to ballroom dancing: when a couple dances to the corner, they may have to make an extra little half step in order to negotiate the turn.
AG: Another writing question: Do you ever have trouble with “writer’s block” and if so, what do you do about it?
DSF: I rarely have trouble with writer’s block, but there may be something I want to do and I can’t quite get to it. I sort of quail before I do it, because I know it’s going to be a lot of work! It’s a question of being “kinda a-scared” or a disinclination to get involved in the battle again. I find it hard to make poetry very tight.
AG: There are increasing amounts of prose in each of the series.
DSF: That’s part of the play. It’s an opportunity to give more information than what the poem can give, or I can share some real historical information that’s not so well known. For example, with “Pan and Priapus,” how would you go about that in verse? Part of it comes from books – observation of photos of ancient art – or actual statuettes and so forth. There’s a lot of semi-pristine scholarship in the notes, when it is not totally figurative, imaginative.
AG: To quote Edison, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” What admixture of inspiration and perspiration do you operate on?!
DSF: Usually, for me, inspiration is: I get an idea, a certain rhyme sometimes, and that becomes a real part of the poem. For example I’ll think, “There’s no real rhyme for sunset… the closest is onset…” and that was the beginning of “A Ship Sails Out to Sea.” So I think to myself, “I’ve got the football and I’m running – let’s see where I can go with this and how far can I go?” And I’m carrying it in my head – that’s the beauty of the sonnet form… Though, as you notice, my sestet is not quite strict and the couplet actually becomes a quatrain. The tendency to make it longer or larger was already there in many of the early poems.
Spenser and Other Influences
AG: Did Spenser start that? How did you come to your own form?
DSF: Yes, some of Spenser’s sonnets end with an Alexandrine, just as the stanza form for The Faerie Queene ends with an Alexandrine. I didn’t exactly stumble upon the form that I created until I got to the third poem in the first series. It was inspired by something that John Masefield wrote that L. Sprague de Camp quoted in his book Lost Continents:
In some green island of the sea,
Where now the shadowy coral grows,
In pride and pomp and empery
The courts of old Atlantis rose.
It’s from a poem called Fragments and there are no other stanzas as remotely magical as that. I thought, “It’s too bad that’s not a separate poem.” I noticed it is a quatrain ABAB, and having just finished reading The Faerie Queene, I thought maybe I should come up with a different sonnet form than the usual Petrarchan – and I wasn’t interested in the Elizabethan or Shakespearean – but the Spenserian has rarely been used since Spenser’s time. So I thought I’d try his rhyme scheme and the poem just formed itself – well, I had to go through many versions with it, but I knew from the start that I didn’t want iambic pentameter for the couplet at the end because it lends itself too easily to a kind of aphoristic quality that is anti-romantic and becomes very neat in a way, very predictable, like an epigram. I didn’t want that.
So the last two lines broke away by themselves. Then I noticed by line nine what I wanted to say became an Alexandrine, and the tercet also emerged as longer lines, fourteeners. Not that I always have to follow this model, I don’t. It just came out that way, and I thought, “I seem to have created something that has potential,” so I deliberately cultivated the form. I also experimented with it: one of my favorite poems in the first series, “Pavane,” where I found I could use the form with lines of varying length, a little freer. I was never able to do that again – I tried one and it didn’t work, it was one of those “noble failures,” it became too predictable. But if you have a certain theme repeating, such as an enormous cataclysm, you have to keep varying your approach to it.
I started using it, and one of the new poems became “Spenserian Stanza-Sonnet Empourpré.” I wasn’t conscious at the time that I was dealing with material and usages and attitudes that were considered forbidden in modern poetry. Not that one could not use them in some acceptable prose, but the subject matter was forbidden in poetry. I was doing all those things like purple subject matter – purple, that’s forbidden! – and I thought, “Why should I be restricted by that,” so it was very much a gesture against people telling me not to do it. And of course there was the example of Clark Ashton Smith, who was part of my time, and earlier there were George Sterling and Nora May French – why should I have to be restricted?
I was recently re-reading the first series and I think it stands up very well – including both the mock scholarship and the real scholarship. I had forgotten that I used the notes to explain in such detail what I was doing in terms of my craft. I also remembered that I had gone through all of Spenser’s sonnets – including his Amoretti and Epithalamion – and noticed something that I have always deliberately imitated: to have dedicatory verses, dedicated to other people, and commendatory verses, written by others. I included that as a kind of appendix – not just to extend the collection, but because they are beautiful poems. It was one of the commendatory verses in the Amoretti, written by “G. W., Sr.” to the author, that anticipated the form precisely.
