“What poet hasn’t had difficulty persuading people to buy a damn book?”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I came to your work through Basil Bunting, whose works (Persian translations especially) have owned huge chunks of my life. Can you talk about why and when you became so taken with Bunting, and how those books came about?
It was somewhat accidental, and very serendipitous. About fourteen years ago, Christopher Ricks and Geoffrey Hill created a new program at Boston University, the Editorial Institute. Sort of history-of-the-book, but not limited to books, you could say. Christopher approached me with a proposal that I be their first doctoral candidate. I was working at Harvard at the time as their curator of poetry, and quite happy. On the one hand, I thought: Do I need a Ph.D.? No, I do not. I’d lived all my life without one. On the other, slightly larger hand, I thought: They might like that at Harvard (I don’t think they cared at all, in fact); and most of all – what fun to work with Ricks and Hill, two people I admire very, very much. So I agreed. Next came the question of what my dissertation project would be. I had two ideas: one, a critical edition of the complete works of Lester Bangs (I still think this a worthy successor to the collected works of Walter Benjamin); two, something relating to the wonderful sixteenth-century poet George Gascoigne, to whom we owe so many innovations in English-language poetry. I met with Christopher, who assured me that I didn’t have the chops for the latter, and talked me out of the former. We kicked around a few other ideas, all non-starters. Finally, in exasperation, he just asked, “Well, what are you reading right now.” I was reading Basil Bunting, whose books were then completely out of print. That’s it, he said. I thought he was crazy. But that was it. I loved Bunting, but I never thought to become an expert in his work. Well, that’s what I became, all right.
Wow! Think you’ll ever make it back to Lester Bangs? I would love to read that some day.
As it happens, at one point when I was in the EditInst program, they had a big muckymuck from Harvard University Press come by for a talk, and he thought it was a great idea. Later on, I saw that he’d mentioned Bangs as a real critic alongside the likes of Frank Kermode, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and some other folks. I don’t know whether he and I were just on the same wavelength or it I’d planted the seed somehow. In any case, I doubt it’ll ever happen, though I’d love to see it myself. You know, my earliest exposure to people really using critical skills involved reading, as a teenager, Bangs, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Ellen Willis, and Janet Maslin. I used to be a bit sheepish about this, but not anymore!
Your new collection, Wishbone, is marked by a few proprietary stylistic flairs—very short (1-2 line) pieces, ellipses, exclamation points, parenthetical asides, etc. A favorite, called “Civilization and its Discontents,” reads in its entirety: “I’ve never sent a telegram / and now it’s too late.” These techniques are at home within a certain canon (one largely established, or at least championed, by the book’s press, Black Sparrow) but aren’t necessarily what one might expect to see from the editor of America’s oldest poetry magazine. To what (or to whom) do you owe your apparent interest in the small press and in small press aesthetic?
I think these proprietary stylistic flairs, as you kindly and generously call them, were purely the result of my trying to write some way that other poets I was reading were not. And I wanted to sound like myself, for a change, not like the written equivalent of “poet voice.” Then, too, I was frustrated reading so many poems that had maybe one or two really good lines, embedded in a load of crap. (I write these, myself, I hasten to add.) I thought: why not just keep the goodish lines, and dispose of the rest. I was thinking of dithyrambs, too, heaven knows why. I had to find some way to write that was far, far away from the submissions I was reading at Poetry. In retrospect, I suppose this backfired. I got some great write-ups, but there was some understandable confusion about what I was up to. Publisher’s Weekly, for instance, mostly noted that I used “scatological” language, which struck me as an odd observation, though not untrue. There are actually quite long poems in the book, too, but maybe readers skip them. Me, I love a good short poem and I love a good long poem; but most standard-issue poems today are, you know, about 40 lines long: a page, or page and half.
