Richard Cambridge


Jessa Piaia

[excerpted from SQUAWKMagazine, Issue #46]

June 1991

Jessa: Richard, what poets have influenced you most?

Richard: Certainly everything in Elliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred PruFrock," speaks to me how I feel as a poet. Written in rhyme and free verse, it's a combination that has always attracted me. I'm never quite happy in either form, and his was such a perfect blending. The poem itself just blew me away. I thought, "If I can write like that, that's a yardstick to measure myself against."

Leonard Cohen really opened me up the widest, through his songs, poetry, and novel, Beautiful Flowers. He has the ability of combining the sacred and the profane, by elevating the profane as to make it beautiful and holy. His theory of being an artist, a poet, a creative person was to be totally vulnerable, dwelling in this openness, allowing it to run through you, and then working it out from there. One of his sayings was, "Openness is our art form; spontaneity is genius." I said, "Okay, no matter what happens, I'm going to do this. No matter where it takes me, I'll follow it."

Also in Beautiful Flowers, Cohen defines a saint, not the old-Christian type, but a 20th century one. He says, "A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of LOVE. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. I do not think the saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an 'escaped ski.' His course is a caress of the hill; something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance." Just the whole notion of being an 'escaped ski,' like a ski run wild, wherever the curve of the mountain rut takes you is where you go. You're totally given over. This just blew me away!

More than other poets, Keats and Yeats both impressed me as poets who wrote from the inside out; they expressed the inner understanding and knowledge that comes when you've in touch with the truth of something, because you've identified internally and have become empathic, in a sense.

Jessa: What have been your sources of inspiration?

Richard: Nature, relationship, political struggles, including the Native American movement, and the struggle of women expressed in my Halloween poem.

My poem, "The Life of a Man," is autobiographic. It details my passage of starting off as a poet, but then having to put down the pen, to participate in the fight for both civil rights and to end the war in Southeast Asia. The last line, "What is a twist of rhyme to a Black man doing time?" questions the significance of poetry if people are unjustly imprisoned or getting blown away in foreign countries in wars that we have no business participating in. I've always had that struggle of social conscience.

Jessa: Tell us more about your philosophy of poetry.

Richard: I think as artists we have to speak for our time and for what is eternal. All great art transcends its time, while speaking for its time. It's not a matter of tripping out to do a retro thing of sheer romanticism. We have to deal with the hard issues of the day: AIDS, the S & L mess, the Gulf War. The Gulf War was wrong; and all war, eternally, is wrong. That's our challenge and responsibility as artists, to be part of the greater community, to address our present reality, as we weave in timelessness to transcend the human condition. Bob Dylan approached this in his song, "Blowing in the Wind."