AG: In general I wanted to ask, “What’s so special about Spenser?!”
DSF: What’s so special about Spenser? Spenser recreated the language of poetry for his time. The Shepheardes Calender is quite a radical and experimental book, but since his experiments took, as it were, we don’t realize that. If you examine poetry published before him, technically he is such an advance! And that was published in 1579, during the time Francis Drake was going around the globe. Spenser was as much an explorer as Drake was, although Drake had these material proofs. And Spenser immediately inspired the poets of his time – they all learned from him – and from about 1580 to 1590, before the publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene, much of it circulated in manuscript and you can find quotes, or partial quotes – echoes, as it were – from The Faerie Queene incorporated into Marlowe and Shakespeare. People think that Spenser seems to be looking backward into time, but so did Shakespeare who looked to the past for inspiring examples of greatness. And that was their ideal. In Spenser’s case, he deliberately trained to be the kind of poet he was. The Faerie Queene is on one level mediaeval or Renaissance romance, but there is so much happening below the surface of the statement that there has never been one single accepted reading or interpretation. That’s amazing for a work of art that was published over 400 years ago. Also, he deliberately cultivated the appearance of something archaic, making rhyme much easier, primarily to give the illusion of something old; so he was probably the first conscious stylist in early modern English. You can read him with perfect ease – maybe you have to look up some words, but he uses words always in a pure root sense, which is rare. So in a way he’s easier to read than Shakespeare. Again, all the verse of that period is metrically very strong and gives you such a feeling of exuberance, like discovering new worlds – which you are. And the feeling is completely Romantic. Marlowe, in his blank verse plays, gives the same feeling. There was a vast new world that they were discovering then, at a time when England ceased to be just something provincial and became imperial – both in the sense of the British Empire (which is no more, it’s a Commonwealth) and culturally, an empire in the best sense, which it still is – not something to which you have to conform.
I’m speaking in an historical sense, but aesthetically, I found The Faerie Queene to be irresistible, it is so well made. Like Clark Ashton Smith, Spenser gluts you with beautiful things. But it’s something to which many people came to be accustomed, the beauty of the past. In late mediaeval and Renaissance society they still treasured many of the outward forms of the mediaeval world: pageants, tournaments, etc. So you have all of that and you also have the ancient world seen strictly through the perspective of a mediaeval pair of glasses, so that many familiar mythological figures show up rather like mediaeval knights and ladies, which gives the poem tremendous charm. The whole book is a charm, in the real sense, which is like an incantation, it’s an enchantment.
There was not a major poet from his time up to at least 1900 who was not influenced by him, if not in terms of form – he was extremely thoughtful, and also very playful.
AG: It seems paradoxical in a way that Spenser was creating new forms and expressing an exuberance similar to the discovery of the new world, but at the same time he was casting it in a language that was consciously rustic and archaic – so that, in a way, he was backward-looking; plus, in his material he is celebrating chivalry, which also belonged to the past.
DSF: But chivalry and the forms of chivalry were very much still alive in Spenser’s time. That’s what makes the English Renaissance different, they didn’t jettison the mediaeval as they did in much of Europe; and because the Renaissance came late in England, in expression it was more of an amalgam of mediaeval and Renaissance. But you’re pointing up something important here, because Spenser is absolutely a genius figure, looking both backwards and forwards at the same time. He had an immediate influence on the poets in his period, not just the major ones like Marlowe and Shakespeare and many other dramatists, but Spenser’s Mutability Cantos also a great influence on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. One of Milton’s great achievements was not repeating forms that had been used before, inasmuch as he made blank verse the medium for an epic rather than rhymed verse. His blank verse is not like that of anybody else. Anyway, Spenser’s influence continued, and there was a whole school of neo-Spenserians poets in the 17th century, but there was especially an influence on the English Romantics and the English Victorians and even someone like Archibald MacLeish, an American poet, who once wrote that he would rather read Spenser than most other poets because of his exceptional depth and variety and tone.
AG: You once said that reading The Fairie Queene “changed your life” and made you a poet. When did you encounter the book and in what way did it change you? Also, how does this impact compare to that of encountering Clark Ashton Smith, both on paper and in person?
DSF: I would say that the impact of The Faerie Queene on me was about as great as that of Clark Ashton Smith. I came to know Smith’s work from the summer of 1958 and on through the summer and autumn of 1960 when I memorized so much of him. I encountered The Faerie Queene the winter and spring of 1961. It was also about that time that I discovered Swinburne also absolutely an unique poet.
