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.

Tom Weigel (1948-2017)

Poet Tom Weigel passed away at the age of 69 earlier this month. While I'm not very familiar with Weigel's work, his poems often appear in issues of The WorldMag City, and other New York School-related magazines that are a regular part of my research. Weigel's obituary describes him as an "artist, poet, and playwright [who] lived on NY’s lower east side during the 1970's and 80's and is recognized as a member of the 3rd generation of New York School Poets" and "an active participant at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the 1970’s and 1980’s." Poets and scholars familiar with the mimeo culture of the 70s and 80s might be more familiar with Weigel as the editor of Tangerine magazine (1981-1986) and publisher of Andrea Doria Books, which published books by Helena Hughes and Michael Scholnick as well as The Full Deck Anthology. Issue number 5 of Tangerine is a memorial issue for Ted Berrigan designed in the style of what would later be published as Nice To See You: An Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House Press, 1991). It's a copy I've always wanted to see but haven't been able to find in the archive. The local New London, CT paper The Day has a full article on Weigel's passing that describes his past and recent life in more detail. 

My connection to Weigel is totally serendipitous. Last February I stopped in at A Book by Its Cover bookstore in Louisville, KY while traveling for a conference. I had corresponded with the owner about any New York School material he might have -- he had recently acquired a small collection of mimeo magazines and books, mostly copies of Mag City and a few issues of The World. I bought a couple pieces from him and before I left he handed me about a dozen loose sheets of paper that had been slipped into the mimeo magazines when he got them, saying he thought I would appreciate having them. In the stack there was a flyer for Mag City 5 with a Weigel poem and copies of letters from Gerard Malanga, but more surprisingly, there were six original typed poems by Weigel from throughout 1979, including at least two poems that Weigel wrote for a workshop with Alice Notley at the Poetry Project. As Alice says about the workshops she led at the Church at that time: "I don't remember my workshops in detail and didn't keep handouts or notes etc. The most extraordinary ones were probably the first and last ones. In the first one were people like Eileen Myles, Bob Holman, Susie Timmons. In the last one I assigned everyone to write and publish a book, which they did. We called ourself, as a press, Unimproved Editions Press, which I used as a rubric to publish on my own Steve Carey's 20 Poems. Between those two were several others, but god knows what we did -- it was always interesting, there were always a lot of weirdos around in the workshops and a sense of the Unprofessional. I mean really crazy people dropped by, all you had to do was show up -- not even enroll. Or pay."

The two poems for Notley's workshop are pictured below, the first written, as Weigel notes, for Notley's assignment to "Write a Creation Myth" and the second written on December 30, 1979 and signed. I've treasured both these poems since rather suddenly and unexpectedly being given them. The bookstore was our last stop before getting on the highway to drive home to Atlanta, and I remember reading the poems in the car and it seeming as if I had been looking for them. More than ephemera, they're rare association pieces that offer a little window into the aesthetic, social, and shared writing spaces of the Poetry Project in the late 70s in the midst of the national downturn in federal funding for arts programs and publishing. In fact, Weigel's poems for Notley's workshop were written after Ronald Reagan had been elected to his first term as President but before he had taken office, a liminal cultural space in a still thickly experimental, ever-changing Lower East Side. Of the two poems, I'm partial to "A Creation Myth," which for me is really lovely from "As a tribe spits back righteous & variable" all the way down. The last stanza is just great. While the second poem doesn't note what Notley's assignment was, it could have been to write a poem that begins and ends with overheard speech. If so, those are great lines. If you look closely you'll notice that both poems included spots where Weigel has used wite-out to correct typos -- on "Creation's" in the first poem and "serious" in the second. Archives are continually revealing the artist's hand, and its great to see the details of artifacts like these that hold so much wayward, living, personal energy.

RIP Tom Weigel: "When you wake / You'll be sand, yet whole"

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Crystal Set #6: Memorial Day by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman (Poetry Project, 1971)

Memorial Day by Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman (Poetry Project, 1971). In the last few years Memorial Day has received some attention, first in 2012 when the audio recording from Ted and Anne’s initial reading of the poem at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery on May 5, 1971 was found in Robert Creeley’s audio archives and posted on PennSound. Michael Hennessey has an article, “Recovering ‘Memorial Day’” at Jacket2 about finding that recording: https://jacket2.org/commentary/recovering-memorial-day. What I love most about the article is Anne saying she had “a recording of a recording of a recording” of the poem made by Clark Coolidge. This note, along with the tape showing up in Creeley’s archives, especially after it had been considered lost for so many years, shows how valuable this poem was to a wide variety of poets. And not only the poem itself, but the event of its being read and heard. It is a poem that needs to be heard.

