How I Write - Conversation Transcript


Renato Rosaldo

This is an utterly remarkable How I Write conversation. As one of the leading cultural anthropologists in the world today, we would expect Renato Rosaldo to be interesting and to offer valuable insights. Professor Rosaldo speaks about his latest project, a book with his wife on “the culture wars,” revealing insights about the collaborative process. But this conversation takes on a unique quality when he discusses how his writing has changed as a result of physical disability.

Several years earlier, Professor Rosaldo had suffered a stroke, and “within a short time, a couple of weeks, poems started coming to me, and I was sitting there and these lines would start coming to me.” He started writing poetry – which he had never done before. “The last thing I expected to do was for poems to start coming to me,” but they did, and in fascinating ways. A right-handed person, he began to write poems with the left hand: “If I write left-handed, things happen that don’t when I write right-handed. . . And sometimes these things will come to me in Spanish and sometimes in English and sometimes both combining.” He explains how he entered the poetry world as an “infant” and unrecognized. No longer lionized the way he was at anthropology conferences, he was anonymous, and he had to learn how to write, particularly how to revise, all over again. He discovered many “bridges” between writing anthropology and poetry, and he coined a term – “anthropoeta” – to describe the way he can move back and forth between the two modes of writing.

Professor Rosaldo’s recovery and the way his writing transformed is incredibly fascinating. But he also discusses other aspects of writing, particularly revision, his struggle to write as an undergraduate, and more. Marvel at the experiences of Renato Rosaldo – he even reads two of his poems. Note, though, that at least at this time, the poems are transcribed from the tape and they may look differently in their final printed form.


Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Renato Rosaldo

HO: My name is Hilton Obenzinger. I’m Associate Director of Undergraduate Research Programs for Honors writing and a lecturer in the English Department. Welcome to How I Write, which is a series of conversations that we’ve been having with faculty and other advanced writers-- journalists, etc., folks on campus staff, etc. – who have experienced various sorts of writing in kind of an advanced way. Now, let me just explain, we have a video camera rolling, not that this is any kind of sophisticated videotaping. It won’t be on “E!” but we’re trying to develop a collection of these conversations to see various different ways that people write and talk about their methods of work, etc. So, collecting these is part of an ongoing research. We don’t see any reason why having these conversations should ever actually come to an end, so you can imagine after some time we’re going to have a stack of people talking in very different ways about how they write. That’s why we have the microphones to make sure it’s recorded, and when we open up the conversation to all of you, we’ll pass this around just so we can make sure that what you say gets down on tape, at least the audio part. You know, really it’s basically—we’ve been talking about how somebody writes—you know, sit down, stand up, pencil, computer—all those things. Content is very important—it always is—but what we’re talking about really a lot is how somebody works, what’s it like, what does it feel like, what happens when you get stuck, what happens when you have a thought, what’s the pleasure—any of those sorts of things.

So today we’re really happy that Renato Rosaldo, a professor of anthropology, is going to talk. What I’ll do is have a conversation, ask him some questions, and then maybe after a little while we’ll open it up and everybody can ask questions of Renato or raise your own concerns or issues about writing, and Renato will answer them. Now, Renato has done a wide range of writing from ethnography: Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History , to very influential work in anthropological theory and cultural studies: Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, other kinds of works, too: “Politics, Patriarchs, and Laughter,” “When Natives Talk Back: Chicano Anthropology Since the Late Sixties.” We’ve talked beforehand and there have been some really interesting changes in your writing in recent years. Why don’t we start with . . . what’s happened?

RR: What happened was September 26, 1996 I suffered a stroke, and within—I’d like to think within a week, but it must have been a little bit longer than that—within a short time, a couple of weeks, poems started coming to me and I was sitting there and these lines would start coming to me. I didn’t know exactly what they were and so what I started doing was I started writing them down because I thought I should do that. And I started doing paintings with every poem that would come to me and I was just loving these things that would come to me, I was cherishing them. And I was hearing from people that not only would I have to do physical therapy, I’d have to do cognitive therapy, and I thought, “Well, a poem, that’s something I’ve never done before.” I had never written poetry before. I’d written a lot of prose with a lot of attention to writing, so I thought of myself as a writer and a teacher, rarely as an administrator, a writer and a teacher. It had occurred to me to try to write a novel or a short story, but I’d never done it because it was too much like writing ethnography, the creative nonfiction I was writing, or whatever you call it. On my 40 th birthday I started painting and drawing. And I remember my first class where they showed us a grapefruit and I drew a circle. But I had loved to draw when I was a kid and so I would just get completely absorbed in this. And so I worked at that for quite some time—since I was 40.

But the last thing I expected to do was for poems to start coming to me. It was not out of my slate of ambitions, it was just something that happened to me. I don’t think I sort of said set out to always want to write that artificial stuff nobody could understand. I never thought that. So, as I began healing my fantasy was that I would write a book of poems called “Healing Songs.” Because I saw the poetry as healing, deeply healing for me, and it was just brightening my day. Even now I think I’ve become addicted to writing poetry. And what I’ve found is I can’t stop, and when I don't write, my day is grayer. I wouldn’t say the old functionalists in anthropology said, “If you don’t do it, the whole machine will break down”: the world just gets grayer, it just gets grayer. And I like poems because—for two reasons: One is that they’re short, so in half an hour, an hour, you can actually do something, whereas writing a long technical article, in half an hour you have your footnotes. You think, “Whoa, I’ve still got a long ways to go.” You want a longer span of time, but I actually like to have a longer span of time and work on a poem, but I feel like I can do something in a shorter span.

In that healing process at a certain point I discovered that the poems were really shitty, and that was part of my healing. I realized, “Oh my God.” But I had already done so much writing in my life and thought of myself as very much a writer and a teacher that I said, “Aha! I’ve got to rewrite.” Because I think the main thing I’ve learned about writing is how to rewrite. You know, my first drafts are still shitty. And of course, as you all know, I’m quoting from Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird, and I found her concept of the shitty first draft was extremely helpful to me. And it gave me great encouragement, because that’s the way it always is, and so too with poems. At that point I said, “I need help. I don’t know how to rewrite a poem.” I can rewrite prose. I’ve worked at it for a long time, but I don’t know how to even begin rewriting a poem. And I really was very fortunate because I was searching and I actually found what I was looking for. There was a reading at a church around the corner from our house and I went there and I saw the poets reading, I heard them reading, then I asked them, “Well, you guys must gather somewhere.” And yes, they told me about Waverly Writers. And there are a number of Waverly Writers here, as well as graduate students from cultural and social anthropology and other folks, but I said, “Well, how do I get there?” and they told me how to get there, and then I lined up somebody to be my poetry tutor because I figured I wouldn’t try to play the violin without a teacher and I thought it seemed like new terrain, so I knew I needed help. And then I eventually got into workshop groups and other kinds of activities, but it was going to the Waverly Writers every month and hearing the poets read, and comparing what they were reading to my stuff, and saying, “Well, I’d better try again.” And it was interesting because I was like a veteran cultural anthropologist and an infant poet; a kind of helpless infant. Knowing that I needed help was a very strange feeling. One place where it came home to me was I went to a reading of some well-known poets, and I went in the room and I realized I could walk freely in the room. And I realized, “I’m in a place where I’m a complete nobody. This is terrific! Look at how easy it is to walk around!” And if I’d go to the anthropology meetings it was just very hard to get from one room to another. It made me wonder how a centipede walks.

