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“They were unique. They knew it.”: An Interview with Paul Buhle on Field Work, Poetry and the History of the American Left

Diana Clarke

INTRODUCTION

I first got to know Paul Buhle’s poems when he sent them to Mandy Cohen, and she forwarded them along, lit up. They were historical and lyrical, acerbic, romantic but not nostalgic: “When people say life in Russia is terrible, / I say: it’s not heaven and it’s not hell. Just ordinary.” These poems came out of the field work interviews Buhle, a historian, conducted as part of the Oral History of the American Left project, based at NYU. Buhle was particularly struck by the words of Yiddish-speaking Jewish leftists, about whom he told me “In an America of cultural dispersion, they held close to their friends and their politics. They were unique. They knew it.” I could feel it, and I wanted to know more: How did Buhle translate an academic research project into something intimate and rhythmic? How did he navigate honoring the words of his interviewees with his own poetic impulses? How did his own politics inform the way he represented others? But mostly I was just hungry for the stories at which his poems gestured, and to reckon with how I, too, might better navigate the intersection of Yiddish, history, poetics, and politics, a junction at which I too live. And so I googled Buhle, and learned that he was also a former senior lecturer at Brown, a historian of radical politics, and a comics artist. Excited and a little intimidated, I emailed Buhle, who turned out to be totally lovely, as curious as his poems, and so our conversation unfolded. It appears, edited, below.

As a historian with a background in writing and poetry, I often find that historians are averse to poetics but poets are hungry for history. I’m curious too whether that fits with your experience—how so or how not? How do you navigate moving the language from the oral histories you’re collecting for the Oral History of the American Left Project into your poems? Where do you find the poetry in history, and situate history in your poems?


An intriguing question that I might answer differently from anyone else. Poetry was a very vivid element in the new left magazine, Radical America, that I founded and then edited from 1967-73 (after which others took it over). Diane Di Prima, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, and others sent us their lines, but so did d.a. levy, the most popular poet in all of the underground press and the most quickly forgotten. 1 1 Weeks after visiting with me and others in Madison, he returned home to Cleveland and killed himself. We published a small series of pamphlets by a handful of poets. I expect this is related not to my own writing of poems (which stopped early and only began again recently) but to my reading of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg, and others as a teen drawn to the Beat Generation, as I was drawn to Mad Comics, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and socialism, all within three or four years, ages 16-20.

The Oral History of the American Left (no longer much in process since I stopped my own fieldwork) brought me toward something seemingly very different: a culture of poetry, or rather a culture imbued with interest in poetry, i.e. Yiddish culture.

My studies of the history of the US left had introduced me to socialistic poetry from German-Americans in the nineteenth century, Italian-Americans and grassroots Midwestern American poets in the early twentieth century, and the modernist bohemians of Greenwich Village. Apart from the delightful doggerel of socialists and wobblies 2 2 Members of the Industrial Workers of the World ridiculing capitalists and their toadies, or sentimentalizing Eugene Debs (a full little book was issued in 1920 urging his release from prison), there was no culture of Left appreciation of literature, and particularly poetry, like that of Yiddish speakers and readers.

No other socialistic milieu of local speakers and intense blue-collar poetry readers had so much cultural following or energy, including poetry books, poets reading aloud to considerable audiences, poets raising money for radical causes, etc. Among the English-language Left, poetry was for the educated classes, almost like modern dance. But for unassimilated left-wing Jews, it was different.

THESE people were as interested in history as in poetry. And a handful of them were still alive in 1980. More were dead but still deeply revered by readers in their 70s and upward. Some of the Yiddish poets in my little world had been shop workers, not by choice but by life circumstance; others had been teachers. And some of them who wrote a little were actually editors, above all Itche Goldberg at Yidishe kultur, the distinguished journal.

All this was in my mind when I began, after more than a half-century, to try once more to write poetry. The poems are historical because they are part of my interviewing process, a way to make the memories available.


You were quite active in American Left movements, and in your work you also historicize and poeticize them. What is it like to act as a historian, and a poet, and an organizer all at once? How do you explain your work to different factions of those groups from the point at which you yourself intersect?


The point of Radical America, in a way, was to get beyond “factions” to some broader sense of continuity within the Left from the era of Abolitionism—my great-great-grandfather, in rural Illinois, was an Abolitionist, and marched with Sherman through Georgia, and his descendants were rural woman suffragists of the 1910s—to the nineteenth century socialist movement, later communists and so on.

