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Reznikoff: Interviews about Testimony

From A Conversation with Janet Sternburg and Alan Ziegler

INT:    When you were working in the law book company, did you come across the records that enabled you to write Testimony?

CR:    No, but working in the law book company I learned many interesting facts about the law. As a matter of fact, Dreiser's novel, An American Tragedy, was based completely on a case, but he went into great detail there. It occurred to me that I should go through all the case books. I might go through a volume of a thousand pages and find just one case from which to take the facts and rearrange them so as to be interesting. Now Testimony: 1885-1890 covers every state in the union. I don't know how many thousands of volumes I went through, and all I could manage to get out of it were these poems. And in looking through the book I might throw out some of them.

[. . . .]

INT:    In Testimony, you never include the outcome of the case.

CR:    Well, I wasn't interested in that, I was interested in facts. I wasn't interested in what the jury held.

[. . . .]

INT:    In Testimony, how do you arrive at the final poem? Do you edit and change the language of the original source?

CR:    Well, I take the original source and edit it and edit it. In many cases I keep the language. I sometimes change it, but rarely. I do change the language if it doesn't coincide with something that I think is simple and direct. But as a rule, I just edit, that is, I throw out everything.

from Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

From an Interview with Reinhold Schifter

RS:    This is to a certain extent related to Testimony. Crimes loom so large in that, but you've left politics out of Testimony haven't you? As you say yourself, you don't want to give a complete picture of the United States; but it seems to me that only everyday people and humble people are depicted, whereas the industrial bosses and more abstract crimes are left out. Is that because you simply didn't find anything of that nature in the sources?

CR:    No, I was using the lawcases, and the lawcases of course would have a large percentage of crimes, except that crime, I suppose, is a kind of a feeling that suddenly comes out, a stronger essence, let's say a more brilliant color, that may be present. A man may have a quarrel with his wife and quarrels happen right along, but he doesn't kill her. She doesn't kill him. That's actually a more or less kind of accentuation.

RS:    Testimony seems to me to use shock tactics in that it again and again juxtaposes the insignificance of the quarrel and the outburst of violence.

CR:    Yes, I think that happens, when it does happen, very often, but behind it may be years and years of anger or years of frustration. I went at it very simply, without any of this deep penetration. I read a case and it moved me, I mean the facts which are very seldom portrayed. I suppose when it gets down to it—I don't want to use that comparison--but I suppose all the myths the Homeric poets used are based on it: these are unusual. I don't know, but at a guess I would say a man killing his daughter or many things that are very moving in Homer are more or less symbolic. Certainly the frustration of people and children dealing with machines and the anger in an industrialized country such as the United States is are intense. Such crimes happen time and again but generally nothing happens: life must go on. I mean used to go on years and years ago. In the old days, for example, craftsmen who were making chairs made the whole chair. The tendency had been, of, even a century ago, to make them specialized because they could work faster. It's much less interesting to the wood worker, in a sense, his life is to that extent wasted. But I wasn't trying to do anything philosophical, I just went by what moved me.

from Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

From A Talk with L.S. Dembo

CR:    Testimony may be explained by T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative," as I understand it. Something happens and it expresses something that you feel, not necessarily because of those facts, but because of entirely different facts that give you the same kind of feeling. Now, in reading law, if the cases state any facts, they're just a sentence or two, but, occasionally, you'll find the facts gone into in detail, sometimes to explain or defend the judge's position. Still the facts have a function of their own--psychological, sociological, and perhaps even poetical. In Testimony the speakers whose words I use are all giving testimony about what they actually lived through. The testimony is that of a witness in court--not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard. What I wanted to do was to create by selection, arrangement, and the rhythm of the words used as a mood or feeling. I could have picked any period because the same thing is happening today that was happening in 1885. For example, in the volume I'm working on now there's a description of a Negro riot in St. Louis around 1900. A reviewer wrote that when he read Testimony a second time he saw a world of horror and violence. I didn't invent the world, but I felt it.

LD:    But doesn't testimony as such come out as simply a transcription of reality?

CR:   But I throw out an awful lot to achieve my purpose. It's not a complete picture of the United States at any time, by any means. It's only a part of what happened, a reality that I felt as a reader and could not portray adequately in any other way. But I will tell you, if it's any satisfaction, that Testimony had very little sale.

From Contemporary Literature (1969)

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