HO: Now, when you did the revisions, when you got into doing them, was it a healing process from that as well?

RR: Yes, it was very much a healing process. Actually, I think of it as puttering. And I do that with my regular prose writing as well. I’ll just sit there and tinker and then get it to sound right or look right, and then the next day it looks a little muddy and so I try to do it again. And just returning over and over, but I think for that kind of writing—and maybe all writing—that it really is its own reward. I mean, just saying it right, getting it right, I find it very hard to separate what I’m feeling or thinking from how I’m saying it. But I think that getting it expressed right is really the same thing as doing conceptual work of another kind. The rewriting takes my full attention and transports me someplace else, that somehow or another is very rewarding. And it’s a good thing in poetry because there’s no money in poetry, I don’t know if anyone’s told you this. You notice poets don’t have agents; it’s very hard to get published in poetry. You know, in cultural anthropology, we declare a crisis when a journal only accepts one article in four; in the poetry magazines, they get 40,000 submissions and accept 40. Some will say, “We accept between one and five percent of unsolicited admissions.” It’s a very different kind of world out there. But I think it’s very much its own reward. And I do think it’s very crucial to have a community of writers like Waverly Writers and other groups. I don’t see, whatever kind of writing someone is doing, how you can do it in isolation. It’s just too hard. You need the feedback from other people and you need a sense that there is a larger group project.

HO: There is a whole project of cultural anthropology and poetry in a society that publicly doesn’t value it very much, and yet, it’s a tremendous mass of knowledge. A lot of people love poetry.

RR: I am amazed because if you said, “Where did those 40,000 submissions come from if there’s no money in it?” And there’s all this stuff about material incentives, and it seems to go quite contrary to that, and it’s like a massive underground world. I hear people in the university say, “Nobody’s doing poetry, nobody values literature, nobody values art,” and I just have no idea what you’re talking about, I just have no idea because I see so many people doing this kind of work with very little visibility. And at least in public, there are groups that are visible to themselves and have ways of congregating, ways of getting together. But I think somehow or another it doesn’t enter the English department or something, not that I want to pick on the English department. I guess the English department’s a – what do you call it? – a big boy and can take care of itself.


A: A big girl.


RR: It’s a big girl....I didn’t know it was that big, but...

HO: There are some people who have been studying poetry as a phenomenon and reading poetry and—but, you know, it’s true, there are these distinctions being made. But, when you’re writing there are certain things that you’re writing about? Or does it range across the entire—just something comes to you? And also, you told me that sometimes you write in Spanish or English or both at the same time. How does that happen?

RR: Somebody asked me once, “Where do poems come from?” I said, “I don’t know, but they do kind of come.” And often what comes is an image or a line, and I start working from there. I’ve gotten more patient with myself, I’m much more willing to write something that I know is not a poem, and then working after that. The last thing that I did really surprised me because I sit in an armchair in my study and I sit there because I kind of “go someplace else” when I sit there. It’s actually the armchair I sit in when trying to get some ideas for a paper in anthropology as well . . . they come to me. Last one I wrote—and I often do this—I wrote it left-handed, and I’m right-handed, so it’s sometimes a little hard to decipher. And I started doing this shortly after my stroke because it was my left side that was affected. And so I would write with my left hand because the physical therapist said, “You know we have all these things that we have you do, but you should do something that you love doing and use your left hand for fine motor coordination.” So I started doing that, and I realized that if I write left-handed, things happen that don’t when I write right-handed. So I write left-handed like that. And sometimes these things will come to me in Spanish and sometimes in English and sometimes both combining. And, I don’t know, I sometimes in shorthand like to think that it’s soul-speaking and I like to get into a kind of state where that’s happening. Now I know that’s very hard to demonstrate. Nonetheless, that’s what I feel. I often feel that when I’m trying to get an idea for a paper in Anthropology. Someone will say to me, “Why don’t you write something on this?” and I’ll say. “I’ll call you back in a couple of days,” and if something occurs to me that I can jot down and a series of other things occurs to me, then I’ll say—I call them back—and say, “Yes, oh yes, I’ll write the paper” and if nothing like that happens I’ll say, “Forget it, I can’t do it. I’m sorry, I’m ‘overcommitted’” or some jargon. I don’t know how you can be overcommitted. I think it means like too many things to do. That, I know how it happens, but. . .

HO: There’s a continuum. I mean, poetry is not so very different.

RR: From what?

HO: From other kinds of writing.

RR: No, I don’t think so.

HO: Well, a lot of people do think that there’s a big difference.

RR: I think there’s a thing, people even speak of a thing called “poetic language” as if it were another form of speech; I’m not so convinced of that. I think there is something about condensing, there is something about the way the language reaches and can play, but I don’t think that it’s another language. And I actually, you know, compared to ethnography, ethnography is like doing cultural anthropology, and I think that the trick in it—for me, at least—is to think with examples. And there is a way of writing where you have a set of theoretical, abstract ideas, and then you illustrate them with ethnographic examples: Among the “Booga-Booga” they do it like this – whatever the “it” is – and that illustrates matrilineal cross-cousin marriage, you see how it works, never mind what matrilineal cross-cousin marriage is. We get paid for talking like that. It’s a good thing I have a day job. But I think that the real technique in ethnography is to use examples to challenge your own ideas. And so that what you do is you get a really good example that you don’t quite understand. And then you’re grappling with the idea and that should produce new ways of theorizing, new ways of thinking about how something works. So that it has not merely illustrated what you already thought, but it’s pushing you to think in new ways.