As a young editor, I was in correspondence, before 1970, with poets of the 1920s, Walter Lowenfels to Anna Louise Strong (the poet of the Seattle General Strike, 1919, known as “Anise”), and I saw these people as poet-activists. I was a poetry-publisher-activist, as noted above, involved in all manner of activities on campuses of the era and later, as the situations allowed. There were not enough openings for poetry, but I used them when they arose. Was I an “organizer”? Not very often; only when I could help the real organizers.


In certain leftist and Jewish subcultures, there’s a lively (though perhaps somewhat weary) memory of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish Left in New York and a few other major cities in the first half of the twentieth century, but not much beyond that. (Lots of people who have heard of Emma Goldman, fewer who have heard of Abbie Hoffman, etc.) What histories do you think are being forgotten or overlooked? What do you wish people knew?


A very good, very vital question, and an ironic one. The New York Intellectuals worked hard, during the 1950s-60s, to detach liberalism, actually a severe Cold War liberalism, from the traditions of the Left, including the Yiddish Left associated with a blue-collar resistance to assimilation and distinct from modern Jewish attachments to Israel. The newer created tradition was Modernist, with no sentimentalism toward the “teardrop poets” 3 3 Two big teardrop poets, Morris Rosenfeld (the genre was practically named for him) and Josef Bovshover. of the Yiddish 1890s, and no sympathy for Abbie Hoffman!

The Jewish New Left had some difficulty describing itself as Jewish due in considerable part to a rightward shift in the Jewish establishment, in part to get around the white-versus-black divisions that seemed so important. Abbie Hoffman was Jewish because he was funny, a Jewish radical with a standup routine. Jewish women leaders in the women’s liberation movement were avowedly Jewish as individuals, but had difficulty renewing the political content of Jewishness.

So much was lost, more than would have been lost with the assimilation and loss of secular Yiddish fluency. The renewal of interest is recent and hugely encouraging to me. It raises the possibility of recovering much for an audience far beyond those who are now reading Yiddish and rediscovering the Yiddish Left.

I have a certain confidence that Jewish socialists in DSA, 4 4 The Democratic Socialists of America for instance, will come upon the lost traditions from a need for collective self-identification and make sense of the complicated but vital history of the Jewish New Left and its successors in the rest of the twentieth century. Who do these include? It is easy to identify intellectuals, poets, writers, singers, celebrities. I would like to emphasize communities with degrees of continuity, for instance the Freeze Movement of the early 1980s around Petaluma, California, where left-wing chicken farmers had a community in the 1920s-50s.

Or the communities of aging Yiddish-speaking left-wingers in Co-op City in and around Manhattan and Brooklyn, Miami Beach and Los Angeles, communities that dissipated by the later 1980s but were vital so long as people had the strength to go to meetings.


Can you tell me a bit more about the oral history project, and how you got started in it?


The collapse of the New Left was, for many of us, the collapse of what we had expected to do through life, build a multiracial, multicultural movement for change from below, looking toward a “Cooperative Commonwealth.” Following 1972 or so, we could see scholarly advances and even took part in them, and there were many worthy things going on. But the lives of tens of thousands of activists fell apart for a while. I recovered myself a bit in a variety of ways, but one of them was to ask myself, “How did older Left cultures manage to sustain themselves?”

My response, with the help of some scholarly notables, was to propose the creation of the Oral History of the American Left at NYU’s labor library, the Tamiment. Oral history was a newish, vital field, often more activists than academics, sometimes recording the social movements that they took part in. After about five years of my own fieldwork, very much part time, I got funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which allowed me to go on the road more fully, and the OHAL to collect outtakes from documentary films about the history of the Left. I had some wonderful collaborators, including two women in the late sixties who did some fabulous interviewing.

I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that a very cohesive group of left-wing Yiddishists held together. These were the people most likely to say, “We were wrong about this or that, but we have stayed together and this is our lives.” They were self-critical rather than going through life feeling vindicated, as too many ex-left-wing professors have always seemed to be. And they were working people or lower middle class. I quickly fell in love with them and, I think, vice versa. They become the most important as well as the most interesting group interviewed.


Two of your poems, “Experimental poet” and “Sweatshop Poet,” bring the recollections of poets from the early Left to lines of your own. What do you see changing through the filter of your own poetic lens? What is it like to embody the voices of poets in your own poems?

The poetry scene was changing so much in the Yiddish world of the 1910s. Even the later poets working in factories would be touched by versions of modernism, versions that did not exclude class consciousness and socialist commitments. I seek to embrace everything, but perhaps that is easy because in that 1920s world, drastic social change was seen as necessary for survival. Rightly so.


