What study is about: On "What is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from The Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009)"

The following review first appeared in The Georgia Review Spring 2018, Volume LXXII, Number 1.

 Wave Books, edited by Anselm Berrigan

Wave Books, edited by Anselm Berrigan

As an archive of over a quarter century of artists speaking together, What is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know) is a successful embodiment of the generative talk and surprising lineages that have defined the Poetry Project since its establishment in the 1960s. Even the book’s interrogative, doubly-animated title, lifted from a questionnaire by Charles North that begins the collection, marks the performative, independent, and witty consciousness of the Project itself—as an arts institution on the border of institutions, run by poets, that’s been home to fifty years of fierce, cherished conversational momentum. As the title suggests, it’s not really what “you know” but that you and I are here to share an inquisitiveness, to exchange a little of the question’s serious shapeliness.

That is, the question “What is poetry?” is only asked half-jokingly until it isn’t. Readers familiar with The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery will recognize how and why asking what poetry is (or what a Poetry Project is) might be necessary to the poets who populate it, and The Poetry Project Newsletter has helped articulate the feeling and thinking fabrics of the space. With 251 issues, the newsletter is a long social song to which the Project’s overlapping aesthetic, political, and cross-generational communities all contribute by echoing off one another. Among more monolithic or short-lived arts institutions, rarely have any been associated for so long with so many aesthetic formations that, as editor Anselm Berrigan notes, “are variously highlighted, fleshed out, made ambiguous, undermined, and otherwise reformed in the interviews found herein.” Like the Project itself, What is Poetry? is a record of oscillating, idiosyncratic correspondences rather than a monument to a cohesive aesthetic center.

As a happy result, this book is no anthology. No conversation quite settles. There are disagreements, digressions, problems, and leaps forward. This multiplicity makes the 440-page collection of interviews a good book, a good place to gather.

Featuring conversations with poets and artists as various and luminously idiosyncratic as Alice Notley, Fred Moten, Ed Sanders, and Renee Gladman, whose interviews are conducted by a range of young(er) writers—many of whom are now aesthetic leaders in their own right— such as Lisa Jarnot, Magdalena Zurawski, and erica kaufman, the collection emphasizes that cross-generational voices are always already happening together. But this togetherness is a sign of oscillation rather than cohesion. The interviews stick together because they all emerged intended for The Poetry Project Newsletter, though their movements with and against one another produce new scenes and ideas entirely, evidence of Berrigan’s astute editorial positionings.

Consider the opening three pieces in the book. The first is a playful questionnaire by Charles North that juggles the interview as a social and aesthetic form whose initial question “Why are we doing this?” echoes the book’s title as a refusal of assumptions and expectations. Following North’s playful self-reflexivity is an interview with artist Red Grooms by poet Anne Waldman that is punctuated with pronouncements such as “The ocean to me looks very nineteenth century. It was probably painted best in that century.” Next is an interview with translator Paul Schmidt by Tim Dlugos in which translation becomes more about enmeshing your thinking in a poet’s work than executing a translation with precision and clarity. As Schmidt says, “Your responsibility is to transform it.” A reader can find, or at least sense, an answer to “What is poetry?” in this sequence of collaborative, cross-genre voices where poets, prose writers, artists, translators, filmmakers, activists, musicians, scholars, and every collaged, wayward combination of these practices settle together in the space of the book. Everyone is furiously interested in what everyone else is doing, and this active participation in and attention to other artists’ work and thinking acts as a sub-narrative across What is Poetry?—the trace of an interdisciplinary aesthetic imagination that the programming at The Poetry Project continues to embody.

And really, it’s rare to get in one tome so much varied talk about innovative contemporary poetry. The only recent comparison I can make is to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), a collection of 2012 interviews that produce a snapshot of innovative poetry practices that year via Fitch’s sharp, generous conversations. The comparison doesn’t constitute a model, though, because What is Poetry? not only chronicles the histories and personalities that have sustained the Project but also reinterrogates those trajectories, leaving them up in the air and newly able to be traced by the poets who arrive next. As if to interrogate why such a collection might be assembled in the first place, North’s questionnaire asks, “The question is, to what extent does commenting on a poetry scene produce that scene which, until that point, didn’t quite exist?” If these interviews are a site of production, a section of the news for a community always being made new, they are also an invitation to come next, to mix up and get mixed up in another lineage without cementing a trajectory or submitting to the social and historical demands of the scene. “I think everybody must already know this,” says Bernadette Mayer in a 1992 interview, “—I hope they do—that one person can write in many different ways.” The same flexibility applies to the Project itself, which is an institution and a historical center with a lineage of publications and, more important, people—the poets themselves speaking “on this high frequency,” as Kenneth Koch describes it, all of whom have been thriving, arguing, living (and sometimes dying), performing, and writing for over half a century.