And I think in a poem I realized fairly early on – I am not a heavy conclusions-writer, and I’ve even spoken sort of mockingly of detachable conclusions in anthropology – I discovered in poetry that you don’t have a conclusion. So this is what I’ve been saying, right? You don’t do this. It’s not like the mythic journalism: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them. I think the general idea is that if the reader hasn’t gotten it already it’s too late, so you don’t need a conclusion. But I think that otherwise it is a very similar process of thinking in terms of very concrete images, examples, cases, rather than moving along an abstract wavelength of thought. In that sense, to me, it’s very similar to doing ethnography, to doing cultural anthropology. So I see it as a more condensed way of doing that, and one where the subject matter is more open. You can think about almost any kind of thing as being the subject for a poem, and you jump right into the heart of the matter. In an academic paper you need a lot of prologue, review of the literature, who said this, they said that, here’s where I stand, here’s my contribution. In a poem you just go “wham!” and you’re right in the middle, and then you’re trying to think through that kind of example, or feel your way through it, often it’s feeling your way through it. And I find in writing of whatever kind, that for me it’s a process of discovery. Going into it I have one image and I don’t know where it’s going to go, and it’s writing and rewriting that I’m discovering what my understanding of something is. And I think in a poem, but also in cultural anthropology, I think if you’re doing anthropology, while you are describing some place where you assume your reader has never been or hasn’t lived for a long time, one of the things you are trying to do is make that present so that it becomes compelling and gripping for your reader. A common mistake in anthropology, I believe, is to say, “People are in the grip of this ideology,” and then you read about the ideology and you say, “That’s not gripping.” That’s a mistake, I think. If you are going to write about an ideology that has everybody in its grip, you should write about it in such a way that people can say, “Oh yeah, I can imagine getting caught up in that” or “I feel caught up in it as I read it.” And I think that’s what a poem should do; it should reach a person at that level, so it should make the phenomenon, whatever it is, whether it’s an inner state or something in the world, it should make it present in such a way that it’s as gripping as it actually is. I don’t know about a poem about tedium or the sociology of boredom or something like that.

HO: Except that it wouldn’t be a boring poem. Or you could think of writing a poem called “Literature Review.” You know, I got really interested in the fact that you sit in the same easy chair.

RR: Yeah, I have a place that I like to go.

HO: Yeah, and, in a lot of respects, what you describe of the discoveries that you have felt about writing poetry are very much applicable to other types of writing, like writing ethnography, or cultural anthropology. There’s something to learn the other way – the brain experiences poetry. For example, you talk about the healing process – first draft, revisions, etc. – do you ever get that moment where it goes “ping!”

RR: And you say it’s done?

HO: Well, not when you say it’s done, but it’s like . . . it’s right. It feels like all of a sudden it’s connected.

RR: Yes, I do get that feeling, but sometimes the next day I go back and change it


HO: Okay, well, I didn’t say it was true, but you get this marvelous pleasure.

RR: Yes, mega-click, right? No, I putter with those little critters for a long time and just get utterly absorbed in them. I’ve done that with a lot of the writing in anthropology. The one thing that I’ve learned through all the writing in anthropology, which I still continue to do, as well as the writing in poetry, is that you have to sit down and write. There’s no way around it but to do it. And that it is a process that just takes some time and patience and attention. There’s a kind of attention that it really takes to get it up to another level. And I certainly have found cases where I thought I had a finished anthropology paper and looked at it 6 months later and dismantled and rebuilt it, reconstructed it, said, “There’s a place where it can go deeper” or “There seems to be some mistake in here and I can’t get it right” or even in a poem to change the diction of it, so that it may be fairly formal and the makeup really casual and informal, just to take something apart and put it back together. That’s hard work. That’s hard because you’re in a certain mold and you have to break out of it.

HO: And sometimes putting it away for 6 months will do it.

RR: That’ll do it. Yeah, that’s the experience of “this is really bad!” You put it away 6 months and then you can see where you think it doesn’t work at that point. Although you can also have friends sit there and critique it. That’s another way you can do it is to get comments from somebody who you trust. You trust that they are not out to do you in. And, of course, a good way to establish that trust is to practice in poetry. It is strange for me, because I can’t help but be doing the ethnography of poetry groups. It’s an occupational disease, for which I apologize a great deal. But all these things are new to me. But what you do in a poetry workshop is – say there are 8 of you there, so you bring 8 copies of your poem, you give it to everybody in the group. There are several ways to do it, that I’ve noticed, experienced, and I’m sure there are more than I’ve experienced. As I say, I used to be an infant, just kind of helpless in a crib, and now I’m a toddler, you know, that drunken sailor walk, so I’m a toddler, so I’m paying a lot of attention to things. So in the workshop often you’ll read a poem, and somebody else may read it, it can be just one reading or two, and then people begin to comment. And one of the things that will establish a little bit of trust as a mechanism right off is, you know, if somebody savages you, your turn is coming. You can get them back. Somehow that helps with the trust. I think another thing that helps with the trust is that people have been working together for a long time. And I think that that factor is more important than the first. But the first is a formal mechanism that I’ve seen work when a group of poets get together who have never met each other. And I think that is just a mechanism for making sure that it’s fairly even-handed. My experience in anthropology is that I’ve never seen anything like that and I think it’s because we tend to be so long-winded in cultural anthropology. So you’ve got a 30 page article compared to a 6-line poem. It’s kind of hard to have somebody read it aloud, and get comments and feedback. And the way that that works is that it tends to be much more one-on-one. Sometimes people will read the whole article and you can get a strong group to do it, but you can’t go around the circle with each one doing their article in one sitting. I think the intent is quite similar and the need is quite similar. In both cases you are trying to communicate something to somebody. Every now and then I read poetry where I wonder, “Is that what they’re really doing? Are they trying to communicate something to somebody?” But, for the most part, poetry is, and with most poetry I read it’s recognizably so. I dare say there’s a fair bit of academic writing where I sometimes wonder if they’re trying to communicate something to somebody, and you can find many examples of that as well, but I think that’s some of the similarities and differences in how that works.

HO: Before we go much further you’re going to have to read a poem.

RR: I’m going to have to read a poem....Okay, Jackie asked me to read a poem. I haven’t been too clear about whether I should read some light ones or heavy ones, so I’m going to read a light one. Maybe I’ll read a second light one. This one is called “Walking” and I think it happened when I was up at a poetry workshop for a week in Squaw Valley . What happened was you’re supposed to write a poem a day. And I got there in the late afternoon and after dinner was told, “Well, you have to have a poem by 7 AM tomorrow.” And I said, “Oh, what am I going to write about?” And then I started writing about what was just happening to me there and then I just kind of moved on. And all of this happened to me, as often in writing, as I was walking back from the lodge to the place where I was staying. So often things happen to me like that, ideas will come to me, or I’ll find a poem as I’m walking. So the poem is called “Walking.”

I’m walking in Squaw Valley when a woman asks
Is this the original Olympic ski lodge?
Ten steps later
A man asks
If I work here.

Maybe that woman meant I looked Mexican, cleaned the ski lodge,
And knew its past.
I keep walking, and remember
That my dinner companions asked me
Where I was from.
Their silence told me Palo Alto ,
Where I live,
The place I drove from,
Was not the answer.
In Mexico they say
You are not from here
But can’t quite place my speech or my skin.