I cut my poetry teeth on books and magazines published by small presses, and I’m old enough to have sent work to the likes of George Hitchcock’s Kayak and been a faithful subscriber, even whilst poor, of the old Small Press Review. And of course, lots of us collected Black Sparrow books, which were fun to hunt down in bookshops, pre-internet. I worked in my college library that had a renowned small press collection, too; it was heavenly! Eventually, I started up my own small press, which published exactly two books, both by me. Well, that’s how one learned things back in the day. I was lucky to have had my poetry education thanks to all the great small presses of the US and UK that existed once upon a time. I’m glad there are so many small presses around now, and still think it’s where most of the action is. Even bad books were always fascinating, good to look at and think about. You had to decide things about the poems, the printing… everything! I lived to see issues of magazines like Bill Zavatsky’s SUN and a great many others. My heart would pound like crazy when I’d see them in places like the Gotham Book Mart, sorely missed. I still go nuts in places like Woodland Pattern, a great poetry bookstore that has really great stuff still tucked away. Just about the best honorarium I ever got for a reading was credit at Woodland Pattern; I came home with a pile of things, the best of which was a first edition Bern Porter book from Something Else press.
On your blog, you quote Dr. Todd Swift, director of Eyewear Publishing: “Not buying poetry books — and there are a million good reasons, but only give them to me if you are unemployed and never buy alcohol, tobacco, or food in restaurants - is like saying you love the environment, but never recycle. It's like wanting a democracy, and not voting.” Saving, for a moment, the vigorous head-nodding the passage inspired in this reader, would you mind talking a little about the excerpt in relation to your own experience as both publisher and poet?
When I was working as a busboy in my thirties (long story), I spent whatever money I had on rent and food and poetry books. I would never willingly live in a space that hasn’t got shelves loaded with books of poetry, and most of the poets I know are the same way. Yet what poet hasn’t had difficulty persuading people to buy a damn book? I wouldn’t put things quite the way Todd does, but I love the altruism and passion in that quotation. Why not believe in book buying alongside truth and justice and… you get the idea.
I sense a good deal of that altruism and passion in your own endeavors—it seems like you’ve been able to build an enviable career out of sincere delight in verse and a desire to be of service to the medium. Do you think that sort of devotedness can be learned? How would you design an MFA (or similar) program to foster an intrinsic joy in poetry?
I’m not so sure about enviable—I’d be surprised if many people would love doing what I do, if they knew precisely what’s involved; but mostly, I’m just a driven person who’s been extremely lucky. As the great Patrick Kavanagh put it, “there was some kink in me, put there by Verse.” He said, and I adore this—
“A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life. Versing activity leads him away from the paths of conventional unhappiness. For reasons that I have never been able to explain, the making of verses has changed the course of one man’s destiny. I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast. And I was abnormally normal.”
As an editor and reader, I’m self-taught. I wasn’t even an English major. So as to whether being in service to poetry can be taught, I simply don’t know. I’m not sure anybody tries to teach that. On the other hand, I had life-savingly generous (to me, to others) mentors who themselves were greatly in service to others: Christopher Ricks, Rosanna Warren, Derek Walcott, George Starbuck… When it comes to joy, however, I suppose either you have it or you don’t. I hate poetry that has palpably jokey designs upon us, but joy? It’s incredible how joyless so much of contemporary poetry can be.
Speaking of joy in poetry, moments of Wishbone are laugh out loud funny—one poem begins with “I wonder if Emily Dickinson knew / about Chicken Little?” From another, “Please please yourself, / to paraphrase wrongly / James Brown.” Jeffrey McDaniel has warned that “humor can set a roadblock for the poetic speaker, making it impossible for the speaker to get back to a serious place,” but I think in your poems, it’s not so heavy-handed or punchline-y as to become an encumbrance. How do you go about staying on the right side of the line between absurdity and frivolity?
Following on your previous question, I’d say that absurdity in its purest most meaningful form can be joyful; frivolity is ornamental at best, useless most of the time. It’s excruciating to say so out loud, and I don’t what to sound like some sort of sententious Peter Ustinov character (“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious, blah blah blah…”) but there’s nothing more serious than what’s truly, deeply funny. I mean, if you take those lines you’ve quoted out, as they say, of context, sure, they sound dopey. But look, unlike us, Dickinson never thought the sky was falling. Why was that? She could, and did, fly in her poems. The sky was an opening, a gateway, to much else, including eternity.
