Edward Field is one of America’s greatest poets. Born in 1924, in Brooklyn, New York he was raised in Lynbrook, Long Island. Field began writing poetry while serving in World War II, where he was an as an Air Force navigator. His poetry has been widely published; he has also edited a number of anthologies, taught workshops, and has received a slew of prestigious literary awards. With Neil Derrick, Field is the author of five novels published under a joint pseudonym.
His ten poetry collections include Stand Up, Friend, With Me (Grove Press, 1963), Variety Photoplays (Grove Press, 1967), Stars In My Eyes (Sheep Meadow Press, 1978), and Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963–1992 (Black Sparrow, 1992), and Magic Words (Harcout Brace, 1998). The University of Pittsburgh Press published his After the Fall: Poems Old and New in 2007.
He has recently published two non-fiction books, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, and Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006) and Kabuli Days: Travels in Old Afghanistan (World Parade Books, 2008). He has taught and traveled widely.
The interviewer, James Schwartz, is a poet, essayist, and the author of The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America.
JS: I read your beautiful poems when I was growing up Amish so I have to start there. Any encounters with the Amish?
EF: My only encounters with the Amish are food stalls at street markets—they have a reputation for natural farm produce. So you were raised healthy in your Amish world? Jews are obsessed with good eating, bowel movements, dental care, and generally keeping the body healthy. But at the same time, everybody in my family tormented each other. Being fucked up is not exclusive to the Jews—I’m sure it wasn’t so easy growing up gay in the Amish community either.
JS: Let’s get to politics. Who are you supporting and what is your opinion on the Clinton / Trump election?
EF: It would be great to have a woman president, but Hillary Clinton is such a willing tool of the military Wall Street and intelligence establishment that I’m afraid she’ll just follow orders for more aggressive military adventures around the world. And right now NATO is even holding war games and establishing missile sites on Russia’s borders.
Nuclear war is a real danger and there’s nothing about it in the popular media, except on the internet. I’ve never voted Republican in my life, but Trump is at least talking about the crisis, pulling back NATO, and talking to Putin.
The Establishment hates him because he thinks independently. If he’s elected, he may be forced to follow their orders, but he’s so unscripted, with him there’s a little hope of some sanity in our foreign affairs. So, however crazy he sounds on domestic issues, he appears to be the peace candidate. But I’m not sure I can vote for him.
JS: We are still grieving the losses of the Orlando tragedy this summer. Thoughts?
EF: There are crazies with guns all over this country going on killing sprees, but this rampage was the worst. Horrible that the killer was a closeted gay.
JS: We see terrorism around the world on a daily basis. You’ve written about your travels in the Middle East, any impressions to share?
EF: I’ve been to a lot of Arab and Muslim countries, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and those people taught me a lot about myself.
The most startling thing was that they don’t separate men into the two categories, gay and straight – you can do sexually what you’re inclined to, but you’re still a man.
I’ve edited the letters from Morocco of my friend Alfred Chester, with detailed descriptions of the sex lives of his Moroccan friends, but haven’t found a publisher for them. It pains me that Muslims are stereotyped and vilified.
JS: You recently appeared in a German documentary film. Can you tell us a little about Die Flakhelfer and where to see it?
EF: Unfortunately, the documentary isn’t available anymore, but it first was screened on German TV on July 4 and was seeable for a month.
I was in it because one of the producers heard me read a poem on Prairie Home Companion about my cataract surgery that compared it to a bombing raid over the Ruhr—I flew 27 bombing missions over Germany in WWII as a navigator in heavy bombers.
So, they invited me to be in the documentary they were making about German schoolboys who were recruited by the Nazis to man the antiaircraft guns that tried to shoot us down. In the film, I represent the thousands of bombers that destroyed the cities of Germany, and they did shoot me down over Berlin, though I survived to tell about it in my poem “World War II.”
JS: You’ve had a profound impact on American poetry. Which poets influenced you early on and today?
Still one of my favorite poets from way back is Dunstan Thompson, who wrote nothing like me, but he did write openly gay poetry during the war.
Of the Modern Poets who dominated the scene back then, I especially liked Hart Crane, and am still mad about W.H. Auden.
But my favorite poet of all time is Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, though also spent some years in London in the same neighborhood Neil and I used to rent flats in—we sometimes passed his house.
I’m also a fan of Gerald Locklin, a poet in Long Beach, who, with Charles Stetler, “discovered” me and started a school of poetry there called Stand Up Poets, after the title of my first book, Stand Up, Friend, With Me.
JS: If you could recommend a handful of poetry books to readers, what would they be?
EF: I must confess, I don’t know the poetry scene anymore.
One of the poetry mags that I particularly like is Cafe Solo. The editor, Richard Vargas, includes all kinds of subject matter in the magazine and writes political poetry himself.
As you can tell, I’m a nut on poetry saying things about our lives that don’t get said, that aren’t poetic—everything in the universe is poetry to me!
The Beats opened poetry up a lot, especially to gay stuff, and you could be Jewish—before, for all the liberation of form and language under the Moderns, you couldn’t spill your guts and be who you were.
JS: Any plans for another poetry collection? Please?
EF: If I live long enough, I do hope to have another book of poems, a lot of which, already written, celebrate my wonderful partner of 57 years, Neil Derrick.
It’s amazing for me, at the age of 92, to still be with somebody, and somebody I’m passionate about. But I work so hard looking after him that I have very little time to write. Somehow, poems still get written.
Possible titles? THE HAPPY WANKER. THE BOOK OF NEIL. A YOGA DIARY.