AG: So you discovered Smith first.
DSF: I discovered Smith, Sterling and Nora May French about the same time, and to some extent Nora May French has also had an influence on me.
AG: Maybe I’m being too literal, but you said that both Smith and Spencer changed your life. How can your life change twice?!
DSF: Well, yes, it’s possible. Any great work of art that you see on TV or in the movie house, if it’s really a great film, it will change your life in that it makes you look at your perceived values – and I’m not just talking about morals – the aesthetic vision is such that it makes you look at things anew. Obviously, not every work will change your life, but it definitely renews your perspective – which I think it should.
AG: So your perspective was changed by Smith, Sterling and French, but it took Spenser to “make you a poet.”
DSF: Remember, I had been going to UCLA from 1956 to the summer of 1961 and reading so much poetry in French, that when I rediscovered poetry in my native language it was through Spenser, and so I refer to him the same way he refers to Chaucer: “a well of English undefiled” – his English is like that of The Fairie Queene, absolutely very pure. How many poets has Spenser not called to their vocation, really?
Now, Swinburne really is a great poet; there’s nothing he can’t do, technically; but he is really the weirdest of them all and an oddball, and I like that about him. Philip Lamantia, who died last March, was a fan of Swinburne because Philip loved surrealistic things and you could perceive some of that in Swinburne (Spenser also). Swinburne at his least comprehensible is sort of surrealistic – in the broad sense of that word, meaning more than realistic, super-realistic.
AG: Was it true that Sterling introduced Smith to Swinburne’s work, or is that a myth?
DSF: No, Smith would have encountered him on his own, because he was absolutely considered one of the great poets at that time. It was just happenstance that Swinburne was not named Poet Laureate of England, which he deserved. Just because of the questionable status of Swinburne’s work because of his allusions to sexual things, but you’re not too sure – he’s very clever. Marvin Heimstra called him “such a sweet stinker” because he really wants to be incomprehensible, despite the clarity of the words. What is he talking about?!
AG: Is he intentionally obfuscating?
DSF: Sometimes he is, especially in his humorous things, but in his great poems, like “On the Cliffs,” that’s an amazing piece, again with that ambiguity. The one thing that poets had to learn from Swinburne’s example was a negative one: his method is too diffuse, and the issue for most poets is one of being compact while still retaining clarity.
Now we can write poems in any kind of form (as if we couldn’t before) and in a way it’s very good that people can read this kind of poetry, but I don’t want all poetry to be like that, any more than I want all poetry to be like the kind I most enjoy, in English and the romance languages. So you can be sublime or commonplace or both.
AG: Do you see a sort of Apollonian/Dionysian polarity in Spenser and Swinburne, with Spenser as the solar, rational aspect and Swinburne as the lunar, irrational aspect?
DSF: Yes, there definitely is this polarity – you put it perfectly well, for the purposes of discussion.
AG: How do you rank the poets – or is it necessary to make such a valuation? For example, Shakespeare, Spenser, Swinburne, Sterling, Smith…
DSF: Well, Spenser comes first chronologically, and let’s not forget Marlowe…
AG: But can you rank them qualitatively?
DSF: There’s a tendency to classify the great poets in any given language in a certain way. You can buy these standard editions of their complete works, with double columns and fine print, all uniform – somehow implying they are all the same, and they’re incredibly different. I think Sterling and Smith will always be coupled together. Though Smith is a much greater poet, without Poe and Sterling I doubt if there would have been a Clark Ashton Smith. It was not only Sterling’s poetry; it was the fact that he was alive and was born earlier in the romantic century. He was an extraordinary poet and was moreover accessible to Smith.
AG: So Smith superseded Sterling?
DSF: Succeeded and superseded. Smith is a greater figure, obviously, and Sterling admitted that. But I still think Sterling is some kind of great poet.
AG: At the same time, Smith chided Smith for being so dark…
DSF: Yes. In a letter to Samuel Loveman, Sterling says he had to be careful what he said or wrote to Smith, especially at the beginning, because he was very shy and uncomfortable around people – which naturally reflects the way he grew up, living outside of town alone with his parents. He did go to grammar school; that was good for him. We all have some shyness that we have to move beyond, especially if you are going to perform.