Then last year a video of Ted and Anne reading Memorial Day was posted on the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art channel. I don’t think anyone had any idea it existed. The video description says: “This reading of Waldman and Berrigan’s poem "Memorial Day” was performed as part of a reading series at 98 Greene Street Loft curated by the poet Ted Greenwald. The video was shot by Sandy Hirsch on the only video format that existed at the time, ½ inch open reel video, often referred to as Portapak, and like any video shot in this format from the late 1960s to early 1970s, it is now a very fragile historical document. Digital preservation of this video allows us to now view it and share it with the public for the first time in decades. The Archives thanks the Berrigan estate, Waldman, and Hirsch for their generous permission to share the video on our YouTube channel": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjfWeiTTvnw. I had just found the audio recording of Memorial Day last year like a week before this video surfaced, so my seduction at the hands of the recording immediately became an obsession as I watched the video over and over.

In Ted Berrigan: An Annotated Checklist, Aaron Fischer quotes Anne Waldman about the making of the book:

“Ted & I were scheduled to read several months in advance at The Poetry Project on Memorial Day. Not sure we originally requested this date, but the day fell out that way and we were psyched, having an 'occasion’ to focus on that would also jar some collaborative writing. We were both living that spring in Long Island. I was in Bridgehampton, renting a house with Michael Brownstein Kenneth Koch later bought. Ted and Alice Notley were in Southampton in Larry Rivers’s place there. Ted was always somewhat 'charged’ by the subject matter(s) of death, loss, friendship and the energy & challenge of bumping up against another poet in 'making’ work. Some friends of ours had died by then and we saw the potential piece as an homage, a commemoration, a meditation, and we definitely composed it with the oral reading of it very much in mind. It was kind of a psalm, hymn, litany all blended together that allowed for story (epic that you tell the heroes’ tales) - some decidedly musical form. We weren’t living far away from each other but decided to collaborate through the mail. So we went back and forth at least five times. As the time for our performance drew near it fell on me to 'organize’ the text which were 'clusters’ to my mind out on the Bridgehampton studio floor and letting my eye and ear jump around with scissors and paste. I think we both (after the initial organization) looked it over & Ted went with my arrangement with very minor emendations. The decision on the last part (’& Now the book is closed’) was mutual and we orchestrated it with great intentionality (pretty much alternating lines) for our public performance. The 'closed’ chant originally came from hearing Chris Gallup (Dick & Carol Gallup’s daughter) saying that things were 'closed’ as she drove a street or highway in a car (possibly on Long Island?). Ted had picked up on this and I went with it wholeheartedly. Larry Rivers did a terrific collage work that we translated into a flyer for the event (Nice To See You, p.119). We were in great form, the performance felt exhilarating and powerful. Ted 'borrowed’ the audio tape made that night which he played on numerous occasions. Where is it now?

The cover is by Donna Dennis who I think has a section in Nice To See Youwhere she talks about spending time with Ted and making the cover for Memorial Day. There’s an alternative cover included there, too. The line "Nice To See You” comes from Memorial Day; the words Ted says he’d like on his grave. Frank O'Hara’s death is a huge part of the poem, too, and I’m sure the idea to write a Memorial Day poem had a lot to do with Frank’s “Memorial Day 1950.”

The audio and video recordings are breathtaking, each in their own way. I feel like I’ll never get over this poem, but that’s just as much about the poem as it is the banter at the beginning of each recording, especially the audio. How Ted and Anne joke with one another explaining the poem’s process, Ted putting on his tender bravado, Anne’s wit mixing with his performative masculinity. Then this incredible joke: “Anne and I have been married for twelve years now and we’re living testimonial to how marriage can work,” Ted announces. Everyone laughing. “Go ahead, honey.” “Ok, baby.” And they start reading, exchanging sections of the poem back and forth as they read. “Today / Open: Opening: Opened:” says Anne. And then Ted: “The angels that surround us / die / they kiss death / & they die / they always die.” It’s so clear how much they love each other.

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I had been obsessively listening to the 1981 recording of The Sonnets for a while before I became familiar with Memorial Day, but it was really Memorial Daythat bound me to Ted’s work. Last summer Carrie and I wrote a long poem after Ted and Anne’s poem called Labor Daywhich is about work in the way that Memorial Day is about death, that was recently published as a double collaborative chapbook, along with Tyler and Layne’s Collected Feelings, by Forklift, Ohio. Writing with the people I love is such a part of that love. Ted and Anne are so good at showing us how our love existed before we did. It’s significant that Memorial Day is included in Ted’s Collected Poems, a rare inclusion of a long collaborative work in a space that is typically restricted to a poet’s singular output. One imagines Ted would have insisted it be included, too.

I ILLed the original stapled mimeo pamphlet, which is the one handed out at the initial reading in 1971, and read it today, Memorial Day, while listening to the recordings of them reading the poem. I sat on this couch and Carrie sat on the other couch. The original is so gorgeous, the lines spread out on the large pages, all the little typos, the shaky, uneven typewritten font, how the ink bled through onto the back of the pages. Maybe the most amazing thing about it is that the back cover is another front cover, as if the book’s beginning and ending had been confused, as if it didn’t end. Ted believed in cycles, and this object bears out that sense of how time collects, returns, and is revoiced. Carrie just said to Jared on the phone, “I’m glad you’re okay. I’m glad you’re okay.” Later we’re going to eat a watermelon we took from a dumpster last night. Our grave is going to say THE PONIES WERE JUST HERE.