Secret of the Masters
The great consolation for old age is whacking off —
I look forward to it all day. It’s a major part
of my nightly yoga session — not that it’s
something you go around bragging about,
nor do most people care to imagine great granddad
with his dick in his hand and his tongue hanging out.
No yoga manual or YouTube demonstration
shows it as a ‘position’ — an asana, they call it —
but the ‘postures’ are really movements for release,
so sex naturally happens.
I suspect I’m not the only devotee to have gotten to this.
But once the power of yoga has filled you, lifted you,
your sexuality is part of it – a big part.
Is this one of the mysteries Not To Be Revealed,
a secret reserved for the Masters of the Yoga Ritual?
Surely I’m not in their company yet, but I’ve come upon
the route to knowing, not with the mind,
but through the body – you live it/know it in your body
where universal wisdom lives. It feels good.
and what feels good, is good.
The sexual side of yoga is barely referred to here in the West.
Yes, tantric yoga had a vogue in the hippy Sixties —
playing with the sexual energy between yourself and a partner.
And paintings from the East show the Buddha
with a little lady sitting on his fat dick
which we interpret, loftily, as the mating of yang and yin,
universal principles, not part of your earthly life,
but what you get to via the exercises – seated firmly, unshakably —
when you’re all over alive — physically, sexually alive —
and dancing to your own music.
The paintings, like me whacking off,
show the Buddha finding his dick again
and through it feeling good – okay, blissful, if you must,
meaning his wholeness, his humanity —
and somehow, ancient as I am, I’ve stumbled on that.
And on mine.
“men’s got dog in ‘em” — ntozake shange
I take care of him like a beloved family dog —
fifty years on from when the supervisor at the typing pool
sat us, fatally, at adjoining typewriters.
In fact, we’re a couple of not too spry old dogs.
He says I’m panting like a sheepdog – yes,
but all old men like me gasp for air.
You see them, mouth open, on the street
with the same old man belly as mine.
He’s become my pet and I take him out for walks
and prepare him bowls of the doggy food he loves
while he whimpers in anticipation at my knees,
I also look at him with lifelong doggy adoration
my big wet tongue slathering his face.
Humping each other and sniffing assholes
was also once part of it, though, old dog that I am,
I still beat my meat over him plenty.
Of course, being dogs we’re interested
in any other dog around,
and I like to see him go puppy-like,
dancing around some other dog
who tumbles him to the ground,
wet nose nuzzling his little fat belly.
Jealousy doesn’t come into it if you’re dogs.
There is nothing more perfect, more absolute,
than doggy love – any dog owner will attest to that –
and it goes the other way round, and now
when even our life expectancy is about the same as a dog’s
with the end in sight,
being together is the only thing that matters.
What good is poetry
if it doesn’t stand up
against the lies of government,
if it doesn’t rescue us
from the liars that mislead us?
What good is it
if it doesn’t speak out, denounce what’s going on?
but harmless wordplay to titillate and distract—
the government knows it
and can always get rid of us if we step out of line.
That I believed in poetry,
even when I betrayed it,
that I came back to its central meaning
—to save the world—
this and only this
has been my salvation
after C. Milosz
What Poetry is For
in homage to Ernesto Cardenal
Back in the sixties when a Nicaraguan poet
came to the Poetry Center and read his poems
about the United Fruit Company with the help of the U.S. government
robbing his people and terrorizing with death squads,
most of the audience of poetry lovers walked out.
I was there, I saw it—
they just didn’t want to listen.
Or were brainwashed.
They were probably scared because he was a communist
and they’d be accused of being subversives,
so it was safer not to listen
to what we were doing in Latin America,
practice for what we’re doing a hundred times over
in half the world today.
But his poetry, spoken out of the anguish in his heart,
was trying to make us hear—
even if the truth is ugly.
It was also beautiful
that he told us, flat out, in the simple language of truth,
what we were doing to his country.
Now, too, what else for a poet to write about
except the devastation and misery
our so-called democratic country is causing,
not only at home, with a government turning the economy
into a grab bag for the wealthy,
but abroad, where we’ve become the Evil Empire,
sending pirate armies to the ends of the earth
to take over governments, seize their assets and control markets,
leaving anarchy behind us,
creating hatred wherever we go, and dangerous enemies
who can fly planes with breathtaking accuracy
into our arrogant towers,
who devote themselves to wrecking our lives
as we’ve wrecked theirs.
One poet I know is saying it plainly like the Nicaraguan did.
Richard Vargas in Albuquerque writes about the war in Iraq,
“. . . we’re going to be paying for this for a long time
probably way past my lifetime.
we’ve screwed generations to come,”
(here he’s talking about the soaring national debt)
“and i wouldn’t be surprised
if they let us starve in the streets in our old age. . . .”
That’s how poets should be writing in this critical time.
And about the pathology of our leaders
who call everyone who opposes them a terrorist,
even if the cause is just—people fighting against
the occupiers of their lands, against our armies of corporate greed.
And if any of us says No! No more of this!,
we’re reminded of their awesome power—
“if you’re not with us you’re against us.”
We know what that means—
there’s a Guantánamo Bay in our future.
Vargas, my poet friend, says the most important thing right now.
“if we elect [that chickenshit] bush again the world community
will shun us for the fucking idiots we are.”
But how to get rid of this gang
if the voting machines are rigged?
And why aren’t more poets shouting from the rooftops?
Or at least from the stages of all the Poetry Centers?
As a British diplomat said, “If this continues
all we can look forward to is unending war.”
The stark reality. The warning. What a poet’s for.