Someone said to me, “You’re just playing second fiddle to Smith.” I said, “I am very honored to play just second fiddle to him.” There are so many things that he deals with that I don’t care to deal with; for example, I acknowledge the presence of dark things including what’s inside of us, but I grew up in the aftermath of the Depression, during World War II, and I well remember that, I’ve been aware of it, and it has never found reflection in my work. There are some pretty horrible things that have been done in the world, so why the hell do I want to get into that? But in some of the hunting prose poems in From One Jaguar to Another, I deal quite forthrightly with the fear involved in hunting or fighting: you must have determination and great strength, and you must mean it, you’re not fooling around. Unless you are completely engaged, you will not survive. I general, I don’t want to deal with that kind of darkness.
In a sense, Spenser had everything in him – tones, approaches, subject matter; but from Nora May French I learned the beauty of the microcosmic, how she looks at tiny little things and sees their beauty. I gravitated toward that and there’s a lot of it in the third series. But her example, like seeing some little creature being dissected for biology class or some little bud that didn’t blossom, her extreme sensitivity to that influenced me when I wrote such pieces as “Hippokampoi.”
Romanticism and the “S” Poets
AG: I want to ask about the California Romantics, but first the term romantic poetry is often used but rarely defined, and is probably often confused with love poetry. Can we define what is meant by romanticism?
DSF: California Romantics is a term I created and it seems to have caught on. For a long time I called them “West Coast Romantics,” but I realized to someone in England the west coast would be Cornwall or Wales… California Romantics covers both the 1800s and 1900s, people like Ambrose Bierce, Sterling, Smith, Herman Scheffeuer, and there were others.
Romanticism? I don’t know how to define it… obsession with strong emotion and attention to sensual details, maybe.
AG: Sensual or sensory?
AG: But you mean sensual in a sensory way?
DSF: Precisely! As a writer, obviously, I am a romantic writer, a poet; but that does not necessarily correlate with being a romantic person.
AG: There’s a confusion of romantic poetry with love poetry, but romance or roman as a novel…
DSF: I’m using it as something that is highly colored… Hawaii is a very romantic place, in terms of vividly colored… That’s part of it.
AG: But in the sense of a “romantic getaway,” it’s usually thought of in terms of sexual love as opposed to romance or romanticism…
DSF: Well, it can be both, they can go hand in hand. Romantic in terms of gallantry, courtly love – it’s a deliberate attempt at refinement of the physical love. I tend to define romance in historical, chronological terms: romance was the creation of the Middle Ages and was reinvented in the Renaissance: roman, romance, romanticism. Then came the 1700s, where it was alive but not dominant. And romanticism in the modern sense became rediscovered in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s.
We’re looking back into the past, because that’s where you find examples of greatness that inspire you – not necessarily to try and exceed them. My attitude is to continue in a worthy way what somebody else began. In my case, I had a direct personal connection with Smith and through him an indirect connection to Sterling, Nora May French, and Bierce; and later. through Oscar Lewis (the former secretary of the Book Club of California), another connection to Bierce and Sterling.
AG: Isn’t there an inherent connection between the Gothic and romanticism?
DSF: Oh, my god, yes! Romance is the creation of the Middle Ages, as is courtly love, as is also the Gothic. Gaspard de la Nuit is a perfect example of Gothicism revived, it was the first attempt to reconstruct the Middle Ages in a creative way. It just preceded Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. As I detail in my introduction to Gaspard, many of the great writers of the period were well aware of Bertrand. Hugo said it would be impossible to have greater examples of literary art than this. The French do not give praise unless they really mean it.
AG: In your long (and enchanting!) narrative poem "A Vision of a Castle Deep in Averonne," a modern couple magically return to Renaissance France. You say it's based on "a legend of the Auvergne concerning the Citadelle de Merle." How did this narrative come about? ("Averonne" is also a tie-in with CAS.)
DSF: The modern couple return to then-modern France, i.e., of 1930, and at times return to Renaissance France, reality, dream, hallucination. The narrative came about thanks to some photos of the Citadelle de Merle taken by Paul Toffaletti, plus historic data concerning the site. I visited it when I was in France in 2000.
AG: When and why did you add the hyphen to your name? Anna Kavan changed her name in part, I think, to get on the same shelf as her spiritual mentor Kafka. Did you want to get on the same shelf as all the S poets we’ve mentioned – Shakespeare, Spenser, Shelley, Swinburne, Sterling, Smith… Sidney-Fryer!?
DSF: No. I was born Donald Sidney Fryer, Jr. Nobody gave me my own name; by hyphenating Sidney and Fryer, I had my own name and didn’t have to use the “Junior.” I started using it around the time I finished the first series.
AG: So it’s a coincidence that it begins with S?
