An Interview With Benjamin Friedlander, Co-Editor of Nice: Collected Poems

David Melnick (1938-2022) is remembered as one of the outstanding provocateurs of twentieth-century poetry, a poet “suffocated by meaning,” one who read in glittering platform heels with a glass of cabernet.

While Melnick was infamously a recluse, having published only one interview before his passing, he leaves behind the legacy of a life lived with various poetic, communal, and political intimacies. Nice: Collected Poems — published today by Nightboat — is the first comprehensive collection of his work. 

Below is a conversation with Benjamin Friedlander, who — along with Alison Fraser, Jeffrey Jullich, and Ron Silliman — edited the poems that appear Nice. We discuss queer archives, homophonic translations, and the “joyous musicality” of Melnick’s work; “exuberant, lascivious, fun.” 

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: What was your personal relationship with David Melnick, and/or with his work? 

Benjamin Friedlander: He was a big presence for me when I first attended readings and talks in the Bay Area. It was the early eighties and Book I of Men in Aïda was just about to be published. Language Writing had not yet been embraced by academia and I myself was a dropout from Berkeley. Hearing Robert Duncan at 544 Natoma Street, going to Charles Bernstein’s residency at 80 Langton Street, I felt like I’d stumbled onto a secret, truer university. I was often the youngest person in the room and the conversation was often over my head, so I just drank things in. But I remember thinking that the two wisest people on the scene were David Melnick and Beverly Dahlen. They spoke with kindness as well as intelligence, and that impressed me. Soon enough poetry wars took the glow off.

Later I got to spend time with David in a reading group that Tom Mandel formed. It was Tom, David, myself, and David Sheidlower — we called ourselves the Jew group. We met Sunday mornings, ostensibly to read and discuss the Hebrew Bible, but we spent more time gossiping, talking poetry, politics, life. It was a precious reprieve from the poison of the poetry wars. And at one point while the reading group was meeting David invited me to interview him. So I came to his apartment with a tape recorder and got two or three hours of his life story. Alas, none of that survives — David destroyed the tapes.

And of course I loved David’s poetry. Andrew Schelling and I edited a poetics journal, Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K,” and when we did our special issue celebrating Tuumba Press (in 1986), Tom Mandel and I each wrote on Men in Aïda. The only Tuumba book that received two essays.

Dante Silva: This is the first collection of Melnick’s work — Nice: Collected Poems includes Eclogs (1967-70), PCOET (1972), Men in Aida (1983-85), and A Pin’s Fee (1988). It’s a body of work that’s only whole when seen from a distance — these works all differ in form and content, and correspond with the context of Melnick’s personal/creative life (which you’ve written about wonderfully in the introduction, I should add). What do we see when we place them together? 

Benjamin Friedlander: I am by nature a hoarder and David was an expert at paring away, so I was slow to appreciate the wholeness he achieved by reticence as well as writing. Because I love his poetry, I always wished there was more. David went through long periods of not writing, including the final years of his life, and there was writing he destroyed. Even now I rue the losses and silences. But I’ve come to see that the works he did share form a succinct and complete record of his era and milieu. Not in the ordinary, documentary sense–he doesn’t tell stories or present arguments–but in the attitudes he expressed. I think attitude is a good word for this since it means first of all a disposition of the body, only by metaphorical extension a disposition of mind. David’s four books in their distinct ways embody historically apt attitudes toward language and community, eros and agon. And they do so by holding true to experience, an experience of the body as well as the mind.

That’s pretty abstract. We put it more concretely in our introduction:

His years of creativity span a crucial two decades in the rise of queer community: his first book begun before Stonewall; his last written in the crisis years of AIDS. And each book reflects a truth of its moment, though in a manner entirely its own. In Eclogs, the beautiful façade of coded language preserves an experience it screens from view. PCOET yields to the joy of invention, creating a language all its own. Men in Aïda, the pinnacle of this span, is his epic: an act of gay worldbuilding, embracing the past and transforming it through homophonic translation. A Pin’s Fee, the shortest of the four, is anguished: its last word, “DEATH,” repeating forty-five times.

Dante Silva: I wanted to look more closely at Men in Aïda —his homophonic translation of The Iliad, for those who aren’t familiar. I see this as an intervention in an existing “canon,” and also, as you say,  a project in world-making — at once resonant with the past and a departure from it. Could you say more about how Men in Aida came to be? 