We can fly, all right, but our poems aren’t really supposed to soar, given the strictures of the Zeitgeist. So the spirit today is grounded, and meanwhile there’s a crisis every hour. As for James Brown, he is one of the superlative poets of our time, and so well worth wrongly paraphrasing, that I need not explain more. Anyway, I’m not angling for laughs – so many poets are already doing bad stand-up these days; but more for the kind of nervous tittering that happens when we watch horror movies. Backing up to your McDaniel quotation, though: what the heck is wrong with setting roadblocks for the poetic speaker? And as for frivolity, well, there’s nothing more frightening than frivolity, with which we’re bombarded in the midst of our global Grand Guignol.
How and when did were you asked to take over as editor of Poetry for Christian Wiman? What were some of the early goals of your term?
Oh, I wasn’t asked to take over at all, far from it! I was told that there would be an international search for a new editor, which, in fact, there was; it went on for a long time. I was just one of numerous candidates; I applied for the job and took my chances. There wasn’t an instant in which I could take for granted that I’d get it, and there were some amazing candidates, literally walking past my desk. It was hard for me, because I’d been at the magazine for a long time, working with Chris. But it was absolutely the right process. The early goals, at any rate, were to refresh the vision of the magazine without wrecking it, to be honest. I wanted Poetry to be the kind of magazine that people wanted to read, be published in, and talk about. And I absolutely wanted it to reflect the kind of diversity – both in terms of aesthetics and identity – that Harriet Monroe envisioned; I wanted the magazine to more accurately reflect what’s really going on both in the world and in poetry itself.
When Harriet Monroe founded the magazine in 1912, she said, “The editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You’ve said you personally are “constantly on the lookout for what Rosanna Warren described so very well: work that floodlights the true oddness of life in the crafted oddness of language.” What goes into merging these distinct sets of goals in each issue of Poetry?
A lot. We get 120,000 poems sent here per year, and between us, Christina Pugh and I read every one of them. And I read other magazines and new books of poetry in every waking hour, needless to say. We (a grand total of five people, including me) do all the production work ourselves, something most people don’t realize. But I’m supported by the most ingenious, hardworking, and diligent crew there could possibly be: Fred Sasaki, Lindsay Garbutt, Holly Amos, and Sarah Dodson. They are each embodiments of the soul and spirit of Poetry magazine, faithful and true descendants of Harriet Monroe.
Can you briefly walk us through what that production work entails?
If you think of an issue of the magazine as a book, which is what it actually is, we have to design the book from cover art to layout – and for all the special features we do, this is quite complex (Fred does this with a great eye, which he also brings to getting the cover art!). We have to typeset, copyedit, and proofread each issue ourselves; and Linds reworks the print magazine into the digital edition of the magazine that readers can get delivered to their phones and tables… and we work on about four issues at a time, so that's very detailed and labor-intensive work. Then there's what you could call the business side of things: getting each issue properly printed, packaged, and sent out to subscribers and bookstores around the world (we do this by working with a fulfillment company) – also complex work that must be done with great accuracy. Everything from the color, texture, and even smell of the paper stock is important. Naturally the way each poem and prose piece fits together has to be thought through completely beforehand and realized in print and online while keeping to an extremely tight production schedule. Lindsay and Holly and Sarah do so many different, time-sensitive, and sophisticated tasks that I wonder how they stay sane. That's really just a very simplified summary!
You’ve talked about reading every issue of Poetry (no small task) and coming to the judgment that 94% of the poems published in the past hundred years didn’t stand the test of time. How does this belief inform your editorial approach?
It keeps me very, very humble.
Hah! Good answer. During your tenure, the magazine seems to have featured somewhat more conceptual, experimental pieces. When readers “get” the game, like with K. Silem Mohammad’s sonnagrams, they seem to respond with universal delight. However, I remember watching Facebook and Twitter go nuts when Caroline Bergvall’s poems were printed. Parts of the typically gracious, welcoming poetic community grew uncharacteristically, bizarrely irate. Can you talk about these reactions a little, how (or if) they reached you and how they were received?