I keep walking
And remember
The day a dean said a fellow teacher
Did it on his own
No favors.
He never said what he meant
That I deserved nothing of what I have
A gift given for a tinge of accent
And a splash of color.
I am blessed with privilege.


Can I read one more? I’ll read one more. I’ll read one called “Short Straws.” The last one was a bit about how racism works in upper middle class society, right? We call it bourgeois racism, but we don’t call poems that, right? So much more subtle than that. This poem is about when I was a teenager, and I actually had the privilege of reading it among a group of graduates from Tucson High School, where I went to high school, so they were people who knew me way back then when I was at Tucson High School. So it was actually a remarkable experience and put me into a state of panic because I said, “Oh, what if I’ve lied; these people will know; they were there back then and they remember what it was like, maybe they’ll say that I got it all wrong, that it wasn’t that way at all.” So, anyway, this poem is called “Short Straws”:

Our ‘49 Chevy yawned and looped through the night.
We picked up guys at seven scattered houses.
Under a Tucson mountain in Barrio Hollywood we joined a '41 Plymouth
Kept cruising.
The kids still remember us,
Pachucos, cool.
An Anglo girl invited us to crash her party,
Barged right in,
We provoked a fight, then ran.
We hit on a name: The Chasers.
They thought it was one car drag racing another:
But we meant chasing girls.
We added a jacket, gray with crimson letters
Embroidered around a martini glass
Green olive, a toothpick, and bursting pink bubbles.
Our club needed an initiation rite.
Four of us drew short straws,
Became the initiates.
Eight drew long straws, dressed us in burlap bags
Bathed our heads in Burma shave
And escorted us to a night baseball game.
The girls taunted, and followed us to Johnny’s.
We squeezed into a booth, put a quarter in the jukebox.
The guys in charge barked orders:
Dance the stroll
Right past the cash register
Past the cop
And out the door.
They threw eggs that smashed like rocks
We jumped a high fence
And ran through suados to the canyon
Dove into cold water.
We drank one beer each: “Are you high yet?”
Then a fight: four against eight.

That was once called “Fighting Boredom.” And it was mainly because there were sort of heroic versions of the pachuco around as a figure of resistance, and I kind of thought we were just hanging out, fighting boredom, trying to cope with being in Tucson .

HO: We’re going to come back to poetry because I think it’s probably inevitable. You know, you’re also engaged in another project right now that’s interesting, that’s not poetry, a collaborative project. You want to talk about that a little?

RR: Let me say about collaborative projects: I think all writing is collaborative, that you’re writing for an audience and getting feedback; I don't believe in the lone writer like the Lone Ranger, even the Lone Ranger had a sidekick.

HO: He had to get those bullets from someone.

RR: Yes, I did participate in one other collaborative project, but I’ve certainly thought poetry is collaborative, and I’ve been really blessed to be in the Waverly Writers, participating there, it’s made all the difference. And I don’t know how I could do it in isolation. Similar with cultural anthropology, I’ve always thought of it as the product of a larger community.

There was a project that I was working on for many years, and still am some, called the “cultural citizens project,” and we did it out of San Jose . And it was actually hugely collaborative, because we started cooking up this idea of cultural citizenship, which I’ll describe in two words, and basically the idea is what gives a sense of belonging, or having voice, or getting heard, or feeling enfranchised, to people who are marginalized or subordinated—how does that happen, how does that process happen? And, above all, how do the people who are marginalized or subordinated understand their own enfranchisement? So, in other words, it is asking them to be not the objects of analysis, but the analyzing subjects. How do they understand their own condition? What’s their analysis? And we were actually doing it in collaboration with a research center at Queens , the Centro por Estudios Puertorriquenos, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, a center in Austin Texas and one in Los Angeles . So we were coordinating four research groups and we did this by spending a week together, talking in the summer, about what we were doing, and whether or not this concept was actually flexible and broad enough to serve to give focus to each of the four groups. So it was a broad collaboration between four centers, and then here there was a whole group of us working, we had undergraduates and graduates and a number of people on the faculty, so that was a large collaborative project. And long term: we started in—I think it was ‘84—, so we did it 15 or 20 years. So it wasn’t just a one time thing at all.

Now the collaborative project I am doing is with my partner, Mary Louise Pratt, and we’re writing a book that has a working title. I think it’s very important to have a working title; that means it changes. But anyway, we have a working title. It’s kind of like in writing it’s very important—by analogy with playing tennis, you keep your eye on the ball— keep your eye on your subject. And so we call this book In This Together: Lasting Lessons from the Culture Wars. It has a nice ring to it, for an academic title. We’re trying to think about how to think about multiculturalism now. And we’re not even using the word because it’s become so beat up on. I personally would’ve thought we should’ve got into a fight and kept using the word and said, “Well, you’re using it in this sense, we’re using it in this sense,” there’s an argument going on, but it didn’t happen. And we’re trying to write for this imaginary popular reader, common reader. That’s really tough because we don’t know who that is. I work much better if I actually have a reader there that reads and comments and says, “I get this, I don’t get this.” And we’re trying to think about things like privilege. How does privilege work? When you’re inside it you don’t know it. Because it’s so comfortable to be inside privilege, right? We’re always sometimes inside privilege and sometimes outside of it, I would say. But it is something that doesn’t work from self-criticism; it takes a kind of dialogic criticism, somebody who’s outside it saying, “I bump against this privilege that you don’t even notice because I’m outside of it, so I bump against it.” I remember a case where I was giving a class over at the Law School and reading a book on the difficulties of analyzing ideology, and somebody said, “It’s really tough because a lot of it is implicit in the culture.” The example that we came up with in the class was the idea of beauty. And the class went around and said, “Gee, you know, that’s a tough one.” It’s hard to know what that is, right? What’s beauty? What’s a beautiful person? There are so many opinions. A hand goes up: “I know what beauty means. It means hair straight, not like mine; lips thin, not like mine; eyes blue, not like mine.” From that point of view, outside of the conventional ideas of beauty saying “It is clear why I am shut out.” What we are trying to do in the book are two things: One thing is that we’re trying to bring it down, like a poem, like an ethnography, to a set of examples that will bring it home and maybe even make a deeper exploration of the kinds of phenomena we are trying to understand. So you would give an example like the one I just gave and then say, “What’s it all about?” And it gets very hard to string together examples and keep an argument going. Do you need a longer story? And writing problems are problems at that level. We’re trying to make it very concrete and kind of practical and as part of everyday life. And not then just go on for a long meander. And not have people say, “Wait, what’s this about? Where is it going? What’s the plot? What’s the argument?” So we’re wrestling with that a lot right now. And even just trying to think, “Do we need a longer story? Do we need a story with a plot? How are we going to do this? A longer case study?” The other big writing problem has been—should’ve been the first question we thought of—what's it going to do to our relationship?