Perspectives on community and lineage permeate these interviews. Asked about learning from such a seemingly disparate array of writers, the great Lorenzo Thomas offers a reply that describes an ethos of the Project itself: “Everybody was very much interested in knowing who came before us regardless of what their nationality or race might have been, though we might have been more interested in some people than others, individually. But that was the thing, we wanted to know who came before us. What, if anything, did we have in common in terms of the situations that we faced and the situations they faced, which is, I think, what study is about.”

It wouldn’t take much to convince me that “what study is about” is as good an answer as any to “what is poetry?” if answers are what one is looking for. Thomas’s description of studying is of a shared yet idiosyncratic looking around and falling into, an inquiry into common feeling and recurring confrontation—studying as ethics and politics, which is to say, a poetics. I’m buoyed by interviews like this one with Thomas, which apart from this collection would have taken a trip to a university special collections or unofficial residency in The Poetry Project offices to read. The original newsletters—often fragile, ephemeral documents—are housed now in this thick, perfect bound shed of a book, with a different historical light on them. I’m wondering where else we might find this many hit singles framed together that’s more than just a best of, as this book is. There’s a rough, critical pleasure in the accumulation across these conversations, one in which the reader is able to exist on both sides of each interview, speaking and listening. As Waldman says in conversation with Marcella Durand, “I remember Edwin Denby saying that St. Mark’s cultivated an exquisite ear for poetry. People learned how to LISTEN there.” Building on Thomas, listening also seems to be what study is about – personal, radical, and made of voices.

As the Project and Newsletter continue to stage a variety of overlapping contemporary communities of artists, the ongoing heritage of the Project also continues to garner scholarly interest and editorial projects that collect and frame the work of the communities and artists that grew in and through organizations like the Church. Those familiar with the Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative will find What is Poetry? to be an expanded companion to that invaluable archival pamphlet series, cousin to a growing list of projects and narratives that document the poetry and poetics of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, including Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Marks Poetry Project 1966-1991 edited by Waldman, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s by Daniel Kane (whose interviews with Koch and Larry Fagin appear in What is Poetry?), and St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun. It is exciting that Wave Books, the publisher of What is Poetry?, will continue this necessary archival and historical work with its new Interview book series, the first of which, There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, edited by Cedar Sigo, traces the life, work, and legacy of Joanne Kyger. One can imagine other books similar to What is Poetry? about Woodland Pattern, for example, or the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, whose rich histories would benefit from such a project by a contemporary poetry press like Wave. For now, What is Poetry?, with its smart, chatty, and ongoing exchanges, furnishes us a chance to look back at a quarter century of work, attitude, and vision in The Poetry Project Newsletter, and to generate future conversations with as much urgency and devotion as the ones collected therein. As Thomas says, “I don’t think attention to the past destroys the poet’s ability to say something new, or to be innovative.” It’s old news, but What is Poetry? is all new.

"The sky is a triumph": Ted Berrigan on the art of George Schneeman

 Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

A couple of years ago I was writing an essay on Ted Berrigan's little-known art writing for ARTnews, a lively, intense yet brief span of work from 1965 to 1966 in which Berrigan reviewed over 100 gallery exhibitions and produced a handful of feature articles. That essay, "The Pollock Streets: Ted Berrgan's Art Writing," was published in Fanzine as Part 1 and Part 2. Berrigan's devotion to art writing was a way to continue his own self-education in art and a way to stand alongside while insisting on a difference between himself and first generation poet-art critics like Ashbery, O'Hara, and Schuyler whose art criticism, unlike Berrigan's, is quite well known. I first found out about Ted's work for ARTnews reading his 1972 interview with Barry Alpert in Talking in Tranquility, and was a little stunned to find the information so out in the open, in a book published over 25 years ago. Finding Ted's contributions to the magazine was another layer of unexpected pleasure -- I just went to my university library where every issue of ARTnews had been bound and conspicuously shelved away. Sure enough, Berrigan's contributions were brimming in the mid-60s. While Ted didn't contribute to ARTnews after December 1966, he did publish one last piece of art writing in Art in America in March 1980 on his long-time friend George Schneeman. As Notley describes in "A Note on Ted and George" from A Painter Among Poets: The Collaborative Art of George Schneeman, Berrigan and Schneeman's friendship was full of a thick reciprocity organized around shared aesthetic spaces, a way to live. Notley writes:

