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When its doors opened in 1966, The Poetry Project was intended to inspire cross-generational conversations between writers in a space that felt safe and artistically generative during a time of social and political unrest and intolerance. It quickly became a vital forum in which political ideologies fueled exchanges and spurred literary movements that enabled a community of writers to become prolific and experiment with form. To craft a history of such a community is a complicated task, as most of it is undocumented. The Project’s staff made an initial attempt to create an archive in the 1970s, publishing a quarterly newsletter that included articles on writing and interviews with members of the community. The newsletter has served the vital function of maintaining a written record of the Project’s intellectual activity.
In his newest work, What Is Poetry? Just Kidding, I Know You Know (Wave Books, 2017), poet Anselm Berrigan has carefully curated a selection of these interviews between emerging and established writers to render a history of The Poetry Project. The critical and foundational thoughts of writers such as Charles North, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Schmidt, Kenneth Koch, Alice Notley, Ed Sanders, Bernadette Meyer, Fred Moten, and Ann Waldman punctuate the work. It’s because of these seminal thinkers that notions of Language Writing, praxis, conceptualism, and collaboration are understood as they are today. According to Berrigan, the work “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.” It is a stellar anthology and, ultimately, a work of poetry in itself.
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Michael Valinsky: What was your inspiration for this book?
Anselm Berrigan: I actually thought it could be made out of these interviews back when I was directing The Poetry Project, between 2003 and 2007. I was specifically interested in the interview as a way for poets to talk about all the things that are around a work but don’t show up literally on the surface. It was mostly about a set of stories that would expand into a larger story that the Project’s history could be folded into. When the interview form really works, it’s a piece of writing that has its own dynamic and energy. I read a lot of the interviews originally in the context of the newsletter, so pulling them out of that context, reimagining them, and then making this manuscript was an unusual thing to do. A total reconfiguration of things that you’ve already read — which I guess is what an anthology is. That’s why when I had to sit down and write an introduction, I wound up in this space where I had to list all the things this book isn’t — but almost is — in order to try to define what it is.
MV: As you looked at the complete work, did you realize anything about The Poetry Project that hadn’t occurred to you before?
AB: The perspective I got, which maybe was a reinforcement of something I’d already suspected, was that any kind of history or representation of it as an ongoing entity was going to have to be conducted through conversation. This makes sense aesthetically, in that speech-based American poetry movements from the mid-20th century on, really inform where The Poetry Project comes from. It all really came out of a person talking. You have to engage both the language on the page and the language in the air to get the fullness of the work.
MV: Several writers in the interviews bring up discovering Gertrude Stein and share differing views on definitions of Language Writing. Did you notice this too?
AB: Most of the people involved with the Project have worked very closely with sonic and semantic particulars. So Stein is going to become a force to reckon with. Frank O’Hara is going to become extra-interesting. The Project also comes out of the different kinds of experiments going on in music and film and visual art, especially painting. It gets going in 1966, so you’re deep inside American involvement in Vietnam. You’re inside of Civil Rights and the Great Society program, all the political assassinations taking place, and massive changes in the culture. I think what’s often misunderstood about Language Writing is that it’s presented as a kind of reactionary academic fact of poetry. It’s really an extension of the New American Poetry as anthologized in the Don Allen anthology [New American Poetry, 1945-1960, 1999], merged with anti-Vietnam war activism, and an intense interest in linguistic theory and literary theory, in an attempt to try to have a different relationship with politics show up in the work. All of those things are going to produce something that goes in a direction nobody can control.
MV: Language Writing wants to forget lines and focus on word-units and their autonomy. It messes with syntax and expectation just like Stein would.
AB: I think Language Writing is a point of differentiation because the influences of the Beats, Black Mountain [College], the Black Arts Movement, and the New York School were so heavily inside of a certain space. The people associated with them were also artistically really at odds with something like a literary establishment, while others were being courted by or absorbed into that establishment.
There’s a way in which it’s more interesting for me to think of Language Writing as a willful misunderstanding of second-generation New York School writing than as a point of opposition to the New York School. But then a lot of these people were also arguing, both publicly and privately. The Project is a place where readings took place by people involved in both parties. You could hear Charles Bernstein one week, but John Godfrey another. You could get these different takes. They’re all way more overlapping than people realize. At the same time, all kinds of people who don’t fit into these spaces are reading too, so it’s always more complicated. The total fabric is always un-seeable for anybody that’s inside of it. And if you’re outside, it isn’t what anybody thinks it is either.
MV: Do you still see the same energy at the Project today?
AB: The Poetry Project has recently been good at recognizing how multimedia work and different types of cross-genre work overlap with poetry. The professionalization of poetry through MFA programs is also both a fact of the landscape in the country right now and a problem for the art, and it has to be treated as both at the same time. Simone White has been doing really interesting work by facilitating public conversations about that. She’s tried to talk about “community” as a word people use all the time, but one that doesn’t have any purchase unless you locate it within a set of factors and inside a landscape that can be really hard to control. Since the election, there are bigger, more focused crowds. People who are specifically coming in to listen to others talk about how they’re reacting and responding to this massive political upheaval. They want to hear angles that they’re not getting from media sources. That’s been heartening to see.