In the introduction to the poems you published from the “Miami Series” in Jewish Currents last fall, you write “Yiddishists proved, from the beginning of my work, to be the most eager to talk. Those closest to Jewish Currents were, from my recollection, the most clear-eyed about the past. They regretted the illusions they had had about Russia, but they considered themselves fortunate to have been in so many good struggles, and to have kept many of the same friends they had known since their first years in America. In other words, they did not insist (as many others did) that they had been vindicated, nor had they become cynics.” What sense do you make of this? Why might Yiddishists have been so ready to speak with you, and why do you think their critiques were clearest and relationships most strong?

They were octogenarians and I was there for them at the end of their very long political, cultural, personal lives. These were the grandparents that I never knew in my own family. I loved them instinctually, dearly, and they seemed to know that. In an America of cultural dispersion, they held close to their friends and their politics. They were unique. They knew it.


In the same introduction you mention feeling adopted by the older people sharing their stories with you—what do you inherit from them? What do you resonate with, wrestle with, reject from what they share with you?

How much could I inherit, as a Gentile who comes to Yiddish from a distance? And then again, I began working on the history of the American Left way back in the middle 1960s. I learned early to “reject” just as little as possible. They were wrong in some ways, but they never stopped learning. What did I inherit? The sense of continuity, left-wing continuity but also Jewish left-wing continuity.


More broadly, about your oral history project, you said “The field work sort of changed a lot for me, and I have been sorting out the significance ever since.” With a bit more distance on your work, what has it changed for you?

Fine question. Every oral historian will say, “there is nothing like field work.” Because the engagement with people’s lives always exceeds any expectation. I suppose engagement with mean spirited, right-wing people [ … ]involves a certain distancing. But my engagement [with everyone] has been different. I felt part of something that was not mine. I felt a tradition that, collectively speaking, was mine. I felt a deep love with the elderly women in particular, and I still wonder about those octogenarian women who did not have children of their own, what did they feel toward me when holding my hand? As one said, rushing out from the apartment building in Miami Beach to see me before I took the bus to the airport, “next time, yene velt.” They did not expect to see me again this side of physical death and they wanted a last embrace. How can I explain that?


How do you hold yourself accountable to the people whose words and histories you engage with in your poems? What are the limits of that accountability? When do you choose to tell what you see, rather than what others might wish you would tell about them, or about the Left?

All the people I write “from” are now gone. I fact-check, but it would never occur to me to ask a grandchild or a scholar what he or she thinks about the old-timer I spent time with. It’s my task, my responsibility.


I’m always curious about geography, and its impact on relationships and politics—what is particular to Miami Beach, what community does the land make? Where do you locate your own poetics and your own politics, and why?

We have reached the end of a wonderful, thoughtful dialogue and I am sorry to reach the end. I am now 74, only a decade younger than the Yiddish speaking Jews of Miami Beach in 1980. Miami Beach was a place old New York (and some Chicago) Jews went in the 1960s-80s from distinct left-wing communities resettling themselves for old age.

Neither Greater New York nor Miami Beach are mine. My life has been in the American diaspora, much of it in my own native Midwest, not all of it.


What does your work look like now? What questions do you find yourself asking about the world?

At age 74, I have to ask myself, what kinds of energies do I have and what should I do? Producing historical, nonfiction comics is definitely the most useful, but also an “artistic” expression for a non-artist. Writing about other people’s nonfiction comics, reviewing them, is a pleasure and a duty, in a way. I also write about other worthy books, leaving the unpleasant polemics to other people. I wish I could get that little volume of poetry published! By anyone, really. Those are my aspirations. I also pitch into DSA and admire Bernie Sanders and AOC 5 5 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from a distance. They are two shining stars in my firmament, since I have awaited the rebirth of a popular socialist movement since…I was 15.

MLA STYLE
Clarke, Diana. ““They were unique. They knew it.”: An Interview with Paul Buhle on Field Work, Poetry and the History of the American Left.” In geveb, April 2019: https://ingeveb.org/blog/interview-with-paul-buhle.
CHICAGO STYLE
Clarke, Diana. ““They were unique. They knew it.”: An Interview with Paul Buhle on Field Work, Poetry and the History of the American Left.” In geveb (April 2019): Accessed Jun 25, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Diana Clarke

Diana Clarke is a former managing editor at In geveb, and a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh. They research the intersections of Jewish racialization, trauma, and whiteness in rural America, and are especially interested in discourses of assimilation related to sexuality and gender. Diana is also a 2018 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and their writing and translation has appeared in the Village Voice, Dissent, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today .