DSF: Yes – not that I mind! By the way, there’s another great S poet we haven’t mentioned, who is Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote the Arcadia, which was almost as influential as The Faerie Queene in certain respects; they are somewhat similar. His Astrophel and Stella was one of the first regular sequences of sonnets. The opening one is written in Alexandrines and he’s trying to find inspiration, looking at all of his books, and the final line is: “Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart, and write.” He definitely hit it right on the head!
Atlantis – “Plato’s Quaint Conceit”
AG: How did you come to the idea of presenting what are supposed to be actual writings from Atlantis?
DSF: First, no one wrote anymore the way I wanted to write, but that’s the way I wanted to write – that is me. I waiting a long time to find my form – that’s important, I had to have a form, a new form.
AG: Like a vessel you can pour your content into…
DSF: Right, “new wine in old bottles” or “old wine in new bottles.” It’s a form that is not in use much any more, in fact the Spenserian stanza itself as a vehicle for a single lyric is very rare.
AG: Why did you choose the Atlantis myth as your subject?
DSF: I have been fascinated by it for literary purposes since the mid-’50s, when I was in military service. Both in Miami and at El Toro, I was consciously extrapolating from Plato’s Atlantis mythos, as expressed in the two dialogs Timaeus and Critias, at first via L. Sprague de Camp’s Lost Continents. I wanted to write an overall story (which I may still do), but out of that background the poems came.
The conceit is that these are somehow fragments from ancient Atlantis via some unique Renaissance recension – not to overlook the early mediaeval one when they are brought to King Arthur’s main headquarters where by Merlin’s arts magical he could translate the ancient language… Readers might not have accepted them if I presented the pieces directly, but by presenting them as translations in classic form of unknown classics, maybe they would be more likely to welcome them…
AG: To suspend disbelief…
DSF: Yes. It was only as I was completing the first series that I realized that I had to include the poems in a kind of frame: Atlantis, King Arthur, somehow the material surviving so that it came into the hands of Labretagne – which is rather a complicated thing… from southwest Wales to Cadbury Castle (if that was indeed the original Camelot) then somehow to the library of Mont St. Michel, probably via the abbey on St Michael’s Mount in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall and somehow into the hands of the family of Michel Labretagne.
There are some curious contradictions. For instance, in the introduction to the first series I say the Châteaux Bretagnesque was utterly destroyed during the French Revolution; but in another place I say that part of it has been preserved as a museum and that some of the papers have survived at the Bibliothèque Nationale. As in all historical matters, there are these curious contradictions.
AG: All this helps give it a history – otherwise you’d have to explain why the poems hadn’t surfaced previously.
DSF: Right, and these are just token gestures. By the way, they did this in the ancient world, too!
AG: After you went to so much trouble to create the illusion that the material was authentic, why did you go and add Professor Ibid M. Andor – an obviously fake name (which reminds me of Poe’s “Professor Tarr and Mr. Feather”)?
DSF: Yes, it’s from the Latin ibidem, “in the same place,” which is used in footnotes, plus and/or. In English, it’s pronounced “I-bid” (like “eye”) but the Latin is “IB-i-dem” (like “nib”). Well, you have Indiana Jones and you have Massachusetts Andor!
AG: It’s play…
DSF: And it’s part of me… I have multiple personalities!
It’s also part of the framing. It wasn’t until much later while working on Gaspard de le Nuit that I realized how it’s parallel to the framework that Bertrand creates: he says was given the book and writes a long introduction, which he signs, and then the preface is signed by Gaspard! When I first encountered Gaspard I treated it as just a collection of poèmes en prose. Of course, the scope of my frame is much wider.
AG: For the second series, though, you killed Andor off!
DSF: He was already pretty old, so I thought, how could he survive beyond his nineties?
AG: So that added more veracity, or pseudo-veracity.
DSF: Yes, pseudo-verisimilitude?! And since he died, I have tried to continue with the notes in the noble Andor tradition.
AG: You’ve done well!
DSF: Thank you very much! There’s a lot of real information, but again it’s connected to the main conceit.
AG: I want to clarify something about Atlantis. You said you were extrapolating from Plato. Were you thinking of Atlantis historically, as if it did exist – are you a fan of that concept?
DSF: Oh, yes, absolutely. But I created my own geography, working from him. This is pretty well laid out in the Legend to “Sonnets on an Empire of Many Waters,” in the first series, where I identify which islands today more or less correspond to the Empire of Atlantis, along with the Atlantean names. So it’s presented as though it were real geography.
