Tuesday, December 19, 2017
WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW) edited by ANSELM BERRIGAN
T. C. MARSHALL Reviews
WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW): INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983-2009) edited by Anselm Berrigan
(Wave Books, 2017, 416 pages)
Shop Now!—a review
Looking for just the right gift for that intellectual poetaster friend or cousin? The one who is always talking about obscure writers from NY? Or are you trying to find something for that professorly type or grad student who looks for new writers to write about? Or for that amateur historian of the late 20th century? Or for that poet who needs a nudge in new directions that aren’t from New Directions? Whether you do your shopping during the holidays or after, this book may well be the gift you’ve been seeking!
This anthology of intimate interviews with writers and others active on the NY scene in the 80s, 90s, and 00s can be read in several ways. It is fun, gossipy, smart, sometimes smart-ass, and thoroughly rich with the intelligence of the poor souls who make poems for all the crazy reasons there are. They and their friends tell you about their reasons, or lack thereof, as if they were sitting next to you on the bus or the plane or your bed or wherever you do your reading. The interviewers seem to ask all the questions you might ask; they too are inside that scene that The Poetry Project raised and nurtured through decades and decades of challenges to the place of poetry in our lives and histories and herstories. They get Ed Sanders to place his thinking in several contexts: historical, intellectual, poetical, rock’n’roll-ical, technical, and promotional. They get Bernadette Mayer to discuss “clarity” and Alice Notley to discuss her intended audiences. Alice also talks about the male thing in the poetry world through which she made her way and arose to make new ways. “I write usually what it seems to me poetry needs next,” she tells Judith Goldman (84). Sheila Alson gets Victor Hernández Cruz to explain the different context and meaning for “multicultural” as a literary term in the USA and in Latin America (118-120). He also talks carefully about the technical uses of clarity and of form and even rhyme.
This book is thick with poetics focused both tightly and widely. It can be read as a technical manual if you want. It can be read for the history of poetics coming from various sources in the 20th-century tradition. It can be read for provocative statements to work off of in writing poetry or poetics. These are ways that it can serve poets directly. It also can serve the work of critics, particularly those who might need to hear what poets say about their own work or the works of contemporaries they work off of. This book can be read for the politics of the poetry world or poets’ politics in the “real” world. It also provides angles on the history of The Poetry Project itself, particularly if you take the dates into account. It contains bits of art history too, like Anne Waldman’s 1984 interview with visual artist Red Grooms.
You can go through this book from cover to cover in chronological order, or you can bounce around in it looking for figures that interest you, or you can just get dippy going in and out randomly. You could try looking for certain “themes,” but that’s where the one big weakness of this volume appears: it has no index. It would have been a time-consuming and brain-clobbering job to make one, so it is understandable to have left it out; however, the lack of such a guide means the reader has to do some of that work if she wants to find the kind of resonances that there naturally are between the wide-ranging characters interviewed here over those years. There is an “Author Bios” section at the end, and this can allow the curious to find poets they may not have known by name who share some of their interests. This section too, though, leaves something to be desired as the bios don’t give much descriptive info on approaches or interests of the poets. That leaves the bios as factual as the most boring college reading intro you ever heard from a dull professor. The livelier stuff is in the interviews, but you almost have to know the poets or just read everything to get it.
This tome ranges widely over the St. Mark’s scene, the “community” as Berrigan calls it in his intro. It helps give some history of that community feeling, which in itself is valuable. The intro builds context, and the interviews provide all kinds of details. Berrigan shows a lot of respect for these interviews and those on both ends of them:
As for the poets, painters, filmmakers, and dancers interviewed—these are people whose work I’ve lived with, learned from, and loved for years. Their work, the groundbreaking capacities of that work, and their respective contributions to this world speak for themselves. To have had the chance to give each of them a little more time and space in the form of this book, and to hopefully draw more attention to their respective bodies of work, has been my total honor and pleasure. (xvi)
The interviewers and –ees build a broadly quilted sense of the scene. We get Samuel R. Delaney in both roles in his “silent interview” (i.e. self-interview), including his thoughts on the influences of poetry in his thinking and fiction. We have underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage led by Lisa Jarnot into talking about Robert Duncan’s poetry and “magic.” Painter Alex Katz paints a portrays the poets-and-painters scene he knew. Harry Mathews explains poetry in terms of fiction and shows where poets fed his novels and stories. Poets like Jack Collom are given the greater place they have not yet gotten in the official anthologies. Tina Darragh makes a web of influences visible that reaches beyond our shores to Stevie Smith and Francis Ponge. And our now widely belovéd Fred Moten talks to us from the year 2000 when he was a prof of “performance studies” at NYU, and he names William Corbett as a model for getting music into poetry along with Lauryn Hill for getting poetry into the music. Charles North’s opening piece is a brilliant execution of the interview interviewing itself, questions without answers but with answers within them.
That the poets on both sides of the interviews have intensely varied practices and aesthetics means the range of subjects found within these interviews is necessarily wide and ultimately disorienting to completely list (I know—I tried a few times).
That’s another thing that Anselm Berrigan says in his intro. It makes it sound like he thought of an index, but the idea of putting it all in order blew itself out of the water. There is just too much going on in these interviews for an overall framework or network to be established. Berrigan notes that “talking about anything and everything related to the art becomes part of” a “communal process” that helps make “the interview an oddly logical form to put to work in the service of poets” (xii-xiii). This compendium is definitely composed “in the service of poets”: those in the book and those reading it. It is a perfect gift.
T. C. Marshall was a student of Anselm Berrigan's dad, so this review is completely slanted and would not be published by ABR. Ted taught Tom to take time to totally avoid tergiversation, and to pat the backs that back what's right with the twists and turns of the vernacular. Tom has never been retiring, but he will retire soon from teaching to take up the full-time work of knowing what he knows.
Posted by EILEEN at 11:30 AM