This is not an oral history of The Poetry Project, for instance, though a great deal of information that might qualify as anecdotal history of The Project and its numerous social and artistic contexts can be found within. It’s not a scholarly book or a book “about” poetry, though one may find out a great deal about poetry as a living art form flowing through the costume of each interview. It is an anthology of a type, and many readers will naturally jump around the book while reading it, but the book is also a collection of stories filtered through the form of the interview into one longer story made of overlapping circles. As such, it will reward readers who take on the experience of reading it from beginning to end. Characters appear, recede, and pop up again in surprising places. Jobs, death, illness, war, and money problems come up as frequently as references to the arts, and the chronological structure of the book belies a sense of time that often reaches back to the 1960s and earlier, while examining the future from the perspective of that particular day a conversation is taking place. It is not a linear chronicle of an era, but it is a chronicle nonetheless, an assemblage verging on accidental chorus that presents ideas and discussion about poetry in the charged words of the poets, not in unreadable academic speak, and not in insulated literary terms divorced from the broader ground of the world and its inexhaustible complexities. Its necessity is bound up with the casual intensity of its invitation: you won’t find many people who speak on and for poetry, or anything else for that matter, in such high and ordinary terms. The ride is for anyone to take. (Anselm Berrigan, “INTRODUCTION”)
Produced to “coincide with the fiftieth anniversary season of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church” in New York City, is the hefty anthology WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW): INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983 – 2009), edited by Anselm Berrigan (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2017). As Berrigan writes in his introduction, the series was originally founded “in 1966 out of the need for a stable ongoing reading series/gathering point/community center for the overlapping circles of poets in downtown NYC. Those circles included and came to include poets variously associated with the New York School, the Beats, Black Mountain, Umbra, Language writing, and the Nuyoricans—associations which are variously highlighted, fleshed out, made ambiguous, undermined and otherwise reformed in the interviews found herein. In one sense, these groups and their outliers are a source-in-common for the poets and artists this book casts its light upon. But The Poetry Project has always been a site of challenge and respite for individual poets who refuse to take conventional paths, who want live experience with fresh material right now, and who, as Ted Greenwald puts it in his conversation with Arlo Quint, ‘want the work out front.’ That’s the ethos.”
7:44 PM 7/29/96 Dear Barbara, …Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to the postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time, on the one hand. People I know, poets and academics, are writing literally on the fly, taking their laptops aboard airplanes. That’s what we share with the business passenger working on a spreadsheet or annual report. On the other hand, when I think of poetry in fragments, I also think of Sappho, whose work comes to us, like classic Greek art and architecture, as enigmatic shards and evocative ruins. Given the human capacity to destroy civilization “with the touch of a button” the same way we microwave lean cuisine, ancient ruins stand as a figure for the obliteration of ourselves and our own culture. We imagine that some extraterrestrial archaeologists might someday examine our fragments, and wonder what manner of beings we were. In some contemporary work, including my own, the artist is engaged in a kind of archaeology of the detritus of consumer culture, the artifacts of the electronic age. That’s why I immediately recognized Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Houses, in Detroit, as visual art equivalent of what I was trying to do in Muse & Drudge. David Hammons has a similar approach to recycled resources. I’m also inspired by the work of Leonardo Drew, which is more abstract, but still carries the emotional charge of abandoned and reclaimed materials. (“An Interview With Harryette Mullen,” by Barbara Henning; October/November 1996, No. 162)
As Berrigan writes, the interviews collected in this volume were originally done for publication in The Poetry Project Newsletter, with a collected thirty-eight interviews that range in dates from 1983 to 2010, conducted with poets (some who are included here more than once) including Red Grooms, Paul Schmidt, Bernadette Mayer, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Ed Sanders, Samuel R. Delany, Renee Gladman, Fred Moten, Stan Brakhage, Larry Fagin, Tina Darragh, Edwin Torres, Brenda Coultas, Will Alexander, Ron Padgett, Ted Greenwald, Eileen Myles and Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers. As fascinating as the interviews are in the collection, editor Berrigan presents a whole array of information and insights on The Poetry Project in his introduction, including the suggestion that perhaps a proper history of their five decades-plus might be worth someone finally putting together. There are ways in which the interviews, collected here as they are, do present a portrait of the ongoing activity and environment of The Poetry Project, one that comes with friendships, apprenticeships, arguments and pitched battles, all while attempting to do the work of writing and continue a writing life. This is an enormous volume, and one that should already be seen as enormously valuable in terms of both history and craft, and showcasing the value of The Poetry Project itself, for hosting, assisting and developing a wide array of writing and writers. And, if nothing else, this volume should point readers into understanding just how important it might be to start reading the contemporary issues of The Poetry Project Newsletter, to keep up with what else is happening.
Lisa Jarnot: I want to talk to you about Allen Ginsberg. Partly, what was your relationship with Allen like?
Ed Sanders: I was a senior at high school and read Howl and I bought Howl actually at the University of Missouri Bookstore on a fraternity weekend. And it seemed like, as a young man, about everything I’d been looking for in terms of a model for writing poetry and combining poetry with your personal life in a way I thought would be appropriate, although I was living in the Midwest, in a ‘50s type all-American environment. Then I moved to New York later and saw him from afar. I attended poetry readings at places like the Gaslight on MacDougal Street or the Living Theater on 14th Street. I saw him read as I did other poets—Edward Dahlberg, Kerouac, Corso; I saw Frank O’Hara read. So wherever I could go to find poets that I admired to watch them read I went, but I never considered introducing myself or trying to be a part of it; I was just a witness. And I was going to New York University trying to study languages so I didn’t really meet Allen until 1963 when he came back from a long stay in India and Japan and Cambodia, Viet Nam, and other places—he went to the Vancouver Poetry Festival—and then he came back. And before that I had corresponded with him. I sent him Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts in India and he liked it and sent me this really important poem, “The Change,” where he kind of changed spiritual directions and came to terms with his body on atrain in Japan after visiting Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder on the way back to Vancouver. So anyway, from 1963 on, when I formally met him, and he took me to a party at Robert and Mary Frank’s house, I began hanging out with him any time we were around in the same area until he died 34 years later. We had many, many capers and adventures and he called all the time and we saw each other now and then. A number of people could say the same thing. He was part of my life, and part of my family’s life. He was part of the household. He gave us advice, a lot of advice. And you know, he’d give advice on what kind of furniture to have in your kitchen; he was very much a teacher. (“An Interview with Ed Sanders,” by Lisa Jarnot; October/November 1997, No. 166)
The book does make me wonder if it might be worth putting some of the other interviews online, a la The Paris Review, for the sake of a wider readership and even scholarship. Given there are more than two hundred interviews (at least) to date, what else is out there worth reading?