In Plato, there's is no direct description of the citadel at the heart of the three rings of water, two rings of land, so that was up for grabs, and I was inspired in that by the portrait of Mount Olympus by Steele Savage in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. There are coastal mountains and right where the delta is, there happens to be one mountain and they built the city around it.
AG: But you say “No more, no less than Plato’s quaint conceit” (in “A Symbol for All Splendor Lost”) – which is to say it’s just a conceit.
DSF: It is just a conceit, but I have created this whole elaborate background –
AG: I’m sorry, I don’t mean your conceit – I mean the whole idea of Atlantis. Do you believe there was an Atlantis, or not?
DSF: Well, no, not quite. I go into this more deeply in an upcoming issue of Scott Connors’s Continuity, where I emphasize that Atlantis is a symbol for continuity, obviously – which is one of the hardest things to achieve in human affairs. When you consider how much we have and don’t have from antiquity, directly – so many texts were destroyed… Had it not been for the monks copying them, and Byzantium – we’d have even less. We don’t even have a first-hand account of Alexander the Great or Cleopatra – we only have Plutarch, or secondary accounts.
Plato was working from a story told by Solon, an historical figure who may have been part of Plato’s family, who had gone to Egypt – as many Greeks did, it was so incredibly old even by their time. By Plato’s time, Solon was semi-legendary. He tells of seeing some writing on temple walls, which the priests translated; evidently it referred to the sea peoples of Crete, who had a colony on Santorini, the ancient Thera, where a Krakatoa-like event happened around 1500 BC, only four times as powerful as Krakatoa. They calculate the tsunamis created by Krakatoa were 100 feet high, but these would have been 300 feet! The epicenter was 70 miles north of Crete and would have wiped out everyone on Crete except people in the mountains – literally, shepherds and goatherds. It destroyed that civilization, and there was some report of this in the hieroglyphics seen by Solon. If that’s what Plato had in mind, it was a Great Cataclysm. However, the Atlantis that he created, he extrapolated out into the Atlantic as an island continent, with other islands as lesser kingdoms of the same empire. That’s just a glittering dream. It never existed. The name Atlantis did not exist before Plato.
AG: Your Atlantean names often look Greek to me (no pun!) but also sometimes remind me of CAS's fictitious names. How did you devive the "language" of the names, some of which you translate in the notes? (Is Avalonyssus an Arthurian tie-in?)
DSF: Since the source material for Atlantis is Plato, the names are Greek, or somewhat derived from the Greek – or from general Indo-European roots. The legend of Avalon became tied in with the real Arthur and then elaborated in the Arthurian legends, long before I used it and made it more explicit by having a pre-Avalon Avalon realized in Avalonessys.
AG: Is Atlantis an instance of wishful thinking about “the good old days” and “the Golden Age,” the idea that things were once better?
DSF: Yes! Except, of course, that these people somehow exceeded their legitimate boundaries and power. The way I have extrapolated it, they must have known that something was going to happen, but believed it was going to happen gradually, not all of a sudden. That’s why they were conquering lands in and around what we now call the Mediterranean. It had to happen gradually. Evidently, at that time the Mediterranean was not what it is today; it was a separated into two land-locked seas, western and eastern, with a land bridge reaching from the “toe” of Italy through Sicily and on to Tunisia.
I hypothesized that the moon was a planet between Earth and Mars with a very weak orbit of its own and it came into perihelion with us every five or six years (Plato has the kings of the empire meet in a Pan-Atlantean celebration every five or six years, so I thought that was nice to use), and during the last perihelion something happened to launch the Moon toward us, and we captured it, which had an enormous effect on the sea, and at the same time there was evidently something geologically “wrong” with the island-continent that made it sink – more or less triggered by the capture of what is now our moon.
AG: There’s also a moralistic undertone that they brought it on themselves, as with Sodom and Gomorrah.
DSF: People always interpret some terrible event as punishment, but I don’t deal with that at all. "The tsunami killed people because they must have been sinners" – I’m sorry! "New Orleans was flooded because it’s such a wicked city" – that is just complete nonsense! What does nature care about our petty moralities?
Instead, I have the civilization and dynasty last 3,000 years. There are cycles, and just as they are undergoing a renaissance following a period of decline – when they all have positive attitudes – the cataclysm happens!
AG: I still want to zero in on this concept of Atlantis – I don’t know if it originated with Plato or came in over time, or if it originated in the 1960s along with the New Age and crystals and whatnot – but the idea is that they had achieved some higher state of evolution, with telepathy and maybe sorcery, or they had a more advanced technology than we do today… Is this still part of the “good old days” thing?