Benjamin Friedlander: The origin is beautiful — and accidental — though the poem itself feels inevitable given the work that came before. David was invited to join a Homer reading group that Robert Duncan formed, primarily with people associated with the New College of California, where Duncan taught. David Levi Strauss, a member of the group and friend of mine — we were proofreaders together on the graveyard shift — wrote an account that Andrew Schelling and I published. From Levi I learned that the group worked through the poem in Greek, reciting and translating line by line. Most members, including Duncan, had no background in the language, learning as they went along. A perfect context for David, whose previous book, PCOET, was written in an invented language: his public readings had made him an expert at sounding out what can’t yet be understood. Aïda itself was begun in Greece while David was there with his lover, David Doyle, to whom the book is dedicated. After the fashion of the Homer group, he worked line by line, treating each line of Homer’s poem as a text in its own right, finding English words to match the Greek sound. David showed me the original notebook: the words were scattered across the page projective-verse fashion, with a straight line drawn between each grouping to mark whee the lines end in Homer. I don’t think he ever intended to treat each line as a separate poem, that’s just the way he worked, but seeing it that way really clarified the relationship between Men in Aïda and PCOET.

By the way, knowing by that time that David had a tendency to destroy his work, I asked if I could borrow the notebook and never gave it back. Years later, I felt guilty, though not about preserving the notebook, so I decided to give it to Ron Silliman, thinking it would find a proper setting in Ron’s archive, which already included a lot of Melnick material. I wrote a long letter explaining this and put it in the mail. Alas, it never arrived! David, I guess, got his way after all. But one consequence of the non-arrival was Ron and I forming a David Melnick Appreciation Society. The editing of Nice reaches back to that moment.

Dante Silva: The language here is real, ridiculous, rhapsodic, rapturous — what do you make of it? 

Benjamin Friedlander: I agree! Aïda has the lilt of Homer’s Greek  — so I assume  — a joyous musicality: exuberant, lascivious, fun. In “Personism,” Frank O’Hara calls for a poetry equal to “love’s life-giving vulgarity”; Melnick achieved that. Here are two favorite O’Hara lines:

“jetting I commit the immortal spark jetting

you give that form to my life the Ancients loved”

— among other things, a celebration of coming. In Aïda, the ancient form is literal, the vulgarity more direct, the celebration giddier. 

“Toy sinned. D’ you come on us, mate? A fake crayon: Agamemnon.”

I like to think O’Hara would have enjoyed this. I’m pretty sure Thom Gunn did; I discern an inspiration for Gunn’s Boss Cupid in this other “cum” line:

“Hose a fat you come on us, today clue. Fie, boss Apollo.”

Dante Silva: I’m interested in a move away from recuperative historiography — wherein sexuality is an object of historical recovery — and towards more imaginative archives and acts of intervention. I see Nice: Collected Poems as part of this practice. Loss abounds, surely, but there’s also an abundance here. 

Melnick’s work, his language, might have a life of its own — could you speak more about the lineage of Melnick, and (more broadly) Language poetry? How do we look for this lineage, listen to it? 

Benjamin Friedlander: I like what you say about “imaginative archives” and hope Nice leads readers to think that way. Or at least leads them to think more expansively about his era.

Lucy Lippard has a wonderful book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, a chronological account of how conceptual art developed. I had an ambition at one time of making a similar book about Language writing. There were common influences and shared attitudes but the group as a whole was nourished by multiple lineages and each poet had a different story. Discussions of Language writing always flatten that history. Lippard’s approach seems more appropriate to me than a study focused on shared qualities and commonalities. Melnick in particular suffers from that approach since the factors that make his writing so compelling also make him seem an outlier.

David was a featured poet in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Lyn Hejinian published Aïda; his friendships with Ron Silliman and Rae Armantrout reached back to the sixties; his language-centered writing of the early seventies — PCOET — found an echo in the work of Bruce Andrews and Clark Coolidge. But that’s only part of the story. Even as Language was coalescing as a scene, David’s primary community remained the Gay Artists and Writers Kollective (G.A.W.K.), founded by photographer David Greene (Greene’s pictures of David appear in Nice). Tellingly, PCOET was dedicated to Ron Silliman, but published by G.A.W.K. 

I get the sense that many of the Language poets  — Ron is definitely an exception here  — thought of David’s queer community as separate from his poetry life. That was not the case, especially in the seventies when G.A.W.K. was most active. Later, he took inspiration from the Homer group, the Homersexuals, as they called themselves. 

David and other so-called outliers give us a richer history of Language writing. His poetic genealogy reaches back to Shakespeare, through Zukofsky, Duncan, and Olson (the subjects of his abandoned dissertation), encompassing pastoral, Genet, mathematics, and opera. Stringent and romantic, intellectually fierce and erotically charged, his work is a delight, crossing what we think of as categories, perhaps better understood as scenes or even neighborhoods.