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