HO: I was gonna ask that. It’s a very bold move.

RR: So I thought I’d better take it. We've been learning a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff. One thing is that Mary and I write very differently. She writes much more from an outline, she has a better idea of where she’s going. I have much less of an idea of where I am going. Often I have a set of examples, or cases, or illustrations, or whatever you want to call them – concrete particulars – but I don’t know where I am going. So we’ve said, “What are we going to do about this?” So if I just go boom, and I write an example, and there’s a draft, Mary says, “What’s this about?” and I say, “Well, I don't know yet. I’ll figure it out as I work with the example I’m using or the story that I’ve told. I’m sure this is the right story, I just don’t know what it’s about yet.” And then Mary says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...” and her teeth start to grind. Her things come out much clearer, they’re much more lucid. She’s working from an outline, and that’s an amazing idea to me. And there are examples that come to my mind...we really have a very different writing process. We now have kind of stroked each other and convinced each other that we’ll get there eventually. And we’ve learned a secret, which is that I don’t show her the first draft. There’s too much flack. You may think this is highly sophisticated. It’s not, it’s just group survival. Just trying to hang in there.

HO: Do you alternate chapters or....?

RR: Oh yes, that level...

HO: Some people actually sit down and do it sentence by sentence together.

RR: We don’t go sentence by sentence. The trouble is we can be too blunt with each other, too candid, right? You know if it were some distant colleague there would be so much etiquette in the way that we probably would never blurt out how we were feeling about this first draft. We’ve done it a number of ways. One way is there are two chapters where we just said, “You take it; I’ll take it.” In other words, I’m doing one on citizenship because I’ve been working on that. She’s doing one on language that’s absolutely amazing, about the United States . In the 19 th century in this country in a public school you could teach in German, the whole school could be run in German. It’s amazing. I didn’t know that. Shows how little us cultural anthropologists, trapped in the present, know about the 19 th century. But anyway, it was quite remarkable, given all the “English only” and the set of assumptions that seem to have been there forever and then you realize that, in fact, it was really quite different not all that long ago. So she did the language chapter. The other chapters, the way we’ve been doing them is sitting down and brainstorming. It’s just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. You know how professors are: we get paid by the word, right? And then we sort of take notes and say, “Well, you take this part and I’ll take that part.” And then we kind of do a draft and then write over each other. And so it’s not sentence by sentence. I don’t think I could do that. But you can write over what the other person has written. It’s a little easier, like to see where there are no connectives. I have trouble with transitions from one thing to another. Part of my problem is that I kind of have to wallow in the stuff before I can figure out what it’s about and why one thing’s connected to the other. Even when it’s obvious to me that they are. But I just can’t—it takes me a while to immerse in it to make the connections. But it’s easier for another person to do.

HO: So, do you recognize what you get back after, say, she revises what you worked on?

RR: Yeah.

HO: You recognize it?

RR: Oh yeah.

HO: It hasn’t drifted off into another realm?

RR: No, no it hasn’t. Actually, I would say the most serious problem was showing a first draft. That was the biggest stumbling block, and then learning that I had to go through a few drafts myself before I could show it. The flack from that first draft was so great that it just kind of made the whole thing collapse.

HO: I’ve worked sentence by sentence; usually, I am a more facile writer and the other person is more facile with ideas with what we’re working on. So, they’re struggling with the idea and I say, “Well, how does this sound?” “Eh, no, no.” “Well, okay let’s. . .” And it’s just that kind of collaboration, sentence by sentence, but it’s not like both of us wrestling over the clause that gets in there. Well, you know, I have actually tons of questions, but I have no idea what the time is. Does anyone?

RR: Eight.

HO: Eight. Let’s open it up, though. I mean, I wanted to ask about writing block, and how you started writing, and your experience as an undergraduate. . .

RR: Let me say a word about my experience as an undergraduate, and then let’s open it up. I should say about writing that—I graduated from Tucson High School in 1959, and then went in the fall of ‘59 to Harvard, where I was a freshman, right? I had the bends for three years. At that time, that was not a common path; there were not a lot of us from Tucson . And I wasn’t quite prepared, and so I took an English composition class—not because I wanted to, but because I had to; it was required. And I kind of thought it was a good idea; I thought I needed a little help in composition. The first assignment was an essay; they said write an essay about a good man. So I wrote a short story about a good man and turned it in, and got something back in red ink saying “Come see me.” And I walked into this instructor’s office, and she was from Oxford , England , and she looks at me and says to me, “Are you good at math?” Just like in the case of poetry, I realized I needed help. And so then I immediately went to—there was a center, my roommate called it the remedial reading program—this was not easy, let me tell you. I think I’ve already told you. I guess it’s like the poem: if they haven’t gotten it already. . .

HO: Right.

RR: This was really tough, but I really had to do it, and so I got a tutor in writing. And one of the good things about it is that I learned to write very self-consciously; and fairly far along in the game. And I think that’s been a great help in teaching, because it makes it easier for me to pick up on what somebody’s doing or if there’s some kind of writing problem, and give suggestions for what they might do about it. So, all I’m saying is, I worked really hard at it. I really wanted to write, I wanted to write well; I liked writing, I just didn't know what an essay was. They skipped that chapter at Tucson high school. Or maybe I skipped it.

HO: You might have skipped Tucson High School .

RR: Maybe I did, maybe I did – too busy chasing. So, anyway, I’d love to hear any questions.

HO: Okay, if you have anything to ask, please pass this around. I guess I’m hooked up, so is it running out now?

A: No, it hasn’t, it’s just recording. I was just wondering if it will beep or. . .

HO: No, it will say on the screen “one minute left” and then it will start smoking.

A: I’m wondering if the style of writing that you do for anthropology is complementary or do you have to switch gears? How do you manage two completely different styles of writing?

RR: You mean the anthropology and the poetry? I have different chairs. I sit in different chairs, I think.

HO: The actual writing chairs?