"Ted was always collaborating with George, even when they weren't officially collaborating. And I think George was influenced in a general way by Ted's individualistic, ugly line (as evidenced in his signature) and by his complete assurance that the ugly was artistic and that he, Ted, was an artist too. (I can hear George telling me Ted's signature wasn't ugly, and I guess it wasn't.) When George says he is "unhandling" paint, in my interview with him in 1977 [originally published in the Chicago-based magazine Brilliant Corners and included in Notley's book Waltzing Matilda], I think he is voicing an esthetic partly developed with Ted. Obviously Ted and George shared a sense of humor, but they also shared a sense of sentiment, and something like an ethical tension. To what extent does one honor society's code (thus producing sentiment), and to do what extent does one go against these codes in order to be an artist?"

Below is the complete article, "George Schneeman at Holly Solomon," which is Berrigan's last published piece of art criticism. It's fitting that it's on Schneeman, whose paintings of Ted and their collaborations together are so wonderfully descriptive of the lives they shared. One will notice that Ted uses the same phrase, "unhandling," to describe Schneeman's use of paint, evidence of his ongoing attention to the conversation they had all been building together. And it would be wrong not to point out that the last line in this review, which describes a fresco featuring Ted, "the colors are serious – something portentous is at stake," directly echos these lines from Sonnet I in The Sonnets: "Still they mean something. For the dance / And the architecture. / Weave among incidents / May be portentous to him." Up in the air, a little sonorous wonder.

from Art in America Vol. 68, No. 3 (March 1980), pg 118

GEORGE SCHNEEMAN AT HOLLY SOLOMON

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With his third show of frescoes in three years, Schneeman’s place among the most accomplished painters now coming to the fore makes itself obvious. The 23 paintings included were mostly small, though by no means diminutive, and their variety, arrived at through formal means (size, shape, dispersal of subject matter) made walking into the gallery a great pleasure.

Schneeman lived with his family in Italy, near Siena, from 1959 to 1966, and did some fresco painting then. During succeeding years in New York he painted mostly figures, on fairly large canvases in acrylic – friends and family both clothed and nude. These remain marvelous pictures, done in his characteristic manner of “un-handling” the paint (no brushstroke virtuosity), with drawing and painting often taken to mean the same thing. Highly admired by a few, this early work nevertheless brought the artist little of the notice or success that should have been his.

Schneeman’s first show of frescoes, three years ago, consisted of some 75 small examples, each 7 by 9 includes, mounted on 2 1/2-inch-thick cinderblocks. They were paintings of flannel lumberjack shirts in three-color plaids, flattened on wire hangers and depicted dead center on an eggshell white background. The show was a success, all the paintings were sold, and reviews were admiring. His show last year consisted of over 60 more frescoes, similar in size but of heads this time, and while loved his admirers, it was only a modest success. (Who wants a monumental object, that cinderblock, with the face of someone you don’t even know on it?)

This most recent show was a knockout from any point of view. There were four of the familiar shirts, on silver hangers this time and done in relief. They are perfect. The four window paintings, a shade larger than the shirts (9 by 8 inches), are almost equally accomplished, their kitchen-window curtains – also done in relief – opening out onto remembered Tuscan landscapes that the dazzling white window mullions divide into quadrants.

Also included were four landscapes, all complete winners. Three are rectangular, one recapitulating the famous Veneziano John the Baptist landscape, minus the saint. The fourth, my candidate for most charming picture in the show, is round, mounted on a rectangular white base, and slightly recessed so as to emphasize its distance from the viewer.

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Finally there are the figure pieces, which are not portraits per se, but people sitting for paintings. Two such single-figure works are based on Piero di Cosimo’s Profile of a Young Woman. The first, Anita is of a ripe beauty; the painting is round and has been given a white mounting resembling a Duchamp rotorelief. It is all innocence and light, truly delectable. The second, Alice, is rectangular and dark, with storm clouds curling behind the woman’s dark, chopped hair. Her knowing but unspeaking face is paired with a sensual, womanly body that is all about earth and outdoors. A third painting, Britta, of an individual against landscape is one of the show’s real standouts. In front of a rough Tuscan landscape, in profile, is an implacably made-up European (German) head, with red hair tight across the forehead, and red lips.