DSF: Yes, that’s what others have extrapolated. I’m not saying that such things could not have existed in the society at large, but I don’t deal with it because I’m dealing with the “historical” aspects of the civilization and the dynasty. A good historical novel is an extrapolation, but you want it to be as realistic as possible. That’s why “The Fugitives” (in the third series) is so concrete: it is like a trial balloon in case I don’t get to the main thing – which won’t be terribly long. I wanted to sketch in this background and bring it forth, so I accepted the challenge of dealing directly with it in the form of a narrative poem in blank Alexandrine verse.
I had invented the form and I wanted to use it again – and I will be using it again, even more. It’s pretty strict in terms of syllables, but again you don’t want iambic hexameter on a regular basis, except for emphasis. You have to keep varying it; so you will notice that where there may be a break right in the middle, I’ll ride right over it; and where an iamb might fall (accented weak-strong), I’ll use a trochee (strong-weak). If you read it as close as possible to regular speech, it doesn’t sound strained, and yet there is the underlying beat. You don’t have to hit people over the head with it. I faced the same problem with the other poems in the second and third series. Many of the Alexandrines are deliberately irregular – I’ll toss in an extra syllable – in order to lighten the language, and I think I’ve achieved that.
AG: You lighten the language or the meter?
DSF: I lighten the language itself so that it’s not so heavy. Though in places it is very precise, and its heavier. There’s a description where the lovers go from the seaport onto the little sea city Aliddium, and I describe the southwestern extension of Atlantis (the island-continent makes a kind of huge capital A); it’s an area that is not heavily populated and I describe why, it’s an area that’s difficult to get in and out of, and there are “Blind shores and hidden coves and beachless littorals…”
AG: In “A Symbol for All Splendor Lost,” you pretty much state what Atlantis means to you metaphorically. I wonder if we can just make it explicit that you are really talking about human cultural achievement…
DSF: Plato’s historical model was 900 years in the past, but he extrapolated it as 9,000 years, so it was an “antiquity beyond antiquity.” The Theosophists think that after the cataclysm subsided, it left the island of Poseidonis. So I’ve taken hints from other people, but I’m extremely selective. Always it’s an aesthetic concept. And you’re right, I use Atlantis as a symbol of many beautiful things that have been lost from our own real world – from our Graeco-Roman antiquity.
AG: What is the moral – what are we supposed to take away from this?
DSF: Just a simple reminder of many beautiful things that are irretrievably lost – that’s the only moral.
AG: So, the theme is transience, which implies loss and mortality.
DSF: It’s an aesthetic theme, also to provide a form of consolation.
AG: Art is a consolation for transience?
DSF: Yes. Some people think art has to be provocative – it can be, but to me personally literature and art need not be provocative. “Workers of the world unite” – I think that’s a waste of time! I’m trying to appeal to the thoughtful part of people. I don’t want them to run out with rifles or spears! Mercy no, God no! Maybe they can read my work together as an expression of amiability!
Atlantis is a reminder. It expresses for me, personally, the unbearable poignance I have felt about the loss of so many beautiful things from antiquity. And it also reminds us of what we have – we have quite a bit, many times because we didn’t know it was there. After Constantine set up the new church, the new religion, many of the serious pagans did not buy into it – or did so because it was convenient; but they deliberately buried many beautiful statues so that they would be preserved. We still haven’t found them all – they are still buried in the ground! To me, that is so poignant… that they knew these beautiful objects were at risk because they were not congruent with the new religion. That is why, for example, we have marvelous statues of Antinous, among other people, with fingers and toes intact! They were very carefully and deliberately buried. When you think of what was visible, accessible, in public places – in forums and agoras and basilicas (which were originally not used as churches) – or at the palaces of the Caesars – can you imagine what that would have been like? At Aphrodisias in Lydia, they perfected the art of stone sculpture to such a high degree… Also that famous head of Hadrian in bronze – it was hacked off from the full statue and just thrown into the Thames! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have that, because nothing was wasted – metal was melted down, stone was reused… a sarcophagus became a wine press in Aphrodisias. Yes, I’ve been a student of National Geographic since I was a student in the fourth or fifth grade, and I remember what I read!
AG: The mythologist Joseph Campbell said that the role of the poet or artist is, or should be, that of the shaman or seer in older societies, which is to provide a vision of “ultimate” reality that the common person is unable to attain alone (that’s a paraphrase). Do you agree?