RR: No, I actually sit in a chair to write. I write all the poems longhand first, often left-handed, as I’ve said. When I’m revising I don’t—I’m doing it right-handed, but just to get the first draft out there. And I actually work on two different computers. I have a laptop that I do all the poems on. I don’t know if that is necessary. It seems to me like a fetishization, it’s a fetish, but I think it is a little helpful, even it’s in the same room, I mean, just have two—a little separation of space is helpful. And I find that there is some feedback back and forth between the two kinds of writing that is very productive for me, so that I’ll notice that if I’m doing an academic paper I sometimes do put some effect of poem, but I just write it out as prose, and it’s to make a certain moment especially vivid and compact and trying to make it reach somebody in a special way, so I think I know how to do more things with words than I did. And so I feel like it gives me a lot—it’s almost like practicing singing a lot and having more notes, you know, a greater range in what you can do, and I find it extremely helpful. I coined a term “anthropoeta,” and it suggests that I can move back and forth between the two in ways that, to me, are really productive. In poetry, I’ve often, in trying to convey things about experiences in the Philippines doing field research or different things like that, and I feel that the problems of writing and communication are fairly similar. There is—I mean—having said all that about all the bridges and all the similarities, I’ve found I’ve been working really hard to figure out how to write poetry, and how to hear poetry and listen to it, and I love what the workshop groups do—it’s very different from the way I was trained in poetry as an undergraduate. That is, that I was trained in poetry in Spain, of all things, so I know that tradition quite well, but I—I don’t know, I think that in the poetry workshops you’re actually thinking about how to make a poem better and it’s a very different kind of process of understanding. You’re seeing something that can be moved around, and I get the impression that sometimes in formal literary training, that you’re treating it as a kind of sacred object that is perfect; and it is nice to have a sense for “what would happen if this were changed, or this stanza were some place else, or you rephrased this.” It is a more active way of reading it, and there is less of a sacred aura, and more of a sense of it being something in motion that’s changeable. But I really worked very, very hard trying to figure out how to write a poem, or how to write different kinds of poems. I’m constantly—once I figure out that I know how to write this kind of poem, then I’m trying to write another kind. I’m always trying to stretch and do something I haven’t done. I do that in my anthropological writing as well, you know, so I wrote this history, kind of, oral history of a group of people, a hill tribe in the Philippines, and I’m trying to write a theory book, or an effort to theorize the study of particular cases. So, in other words, I wanna say there are both bridges and some sharp differences. If I took just my plain old anthropology writing, they’d be pretty sorry poems.

HO: You might actually get to a point—some writers will write a piece that will go back and forth between prose and poetry, and different modes of thinking.

RR: I might well do that.

HO: In the anthropology world it might shake things up a little bit.

RR: What is the poetic form for another society, a completely different culture? Of course, it is a classic anthropological problem. Or you wanna say, some place else, what is marriage? Maybe they’re marrying ghosts, or you have to marry your sister if you’re Hawaiian royalty, whatever. It’s obviously quite different with poetry, it’s really quite challenging, thinking about what is the poetry analog in another culture where they don’t even have a word called “poetry.” And I think a lot of Shelley Rosaldo’s book—she and I were married—she wrote a book called Knowledge and Passion about the Ilongots. And a lot of what she was trying to do was figure out what was poetic in their language. How did metaphor, how did simile work in the language? That was a chunk of the book. And, you know, it’s a really kind of compelling and important problem, because I think anytime that poets, including all that I know, are seeking out other traditions of poetry, it’s a stretch. And they say, “Geez, could we steal that? Let’s steal it.” I always say for anthropologists, if you see something that works, that’s a way of understanding human conduct, steal it. If you see a way of understanding some phenomenon that matters in a novel, steal it. Try to figure out how to in that novel. If it’s in a poem, fine, if it’s a song, if it’s a piece of journalism, wherever it is that you see something is working really well, and is working really well, then it’s something that ought to be appropriated. It’s obviously important to understanding the phenomenon we’re trying to come to terms with. And I think that in the case of poets and poetry, poets writing in other languages, the whole idea is a stretch to find some good idea that wouldn’t have occurred to us just introspecting, just working with the English language tradition. Look at a Philippine hill tribe and see how they do something that they see as a beautiful form of speech, or a deep form of speech—deep is actually the word I would use there, this is “deep speech.” Then say, “Well, is there something we could draw on?” So I think there’s that kind of stretch.

A: I wonder if I could ask you a practical question? You talked about examples, using examples as evidence in your poetry and your academic writing, and you are an academic who works in a field that is full of evidence, and description. It is your job to get that across to someone, to evoke something. So I’m just curious, maybe it’s an unanswerable question, but maybe you could talk around the subject of examples. What are bad examples and good examples, and what works and what doesn’t work, because that seems to be a critical thing in all writing.

RR: That’s really the crux of it. I think in all writing, in poetry and ethnography, what's an example that works and doesn’t. And, you know, there’s no algorithm for it. I can’t think of a set of rules for it. Although, the crook that Hilton was trying to mold me into, that when the poem is perfect or the article is perfect, it goes click. I have that click experience more often in reading than in writing; it’s a little slower to happen in my own work. But I do have that sense about examples; and it is almost like it works or it doesn’t. It is very hard to tell what the criteria are, but I think that some of the criteria would have to do with what is the central subject? Does this get it across? Part of the problem with there being a simple answer to the question, and you did invite me to talk around it, is that it depends on what it is an example of, or what you think the purpose of the example is. So is it to bring home the force of the phenomenon? Well then the example needs to be somewhat different. And maybe even, it’s how the example is told as much as what the example actually is. But a lot of times it would be an example where you’d say, “We heard about what happened at ground zero, and then someone who came back from there told us about the stench of rotting flesh there.” And suddenly you realize the magnitude of what’s happening. So then there may be something like that that suddenly convinces you of the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Then there’s the kind of thing of “how something works.” How does it work? How does it work, for example? I don’t have an example for this, but I know what the problem would be, the kind of example I’ve been searching for: How can it possibly be the case that every major university in the country, when it makes a tenure decision decides that the person they’re giving tenure is the best person in their field? This could not conceivably be true. So how do they keep inventing that way of thinking about what they’re doing? Are there true believers? Are there people who truly believe this or are there people like myself who are more skeptical and say, “Well, this is the rhetoric we use”— you know, kind of the agnostics, the true believers, the other skeptics who say it doesn’t mean anything? And what I would be searching for there would be examples or cases that would illustrate each of those types of things to bring it home—and presumably what would happen, if what I have been saying earlier is true, is that I would change my understanding of how that works if I had a really good example. A good example for me would not only show you how that rhetoric can be perpetuated, but also would change my understanding of how it works. It would give me a different understanding as I came out than the one I got when I went in. And I think there should be really complex discussions about examples. I think that if we reduce them all to examples of the same thing then we get in trouble. Another kind of example would be, “What’s at stake?” And sometimes I try to convince people, for example, when they write they should be making an argument. And one way to think of it is imagine yourself—as we all have been, no doubt—a teenager, trying to convince your parents to let you use the car tonight. And so then one of the first things you need to establish is what’s at stake: “Dad, I’m gonna die if I don’t have the car. What am I gonna do tonight? You don’t have any idea of what this means to me.” Anyway, some way of saying what’s at stake. And then the example would be to convince somebody that this really matters.

A: You make it matter to them, not to you, because if you say to your father, “If I don't get the car, you’re going to die,” then you’ll get the car – or get arrested.