I just got some hate mail today, from a man who says I should rename the magazine Trash! on the basis of a poem in our all-UK issue. It never stops. And yet it’s curious: one of the very greatest pleasures poetry affords can be found in experimental work. And I’m quite certain that the same readers who despised the Bergvall for the way the text was deployed on the page also would say unhesitatingly that they love E. E. Cummings! And as it happens, Chris and I had published her already, and there was neither jot nor tittle of protest. So I don’t get it. As some might have seen, the august TLS in the UK went crazy over my publishing Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem, “Vernacular Owl,” erroneously calling Ellis “half-literate,” and characterizing the magazine as the bastard offspring of Ray Johnson and Amiri Baraka. But Harriet got hate mail after publishing T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – like a note from the critic Louis Untermeyer who said that the effect of the poem was that of the “Muse in a psychopathic ward.” You can say “Make It New” all you want to, but some things stay the same. Well, the magazine’s mission is to be eclectic. So must its readers be.
Speaking of eclectic — can you talk about some of the weirdest submissions you’ve seen during your tenure as Poetry editor?
No. Heh. I mean, there’s a kind of editor-submitter confidentiality rule, isn’t there? I will say this: every single day, just when I think I’ve seen everything, something of unprecedented peculiarity crosses my desk. Fortunately, I have an anthropological interest in the behavior of poets. And to be completely serious, I may wonder about things, but I never laugh or smirk at a submission. People really want to write poetry and be published, and this desire is something sacred. It takes many forms, that’s all. Also, neither I nor anybody else at Poetry uses the word “slush.” We read things very seriously and in the utmost good faith. I’d never work with anyone who didn’t feel this way. I have nothing but respect for anybody who takes up poetry.
Will you share some favorite Poetry deep cuts to which we could steer our readers?
Little known or never reprinted poems by everyone you can think of. Texts that differ from the versions that appeared in books. Little prose pieces that never got collected, sleeping away in our back pages. Gossipy "news and notes" features from ages ago. The most fun thing about Poetry is how eclectic it has always been. There's over a century of deep cuts, and there's lots of amusement (pun on "muse" intended!) to be had browsing around. Our whole back run was digitized by JSTOR, and it's freely accessible on the poetryfoundation.org website, so I'd answer by hoping readers will rummage around. Otherwise, there are lots of gems, I like to think, in our anthology The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Year of POETRY Magazine, which Chris Wiman and I edited for the magazine's centennial. We went back and read every issue of the magazine for that book, and let me tell you, there's a whole 'nother anthology of really weird poems from our pages (and prose pieces, for that matter) to be compiled. But I'll let readers discover these serendipitously, which is the best way.
You’ve worked previously with the Woodberry Poetry Room, overseeing an archive of recorded poetry spanning “from Tennyson to Jorie Graham.” Can you talk about some hidden treasures you found there? What was the strangest item you ever came across?
Well one thing we had that I’ve never shut up about wasn’t a recording, but a pair of cigars, one belonging to Amy Lowell (given by her to the Poetry Room to prove that she really did smoke them), the other to Robert Lowell, an “It’s a Girl” cigar celebrating the birth of his daughter. As far as audio goes, I loved things like hearing Wallace Stevens shuffle his feet uncomfortably under a desk while making a recording; there’s one you’ll never hear of Louis Zukofsky that occasioned a violently-worded challenge from his son Paul; and how can you not be fascinated with Ezra Pound playing kettle drums? (I write about it here.) Oh, and T.S. Eliot rapping and even singing in “Fragment of an Agon.” I could go on an on. It’s a true treasure trove, and if more people could hear such things, more people would be excited about poetry.
Their online "listening booth" is a great way to lose an afternoon. Before we finish — I’ve read that as a musician, you’re able to “play any instrument save the woodwinds.” To what extent does that musical fluency inform your study or inform your writing of poetics?
It makes me realize how impoverished my own and/or contemporary prosody can be. I just did a performance in the UK with Barry Andrews of Shriekback (formerly of XTC, and the League of Gentlemen), alongside some other great musicians; we came up with something that combined the sound of music and the sound of verse. We got a crowd about five times larger than the average poetry reading (if somewhat smaller than the average musical event), so… I’m hopeful now about how lines of poetry can sound when you put some real pressure on them. The local paper wrote it up under the headline, “Anything Can Happen.” So that’s my new poetry mantra!
Interview Posted: November 10, 2014
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