The highlight of the show was a painting of the kind referred to in the quattrocento talk as a “Sacra Conversazione.” Three Figures/Landscape gives us three men in the foreground, the figure on the left turned into the picture, the figure on the right (who, I ought to point out, is myself) turned slightly outward. Behind them a third figure wearing a straw hat looks straight at you, smiling in a blissful awareness of stage center. The artist has used landscape to pull the picture together, and also to disguise the seams (Frescoes dry so quickly – within three hours or less – that only one figure can be painted a day. Next day, or session, more plaster is applied, and another figure may be added, etc.) Two of the figures have Hawaiian shirts on. The sky is a triumph, the figures are poised in attitudes befitting their countenances, the colors are serious – something portentous is at stake.                  

                                                            -- Ted Berrigan

Vintage New York School Video

An irreplaceable part of what I understand as studying is easing into a nonlinear, felt relationship with what's at hand (and what's not), arriving at and reading the exchangeable portions of authorship and writing while also sifting into the ephemera and noise that show how that writing is a life. If not in the archive, this usually means errant searches online for recordings and photographs, a more organized look via PennSound or UbuWeb, and deep searches on rare book sites like ABAA and Abebooks. Rarely, videos of poets might emerge. These videos carry an aura. I'm always a little stunned. 

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I was thinking of how special these videos are after a friend recently circulated a video of Kenward Elmslie made available by Ron Padgett. As Padgett describes: "Maxine Groffsky rediscovered a three-minute film she made of Kenward in 1972. In the first part he is in Louisville for a production of his musical (with Claibe Richardson) The Grass Harp. In the footage with him are the poet Gerritt Henry and the fellow who was directing the Louisville presentation. In the second part Kenward is in Calais, VT, in his vegetable garden and then walking back to his house. The film concludes with a guest star appearance by his dog, Whippoorwill."

The stills to the right are from the short film. The Jerry's Restaurant sign is just great, such a surprising yet perfect intersection of New York School artistic elegance with the monumental Americana that informs the humor of writers like Elmslie, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. The shots from Calais are gorgeous, including iconic Whippoorwill in the yard, the dog that appears in paintings by Joe Brainard and who James Schuyler describes in "The Morning of the Poem," as my friend Aaron reminded me: "Yes, that whippet is / The one I nominate for terrestrial immortality … Love, love / Is immortal. Whippoorwill, I know that.” It's great to actually see the Calais house, too, which is described so often in Padgett's memoir of Brainard, Joe.

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Below are just a few videos I've returned to often, including a selection from Larry Fagin's home movies from 1968-69, the Ed Sanders portion of "USA: Poetry" that starts with the more well-known Frank O'Hara section, a section of a Spanish documentary on the Beat Generation that includes (from 7:56-9:27) a walk-through tour of Ted Berrigan's and Alice Notley's apartment at 101 St. Marks Place, a hijacked video of a Notley lecture by Cassandra Gillig, and a 1990 reading by Elmslie at the Poetry Project. I'm always devoted to videos of readings, and there are so many incredible ones on PennSound, the SF Poetry Center Digital Archive, and scattered across YouTube. But the video recordings of these poets being themselves, not reading poems, being people, and being in places they inhabited -- those videos carry a little magic. The archive is always alive, but it's special to see it in motion, body, kitchen, paintings, pets, and all. There are too many details in the videos below to describe, too many little moments that act as artifacts. Like in the Sanders video from late 1965 we're inside Peace Eye Book Store with him, seeing the books on display (including copies of William Burroughs's Time, Philip Whalen's Every Day, and the magazine Mother with a Brainard cover), and then Sanders in front of the East Village Other newspaper offices -- it's incredible. I'm not interested in whether they're representative or accurate, performative or realistic, just that they're these particular images of this particular moment or movement. You become familiar with a red sweater or two, a mannerism, and you start to recognize the poems a little differently. I'd like to watch these videos entirely unprofessionally. I think that's what I'm advocating for. I mean, I'm watching them and studying, whatever that needs to be.