RR: Well, it depends on your assumption about how much you matter to your father.

HO: Somebody back there had a question.

A: I had a question. Can you hear me?

RR: I can hear you.

A: Okay, this is about anthropological writing: how have you found that your writing has matured since the dissertation stage, i.e. as you go back and look at your dissertation, or your earlier writings. What ways have you found things that work for you now that maybe weren’t working then.

RR: How has my writing matured? I’m not sure that it has, I’m not even sure that I am aiming for maturity, but let’s say that I am. How has it deepened, I’ll take that? And I think that’s what you have in mind. One way, of course, is that I have learned much more about rewriting, and I’ve tried to think of the examples a lot. I have tried to combine—you know I’ve tried in the ways that I’ve been talking about with these examples to sort of think a lot about what it is to theorize concretely, in terms of concrete particulars. And I think that it’s hard to spell it out, but I think that my work can bear more rewritings. It used to be that at the time I was writing my dissertation, and I would rewrite, less would happen, and in fact I would start getting bored because I didn’t know what to do for the rewritings. And now as I rewrite there’s still a lot happening, so I don’t get bored, I’m still very engaged with it; and I just think that’s part of the experience. And I think that’s actually the thing with the poem—you know, I’ve worked on poems two years, three years—and over that long a period I’m not working 24 hours a day with it for three years, I obviously don’t mean that, but I can just keep changing it and hope that it’s getting better. So my arguments are more theorized, I am thinking more about the argument. Is that kind of what you were asking?

A: And also what mistakes were you making?

RR: What mistakes was I making?

HO: With your dissertation...

RR: My dissertation was just cram-packed with mistakes. Actually, it was. My dissertation was a structural analysis—it was called the Ilongot Social Structure—of a hill tribe in the Philippines . And it was a study of a social structure. And one of the remarkable things was that I had tried in the first two years of field work, living there, I was trying to get a chronology, and trying to write a history. What I found going back there for another year, for a third year was that I’d finally gotten it; it took that long to get the chronology to work out. It was very hard because people didn’t think in terms of years, but in terms of place names, and places where they lived. And so I was working then, after the second field work, with more of a sense of historical process and change through time, and less with a static social structure. And there were some cases where—as I think is kind of rare in this work—I realized I was just completely wrong. For example, I found cases where people—what I’d noticed was, and my process of reasoning was that marriages tended to be stable and to last a long time. Then I noticed there were a few divorces and I said, “Ah, no wonder people stay married; they don’t get married, somebody threatens them, threatens their lives.” And I said, “Oh wow, what a sanction. That’s what keeps marriages lasting so long.” If someone were threatening the lives of the people in California , you wouldn't have these one-year marriages. Then I discovered doing the historical analysis, I put together all the cases of divorce, and what I realized was they clustered in three different years. And I said “Whoa, this is strange.” Then what I realized was that feuds had erupted at that time and that's what all the threatened killings were about, it was feuds. And the reasons divorces happened was that they were put in two groups that then started feuding. And so I had it all upside down—it should have started with the feuds, and then seen the divorces, and I had the divorces as a kind of separate phenomenon. So I think that’s a place where—there were other examples I could give where, just by changing the way I’d seen it, I suddenly realized that there were some true mistakes, true mistakes that I had there, and that’s a kind of difficult thing to achieve, that level of understanding. And I think that the last thing on it was that I had known when I was writing the social structural analysis that I was making a terrible mistake, that I was doing violence in my sense of how the society worked because I had thought that the people were kind of like hippies who were improvising all the time, making it up as they went along; but the social structural analysis was exactly the opposite of the way they worked. So I think that the other way of seeing it much more is as a process, so it seemed to me to be much truer than what I had seen of their lives and how they lived them. But it took a long time to get so I could do that. Oh, and I did have a conviction that I suddenly had a deeper understanding of the society, and then I said, “Will this translate into what I write?” And it did, but I really wasn't so sure. I feel like I’m understanding things at a level that I never was before.

HO: You had to write it out to get the sense of understanding.

RR: Yes.

A: I know there are many people who can write in more than one language, and do...some write fiction and some write new scientific writing, and some major poets do poetry in more than one language, but you’re the only poet that I know—and it’s really interesting and impressive to me--that writes the same poem in two different languages. And this brings to me many questions: Do you start in one language and then do the other language version, or do you write somehow simultaneously in Spanish and English?

RR: Somehow...?

HO: The right hand and the left hand, right?

A: And I just know a little Spanish, but I know that, for instance, Spanish seems much more amenable to rhyming, and consonants, and meter, and just all of the things that are supposed to be traditionally poetic, and English is more difficult, but has other properties— wonder, how does that work for you? How do you do that?

RR: Sometimes I am writing with both in parallel, in English and Spanish. And sometimes I write a Spanish version first and then translate it, and then work back and forth. But the process of writing for me is such a long one that by the time I’m writing I’m in parallel even if I did a complete version in Spanish and then translated it, so I think of them as written bilingually. And sometimes I have found that I don’t want to get them to match, so I produce two versions because I feel that they are almost like two plants growing differently. But many times I have tried to get them fairly close. And I’ve noticed that translators—I think I tend to translate more literally than some translators. I sometimes feel that they have ways of explaining why they are doing what they are doing when it’s less literal, but sometimes I wonder, do they really understand the grammar, do they understand what this means exactly, or are they camouflaging it with this other stuff? And I tend to like something that is a little closer, but I do find that it is almost like working two sides of a street. So I’m working a poem in English, that will lead me to make some changes in the Spanish, and then I’ll say, “Yeah, these are good changes.” And then sometimes I go back and I say well I have to change the English, too. It is hard to tell which one is leading and which one is following. It gets very strange. That’s maybe because I grew up speaking Spanish with my father and English with my mother at home; and then there was a period where I lost my Spanish and got it back when I was still young. . . I got it back. It was hard work. I guess that’s the theme, hard work, patience, attention.

HO: Let’s have one or two more questions and then we’ll wrap it up. It’s getting a little late.

A: Well, this has to do with—one thing that I want to say is that it’s wonderful the way that you were willing to try something, to go forward like a baby into poetry, for one thing. I think that in poetry and perhaps in all writing you need that trust that you’re going into some void and you don’t know what you know until you find out that you don’t know it, but you do know it. But I was wondering about your feelings about the different kinds of discovery between writing an academic paper and poetry. If there was a more personal side that you discover in poetry and you don’t really care whether someone discovers it about you, but that you found it. And with a paper, certainly you do want to express something about this knowledge that you have and other knowledge that has had a different kind of history, joining other papers. Do you see what I’m saying?