DSF: We’re getting to the question, “Can poetry matter?” It gives people, I hope, a strongly relevant benchmark, a touchstone, something they can bounce off, something they can use to touch reality around them. Excuse me, but how do you define reality? It varies from person to person, but there are certain generalities we share. At the same time, one tends to extrapolate from oneself… I have never been marked by one extremely negative thing, for which I am grateful. I would have to deal with that a lot, which means I can play more. So I regard my art as consolation. This is an older concept of art and poetry, as consolation, which I find perfectly true. It doesn’t necessarily mean that other people will perceive that. But that’s what I intend.
So, yes, a lot of things have been lost, but we have the thought of them, and is that not consoling? My poem “Remonstration” (in the third series) deals with an issue that was raised by William Kostura. I could have referred him to the earlier poem “A Symbol for All Splendor Lost,” but instead I wrote a new poem with the same theme and dedicated to him “In Expostulation” – which it literally is. Whether you perceive it realistically or pseudo-realistically, the theme is real. In certain places I comment on it directly.
It’s much more than just Atlantis, as I say in the earlier poem:
This image of an island empery
Supreme in wealth, extent, antiquity,
Has now become my own arcanic lore,
But more, a torch deep in eternity,
A symbol for all splendor lost, and more,
A sign for all of loveliness evanished evermore. . . .
AG: But then you question if it is forever – there’s hope:
Forevermore? Perhaps there shall rise yet in far-off time,
Beyond this bleak, blind interim of now and nevermore
DSF: The “interim” is the present obsessed with materialism and unable to see it’s own perspective – as during the 1700s, which was a very cocksure period. What I’m suggesting is a new mental attitude:
Many a new Atlantis from “the cosmic sea sublime”. . . .
And there, perhaps, in future gardens marvellous and vast,
Shall bloom again all splendor and all beauty lost and past.
In “Remonstration,” I wrote:
Even without some tangible remains,
With splendors only metaphorical,
It all transmutes to one dim oracle:
The mythoglyphical, as always, reigns.
The oracle is not “dim” at all, I’m just being ironic. The mythoglyphical always reigns – mythology. Even when we know the history, it is something mythical that captures our attention. There’s the real Alexander, the real Napoleon, but it’s the mythic figures of them that have been extrapolated through literature and time that are interesting. Philip Lamantia once told me, “History is the horse; literature is the rider.” Mythoglyphical is my original word, meaning either “mythological writings” or “writings about myth.”
DSF: Although Atlantis is now lost, it’s also present – in today’s oceans, waiting to be discovered. So it operates on many levels, it’s a very useful metaphor.
AG: So, unlike Smith – whose central theme is always said to be loss – your “bottom line” is not a negative sense of loss, but a sense of splendor and a positive hope…
DSF: Oh, yes! Always! On the cover of the first volume, the trident and crown hover between the sea and the clouds, and behind them is the resplendent sun – but you don’t know if it’s sunset or sunrise! That was a way of pinpointing the main heraldic device I have created for the Atlantean work.
The myth of Atlantis has a profound and immediate relevance to our modern age, now. Apart from the dramatic metaphor that it represents over-all – the Great Catastrophe that destroyed or altered an entire world, or much of it – there is an implicit warning: Are we not, all of us collectively, slowly preparing our own grandiose doom by our poor stewardship of the planet? This will catch up with us, especially the oceans, at some not so remote point, c. 2050.
See the March 2006 issue of Mother Jones! The ecological disasters we learned of in the 1960s and 1970s did not go away; they have been mounting in size and scope, getting worse and worse. Most people, apart from scientists, fail to realize how serious the problem is, primarily because we get so wrapped up in our own personal and collective activities. Science does not lie – despite the Bush administration's attempt to ignore the problem, mostly in the name of profit and pure greed!
Mother Nature is patient, and lies in wait to remind us that, if we treat her poorly, she'll return the favor! So be it… And the reckoning shall arrive sooner or later!
Bertrand, Aloysius. 1842. Gaspard de la nuit: Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot. Éditions Gallimard, Paris.
––. 2004. Gaspard de la Nuit: Fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Callot. Black Coat Press, Encino, CA. Translated from the French with an Introduction by Donald Sidney-Fryer.
De Camp, L. Sprague. 1954 Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. Gnome Press, Inc., New York. Also 1970, Dover Publications, New York.
Sidney-Fryer, Donald. 1971. Songs and Sonnets Atlantean. Arkham House, Sauk City, WI.
––. 2003. Songs and Sonnets Atlantean: The Second Series. Wildside Press, Holicong, PA.
––. 2005. Songs and Sonnets Atlantean: The Third Series. Phosphor Lantern Press, Los Angeles.