RR: Well, I think that—let me back up; I think that I have, and continue to have, this uncanny double sense of who I am when doing poetry and doing the academic writing. With writing cultural anthropology there is this aura that precedes me that is not me. And occasionally I bump into other people, and I try my best to get it out of there. But occasionally if I go to a—not so much around the department where I’m just old stuff, just stuff that’s been around—but if I go to some anthro meetings then I can see the aura. Then when I’m doing the poetry, I feel stripped naked, and it’s really very different. So it’s a funny doubleness there that’s really interesting. And I am kind of amazed and actually pleased with myself for doing the poetry because how many of us are running around naked like that?

A: Well, my interest in what you said about using examples in your writing, my interest is that I am familiar with poetry, it is not a strange world to me, but academic papers tend to scare me. I can read it and not know what I read in that paragraph. Does this make sense to anybody? I wonder if – Do they know how to write? Maybe it’s because I come from poetry and I tend to read into things differently. And I wondered about that struggle, and the struggling. Now, what made you want to write that paper and how it can get across. Different people have different purposes: they want to sound important, they want to make—they need to get a paper out, opposed to their own searching during the writing, trying to discover, bringing out a point and expressing it, that you yourself discover.

RR: Well, I think that with writing poetry, it goes to a much deeper personal place for me, right away. And often times I’m writing a poem because I had a very strong feeling and I have no idea what it was about. And I am trying to, by recollecting it and working a little with it, trying to feel what is this about? And that—and so it is a kind of process of personal discovery. I guess, at least in the beginning, it’s really for me, and if somebody doesn’t get it, too bad for them. But then eventually I want to try to communicate that to somebody else, and I think one of the things that I’ve found is that often something that’s deeply personal, when it works in a poem, will communicate very deeply to someone else who’s had a comparable feeling or says, “Well, yes. I can understand that, I’ve never thought of that. I haven’t had that experience,” but they can get a sense of it, at least that’s sort of thing that I’m reaching for. In an academic paper it may be a sort of cerebral problem—that I am puzzled about how to do an analysis of change through time that makes account of domestic relations and some larger thing that—and it’s something that refers to some set or body of literature—they call it literature—body of literature you assume that people have already read. And that’s one of the things that then makes it very impenetrable for someone else. If you don’t have the right associations, you haven’t read that stuff, it’s very hard with what people give you in those articles, to figure out what’s going on and what this is all about because it’s all in the background.

A: And that’s what you’re looking into?

RR: I found when I was writing this book Culture and Truth, and then the book now, that it is extremely hard to make this accessible to someone who is not an initiate in all that writing, and that’s why I’ve tried to do it. And I’ve found that it’s extremely hard in this sense, in that I often have to understand the ideas better to make them more accessible than I do to stay inside the jargon. And so I found that quite an amazing writing experience. And I know from some of the reactions to the book Culture and Truth that it’s more for people who are a little more initiated than I thought—I was trying to make it a little more accessible than I think I succeeded in doing—but I am quite amazed that I got as far as I did because some of the stuff is densely packed jargon written stuff, which doesn’t mean that it is mindless, it is often very thoughtful still, but it really needs translation. And yeah, I think that there is a lot of stuff that needs translation. Do people have more questions?

HO: One more question. There was someone in the back...okay, or up front.

RR: Short answer question, right? At least I have some control over the short answer, don’t I? I’ve been kind of blithering on.

HO: That’s Okay, good blithering.

A: I just wondered if you had—you said that you had sent some things out, sending poetry out—and I wondered if you—I mean, not that you’re at this point yet, but if you were looking into doing something about reflections on your career, but putting them in your poetry? Poetry about the Philippines ....I just wondered if you had conceived of something like that.

RR: I wrote a little article that was my first reflection on writing poetry, even the social world of writing poetry—and it has five poems in it. I’ve been really amazed to have entered that world, or this world, and to have found it such a gift. And actually as I have been into two forms of writing, it has led me to reflect back on what are the analogues of poetry workshops in anthropology, why can’t they take certain forms – at least some of the answers are obvious, we have a 30 page article there, so that already changes what’s possible. But yeah, so actually I did a little little bit in that essay that I did as a set of reflections on interdisciplinarity. So I was talking about what happens when you cross the lies of disciplines, and then I included in it going into the world of poetry, as a social world and a world of writing and poetry. And I think that I was surprised, someone else did a more researchy piece on the same question of interdisciplinarity in the university, talking across different fields of study, and I think that they came to very similar conclusions, but we got there in different ways. I was trying to be saying, “What are the kinds of groups where ideas or fresh things happen, what are the ones that work, and what are the outer limits?” And I described an outer limit, talking to a mathematician. He said, “I won’t understand the words you’re saying”

HO: He said to you?

RR: He said to me. He was being ridiculous. And I said, “Well, look, it’s really pretty simple.” And I was telling him about the Philippines in the most concrete, simple, clear way that I could, and then he asked did the language the people speak have a grammar. He didn’t mean did it have a grammar book, he means was it grammatical. And I kind of said, “I think you’re right, you won’t understand what I’m saying.” One of the things we assume is that no human language is not grammatical. I said, “I’m not sure where to begin.” I felt like I’d kind of reached the limit, and I didn’t know what—and then of course he described working with mathematicians in Russian. “Yeah, we get up at a blackboard,” and I said, “I wonder how much Russian is going on,” and he said, “But you know, I don’t have the technical vocabulary to read Chekov.” I said, “Whoops!” So I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of language communication is going on. And I actually was wondering what it would have taken for me to actually grasp what he was doing.

HO: For mathematicians to explain it? That’s why I was curious, he thought it was difficult for you to explain it and math is its own language. There is a program we have here called “I Rite”—if you’re familiar with it, if you’ve heard about it at all—which is people doing research, writing up their research, in a very short one-and-a-half page description, to a lay person. And then somebody in another field reads it and then gives feedback. And it’s just amazing, the assumptions: “Oh, I’ve got to explain hermeneutics, “Oh, I’ve got to explain what’s a protein.” And it’s really a very interesting process along with the prejudices in our fields, the biases. You know, who cares what happened in 1250 in Southern France ? Why do I care? So it is a very interesting process that way in translation, but I have yet to see a mathematician—some computer science people—but I have yet to see a mathematician try and explain what they do.

RR: It was clear, what it was coming from was the assumption that another mathematician probably wouldn’t understand—

HO: Either?

RR: Well, I thought that.

HO: Well, look, thank you very much, thanks for coming. Next week, on Wednesday night, 7 o’clock , John Rickford will be here. Now John Rickford is in Linguistics. His most recent book is on African American vernacular; he wrote in collaboration with his son, and we hope that his son will also be here, and then we’ll have this discussion again about another form of collaboration. Apparently they’re still talking to each other. And the book has been quite successful and he’s done quite a bit of research. We’ll get yet another take on the process of writing.